This is always the hardest year-end list for me to put together. Truthfully, men in music had a pretty good year across all the genres. Male pop stars charter all over the place, men once again outnumbered women in the rap game, men were still enjoying great country radio play despite a resurgence in attention given to women, and R&B saw releases from the likes of Chris Brown, Maxwell, and even Musiq Soulchild. With that being the case, why is this list so hard to do? Because no matter how successful they are, if I’m not feeling what you’re putting out, you’re going to be left off. Hence why artists like Shawn Mendes, Bryson Tiller (who’s material I’ve admittedly softened on), and even Kanye have been left off. Also, don’t expect to see J. Cole and Childish Gambino despite their recent releases since I haven’t had time for them to digest with me yet. That said, time to spotlight some of music’s alpha males of the year.
#10. Eric Church
Why are surprise albums that drop out of the audio sky completely out of the blue usually so good? Ever since Beyoncé made this a trend with her self-titled album in 2013, we could expect a rumor of a surprise album or a surprise album to actually materialize for some of music’s brightest stars. And nine times out of ten, they’re usually pretty good, as if albums are somehow better when they’re not hyped up beforehand. Even the country world isn’t exempt; Eric Church‘s Mr. Misunderstood came completely out of nowhere in 2015, and it was a critical darling, despite its kind of shocking lack of Grammy nominations. Why is that? Well, in an era of country music where the male performers are that their most pig-headed and shallow, Eric Church seemed to be writing about real stuff. Writing about life. Writing the kind of material that hits you in the gut with emotions. Songs like “Record Year”, which topped the Country Airplay chart, justify Church’s reputation as somewhat or a country rebel with his own style unique to his contemporaries.
#9. Justin Bieber
Don’t be mistake by the inclusion of The Biebs on this list. I haven’t become a full-fledged Justin Bieber fan. I’m actually in the camp of people who find him to be one of the most overexposed and obnoxious celebrities around, at least as far as being a public figure goes. That said, he recently had the top two songs on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 chart, meaning that “Sorry” and “Love Yourself” were the two biggest chart hits of the year, which is not a shock seeing as they dominated airplay in the top half of the year. And I can admit that after multiple listens, I couldn’t deny how enjoyable both of those songs could be. Even “Company” was a pretty decent pop song. And while I’m not that big a of his EDM collaborations “Cold Water” and “Let Me Love You”, I’d rather hear those than most other recent EDM hits. It’s like the worse he becomes as a public figure, the better he becomes as a musician. He’s no longer making Radio Disney-style music exclusively for tween girls. He’s now making pop songs so decent even the Grammys nominated him for their finest honor. That was unimaginable in the early-2010s. Still not a fan, but I can give props to the improvement.
#8. David Bowie
I don’t know if I’m the first person to make this parallel, but does the recent passing of rock icon David Bowie remind anyone else of country music star Johnny Cash? Like Cash, Bowie was a musician who played by his own rules and built up a legacy as an innovative, creative talent in the process. And also like Johnny Cash, he passed away around the same time he released a powerful, transcendent piece of work. Cash’s iconic cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” dropped in 2003 and he would pass away just months later. Bowie passed away literally a couple of days after the release of what would be his final studio album, Blackstar. Bowie may not have lived to see the album drive straight to the top of the chart afterward, but he’s no stranger to success as he had five-and-a-half decades of musical success under his belt. And Blackstar was the latest chapter, reciving critical acclaim and delivering a couple of haunting videos in the form of “Lazarus” and “Blackstar”, the latter of which won a VMA for Best Art Direction. Music icons were dying left and right this year; Bowie’s was able to drop his swan song album just before it was his time to depart the Earth, and it was a wonderful piece of work.
#7. Chris Stapleton
What else can I say about Chris Stapleton that won’t sound like I’m just plagiarizing off of myself from last year? 2015 was the unexpected breakout year of the heavily-bearded country performer, who worked as a songwriter for the longest time before releasing his own studio work. His Traveller album was rightfully praised for being such an amazing piece of work, even by myself who gave it a listen before the 2015 CMA Awards. 2016 saw things get even better for him; not only did he win a couple of Grammy Awards, but he also joined Gary Clark Jr. and Bonnie Raitt during the ceremony for a stirring, soulful collaborative tribute performance to B.B. King. His luck with award shows and chart success also continued afterward; he notched a few songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and country chart. His music video for “Fire Away”, which shined a light on the topic of mental illness, won a CMT Music Award for Breakthrough Video of the Year, and he ended up winning yet another CMA Award this past November. Top all of this off with being honored as Billboard’s Top Country Artist of the Year and one of CMT’s Artists of the Year and he’s quickly become one of country music’s biggest names, and he didn’t have to hitch his wagon to bro-country to do it.
