My Favorite Albums of 2016
This year may not have been great for many things, but despite all the terrible, horrible, no-good badness of 2016, music was a silver lining in an otherwise dismal year on many other fronts (/”2016 was a terrible year” rant over).
Some really, really good music came out this year. Some of it was expected/semi-expected — Drake, Kanye, Beyonce, and Radiohead were all on a number of “2016 most anticipated” lists, and each delivered. Other artists came out of the woodwork or at least entered mainstream consciousness in a major way this year.
Okay, enough with the broad strokes overview of my experience listening to music in 2016— here are my top 15 albums of the year:
15. Childish Gambino — Awaken, My Love!
This album sounds nothing like Childish’s first EPs or Campfire — if I hadn’t heard the singles, I would’ve assumed I had bought the wrong album.
To be fair, Because the Internet sounded very different from Campfire, and he did debut this album with a multi day performance in Joshua Tree, so things were moving in a direction. Besides not having any discernible rapping on it, it also sounds like it was recorded in 1972, and perhaps even more impressively, no auto-tune or pitch-shifting was used on the album, which if you’ve heard it, is incredibly impressive.
I like this album, but I also really liked Childish rapping — it’s certainly less accessible than his earlier work, and it feels like the kind of album I need to hear a few dozen more times to really get. That said, there’s a level of art that it feels like must have been incredibly difficult to create here, and I really admire him pushing to create through what I can only imagine was a really uncomfortable artistic process.
14. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes makes really wonderful music, and every time I come back to this album I’m reminded of how much I really like both the album and the way he creates. The drums that open on Augustine sound like they could be on a mid-80s MJ album, but then instead of a bright pop melody, he has these ethereal vocals that somehow work perfectly on the track.
There’s something naturally gorgeous about this album — the found samples of overheard life in New York paired with poignant lyrics that matter and reflect our political climate feels like exactly the album I wanted, and he captured a feeling in a way that few other albums did for me this year.
13. A Tribe Called Quest — We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
There were many reasons to doubt that this album would be any good: it had been 18 years, Tribe’s style was so firmly (in my mind) tied to 90s-era hip-hop, and Phife had passed away, leaving me imagining the best-case scenario for this album being a collection of half-finished ideas and b-sides.
Thankfully, it wasn’t, at all. Q-Tip sounds great on this, and the features are really on point: Andre and Kendrick really shine, and Busta does a really admirable job of filling in all over this album. Also, I really appreciate them throwing scratches back into rap beats, and they somehow make their tracks sound as smooth and effortless as they’ve ever been.
12. Beyonce — Lemonade
No one makes an impact like Beyonce does. No one could debut a brand new, never-heard-before song at halftime of the Super Bowl and still crush it. And the world doesn’t stop for any other artist the way it did when she dropped the visual album.
Once the dust settled, what we had here was a very, very good album and one that stretched beyond her previous artistic bounds. There’s so much here: from one of the best beats of the year (Mike Will Made It on Formation) to straight rock songs with back and forths with Jack White, to the anthem with Kendrick, Freedom, that’s probably my favorite track on the album, this album covers ground. Not to mention it came accompanied with the most visually gorgeous long-form video in recent memory.
On top of all this, she also drops the half bombshell of Jay’s philandering (‘half’ only because the details of ‘with whom’ and ‘when’ are still debated), which in some ways was unfortunate because it gave a built-in TMZ-ready bombshell headline that pulled attention away from how high quality the music on the album is. The album reaches a peak, for me, with the combination of Bey’s vocals and the writing and production work from Ezra from Vampire Weekend and Diplo — the album comes together to be one of the more compelling releases of the year and more than meriting the hype that came along with it.
11. 6Lack — Free 6Lack
I’m still not sure how to properly pronounce his name, but 6Lack’s record came out of nowhere but got a lot of play for me. He has these melodic croons over minimalist, beautiful atmospheric instrumentation, and largely addresses the aftermath of relationships that fell/are falling apart, and what living in that state of transition between them is like.
Describing his sound is tough — there are hints of the haunting qualities of the xx, the subtle melodies that frank ocean uses, and it’s all placed against the backdrop of the current state of hip-hop in Atlanta. Some of the lines on this album are savage, but the context of both the relationship and how beautiful the music makes it easy to not notice how cutting they are. This album is hauntingly beautiful and the perfect soundtrack for being introspective on a cold winter night.
10. Rihanna — Anti
Before this album came out, I had no idea what to expect from it — FourFiveSeconds and American Oxygen preceded the album, and both would be out of place on any of her previous albums. While both were ultimately scrapped for the album (along with Bitch Better Have My Money), they were indicators that this album would be different: while I don’t think Work will get much replay value over the next several years, this is the Rihanna album that I imagine we’ll remember her most for in 20 years.
9. Vince Staples — Prima Donna
This album opens with one of the most jarring intros I’ve heard in years — a tape recorder starts with Vince’s disembodied voice, half-mumble-singing ‘this little light of mine’ before a gunshot fires and an Andre 3k sample opens into War Ready.
