50 Best Albums Of 2016

I will remember 2016 as the Year of the Album, a year when musicians across genres tossed aside the notion of a post-LP world and embraced the form again. It was such a staggering year for music that I went beyond the standard top-10 list and expanded it to my 50 favorites, and there are plenty I left off that I love. (Some I left off due to time constraints — I love the new Childish Gambino but have barely listened to it, and the new J. Cole isn’t even out yet, so what can you do.) But here they are, my favorite 50 albums of 2016:

50. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee

Hiss Golden Messenger makes folk rock for the dads, but man, is it really, really good folk rock for the dads. Heart Like a Levee wears its influences on its sleeve — Dylan, CSNY, Petty, Allman Bros. — but the homages are done out of deep knowledge, and from a place of love.

49. D.R.A.M. — Big Baby D.R.A.M.

Outside of perhaps Chance, no one in hip hop makes more joyful music than D.R.A.M. His album Big Baby D.R.A.M. is all bright beats, joy, singing, and light. Last year, Drake stole his song Cha Cha and turned it into Hotline Bling. That could have destroyed some artists. D.R.A.M. just came back happier and brighter than ever.

48. Kaytranada — 99.9%

Perhaps the most sonically adventurous album of the year, KAYTRANADA’s 99.9% is a lush landscape of rhythm and sound. The beats are unique, the sounds by turns ethereal and blasting, alien and familiar.

47. James Blake — The Colour in Anything

This album was a little too long and meandering for my tastes, but the high points might match anything else put out this year. Blake is an obsessive lover of music, and the album shows it — it’s jam-packed with ideas, loving nods, and moments no one else could create.

46. Anders Osborne — Spacedust and ocean Views

On paper, this album doesn’t sound like anything I’d ever be interested in: Aging rocker who’d toured with Phil Lesh puts out an album equal parts Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet and Steve Earle. The music critic in me recoils at the idea, but then I heard the thing … and it’s perfect. A more laid-back answer to Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Osborne’s Spacedust and Ocean Views finds the sweet spot between psychedelia and country, as well as the universal and the intimate.

45. Crying — Beyond the Fleeting Gales

Crying’s debut LP may sound a bit precious, but when you play the first song on Beyond the Fleeting Gales, “Premonitory Dream”, and that monster guitar rips in, you’re floored, and it doesn’t let up. An album by a band called Crying doesn’t sound much fun, but I promise you that it is.

44. J Dilla — The Diary

J Dilla died a decade ago, but the new album of his material put out this year, The Diary, still feels immediate, new, fresh. The legendary producer had more ideas he discarded than most DJs will have in a career, and he shows on the album he’s not a bad rapper, either.

43. Big Thief — Masterpiece

There are moments on Big Thief’s album Masterpiece that feel delicate, like you’d stumbled upon the songs in the wild and have to be gentle so as not to disturb them. Lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s voice is a powerful tool — it can be fragile and pristine at one moment, and rip your throat out the next.

42. Drake — Views

Oh, Aubrey. What could have been. This album has too many phenomenal moments and songs to exclude, but jeez, he sure knows how to get in his own way at times. There’s a 10-song album buried in Views that is probably Drake’s masterpiece; you just have to dig and find it.

41. Clair Morgan — New Lions and the Not-Good Night

The Richmond band surprised me this year with their song “Rogue Island,” which I still maintain is my favorite track of the year, with the exception of “Ultralight Beam.” While “Rogue Island” is the standout on the album (how could it not be?), the entirety of New Lions and the Not-Good Night is compelling, bursting with ideas, energy, and heart.

40. Savages — Adore Life

The U.K. band Savages is one that I have to find myself in the right mood to listen to. The music is so direct, so piercing, it can be unsettling … but what music it is. The song “Adore” is at once a celebration of life and a celebration of defiance — lead singer Jehnny Beth makes it clear that she will choose to adore life despite its terrors, and she will do it not because you tell her to smile, but because she has made a choice.

