Good God, what a year for music this has been. And even more than that, it has been a superb year for the album. As attention spans grow ever shorter and no one has presented a solid argument on why you can’t just listen to “Black Beatles” on repeat for an hour without giving the full LP a try, considerable doubt is cast on the album as a format. But 2016 arrived as a brazen bitch-slap to that point of view.
This year was a very political year, perhaps the most political year in a generation, and artists responded in album-length, thematically-honed call-to-arms. This year was a year of great loss, and artists were able to produce well thought-out, elegant farewells in full-length. But most of all this was a year of great change, in which artists responded by changing the limits of an LP to its very extreme.
In aims of presenting a definitive ranked list, we have tinkered, we have tallied, we have listened again and again, and again. But after many trials and blank stares at the wall, here they are. The 25 Best Albums of 2016:
25. James Blake–‘The Colour in Anything’
All great artists need to evolve, which makes James Blake something of an anomaly. His expansive The Colour in Anything is a huge undertaking (approximately 70 full minutes) of the exact same thing he’s been doing since his hugely influential set of 2010 EPs. Luckily for him, he remains the only one that can marry sad-boy piano ballads with pulsating, avant-garde electronic beats and make it seem not only easy but natural.
24. ScHoolboy Q–‘Blank Face LP’
Habits & Contradictions and Oxymoron were both well-developed and engaging works of hip-hop, but Blank Face LP is where ScHoolboy Q has reached auteur status. His vision has never been as thoroughly executed as it is here, and his bars flow with a renewed sense of purpose. Not even a feature from Kanye West (on the excellent “THat Part”) comes close to distracting from his prowess, and the five song run between “Dope Dealer” and “Str8 Ballin” is the most consecutively banging 20 minutes he has put on tape to date.
23. Kamaiyah–‘A Good Night in the Ghetto’
This may not be the best rap debut of the year, but it is undoubtedly the funniest. And not just witty, but genuine lolz funny. And this is all thanks to the MC at the center. Kamaiyah is fascinating. She hurls out hilariously crude bars while maintaining a constant deadpan delivery. Which means that she utters such lines as “he gives me head til I’m red, then I ride him to sleep” with the same amount of enthusiasm as she says “awwwwww shit.” Held together with production that effortlessly recreates the bubbliest of old school G-funk, A Good Night in the Ghetto is a true treat.
Kaytranada is a shining example of the future of the music world; one where genres like electronic, rap, R&B and funk continue to melt into each other in one tangy musical soup. 99.9% is very much a funky stew, sounding like deep house, Caribbean dance, Studio 54 disco records and James Brown backing tracks all at once, and usually all in the same song. That he manages to make each one of these elements sound fresh and relevant is a talent, that he manages to do this for a sustained 45-minute listen is nothing short of genius.
There was a huge amount of pressure for Skepta to deliver on Konnichiwa (perhaps not Frank Ocean levels of pressure, but more on that later). After a series of well-intentioned but critically maligned attempts at breaking into the mainstream, he succeeded in alienating his fanbase and lost a fair bit of street cred.
And though die-hard grime fans may not see this album as anything particularly wondrous, for the uninitiated it is a triumph. Skepta managed to condense his entire sound, scope and charmingly abrasive personality into a beautifully wrapped package, one that has been opened to a whole new generation finding grime for the first time.
20. Vince Staples–‘Prima Donna’ EP
It may only be half the length of every other album on this list, but what Primma Donna lacks in runtime it carries in vision and songcraft in spades. Vince Staples’ work has always been marked by its intelligence and visceral realism, and here he only continues to grow stronger in his ability to convey both.
The title track with A$AP Rocky is devastating in its clear-eyed assessment of his frustration with fame and celebrity culture, while “War Ready” is truly astonishing in its sonic innovation and frank darkness. “Heaven, hell, free, jail, same shit,” he spits with dead-eyed calm.
