Daily Californian Arts Awards: Music of 2016

Willow Yang/Senior Staff

Music in 2016 was, in one word, overwhelming. It was tumultuous. Life collided with death, in more ways than one. Its forebears — David Bowie, Phife Dawg, Prince, Leonard Cohen and, most recently, George Michael — passed on to the next life. Some left behind swan songs, both posthumous and preceding their own passing, with David Bowie and Leonard Cohen dropping Blackstar and You Want It Darker less than two weeks before their respective deaths. A Tribe Called Quest dropped its final masterpiece as both post-Election Day protest and as a last hurrah for Phife.

Some, like Nick Cave and Radiohead, ruminated on personal loss in artistic returns-to-form. Others took solace in homage, intentional or not. Prince lives on in the rich, melancholic subtext of Dev Hynes’ work, while folks like Porches and Kaytranada reveled in synth-pop escapades for their own excellent releases, treading pathways that folks like George Michael and David Bowie paved decades prior.

No matter how daunting and disjointed our state of musical affairs appears to be, it’s never been as thrilling or as plentiful as it is today.

It was combative. The political and personal subsumed one another whole. Private affairs transformed into prime time cinema. Protest music knew no genre bounds: Death Cab for Cutie and YG somehow both dropped great anti-Trump manifestos leading up to the election.

Even Top 40 radio was a battleground this year: for every Rihanna and Chance the Rapper, whose artistic ambitions dovetailed with universal renown, there were the Charlie Puths and The Chainsmokers to welcome listeners into comforting, complacent embraces.
There were some anomalies buried deep in this year’s musical hoopla. Memes aren’t just for edgy teens; Rae Sremmurd earned its first, well-deserved number one via the Mannequin Challenge. “Panda,” somehow, skyrocketed to Billboard’s top spot — a real flash in the pan.

It was rich and vibrant. No matter how daunting and disjointed our state of musical affairs appears to be, it’s never been as thrilling or as plentiful as it is today. We can only hope that 2016 is an overture for the upcoming year, brimming with ambitious, revolutionary masterpieces.

— Joshua Bote

Best Album

Courtesy / Boys Don’t Cry

Winner: Frank Ocean — Blonde

Frank Ocean’s third album was released amid a frenzy of confusion and excitement as fans clamored for something new. Now that the dust has settled, Blonde is as breathtaking as anyone could have imagined. From the careful synthesizers to the dreamy guitars, the instrumentation on Blonde feels distant but comforting, much like the fond memories Ocean sings about in his lyrics. Ocean offers an incredibly wise perspective, with each song a personification of distinct human experience through his personal lens. The wisdom he imparts is not life advice, but rather conveys the importance of reflection.

Blonde is also about communication in the modern age, and it handles its subject matter gracefully. From the desire to look authentic and put together (“Nikes”) to the dangers of prioritizing appearances over relationships (“Facebook Story”), these themes are some that Ocean knows personally and intimately. The power of this record comes from raw emotion. Ocean’s typically wistful delivery occasionally crescendos into a passionate burst — as it does at the end of “Ivy” or the start of “Godspeed” — and these moments are absolute triumphs. Blonde reminds us that amid unrequited love and heartbreak, nostalgia and forgiveness shine through.

— Sam Gunn

Runner-Up: Solange — A Seat at the Table

Solange’s third studio album has achieved impressive and well-deserved recognition — it’s her first album to chart at the top of the U.S. Billboard 200, and the album’s lead single “Cranes in the Sky” is nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance. But Solange’s album contains more than just R&B. A Seat at the Table takes the sounds of funk, neo-soul and contemporary R&B and blends them together to communicate themes that range from anger and despair to empowerment. Featuring beautiful vocals that slide from ethereal falsetto to a low hum in a moment, Solange’s album is a compilation of soulful artistry at its finest.

