Including the top 10 albums of the year, best music video, biggest pleasant surprise, best pop album, best EP, most disappointing albums, and more.
The last time I doled out awards in lieu of a strict “best albums” list was 2014. 2018 reminded me of 2014 in a way — both years didn’t have a clear hierarchy of albums. I feel strongly about my top 10, which we’ll get to first, but I couldn’t have extended the list beyond that with any conclusivity. So instead, we’ll flesh this out with some superlatives — most overrated, most underrated, biggest surprise, biggest disappointments, best music video, and more.
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.
To kick off our year-end coverage, I present to you the 15 best live performance clips of the year. Below, you will find a collection of musicians displaying their craft on platforms ranging from emotional reunion concerts, to late night TV, to stripped-down NPR Music office recordings.
15. Kendrick Lamar: “Untitled 2” (Live on the Tonight Show)
It’s a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s unfiltered energy and passion that he can draw in the audience with very little additional fanfare. Just Kendrick, a mic, and a lot to say.
14. Lucy Dacus (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Lucy Dacus radiates warmth on a night in the streets (and subway stations) of Paris. Dacus pairs insightful lyrics with inviting arrangements in this stripped-down performance. One highlight occurs during her second song, “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore,” when a passerby whispers “Play a Janis Joplin song!”
13. Steve Gunn: “Full Moon Tide” (NPR Music: Field Recordings)
Steve Gunn was made to play his songs surrounded by trees atop old, rusty train tracks. Gunn’s acoustic guitar work is extraordinary as he channels a little Bob Dylan, a little Grateful Dead, and a little Neil Young.
12. Britt Daniel: “I Me Mine” (Live at George Fest)
“George Fest,” a tribute concert to George Harrison held at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, happened in 2014 but clips and a live album were released this year. Britt Daniel of Spoon plays a fervent rendition of “I Me Mine,” the last song the Beatles ever recorded in April of 1970.
11. Bruno Mars: “24K Magic” (Live on SNL)
No one has more fun than Bruno Mars. I enjoyed “24K Magic” when it came out, but I started really loving it after watching Bruno and his hype men dance through it on Saturday Night Live.
10. The Arcs (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Dan Auerbach, known as the frontman for the Black Keys, released an underrated album last year with his side project, The Arcs. Early this year, The Arcs played at the NPR Music office for one of their famed “Tiny Desk” concerts, enlisting the help of a Mariachi band called Flor de Toloache. Auerbach’s bluesy voice really shines over the spare arrangements, but the women of Flor de Toloache steal the show, providing backing vocals along with violin, trumpet, and guitar.
9. LCD Soundsystem: “All My Friends” (Live at Webster Hall)
It was thrilling to hear that LCD Soundsystem was reuniting to tour this year, after declaring that they had broken up in 2011. The band played their first show back at Webster Hall in New York City in March, closing their encore with “All My Friends,” an absolute behemoth and roller coaster of a song — easily their best, and probably the greatest song of the last decade. Even though the following clip is a somewhat crude recording from some audience member’s phone, the energy still surges through. I wish I had been there. (And here’s a higher-quality recording of their performance of the same song at Lollapalooza this year.)
8. Local Natives: “Dark Days” & “Fountain of Youth” (La Blogotheque: A Take Away Show)
Local Natives show their harmonizing chops on a slow, gorgeous version of “Dark Days”, one of the best songs of the year. Then on “Fountain of Youth,” one of the guys takes a little dip in the Seine after the performance.
7. Beyoncé (Live at the MTV VMA’s)
Beyoncé’s stage presence has always been a sight to behold, and it’s even more powerful with a cohesive narrative like Lemonade as the subject matter. Her performance of a medley of Lemonade tracks at the MTV Video Music Awards combined enthralling visuals, dancing, and Beyoncé’s persistently amazing voice.
6. Anderson Paak (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Anderson Paak is a stunningly talented musician, and it shows on this Tiny Desk concert. Paak plays the drums and serves as a confident band leader as he layers his voice over some sumptuous funk/soul/jazz grooves.
