2016 was a crapfest of a year for many people, but it was an exceptional year of music. The year saw many new artists release awesome debuts and many already experienced artists create records that seem like potential classics. Hip hop was especially fantastic this year, with Kendrick, Beyoncé, Kanye, Chance, and others deliver some of their best work. While we prepare for a potentially dreadful 2017 (hopefully it won’t be), here’s my top 35 albums of this year:
The Divine Feminine – Mac Miller
Continuing his ascent from a middling Internet-based rapper to a soulful hip-hop artist, Mac Miller gives us more reasons to like him on his third studio record The Divine Feminine. Filled with loose instrumentals, electric samples, leaner lyrics, and a sense of giddy buoyancy, Miller sounds happier, wiser, and more romantic than he’s ever been, straying away from the goofy bravado of last year’s GO:OD AM and the spacey existentialism of 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off. He gets some help from Anderson .Paak, Ariana Grande, and Kendrick Lamar, all of whom contribute solid guest verses. But it’s Miller’s signature stoner delivery and witty lyrics about relationships and love that strengthen The Divine Feminine and mark it as yet another improvement in the rapper’s career.
Best tracks: “Dang!”, “Congratulations,” “Soulmate”
Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown
As one of Detroit’s — and perhaps the country’s — most eccentric and engaging rappers, Danny Brown is an unstoppable force. With a slew critically acclaimed mixtapes and albums under his belt, Brown continues to make his name known with his fourth record Atrocity Exhibition. Named after a Joy Division song, the album captures the bleakness of Brown’s internal conflicts with queasy, experimental production, as well as Brown’s own squealing vocals and hard-hitting lyrics about death, loneliness, and drug use. It’s not as finely tuned as 2013’s Old or as gleefully care-free as his 2011 breakthrough XXX, but Atrocity Exhibition is equipped with enough of Brown’s panache that it’s almost hard not to listen to the rapper speak his mind.
Best tracks: “Ain’t It Funny,” “Really Doe,” “Pneumonia”
Sirens – Nicolas Jaar
Last year was a busy year for Chilean-American instrumentalist Nicolas Jaar. After breaking off from his side project Darkside, Jaar composed the score of 2015 Palme D’Or winner Dheepan, all while managing to craft an unofficial 20-track soundtrack to the 1969 film The Colour of Pomegranates. However, it seems all his hard work has paid off with his stunning third album Sirens this year. Incorporating psychedelic ambiance, noisy synths, intense drum machines, bilingual lyrics, and even a tinge of postmodern doo-wop, Sirens is a fun and simultaneously disquieting experience, switching back and forth between eerie quietness and brash loudness. That may not sound appealing, but Jaar crafts it in such a way that makes Sirens so.
Best tracks: “History Lesson,” “No,” “Killing Time”
Human Performance – Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts are relatively new in the music scene, but they’ve found underground success rather quickly. Having churned out 6 albums in the past 6 years, including this year’s Human Performance, the New York-based rock group have become one of the most prolific and most interesting bands in recent memory. With a sound that blends the intoxicating modern rock ‘n’ roll of the White Stripes and the punk rock nihilism of the Clash, Parquet Courts make incendiary music required for the most angsty of teenagers. While their previous efforts Sunbathing Animal and Content Nausea were more striking and immediate in their brash sound and thought-provoking social commentary, Human Performance finds Parquet Courts much more relaxed yet still energetic, filled with rage, and ready to take on the world.
Best tracks: “Outside,” “Captive of the Sun,” “Two Dead Cops”
Blank Face LP – Schoolboy Q
Schoolboy Q seems to wrestle with inner demons on a daily basis. On almost every one of his albums, the TDE-signed artist and Black Hippy member shields his feelings with a pseudo-glorified lifestyle of excessive partying, rough sex, and murder. This juxtaposition between this lifestyle and Q’s real-life persona become even more realized on his third Ghostface Killah-influenced studio record Blank Face LP. With tighter production and a plethora of featured artists, Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP is the rapper’s most adventurous record to date, but also his emotionally potent. Here, Q uses the “blank face” motif as a literal and figurative mask, symbolizing the fear he often enforces in his music. But digging deeper, we also get a chance to learn about the man behind the mask and his journey into finding redemption from a higher power.
Best tracks: “Lord Have Mercy,” “Ride Out,” “JoHn Muir”
You Want it Darker – Leonard Cohen
“I’m ready, my Lord,” whispers Leonard Cohen on the title track of his 14th and final record You Want it Darker. Among the many talented musicians we lost this year, Cohen was probably the one most ready to pass on to the next life, even though his death at 82 years old was still a resounding emotional gut punch. But thankfully, he left us with a piece of his art that is powerful not only for its post-mortem symbolism, but also for simply being a lyrically wonderful, sonically sparse album. Similar to David Bowie’s Blackstar (#10 on this list), You Want it Darker is a haunting, ethereal farewell, mixed to perfection by the late singer’s son Adam. Underlining the album’s darkly humorous takes on death and wistfully somber rumination on lost loves and regrets are a collection of beautiful, eclectic instruments: orchestral strings, Latin acoustics, electronic bleeps, soft piano melodies, gospel backing choirs and Cohen’s baritone vocals. It’s a bittersweet masterpiece, one that reaffirms a soundbite Cohen made a few weeks before his death: “I intend to live forever.”
