2016 was a weird year for albums. Unlike many years, there’s no clear-cut consensus number one best album along the lines of Modern Vampires of the City or To Pimp a Butterfly, so there’s a lot more flexibility for choices for the best of the year. There were genres that had huge years (hip-hop, R&B, emo) and genres that had slow years (alternative rock, pure pop) but in the end, it was the capital-a Album, and all the hubbub around it, that dominated music this year. The insane album rollouts and announcements around Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Beyoncé will never be replicated. After all, it’s about the music, and it was the music that allowed these albums to be my favorite of the year.
With apologies to James Blake, YG, Radiohead, Blood Orange, Schoolboy Q, Chairlift, NxWorries, dvsn, and Beyoncé (all of whom just missed the cut), here are the top 20 albums of 2016:
20) Various Artists | Southern Family
Country music is great, and this compilation of adorably endearing odes to family just so happens to be the best country music release of the year. There’s just so much simple beauty in the twelve tracks here, like Zac Brown’s love letter to his grandma (“Grandma’s Garden”) or a stunningly stripped-back love ballad that’s as heartbreaking as anything I’ve heard this year (“Simple Song”). Even if you’re not the biggest country music fan, don’t let this compilation slip by you; it’s such a rewarding listen.
Essential tracks: “Simple Song” | “God Is A Working Man” | “Grandma’s Garden”
19) ANOHNI | Hopelessness
“Hopelessness” could be the defining word of 2016, couldn’t it? It seems we saw more terrorist attacks, more racial divides, and more of an overall sense of apathy in people’s world views than ever before. ANOHNI’s Hopelessness, her first release separate from her Antony & The Johnsons moniker, is a seething look at hypocrisy and social regression that we’re seeing on a daily basis.
In a way, Hopelessness is a reverse of another highly political 2016 album in Solange’s A Seat At The Table. Unlike Solange’s effort, which focused on empathy and understanding, Hopelessness has no room for bullshit, no time for affinity. This is 11 bitingly cynical examinations of those who are seemingly both with and against ANOHNI’s beliefs, from the Stockholm Syndrome-esque crooning of “Watch Me” (in reference to the NSA’s surveillance) to the bombastic post-apocalyptics of “4 Degrees” to the heartbreakingly real “Drone Bomb Me”. This is music for the end times, a warning about what will happen if people don’t look towards progress and the future.
Essential tracks: “Drone Bomb Me” | “4 Degrees” | “Watch Me”
18) Wet | Don’t You
The first thing I notice when listening to a new Wet song is the pure style of it all. There are rarely any grand artistic flourishes, no unsettlingly poignant lyrics. Wet just make pure, slow, lush, stylish pop music as well as anyone else out there. The list of killer singles on Don’t You, their debut, is incredible: “It’s All In Vain”, “Deadwater”, “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl”, “Weak”, and “All The Ways” are all some of the prettiest pure pop songs of the last couple years. There’s nothing rough here, but the light guitars, spacey synthetic production, and ethereal synths make it exhilarating nonetheless.
Essential tracks: “It’s All In Vain” | “Deadwater” | “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl”
17) Solange | A Seat At The Table
Many people close to me were traumatized and shocked by Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency. For someone who spewed so much garbage, most of it being harmful, to be elected to the most powerful individual position in the developed world can evoke a wide palette of feelings, from anger and disgust to fear and apprehension. Healing was necessary.
The album that I returned to over and over when I needed some catharsis and some recovery was Solange’s A Seat At The Table. While the album doesn’t really deal with many of the main issues of the election, instead preferring to focus on black womanhood in America, it was Solange’s staunch empathy that helped convince me that things would be okay. This is not a stereotypical “angry Black woman” album (although her sister, Beyoncé, dropped one this year that happened to be one of the year’s best). No, on A Seat At The Table, Solange deals with her anxieties with beautiful music and an eye on perspective. An interlude partway through the album states that black pride doesn’t have to mean antagonizing any other race. “Why is that so hard to understand?” the voice asks. With A Seat At The Table, Solange promotes understanding as a key factor in healing and progress.
Essential tracks: “Cranes in the Sky” | “Mad” | “Don’t Touch My Hair”
16) Kendrick Lamar | untitled unmastered.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was the consensus album of the year last year, and in my opinion, it’s the best hip-hop album of the 21st century. So everything he puts out is going to be graded on an impossibly high curve, and on an album of outtakes and b-sides from his Butterfly sessions, he’s managed to surpass those expectations.
