This year impressed me with the prominent anti-colonialization dialogue I encountered and the general activism in support of diversity and inclusivity. It is about time we as humans recognize that even when deemed “minorities” our numbers are large, and our collective power is great, even in the face of well-rooted systemic oppression. The victory claimed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the DAPL project is one emblematic example of this in 2016. Here, Native Americans made their voices heard against the status quo and paused the perpetuating injustice.
I recognize that this perception of heighten anti-colonial sentiments could be primarily caused by the company I keep, or the fact that I’ve been living in Latin America for the greater part of 2016, but overall I feel big social changes happening, in spite of—or perhaps, due to—the disastrous political conservatism taking hold, best personified in the ignorant and supremacist character of Donald Trump.
Diversity, inclusion and anti-colonialism are alive and rising in so many sectors and aspects of life; music is no exception. I am proud to say that my country, Ecuador, and its wonderful musicians are spearheading a movement of musical diversity with artists like Nicolá Cruz, Mateo Kingman, Quixosis, Ata Wallpa, Guanaco and others that have become a sort of musical warriors fighting against a monotonous system as they infuse their music with history, native instrumentation, and lyrical poetry that give a voice to nature and the unheard.
For the last few years, I’ve been sharing a list of my favorite albums of the year. Every year, the list compiles the 10 albums that have stood out—no matter their release date—and are listed in the order I encountered them in the year, rather than an attempt to rank them. This year’s list feels more musically diverse than any other I’ve made to date, not only in sound but also in the artists represented, starting with:
Nicolá Cruz – Prender el Alma (2015)
I first listened to Nicolá Cruz during Christmas 2015 when I watched this short documentary featuring one of my closest childhood friends that goes by the stage name, Quixosis. I was immediately drawn to Nicolá’s song titles, and the minimalist, yet intricate weaving of contemporary electronic beats with traditional Andean flutes, maracas, charangos and Quechua lyrics.
This genre Nicolá invented and named “Andean Step” illuminates and elevates the organic, traditional music from the region from which it draws obvious inspiration; yet, Prender el Alma is also new, and the evolution of a native music that contains all the mysticism and folklore of the past, as it is interpreted by present-day music-makers.
Standout tracks: All of them, and Nicolá Cruz’s remix of one of my favorite songs of last year: Bomba Estereo’s “Raiz”
Beyoncé – Lemonade (2016)
Queen Bey has long been a feminist force and the voice of so many of hidden and nameless sentiments that seldom get expressed – and much less sung about in top 40 radio stations. In Lemonade, she did not fail us. This album is darker than any other she’s made before, and a visual and sonic rollercoaster of emotions presumably felt by a married woman struggling through their partner’s infidelity.
It is speculated that this album tells her own story with her equally famous husband, Jay-Z. No matter the source of the album’s inspiration, it is a gift of expression, of connection, and of mental health. (Can I please wear a beautiful dress while smashing cars, too?) There’s almost nothing the public can understand about being the legendary Beyoncé, but through her music, we can get a better understanding of her as a woman of color, with insecurities, and with the full spectrum of love and affection a human heart can give.
Standout tracks: “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” “Daddy Lessons,” “Freedom,” “All Night,” “Formation”
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color (2015)
The title track “Sound & Color” was the first song I heard from Alabama Shakes’ second album. I was immediately enchanted by the song’s gentle, lulling shimmering tunes, reminiscent of another track I love: Spoon’s “Inside Out.”
Without knowing anything about the band, I assumed the singer was a man. I couldn’t have been happier to find that the band is fronted by the uniquely beautiful vocalist and guitarist, Brittany Howard. I could write a whole post about how talented and interesting I believe this woman to be, as she practices her talent and lives out her dream. (I mean just watch this video on how she came up with “Sound & Color.”) I’ll spare you the gushing, and I’ll encourage you to listen to the album instead.
Stand out tracks: “Sound & Color,” “Future People,” “This Feeling,” “Shoegaze,” “Miss You”
Explosions in the Sky – All of the Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is an Explosions in the Sky song. I could, quite literally, use one thousand words to describe the journey each song in this album takes me on – the quiet melancholic melodies overlaid on pounding passionate drums, the powerful violin bow creating friction against electric guitar strings, the electronic synthesis of distorted, yet harmonious, instrumentation.
I could easily use one thousand words, but the truth is music this good cannot be bound within human language. Music is the language of the soul, of something utterly divine. When I listen to this album, I can hardly believe human beings managed to create this. It’s pure magic. And their show is unreal, too.
Stand out tracks: All of them, but “Catastrophe and the Cure” was my favorite song of the year.