Best tracks: “You Want it Darker,” “Traveling Light,” “Treaty”
Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
Teenage rebellion and angst have never sounded so sweet. At the age of 24, Will Toledo, lead member of the lo-fi indie punk rock project Car Seat Headrest, understands the trials and tribulations of feeling lost and aimless at a young age. But for someone who has released 12 albums on Bandcamp in the last five years, Toledo has become extremely skilled in the art of making sense of today’s youth and his own experiences. His most recent effort, Teens of Denial, is technically his first proper studio record. But even as a major label debut, the record showcases the transcendent maturity of the Virginian singer/producer through his witty, refreshing songwriting and crowd-pleasing sound. I mean, who comes up with a lyric as devastating and hilarious as “Friends are better with drugs/Drugs are better with friends”? Toledo’s auteur approach makes Teens of Denial sound utterly effortless, just as his earnest, relatable personality makes being a teenager/young adult sound less daunting.
Best tracks: “Destroyed by Hippie Power,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”
Prima Donna – Vince Staples
Long Beach rapper and ex-Odd Future associate Vince Staples has become one of hip hop’s strongest voices, discussing everything from police brutality to marginalization of Black communities in America. Though his newest work, Prima Donna, is an EP, not a full-length album, it might as well be. Following up from his incredible debut, last year’s Summertime ’06, Prima Donna transforms a collection of 7 tracks into a dense display of Staples’ bold artistic vision. In just a mere 21 minutes, Staples crafts funnier, headier no-bullshit lyrics, darker themes of unrequited love, and experimental instrumentals — “War Ready” features a head-spinning Outkast sample and a production credit from James Blake. With Prima Donna, Staples shows that he’s still able to make music that is surprising, thought-provoking, and in the moment.
Best tracks: “War Ready,” “Smile” “Prima Donna”
The Sun’s Tirade – Isaiah Rashad
Isaiah Rashad has already hit a rough patch in his barely-started career. In between the release of his acclaimed 2014 EP Cilvia Demo and promotion for his recent debut record The Sun’s Tirade, the 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar protegé suffered from depression, anxiety and isolation, exacerbated by a bad habit of frequently consuming a mix of Xanax and alcohol while touring with Schoolboy Q. Luckily, Rashad didn’t fall too far down into the deep end and managed to pull together The Sun’s Tirade, a dense yet loosely structured album elevated by hard-hitting lyrics and emotionally resonant themes of substance abuse and self-discovery. In addition to featuring strong guest verses from SZA, Kendrick Lamar and Jay Rock, the 17-track album also contains excellent production work from Mike Will Made It, D. Sanders, Cam O’bi, J. LBS, The Antydote, Chris Calor.
Best tracks: “4r Da Squaw,” “Free Lunch,” “Wat’s Wrong”
No, My Name is Jeffrey – Young Thug
Only Young Thug would name almost every song on his album after a famous person/figure (with the exception of “Future Swag”). The polarizing, always captivating Atlanta-based rap mumbler is known for being one of the most confounding artists to hit the hip-hop scene, first making waves with his incomprehensible verse on Rich Gang’s 2014 hit “Lifestyle.” But since then, Thugger has paved the way for himself, cultivating mixtape after mixtape and capturing the attention of dumbfounded critics and fans everywhere. On No, My Name is Jeffrey (alternatively titled Jeffrey), Young Thug is at his most idiosyncratic since his breakthrough Barter 6; the verses are funnier and the production is sharper. The rapper attracts controversy for both the wrong and right reasons, and he will definitely not appeal to a certain crowd. But regardless, No, My Name is Jeffrey reaffirms Young Thug’s ability to completely be his own artist and not care about anyone who might not understand his enigmatic persona.
Best tracks: “Wyclef Jean,” “Harambe,” “Kanye West”
Wildflower – The Avalanches
The Avalanches could have been like a musical Harper Lee and only made one major hit record, which they did in 2000 with Since I Left You. Alas, 16 years later, they returned and created Wildflower, their magnificent second album that shows the Australian electronic group still has some magic within their music. Similar to their debut, Wildflower is built on a melting pot of samples, some ambient and some from actual songs from musicians ranging from the Bee Gees to Queens of the Stone Age. Melding one sample after another with their own production and vocal contributions from Danny Brown and MF Doom, the Avalanches turn classic R&B and ’60s psychedelia into a mix of head-bopping electro-pop and hip hop, making for a mesmerizing, colorful listening experience. Will they return 16 years later with their third record? Hopefully not. But perhaps the Avalanches’ comeback with Wildflower will be enough for the next album to come much sooner.
Best tracks: “Because I’m Me,” “Frankie Sinatra,” “Colours,” “Harmony”
There’s Alot Going On – Vic Mensa
One of 2016’s most underrated albums/EPs also comes from one of hip hop’s most underrated artists: Vic Mensa. Mostly known as that guy who performed “Wolves” with Kanye West at the SNL 40th Anniversary Special, Mensa is more than just one of Ye’s protegés. A Chicago native, Mensa has been trying to make it into the mainstream hip-hop scene for a while now, becoming mildly successful after his lush 2014 debut single “Down on My Luck.” But even after he collaborated with growing artists like Kaytranada and Flume and even a major one like Skrillex, the Illinois-based rapper has been struggling to make himself shine as an individual artist — he’s been trying to make his studio debut, allegedly titled Traffic, for a few years now. By venting much of his frustration with his blocked artistic ambitions and societal issues like police brutality and the Flint water crisis, Mensa shows that he has plenty to prove on his remarkable 6-track debut There’s Alot Going On. The EP is dark and heavy, and while it’s not the happiest of hip hop records, there’s still a slim bit of hope resting beneath Mensa’s rage.
