Best Albums of 2016

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With the gradual proliferation of streaming services and curated playlists, for a while it didn’t look likely that the “album” format would survive. Yet here we are, at a time where the biggest pop stars are releasing cohesive, fully developed ALBUMS, in capital letters. I will always have a soft spot for the album as a concept, whether contained on discs of vinyl or within links to Spotify pages. Smash hits lie alongside deep cuts to form one 30-70 minute statement reflecting the artist’s pain and joy, their view of the world, their quest to express the words in their head and the riffs in their gut. Here are my 25 favorite albums of 2016.

But first, honorable mentions :: Lucy Dacus: No Burden, Nico Yaryan: What a Tease, James Blake: The Colour in Anything, Schoolboy Q: Blank Face LP, Local Natives: Sunlit Youth

(And for the best songs of 2016, click here.)
 
 
explosions-in-the-sky-the-wilderness

25. Explosions in the Sky: The Wilderness
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Disintegration Anxiety, Logic of a Dream, Wilderness
For Fans of: Instrumental wonder, the best study music imaginable, Friday Night Lights
 
 
common-black-america-again

24. Common: Black America Again
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Letter to the Free, Black America Again (ft. Stevie Wonder), Pyramids
For Fans of: John Legend, Stevie Wonder, conscious hip-hop, introspection on race in America, a return to form for Common
 
 
kevin-morby-singing-saw

23. Kevin Morby: Singing Saw
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: I Have Been to the Mountain, Dorothy, Cut Me Down
For Fans of: Neil Young, Real Estate, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, folk/classic rock
 
 
rihanna-anti

22. Rihanna: Anti
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Work (ft. Drake), Kiss it Better, Needed Me
For Fans of: Hazy, Frank Ocean-ish R&B, but with Rihanna’s charisma
 
 
kendrick-lamar-untitled-unmastered

21. Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered
Listen: Spotify
Best Tracks: untitled 07 | levitate, untitled 06 | 06.30.2014, untitled 08 | 09.06.2014
For Fans of: The greatest current rapper, outtakes that are good enough to be another artist’s greatest hits
 
 
the-avalanches-wildflower

20. The Avalanches: Wildflower
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Because I’m Me, If I Was a Folkstar, The Wozard of Iz
For Fans of: Sampling, swirling color and sound, trippy psychedelia mixed with rap
 
 
joey-purp-iiidrops

19. Joey Purp: iiiDrops
Listen: Soundcloud
Best Tracks: Girls @ (ft. Chance the Rapper), Morning Sex, Cornerstore
For Fans of: Chance the Rapper, Chicago hip-hop, mixtapes, brassy rap
 
 
angel-olsen-my-woman

18. Angel Olsen: My Woman
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Shut Up Kiss Me, Heart Shaped Face, Sister
For Fans of: Nirvana, Roy Orbison, Courtney Barnett, rock with equal parts folk and grunge influence
 
 
hamilton-leithauser-rostam-i-had-a-dream

17. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: A 1000 Times, In a Black Out, Sick as a Dog
For Fans of: Vampire Weekend, The Walkmen, schmaltz but with taste and a little edge
 
 
japanese-breakfast-psychopomp

16. Japanese Breakfast: Psychopomp
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Everybody Wants to Love You, In Heaven, Heft
For Fans of: Female-driven indie pop, understatedly catchy and affecting songs
 
 
kanye-west-the-life-of-pablo

15. Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Ultralight Beam, Famous, No More Parties in L.A.
For Fans of: The best and worst of Kanye, in one sprawling package

A few words about The Life of Pablo, probably the most controversial entry into Kanye West’s catalog. The highs are incredibly high and the lows are incredibly low — TLOP contains pockets of pure greatness alongside seas of absolute crap. The album is disjointed, oddly sequenced, and too long, plus the three-song stretch of “Low Lights,” “Highlights,” and “Freestyle 4” is cringingly bad. But after dismissing the album for most of the year, I came to realize that few pieces of music gave me more unadulterated joy in 2016 than the good tracks here: “Ultralight Beam,” “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” “Famous,” “Real Friends,” “30 Hours,” “No More Parties in L.A.,” and “Fade” are equal parts excellent and exhilarating. Kanye’s output is (ultra)lightyears better when it’s focused and reined in, but TLOP shows that Kanye is still capable of greatness. Now he just needs someone who can tell him the word “no” once in a while.
 