#6. The Weeknd
Say goodbye to one of the most bafflingly infamous hairdos in music, a form of entertainment known for the outlandish hair choices of many of its brightest star. Many memes have been made to mock the hairstyle that Canadian crooner The Weeknd made famous last year; hair so rebellious against gravity that 80’s hair metal and new wave bands are looking back from the past and taking notes. (Isn’t that right, Robert Smith?) The Weeknd’s tree-like follicles have been chopped off in favor of a more regular, everyday spike style. Not as fascinating, admittedly, but what does remain fascinating to an extent is his music. He still has the vocal stylings and range of 2000’s R&B names like Maxwell and Musiq Soulchild, but in becoming the very “Starboy” he sings about, he’s extended past the R&B realm and tapped into other genres on his latest project, including electronica, alternative, and straight-up pop. You can say that he’s officially conformed to the radio-friendly style of modern day, which isn’t exactly a new world for him since he’s collaborated with Ariana Grande and Future over the years. But as long as we get enjoyable songs like “False Alarm” and “Starboy”, I think there are way worse pop music catastrophes out there to worry about.
#5. Justin Timberlake
For a guy who didn’t release an album this year, Justin Timberlake sure had a buzzworthy 2016, though not exactly for the best reasons. His reaction to a tweet accusing him of cultural appropriation following his positive vibes to Jesse Williams’ BET Awards speech didn’t go over well with most people. Remember, JT has been a blue-eyed soul singer since 2002, and white artists performing in predominantly black music genres has been a hot button issue the last number of years, and many saw it as a sign that he still has some learning to do. But thankfully, he made things right when he accepted the Decade Award honor and gave an influential and heartfelt speech at Teen Choice, mentioning the incident among other things. But though that was a major headline for a bit, Justin is here for his musical endeavors this year. Or should I say musical endeavor. The guy only released one song this year and it was for a soundtrack to a movie that I thought was a terrible idea from the jump. Really, why did they give Troll dolls a movie? Luckily, while TIME Magazine believed “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was the worst song of the year, I strongly disagree. Was it corny? Yes; Todd in the Shadows was correct when he called it a lame song. But it was a fun, lame song and certainly worth more plays than most other hit from this year. It’s just a feel-good song that’ll hopefully hold us over until JT is ready to release another album.
I really do like Drake. Of all the modern mainstream rappers, he’s up there in the higher echelon of popular MC’s whose music I can stomach for the most part. And honestly, I do see why so many people are behind him as he is a bit of a trendsetter in the game; maybe it’s the fact that he’s popular enough to have most other rapper biting his style or the fact that he releases something every other week. I’m not quite ready to call him the G.O.A.T, though I’m sure many of his fans are fully prepared to polish off the crown and hand it to him on a platter, but he does have quite the upside. But whoever I have to blame for Views being such an underwhelming and tedious album can expect my angry letters in their mailbox in the near future. I wanted to do a review of the album on my blog, but I’d probably sum it up the same way I Hate Everything summed up the movie Frozen Land. The Grammys and radio seem to disagree; he dominated radio with the catchy “One Dance” and his Rihanna collaborations “Work” and “Too Good”, snagged an Album of the Year Grammy nomination, and still found time to goof around with French Montana and work with Future again. I respect the grind and enjoy some of his tracks enough to land him in the Top 5. But #1? Not this time.
#3. Keith Urban
I considered docking Keith Urban down a few slots in this list for making the baffling decision to include a Pitbull feature on his latest album Ripcord. In a year where pop singers like Demi Lovato and P!NK jumped on country tracks, I couldn’t stomach Pitbull doing it for a second time. Luckily, that song wasn’t released a single, keeping it assigned to album track territory. And speaking of the album, while I admit Pitbull’s inclusion doesn’t sit right with me, it also doesn’t still out like that much of a sore thumb because this album is Keith Urban at his most pop. There’s even a collaboration with Carrie Underwood on it that while snatching a CMA Award nomination sees them try to go disco. And I actually kind of like it. That in addition to the huge hit from the album, the slower tune “Blue Ain’t Your Color”. Part of Urban’s inclusion on this list is because he’s one of those male country singers I really dig as a musician, especially given his skill on the guitar. But while the former Idol judge may have gotten poppy with this album, at least the result wasn’t completely awful or embarrassing.
