2016 was simultaneously the best and worst year in music in recent memory. We lost two of the greatest innovators and musicians of popular music in Prince and David Bowie, we lost a legendary emcee in Phife Dawg, and even one of the history’s most iconic songwriters in Leonard Cohen, just to name a few of 2016’s losses. Conversely, we were graced with art pieces from three of the aforementioned legends as well as albums from the icons of tomorrow. There are some real bangers that have been left off the list due to the insane volume of quality releases. Without further ado, here’s our top 20 albums of 2016.
20. KAYTRANADA, 99.9%
Haiti-born, Montreal based DJ and producer, KAYTRANADA is well on his way to becoming beat-tape royalty. His debut album, 99.9%, is a stylistic encyclopedia, successfully bridging the gap between the art of archival crate-digging and the limitless boundaries of electronic music. Possibly even more noteworthy is his impressive guestlist on the album. Anderson .Paak, GoldLink, Little Dragon, and BadBadNotGood are just a few names off the diverse roster. His soultronic approach to writing and creating a track is reminiscent of the late, great JDilla and is not to be written off as just another Soundcloud producer.
19. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Following in the footsteps of Nirvana, Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest has perfected creating intimacy and explosiveness in the same space. Car Seat Headrest’s second release and first with a full band is keeps you engaged and guessing constantly. Despite a larger budget for the album Toledo’s DIY intuition shines through, creating dynamic, guitar driven indie rock music with real lyrical depth. At a time when indie rock itself is said to be on the decline, Teens of Denial has many hailing Will Toledo as “indie rock’s savior.”
18. David Bazan, Blanco
Originally released two tracks at a time on Soundcloud as “Bazan Monthly”, Blanco is an autobiographical journey covering the last two years of David Bazan’s life. This time around, Bazan trades in the guitar and tom-driven grooves for arpeggiators, synth bass, vocal processing, and heavy backbeats. While on previous albums the former Pedro the Lion frontman has tackled existential loathing, doubt of Christianity, and issues with capitalism, on Blanco, Bazan takes an introspective and personal approach to his songwriting. On opener “Both Hands”, he laments the thoughts that weigh heavily on him, but sets them aside to deal with the issues right in front of him. The balderdash of the production fills the space with anxiety as Bazan tries to calm himself down and solve relationship troubles. A brilliant (and my personal favorite) songwriter, Bazan has possibly outdone himself with some of the lyrics on the album. He’s always had a knack for tugging at heartstrings and perfectly speaking to the listener’s existential longing and heartbreak, but the way everything comes together on Blanco is fluid and desperate. On “Someone Else’s Bet”, Bazan beautifully promises, “I will not lay in bed with a wheel turning in my head, trying to figure out the spread on someone else’s bet.” Existential dread and the true sadness in the world isn’t lost on David Bazan, he’s just dealing with it on a personal level now.
17. Mitski, Puberty 2
On Puberty 2, Mitski beautifully rides a lyrical see-saw of vulnerability and powerful individualism. It’s a catalog of personal anxieties and the lack of identity often felt in one’s twenties that is highly relatable for anyone who has had to hold their head high through heartbreak and failure. While journeying though every emotion from rage to hopelessness, Mitski’s lyrics are undergirded by a long, hard fought battle for contentment and belonging.
16. Cass McCombs, Mangy Love
In classic McCombs fashion, Mangy Love is a captivating and poetic album that aims to expose the ugliness of mankind. With a year of headlines ripe with mass shootings, police brutality, and election corruption, the harsher points of Mangy Love unavoidable. While McCombs attacks misogyny, war, abuse, classism, and race issues, he also advocates rigorously for solidarity and empathy with lyrics like, “It is not peace when others are in pain.” Perhaps more striking than McCombs lyrical prowess is the quality and technical proficiency of the accompanying music, headlined by producers Rob Schnapf, Dan Horne, and guitarist Blake Mills. This album reveals a new truth of the human experience with every listen and is one of the most musically impressive albums of 2016.
15. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
I’ve always wished I lived through the 70s, the era of funk and soul in its truest form. On “Awaken, My Love!”, Donald Glover has given millennials a tangible taste of the best of true funk. Channeling the likes of Funkadelic, Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins, Kool and the Gang, and Prince, Glover has surprisingly ditched his quick-witted rhymes and hypnotic beats for a slap in the face funk masterpiece. Praised for his versalitily in acting, comedy, and music, Glover has once again stepped into a new realm of work, solidifying himself as a leading figure in entertainment and artistry.
