With all of it’s faults (and there were many) 2016 certainly was a memorable year.
So much of 2016 was heavy, ponderous, political and really very sad. Two days after the release of his 25th studio album in January, David Bowie was dead. Similarly, Leonard Cohen released an LP in celebration of his own 82nd birthday, only to pass away a few weeks later. And while Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip were able to bid their fans, and an entire country, adieu – Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley, Bernie Worrell, Pierre Boulez, George Martin and Prince passed away suddenly, giving 2016 the reputation as one of the worst of all time.
To contrast, musically 2016 was one of the most creative and interesting musical years in quite a while. Beyoncé took her lemons and made a HBO special, her sister Solange accompanied her Grammy-nominated R&B LP with a book, Frank Ocean got around a record contract by live-streaming himself building a ladder, Anderson .Paak released two full records to total a staggering 35-new tracks and Kanye may have finally and tragically lost his mind.
The music industry as a whole saw a banner year for profits. And while the year began with the tail end of a feud between Taylor Swift and Spotify, streaming services lead the charge deep into the pockets of major labels with more and more people relying on Apple, Deezer, TIDAL, Soundcloud, YouTube and Spotify to get their fix. As a result, A&R investments soared as labels big and small looked to develop new talents for years to come.
We may never see a year like 2016 again in our lifetime, but in the same way that a forest fire kills the trees to the benefit of the soil, here’s hoping that the music left behind by those who passed on are developed into new and greater talents in the years to come.
Here are 50 of our favorites LPs from 2016:
#45 – Esperanza Spalding | Emily’s D+Evolution
#40 – Michael Kiwanuka | Love & Hate
This insanely vulnerable record represents botha candid portrait of introspection and an amazing step forward with Kiwanuka’s music output. Giving generous nods to the early 70’s work of Curtis Mayfield and Issac Hayes, Kiwanuka also broadened his sound to something that can almost be described as ‘western’.
#39 – James Vincent McMorrow | We Move
Taking a huge step towards Pop, We Move demonstrates McMorrow’s willingness to take a ton of risks and break out of his own comfort zone. These songs combine the acoustic R&B ideas of his earlier work, throw it into a blender and spits out some fluid and new.
#38 – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard | Nonagaon Infinity
Winning ‘Donnie Darko’ award is King Gizzard. There’s a huge amount of urgency and creativity in this release. The whole thing is a big of a novelty – the record itself loops seamlessly back to the first track, and it’s maybe meant to be listened to for infinity. The great thing about the LP is that it doesn’t feel like a novelty – it feels genuine. Each of the nine tunes effortlessly shape-shift into each other melting and oozing together to create something greater, brighter and continuously moving into new sonic territory.
#37 – Drive By Truckers | American Band
Called, by many, as the the most important rock ‘n’ roll album of the year, Drive By Truckers plainly and eloquently take a strong look at the pressing issues of the United States (pre-President Trump, of course). Even if it’s still slightly out of date at this point, the fact that they’ve made an album this relevant this late in their career is impressive.
#36 – Angel Olsen | My Woman
Bold, beautiful and full of unhurried moments of grandeur, My Woman is one of the most authentic and ‘realest’ LP of 2016. Clever, emotionally gripping, heartfelt, insightful and musically adventurous, Angel Olsen is one of the best songwriters out there and could play or write any style of music that she’d want.
#31 – James Blake | The Colour in Anything
Oh! The songs of the brokenhearted. It’s said that the best way to lose weight and to ‘get in shape’ is to have your heart broken. Well, sometimes the best way to coax out the best of your artistic output is to have your heart shattered as well! Relentlessly inventive this James Blake at his absolute best.
#30 – Big Thief | Masterpiece
No, this isn’t their Masterpiece, as the title would suggest – those who are familiar with Big Thief’s pre-Saddle Creek work will tell you that. But the balanced mix of energetic grooves and sad and melancholic expressions make their on-label debut such an engrossing listen.
#29 – Majid Jordan | Self-Titled
Producers by trade, Majid Jordan finally step out from behind the curtain. Remaining intimate, drowsy and electronics-driven Majid Jordan pull a lot from early-80’s disco and synth pop. This pair will always be in the long shadow cast by their countrymen The Weeknd and Drake, but they’ve taken the first steps here to prove themselves as something commercially and culturally viable, on the level of OVO.
#28 – Margo Price | Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Coincidentally enough, Kacey Musgraves, the only female country artist to find herself on our Top 50 list last year, was also ranked #28. Maybe there’s something in the sound that creates a sort of glass ceiling for this kind of music – that warm, fuzzy and engaging country-style singing and songwriting that makes listeners and critics alike pine for a time when country music didn’t completely suck. Personal bias aside, being the first full on country release from Third Man Records, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is undeniably the best country record this year; and the best one since last year’s Pageant Material.
#27 – Lion Babe – Begin
You’d have to search very, very closely to find the cracks in the songwriting and production – but when you do find them, it’s seen as a welcomed decoration. Highly enjoyable, Lion Babe is fearless as Jillian Hervey channels her inner Chaka Khan, Betty Wright and Betty Davis all the while experimenting with what makes her sound her own.