—  Olivia Jerram

Notable mentions:

  1. Beyoncé — Lemonade
  2. Bon Iver — 22, A Million
  3. Rihanna — ANTI
  4. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  5. Mitski — Puberty 2
  6. David Bowie — Blackstar
  7. Childish Gambino — “Awaken, My Love!”
  8. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo

Best Billboard Top 10 Single

Courtesy / Def Jam-Westbury Road

Winner: Rihanna — “Work”

The rollout for ANTI’s lead single in January, unlike the monolithic cultural domination that was packaged with Lemonade or even the peculiar, weekend-long release of Frank Ocean’s one-two drop, was quiet, even traditional. Its barely-there chorus didn’t give much for folks to chew on. (Which was probably for the best. Bless your heart, white YouTube cover artists.)

Instead, “Work” lingered. Its slow burn continued on for at least three seasons, if not the whole year. It wasn’t swallowed whole by the flames of praise, anticipation or the Twitterati. It’s a damn good song, positively smoldering with every syncopated drum machine click.

If nothing else, having Rihanna back on the radio again is a relief. “Work” is quintessential RiRi. Thirsty Drake verse? Check. Verses that blur the line between sexy and senti? Double-check.
But it’s not just a damn good song. Rihanna cemented the rise of dancehall in our current pop zeitgeist even before “One Dance” snaked its way to top it on the Billboard charts. Sia, Sean Paul, hell, even Maroon 5 probably have her to thank for infusing her Barbados upbringing into this year’s pop dialogue.  

Rihanna, no matter what, is always one step ahead of the game.

— Joshua Bote

Runner-Up: Beyoncé — “Sorry” 

Beyoncé’s “Sorry” became an immediate pop culture sensation when it dropped earlier this year. The song is both deliciously ruthless and buoyantly anthemic; it is an instant R&B classic that is defiant yet vulnerable, deliberately erratic and effortlessly catchy all at once. “Sorry” is a feminist earworm for anyone who wants to feel empowered, invigorated or just completely unapologetic. As for “Becky with the good hair,” the mysterious mistress became Beyoncé fans’ Public Enemy No. 1, and the song lit an explosive match under rumors of Jay Z’s infidelity. And of course, the song’s accompanying visuals, including a Serena Williams cameo, were mesmerizing as well.

— Shannon O’Hara

Nominations: Ariana Grande for “Side to Side”/“Into You,” Fifth Harmony for “Work from Home” and Rae Sremmurd for “Black Beatles”

Best Non-Billboard Song

Courtesy / Def Jam-GOOD Music

Winner: Kanye West — “Ultralight Beam”

“Ultralight Beam” is the perfect opening track for the messy, evocative album, The Life of Pablo. Featuring the voice of Chance the Rapper, a full gospel choir and a little girl preaching from Natalie Is Great’s Instagram, the song indicates the experimental, unpolished trajectory of the album’s sounds and lyrics. A smooth C-minor chord progression sinks underneath the funky, drifting 12/8 beat in a song that epitomizes irregularity in its genre-mixing sampling and rhythmic fluidity. The lyrics fixate around Kanye’s complex relationship with God and spirituality. “Ultralight Beam” is simply the embodiment of an intangible feeling; it’s the beginning of Kanye’s attempt to step away from the multitude of personas he’s built throughout his past works and presents a singular, enlightening moment of introspection. The fundamental collaboration is seemingly paradoxical, but allows listeners an insight into Kanye’s influences and inspirations, further demonstrating the song’s purposeful directionlessness and absence of a thesis. It’s one of Kanye’s, and one of the year’s, greatest songs

— Olivia Jerram

Runner-up: Childish Gambino — “Redbone”

One of the two singles released prior to the drop of his album “Awaken, My Love!”, “Redbone” was a shock to Gambino fans. Straying from his signature hip-hop sound and entering into the funk/R&B realm, the song is a soulful triumph with wah-wah guitar cries that seem inspired by — not ripped from — the 70s and 80s. Gambino proves his vocal range, reaching a strangely soothing high pitch that many will not recognize as him. And despite its old influences, “Redbone” will implant itself in your mind as the sexiest modern track we’ve heard this decade.

— Kyle Kizu

Nominations: Radiohead for “Daydreaming,” Solange for “Cranes in the Sky” and Angel Olsen for “Shut Up Kiss Me”

Best Bay Area Live Concert

Senior Staff / Sam Gunn

Winner: Kanye West @ Oracle Arena

Kanye West revels in contradictions. He celebrates gaudiness and plainness as a singular whole: his pop-up stores, where he peddled fifty-buck Gildan tees, his floating stage, unadorned but exalted.