This is woozy, jazzy, west coast classic hip-hop, from the intoxicating “untitled 02” to the slow build of “untitled 07” to the unbridled energy of “untitled 03“, everything here is just as musically sound as To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s a testament to the quality of that album that music this good was relegated to a throwaway list untitled b-sides. I think King Kendrick’s earned his title.
Essential tracks: “untitled 02” | “untitled 03” | “untitled 07”
15) Danny Brown | Atrocity Exhibition
I’m a big fan of positive music, but sometimes I need something a little bit more edgy. Detroit rapper Danny Brown’s last album, 2013’s Old, presented EDM-rap bangers with a sinister edge to them that exhilarated me and had me chomping at the bit to find out what he might do next. I didn’t expect Atrocity Exhibition, an album as terrifying as it is intoxicating.
The opening track to this album is titled “Downward Spiral”, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a song title so apt. Atrocity Exhibition is a tale of the Detroit ghetto, from dope-pushing (and using) to violence to partying to graphic tales of sex. Brown’s choices of beats are more experimental than any other major rap release this year, from the sour electronica of “When It Rain” to the blaring, booming horns of “Ain’t It Funny”. This album is as close to a roller coaster as I’ve seen. It’s like watching The Wire; it’s supremely entertaining, but I’m glad it’s not my reality.
Essential tracks: “Really Doe” | “Ain’t It Funny” | “When It Rain”
14) The Avalanches | Wildflower
For my money, the long-anticipated follow-up to The Avalanches’ great debut, Since I Left You, stands right up to it. It’s a wonderfully kaleidoscopic romp through hip-hop, disco, and the origins of rap in New York. There are MF Doom and Danny Brown-featuring bangers alongside psychedelic pop that samples beautiful seventies strings. The music is so lush, and I think that this music video speaks for itself:
Essential tracks: “Because I’m Me” | “Frankie Sinatra” | “The Noisy Eater”
13) Kero Kero Bonito | Bonito Generation
What happened, Parker? You’re putting a fucking J-pop album as one of the very best of the year? Over Radiohead, Beyoncé, Solange, Danny Brown, and Kendrick Lamar? You feeling okay???
Yes, Kero Kero Bonito’s J-pop debut, Bonito Generation, is incredible. There is not a single skippable song on this thing. If you love off-beat, cute pop with a wide range of musical styles, don’t skip this thing over. There are so many ideas here, from the UK garage of “Lipslap” to the EDM of “Trampoline” to the bubblegum bass of “Graduation” to the dreamy beach-pop of “Fishbowl”. And it’s all done with an artistic, deft producer’s touch that perfectly complements lead singer Sarah Bonito’s adorably braggadocious lyrics. Yes, she raps in Japanese a lot. I’m not weeaboo trash. I don’t give a shit. Listen to this thing. It’s better than your RiRi, your T-Swift, and your Chainsmokers.
Essential tracks: “Waking Up” | “Graduation” | “Lipslap”
12) How To Dress Well | Care
Tom Krell says the word “care” dozens of times on his album of the same name. The alternative PBR&B auteur transformed into a pure pop singer-songwriter for his fourth album as How To Dress Well, and the results are fantastic. The music is lush; most songs are backed with piano, strings, twinkly guitars, sweet synthesizers, or some combination thereof. And Krell is earnest and impassioned throughout, almost to a fault.
And the hooks! Songs like “What’s Up”, “I Was Terrible”, and “Anxious” pack as many hooks as possible into 3-5 minutes, meaning that nearly every moment on this album is lovely, exhilarating pop. And even though some of the lines are eye-rollingly corny (“Had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions,” the consent-pop of “Can’t You Tell”), the music is so consistently lush and blissful that they can be ignored. Care will give you hope in these tought times.
Essential tracks: “What’s Up” | “I Was Terrible” | “Anxious”
11) Weezer | Weezer (White Album)
Eventually, when people start listening to more underground music and reading music websites, they realize that Weezer didn’t just make catchy pop-rock songs in the 90s; they made some of the most compelling indie rock in the genre’s history. Albums like Blue Album and Pinkerton are hailed as classics because of their pop sensibility and Rivers Cuomo’s unique talents as a frontman: nerdy, narcissistic, and earnest.