14. Parquet Courts, Human Performance
On their third release, Parquet Courts have created an indie rock think piece of sorts. With noticeable influence from Pavement and Velvet Underground, the band has become mellower, contemplating the present, while still embracing dynamic atonality and artfully untuned guitars. Human Performance is an album about just that, young mortal man’s existence in the world and the constant battle of individuality against loneliness. In many ways, the album hints at the reality that as young people express their truest self more, they often feel more misunderstood and isolated. Highly relatable, this album is an art piece of solidarity for young people in a big world.
13. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
If there is one word to describe Radiohead, it’s innovation. Arguably the greatest rock band since the British Invasion, Radiohead has once again masterfully combined the familiar with innovation. Always one step ahead of rock and roll trends, Thom Yorke and company have once again pushed the boundaries of the genre, creating a more organic and prophetic album. A band known for their cynicism, paranoia, and loneliness sentiments, Radiohead has changed course and invited us in to their reality, creating a more human and personal testimony on A Moon Shaped Pool. This is the first time Radiohead has ever allowed outside musicians on one of their albums, employing members of the London Contemporary Orchestra for tracks like the opener, “Burn the Witch”. Aside from the strings,A Moon Shaped Pool shines with guitar lines reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III and lyrical imagery and symbolism akin to U2’s No Line On The Horizon, making for an album that stands as a testament of rock and roll’s past, present, and certain future.
12. John Legend, DARKNESS AND LIGHT
On his fifth studio release, John Legend has taken his songwriting and musicality to another level. Taking a more simplistic production approach, Legend reached out to LA based guitarist and producer Blake Mills, who produced Alabama Shakes Sound & Color which won the Grammy for best production, to produce almost the entire album. Mills plays a number of instruments on the album and co-wrote almost every song as well. Together the duo put together perhaps 2016’s most ambitious and talented roster of musicians, including Chis “Daddy” Dave, Pino Palladino, Larry Goldings, Wendy Melvoin, Miguel, Chance the Rapper, Brittany Howard, and Kamasi Washington. The collective talent and creative ingenuity made one of the year’s most groove oriented albums that is sure to make any head bob. On display is a wide range of styles and emotion. If you’re a fan of soul royalty like Marvin Gaye and Al Green, this album is a must listen.
11. Angel Olsen, My Woman
My Woman is an album of grandeur and feminine strength. On her second full length release, Olsen shows complete control, often challenging and breaking down sexist and oppressive points of view that have stood in her path. On this album, Olsen is proving she can be anyone she wants to be. Though it often and expertly crosses genre lines, My Woman has a 60s surf rock vibe to it, creating this ever changing yet constant sonic journey.
10. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Kanye West is a crazy, selfish, borderline sociopath…but he is the epitome of a musical genius and TLOP is Kanye’s internal struggle perfectly exemplified in musical form. While TLOP has many imperfections and whole songs that barely even feature Kanye, the album is lush with memorable ingenuity, from the opener “Ultralight Beam” to an introspective a cappella rap, to the albums bluesy, Madlib produced “No More Parties in LA”. I could write volumes on TLOP and its formation, but I’lll end with my favorite thing about this album. With The Life of Pablo, West has made what I call, “the best attempt yet at the destruction of the ‘album’ construct”. Since its announcement, Kanye’s latest release has changed names multiple times. After its formal, exclusive release on TIDAL, the album’s track list fluctuated almost daily. Whole tracks would be added or removed or alternate/final versions would replace the originals. For almost 4 months, The Life of Pablo was, to quote West, “a living, breathing art piece rather than a final statement”. Kanye West took the rulebook and threw it out the window. Though imperfect and sometimes mind boggling, The Life of Pablo is one of hip hop’s greatest achievements and one of the most ambitions moments in music this year.
9. Beyoncé, LEMONADE
I can’t possibly express my praise for this album any better than another review has already stated. Below is Rolling Stone’s raving review for LEMONADE.