#26 – Chairlift | Moth
With Moth the Brooklyn-duo make a solid case for being considered as one of the best, and maybe, underrated songwriting teams of 2016. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s LP from last year, Chairlift is criminally overlooked as a dream-pop gemstone, deserving high praise for creativity and experimentation. Coming out early in in the year, this LP set the tone for a very synth-laden 2016 – for better or worse.
#22 – Rihanna | ANTI
Starting a confusing and terrible trend of weird exclusives that TIDAL messed up this year, ANTI is actually Rihanna’s more complete record to date. Pretty much from top to bottom the LP is completely satisfying and distinct. Totally worth the weirdness that surrounded it’s roll-out.
#21 – David Bowie | Blackstar
Rarely does anybody, especially somebody as important as David Bowie, get the opportunity to write their own eulogy. Mozart wrote “Lacrimosa”, his requiem and ode to death. David Bowie wrote Blackstar his own expression of the cancer that was slowly killing him. It’s the kind of album that on the surface seems a little submerged in it’s own dark hole of studio improvisation and weirdness, and then he died. And then we found out what it was really all about. And then it meant so much more.
#20 – Radiohead | A Moon Shaped Pool
By nature, Radiohead albums will always be placed up against some of the toughest competition. That is, every other Radiohead album. Possibly the least subdued LP since the early 2000’s, Thom York and Co. seemed to find another gear. Moon Shaped Pool is probably the best anybody could have hoped from a outfit that is into it’s third decade.
#19 – NxWorries | Yes Lawd!
You know you did good in 2016 when the first album on the Top 50 list is the second you released that year. As Anderson .Paak shows the world what it is to be an R&B performer again, he’s had a tenancy to team up on some great features, the best of which is his work with Knxwledge via NxWorries. Amazingly consistent, Paak and Knxwledge go 19 tracks deep that hits on absolutely all cylinders.
#18 – Ariana Grande | Dangerous Woman
There’s two types of Pop stars that exist – the first type (see: Justin Bieber) attempt to atone for their sins via song, saying “Sorry” for the things that they’ve done. Ariana Grande has none of that, she attempts to push the limits in her songs to the point where she’s almost calling people out like a rapper with a beef. Track by track, Drangerous Woman is sly and unforgiving and puts Grande head and shoulders above her pop starlet contemporaries like Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez.
#17 – BJ The Chicago Kid | In My Mind
This guy is living his dream: he released this record via Motown. As his name suggests, you’d imagine that this soul singer probably always wanted that stylized ‘M emblazoned on an LP of his. To celebrate this, BJ pulled off an insanely rare feat – he released a truly earnest and thoughtful soul record which defied all expectations.
#16 – NAO | For All We Know
Although NAO doesn’t top this list, if we were making a list of the “records we were asked about the most when we put it on at a party” NAO would be unquestionably at the top. One of the UK’s brightest new talents, NAO stepped into the limelight with a full-length complete with emotionally complex club bangers – simply an amazing piece of work.
#15 – The 1975 | I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
Matthew Healy has a tendency to get a little over-sharey sometimes (see: the title of this record) but it’s good. There’s no boundaries with this guy and what you’re left with is a challenging piece of pop music that is full of interesting, smart lyrics.
#14 – Kanye West | The Life of Pablo
Although the end of the year saw Kanye cancel a many of his highly successful stadium shows, announce his intention to run for President in 2020 and eventually get admitted to hospital as a result of a mental breakdown, Kanye still managed to produce one of his best singular works. Tightly controlled and constructed, TLOP eschews the me vs the world mentality that many have adopted and looks at it as more of a me vs myself – which is even more prevalent given his current circumstances. Get well soon, Kanye!
#13 – The Avalanches | Wildflower
Is it possible to be ‘post-influence’? The Avalanches have somehow created a record that completely removed itself from the effects of time. After spending a larger part of a decade working on it, Wildflower shows the painstaking craftsmanship and sense of joy and wonder that this band is so good at creating.
#12 – BADBADNOTGOOD | IV
Continuing to elaborate on their past accomplishments BBNG feels amazing to listen to due to their extraordinary forward momentum. How does one follow up a record with Ghostface? Oh, this is how! By again bringing forward firey hip hop instrumentals, finding one of the best under-the-radar features in Charlotte Day Wilson to help out and pull it all off with incredible ease. Jazz sucks sometimes, but these guys are dope.
#11 – Parquet Courts | Human Performance
Track for track this is a triumph of hooks that aren’t cute, noise that doesn’t get in the way, and anxiety that doesn’t cripple. Nearly every cut finds Parquet Courts exploring the depths of their own limits as songwriters and performers and doing it in such a pleasureful way that they’re coming out of it on the other end smelling sweet and with a certain charm that is undeniable.