5. Chance the Rapper: “Blessings” (Live on the Tonight Show)
Chance the Rapper wears his good heart on his sleeve at all times, making it impossible not to love him. On the Tonight Show, Chance is joined by D.R.A.M., Anthony Hamilton, Ty Dolla $ign, and Raury on his earnest mission to have everyone recognize their blessings.
4. Bon Iver: “Heavenly Father (A Capella)” (Live at the Sydney Opera House)
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver returned this year with an album full of vocal processing, effects, and studio trickery. But for their Sydney Opera House performance of the group’s one-off track (for a 2014 Zach Braff movie) “Heavenly Father,” the group gathers in a circle and relies solely on their blended voices. It’s mesmerizing.
3. Pinegrove (NPR Music: Tiny Desk Concert)
Pinegrove, the Montclair, New Jersey band led by Evan Stephens Hall, made one of my favorite albums of the year in Cardinal, a blend of indie rock, country and, yes, even a dash of emo. Those of you who know me are probably shocked that I could like anything involving the words “country” or “emo,” but here we are. Pinegrove have stirred something inside me recently and I’ve become obsessed. On the album, the “rock” part of the blend dominates, but in a stripped-down setting like the NPR Tiny Desk concert series, those country tinges shine through a little more. It’s hard for me to adequately express the deep connection I feel with these songs, and this performance in particular — especially when they play “Old Friends” at 4:04, as Hall sings “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them.”
2. Choir! Choir! Choir!: “Space Oddity” (Live at the Art Gallery of Ontario)
David Bowie’s death was almost too much to handle, but people all over the world attempted to process it by paying tribute in whatever way they could. The most affecting tribute to me was a short-notice gathering of an audition-less choir in Toronto to sing “Space Oddity.” One acoustic guitar and a chorus of over 500 voices in perfect harmony. They easily could have made the performance too sickly sweet or cheesy, but it’s done with tremendous taste and restraint. It’s a genuinely moving, chill-inducing memorial to a true legend.
1. Kanye West: “Ultralight Beam” (Live on SNL)
Kanye is on my “naughty” list right now, but there was no denying the top spot to his Saturday Night Live performance of “Ultralight Beam” back in February. The funny thing about it is Kanye doesn’t even do much here, but that highlights one of his strengths: he knows talent when he sees it, and he defers to that talent when the song calls for it. A full (and extremely powerful) gospel choir accompanies Kanye along with guests Kelly Price, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper, who all absolutely slay their time in the spotlight. The disparate parts all cohere to make a beautiful statement on searching for light.
The transition from July to August brought vacations and final exams and a LOT to do, so apologies for no previous July edition of Five Quality Tracks. But never fear — after going over the five tracks from August, we’ll double back to July and make up for lost time with five additional tracks.
1. Frank Ocean: “Self Control”
Frank is back! It’s hard to believe this actually happened. I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re all living a fever dream and Frank Ocean’s two new albums (yes, twonew albums!) will be yanked away from us when we wake up. But my iTunes still has 35 more Frank Ocean songs than it did a couple weeks ago, so it’s real!
Two days after releasing a “visual album” called Endless (a project largely full of vignettes and a smattering of really good, but also really short ideas), Ocean released Blonde, his proper follow-up to channel ORANGE. As a whole, Blonde floats along with less immediacy and fewer hooks than channel ORANGE, but it washes over you with ambient moments of unadulterated beauty, punctuated by bursts of brilliance. “Self Control” can be classified as one of those “bursts.”
On “Self Control,” Ocean opens with a jarring chipmunk effect on his voice before going into his gorgeous, raw croon over a rhythmic electric guitar groove. Ocean’s ability to create a thick, fully realized atmosphere in the studio is enough to put him in the upper echelon of songwriters, but then he has that extraordinary voice to go on top of it. He’s a talented dude.
The song then gives way to an absolutely stunning chorus of Franks singing “I I I know you gotta leave leave leave.” It’s the kind of thing that makes you stop in your tracks and pause to take in the beauty.
Over the past few years, Kanye West’s outsize persona has eclipsed his music-making ability in the public consciousness. When someone is married to a Kardashian, can’t stop dissing Taylor Swift, and tweets whatever idiosyncratic musings come to his head, it’s not surprising when that person’s extracurricular activities consume all the attention. But to me, Kanye’s legacy will always rest on his brilliant production work.