Alina Baraz & Galimatias – Urban Flora (2015)
I have to admit that I know the least about this artist and the background of their music. I recently read that the duo, Alina Baraz & Galimatias, met through Soundcloud and began collaborating. This is what’s amazing about music and the internet. It can join people in the creative process. Two heads are better than one after all…
The nymph-like voice of Alina Baraz floats across the R&B electronic beats of Galimatias creating an atmosphere that justifies the name Urban Flora: something delicate and natural within a synthetic (in a good way!) universe.
Stand out tracks: “Drift,” “Can I,” “Fantasy”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway (2016)
Because the RHCP are one of my all-time favorite bands, this album was a given on this year’s list. I still listen to many of their albums – some released more than 20 years ago— with great regularity because music like this is, and forever will be, timeless. The Getaway is no By the Way by any means, but it still features Flea’s epic bass riffs and the California-dreamy lyrics perfected by Anthony Kiedis. I must have listened to “Encore” on repeat for a month straight, because that song bursts with a guitar part that I, inexplicably, can’t get enough of.
I’ve had too many philosophical talks on what makes music “good” or special, but my conclusion is that it can’t be pinned down, defined or even explained. Music is a personal experience that transcends words and opinions, and no matter what RHCP will always be one of the greatest bands to me. They get whatever “it” is. (And it helps that they’ve been working on their craft for more than four decades.)
Stand out tracks: “Dark Necessities,” “The Longest Wave,” “Encore”
Manatee Commune – Brush (2014)
If you go back to my 2015 list you can read my rave on Odesza, and the magical soundscapes they create in manipulating instruments, beats and just about any imaginable sound, organic or invented. Manatee Commune follows in those footsteps. He even hails from the same place. (Seattle, Washington).
The first song I heard by MC was the single “What We’ve Got” before it was featured on this year’s release, Manatee Commune. It was love at first listen. From then, I repeatedly devoured the whole 38-minutes of Brush and its bittersweet symphonies; beautiful and brief, as reminiscing memories.
Stand out tracks: All of them, but particularly, “White Smoke,” “Brush,” “Epiphany, If Only”
Mateo Kingman – Respira (2016)
I love all my top album picks equally, but there’s always one that stands out –just a tiny bit—above the others. This year, Respira is that album. In my opinion, Mateo Kingman and his band are the best Ecuadorean musicians currently on my radar, demonstrating a craftsmanship in their instrumentation, vocals, composition, production and performance that’s ready compete in the international stage.
Ecuador has few artists that gain success beyond the national or regional scale. Nicolá Cruz is the first I can recall (and many would say he’s more French than Ecuadorian), but Mateo Kingman has so much promise and I can’t wait to see them take off and gain the recognition they deserve. This show was one of the best shows I saw all year (and I saw many acts this year). With Mateo Kingman’s appearance mirroring that of an Amazonian warrior and shaman, the high-energy performance was magnetic, best felt in the song “Mi Pana” featuring Guanaco, and also spiritually healing, precisely like the song “Lluvia.” My soul could be at peace in that song forever.
Stand out tracks: “Sendero del Monte,” “Lluvia,” “Agua Santa,” “Dame Tu Consuelo,” “Mi Pana,” “Fuerza de Pantera”
Florence and the Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful (2015)
This year, Bob Dylan won a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic lyrics that have touched many across generations and geographic locations. As the first popular musician and lyricist to have won such a high honor (finally!), Dylan has paved the way for others to aspire for this. And Florence Welch is a great future candidate.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was one of honorable mentions in 2015 because, of course, I listened to it when it was released but, this year, I really gave it the attention it deserved. Florence is a striking valkyrie writing and singing eloquent poems filled with imagery, metaphors and similes worthy of study in English lit classrooms. How often do you hear pop songs with this quality of prose? And for the sake of post length, I won’t touch upon the music.
Stand out tracks: “Ship to Wreck,” “What Kind of Man,” “Delilah,” “Long & Lost,” “St. Jude,” “Mother,” “Which Witch,” “Conductor”
Fleetwood Mac – The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (2002)
Oh, Stevie Nicks—yet, another mesmerizing gypsy woman and lyricist on this list. What can be said about this legend and her band without being redundant? I’ll keep it brief: Fleetwood Mac is one of the best rock bands of all time and Nick’s lyrics, singing and songs have inspired countless of other artists and individuals, like me. Though I can’t say for sure, I’d bet this music influenced the aforementioned Alabama Shakes – and, let’s be real, every other artist on this list, as well.
I heard “Gypsy” one day on my way to work and that set me off on a Fleetwood Mac binge that has no regret attached (unlike, say, a Netflix binge). Every single song on this album is a classic— and I’ll leave it at that.
Standout tracks: It’s not titled the “Very Best” for nothing. Every. Track.
- Glass Animals – How to Be a Human Being (2016)
- Swing Original Monks – Somos (2016)
- Chico Mann – Magical Thinking (2013)
Peace and happy new year!
“If music be the food of love, play on.” Shakespeare – The Twelfth Knight