"Girl, I hear some thunder" – damn, that's putting it mildly. Beyoncé shut everyone else down this year with a soul-on-fire masterpiece, testifying about love, rage and betrayal that felt all too true in the America of 2016. The queen delivered a confessional, genre-devouring suite that feels larger than life yet still heartbreakingly intimate, because it doubles as her portrait of a nation in flames. She dropped LEMONADE as a Saturday-night surprise after her HBO special, moving in on every strain of American music from country ("Daddy Lessons") to blues-metal ("Don't Hurt Yourself") to post-punk-gone-Vegas dancehall ("Hold Up") to feminist hip-hop windshield-smashing ("Sorry"). Even with "All Night" as an ambiguous resolution, it's a whole album of hurt, which is why it especially hit home after the election. Beyoncé speaks on how it feels to get sold out by a lover – or a nation – that fooled you into feeling safe, how it feels to break free of a home built on lies. The question of whether it's singing about Jay Z is moot because, unfortunately, it turned out to be about all of us. But thanks to Bey's sheer fire-breathing musical power, Lemonade was a sign of hope amid all the emotional and political wreckage. Ashes to ashes. Dust to sidechicks. And woe to any fool who tries to interrupt her grinding. - Rolling Stone
8. The Kills, Ash & Ice
Ash & Ice is, according to some renown rock scholars, “…a divine, quintessential rock and roll record…”. The album is a result of the to creating out of real need, even in the wake of serious injury. Prior to creating the album, guitarist Jamie Hince smashed his hand in a car door. The accident left him in need of a tendon transplant, virtually forcing him to relearn how to play guitar. The tragedy pushed Hince and singer Allison Mosshart to overcome adversity and keep the creative juices flowing. To compensate for the guitar handicap, the duo utilized more synthesizers and electronic elements than ever before, leading to a whole new sound that was still undeniably The Kills’ vibe. The single “Doing It To Death” starts with a hypnotic electronic percussion groove that gives way to a synth line one would find in a Caribbean dancehall, that is, until Hince’s screaming guitar comes flying in, reminding you of The Kills unique and captivating sound.
7. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
“I don’t make songs for free, I make them for Freedom”, Chance rhymes on “Blessings”. If you haven’t realized yet, this is a gospel album. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The Chicagoan emcee beautifully flows back and forth between praising the Divine and being present in the struggles and imperfections of humanity. Following in the footsteps of Prince, Chance has been the most recent pioneer of indented music. Coloring Book, Chance’s third mixtape, was released for free, netting zero total sales. Prince had a long history of battling major record labels about the conditions of his albums’ releases and compositions. He even changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol so that he could release music on his own terms again. Chance is no different. On the “No Problem”, he sings, “If one more label try to stop me there gon’ be some dreaded n****s in your lobby.” Despite retaining his independent status, there’s a good chance Coloring Book will win a Grammy award, which is already an amazing feat. Chance The Rapper has been the underdog that everyone wants to root for and now he’s one of the most critically acclaimed lyricists and emcee’s in the game today.
6. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Again, I couldn’t possibly word my praise for this album any better than critic Graham Corrigan has already written:
“The music world finally stopped sleeping on Anderson .Paak in 2016. We started waking up when .Paak appeared all over Dr. Dre's Compton in 2015, but Malibuwas a bucket of cold water to the face. Every major musical movement of the last 50 years gets its due over the album's course—doo-wop, soul, rock, punk, dance, rap, ballads—it's all there, and .Paak is the chef turning all these tastes into a delicious California ceviche. Favorites are hard to pick—album closer "The Dreamer" is anthemic inspiration ("I'm on my fifth brew / And my rent's due"), "Parking Lot" and "Lite Weight" provide dance-off opportunities, and the album's first third ("The Waters," "The Season / Carry Me") zooms in on social justice, fractured childhood, and the trappings of fame.
But what really makes Malibu stand out from this year's competition—and even from its excellent predecessor, 2014's Venice—is its staggering musicality. The whole album sounds live, a seamless jam session where no one hits a wrong note. Watching .Paak perform these songs—often singing and playing drums at the same damn time—proves it's more than a feeling. Hearing Anderson .Paak do his thing is a gift, and at 16 tracks, Malibu almost feels too short.”
5. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
I’ll admit, I was incredibly nervous for this album. After releasing two of the greatest indie/folk albums in history, establishing a superb side project in Volcano Choir, winning the Grammy for Best New Artist, dealing with some psychological issues, and taking a five year hiatus, I had no clue how Justin Vernon could possibly come back to release new music at the level of quality and artistry that has come to be expected of him. But he found a way, and 22, A Million is my personal favorite album of 2016. Not since Radiohead’s Kid A has a record simultaneously pushed away and pulled in closer its audience. Never this year has a song evoked more emotion and apparent existential sadness then the a cappella track “715 - CRΣΣKS”. 22, A Million is Vernon at his best and most honest, further establishing him as “the millennium’s most critically acclaimed folk star.”