19. Angel Olsen–‘My Woman’
For those of you, like this author, that have ever felt the agonizing combination of sublime attraction and piqued frustration of someone that just won’t shut up and kiss you then Angel Olsen is here to perfectly express your feelings with a song called, well, “Shut Up Kiss Me.”
She has grown a substantial amount since her last record, the excellent Burn Your Fire For No Witness, and her lyrics are sharper and more poignant than ever before. “All my life I thought I’d change,” she sings on album highlight “Sister,” capturing a mature malaise in a way both remorseful and hopeful.
18. Young Thug–‘JEFFERY’
In every possible measure, JEFFERY is Young Thug making a statement – his boldest, brashest one yet at that. From the album cover of the rapper in a couture-dress meant to evoke Mortal Kombat to naming each track after his idols, this is Thug fully embracing his outsider status in the most maximally entertaining way possible. Which in the reality of the music business, this much character is usually enough to carry a full-length in itself.
It is just icing on the cake that tracks like the island-inflected “Kanye West” and “Wycelf Jean” and straight up banger “Pick Up the Phone” are among the best and most adventurous he’s ever done.
17. Kendrick Lamar–‘untitled unmastered.’
To follow up the earth-shattering, musical singularity that was To Pimp a Butterfly seemed a next-to-impossible task. Which is why it was very shrewd of Kendrick Lamar to quietly provide not a sequel but a collection of footnotes. That untitled unmastered is able to stand on its own as a great work entirely separate from the enormous shadow of its forbearer is yet another testament to the rapper’s unparalleled musical genius.
16. Blood Orange–‘Freetown Sound’
In his work as Blood Orange, Dev Hynes has continually managed to create his own unique blend of indie-pop that draws on sonic elements of the past; a Prince guitar or vocal yelp here, a Cocteau Twins drum loop there. It is a strategy practiced by many, but one that few manage to do with as much skill and earnestness as Hynes.
With that in mind, Freetown Sound is the culmination of his work, in the sense that for the first time, Hynes is not merely pulling sounds from the past but directly communing with the past itself and putting it on tape. The album is a patchwork quilt, one that is sewn together by his direct sources of inspiration (used most effectively in a star turn from Blondie’s Debbie Harry in album highlight “E.V.P.”).
And yet for all its backward-looking, Hynes creates a utopia for the present, one that is a salve for every oppressed community he intimately directs these songs toward.
15. Nicolas Jaar–‘Sirens’
This album opens with 11 full minutes of ambient work, punctured by literal shards of glass breaking and a vocal line that sounds like an astronaut’s farewell transmission to a planet he is drifting away from. And then things start to get weird.
Nicolas Jaar’s work is nothing if not immersive. These six tracks contain more instruments than one can count, a recorded conversation between his child-self and his father, songs in both his native Spanish and English and a thematic through-line of the hypocrisy of government.
Jaar has always had a distinct sound in his moody electronic work, but now it has suddenly and drastically been imbued with elements of post-punk and dancehall, delivering a finished product that feels less like a work of published music and more like a trip through the darkest recesses of his creative impulses.
Like many, I did not know what to make of ANTI when it first arrived. It was chaotic, no two songs sounded like the other. And what the actual shit was with that Tame Impala cover?
Yet somehow, after many months of hearing “Work” in every passing car and every single bar, everything fell into place. For the first time in her astonishing career, Rihanna delivered a proper, mature album. Every previous release was a load of crap stuffed behind a stellar song or three, but this was the full package.
ANTI is a collage of influences, sounds, genres and feelings all unified by the unwavering vision of Rihanna. Her voice has never sounded better, her attitude never cooler, and this proves more than anything that her work is far from over.
13. Bon Iver–’22, A Million’
It was very clear from the first few snippets of Bon Iver’s new album that something very odd was happening. Perhaps that’s a natural reaction to seeing a tracklist that looks like someone set the font on their keyboard to Wingdings and started smashing it with their forehead. But I digress.