39. LUH — Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing

LUH is the new project of former WU LYF frontman Ellery James Roberts, and when I heard he had a new project, I wondered where he might go with it. WU LYF was so massive, so over the top, I thought he might scale it back. He did not scale it back. Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing is an album of firecrackers, songs meant to be screamed to your eternal love moments before Earth succumbs to the fire.  

38. Young Thug – Jeffery

Young Thug’s album Jeffery namechecks everyone from Kanye West to Wyclef Jean to Floyd Mayweather to Harambe, but through it all he never loses that bewildering and brilliant sense of melody … and insanity. You may not trace every thought or every word even, but Thugger is operating on a plane most of us will never get to. Just let it wash over you.

37. Lambchop — Flotus

Lambchop’s resume is unimpeachable, but the band isn’t resting. After three decades, the Nashville band is still making music, and FLOTUS — a reference not to the First Lady of the United States but rather “For Love Often Turns Us Still” — is just as fresh as anything they’ve ever made. They navigate digital and analog sounds on the album, exploring existence in a way that at once feels at home and unlike anything I’ve heard before.

36. Swet Shop Boys — Cashmere

Swet Shop Boys is the new rap project from former Das Racist member Heems and Riz Ahmed, who you might know from HBO’s The Night Of. On standout debut album Cashmere, the duo rap about everything from being targeted by the TSA to phone tapping to Zayn Malik, but manage to maintain their sense of humor — and swag — throughout.

35. Whitney — Light Upon the Lake

Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake is an album I suspect will age well — when a band has melodies this delicate and beautiful, it’s hard not to feel pulled back to it. The band is comprised of former members of the Smith Westerns, and while there are country elements to the album, they never seem beholden to any one genre, instead finding the best way to play to serve each song.

34. Into It. Over It. — Standards

Evan Thomas Weiss’ solo project Into It. Over It. was pegged as a leader of some emo revival scene before any such scene really formed (it might not have even formed yet, if we’re being totally honest), but Weiss managed to justify whatever hype by making a pretty perfect album — Standards is earnest and sweet and fun, a reminder that an acoustic guitar and a lone voice is still an effective way of telling a story.

33. Drive-By Truckers — American Band

Drive-By Truckers responded to the 2016 climate by writing their most outwardly political album to date. This will alienate some fans to be sure, but you get the sense that that’s sort of the point — the band wasn’t interested in performing to people they couldn’t look in the eye. Despite its oftentimes straightforward message, the album is still a blast, filled with that delicious blend of fried roots rock and country that they do better than anyone.

32. American Football — American Football

It had been 17 years since American Football released an album, their eponymous 1999 LP that has grown into a classic in the emo genre. In 2016, they followed it up with an LP of the same name … speaking to some continuity, yes, but also a promise: This will live up to our name. The album did that and more.

31. YG – Still Brazy

Lush G-funk production and YG’s gift for storytelling propel Still Brazy beyond what it might have been — a low-key West Coast summer album — and into something bigger, bolder and more lasting. Gangster rap is not dead, and this album reminds us why we fell in love with it in the first place: When done right, it tells us the stories that no one else is willing to tell.

30. Rihanna – ANTI

ANTI got buried this year in a way, both because of its release timing (January feels like a lifetime ago) and because of the odd way it was released. That’s silly: The album is probably Rihanna’s finest, a strong statement of independence with songs that expand beyond the dancehall. Plus, we’ll always have the Work video, and no matter how this album was released or how it’s remembered, no one can take that from us.

29. Anderson .Paak — Malibu

Malibu managed to capture all of Anderson .Paak’s many talents and package them in a coherent and bold album. There’s funk and and soul and rap, production and live instrumentation, and no album had better-sounding percussion this year save perhaps The Life of Pablo. Childish Gambino (omitted from this list due to time constraints only) may have blast onto the scene with a bold look back at funk, but I believe Malibu is the album that will stand the test of time.