 
anderson-paak-malibu-2

14. Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: Come Down, The Season/Carry Me/The Waters, Am I Wrong
For Fans of: Funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, charisma, energy
 
 
steve-gunn-eyes-on-the-lines

13. Steve Gunn: Eyes on the Lines
Listen: Spotify
Best Tracks: Ancient Jules, Conditions Wild, Full Moon Tide
For Fans of: Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, Kurt Vile, road-trip folk rock
 
 
car-seat-headrest-teens-of-denial

12. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
Listen: Spotify | Bandcamp
Best Tracks: Fill in the Blank, Vincent, Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales
For Fans of: Pavement, Julian Casablancas, millennials, indie rock, making it big
 
 
bon-iver-22-a-million

11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
Listen: Spotify | YouTube
Best Tracks: 22 (OVER S∞∞N), 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄, 33 “GOD”
For Fans of: Folk gone haywire, crazy production with tunes that still shine through
 
 
radiohead-a-moon-shaped-pool

10. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
Best Tracks: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, True Love Waits, The Numbers
For Fans of: Breathtaking beauty

A Moon Shaped Pool is a work of serene beauty — well, it is after the frenetic paranoia of opening track, “Burn the Witch.” It’s sweepingly gorgeous and cinematic, often heartbreaking, and a strong return to form after The King of Limbs in 2011. Where does A Moon Shaped Pool rank in Radiohead’s discography? I would tack it firmly in the middle, but mind you, the ‘middle’ of a body of work like Radiohead’s is still superb territory. The album can’t reach the heights of Kid A, In Rainbows, OK Computer, or The Bends, but it’s better than Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, Pablo Honey, and The King of Limbs. A Moon Shaped Pool is yet another solid release from one of our greatest rock bands.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 
kaytranada-99-9

9. Kaytranada: 99.9%
Best Tracks: Glowed Up, Lite Spots, You’re the One, Got it Good
For Fans of: A little soul, a little funk, a little hip-hop, a little electronica

Kaytranada dropped the most underrated album of the year. The Haitian-born, Montreal-based rising star creates a unique blend of almost every genre you can think of on his breakthrough album, 99.9%. It grooves, it moves, it simmers, it erupts, and it soothes.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 
chance-the-rapper-coloring-book

8. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
Best Tracks: No Problem, Angels, Blessings, Same Drugs
For Fans of: Happiness, gospel music

If ever there was an MVP of 2016, Chance the Rapper was it. He was a pure, unadulterated source of joy and light in a year drenched in darkness. Coloring Book is a manifestation of his positive outlook on life; a celebration of his love for family, friends, and God. My description of the album makes it sound unbearably cheesy, but somehow, miraculously, it’s not. Coloring Book just makes me want to be around Chance all the time and soak up the good vibes.

Listen to the album on Spotify | YouTube
 
 
whitney-light-upon-the-lake

7. Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
Best Tracks: No Woman, No Matter Where We Go, Golden Days, Light Upon the Lake
For Fans of: ’70s folk rock

Whitney’s debut album, Light Upon the Lake, was such a pleasant surprise this year. It’s a breezy listen, easy to enjoy, and catchy enough to stay with you after you turn it off. Whitney aren’t inventing anything new here, but they take the early 1970s pop/rock/Americana blend that worked so well for The Band, Crosby Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, and America, add a modern twist, and tie it all up so rewardingly.

Listen to the album on Spotify | YouTube
 
 
david-bowie-blackstar-2

6. David Bowie: Blackstar
Best Tracks: Blackstar, Lazarus, Dollar Days, I Can’t Give Everything Away
For Fans of: Legends, mortality, bittersweet farewells

I don’t know what I can say about Bowie and his final artistic statement that I haven’t already said. He dictated the narrative of his own death. He remained relevant and on the cutting edge every day of his 50-year career. And he managed to release a final album brimming with life, creativity, and purpose.

Listen to the album on Spotify | YouTube
 
 
frank-ocean-blonde-2

5. Frank Ocean: Blonde
Best Tracks: Nikes, Self Control, Nights, Ivy
For Fans of: Music that you can stretch in, discover, and let wash over you

After seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth, with a collection of missed release dates left in his wake, Frank Ocean finally returned with Blonde, his proper follow-up to the legendary channel ORANGE. The album is elegantly minimalist with sharp bursts of color. It’s mysterious, elusive, meandering — a direct reflection of the man himself.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 
solange-a-seat-at-the-table

4. Solange: A Seat at the Table
Best Tracks: Cranes in the Sky, Don’t Touch My Hair, Mad (ft. Lil Wayne), Weary
For Fans of: Slow-burning, thoughtful soul

Most of the world still knows Solange as Beyoncé’s sister. But from here on out, I promise to never again mention Beyoncé when talking about Solange, because it’s high time for us to give her her due as a supremely talented artist of her own. A Seat at the Table is immaculately produced and contemplatively written. Every time I played this album, I liked it more and more. It slowly reveals itself over time, allowing you to explore each crevice and bask in its beauty. Over the course of the album, Solange deftly deals with political issues facing black Americans in a way that evades heavy-handedness, yet still remains piercing and powerful — a hard balance to strike.