I love Weezer, but they haven’t done anything remotely as good as those albums in the 2000s. That is, until they dropped their White Album this spring. It instantly transported me back to their relevance; here, Weezer proved that they don’t have to compromise artistic integrity to make music with earworms and fun. This is their funniest album; seeing these adolescent lines about girls and growing up being sung by a 40 year-old is some grade-A comedy. There’s not a bad song of the bunch; White Album stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their best.
Essential tracks: “Thank God For Girls” | “King of the World” | “Endless Bummer”
10) A Tribe Called Quest | We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
This is aural gold for hip-hop fans. If you consider yourself a hip-hop purist — one of those people who loves it when people just get down to business and straight-up spit fire — then We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is for you. If you’re someone who likes live guitars and drums to back your hip-hop, instead of this synthesized crap, then this album is for you. If you think rap should mean something, then this is for you. A Tribe Called Quest, after 18 years and the death of one of its members, have unfathomably come out with the best album of their career.
You wouldn’t know that Phife Dawg passed away earlier this year due to complications from diabetes, based on how damn alive he sounds. Q-Tip brings some incredible samples and production to go along with his distinctive, energetic voice. Jarobi raps on a Tribe album for the first time, and it’s incredible that we lasted this long without him. Consequence and (in particular) Busta Rhymes, two rappers that people said were washed up, establish themselves as bona fide members of the Tribe with the best performances they’ve had in decades. Kanye West, Elton John, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, Anderson .Paak, Jack White, and co. all show up to add necessary contributions but never make themselves the focus. This is a Tribe album through and through, a fantastic closing statement from the greatest hip-hop band in history.
Essential tracks: “The Space Program” | “We The People” | “Movin Backwards”
9) Pinegrove | Cardinal
Emo revival, right? I tend to think that term is a little bit overblown; cynicism may have gotten the better of us in the mid-2000s, but we’ve always had our My Chemical Romance and Simple Plan to give us some #sadboy thoughts.
No, I think the better explanation is that we’re seeing the return of pure earnestness. It’s really hard to be cynical and difficult all the time; it drive away friends and makes people jaded and unhappy. Pinegrove’s Cardinal — the best emo album of 2016 — is pure, concentrated earnest lyrics and relaxed instrumentals. “Old Friends” and “New Friends” are two of the best songs of the year, fantastic bookends about what home really means in an increasingly globe-trotting society. There’s not an ounce of cynicism on Cardinal, and lead singer Evan Stephens Hall’s voice is stretchy and dorky, but it works. One of the most wonderful, unassuming debut albums of 2016.
Essential tracks: “Old Friends” | “Then Again” | “New Friends”
8) Bon Iver | 22, A Million
“It might be over soon.” That’s how Justin Vernon commences his third album as Bon Iver. It’s not exactly an encouraging start; Bon Iver is known for sprawling, grand, orchestral statements of folk and pop that spread across both headphone channels. It was also Bon Iver’s first album in five years, so will I be satisfied if the album is over soon?
Resulting opinions were mixed. 22, A Million isn’t just different than Bon Iver’s previous efforts, it’s different from anything I’ve ever heard. Vocal manipulations and electronic distortion and compression, intercut with obscure samples, make this sound like a landscape where the organic and synthetic are fused. Allusions to God and spirituality are frequent. Vernon, who has been open and honest about his struggle with mental illness, sounds like he’s having an existential crisis.
At least, that’s what the lyrics say. The music, on the other hand, is just as warm as his previous albums. Despite the aural robotics, Vernon’s stunningly emotive voice shines through like a heater in the winter. 22, A Million is a reminder that the electronic aspects of life can be just as rewarding as those that are living.
Essential tracks: “22 (Over Soon)” | “29 #Strafford APTS” | “8 (circle)”
7) Kanye West | The Life Of Pablo
You’d be shocked how much of the populace hates Kanye West. A flamboyant, controversial black man in power who sometimes oversteps decorum and poise is met with vitriol even at his tiniest actions. He’s not a blameless figure; cheap controversy attempts like saying that he would’ve voted for Donald Trump and “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!” aren’t doing him any favors. But man, he’s just a guy with a beautiful wife and two adorable children who makes the most compelling pop music this side of Frank Ocean.