The result is certainly odd. In some ways, 22, A Million is precisely the same kind of music Justin Vernon has always made: reflective songs on heartbreak, love, faith and the great unknown. But in most ways, Vernon flipped the script entirely. His normally sparse, folksy arrangements have been morphed into an electronic behemoth, as if he took all of his acoustic arrangements and fed them through multiple layers of a computer processor.
What does it all mean? I’m not sure any of us will quite figure it out, but that seems okay.
12. Solange–‘A Seat at the Table’
While attending a Kraftwerk concert with her son, Solange was harassed by a group of white women who commanded they stop dancing and sit down. When they did not, they were pelted with limes from the women’s cups. The daily oppression, prejudice, and harassment that faces people of color in our world is real, and those that attempt to deny it can no longer continue in this bubble of denial.
That Solange took this experience and created A Seat at the Table is profoundly inspiring. The album is a tapestry of black womanhood in 2016, woven together with an equally diverse tapestry of musical styles that reflect the rich history of black culture in America. And while songs like “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “FUBU” make Solange’s mission statement clear, it is the quiet moments on the album that resonate the most deeply.
An interlude from her mother, Tina Knowles Lawson, says plainly and poignantly, “there’s so much beauty in being black and that’s the thing that, I guess, I get emotional about because I’ve always known that.”
11. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds–‘Skeleton Tree’
Though the definitive sound of grief and mourning may still be Chopin’s “Funeral March,” Nick Cave has given the composer a run for his money with Skeleton Tree, an album that lives up to its title of the morose and the macabre.
Cave’s career with his band The Bad Seeds has always been one marked by dark, challenging work. In one of many examples, their most frequently played live song “The Mercy Seat” is about a man going to the electric chair. But shortly upon beginning this album, Cave’s 15-year-old son met a very tragic, unexpected death. His specter haunts every moment of this album.
And while lyrics like “cause nothing really matters” or “I need you” seem too simplistic at face value, every minuscule second of Cave’s voice palpably bleeds his heartache, making for a listen that is both soaringly beautiful and depressing as hell.
10. Danny Brown–‘Atrocity Exhibition’
“I’m sweating like I’m in a rave, been in this room for three days,” is the opening line of this album, but in many ways it is also the quintessential entry to Danny Brown himself. He is not an artist for everyone; as someone who has come up through inner-city Detroit and kicked an addiction to crack, his work is naturally very, very dark.
But those familiar with Brown’s ability to juggle horribly disturbing tales with laugh-out loud funny lyrics will find untold treasures in Atrocity Exhibition, a work that alongside his breakout 2010 album XXX, is his most cohesive to date.
Despite utilizing production that features a literal smorgasbord of instruments (lonely guitar and finger-cymbals in “Pneumonia,” blaring brass trumpets in “When It Rain,” an army of percussion in “Dance in the Water”), each song unmistakably demonstrates his ever-growing sonic maturity.
And though I’m not entirely sure, I’m convinced he is the first rapper to date to compare his cunnilingus to take-out Chinese food and actually make it sound impressive.
9. A Tribe Called Quest–‘We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service’
It feels safe to assume that literally no one was expecting this. Not only is it astounding that the members of one of the most formidable (and formative) groups in hip-hop history could reform after a whopping 18-year absence, but it is nothing short of a miracle that this reunion album is as relevant, refreshing, and just plain good as it is.
If anything, the long absence has only made them sharper. “We the People…” and “Dis Generation” are not only some of their most biting political tracks, but they could not have possibly arrived at a more crucial time. And tracks like “The Donald” should speak for themselves.
It is a true masterpiece, and a more than fitting memorial for the late Phife Dawg. Rest in power.
8. Jenny Hval–‘Blood Bitch’
In a year full of records with a message, Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch remains the one that has emerged at year’s end with nearly all of its mysteries and complexities still intact. We know based on her own statements that it is an examination of the power that lies in menstrual blood using vampire tropes to draw its conclusions. But that doesn’t provide much in the way of making sense.