Listen to the album on Spotify | YouTube
 
 
a-tribe-called-quest-we-got-it

3. A Tribe Called Quest: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
Best Tracks: We the People…, Dis Generation, Solid Wall of Sound, Conrad Tokyo
For Fans of: Classic hip-hop

A Tribe Called Quest returned this year for one final hurrah, as founding member Phife Dawg suffered from diabetes complications. They went all in and emerged with a beast of an album. It’s just so enjoyable — every verse, lyric, and production touch is a delight to behold. Q-Tip’s beats are immaculate, bumping and bubbling with rhythm and soul; Tip and Phife’s vocal interplay are as fun as ever; and the features, ranging from Elton John and Jack White to Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar, are on point.

Listen to the album on Spotify
 
 
pinegrove-cardinal

2. Pinegrove: Cardinal
Best Tracks: Old Friends, New Friends, Aphasia, Size of the Moon
For Fans of: Indie rock, emo, and country (I know, I know — it’s better than you think), heartfelt lyrics

I’ve talked about this in previous posts, but this Pinegrove album has touched me deeply and unexpectedly. For most of my life, when someone asked me what music I liked, I would always say “everything except emo and country.” Cardinal is primarily an indie rock record, but it seamlessly incorporates elements of emo (mixing, guitar sound, direct lyrics) and country (slight twang, rootsy feel, occasional banjo) in a way that sounds so natural. “Old Friends” grapples with growing distant from those you once held close; “New Friends” deals with expending your energy to forge connections with new people; “Size of the Moon” explores a couple’s relationship that has atrophied, but they re-discover life by looking into both the past and future. Cardinal’s eight songs sound lived-in, warm, inviting, and outright life-affirming.

Listen to the album on Spotify | YouTube
 
 
beyonce-lemonade-2

1. Beyoncé: Lemonade
Best Tracks: Hold Up, Sorry, All Night, Formation
For Fans of: Excellence

No album was more powerful in 2016 than Lemonade. The narrative, exploring the depths and range of emotion that follow the discovery of infidelity, is crystal clear, cohesive, and relatable. The lyrics are clever and culture-defining. The music is held together by the narrative, but each individual track is unique in its sound and genre. The collaborators are top-notch innovators in the current music landscape, including Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, James Blake, Mike Will Made It, and Father John Misty. And the hour-long music video accompanying the album elevates both the story and music to new heights, making it all even more visceral. Lemonade is a grand statement from our current greatest living pop star.

Favorite moments:

  • The Vampire Weekend-ish keyboards on “Hold Up”
  • The sneering way Beyoncé says “don’t hurt yourself,” topping even Jack White in intensity and passion
  • BOY BYE
  • The last minute and a half of “6 Inch” when the drums come back in during that building groove
  • The countrified chorus of “Daddy Lessons”
  • When her voice breaks singing “What is it about you?” on “Sandcastles”
  • James Blake’s ethereal voice on “Forward”
  • KENDRICK
  • When the drums come in on “All Night”
  • When the “Spottottiedopaliscious” horns come in on “All Night”
  • All of “All Night”
  • Red Lobster

Listen to the album on Tidal, I guess? Or just buy it
 
 
And now, in compact list form:

1. Beyoncé: Lemonade
2. Pinegrove: Cardinal
3. A Tribe Called Quest: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
4. Solange: A Seat at the Table
5. Frank Ocean: Blonde
6. David Bowie: Blackstar
7. Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
8. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
9. Kaytranada: 99.9%
10. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
11. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
12. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
13. Steve Gunn: Eyes on the Lines
14. Anderson .Paak: Malibu
15. Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
16. Japanese Breakfast: Psychopomp
17. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam: I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
18. Angel Olsen: My Woman
19. Joey Purp: iiiDrops
20. The Avalanches: Wildflower
21. Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered
22. Rihanna: Anti
23. Kevin Morby: Singing Saw
24. Common: Black America Again
25. Explosions in the Sky: The Wilderness

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