There is no denying that 2016 was the year that the album bounced back. Whether you spent days waiting for the prolonged release of Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, or months scouting out Frank Ocean’s whereabouts, the return of the album turned the release of music into an experiential event rather than a bundle of streamable singles. That’s partially why so many end-of-the-year lists are so contentious: So many great albums from so many genres were released this year that it’s impossible to really have listened to them all and truly know what’s hot and what’s not.
Along with the onslaught of album releases, I have another major qualm with the newly resurrected album: there’s too many damn songs. Views could’ve been cut down to 18 songs at most (like, are “Controlla,” “One Dance” and “Too Good” not just the same song?). And TLOP, despite all its merits, never seemed to end (literally — Kanye kept adding and removing songs months after the album’s release). 2016 was the year that producers and artists seemed to forget the difference between a curated album and a dump of songs that all kind of sound okay together.
A few albums didn’t fall prey to this trap, however, like the effortless emotional ebb and flow of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Each track seemed to be deliberately chosen to take the listener through a curated journey, and frankly, I think 2016 needed more of that.
That is why in lieu of ranking picking the Album of the Year, I’ve decided to fantasy draft An Album for the Year — 2016: The Album. Like with any fantasy draft, each song was carefully selected from an endless pool of potential players, drafted to fulfill a specific position on the team. This is not a Now That’s What I Call Music compilation; this is 2016: The Album, edited, mastered and queued for a surprise drop.
TRACK 1: “Ultralight Beam” by Kanye West (from The Life of Pablo)
Whether or not you agree that Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is the best album of the year — because it is — there’s no argument that “Ultralight Beam” is this year’s best album opener. No one saw it coming: From the opening sample of a little kid condemning the devil on Instagram to the tapering organ chords and Kanye’s lullaby voice, the track plants its feet firmly in masterpiece territory before spiralling into the most cohesive yet chaotic Kanye album of all time. In fitting with the track’s gospel feel, “Ultralight Beam” prophetically ushers in Chance the Rapper as the prodigal son of Yeezus. Despite the events that unfold in the latter half of 2016, “Ultralight Beam” is a reminder of a time in Kanye’s career where he seemed to be pulling himself out of the spotlight in order to introduce a hand-picked crop of fresh talent (i.e. Chance, Desiigner), bequeathing the best moments of the album to his young features. “Ultralight Beam” is the ultimate album opener because it sets the scene for what’s to come, an overture for the next dozen or so tracks and an audible trailer for 2016: The Album.
TRACK 2: “No Problem” by Chance the Rapper ft. Lil Wayne and 2Chainz (from Coloring Book)
If “Ultralight Beam” is the best opening track of the year, then “No Problem” is its perfect second track counterpart. It’s “Ultralight Beam” but inverted: full of hype from its opening notes, Chance the Rapper sets the song’s young, pumped-up foundation before bringing in 2Chainz and Lil Wayne, his seasoned mentors. Chance best embodied the spirit of this song during his performance on “Ellen,” busting through the doors of a makeshift office, disrupting traditional media and subverting all expectations simply by being the most excited dude in the room. It’s the song that takes a party from a chill hang to a full-blown rager and an album from a neutral background listen to a captivating audio event.
TRACK 3: “Into You” by Ariana Grande (from Dangerous Woman)
While Dangerous Woman was a negligible album full of just-fine bangers, “Into You” is the album’s hidden treasure. Perhaps the best pop song of the year, “Into You” is geniusly crafted by some of pop music’s greatest masterminds. Produced by Max Martin and co-written by Savan Kotecha — who collaborated on numerous pop staples such as The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and Britney Spears’ “I Wanna Go” — the song has their signature heart-thumping anticipation, leading up to the infectious, anthemic chorus. Every album needs a dance-worthy bop, and “Into You” is the danciest bop of 2016.
TRACK 4: “Dancin’ In Circles” by Lady Gaga (from Joanne)
Every album needs an explicitly sexy track whose risque content goes unnoticed until you listen a little too closely at the club. The fan-favorite of Lady Gaga’s Americana-inspired album Joanne, “Dancin’ In Circles” is the post-banger club dance track for when things are just about to get a little more sleazy than you expected. With a hip-swinging, vaguely honky tonk-esque backbeat, the rhythm takes you for a ride until you’re feeling yourself a little too much. Gaga’s invitation to “funk downtown” is the perfect transition into an album’s mid-section haze, where things get a little weird in the best way.
TRACK 5: “Season 2 Episode 3” by Glass Animals (from How to Be a Human Being)
There’s a point in every album where the songs veer into deep-cut only territory: songs that would never work as singles, but flow seamlessly into the vibe of the album as a whole. Well, Glass Animals have built a career on creating tracks that flow seamlessly into one another, and “Season 2 Episode 3” is the chief example of that. The haze-filled song has a title as nondescript as it is vague and floaty lyrics about a girl laying around after a day of getting high: “She’s drunk on old cartoons / Liquid TV afternoons / Sometimes it makes me laugh / Sometimes it makes me sad.” Just take a look at the song’s YouTube audio video: It’s a song made for laying around in the middle of the day, getting lost in the middle of an album and moving into more introspective tracks.