Never has his dichotomy felt more stilted than in 2016.

By the end of the year, Kanye had veered too far into “toast for the asshole” territory. There’s no excusing that. Critics are right to denounce his 180-degree shift from the righteous rebel, going off-script on national TV to call out former President George W. Bush, to the philandering jerk-off, “meet(ing) with Trump to discuss multicultural issues.” (We still don’t know the full extent of his mental health struggles.)

But the old Kanye, the one that he himself mourns for, was present in his live shows before his November fallout. His October shows at the Oracle Arena — merely one month before and less than 50 miles from his Trump-endorsing collapse — were proof of that. For two nights, he was everything we’ve come to expect, and then some. His rants blended in with his hits. Kanye was on a pedestal, his fans under his feet.

Each moment of excess was worth it. Kanye was elevated at the Oracle, and rightfully so. He’s no longer Yeezus — 2016 is proof of that — but when he merged “Waves” and “Touch the Sky” into one perfect entity, or vanished off his floating stage at the end of “Ultralight Beam,” it felt like he performed an act of divine intervention.

If only for a brief moment, the old Kanye and the new Kanye were reunited.

— Joshua Bote

Runner-up: James Blake @ Fox Theater

In what might be one of the most unexpected, unplanned concerts of the year, James Blake performed at the Fox Theater the day after his planned Treasure Island Music Festival set. With less than 24 hours notice, lines snaked around the corner of Broadway Avenue far and away from the doors, filing in and packing the floor and most of the balcony seats. Blake’s set, more than doubled in time from the allotted festival timeslot, highlighted crowd favorites and deep cuts, meandering from florid house rave to curlicued deep-voiced hymns. At once thick with in-the-know hipness and tender goodwill, Blake’s was a set that cut through the bog of our sanitized, efficient concert economy for the sake of the music.

— Justin Knight

Nominations: Mitski @ Starline Social Club and Upper Sproul, Sampha @ Swedish American Hall and Chance the Rapper @ Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Hearst Greek Theatre

Best Music Video

Courtesy / Parkwood Entertainment

Winner: Beyoncé — Lemonade (entire film)

When life hands you lemons, give them to Beyoncé to make “Lemonade.” The talented songstress claimed her much-deserved throne this year with visionary album “Lemonade.” Raising eyebrows and Red Lobster sales, the critically acclaimed record defied all boundaries with a stunning, one-hour film that boldly addressed topics of infidelity, forgiveness, love, racial injustice and Black female empowerment. A timely ode to Black women, “Lemonade” triumphed as an unfiltered and unapologetic album expressing Black pride in a time plagued by sexism and institutional racism. If this monumental success wasn’t enough, Beyoncé further proved herself the royal epitome of “Black Girl Magic” by earning nine Grammy Award nominations including Album of the Year and Record of the Year for lead single “Formation.” Mesmerizing viewers with breathtaking music videos accompanying each “Lemonade” track, Beyoncé gave remarkable character to Louisiana while showcasing some of the state’s prominent locations. Featuring Fort Macomb, Bourbon Street and the Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville, “Lemonade” was largely shot in New Orleans and Louisiana to pay homage to the award-winning singer’s Louisianian roots. Whether she’s encouraging Jay Z to call “Becky with the good hair” or commanding her Beyhive to get in “Formation,” Beyoncé undeniably slayed 2016.

— Jordan Joyner

Runner-up: Radiohead — “Daydreaming”

“Daydreaming,” Radiohead’s best song off their 2016 album release A Moon Shaped Pool, is a quiet, twisty piano ballad that sounds ready-made for cerebral cinema. It’s fitting, then, that Radiohead asked friend and Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson to shoot the music video for “Daydreaming.” (Anderson has tasked lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to score his films ever since the American landmark “There Will Be Blood.”)

Composed of tracking shots following frontman Thom Yorke through disparate locations and perfectly timed jump cuts, the video creates a perfectly surreal visualization of that fleeting feeling known as a daydream. The message of the video, like any work by Radiohead, is cryptic. Yet, it’s that exact parallel between the video’s ability to create the sense of being lost and wandering — along with its unmistakable beauty — that makes Anderson’s “Daydreaming” feel like the best video representation of a group’s music. Well, except for our winner for Best Music Video, that is.