28. Francis and the Lights — Farewell, Starlite!

I wasn’t sure if Francis and the Lights would ever release an album again. It had been six years since Francis Starlite’s criminally underrated album It’ll Be Better, and after Francis appeared content to play concert halls and write film scores, I didn’t know if he’d bother to come back and make an LP again. He did, and Farewell, Starlite! found him not only with a beautiful new record but new fans off love from Kanye West, Bon Iver and Chance the Rapper.

27. Schoolboy Q — Blank Face LP

My love for ScHoolboy Q is boundless — if you ask me what my favorite rap album from 2012 is, I’ll lie and say good Kid, m.A.A.d city because I have to, but in all honesty the real answer is Habits & Contradictions, a record I love with every fiber in my being. Blank Face LP may not be at that point in my heart yet, but Q’s way around a song is still brilliant, his voice just as funny and alive as it’s always been.

26. Noname – Telefone

Noname is a poet first and rapper second, and on her breathtaking record Telefone, you can hear the Chicago native working out how to square the two in real time. She can ride the beat when she needs to, but doesn’t feel constricted by it, managing to find a flow all her own in the process. Listening is thus a thrilling enterprise — nothing is predictable, and every word matters.

25. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Life

Of all the unexpected and wonderful moments in music this year, my favorite might be the first moment I heard Sturgill Simpson’s cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” With his delicate touch, the song transforms from an angsty, rage-filled anthem into a sad, soulful ode to loss — Simpson’s take may not be as immediate, but he sings from a place of wisdom and heart. The rest of the record is fantastic, too.

24. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

Atrocity Exhibition will confuse a lot of casual rap fans. This album will confuse a lot of Danny Brown fans. It’s that insane, that imaginative, that bold — Brown has finally found production that can match the hysteria inherent in his voice, and dear lord, what an end product. This album has the feel of an Aronofsky film — it may not be the most fun, but it’s impossible to turn away.

23. Angel Olsen — My Woman

Angel Olsen’s voice is a singular instrument, one that has the power and range to hold a song together on its own. Listening to MY WOMAN can bring about insane connections — my notes from an early listen compared her voice to both Roy Orbison and Lana del Rey on the same song. On MY WOMAN, Olsen flirts with folk and surf rock and 50s girl groups, and it’s all held together by her voice, that beautiful voice.

22. Skepta — Konnichiwa

With all the releases this year, it’s hard to remember just how exciting Skepta’s release was. But man, when it came out I found myself listening to (and talking about) little else. Grime had an international voice now, and on Konnichiwa, Skepta let it all hang out, announcing to the world who he was, and that everyone needed to shut up and listen.

21. Radiohead — A Moon-Shaped Pool

Radiohead’s A Moon-Shaped Pool felt weighed down from the beginning, not only from expectations but from the dark worldview it ascribed to. When the world is melting down, it’s tough to ask people to have their pop music capture that feeling as well. But this record will age well, I believe, and some of the moments on it are undeniable and as fine as anything Radiohead has ever done. Plus we finally got True Love Waits, and it was just as perfect and shattering as we’d always wanted it to be.

20. Kevin Gates — Islah

When I’ll look back on my ten favorite hooks of 2016, I think Gates might be responsible for seven of them. (D.R.A.M. grabbed the other three.) The Baton Rouge rapper and singer isn’t afraid of a hook, and on Islah again and again finds ways to incorporate melody in a way that never feels forced or gratuitous. The record has no big features or co-signs, but it never needed them. When you can write a hook like Gates, that’s enough.

19. The Avalanches — Wildflower

The Avalanches were (like a lot of records on this list) a victim of its timing. I feel like Wildflower comes out a year ago and it’s one of the biggest indie releases of the year, but in a year as loaded with good music as 2016, it sort of got lost in the shuffle. This is stupid: Wildflower is just as compelling and brilliant as The Avalanches’ earlier work, mining sounds of the past to tell a story about right now.

18. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered

Kendrick doesn’t want to make things easy for us. Ever. The biggest rapper in the world could have recorded and released anything he wanted this year, so that’s what he did: Making a record of eight unnamed songs that are by turns brilliant, beautiful, and completely bewildering. It’s not an album for the radio. It’s a tough album to even discuss with friends. (How can you talk about your favorite song when they don’t really have names?) But it’s still vibrant, Lamar still finding inspiration from the music of the 70s, and still with so much to say.

17. Solange – A Seat at the Table

Solange’s A Seat at the Table will of course be compared to her sister’s album that was released this year, but it’s unfair to compare the two — while Solange’s album may not have the scope of Beyonce’s Lemonade, it does have a voice that’s hard to shake. On songs like “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky,” Solange manages to take the sights and the pains of the everyday and use it to write universal songs about pride and resolve and being a black woman in 2016. And, oh yeah: Every song is beautiful.

16. ANOHNI — HOPELESSNESS

In a year with a lot of great Side 1/Track 1s, none knocked me on my ass like Anohni’s opener “Drone Bomb Me” off her LP HOPELESSNESS. It’s a love song written to a drone bomb, and it’s meant to be taken literally. “Drone bomb me / Blow me from the mountains / And into the sea / Blow me from the side of the mountain” she sings, giving you a glimpse into the humanity of such an inhuman weapon. It’s gorgeous and haunting, and a song that is almost a civic duty to listen to.

15. Tancred — Out of the Garden

Tancred is the project of Now, Now guitarist Jess Abbott, and on Out of the Garden, she manages to mine familiar sounds to make a bold and beautiful record. I’ve written about this album a bit this year, and keep finding myself returning to it — not only the perfect pop harmonies Abbot finds on every song, but the way it captures that energy of 90s alternative music, when punk and pop were just coming together in a way that still felt real. Out of the Garden feels real, and it’s an album I look forward to listening to for years to come.

14. Bon Iver — 22, A MILLION 

Every thought I had about Bon Iver’s 22, A Million was expressed better by Molly Lambert over at MTV.com, so you should probably go and read her, but I will say that this record has dug its way down deep into a me in a way that I didn’t expect, and that if you give this record the time, you won’t regret it, no matter what you think of the cuddly Wisconsin emo bear that is Justin Vernon.

13. The Hotelier — GOODNESS

There will be plenty of people who see The Hotelier’s album Goodness’ cover art (a photo of a group of elderly people standing in a field completely nude) or, upon listening to the opening song and hearing a spoken-word section with the line “I see the moon and the moon sees me,” simply exclaim NOPE and move about with their day. That’s all fine, but for those who do move past that, they’ll find a gorgeous album on love, loss, money, fear, contempt, regret, and the perils of being alive. Its ambition, its scope, its beauty … all admirable, but this album still maintains its footing, grounded by lyricist Christian Holden’s sharp eye and blasted-but-still-clinging hope.

12. Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

No other person in the music world was as important as Chance was in 2016. He was the star of the song of the year (“Ultralight Beam”), orbited around the releases of Francis and the Lights and Kanye West and Noname, and put out Coloring Book, his mixtape that wasn’t a mixtape at all. Equal parts rap, gospel, R&B and funk, the album was practically overflowing with love, energy and light — he took the spirit of Kanye’s best song on TLOP and built a record out of it. And what a record it was.

11. David Bowie — Blackstar

David Bowie remained brilliant, perfect and mysterious even in death. His release Blackstar came out just in his final days, a surprise release to commemorate the life of a man most of his fans had no idea was even sick. Bowie would be remembered on his terms, and on songs like “Lazarus” he showed us that not only would his voice be missed, it was one that was somehow still getting better, right up until the moment it was gone.

10. PUP — The Dream is Over

The Toronto band PUP was ready to call it quits after lead singer Stefan Babcock was told by a doctor he’d never sing again after shredding his vocal chords. (They say the title of the album is a direct quote from said doctor.) With nothing to lose, the punk quartet went and recorded their best album yet, jam-packed with singalongs and fist-pumping odes to life on the road, and that fear that grips all of us as we decide if our dreams are really worth pursuing. “If this tour doesn’t kill you, then I will,” the opening lyrics proclaim, Babcock singing to his bandmates and voicing the very real thing we all know, that the ones we love the hardest make us the most insane.

9. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo

The Life of Pablo is a big, beautiful mess, an album that is by turns flawless and daring and silly and frustrating. It’s six songs too long, its disjointed second half feeling more like a collection of G.O.O.D. Friday songs than anything that belonged on this record. But those first 14 songs, beginning with “Ultralight Beam” and ending with “Frank’s Track,” well, that right there is your album of the year. No record was talked about more this year, and while it may be imperfect, I suspect this is the one that will stay with us the longest. And we must remember: “Ultralight Beam” is still the song of the year, and perhaps the decade.

8. Lucy Dacus — No Burden

Lucy Dacus’ debut No Burden is a complete statement from an impossibly young artist. The Richmond native was studying film in college just a couple years ago, but after an LP she recorded over a weekend in Nashville was discovered by Matador Records and re-released, the indie world got a chance to meet her. No Burden is a beautiful statement from an artist who, as she told me in an interview earlier this year, is still making up her mind about things. That openness, and understanding that she doesn’t have all the answers yet, is an honest and appreciated statement from an artist at a time when it seems like we must all have the answers, and must scream them as loudly as possible in order to be heard.

7. Cymbals Eat Guitars — Pretty Years

Cymbals Eat Guitars is the most underrated band in America, and I will go door to door if I have to if it means the rest of this country can understand that. Their LP Pretty Years is perhaps the band’s most accessible, all huge guitars and Clarence Clemons saxophone (the N.J. band namechecks Springsteen on the record), but they haven’t lost what made them what they are. On “Fourth of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)”, lead singer Joseph D’Agostino writes the most compelling story told in music this year, about a brush with death that temporarily lifts him out of his depression. “All the adrenaline shocked my nervous system / Swore I’d be present and grateful for every second,” he sings. But then there is the heartbreaking conclusion: “Later the feeling faded / I couldn’t help it.”

6. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got it from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service

After the long wait for A Tribe Called Quest’s new record, and the tragic death of Phife Dawg this year, most fans would have settled for anything. Even if the new record captured some of the energy and intelligence the group displayed years back, that would be enough. That wasn’t enough for Tribe though, and We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is infinitely better than it has any right being. The Phife appearances are devastating, Q-Tip is just a dextrous and brilliant as ever, and the group is still making music that needs to be listened to. More than any record this year, We got it from Here… felt necessary. We needed it, and they gave it to us.

5. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial 

Car Seat Headrest’s release of Teens of Denial was marred by legal action from the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who apparently decided that a loving cover of “Just What I Needed” was not so needed after all on the record. Matador Records took a big hit from the incident, but Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo managed to come out with his head and heart intact. The record is a near-masterpiece, big and ambitious but still precise in every moment. Toledo may have started as a solo artist on the internet, but his music has grown in real and gorgeous ways, and if he’s going to be the voice, or even a voice, of indie rock moving forward, I feel like we’re in good hands.

4. Pinegrove — Cardinal 

Cardinal is a record I wanted to hate. At first listen, it has some of the elements of the pop-folk nightmare genre that’s been killing me for the last decade, but once I got past that first half-listen, I don’t know if I could have fallen in love harder with this record. Evan Stephens Hall has a voice that’ll shock your system, and the delicateness of his lyrics are occasionally interrupted with stark, heartbreaking messages: “I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends that I love them” he sings on “Old Friends” a thought that is at once totally plainspoken and absolutely perfect. The harmonies, the melodies, the guitar work … everything feels thoughtful on this LP, and earned. Cardinal was an album I wanted to hate, but has made me reconsider an entire genre.