4. David Bowie, Blackstar
There’s never been a musical goodbye like Blackstar. It’s also fitting that with this release, David Bowie fulfilled his lifelong dream of making a record with a jazz band. Although accompanied by jazz musicians James Murphy, Ben Monder, Donny McCaslin, Jason Linder, and Tim Lefebvre, the real musical star besides Bowie himself is Mark Guiliana and his unique drumming style. Not only is Guiliana a master of styles and technique, but he and Bowie collaborated to create a unique almost electronic sound and style. Without it, Blackstar would be a very different record. During the writing phase, Bowie was drawing unlikely and fresh inspiration from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo. With a closer listen, it’s easy to pick up on the mesmerizing saxophone melodies that remind us of Terrace Martin’s saxophone work and composition on Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly as well as the thoughtful layering and vocal arranging/mixing similar to that of D’Angelo’s masterpiece Black Messiah. Blackstar is every bit as moving as the Bowie material of yesteryear and is revealing of new truths with every listen. Not only is this album a farewell, it’s also a message of hope. Even in his last days battling cancer, Bowie was looking for a way to impart wisdom, truth, and meaning to his audience. What a way to leave the world he loved and influenced so deeply…
3. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
Earlier this year, the hip hop community lost one of its biggest icons, Phife Dawg, due to complications with his diabetes. At the time, the world thought A Tribe Called Quest, of which Phife was a part of, was no more. Yet just months later, rumors leaked that they group had come together after 18 years to write and record their final album secretly. With their sixth studio release, hip hop royalty A Tribe Called Quest found their way back to the top of the food chain. We got it from Here… sounds like the famed group hasn’t missed a step. It’s everything we’ve grown to love about vintage Tribe but with a freshness that makes it sound progressive and cutting edge. Q-Tip’s production is decisively rugged and his sampling is as clever as ever, pulling samples from 70s reggae, disco, and as always, jazz.
2. Solange, A Seat at the Table
I can’t begin to even pretend that I know anything about the plights and troubles women of color face in America. In light of that reality, I’m not comfortable speaking to the social importance and artistic grandeur of this album. After all, as a white cis man, this album is not for me. Below is a beautiful review by someone who this album was truly made for - a woman of color.
“And do you belong? I do.”
The assertion sits atop an essay that Solange Knowles wrote in the waning weeks of summer. In the text that followed, she recounted a painful, much-publicized recent incident: A group of women had pelted her, with words and then trash, as she stood to dance at a Kraftwerk concert in New Orleans. She recalled her resolve to stay positive for the sake of her young son and his friend, also in attendance, and remembered assuming that she must have been imagining their violation: “Certainly a stranger would not have the audacity.” But that charity proved misplaced, and disappointingly familiar: As a woman of color, she had been dismissed, scrutinized, and harassed by strangers in predominantly white spaces before. She knew well the emotional labor of turning the other cheek.
When A Seat at the Table dropped three weeks later, it became clear that the essay’s title pulled from the lyrics of “Weary.” It’s a wistful ballad that explores how, when you’re constantly fighting for the base amount of respect, graciousness can be downright exhausting: “Be leery ’bout your place in the world/You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world/You’re leaving not a trace in the world/But you’re facing the world.” A Seat at the Table is full of similar admissions, delivered with a rare and beautiful empathy. In it, Solange often speaks to the universal experiences of youth (new love, confusion, heartbreak), but does not shy away from her own journey; the specificities of black life are proudly inextricable from her accounts. On “Mad,” she offers a poised reply to a damaging stereotype commonly affixed to black women, flipping accusations that they’re always angry into an uplifting rebuttal: “You got the light, count it all joy!” Floating over Raphael Saadiq’s lush soul arrangements, she travels “70 states” to escape such pressures, turning to sex, alcohol, isolation, and material pursuits on the haunting ballad “Cranes in the Sky”—but the journey leads her back to where she began, looking inward for strength.
A Seat at the Table has a gorgeous sense of flow; ideas of identity commingle easily with social commentary as lithe R&B melts into spoken interludes. The latter happens with a cinematic ease; the interludes sew the album together like plot points of a larger narrative. Solange’s mother, Tina Lawson, makes an impassioned appearance, saying: “It’s such beauty in black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black, and that if you do, then it's considered anti-white. No! You’re just pro-black. And that’s okay.” This segues beautifully into the standout track “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a measured stance against the misguided act of reaching for a black person’s crown. Much like the know-how required to care for this hair, which is often passed down by a maternal figure, Lawson’s words offer a glimpse of the love for her heritage that she instilled in her daughter. Other monologues feature Solange’s father recalling the trauma of school integration (“We lived in the threat of death every day”) and an introspective Master P, who crystallizes one of the album’s salient themes: “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me—so this is not for you.”