Best tracks: “Dynasty,” “16 Shots,” “Shades of Blue”
I Had A Dream That You Were Mine – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
Rostam Batmanglij played a crucial role as the keyboardist, backing vocalist, and producer of Vampire Weekend, infusing Ezra Koenig’s lilting vocals and intensely poetic lyrics with his reverbed piano melodies, ghostly harmonies, and warm synths. Though his recent departure from the band is rather abrupt, Rostam sounds just as good on his own and even working with others, particularly musician Hamilton Leithauser, who is also taking a break from his band The Walkmen. The two together seemed unlikely in the vast landscape of indie rock/pop music, but fortunately, the duo worked well together on their charming collaborative debut album I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. With Rostam’s dreamlike instrumentation and Leithauser’s croaking vocals, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is an unexpectedly poignant record that delivers simple, undemanding, and catchy music from two fantastic artists.
Best tracks: “A 1000 Times,” “When the Truth Is…,” “1959”
Singing Saw – Kevin Morby
If you’ve ever watched Netflix’s amazing animated TV series “Bojack Horseman,” you’ve probably heard Kevin Morby’s “Parade.” The song, from his 2014 record Still Life, plays towards the end of an episode, where the shlubby titular protagonist finds himself in a state of crisis after having broken up with his girlfriend and decides to visit an old flame. While “Parade” itself might not be about unrequited love or relationships, it does conjure up a strange feeling of despondency and loneliness that could only be provoked by the profound beauty and sadness in Morby’s rumbling vocals, as he sings about self-identity over a guitar-driven beat. This is what makes Kevin Morby one of the best, most overlooked singer-songwriters of our generation, especially with his third record Singing Saw. Only 9 songs long, Singing Saw elicits an emotional response from any listener, grounding backing harmonies and mellow folk-rock production underneath Morby’s Bob Dylan-like voice. As Singing Saw ebbs and flows between spiritual and soulful statements, Morby succeeds in once again creating an overall chilling effect through his music.
Best tracks: “I Have Been to the Mountain,” “Destroyer,” “Drunk and On a Star”
Light Upon The Lake – Whitney
Feeling down about life? Need some music that not only sounds good, but “feels” good too? Whitney’s got you covered. Formed by guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich shortly after their split from their pop-rock band Smith Westerns in 2014, Whitney is a breath of fresh air when it comes to modern indie rock. With their wonderful, charming debut, Light Upon the Lake, Whitney energizes each of their 10 songs with genuine warmth with the help of Ehrlich’s pleasant falsetto and funky drumming, Kakacek’s smooth guitar playing, and the blending of folk, country, and soul. With each stroke of a guitar, pitter-pat of a drum, a note from a saxophone, and soft utterance about nostalgia or rejection, Whitney vibrates with youthful and romantic bliss. There isn’t a single track on the album that doesn’t feel like it could be refined more than it already is. And considering that it’s only their first album together, Whitney is definitely on the right path in terms of making their music better and better.
Best tracks: “No Woman,” “The Falls,” “Golden Days”
Hopelessness – Anohni
In the past few years, Anohni has gone through a drastic personal and musical transformation. In addition to venturing away from her avant-garde pop band Antony & The Johnsons, Anohni gradually came out as a transgender woman and pursued a more electronic sound for her remarkable debut Hopelessness. While her angelic vocals remain intact, Hopelessness indicates a completely different Anohni from the one who used to just sing beautiful, sorrowful love ballads. With this record, co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, the British singer tackles the formidable task of integrating political and environmental issues with catchy and provocative tunes. Fortunately, she does so with poise, her voice quivering with passion about drone strikes, the refugee crisis, and even Barack Obama over glittery, dizzying synths. All of Anonhi’s anger, frustration, and sadness gives the listener an idea of what it’s like living as a person under constant societal pressure; it’s one giant protest song and acts as a voice for the voiceless. Hopelessness isn’t all a downer; it is, believe or not, somewhat hopeful for how talented, socially minded artists can channel their identity and thoughts through their own work.
Best tracks: “4 Degrees,” “Drone Bomb Me,” “Crisis”
Puberty 2 – Mitski
It would be impossible to talk about great indie rock in 2016 without mentioning Mitski, the brilliant New York-based artist whose fourth studio album, Puberty 2, is one of the most triumphant and heartbreaking records of the year. On the album, Mitski sings with spunk and melancholy about a variety of complex themes — unrequited love, loneliness, social alienation, the American dream, and racial identity — over raucous instrumentation. It may all sound like the same old stuff, but the 26-year-old singer/songwriter proves she has a lot to offer. As the daughter of an interracial couple who spent much of her childhood traveling to different countries, Mitski understands the difficulty of belonging. After making other acclaimed EPs and albums, Mitski uses her frustration with the world to fuel Puberty 2, a passionate sonic self-portrait that personalizes the experience of struggling to fit into a world that barely accepts you. With darkly funny yet somewhat harrowing anecdotes about lost loves and unnerving sexual experiences, Mitski gives her audience a chance to see the beauty buried beneath the darkness of her sound.
Best tracks: “Happy,” “Your Best American Girl,” “I Bet On Losing Dogs”
Next Thing – Frankie Cosmos
One of the greatest qualities of 22-year-old Greta Kline (aka Frankie Cosmos) is her concision. In her swift second studio album Next Thing, almost every song is 1 to 2 minutes long, the longest being 2 minutes and 44 seconds. But with each track, Kline excels at matching her DIY, anti-folk sound with her lyrical eloquence, revealing a funny or dreary memory and a quirky tidbit about herself with such charismatic appeal. Like Car Seat Headrest, Kline found success with posting demos and full-length albums on Bandcamp. But in her last record Zentropy, Kline grew even more as an artist by finding the solace in the death of her dog, as well as the end of her adolescence. In Next Thing, as the title suggests, she focuses on the excitement of the present and the scariness of what the future will entail. In addition to singing about magician David Blaine, coffee habits, romantic rejection, and kissing boys, Kline keeps her vivid imagery alive with instrumentation that speaks volumes to the talent, effort, and nimble energy created by Kline and her production team. Despite its short 28-minute length, Next Thing provides listeners with a guide to living a beautiful, funny, and authentic young adulthood.