#2. Chance the Rapper
As someone born and raised in Chicago, I want to feel a sense of hometown pride swell up inside of me whenever a performer from this city makes it huge on a grand scale. And while The Windy City can boast of amazing talent getting huge in the rap game, from Twista to Lupe Fiasco to Common, we sometimes end up represented by less-than-stellar artists like Chief Keef. Luckily, glimpses of greatness can still rise to the top, as is the case with Chance The Rapper, who at the very young age of 23, has become one of the biggest names in rap over the past twelve months. He shared a Billboard Magazine cover with two other rising stars in Alessia Cara and Maren Morris, caught the attention of Beyoncé and the praise of Kanye at the VMAs, and received a guest spot on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo album. As of last week, he can also call himself a multiple-time Grammy Awards nominee, finding himself up for multiple rap awards and even Best New Artist alongside The Chainsmokers, Anderson .Paak, Kelsea Ballerini, and the aforementioned Maren Morris. All of this without a proper debut album to his name; it’s been all complimentary mixtapes at thus far. Sure, Coloring Book, which included a gospel-infused sound barely heard in rap music these days, was an Apple exclusive for a bit, but it’s the project that earned him his proper breakthrough, containing tracks like “No Problem” and the VMA-nominated “Angels”. With his actual debut album on the way, prepare for him to be everywhere in 2017.
#1. Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars‘ 24K Magic album was released so late in the year that the lead single, sharing its name with the album, didn’t even make Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 despite being in the Top 10 its entire run on the chart thus far. He sat out a large chunk of the year, with his largest exposure of the year coming by way of his participation in the Super Bowl Halftime Show with Beyoncé and Coldplay. But when he did finally drop some new material, we were reminded why Bruno Mars is such an important figure in modern day pop music. Believe it or not, this was his first studio album in three years. In between that time, he provided the vocals on Mark Ronson‘s “Uptown Funk”, which was such a massive smash that it only made sense that the throwback sound become Bruno’s signature aesthetic. He may have tapped into it on Unorthodox Jukebox, but he went all in with it on 24K Magic and compared to most of the pop music scene, it’s a breath of fresh air. Like Chance the Rapper, he’s taken a sound that is rare in modern popular music and knocked it out the park delivering it to the masses. He’s my #1 male artist of 2016 despite 24K Magic’s late arrival because he’s one of those artists who’s making pop music fun again.
DJ Khaled – Just wait until I get to the Social Media stars countdown where I can really explain what kept DJ Khaled on the map this year. “Do You Mind” and “For Free” were hits and people agreed “Nas Album Done” was great despite the corny time, but let’s not act like his Major Key album was a bigger deal than the major keys he tossed out on Snapchat.
Jeremih – Here solely due to “Oui”. The premise of the sound should fall on it’s face when you realize that “oui” is actually French for “yes”, but with the theory I’ve heard of how that could make the song into an anthem for consent, maybe “There’s no oui without ‘u’ and’i'” doesn’t sounds like nonsense after all. And the beat of the song is nice.
Panic! At The Disco – Technically a band, but in the past decade, they’ve dwindled down into a one-man band. Brendon Urie is the sole remaining official member, having played every instrument on Death of a Bachelor. He’s full of creative ideas that come out in his music videos and performances, so he can maybe keep this thing going.
Nick Jonas – The Jonas Brothers became megastar through the Disney Channel, but they also became the least bearable band around to me when I was in my late teens. Nick Jonas is doing none of that anymore, leaning more towards R&B/pop music and his music all the better because of it. Certainly helps that he works with talented performers like Demi Lovato and Tove Lo.
Thomas Rhett – I can point out the obvious of “Die A Happy Man” being too reminiscent of “Thinking Out Loud” all I want, but it’s not like he doesn’t have any other notable tracks under his belt. “T-Shirt” from late last year was pretty fun; in fact, that’s the best way I describe most of his singles not titled “Die A Happy Man”: fun.
Ty Dolla $ign – He gets a mention only because of his appearances on two of my favorite hits of the year: “Work from Home” and “Sucker for Pain”. His output as a main artist hasn’t really impressed me much; he just comes across as a slightly more tolerable version of Future to me.