co-written by Gersham Johnson
In such a dichotomous and divided year, it ends up coming as no surprise that the prototypical albums of 2016 are represented by two distinct camps. On the one hand is the expansive opus, fearlessly drawing on diverse musical styles and assertive politics. The artist refuses to compromise, and indulges in lengthy interludes, bizarre collaborations, and experimental and at times questionable tracks. While it values the artist over the band, it embraces a community-oriented process, drawing on a wealth of producers, collaborators, and influences. While these records lack a unified theme, their power lies in their relentless grasping towards undefined greatness. Albums released by artists such as Rihanna, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and The 1975 are all clear examples of this approach.
On the other hand is the insular record, relying on unwavering and unified musical and lyrical ideas to depict one central theme throughout the album’s run. Every track is anchored to the same aesthetic, be it a noise rock soundscape, or a strings-enhanced rock power trio, or a shehnai melodic hook. While these records can still be expansive in their reach, each musical and lyrical decision is tailored to the artist’s message, thus allowing continuous narratives of dissolved love, racial pride and soul-searching to coalesce into one record. Albums released by artists such as Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, Swet Shop Boys, Whitney and Solange capture this spirit. Notwithstanding, both of the aforementioned artistic approaches often reflect the artist’s desire to transcend the mundanity and pain of a current situation, as they search for meaning through their music.
Hip-hop and R&B continue to dominate the scene in terms of musical, political, and popular significance. But in 2016 there seemed to be a sense of pressure–perhaps due to the year’s politics, perhaps due to the need to follow up towering accomplishments such as To Pimp A Butterfly— to evolve artistically, correspondingly resulting in experimental projects. The rock and indie scene continues to thrive under the radar, creating stellar albums that maintain the traditional sense of what an album is in a way that the aforementioned styles are beginning to defy, but even here we see the crushing pressure to define oneself as individual, leading artists on both sides of the spectrum to eschew many of the formal features that make 21st century pop popular in the first place. Whether it’s in the form of an 11-minute epic with multiple refrains, or a New Orleans-infused country ballad that embraces its genre as much as it redefines it, 2016 has demonstrated yet again that the rules of music are meant to be twisted and reinterpreted as art and society evolve. Each of our twenty listed albums, along with quite a few more that didn’t make the cut, makes a compelling effort to move music–structurally, thematically, politically, melodically–forward.
All in all, the results are fantastic.
“Light Upon the Lake,” Whitney
“Light Upon the Lake” doesn’t sound like much else in 2016, at first glance for the wrong reasons. The opening track “No Woman” sounds like a Neil Young cover down to the falsetto. On the other hand, the croon of vocalist Julian Ehrlich recalls the late 2000s band Girls, who crafted an atmosphere of pain, listlessness, and reckless nostalgia. And even if in theory it feels wrong, to the ear it feels so right. The methodical arrangements create beautiful, complete songs, and the album itself feels whole, mixing upbeat guitar jams with piano ballads, starting with slow sunrise, picking up to a joyful noon, and duskily fading out. Whitney earns the number one spot not by beating out everyone else at the race to create the biggest, most complex, most personal, and most meaningful record, but rather by making the album that is simply the most fun to listen to. “Golden Days” perfectly encapsulates the meaning of this record, anachronistic and yet instinctively relevant to a chaotic 2016: “It’s a shame we can’t get it together now / Cuz I’m aching for those golden days.”
“We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service,” A Tribe Called Quest
“We Got it From Here” feels like a canonical work of hip-hop, representing simultaneously the present and the past: it maintains the sprawling structure and stylistic diversity of 2016, while bringing back a focus on the bare bones of hip-hop and the reasons A Tribe Called Question were so revolutionary when they came on to the scene in 1991. Their rhythms and rhymes aren’t inventive like they were back then. But they’re still fresh, combining elements of funk, jazz, and cleverly applied sonic effects–all with a grooving, spacey, futuristic undertone. They embrace retro vibes as well as nuanced production, and are cleverly self-referential about their status as old folks in the contemporary music scene. Like many great hip-hop and R&B albums of this year, “We Got It” hones in on politics, Black selfhood, and the marginalization incipient and unique to this year, but cuts the bullshit and sidestepping. Due to its length and refusal to develop a single cohesive theme, “We Got It” is in many ways self-indulgent. But Quest’s work is self-indulgent for all the right reasons: after nearly 20 years off, they’ve got a lot to show us.