One of my favorite aspects of Kanye’s music is a bit random — his outros, i.e. the way he ends his songs. He has a gift for knowing what sample will hit the spot, or what groove will bring the whole track home. He’ll either ride whatever beat he already has going for just the right amount of time, or he’ll switch it up in an invigorating or even beautiful way.
On Kanye’s latest album, the messy and overwrought but sporadically dazzling The Life of Pablo, one of his outros gave me chills: Frank Ocean’s pained voice singing out into the night on “Frank’s Track,” coming right after “Wolves.”
“Wolves” is constructed in a way that gives Ocean’s outro maximum impact. The portentous aura of the song builds until everything is stripped away except for just an electric piano and Ocean’s raw, passionate voice. You can hear his voice catch when he sings “BLACKENED” and “LIFE IS… precious.”
Let’s take a look at the other masterful outros in Kanye West’s catalogue. I’ve broken the songs/outros into three categories: (1) Riding the Groove; (2) Switching it Up, Subtly; (3) Switching it Up, Dramatically. As I mentioned, Kanye’s best outros can either be built on the already-existing beat (Category 1) or on a subtle (Category 2) or dramatic switch-up of the beat or production (Category 3).
Before jumping in, I should give honorable mention to “Runaway”, which has an iconic outro (and, not to mention, is one of the best songs of the decade), but the outro goes on a little too long. Another small note: the tracks that I’ve listed here from Yeezus and The Life of Pablo can have fairly explicit language, but the rest are SFW.
I don’t get outright obsessed with songs very often. That may seem hard to believe, but it’s true. Even when I truly love a song to my core, it’s rare that I feel the need to endlessly play it on repeat. This Tame Impala remix of Miguel’s “waves” is a glowing exception. Miguel and Tame Impala are not only two of my favorite current artists, but they both had big breakout years in 2015. They both pushed toward each other’s worlds with their latest albums, past the boundaries of their respective “genres.” Miguel is known as an R&B/pop singer but I wouldn’t argue if you called last year’s Wildheart a rock album, while Tame Impala, the “rock band,” experimented with pop and funk on Currents. We can see evidence of this convergence between Tame Impala’s sound and the current pop landscape in Rihanna’s latest album ANTI. She straight-up took the production of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” note-for-note and sang over it herself to create “Same Ol’ Mistakes”, and somehow it sounds completely at home! No one would have thought that was possible five years ago. The pop star behind “Don’t Stop the Music” sang over a track from the guys who made “Lucidity”? I don’t know man, but it works.
So, it turns out Tame Impala is actually a natural fit for a Miguel remix. The original version of “waves” is amazing in and of itself, easily one of my 5 favorite Miguel tracks. Kevin Parker, the wizard behind Tame Impala, punches it up a notch with a little more “oomph.” The opening harmonies, which sound like they were ripped from a sun-soaked Beach Boys cut, give way to classic Tame Impala woozy, gauzy psych rock. This seamless Miguel-Tame Impala combination hits my sweet spot dead on. I have a feeling this is going to be a constant presence in 2016 summer playlists.
These “Five Quality Tracks” posts stress me out. I want to pick 15 tracks, not 5. January was a really good month, and I’m passing over a lot of good songs from Hinds, Wet, Eleanor Friedberger, and even the guy who you see everyday in the header photo of this very website, Ty Segall! I can’t believe I didn’t include them. That must mean these next five songs are really good. Also, keep scrolling after the tracks for a bonus section with some of my favorite David Bowie moments.
1. Chairlift: “Moth to the Flame”
The indie pop duo Chairlift have been around for a few years, but they’ve always been somewhat of a footnote to me. They had a song in 2012 called “I Belong in Your Arms” that I really liked, but I hadn’t really heard anything else by them. They just released their new album Moth and it’s chock-full of jams. I was *THIS* close to selecting another track, the slightly emo but deeply affecting and equally awesome “Crying in Public” as my Chairlift representative. But I couldn’t ignore the sugary, danceable beat to “Moth to the Flame.” This is catchy, reach-for-the-stars, indie pop at its finest.