3. Frank Ocean — BlondE

Blonde is an album of loneliness, carved from a space that is at once universal and specific — it’s written by a man driving the streets of Los Angeles at night, alone, sorting out his thoughts and feelings and finding solace in the solitude. We seemed to wait forever for Frank Ocean’s new record, but Blonde managed at once to defy all expectations and live up to the hype all at the same time. There’s nothing here for the radio, or nothing easy here for the radio. The one song that may have been a hit, “Solo,” is too long, the guest verse from Andre 3000 separated from the main track and put five songs later in the album as a reprise. Frank didn’t want to make things easy for us, but for his fans who were willing to do the work, it was a gift that kept on giving. Every time I play Blonde I change my mind on what my favorite song is — “Solo,” “Nights,” “White Ferrari,” and “Siegried” have all had a turn, and “Futura Free” is making a case currently — and each time I listen I find some new meaning, some new phrase I cling to. If 2016 marked the year of the album’s return, Blonde showed us why the form is so important.

2. Beyonce — Lemonade

I never liked Beyonce. I always found her too polished, too precise, too perfect. On Lemonade, I realized I was an idiot. The album tells the story of a woman discovering that her man has been cheating on her, and we follow the story as she works her way through the stages of grief. The initial shock and anger of “Hold Up” gives way to the nihilistic bottoming out of “6 Inch,” which progresses to the reflection of “Daddy Issues” and then finally the acceptance of “All Night.” That song, “All Night,” is one that I will carry with me a long time, as Queen Bey moves beyond her righteous fury and finds grace, choosing to see the beauty and hope in the destruction of a relationship. How much this accurately reflects her real-life relationship with Jay Z? I don’t much care. All I know is that when I got to the catharsis of “All Night” I was struck down by its power, and biographical or not, that’s enough for me.

1. Jeff Rosenstock — Worry.

Who now? you might be asking. That’s OK. You’ll be forgiven for not knowing the name of Rosenstock, who’s spent the last 18 years releasing music with various punk bands, all more-or-less given away on the internet in a DIY spirit that’s since been co-opted by like every band you’ve read a thinkpiece on re: “changing the way music is released.” But please, if you have the time and the means, listen to WORRY. (The means shouldn’t be an issue: The album, like all of Rosenstock’s, is available online to download for whatever you want to donate.)

WORRY. is at once Rosenstock’s opus and a record I find startlingly of the now. It’s about being alive in 2016 and being afraid — Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen wrote that the record is one that will resonate with anyone who knows “the feeling of being jolted awake at 3 AM by every outstanding obligation in your life.” This album is about money (and the lack of it), our friends getting older and moving away, the cities we grew up in changing.

In 17 songs, Rosenstock tells his story, one that is also our story, about regrets and hopes and more regrets, about what it’s like trying to maintain your humanity in a digital age, when you can sign on Facebook and find yourself “amongst apologists who love ignoring the reality / of unarmed civilians executed publicly.” He has little time for cool, and his message can be painfully direct: “Born as a data mine for targeted marketing / and no one will listen up until you become a hashtag or a meme,” he sings on “To Be A Ghost…” This isn’t Auden, or even Dylan, but perhaps 2016 isn’t a time for poetry. It is a time for resistance, for telling it straight. Rosenstock is taking stock of the world around him, and he’s terrified, and he’s going to shred a guitar hook and scream about it until you listen.

This album is accessible, sure, jam-packed with melody and pop hooks, but it won’t be for everyone. That’s fine. Some people will be turned off by that directness, others will get lost in the last half of the album, which is totally bats%$t and manages to provide a frenetic retrospective of the last two decades of punk music. It’s off the wall and wide-ranging and breathless. A ska song shows up at one point.

It works though. At least it does for me. It serves as a look back on Rosenstock’s career, an introduction to new listeners who may not know that he once fronted the punk ska band The Arrogant Sons of Bitches or DIY collective Bomb the Music Industry! But that insane Side B also captures a feeling we all know right now, that of a confused person frantically flipping through his/her records, trying to find a song that will make it all make sense.

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