You remember know how everyone said that 2016 was the best year ever? A year where tons of good things happened for the average America, and the progress of our great nation felt tangible at every step? That’s why we decided to wait until late 2017 to publish our contributors’ list of favorite albums… so you can relive that magic. The magic that was the year of our lord two thousand and sixteen. Enjoy!
21. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
British poet Kate Tempest cites both Keats and Wu Tang as influences. On Let Them Eat Chaos, she set her written portraits of South London characters to music and delivered some of the most moving musical political commentary since Chuck D in his prime. – Matt Ashworth
20. Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion
Sub Pop Recording Artist Heron Oblivion is comprised of an impressive roster of modern Bay Area psych-rock veterans including Comets on Fire, Howlin’ Rain and Feral Ohms. On their debut, the band’s sprawling, wild guitars are perfectly contrasted by vocalist Meg Baird’s ethereal, infectious vocals. Keep an eye on this band. – Ben Allen
19. A Giant Dog – Pile
18. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
With Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds complete the sonic downshift from the Dig Lazarus/Grinderman eras that began on 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Eschewing even the faintest hint of bombast or climax, Skeleton Tree is a sparse, ethereal record. Songs like “Jesus Alone” and “Magneto” creating repetitive and hypnotic vibes, while more traditional ballads like “I Need You” and the title track show Cave at his most vulnerable. He’s always traded in drama and darkness, but here he revels as much in the empathy and longing behind the shadows. – Graham Isaac
17. Black Mountain – IV
I’ve gotten into some arguments over this, but I think IV is Black Mountain’s best album yet. The previous three all contain great songs and amazing moments throughout, but also have their low points. IV is a monster all the way through, dripping with mysticism and alien soundscapes. I saw them perform these songs at The Tractor this year, before I had heard the album, and knew immediately I was in for something special. There’s a newfound restraint to their groove, and the dueling guitar-keyboard riffs are fresh, a difficult achievement in this often stale corner of hard rock. IV doesn’t reinvent the Sabbath-worship wheel, but I’ll be damned if there’s a better stoner rock album this year. – Aaron Semer
16. Solange – A Seat At The Table
In a year where racial tension presided over most national headlines, a lot of folks turned to music for solace. Solange’s A Seat At The Table was not only a statement of pride, but a soundtrack for hope. Retro R&B, subtle electronics and an underlying punk rock spirit flow beneath Solange’s comforting voice. – Ian Bremner
15. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
If you’ve ever lamented the state of country music in the past 25 years, Margo Price would like you to know she is more than willing to carry the torch of Classic Country and drag it into the new millennium. She is single-handedly the vessel for the spirits of Lynn, Parton, Wynette, et al and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter serves as the bridge to the past. It’s hardly a relic. Much like former bandmate Sturgill Simpson, Price forges the past for tried-and-true reminders of what country radio seems to have tossed aside – a good song will shine through without any studio trickery or collusion to sand off the edges in order to fit a template, heartbreak will always compel the ear, and every bender has a reason. – Adam Lawrence
14. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead did a thing. – Matt Ashworth
13. Frank Ocean – Blonde
We waited and waited like fishermen desperate for a bite, and when Frank Ocean finally came out of hiding, he gave us all we could hope for and more. Two albums, in fact. The mysterious rollout began with Endless, a visual album that plays less like a collection of songs and more like a soulful sonic landscape that bops and weaves as we witness the building of a staircase to nowhere. It’s weird, and beautiful, and should not be overlooked.
A day after its release, however, Endless fell into the shadows when Frank dropped another bomb with Blonde. Seen as the more “official” follow-up to Channel Orange, Blonde somehow manages to be both remarkably restrained and loaded with hidden layers and surprises. It’s the kind of sound that keeps us coming back, eager to revisit perfect moments like Frank’s full voice finally kicking in after two minutes of pitched-up vocals on Nikes. Or the shape-shifting crescendos on “Self Control” and “White Ferrari.” Or the manic guitar transition on “Nights.” Or the… I can’t stop listening. – Dan Lurie
12. Run the Jewels – III
We got great pictures of RTJ at Bumbershoot 2016.
11. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
I’ve written enough about Mr. Cohen this year and anymore will just depress me more. But this record is incredible and is a fitting coda to an incredible body of work. – Nicholas Anderson
10. Mitski – Puberty #2
Cameron Deuel introduced me to Mitski and I love this album. – Matt Ashworth
9. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
While A Tribe Called Quest never fell off the radar of dedicated hip hop fans, the passing of Phife Dawg in early-mid 2016 rocketed them back into widespread consciousness. Still, it was surprising when they dropped We Got It From Here, Thanks 4 Your Service later in the year and even more surprising when it was not only solid, but spectacular. Funny, angry, and fresh, We Got It From Here. . . has more energy than a group over twenty years in the game has any right to. The relevance of fiery tracks like “We the People” and “The Donald” can’t be understated, and the music has Tribe’s signature rubbery jazz grooves, while expanding their sonic palette. In a year of unpleasant surprises in music and beyond, A Tribe Called Quest showed there could be good surprises too. – Graham Isaac
8. Anderson.Paak’s – Malibu
A bird with the word carries the song of Anderson.Paak. Vibes of Kendrick‘s To Pimp A Butterfly swirled with D’angelo‘s Black Messiah stretch the 16 track album. Anderson can rap with ease and swagger of a classic west coast OG all while taking turns on the piano, drums and singing with a distinct rasp. – Ian Bremner
7. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
This one’s a little out of the ordinary for me. I had never really paid attention to Donald Glovers’s music (or acting for that matter) until last year when I was working at this bar that had one old iPod that was filled with nothing but (an extremely limited selection of) metal and hip-hop, leading me to throw on Childish Gambino just for the hell of it because I was sick of listening to the Sword ( which, surprisingly, can happen). And it was alright. Not really my thing, but I dug it enough to throw it on more than once and it certainly piqued my interest enough to check this release out. And fuck me running, I am now on boar. I can’t wait for summer because Awaken, My Love! is going to sound amazing coming out of an open window. – Nicholas Anderson
6. Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Parquet Courts’ third album is rock music at its finest; simple chord progressions, raw, eccentric lyrics and a somewhat loose, unhinged approach to songwriting. – Ben Allen
5. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
I tried several times to start this review, but ultimately I landed on a simple statement of fact – Teens of Denial is one of the most exciting and compelling “debuts” in a long, long time. Will Toledo’s nom de disque had previously released 12 albums via Bandcamp, so it’s hardly correct to call him a brand-new voice, but nevertheless Teens of Denial sounds like a brand-new artist arrived on our earth, fully formed and shiny.
Teens of Denial contains long songs with lyrics focused on slices of life, the kind perfected recently by Courtney Barnett and delivered in a disinterested, Johnathan Richman style, but the music is propulsive, urgent, counter-intuitive to the millennial angst theming the lyrics. But, of course, boredom and seemingly boundless energy is the currency of youth, contradictory as it may appear.
Teens of Denial’s greatest achievement is probably “The Ballad of The Costa Concordia,” a three-part treatise on depression, ennui, and ultimately, a scathing indictment of a previous generation’s neglect. However, the song’s narrator understands he is also complicit in his failures, which is what elevates the song from its potential insufferability. Ultimately, the narrator triumphantly announces, “I give up!” and it is a victory. – Adam Lawrence
4. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
There’s a certain glow to Chance the Rapper that’s insatiable. The man is a positive force, whether he’s doing an interview with Ellen or strutting across the Saturday Night Live stage in red wool overalls. Coloring Book brings all of that positivity, that faith, that glory, straight to the earhole. Was there a more infectious dance jam in 2016 than “Angels?” Maybe “No Problem,” off the same mixtape. When not inducing rug-cutting, Chance tugs at the heartstrings with nostalgic personal joints like “Same Drugs” and “Summer Friends,” or lifts us up to the heavens with full-blown gospel bangers. God bless you, Chance 3. – Dan Lurie
3. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Sometimes the hype is right. I’d not have guessed it, say, ten years ago (which has more to do with myself and my tastes at the time than Beyoncé) but Beyoncé has created a stunning work of art, charting the decline and rebirth of a relationship while traversing musical styles from traditional R and B to rock and even country. From the thumping anthem “Freedom” through the laid-back but chastising “Hold Up,” and the dark grooves of “Sorry”, it’s a bracing narrative both intimate and connective. It’s pairing with the movie length video (and Tidal tie-in) made it a capital-letters Cultural Event, but even standing alone, divorced from celebrity, Lemonade is a masterpiece of lyricism, musical execution and concept. – Graham Isaac
2. Angel Olsen – My Woman
We also already told you about Angel Olsen.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
2016 will long be remembered for how many famous people, musical and otherwise, died over the course of the calendar year. Of course, this level of shock has less to do with the Reaper being overzealous and much more to do with the fact that my generation is being forced to face its own mortality and doing so on Facebook and Twitter just compounds the sadness. David Bowie’s death in January was the opening salvo.
Hopefully, though, Bowie’s out-of-nowhere death will also be remembered for the fabulous parting gift he gave us. Blackstar, his 25th studio album, would’ve been remembered for its remarkable inventiveness and as a return to power by most without the fact that he died of cancer two days after his release on his 69th birthday. The songs are vibrant and striking, wrestling with large themes with a jazzier sound that ever before. Bowie’s voice is clear and booming, as though he was determined to remind the world that, after years of relative obscurity, he was relevant as ever. Then he was gone.
David Bowie could be frustrating in his elusiveness, but ultimately Blackstar paints him correctly as a bit of a prankster. Although given a terminal diagnosis, Bowie filmed several videos for Blackstar songs and, according to co-conspirator and producer Tony Visconti, left several clues in the lyrics about exactly what he was dealing with. The musicians he worked with claimed they had no idea about his diagnosis and to look at the pictures taken just before he died, you knew they were telling the truth. Bowie beat cancer in one way – he went out on his own terms, well before the disease robbed him of his famous looks. The fact that he left us with some of his strongest work serves as a bitter cherry on top. – Adam Lawrence