“Teens of Denial,” Car Seat Headrest
Those ready to declare the death of rock music at the close of “Oldchella” were no doubt unfamiliar with Car Seat Headrest, a band that, through careful mining of lo-fi sensibilities and unorthodox guitar-based structures, have emerged with one of the greatest distillations of ‘80s and ‘90s indie rock seen in years. And all of this is due to lead singer Will Toledo, a prodigious auteur who is simply the best lyricist of his generation. (For all you college-age and slightly-post-college-age kids, that’s us.) Titles like “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” conjure entire narratives even before the first listen, and a seemingly inexhaustible set of hypnotic melodies are paired with turns of phrase that make the dullness of young adult life cut like a razor. So whether he’s dabbling in self-therapy, existential philosophy, or merely receiving an acid-induced visit from Jesus Christ himself, Toledo speaks truths that resonate as clearly as the droning guitars that underpin this adolescent opus.
“Malibu,” Anderson .Paak
Paak is one of the most important new artists of 2016, putting out not one but two albums, both excellent for their own reasons. While “Yes Lawd!” is a crafted declaration of triumph, “Malibu” is the honest, tender work that got him there. With a uniquely versatile voice, Paak hits the always-relevant themes of hard work, relationships, and big dreams right on, with a warmth that enfolds a listener. It has sweet and slow moments, bumping and grinding ones, proud and loud ones; its joy and pain is tangible. Malibu feels like more than one man’s album, with its rapping contributions from Talib Kweli and Schoolboy Q, production contributions from the likes of Madlib and 9th Wonder, creative and fun-spirited revival of old-school R&B, and a sense of shared experience in the spine of every song.
“A Seat at the Table,” Solange
One of the most stylistically cohesive releases of the year, the marriage of Solange’s gorgeous soprano with the equally gorgeous upper-register piano passages that dominate the record underscores an essential record “for us, by us.” In a year rife with racism, every lyric feels like a sort of shield, encouragements and declarations of black empowerment that are as vulnerable as they are strong. But it’s in this place of beautifully uncertain strength where the record also achieves something universal. The six-song run from “Rise” to “Don’t Touch My Hair” (plus interludes) is the strongest uninterrupted musical sequence you’ll find this year, and each moment takes the fragility we often experience from both internal and external forms of oppression and fashions it into defiant mantras of resistance. But on top of all that there’s “Mad,” featuring one of Lil’ Wayne’s all-time best verses.
Though this doesn’t have any narratives of adultery or empowerment to hold things together, the strongest pure pop release of the year does embrace the spirit of musical experimentation, liberating Rihanna the Artist for perhaps the first time in her career. Simply, the myriad bold production and style choices here make the record stick, even on the less-than-exciting tracks. Songs like “Love on the Brain” prove that Doo-wop changes aren’t dead. Songs like “James Joint” prove that 1-minute bass grooves can be just as hook-filled as 7-minute jams. And songs like “Work” prove that sometimes an annoyingly repetitive dancehall earworm is the best musical treat for the moment.
“Puberty 2,” Mitski
Mitski feels like a genuine individual, a real person who invites us into her personal life and artistic universe, more so than perhaps anyone else in 2016. She achieves this by balancing personal reflection and memory with meaningful storytelling. The former is articulated by the chorus on the standout “Your Best American Girl” that soars like a roaring jet plane: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, But I do, I finally do”; the latter by the concise mantra of the last track that finishes the album’s arc: “Today I will wear my white button-down, I’m tired of wanting more.” The songs are haunting, beautiful, and thematically develop over the album’s course; the most impressive part of her songwriting is how she can paint evocative images with so few words. She relies on the emotional power of the music–a full and textured palette of guitars, somehow both gritty and shimmering, and ‘60s pop-psychedelic hooks–and its growth, development, and climax to give her words so much more meaning even as they repeat. You’re left yearning to hear them one more time.
“Heavn,” Jamila Woods
It’s easy to just look at this as another strong R&B record, but it feels almost ekphrastic in the way it so cleanly combines the sometimes at odds disciplines of poetry and songwriting. Much of the poetry, like on Solange’s similarly spirited record, provides a platform for much-needed emotional solidarity in a difficult time for many people of color. But as with all great art, this single notion multiples itself as it’s refracted through several lenses. Freedom fighting, escapism, and even grieving are given equal weight, hammering home the point that blackness, though unashamedly defining in its own right, is also a part of the greater continuum of the human experience. And where the poetry becomes music is at an intersection rich with samples from The Cure, dense choral harmonies and gentle instrumentation. This is blk girl magic.