The Life Of Pablo is equal parts a plea for acceptance and a lashing-out against those who have criticized him. We have stunning, introspective, beautiful songs like “Ultralight Beam”, “Waves”, and “Real Friends” contrasted with statements of defiance like “Feedback” and “Freestyle 4”. Only Kanye could follow up “This is a God dream/ This is everything” with “If I fuck this model/ And she just bleached her asshole/ And I get bleach on my T-shirt/ Imma feel like an asshole.” The music is as heavenly and glorious as it is repulsive and distorted. And at the end, all we’re left with is Kanye’s ruminations on his family.
In mid-November, Kanye checked into a hospital with temporary psychosis due to stress. I think the majority of America felt the same way after this year.
Essential tracks: “Ultralight Beam” | “Real Friends” | “Saint Pablo”
6) Chance The Rapper | Coloring Book
Positivity is radical. That’s an observation that legions of critics and fans made in response to Chance The Rapper’s newest mixtape, the kaleidoscopic Coloring Book. I’m not sure that’s the case, though; more than ever, people are embracing being comfortable and happy in your own skin, as well as being able to do and enjoy what you love without judgment. No, Coloring Book isn’t radical in that it’s happy; Coloring Book is radical in that there’s not an ounce of cynicism in the music.
Very few artists act with as much passion and respect for their craft as Chance The Rapper. He’s a self-made man, the most successful independent artist of our generation. He’s proven that one can stick to his or her guns and values while still reaching the pinnacle of his field, and he’s epitomized that with Coloring Book.
From the anti-establishment braggadocio of “No Problem” (complete with fantastic, relatable verses from 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne) to his various proclamations of love for his God (“Angels”, “How Great”, “Blessings”), Chance carves out a truly singular place for himself in modern hip-hop. Even taking away the fact that the music sounds great (how about the choirs on “How Great”, Jeremih’s coda on “Summer Friends”, or Eryn Allen Kane’s sitcom doo-doo-doos on “Finish Line”?), Coloring Book is so welcoming, so accepting, and so damn enthralling that it’s Chance’s best project yet. It’s a testament to his potential that I believe he can do so much more.
Essential tracks: “No Problem” | “Same Drugs” | “Angels”
5) Lil Yachty | Lil Boat
I’m not usually one to quote myself, but here, I feel it’s necessary. On my Top 50 Singles of 2016, I had this to say about the young rapper: “Lil Yachty is a fucking godsend.” In a year of everybody taking everything far too seriously, young Miles McCollum had the gall to release a sugary sweet trap confection in his debut mixtape, Lil Boat. The music on this album is a dream, barely registering as hip-hop. Lovely melodies and adorable lyrics were complimented by colorful, occasionally psychedelic production. And the young Yachty’s age (still just a teenager!) adds a certain earnestness and excitement to the tape.
For the most part, Lil Boat‘s lyrics are standard trap boilerplate, and they’re cringey on occasion (“Diamonds so cold, you might need a fan“???), but once you get past the words and dive into the record’s sounds, it’s a fantastic experience. I’d be shocked if Lil Yachty made a project as good as this again, but in 2016, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with hip-hop’s greats.
Essential tracks: “Minnesota (Remix)” | “Good Day” | “One Night”
4) Leonard Cohen | You Want It Darker
With a decorated music and poetry career spanning more than a half-century, Leonard Cohen didn’t have anything to prove at 82. Yet he gave us You Want It Darker, a poignant and knowing look at death, spirituality and love. His voice, which used to be so tender and endearing, was now impossibly gravelly and low, was world-weary and resigned. He sounded like a wise owl, if that owl had endured heartbreak for decades.
The imagery on You Want It Darker is full of dualities. Cohen struggles over his beliefs on “Treaty” and chant’s “Hineni! Hineni!” on the title track, nodding to his Jewish origins. It’s a perfect final album, one that stands toe-to-toe with David Bowie’s Blackstar.
Essential tracks: “Treaty” | “On The Level” | “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”
3) The Goon Sax | Up To Anything
It’s so satisfying to find a diamond in the rough. From picking up a little-known fantasy football player to seeing potential in a student, I love the satisfaction of identifying something fantastic on a bit of a hunch. The Goon Sax, a trio from Brisbane, Australia, are my unassuming artist from 2016 that blew me away and leaving me feeling like I had just struck gold. There’s so much solid, jangly indie pop going around that I could’ve easily let this band slide. Luckily, I picked up their record, and I’m so glad that I did.