TRACK 6: “Old Friends” by Pinegrove (from Cardinal)
What’s an album without an earnest, acoustic indie track? An album’s most honest moment should be at its dead-center, and “Old Friends,” by New Jersey indie-folk band Pinegrove, is confessional yet conversational, an introspective pivot before the album slopes back up into mindless pop territory. “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them,” sings Pinegrove’s vocalist, Evan Stephens Hall. It’s the song on 2016: The Album that you play on the first day it rains, and its lyrics are fodder for gloomy-day Instagram captions. More importantly, it’s a slow-paced reminder that any good album has a range of emotions, and the middle track is where you should feel the most.
TRACK 7: “Reaper” by Sia (from This is Acting)
The only way to get out of the emo-track album hole is by following it up with a low-key, deep-cut pop hit. “Reaper” is one of Sia’s lesser known songs on the hit-filled album This is Acting, but its upbeat and belt-worthy chorus makes this Kanye co-written track the perfect foil to an acoustic onslaught. It’s also 2016: The Album’s “I believe in myself!” track, with inspirational lyrics that are perfect for any weekday SoulCycle sesh: “Don’t come for me today / I’m feeling good / I’mma savor it.”
TRACK 8: “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars (from 24K Magic)
Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic was grossly ignored on many album of the year lists. This is due to both its late release date (November 18th) and the album’s shortness, weighing in at just 9 bite-sized tracks of clean and clout-worthy production. “That’s What I Like” is the classic flaunt-what-you-got jam, where Mars lists all the things he would buy his girl to treat her right: “Gold jewelry shining so bright / Strawberry champagne on ice / Lucky for you that’s what I like.” It’s catchy enough to get stuck in your head, but not so catchy that it’s the album’s standout track. It’s there, and we like it, and 2016: The Album can go on with or without it. But everything is slightly better with Bruno around.
TRACK 9: “All In My Head (Flex)” by Fifth Harmony ft. Fetty Wap (from 7/27)
This is the song on 2016: The Album that everyone loved when it first came out then forgot about because it got overshadowed by other, better singles (I’m looking at you, “Into You.”) The Fetty Wap feature is so early 2016 — we have Lil Yachty now, thanks — and the lazily repeated verses make “All In My Head (Flex)” the perfect song to drive around and sing along to passively for about six months until another average song comes along. It’s also the song that dates the album — everyone gained the ability to “flex” in 2016, but who knows what 2017 will bring? Bring on the hashtags, folks. We’re just trying to stay relevant for a couple more weeks!
TRACK 10: “Too Good” by Drake ft. Rihanna (from Views)
The only thing better than a duet is a duet with a tragic love story that plays out between its singers in real life. “Too Good” was already a great song for Drake’s standards, but after getting swerved by Rihanna in that now-iconic VMA moment, the song’s dramatic element was instantly elevated. The duet is an essential album element, and putting it towards the latter end of 2016: The Album makes it a quick breather before the 1-2-3 punch of the final tracks.
TRACK 11: “Store” by Carly Rae Jepsen (from EMOTION SIDE B)
“Store” is the quintessential sad pop ballad. 2016: The Album has once again taken a turn towards the emotional, but we need to keep the raw, visceral, ass-kicking emotions bottled up until our big ballad. “Store” is chill enough to keep things on the DL, but emotional enough to make you rethink all your life choices while watching raindrops run down your car’s windshield. Also, “Store” is the best song of the year about being so afraid of confrontation that you leave your partner in bed and say you’re going to the store instead of breaking up with them. Let’s hope open and honest communication is the big trend of 2017.
TRACK 12: “Needed Me” by Rihanna (from ANTI)
This is the Big Ballad. The Big Ballad is dramatic and bold, and because it’s Rihanna, it’s pretty savage, too. The Big Ballad has the key karaoke moment, and “You-u-u-u ne-e-e-e-eded me!” is right up there with Whitney Houston’s “And I-i-i-i!” and Celine Dion’s “Near, far, where-e-e-e-ever you are!” The Big Ballad is the penultimate song because it’s where you let out all the emotions you’ve experienced from listening to 2016: The Album all the way through. It’s the cathartic release of angst and anguish and the worthy precursor to the Final Track that brings the house down and 2016 down with it.
TRACK 13: “Formation” by Beyoncé (from Lemonade)
It’s December 2016, and there is nothing new to say about Lemonade or its final track “Formation.” The album and its lead-off single have been analyzed to death — all for good reason, of course — and the memes have been retweeted into obscurity. But by the end of 2016: The Album, we’re tired of talking and thinking about everything that’s happened in the last 12 tracks. It’s the end of the album and we just want to dance! Who better than Bey to call in the calvary: “OK ladies, now let’s get in formation / Prove to me you got some coordination / Slay trick, or you’ll get eliminated.” “Formation” has everything that an album’s final track needs: a popping dance beat, a catchy chorus, a throwback element (because by the time Lemonade dropped, “slay” was already vintage) and a socially conscious message. And the song’s final line is a worthy mantra to ring in the new year: “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation / Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper.”
Contact Rosemarie Alejandrino at [email protected].