But make no mistake, this is a profoundly fascinating album. There are moments of hallucinatory dream pop (the superior “Conceptual Romance” and “Female Vampire” are career-best work), moments of truly alarming music straight out of a horror film soundtrack (the heavy-breathing of “In the Red” and the psychedelic fun-house collage of found sounds in “The Plague”) and other moments of baffling intrusions from the outside world (“Untamed Region” samples Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary Hypernormalisation and “The Great Undressing” is a conversation between Hval and a friend on creating the album itself).
What ties it all together through its myriad sounds, samples, and theses is Hval’s simple realization of the one thing that unites us all from conception to death: our blood.
7. Kanye West–‘The Life of Pablo’
It speaks measures that what is easily Kanye’s messiest, most careless and (dare I say it) downright worst album is still a masterpiece. Where each one of Kanye’s previous albums has pushed the boundaries of hip-hop into a bold new frontier, The Life of Pablo takes a more introspective route and pushes the boundaries of Kanye West into a cold, unforgiving frontier. On tracks like “Famous” and “Fade” he has rarely sounded more confident, on “Wolves” and “Real Friends” he has rarely sounded more vulnerable and helpless.
As his recent bout of hospitalization shows, Kanye West is not doing well. Pablo is his admission and confession of this fact, but it is also something more. It is his attempt to combine all of his problems, expectations and stresses into a transcendent form of deliverance. As he says himself in the very first song, “This is a God dream.”
6. Radiohead–‘A Moon Shaped Pool’
Radiohead have always been a political band, with their 2003 album Hail to the Thief as indictment of George W. Bush being a prime example. Yet the level at which A Moon Shaped Pool continues to find resonance is downright eerie. Released in May, back when Donald Trump still produced laughter, the issues it addresses were alarmingly prescient.
Opening track “Burn the Witch” is a harrowing account of the dangers of group-think and far-right communities, “Ful Stop” sees Thom Yorke chanting “you’ve really messed up this time” as drone-like synthesizers warble around the edges, “we’re past the point of no return” he laments on “Daydreaming.”
And though there has been no word on the subject from the band, this feels unmistakably like a farewell album from one of the most formidable rock groups in history. Songs like “True Love Waits” have sat in their back catalogue for literal decades, only making their first recorded appearance now.
For a band that has pushed themselves and their genre into bold new directions with each release, this is the first time they have focused their energy inward, honing on their essential elements and presenting to the world a piercing reminder of what they have preached since day one.
5. Frank Ocean–‘Blond’
It is now impossible to separate Blond from the colossal hype that preceded it. Yet the actually insane amount of anticipation that led up to its release only serves to underscore the defining qualities of this album: its subtlety, its ambiguity, and its elusive splendor that hangs in the air, like the smell of a lover’s perfume hanging in the air after they’re gone.
Though it contains none of the immediately accessible tracks that marked channel ORANGE, Blond shows the work of an artist that is rapidly maturing in both his sonic and artistic personas. In his songwriting, Ocean has managed to become even more evocative, transporting us into his realm where feelings of passion, longing and melancholia interact with the tangible memories housed deep in his conscious. In his mind, there is no difference between man and woman, love and loss, agony and ecstasy; it is the dreamlike state in the middle that haunts him and by proxy, all of us.
4. David Bowie–‘★’
For 48 hours, ★ (or, Blackstar) was unbridled joy. David Bowie had, after a decade of silence, resurrected his career with 2013’s The Next Day, a release made more satisfying by the return of its creator more than any of the music itself. For him to follow it up so quickly with ★ was another surprise, but the biggest shock of all was how good it was. This was inarguably the best Bowie record in decades. In every way, this marked a drastic new direction for a man who had built a career in doing just that.