When he’s not busy giving the best interviews in hip-hop, Vince Staples makes some of the most compelling self-reflection/storytelling rap of anyone out. If Summertime ’06 was him detailing life growing up as a 13-year-old in Long Beach, this EP is a look inside his head present day, with the success of the previous album and where that’s left him.
The album is enough to make you worry whether or not he’s all right — there are depression raps, frequent suicidal reflections, and struggles with what’s real versus imagined. Listening to this album isn’t an always comfortable experience, but he creates a window into his mind that may be uncomfortable at times, but is an incredibly compelling view into his psyche.
8. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Last July, I flew into Boston on a Thursday night, and managed to snag cheap 10th-row seats to the Red Sox game that night. At the game, I looked at what concerts were that night, ventured over to a club, and managed to get into the sold out Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals show that night.
Their set was one of the best live shows I’ve seen in a long, long time — he was playing drums while singing and rapping, his band was super tight, and the whole energy was incredible.
This album (along with the Nxworries album) sounds gorgeous, between the production, Anderson’s voice, and his ability to craft a melody that dances over instrumentals that feel like they’re somewhere between mellow R&B/lounge/jazz, but don’t squarely fall in any of those. When people ask which album of 2016 they need to check out that they may have missed, Anderson’s album is usually my go to.
7. Young Thug — Jeffery
I admittedly had no idea what to make of Thugger when I first heard him, and I’m not sure I have any more of an idea now. Not much about him feels aligned with typical rap conventions, from the way he’ll insert unexpected melodies into semi-intelligible verses to his album cover in an androgynous dress.
At first listen, it’d be easy to dismiss this album as a messy collection of rap tropes hastily thrown together and packaged as a mixtape. While it seems like things are haphazardly thrown together initially, it becomes clear that he’s actually meticulously alternating melodies, playing with rhythms, and experimenting with his voice in a way that no one else would dare. The result is an album that sounds completely different from anything else I heard this year and one that I can listen through start to finish and not skip a track.
Also, one of my favorite bits about Thugger, from an interview with one of his producers:
6. Vic Mensa — There’s a Lot Going On
This EP is only 7 tracks, but manages to overdeliver on any expectations I had after hearing U Mad & Wolves — Vic delves into much more storytelling and introspection than I expected, detailing how he connected with Jay, the complications and demise of his relationship, and the complications of mixing fame, expectations, travel and addiction.
With all of these competing themes throughout the 30 minutes of music, he still manages to leave room for well-crafted instrumental progressions within non-traditional song structures. There are some peaks and dips here, but many more of the former than the latter, and while the tracks may not work perfectly as a cohesive collection, the quality of the best songs here combined with the amount of talent on display ranks this album very highly for me this year, and gets me pretty excited to see what he has in store.
5. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo
I could write a novella full of my thoughts about this album, but I‘ll spare you all of that. Is it as good as Kanye’s other albums? It’s definitively not in the conversation for best Kanye album (MBDTF), but that’s a ridiculously high bar to hit.
This album is really uneven, and I imagine that’s a consequence of it being the longest Kanye has ever taken between albums (almost three years since Yeezus) and creating tracks in between getting married, having two kids, and launching his fashion line. Some lines feel stilted — the Taylor Swift lyric and the model/bleach line both immediately come to mind, and make me wonder if being around the Kardashian crew all day long primed him to go for certain lines that he knew would garner media attention.
Despite some shortcomings and the unevenness, this album is really, really good. Ultralight Beam is my favorite song of the year, and Real Friends, FML, No More Parties in LA & 30 Hours all remind me of vintage Kanye, teetering between self-consciousness and hyper-confidence and figuring out the difference in real time.
Also, his release strategy of creating a living piece of art is one of the greatest artistic benefits of music consumption shifting to streaming-first, and one that gets overlooked — I can imagine a music project of the future where your experience of it can be different day to day depending on the artist’s latest edits (or even where you are, the time of day, or a whole variety of factors that could lead to a world where each experience with a recorded album only exists in that moment in which you heard it).
4. Run The Jewels — Run the Jewels 3
The first RTJ album snuck up on me — I hadn’t listened to a lot of El-P since college, and I’d heard Killer Mike on some features and songs here and there, but wasn’t nearly as well acquainted as I should have been. The first album made my list of 2013 albums, RTJ2 was my #2 of 2014, and in any other year, RTJ3 could easily by #1.
Leading up to this album, I saw RTJ in New York at Panorama over the summer, and not only did they put on a great performance, but they drew out a raw energy from the crowd that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen at a festival of that size before. Also, the video they made for ‘Nobody Speak’ with DJ Shadow was one of my favorites of the year.
I only had a week with this album before the end of the year, as it surprise-dropped at 9p on Christmas Eve, but I still managed to get a dozen listens in, and feel like these guys not only don’t disappoint, but they get better with each album. This is by far their longest of the three, clocking in at over 51 minutes, whereas the first two were 33 and 39, respectively, and yet it doesn’t feel like there’s any filler. Like the first two, this album makes for a great running / work out soundtrack, too.