— Levi Hill

Nominations: Frank Ocean for “Nikes,” Solange for “Cranes in the Sky” and David Bowie for “Blackstar”

Best Breakout Artist

Courtesy / OBE-Steel Wool

Winner: Anderson .Paak

It was just two weeks into 2016 that Anderson .Paak dropped Malibu and gave the world an hour’s worth of perfectly crafted hip-hop, funk and R&B gems. The album dropped to critical acclaim and scored .Paak a Grammy nomination and a place in the wider world of hip-hop. Just two weeks after Malibu’s release, .Paak signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label and so began a chain of events that lead to .Paak’s indisputable dominance of the year 2016. It’s hard to say, though, that Anderson .Paak’s phenomenal year hinges on Malibu’s success. After all, since the album dropped, he’s gone on to appear on songs by just about everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Kaytranada, many of which have been wildly successful in their own right. He earned a spot in XXL’s Freshman Class alongside the likes of Lil Yachty and 21 Savage. He even released an album with longtime collaborator Knxwledge through his NxWorries project just earlier this month. Despite a few minor bumps in the road — his quick beef with Lil Yachty and the drama around third party vendors buying out entire shows of his, to name a few — Anderson .Paak has triumphed time and time again and managed to make a major mark on the music world this year.

— Sannidhi Shukla

Runner-up: Sampha

His soulful voice has blessed many albums in the past few years, and now, Sampha finally takes center stage, finishing up his first solo U.S. tour. Artists like Drake, Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Solange solicited the talented singer’s voice to be featured on their hits, which only left us craving more. Thankfully, scheduled Feb. 3 2017, Sampha will release his own album featuring a soulful pop discography that meshes his broad range and smooth sound with amazing beats. It’s about time we hand the microphone over to an artist that’ll surely enhance the rising R&B scene even further.

— Ilaf Esuf

Nominations: Jidenna, D.R.A.M. and Desiigner

Artist of the Year

Courtesy / Frank Ocean

Winner: Frank Ocean

“Listen. Stop trying to be someone else. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself, and know that that’s good enough.”

In one recorded voice message by Rosie Watson, the mother of one of Frank Ocean’s childhood friends, Ocean’s goal for this year in his career was made explicit. Ocean is simultaneously an extremely powerful and a deathly quiet figure. With his near silence in the first half of 2016, coming off of his failure to produce an album as promised the previous summer, Frank Ocean fans grew agitated, convinced that they’d never see another album.

Every time Ocean did anything of note, the music world froze in its tracks, listening only to him. When the website for his album went up, hysteria ensued. When Ocean put up a silent video of a woodworking studio on his website, people panicked. 2016 was a year lived at Frank Ocean’s glacial, even-keeled pace. When he finally unveiled his masterpieces, Ocean’s moves were swift and direct. He released Endless, a stylish 46-minute long plod that got him out of his Def Jam contract, set tongue-in-cheek to a subtly intricate video of a shadow presumed to be Ocean building a set of stairs. Then, a day later, the surprise release of Blonde shook fans and purified this unholiest of years.

Now Ocean has vanished once again, without performing a single concert this year. Still, for the purity of his vision and the importance of his art, any year that Frank Ocean touches must undoubtedly belong to him.

— Justin Knight

Runner-up: Kanye West

Plenty of years in the past decade have belonged to Kanye West, but none so dramatic as this one. 2016 was a year that tested West publically like none other has. The Life of Pablo’s album release was massive, set alongside the unveiling of Yeezy Season 3 at Madison Square Garden. Kanye’s move to redesign his album over time after its initial release and to de-prioritize its physical sales marked a revolutionary shift in album-making for years to come. Moving too fast for even himself, mid-stadium tour this autumn, Kanye suffered a breakdown, cancelling his remaining dates and losing out on millions as he checked himself into rehab. His has been a public fall from grace, but perhaps Icarus has the doggedness within him to rise yet again in 2017.

— Justin Knight

Nominations: Solange, Beyoncé and David Bowie


Contact the arts staff at [email protected].

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