48 hours later, everything changed. Songs that had so recently served as a celebration were seen for what they truly were: a requiem. Moments like the ragged breaths that open “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and the now iconic lyrics of “Lazarus” that felt odd on first listen were brought into focus with razor-sharp clarity.
Bowie, the master of mystique and the showman of the century, had succeeded in creating the most controlled, most astounding final act in rock history: a concept album about his impending death.
3. Chance the Rapper–‘Coloring Book’
The world was distinctly lacking in joy this year. And sincere joy is something one rarely finds in a hip-hop song, let alone a full album. Enter Coloring Book, which is a shot of pure, unbridled excitement in the arm and Chance the Rapper’s definitive claim to his place in rap’s bold, bright future.
From the awe-inspiring opener “All We Got” featuring the combo of Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir to the truly humbling litany of gratitude that is “Blessings,” this is the work of a man whose lust for life is so contagious that it is incapable of being met with cynicism. Chance has found incomparable fame and success creating his own work on his own time (addressed with pride in “No Problem”), has a “baby mama I’m tryna turn into a fiancée” and has renewed faith in life through the joys of fatherhood.
And if that doesn’t make you saw “awww” then you need to speak to a cardiologist immediately regarding your missing heart. Musically it is a sensation, but no where near the sensationalism of finding release in radical happiness, a quality that is exceedingly rare in the world of today and the world ahead of us.
Many artists this year created work that was political, creating rally cries behind causes that are vital to our health and happiness in the world of tomorrow. But ANOHNI, in her first solo record apart from her former moniker Antony & the Johnsons, is looking at the bigger picture. No one this year, or quite possibly any year in musical history, has created songs addressing government surveillance, corruption, drone killings, the threat of climate change and President Obama himself in one unified album.
And while this would be far too heavy-handed for any other artist, HOPELESSNESS turns them all into enthralling, if not danceable, slices of electro-pop. Producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never created beats that feel alive, making each song, no matter how dark the subject matter, into exquisitely intricate pieces of a masterful whole.
But this is ANOHNI’s record through and through. Her rage is tantamount to a punishment from the Gods of old, and she holds nothing back in the danger our world faces. In “4 Degrees” she employs reverse psychology in maniacally taking pleasure at the thought of the oceans and the air being set ablaze as the natural world perishes due to our lack of action on climate change. In “Drone Bomb Me” she directly illustrates the human cost of cold-blooded, government-sanctioned killings via machine. And in “Marrow,” a song that continues to grow even scarier as we prepare for President Trump, she looks around at the world in disgust and, well, hopelessness, at the fact that “we are all Americans now.”
Musically, this is the best thing Beyoncé has ever done. Many artists attempt experimenting with different genres, but hardly anyone has lashed out in so many sonic directions and been so damn good at all of them. Bey wants to try a rock n’ roll song? She makes “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which features she and living legend Jack White in a screaming match over a Led Zeppelin sample. Country? She makes “Daddy Lessons,” featuring acoustic guitar and a name-check of the Second Amendment. And there are of course the usual amount of seductively slick trap-inflected pop songs, like “Sorry” and “Formation” and “6 Inch Heels.”
Thematically, this is the best thing Beyoncé has ever done. At its core it is about the anger of a woman scorned who finds peace in making love the triumphant force of her nature. And in this intimate tale, she is able to weave in her narrative as an oppressed woman of color. Then she takes it even further, extending it to encompass the narrative of all black women in the still-troubling history of America.
This is of course told even further in the visual component of Lemonade, from Bey and Serena Williams twerking in the parlor of a former plantation home to women riding in the bus in traditional West African Yoruba body paint to drowning police cars. In crafting a work that is both singular and universal, powerful and empowering, personal and political, Beyoncé created the most important album of the year.
‘Lemonade’ is still currently unavailable on all streaming services except TIDAL. Click here to give it a listen.
Be sure to also check out our 25 picks for the Best Songs of 2016.