On her third album, Solange has reclaimed every part of her narrative and has done something undeniably inspiring. In 2016, when it still seems like a radical act to release a record that catalogues the nuances of black womanhood, she has done so with stunning candor. A Seat at the Table is a contemporary take on the protest records of yesteryear, steeped in the tradition of vanguard singers who critiqued society’s ills from the female perspective. It is an offer of solace for anyone working towards their own glory, and for those whose right to dignity is long overdue.” - Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
1. Frank Ocean, Blonde/Endless
I truly believe Frank Ocean is the dynamic artist of the future. With the release of channel ORANGE, we learned that his empathetic storytelling and lyricism is truly unmatched and captivating. But then he disappeared. Since channel ORANGE, the world has been living a reoccurring nightmare of police brutality and racial tension. In the wake of such events, artists like Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, and Beyoncé released protest art that made the historical oppression of black people undeniable in a way that hasn’t been done in decades. But not Frank. While he did publish a number of well worded reactions to the tragedies in Ferguson and Orlando, his musical silence only grew louder. Frank’s empathy and ability to comfort without losing sight of what’s important was sorely missed. We needed Frank Ocean.
It’s been four years and now we essentially have two albums worth of music and a thought provoking visual. Most people expected another eclectic, in your face album like channel ORANGE, but what we got was a trading in of groove based tracks for minimal drums, undulating synths, beautifully soft guitar work, and creative sampling/interpolation. Originally, Frank was an empathetic teller of other people’s stories, and we loved him for it. But this time around, the traditionally reclusive and very private artist has himself become the story. Blonde and Endless are a look into the memories and life of Frank Ocean. Blonde is a beautifully penned memoir of his experiences with love, intimacy, loss, grief, philosophy, and childhood. It’s an introspective look at how he’s acted and reacted to the world around him and to the people important to him. It’s Frank being wholly present with his inner self, accepting himself, for better or for worse.
Frank’s choice to be present and transparent with himself is reflected in the visual album Endless. As a movie, Endless, while cinematically beautiful, is quite dull…sometimes even painful to watch, but I think that’s the point. I believe the message of Endless is two fold. First, I think it’s a fulfillment of his major label commitment, allowing him to release Blonde on his own terms. But when I take a deeper look at the visual album, I find it to be a critique of modern consumerist culture. For over 45 minutes, Frank Ocean takes on the process of building a beautiful spiral staircase completely by hand. Throughout the process, he doesn’t at all seem rushed; he’s working at his own pace, in his own time. By the time he finally finishes his stairway to heaven, he turns, curtsies, and walks away, never showing us what it leads to…and then it’s gone. We’re left in disarray, scratching our heads, longing, wanting resolution. That is, until we realize we just got an entire albums worth of extra music and a beautifully shot piece of visual art. Whether it’s a state of euphoria, love, money, stability, or perfection, most of our day to day life is spent “endlessly” laboring for finality. But with Endless, Ocean has all but forced us to be wholly engaged in his process…he’s tricked us into being completely focused on the present, rather than being preoccupied with what might come later. We get to enjoy creativity in real time, we get to be a part of something greater than us in the moment. We’re relearning, as one of my favorite authors puts it, “How to be HERE”.
In a year when so much good music was released and new albums faded away like great memories from a party, Frank Ocean’s “double album” Blonde/Endless felt like a moment that truly mattered. He makes every detail feel meaningful and he’s found a way to make tough subjects like race and sexuality feel like an casual conversation with an old friend. Nothing on Blonde/Endless is binary, Ocean has created a sonic and lyrical spectrum that has space for anyone and everyone to slip inside.
The Avalanches, Wildflower
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
JDilla, The Diary
Kendrick Lamar, untitled, unmastered
INSTAGRAM & TWITTER: @NOAHMCCUTIE
Noah is a drummer and percussionist with many years of experience teaching, performing live, and recording in the studio. In high school, Noah fell in love with music and decided to study classical music at Vanguard University. After college, Noah moved to Los Angeles and continued to stay busy working professionally in a variety of musical settings outside of the university environment. Apart from working as a percussionist, Noah enjoys surfing, craft beverages of all sorts, hockey, and spending time with his cute golden retriever.