#10 – Car Seat Headrest | Teens of Denial
Will Toledo may be a full 12-LPs deep into his career but he’s not slowing down. Primal, powerful and required listening for 2016, Toledo supplants the hazy radio qualities of his mostly DIY mystique and perfectly captures a more acutely mixed rock album, making this one a transitional piece. He’s outgrown his roots but the tree is beautiful.
#9 – Solange | A Seat At the Table
With the impending Trump presidency in early-2017 musical and cultural prognosticators are calling for a rebirth of punk (or punk-like) music. A brand that eschews norms and tags and lives by it’s own patterns – basically a counter-revolution. While 2017 onward may develop into peak-punk, 2016 may have represented peak-R&B. As you’ll see in the next couple rankings, 5 of the top 10 on this list are some of the most creative R&B records of the past 20-30 years. And in the same way that punk music expresses a weariness of the status quo, Solange does this through her own representation of the current mainstream Black identity – something stripped of it’s own complexity and repackaged for our own entertainment. Musically and personally, A Seat at the Table is a brilliant and amazingly rewarding listen.
#8 – Bon Iver | 22, A Million
It’s obvious that the biggest attraction to any Bon Iver record is the incredible artistic ability of Justin Vernon himself, but the greater pleasure of 22, A Million specifically is the simple honesty that Vernon felt compelled to leave on tape. Not self-pitying or even really overwhelmingly sad, there’s cohesive a sense of longing that results in this raw emotional power – which, in essence, is the heart of any musical output by Bon Iver.
#7 – A Tribe Called Quest | We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
As Phife Dawg passed in March and Q-Tip announced plans to release the LP they had been working on, the best that could really be hoped for was a decent album that old-school fans would embrace and maybe a few outliers would pay attention to. What we got instead was a triumphant LP that exceeded the expectations of even the more cynical Tribe fan. It can hardly be stated enough how good We Got It.. feels to listen to. There’s no nostalgia trip or callous #ThrowbackThursday here, what was presented was a giant exclamation point at the end of a brilliant career, as well as a fitting tribute to the genius every-man, Phife.
#6 – Kendrick Lamar | untitled unmastered.
When you hear of another artist (of any genre) releasing the cutting room scraps from their two previous LPs and it makes a list like this, be sure to send it us – cause we’d really like to hear it. It’s a testament to the quality of output that Kendrick has consistently had since 2014 that he could pull this off. Not only does untitled do way with flashiness and any sort of facade, but it’s so crammed with musical ideas that it stands on it’s own instead of the appendix that it technically is. There’s now a wide expanse between Kendrick and his contemporaries and it’s hard to imagine anybody bridging that gap or even attempting to catch up with him.
#5 – Chance the Rapper | Coloring Book
Even though Chicago, the city, has had a pretty tough couple of years when it comes to crime and gun violence, Chance doesn’t hold a mirror to these daily horrors – instead Coloring Book aims to to uplift, empower, heal and sing the gospel of his people: the people of Chicago. Offering up one celebratory hymn after another this LP is presented as a musical sermon, something that his fellow MCs may covet in years to come. This is a joyful record for a city that desperately needed it.
#4 – Beyoncé | Lemonade
You still can’t find it outside of a few exclusive streaming services, but even given a very limited release – it was still brilliant. This is an entire album, from start to finish, of red-hot emotional discord that not only set Beyoncé apart as the most important female artist of the decade, but even affected the market share of Red Lobster. Lemonade is a wreaking ball and a manifesto all in one, illustrating the true power of music and art.
#3 – Frank Ocean | Blonde
After live streaming himself building a ladder to get out of his record contract we all thought we had finally seen (and heard) the new Frank Ocean record we were all patiently waiting for. Less than 24 hours later, we had Blonde. Intoxicatingly emotional, in only the way that Frank Ocean can be, with a mere 17 tracks he showed the the kind of innovator that he is. Simple, minimalist and painstakingly beautiful Blonde is an album that is an absolutely and phenomenally complex.
#2 – KAYTRANADA | 99.9%
KAYTRANADA is in complete control. Take funk, house, hip hop, pop, whatever – he’ll throw it all at you at once and you wont even get lost. 99.9% is a house party, the best DJ set you’ve ever heard thrown into an LP. Never self-duplicating, fresh and original this is one of the most sought after producers in the world doing what he wants to do. A perfect synthesis of what makes him tick.
#1 – Anderson .Paak | Malibu
There were a few ‘odes to my hometown’ records this year: Coloring Book and VIEWS most notably, but neither of them came close to being as relatable and fun as Malibu. Full of hype and an amazing musician in his own right Anderson .Paak finally, after years of grinding, released the record that encompassed not only his own love for music and art, but also let the listener into that world as well. An amazingly powerful piece, this isn’t not only a record for people of color, but for anybody who has been told that they don’t quite fit in, because maybe their circumstances are a little different. This album offers a glimpse of perspective through path – a sort of “I am because I did” attitude that only acted a springboard for the rest of the work Paak produced throughout the year. In a year as tumultuous as 2016 it was important that we have a record that made us feel as good as Malibu made us feel – and we’re so glad we had all year to enjoy it.