Best tracks: “If I Had a Dog,” “On the Lips,” “Sinister,” “Is It Possible/Sleep Song”
We’ll Take It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest
A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip hop’s most recognizable groups, made headlines twice this year: once to commemorate the untimely death of one of its members, Phife Dawg, and a second time to announce the release of their first album in 18 years, as well as their final album as a band. Both messages are bittersweet, but Q-Tip, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammed persevered and the results of their newest work are unexpectedly outstanding. Sampling everything from Elton John to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and featuring contributions from André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Busta Rhymes, We’ll Take it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is a remarkable double album and swan song that’s nostalgic enough for longtime fans to enjoy and fresh enough for newcomers to relish in. The trio, along with the now-deceased Phife Dawg, revisits their socially conscious roots in a post-Trump era, discussing racial divides and other topical issues in American’s current political climate. Despite the lengthy hiatus since their last album, A Tribe Called Quest have just as much fire as they did back in the ’90s and We’ll Take it From Here… tells a message as relevant as the mantra Dawg repeatedly asserts on the album opener: “Let’s make something happen.”
Best tracks: “The Space Program,” “We the People…,” “Dis Generation,” “The Killing Season”
The Colour in Anything – James Blake
James Blake is a known minimalist. His first two records, 2011’s chilling James Blake and 2013’s more emotionally involved Overgrown, relied on Blake’s taste for haunting harmonic acapella, vocoders, and electro-R&B to create an overall quiet and spine-tingling experience. Conversely, his flawed yet astonishing third record The Colour in Anything finds Blake experimenting with maximalism, layering each of his 17 tracks with as much of Blake’s scintillating vocals and post-dubstep beats as possible. And while it’s not as strong as his debut, the London-based producer is the most vulnerable he’s ever been, creating some of his most enchanting music that’s perfect for a rainy day or any other gloomy event. Within 76 minutes, Blake breaks down any barriers he put up before and bares his soul as he sings passionately and mournfully about basic existential topics (love, death) and more complicated issues (the reign of technology and its interference in relationships). In addition to being his most ambitious album yet, The Colour in Anything is also Blake’s most collaborative record, featuring production work from legendary mogul Rick Rubin and writing credits from Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, who guests on “I Need a Forest Fire.” But Blake is the main driving force here, showing that the artist can work well on both small and big levels.
Best tracks: “Radio Silence,” “Timeless,” “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.,” “Modern Soul”
99.9% – Kaytranada
Haitian-Canadian DJ/producer Louis Celestin (known by his stage name Kaytranada) has been in the electronic scene for a while now, releasing remixes of pop songs and EPs under the name Kaytradamus since 2012. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Kaytranada debuted 99.9%, a jubilant culmination of all his hard work mastered into one spectacular package. Clocking in at almost one hour, 99.9% puts all of Kaytranada’s musical talents out on display, distributing his knack for R&B electronica and ’90s inspired club music by chopping up samples and creating his own colorful sound. The album features an illustrious cast of guests, including Anderson .Paak, Syd the Kid, Vic Mensa, AlunaGeorge, and Little Dragon, who help give the album enough edge to make the sound last forever. Cohesive and funky, 99.9% reinforces the notion that party music is not just a genre that solely includes EDM and pop but something in between. Kaytranada also stands out not only for his artistic integrity, but for his personal identity as well, being one of the few openly queer instrumentalists in the music industry.
Best tracks: “Together,” “Drive Me Crazy,” “Glowed Up,” “Lite Spots”
Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
If there’s one theme that has connected music in 2016, it would be death, whether in an album or through the actual death of an artist. One of the biggest and perhaps saddest examples of this comes from Skeleton Tree, the riveting sixteenth album from Australian post-punk band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. As a record that confronts death and mortality with poetic elegance and poignancy, Skeleton Tree is also filled to the brim with mourning, as the lead singer experienced a huge loss when his 15-year-old son died in a tragic accident while the album was being recorded. The death, while incredibly unfortunate, gave Nick Cave all the more reason to re-create Skeleton Tree into a collection of songs that dealt with grief and tragedy. Ultimately, it spawned one of the most touching and heartbreaking pieces of art in 2016. The 8-song, 39-minute album explores feelings of dissonance, despair, and despondency and how to deal with those emotions. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have always played with the concept of death in their previous efforts, but Skeleton Tree symbolizes their breaking point. With Cave’s allegorical, improvised lyrics and the band’s use of ambient electronica, Skeleton Tree is an album for anyone who needs help when they’re going through a tough time.
Best tracks: “Rings of Saturn,” “Girl in Amber,” “I Need You,” “Distant Sky”
Still Brazy – YG
Gangsta rap has always been an integral part of West Coast hip hop. From N.W.A. to 2pac to Kendrick Lamar, the genre has seen a rapidly progressive shift, but its roots are still reflected in a telling-it-like-it-is style through the glamorization (but not necessarily celebration) of violence, drugs, and gang life. Unlike Lamar, whose lyrics and music are critical of Compton gangs, rapper YG flips the narrative and speaks from inside the streets, talking openly about his affiliation with the Bloods. With his DJ Mustard-produced debut My Krazy Life, YG established immediately that not only was he a rapper not to be fucked with, but an artist worth listening to. On his fantastic follow-up Still Brazy, YG switches up the production and yields for G-funk laced beats that hearken back to early Dr. Dre. Instead of simply giving audiences a trivialized version of living a dangerous lifestyle in his hometown, YG discusses having paranoia over getting shot by an unknown source, as well as other personal anecdotes layered over groovy beats that can spark up a party instantly. While YG speaks boldly about the harrowing experiences of living in Compton, he also manages to sneak in some social commentary about police brutality, a major overarching theme that has pervaded many hip-hop records since Lamar’s masterful To Pimp a Butterfly last year. YG’s brutal take on the President-elect in “FDT” is this generation’s “Fuck the Police,” a rebellious anthem that takes a strong, deliberate stance against the pervasive racism seen in the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. YG may not be the most political of rappers, but the rapper is certainly well-rounded when it comes to making music that breaks through the public consciousness.