El-P’s production has always been great, but it feels like it’s a step up even from the last two albums — it’s a little more subdued at times, but he’s made beats on this album that progress and grow throughout the track in a way that’s more nuanced than previous work. Killer Mike’s lyrics are always on point, and they’ve only gotten better with this album. Also, not to be overlooked, El-P holds his own lyrically really well here, and their resulting dynamic is the best it’s ever been — and it was really good to begin with.
3. The Weeknd — Starboy
Fair or not (personally, I’d say not), The Weeknd took a lot of heat for his last album going too pop. When word leaked that he was working with Daft Punk and his original producer from House of Balloons, expectations were huge for this album.
Starboy is a really well-made pop song, and one of the catchier tracks of the second half of the year, and False Alarm is sneakily the best song of the year to run to (seriously, try not to sprint when the hook hits). The rest of the album may not spark as many singles as Beauty Behind the Madness, but it got a ton of play for me over the winter — it feels like a great album to ride around to on a cold winter night.
While it may lack the singles of the previous album, it feels more cohesive, especially in the latter half, and he incorporates guest spots in a way that works much better than they did in on Beauty — Kendrick’s verse on Sidewalks and Future’s work on Six Feet Under and All I Know all work really well, and feel like they round out the tracks really nicely.
And while I’m skeptical of albums that lead with the first single as track 1 (often feels like a signal that they want to make sure listeners hear that track because they might not wade through part of the rest of the album to get to it), I do like the choice to close with I Feel It Coming and let the Daft Punk features bookend the album.
2. Frank Ocean — Blond
I think about expectations a lot when I’m listening to an album, and it’s mostly so that I can try to balance for my reaction: if an album is great but I was expecting it to be amazing, I may unjustly think less of it than I should. And in terms of expectations, Frank Ocean’s were about as high as they get.
Insinuations of release dates ultimately missed plus no new music for over four years incited some very strong reactions and created incredibly lofty expectations for what this album would be. Then he did something really odd by putting a video of a staircase being built while new music played on loop. And the music was good, but it was strange: some snippets of less than a minute, a sample of a man with a German accent talking about mobile devices, and some beautiful tracks but without any way to download the album in a conventional way.
While I did like Endless a lot — especially Comme des Garçons & Unity — Blond is impeccable to me. He doesn’t lose all of the weirdness and experimentation of Endless; the album begins with 3 minutes of pitched-up vocals that would be unidentifiable as Frank Ocean if I didn’t know it was his album. The textures that he crafts on this album are spectacular, and he’s chosen instrumentals that perfectly rest below the vocal melodies. And while it feels like a serious, emotional album, he pairs it with skits that don’t totally make sense to me in the context of the album, though I still very much appreciate, both his friend’s mom’s voicemail about not doing drugs or drinking and the French guy talking about Facebook (which, by the way, I think deserves a nuanced look: yes, it is silly to break up because of Facebook, but was this guy such a savage that he wouldn’t accept a FB friendship with his girlfriend of three years? If that’s the case, who is he accepting friendships from? These are questions that I ask myself.)
I imagine I could still listen to this album in five years and enjoy it just as much — I feel like I discover a vocal effect or a little ad-lib that I’d previously missed every time I listen to it. I actually like this album more than Channel Orange, and feel like it somehow lived up to the colossal expectations that came with it.
1. Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
After the verse on ‘Ultralight Beam,’ I so badly wanted this album to live up to expectations — Chance is an incredibly talented rapper and had a stage to deliver with everyone paying attention. And just like he did with the opportunity to appear on Kanye’s album, Chance took full advantage by delivering a classic mixtape (sidenote: we’re getting way too conservative with what we’re not calling albums — for all intents & purposes, this really is an album).
No one sounds like they’re having more fun rapping than Chance does, and from the opening two tracks, it’s clear he’s entirely in his element here. No Problem is one of my favorite tracks spin live and see how people react when the hook hits, and his following up with Summer Friends is unconventional, but makes it clear that he’s making an album that spans genres and doesn’t simply cater to what the hip-hop mainstream might want to hear. Nothing here is forced, and he manages to get the very most out of his guest spots — most rappers with an opportunity to get Bieber on a track would put him center stage, but instead, Chance has him do the melody on a hook more than halfway through the album on Juke Jam (which, I’ll note, uses the same melody as R. Kelly’s Feeling on Yo Booty, which is also sampled on The Weeknd’s Die for You, but both are uncredited🤔 — comparison listen here)
This album strikes that rare moment in art when three factors collide: enormous talent, a well-honed craft, and the naiveté to still take risks that more mature artists would not. Coloring Book fits each of these, with Chance hitting his stride here on his third album, but he was still under 23 for most of the recording of it. This album captures a certain level of youthful exuberance that rarely gets brought to life through the lens of someone so creatively capable and artistically accomplished.
Looking back, there was tons of really incredible music this past year, and lots that I thought would make my favorite albums list of the year earlier on that got pushed out. In any other year, any one of my top 5 favorite albums may have been my favorite release of the year.
Here’s to hoping that 2017 gives us as much great music as 2016 did — let me know what music you liked this last year, and if you feel so compelled, smash that recommend button below.