“Life of Pablo,” Kanye West
Ye gives us another fractured, bizarre, wonderful, terrible, fascinating record in “Life of Pablo.” There’s something cohesive about its incohesiveness, the ugly use of auto-tune, the scream “Would everybody start fucking?!”, a spiritual spoken word track, and of course “I Love Kanye.” But Kanye can’t make a record without moments of ecstatic brilliance, like the prophetic, celestial shine of “Ultralight Beam” with its simply breathtaking Chance verse, the irreverent and creatively structured “Famous,” and one of Kanye’s personal best verses in “No More Parties in LA,” set to a flawless Madlib-crafted dark funk jam. Kanye continues to challenge our hip-hop sensibilities, creating another flawed, attention-seeking, unfulfilled but pretty awesome album.
“Human Performance,” Parquet Courts
It stands as probably the best in 2016 rock guitarism, if only because Parquet Courts understand how to make their twitching licks and shimmering chords sound as deadpan as the humor of their lyrical insights. Dust mites and dead cops populate a record that’s as lovelorn as it is socially critical, featuring some of the most bittersweet love songs this side of Jonathan Richman. Beautifully chosen minor chords help ask the question of when love is truly deserved, and pained but affectless vocals help search for a true place to feel at home. But more often than not, the music serves to help uncover those simple moments that remind us how pretty a day in the life can be.
There’s only one song on this album that you need to know: “Formation”. It is without a doubt the best song of 2016. From that first bounce, “Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess,” to the drop, and the music video, and “If he fuck me good I’ll take his ass to red lobster,” and the sudden release, the Super Bowl Half-Time show, the background horns, every lyric, every sound, and every dance-move–it’s a modern “Song of Myself.” But it’s not just for anyone. “Formation” makes no compromises, to the point where SNL was inspired to make a skit about the song called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” depicting white people screaming upon their realization that Beyoncé is, in fact, black. Beyoncé went “political,” but she remained the Queen (and even more awesome than she was before). And the rest of the album is pretty good, too.
“Coloring Book,” Chance the Rapper
Chance’s evolution is perfectly articulated by the first track, All We Got. Whereas on Acid Rap he started off on the euphoric, drugged up piano gospel “Good Ass Intro”, he starts this album off about ten shades more mellow, tender, and sophisticated, but with all of the same brilliant wordplay and fearlessness to sing, rap, moan, and laugh. Coloring Book is an album of good vibes, loving hums, and honest self-introspection. It’s also the album of a changed man, who has embraced spirituality and family even as he struggled to connect with them on Acid Rap. Coloring Book can feel a bit plodding and one-sided as it goes on, but moments of colorful brilliance abound: from the clink and release of “when the blessings go up” to the triumphant singalong “Finish Line / Drown”, on Coloring Book Chance has really grown in a powerful way. He extols the gracious and flirts with the sublime, creating his fullest and most memorable album yet.
“I Had a Dream that You Were Mine,” Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam have created a true chamber pop record. Their rich arrangements contain acoustic guitar, pounding drums, piano glimmer, and the swell and backing of a full orchestra; what makes “I Had a Dream” unique for a chamber pop record is its sense of groove and rhythm that emerges from time to time. The album sings sunrise progressions and birdflight melodies that meander through myriad worlds: misty dreams of love, post-industrial narrative landscapes, and New Orleans moonglow iced with lemon and sugar. The stunning conclusion “1959” is perfected by the guest vocals, as Angel Deradoorian has a voice beautiful enough to match the music and imagery. Hamilton’s voice is far from perfect, but his cry, at times rough and blistering, helps make this album stand out as an exceptional piece of chamber pop.
“Robert Ellis,” Robert Ellis
No praise is too excessive for a man who can fashion an album’s worth of ideas within the span of a single song. “Perfect Strangers” starts off as an observational piece of songwriting on new romance before dovetailing into a personal tale of failed love, in just three and a half minutes. And in the same timespan, bouncy pianos suddenly become hopeful strings, only to change again to winsome piano. It’s more impressive still that Ellis can link these mini-sagas all together for the duration of a full album. Jazzy electric keys and Spanish-tinged guitar do not compete but complement each other on what is ultimately a really good-sounding breakup record. Truth be told, this is an album that refuses to fully resolve itself, but the questions it raises always seem to become a bit more clear the next listen around.