Best tracks: “Don’t Come to LA,” “Who Shot Me?,” “I Got a Question,” “FDT”
Malibu – Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak has had a fucking fantastic year — and his acclaimed breakthrough Malibu is probably at the bottom of his list of wonderful things that have happened to the Oxnard native. In addition to getting signed by Dr. Dre, Paak gave a rousing live performance on “The Ellen Show,” killed it in several guest features on other 2016 albums, and released an incredible collaborative album Yes Lawd! with electro-R&B producer Knxwledge under their joint group, NxWorries. Paak has become the unofficial saint of this godforsaken year, gifting us with his distinctively multicultural music, his powerful singing voice, his wonderful rapping skills, his stylish attire, and his adeptness with instruments (he plays guitar, piano, and drums). With all that in mind, Malibu is the peak of Paak’s artistic creativity, being a fusion of afro-funk, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, and electronic. It’s soaked in summery optimism, propelled by Paak’s infectious sound and lyrics about romance, religion, and living in California. But Malibu is not just a triumphant artistic achievement; it’s on the verge of being something revolutionary, a beacon of what music could sound like 10 years from now.
Best tracks: “The Bird,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Am I Wrong,” “Come Down”
Anti – Rihanna
On first listen, Rihanna’s Anti sounds totally jarring. For years now, the famous Barbadian singer has created hit pop record after record, sticking with a formula and still managing to allure her diehard fans. But as its title suggests, Anti is a pop record that doesn’t sound at all like mainstream pop; it’s the anti-pop, a composite of every other possible genre that manages to create something totally original. It’s certainly a risk, especially in today’s crowded landscape of pop stars trying to make it big. But given Rihanna’s high-ranking status as one of pop music’s most successful artists, Anti work-work-work-work-works. With an unconventional sound and release — the record dropped on Tidal by surprise in January — Anti is a compilation of Rihanna’s best songs to date, incorporating R&B, hip-hop, electronic, ’50s doo-wop, dancehall, soul, and even a Tame Impala cover. And the sound throughout Anti changes just as unexpectedly as the themes and lyrics themselves. In one instance, Rihanna is singing with reflective longing over a hazy vaporwave beat (“James Joint”); in the next instance, she’s boasting with unapologetic swagger about her sex life (“Sex with Me”). As the beats shift from groovy to somber, Rihanna explores the range of her effervescent vocals in ways no other female artist (except for maybe Beyoncé) can. But out of everything, Anti‘s greatest strength is not just in its immensely talented artist or production team, but in its ability to subvert the homogeny that pervades the modern pop atmosphere. It’s a record for the ages and as Rihanna hoped, Anti is a pop classic magnum opus.
Best tracks: “Kiss It Better,” “Needed Me,” “Love on the Brain,” “Sex with Me”
Blackstar – David Bowie
The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust, neoclassicist Bowie, electronic Bowie. David Robert Jones has gone through several phases throughout his whole life, but the most profound identity that the British singer possessed was himself. Blackstar, Bowie’s unbelievably compelling 25th (!) and final album, finds the shapeshifting artist taking his last bow before he passes on to the next life. Coincidently, the album was released on his 69th birthday and a mere two days before Bowie passed away unexpectedly after a long battle with liver cancer, making the experience of listening to Blackstar all the more eerie. Bowie’s death was not just a signal, but a reminder of how brilliant and eternal his work was as a pop/rock star who transformed the music industry on almost every level. In his music and in his onstage persona, Bowie subverted gender and sexual standards with his androgyny and his queerness, experimented with different identities and genres, and didn’t give a single fuck while doing it. While Blackstar is primarily an album about death and the afterlife, it evokes a feeling of being alive, which is perhaps Bowie’s intent. Just like Leonard Cohen, Bowie proved that art, particularly music, can make anything last forever, even after the artist is long gone. Even before Bowie passed away, Blackstar was astounding, notably for its unconventional instrumentation, operatic overtones, and Bowie’s chillingly poetic lyrics. Rich with symbolism and sound, Blackstar has Bowie playing the performance of a lifetime, stringing out every song to more than 4 minutes and incorporating elements of jazz, art rock, and even hip-hop. The artistic experimentation doesn’t stop there; apparently, Blackstar was inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Death Grips and Boards of Canada. While Blackstar marks the end of David Bowie as a musician, it marks the beginning of David Bowie as a spirit.
