Every year, an increasingly gargantuan catalog of music is released spanning the entire spectrum of popular music. While I try to listen to everything, it’s honestly pretty impossible. Still, it’s hard to critically evaluate music without the context of albums from the past. So here are five albums that I discovered in 2016, from bona fide classics to completely unknown releases.
Blu | Below The Heavens
Ahhhhh! This album!! It’s pretty much perfect, from front to back. Blu, a Los Angeles-based underground rapper, found his match in established producer Exile, who helped him create his personal life’s opus. Blu oozes charisma and brutal honesty, telling us stories about trying to make it as a rapper, convincing his family that he belongs in the game, and, surprisingly, his love life. Exile brings his signature stunning soul in production, with plenty of beautiful strings and muted percussion, making this album a great listen even when you take away Blu’s fantastic stories. Blu has never been able to match this effort (released back in 2007), but the fact that it exists puts him in underground rap’s upper echelon for the aughts.
Favorite song: “Blu Colla Workers”
Listen if you like: Logic, early Kanye West
Lewis | L’amour
You’re gonna need to sit down for Lewis’s full story, profiled in an excellent Maxim feature last year. In short, someone discovered this vinyl record at a flea shop in Alberta, leading the collector who purchased it to try to find the artist behind these tunes. If the music wasn’t any good, people wouldn’t try as hard, but on L’amour, Lewis gives us a collection of soft, heart-wrenchingly beautiful synth-folk tunes. The lyrics are mostly unintelligible, but Lewis tells more with his inflections, emotions, and song titles than he would with his lyrics anyway. Originally recorded and released in 1986, it has since been re-released on vinyl.
Favorite song: “Like To See You Again”
Listen if you like: Bob Dylan at his folkiest, Bon Iver
MF Doom | Mm.. Food
MF Doom is a deity in underground hip-hop. He competes with others on his label, Stone’s Throw Records, including impeccable producers Madlib and the late J. Dilla. But Doom is the most revered, and for good reason: he’s responsible for three of the best underground hip hop records of the aughts. His debut, Operation: Doomsday, and his collaboration with Madlib as Madvillain on Madvillainy are Doom’s best-known records, but my favorite is definitely Mm.. Food, an entire album dedicated to and viewed through the lens of — you guessed it — food. Doom handled most of the production on this record, along with the rapping, and takes his Dr. Doom-like character to horrifying heights in gluttony and greed. His sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, but always compelling rapping makes Mm.. Food (from 2004) my favorite Doom record.
Favorite song: “Potholderz”
Listen if you like: Earl Sweatshirt, comic books
The Avalanches | Since I Left You
As a fan of creative sampling in hip-hop, I’ve always been a fan of the genre of plunderphonics, which stitches together samples from across genre lines to make a cohesive song — on paper. While the Dust Brothers (producers for the Beastie Boys, Beck) helped innovate this sound, many times it doesn’t really translate to a cohesive product. The Avalanches’ first and (for 16 years) only release is the pinnacle of plunderphonics as a genre. From the stunning title track that kicks the album off, to danceable singles “Frontier Psychiatrist” and “Electricity”, Since I Left You is a required listen for anyone who loves sampling.
Favorite song: “Since I Left You”
Listen if you like: J. Dilla, DJ Shadow, early Beck
Fashawn | Boy Meets World
In a lot of ways, Fashawn’s Boy Meets World is a sequel to Blu’s Below The Heavens. It’s produced by Exile — who managed to get even more soulful and pop-oriented in his production. It’s a very self-obsessed record. But it’s decidedly Fashawn’s show on Boy Meets World; it’s an ode to his childhood. According to “Samsonite Man”, Fashawn had no less than five father figures in his life, a rotating cast of characters that ranged from very supportive to deadbeats. The most distinct feature of this record is how casual all of it sounds. Fashawn managed to make a classic of a record and get signed to Nas’s label — all at the age of 21.
Favorite song: “Samsonite Man”
Listen if you like: Blu, Nas, old-school soul