“Blonde,” Frank Ocean
After his long absence, Frank Ocean returned with more of a series of lapping, starlit waves than a tsunami. Ocean is one of the better lyricists in pop music, combining a hip-hop style full of double-entendres with catchy melodies and striking imagery. The lyrics are really what makes this album worth listening to, as the music–though it has its brilliant moments–often feels repetitive and narcotic, with its slow pulse and lack of beat. But Ocean truly sings his heart out on this album, creatively and sometimes cryptically discussing love, isolation, sexuality, adolescence, and the occasional musical or political reference that he feels like slipping in. Blond is a lonesome, beautiful listen.
“Home of the Strange,” Young the Giant
At the heart of this record is an immigrant story of self-discovery that’s invaluable in this day and age. And while that theme isn’t carried out uniformly throughout the tracks, delicate guitars, heavy beats and lush synths unify this collection around a narrative of personal re-definition to produce a strongly cohesive moment for alternative rock. Lead singer Sameer Gadhia has one of the strongest voices in the genre, and each song is centered around his deeply nuanced vocals and melodies. In an era of pop music dominated by heavily disjunct “soundbite” melodies (see “Don’t Wanna Know” by Maroon 5), it’s nice to hear a band attempt to thoughtfully craft full and catchy tunes that tell stories of their own.
“Cashmere,” Swet Shop Boys
In several ways a direct descendant of Public Enemy’s landmark “It Takes a Nation of Millions,” rappers Heems and Riz MC (both of whom simultaneously invoke Chuck D and Flavor Flav) team up with the hybrid soundscapes of minimalist hip-hop beats and South Asian instrumental hooks as they wrap their dense wordplay around a litany of political issues–this time pertaining primarily to the Muslim community. The instrumental samples are striking but effective in this context, allowing the songs to build around concise but persistent musical loops. This consistency allows the emcees to focus on their greatest asset: their shared sardonic sense of humor. “Look Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him/There’s more than one direction to get to paradise.” In other words, the year’s best cultural, political, and religious insight.
“Shishamo 3,” Shishamo
This Japanese girl-rock group’s third album demonstrates the true musical diversity of 2016. Shishamo rocks, rocks hard, with smashing drums, slashing guitars, and a restless bass, which is more to be said than any modern American band. They’ve also, in “Nakaniwa no Shoujoutachi,” quietly written one of the best melodies of the year, seconded by an equally catchy guitar riff. While maintaining their positive energy, Shishamo aims towards the climactic pop anthem at the album’s end, missing the mark only because of their commitment to instrumental fun over produced mastery. Non-Japanese speakers aren’t missing much, as the real joy in Shishamo is their restless energy, spirited arrangements, smart rhythmic sensibility, and the way you might accidentally find yourself dancing.
“I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It,” The 1975
Like One Direction, the 1975 have been referred to as a post-modern boy band several times over, but what makes them one of the standout acts of the past few years is the very same thing that aligns them with many of their contemporaries. Throughout their excessively long-titled second album, frontman Matt Healy embraces the kind of diversified, genre-less eclecticism that defined other 2016 albums as far-ranging as “Lemonade” and “Anti.” But the key to the 1975’s approach is the transparency with which they operate. They shamelessly exploit their varied influences, donning Bowie funk riffs and The Blue Nile’s heavy synthesizer atmospheres, making it sound original by sheer force of will. Here, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Rather, each part forms its own distinct statement on 20th and 21st century pop, making this the great chameleonic act of the year.
“Everything You’ve Come to Expect,” Last Shadow Puppets
Half of the lyrics don’t make any sense, but a lyricist as talented as Alex Turner (and also, I suppose, Miles Kane) knows how to make the nonsense of his poetry as musical as the music itself. Aside from a string-section assist from Owen Pallett, a very busy and at times vitriolic bass-guitar-drums section constructs the backbones of songs that love ceiling-reaching melodies, Minor-IV chords, and late-afternoon atmospheres. “Miracle Aligner,” the epitome of those qualities, towers above the rest of the record as one of the prettiest songs of the year. But just about every song here works. It’s not the Arctic Monkeys, but perhaps that’s why it’s able to put its own distinct stamp on retro, guitar-oriented rock.
just missed the cut: “Hero”- Maren Morris, “Seoulite”- Lee Hi, “Blackstar”- David Bowie