Best tracks: “Blackstar,” “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days”
22, A Million – Bon Iver
Sometimes, the best instrument a musician can use is their own voice. Justin Vernon, the lead vocalist for his Canadian indie rock band Bon Iver, is a master of not only using his voice to sing, but also manipulating it in a way that feels both alien and human. On Bon Iver’s 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago and their fantastic 2011 self-titled sophomore record, Vernon fluttered hearts with his impossibly high falsetto, which he occasionally Auto-Tuned for dramatic effect. Vernon’s voice plays a particularly pivotal role within the structure of Bon Iver’s third record 22, A Million, where his vocals, pitched and processed at various ranges, permeate the emotional dissonance in each of his strangely titled songs. As he croons about past mistakes, old lovers, and the uncertainty of tomorrow, Vernon elevates 22, A Million to an unimaginable level. By channeling a more electronic sound, Bon Iver has once again found an opening into the human heart and filled it with the sadness, joy, and anger Vernon provokes with his voice. Straying away from the lovelorn acoustics of their debut and the lush avant-garde rock instrumentation of Bon Iver, 22, A Million is unlike anything Bon Iver or practically any other indie rock band has done before. It is a record that is incomparable, both because of Vernon’s unmatched voice and his band’s adventurous dive into experimentation. Through weaving a fabric of electronic glitches, 22, A Million understands its audience as much as Vernon does, articulating some of Vernon’s most difficult songwriting into words that convey clarity, emotion, and genuine depth. As far as albums go, Bon Iver’s 22, A Million sounds like the future, an uncertain one at worst and a beautiful one at best.
Best tracks: “21 (Over Soon),” “715 (Creeks),” “33 ‘GOD’,” “29 #Strafford APTS”
untitled unmastered – Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus, was undoubtedly the best album of last year, and perhaps of the past several years. The Compton rapper’s ambitious third studio album introduced fans and new listeners to Lamar’s political side, which harshly critiqued almost every flawed aspect of American life: the criminal justice system, institutional racism, the concept of the “American dream,” police brutality, and poverty. Lamar’s honesty, flow, aesthetic choices, and lyrics blew away almost everyone, as the record itself marked a turning point not just in hip hop music, but in America. What would follow, however, was even more social and political unrest, with there being several more police shootings targeting young Black men, notably Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Laquan McDonald and many more. Music can only do so much as to provide people with a message and a motivation to speak truth to power, but for Lamar, it can also transform an entire consciousness. Fortunately, despite the never-ending hellhole that is 2016, Lamar graced us with a B-sides collection aptly titled untitled, unmastered. On this 8-track album, exclusively filled with demos and outtakes from To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, Lamar reveals a little bit more about himself, both in terms of his personal demons and tireless work ethic. He still makes some compelling political points, but Lamar also delves into newer, unfamiliar, and riskier territory, advocating for a more jazz-heavy sound. Even in the unfinished tracks, Lamar’s artistry is still mesmerizing, as we get a peek into the rapper’s process with seaming various sounds and lyrics together. Maybe Kendrick was worried that these songs, as wildly creative as they are, were too much for 2016 audiences. But like with To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled unmastered. is an album worth listening to and may require several listens before we get some sense of the mastermind of Kendrick Lamar.
Best tracks: “untitled 02 l 06.23.2014.,” “untitled 03 l 05.28.2013.,” “untitled 05 l 09.21.2014.,” “untitled 07 l 2014 – 2016”
Lemonade – Beyoncé
As one of pop’s biggest and most talented superstars, Beyoncé Knowles knows how to get a crowd engaged, whether she’s performing at the Super Bowl Halftime show, singing the National Anthem, or dropping a feature-length HBO special along with a brand new album by surprise. With Lemonade, her sixth album in her extremely successful career, Beyoncé continues to break every single aesthetic boundary imaginable. It seems like everything she has to offer is something of extremely precious value, especially for her scarily devoted fans. But considering the bubbling boiling pot of our society’s socio-political tension, Beyoncé also acts as an ideal prism of progressive values, portraying the Black experience and the female experience in America in an exciting, powerful, and thought-provoking way. While her previous self-titled record saw Beyoncé making great strides in pop experimentation, Lemonade tracks Beyoncé’s progression as an artist, lyricist, and social activist. Like Kendrick and other Black artists in 2016, Beyoncé is not taking issues of police brutality and marginalization of Black people lightly at all. Instead, she’s using her voice (literal and figurative) to project the rage and frustration of the Black community against a system that often represses or villainizes those kinds of feelings. On Lemonade, she exhibits a variety of personas — the unapologetic diva, the appreciative daughter, the hard-working mother, the neglected wife — and with these roles, she effectively and effortlessly channels the collective energy and spirit of the Black female community at large. At the heart of everything, though, Beyoncé is an artist, a collaborative one at that; she expertly samples Soulja Boy, Animal Collective, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Led Zeppelin with the help from producers Diplo, Boots, Hit-Boy, James Blake, Jack White, and Mike Will Made It. Like with Beyoncé, Lemonade is a musical mosaic, incorporating multiple genres, from country to reggae to rock to electronic. However, the only flaw within the nearly flawless Lemonade is a bit ironic. The album encompasses feminism and female empowerment as recurring themes and yet, there isn’t a single female artist or producer listed on the album; there is only one female songwriter credited for “Love Drought.” No disrespect to the Queen, but it’s an important point to bring up, especially when something as relevant as gender equality and discrimination is preached throughout the album. Nevertheless, Lemonade remains another step-up for Beyoncé, in terms of pushing mainstream pop to places no else can.