Up To Anything is, simply put, the best indie pop debut in recent memory. Tons of bands try to emulate youthful feelings, but the members of the Goon Sax don’t have to try: they’re all teenagers. Their lead singer is the son of Louis Forster, who co-founded indie pop pioneers the Go-Betweens. This type of music is in the band’s blood, but they put enough genuineness in their lyrics to make them stand out from the pack. They’re equal parts funny and sad; melodrama with a hint of self-awareness.
The younger Forster is tall, handsome, and queer, and that’s expressed beautifully and lightheartedly on lead single “Boyfriend,” but it’s the songs where guitarist James Harrison takes over vocals that truly make the band shine. “Sometimes Accidentally” and “Telephone” prove that teen angst and sadness, even if it’s melodramatic, is still legitimate. The Goon Sax showed so much promise on this debut that they have me praying for more major-label recognition.
Essential tracks: “Sometimes Accidentally” | “Telephone” | “Boyfriend”
2) Anderson .Paak | Malibu
In an interview with Hot 97, New York City’s premier hip hop station, Anderson .Paak was asked how to say the second part of his stage name. “Pack or Pock,” he said; “it doesn’t really matter. Just don’t forget the dot. I’ve been overlooked for so long, and now it’s time for people to remember me.”
Well, Christ, you didn’t need to say it out loud, .Paak. His 2016 speaks for itself, with an unmatched level of quantity and quality in the music he released. His stunning major-label debut, Malibu, wasn’t even the only album he released this year — he had a wonderful bedroom soul album with Knxwledge as NxWorries in Yes, Lawd!. Malibu is the most promising debut from a soul artist since Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, with its effortless melding of styles (such as hip-hop, pop, R&B, rock, and funk) that fuses together to form a neat neo-soul package.
On Malibu, .Paak was hilarious (“Silicon Valley,” “Come Down”), sexy (“Waterfall,” “Room In Here”), and heartbreakingly personal (“The Season / Carry Me,” “The Dreamer”). He was charismatically braggadocious and unflappingly humble. He got a co-sign from Dr. Dre — and had the foresight to leave his track with Dre off the album, as it didn’t fit the mood. Everything .Paak touches is gold, from his fantastic contributions to other people’s work (KAYTRANADA’s “Glowed Up,” Mac Miller’s “Dang!”) to his wonderful performances on late night television. .Paak dominated 2016, and Malibu was his pinnacle.
Essential tracks: “The Season / Carry Me” | “Silicon Valley” | “The Waters”
1) Frank Ocean | Blonde
Frank Ocean somehow took the most anticipated album of the last decade and had it escape expectations. This album is nothing like channel ORANGE; it’s not weaving tales of southern drug life or shitty wealthy children or a conflicted relationship between a prostitute and her pimp. No, Blonde took one style of song — the ballad, of all things — and flipped it on its head. Never before has an album this popular been so stripped back, so revealing yet obtuse, and so unmistakably unique.
The lyrics on this thing, guys. “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” how Frank starts “Ivy”, leads the listener to believe it might be a wonderful love song. “The start of nothing,” proves the opposite: it’s one of the saddest, most believable breakup songs in recent memory. On “Good Guy”, Frank recalls a blind date; “You text nothing like you look … You talk so much more than I do.” He can’t get over a lover on “Self Control” when he pleads his for them to “Keep a place for me; I’ll sleep between y’all, it’s nothing.”
The album’s bookends, “Nikes” and “Futura Free”, are such kaleidoscopic trips that they escape classification. The collaborator list here is extravagant: contributions from Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, André 3000, Pharrell, Tyler, The Creator, Rostam, Jamie xx, Rostam, James Blake, Jonny Greenwood and many more, plus samples from the Beatles and Elliot Smith. The music is never not beautiful.
It all comes together at the album’s climax, the soulful “Godspeed.” All the conflict, dissonance, and tension is swept away with one simple line: “I will always love you.” It’s how I feel about life and this turbulent year; no matter how bad things get, how bad I screw up, or how many different things go wrong, my life is still great. “You’ll have this place to call home, always,” is how Frank concludes his verse. Music will always be solace.
Essential tracks: “Ivy” | “Self Control” | “Solo”
Thanks for reading! Did I get anything wrong? What did you love this year? Let me know.