Best tracks: “Hold Up,” “Sorry,” “Freedom,” “Formation”
A Seat at the Table – Solange
It’s a shame to think that Beyoncé’s Black Panther get-up at the Super Bowl provoked so much ire that conservative pundits thought she was being “anti-police,” which is just as infuriating as people thinking Black people who write, sing, or speak about oppression and injustice are being “anti-white.” As Solange, Beyoncé’s younger sister, remarks in an interlude from her stunning A Seat at the Table, that isn’t the intended message at all. Technically, Tina Knowles, the mother of the two, makes that comment about being “pro-Black” instead of “anti-white,” but Solange’s inclusion of the anecdote on her album nevertheless acts as an example of the kind of subtle and overt racial discrimination that continues to pervade modern society. Though not as well known as her older sibling, Solange is just as talented in terms of her sound and her angelic voice. Her last effort, True, was an ode to 1980s pop and electronica, produced by Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange), and though it wasn’t as political as her newest album, it still showcased Solange’s knack for exploring different realms of music. With A Seat at the Table, Solange has completely done a 180 and transformed her new wave sound into a more R&B-oriented ambiance, thanks to the help of executive producer Raphael Saadiq. Like Lemonade, A Seat at the Table grabs listeners by the ears and makes them listen to a compelling, poetic, and immensely satisfying record about pain, grief, and prejudice experienced by Black women in America. But unlike Lemonade, A Seat at the Table is much more direct and involved in tackling those topics, spending each and every one of its 51 minutes focusing on the Black female experience and giving it the attention it deserves. Interspersed in between the songs are spoken word interludes that dictate the difficulties of racism and alienation often faced by Black people in America, but some interludes also share the beauty within Black culture. In addition to delivering some of the most beautifully sung tracks in music from 2016, Solange receives help from other special guests, including Q-Tip, Sampha, The-Dream, and Lil Wayne (who gives perhaps the best guest verse of his career). A Seat at the Table is an album that both challenges and enlightens the listener about the subject matter. It’s a wonderful listening experience, but one that encourages and inspires having these difficult but necessary conversations and how we can move forward.
Best tracks: “Weary,” “Cranes in the Sky,” “Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair”
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Radiohead has led a long career of making positively received and/or critically acclaimed albums. With each record they make, the British rock quintet experiment with a new sound and still retain their own identity as a band. Thanks to Thom Yorke’s enchanting lead vocals, Johnny Greenwood’s immaculate production, and the groups’s skilled songwriting, Radiohead works well as a cohesive unit, with everyone’s individual roles building together to form one spectacular team. And while most ’90s bands tend to lose steam and momentum after a while, Radiohead is a rare exception. After a brief hiccup with their last big record, 2011’s The King of Limbs, Radiohead found its footing again with this year’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which juggles between the electronica of their earlier albums (OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac) with the more nuanced alternative rock of their most recent ones (Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows). The result is utterly chilling and inspiring, as Thom Yorke and his bandmates continue to delve deep into the complexity of the human condition with songs that are as emotionally potent as they are politically conscious. Every arrangement, every lyric, and every use of Yorke’s voice are made essential on A Moon Shaped Pool, with not a single element falling out of place. The contrast between the new and the old become a present theme throughout the album, both in terms of the sound and content. Percussive beats and strings on the opener “Burn the Witch” begin the album with a raucous, thrilling start, while “True Love Waits,” an old favorite from many of Radiohead’s live performances, closes the record with a haunting, reverbed piano melody. Authoritarianism, anti-establishment politics, governmental surveillance, and unrequited love are integrated into the album’s themes, becoming more and more scarily relevant with each second. Radiohead itself has always been about making a postmodern sound, incorporating past and present as their forefront goal, and A Moon Shaped Pool is an excellent example in showing how they do it. Will Radiohead continue to make great music? At this rate, all signs point to yes.
Best tracks: “Burn the Witch,” “Daydreaming,” “Present Tense,” “True Love Waits”
Blonde – Frank Ocean
The album everyone was craving finally came this year. Frank Ocean had us all on our toes for what seemed like four endless years since his outstanding 2012 studio debut Channel Orange. Since then, the world changed dramatically and so did Ocean, as is the case with most pensive, sheltered artists who are also undisputed geniuses. Would he make another classic? Would his next record be just as good or even better than Channel Orange? No one knew the answer, probably not even Ocean himself. But after several false starts, fake news headlines, aggravating teases, intense hype, and the release of Endless, his middling “visual album,” Ocean graced audiences with what they asked for: Blonde. With 17 tracks, a long list of collaborators, and a picturesque album cover, Blonde was meant to the dream album that people had envisioned for Ocean. But it was much better than that: it was a real, gritty, flawed, and beautiful sophomore record that saw Ocean go bigger and bolder than he did on Channel Orange. While it may not reach the classic status of that album, Blonde is good enough that perhaps it doesn’t need to held to any standard; it’s Ocean’s blood, sweat, and tears layered over vocoded harmonies, dreamy guitars, and electronic strokes. The unrequited love and dejected loneliness Ocean sung about on Channel Orange is still here on Blonde, except it’s much wiser, more thoughtful, and more affecting. Ocean puts himself under a microscope, as he seeks to understand his purpose as a man struggling with self-doubt. Additionally, the production is much stronger, lighter, and hazier, thanks to the help of Jamie xx, Rostam Batmanglij, James Blake, Pharrell Williams, Tyler the Creator, Jon Brion, and Malay. Like other great pop records this year, Ocean’s Blonde is a rainbow blend of genres, sounding like a mix between psychedelic indie rock and electro-R&B. The sequencing of Blonde goes on some surprising detours, with Ocean playing a helium-heavy love ballad in one moment and André 3000 rapidly rapping over an anxious beat in the next. Despite its lengthiness, the ambition Ocean strived for with this album certainly pays off. Let’s hope Ocean’s next project not only comes sooner, but also gets even stronger.
Best tracks: “Nikes,” “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Self Control”
Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
From its opening notes alone, Freetown Sound is already a powerful work of art. As Devonté Hynes, known professionally as Blood Orange, and backing vocalists sing with breathless abandon over a beat bathed in saxophones and pianos, we hear the commanding voice of slam poet Ashlee Haze speak about having better and more representation of Black women in the media. It’s definitely head-spinning to hear as a first track, but it confidently displays Hynes’ vision of the album, which is primarily about identity, specifically racial, sexual, and gender identity. As a queer London-born artist living in New York City with roots in Sierra Leone, Hynes understands the difficulty of finding a place to call home, even in a multicultural melting pot like America, and thus yearns to make sense of it through his own artistic endeavors. That kind of immediacy is established throughout Freetown Sound, the follow-up to Hynes’ amazing 2013 sophomore record Cupid Deluxe. The album, approximating at one hour, delivers incredible track after incredible track. With glimmers of calypso, R&B, funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop, Freetown Sound is bereft of any single definition. It could be classified as a journey into self-discovery and self-pride, an examination of racial politics in the U.S. and worldwide, a wonderful whirlpool of melancholic and joyful music, or all the above. Being experienced in various parts of the world has lent Hynes an incredible gift of storytelling, as he incorporates a myriad of sounds to create one giant masterwork. Even when you’d think there’s no way Freetown Sound couldn’t sound any better than it already does, Hynes takes it a step further by utilizing other people’s voices through various samples (including two interviews with Ta-Neheisi Coates and Vince Staples) and female singers (namely, Nelly Furtado, Carly Rae Jepsen, Empress Of, and Debbie Harry). By building his collaborations with other artists, Hynes shows that music doesn’t just sound great coming from only one person, but rather from a group of people. Freetown Sound perhaps didn’t get the recognition it deserved the year and understandably so; Hynes is pretty grounded in the indie scene. However, the album got its message across and still made a strong impression on those who listened to it.
Best tracks: “Augustine,” “Best to You,” “Desirée,” “E.V.P.”
The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
It’s hard to talk about Kanye West without first recognizing his flaws. In 2016 alone, Kanye has managed to anger, vex, and annoy almost every sane person in America. With his egocentric personality, aggressive behavior, arrogant narcissism, casual misogyny, spotlight stealing at award shows, social media shenanigans, stubborn bravado, and questionable relationships, Kanye is a pretty hateable person. Now, there’s no denying he is also a remarkable artist and rapper, creating some of the most influential hip-hop music of the millennium. Kanye himself is probably aware of being classified as this “mad genius” and it is tough to keep rewarding him by praising his music and still recognize that he is a genuinely controversial individual who people will continue to worship no matter what he does. But perhaps with every album Kanye delivers, we get a chance to understand why Kanye acts the way he does, what his deepest fears are, and why he’s so stuck with being perceived as an asshole. On The Life of Pablo, his sprawling eighth album, Kanye puts all these issues at the forefront, channeling his dark energy into a record that is essentially a hip-hop version of a gospel record (at least, that’s how Kanye puts it). The Life of Pablo is Kanye lyrically and sonically unfiltered, with the rapper talking about having sex with Taylor Swift and Kim on a “motherfucking dinner table” at a Vogue party one minute and asking for forgiveness God and questioning his own decisions in the next. It’s a truly troubling thing to hear, but it’s the realest version of Kanye that we’ve seen since 2013’s abrasive Yeezus. With eclectic samples and A-plus producers (Swizz Beatz, Mike Dean, Metro Boomin, Rick Rubin) and guest artists (Rihanna, The Weeknd, Chance the Rapper, Ty Dolla $ign, Young Thug), The Life of Pablo is an audacious work of art that makes the “separate the art from the artist” conflict all the more difficult. Kanye’s creative process sounds hectic and in-the-moment, which makes it all the more impressive when everything pieces together, especially after Kanye made last minute changes before and after the album’s release. The Life of Pablo is another mini Kanye masterpiece, but it’s also a perfect representation of Kanye as a person: flawed yet ingenious.
Best tracks: “Ultralight Beam,” “Highlights,” “Waves,” “Real Friends”
Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
Kanye West tweeted The Life of Pablo was “the album of LIFE,” but I’d like to think he meant Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. That mixtape, along with the artist behind it, is something of a miracle. In the midst of the incredibly downbeat 2016 (seriously, can this year end already?), Chancelor Bennett dropped the best hip-hop album, and album in general, of the year, transcending his previous status as an up-and-coming Chicago rapper to a fully-fledged pop icon. Coloring Book compiles every one of Chance’s greatest qualities as a person and artist: it’s energetic, sweet, catchy, soulful, collaborative, and relentlessly happy. With his quirky ad-libs, gorgeous croon, and peppy flow, the young rapper can make any God-denier feel like there’s someone up there watching them. In addition to heavenly production work from his backing band the Social Experiment, Chance also brings along other artists, some pitch-perfect (Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, D.R.A.M.) and some unexpected but still great (Lil Yachty, Young Thug, Justin Bieber). Like with The Life of Pablo, Chance’s Coloring Book is a gospel record disguised as a hip hop album, but offers a much more optimistic, heartfelt message about sanctification, love, and freedom (both in religious and creative expression). Since his last mixtape, 2013’s Acid Rap, Chance has grown immensely as an artist, making good time by using his voice on several amazing guest verses and other projects, including Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment’s wildly creative Surf and a collaborative mixtape with Lil B. In some ways, Coloring Book is almost an antithesis to The Life of Pablo, trading in that album’s dreary imagery and bleak themes with vivid wonder and giddy child-like innocence. It embraces the idea of love and togetherness as the key to happiness, which sounds slightly cliché when taken out of context. But to deny the fact that Chance the Rapper is capable of making music that brings people together is totally wrong. Coloring Book is simply a blessing.
Best tracks: “No Problem,” “Juke Jam,” “All Night,” “How Great,” “Smoke Break”