2016, where do I begin? I should probably just accept that the debate regarding the worth and validity of the album as a medium will likely continue each year that I listen to music. If I do accept that, then 2016 was a strong effort on behalf of the “pro-albums” team. Many legendary musicians passed away at an alarming rate (at least it seemed that way), but many huge names returned with big new releases. Some were surprises (Beyonce, Frank Ocean “Blonde”), others were epic (A Tribe Called Quest, Bon Iver, Chance the Rapper), several were disappointing (Drake, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lady Gaga) and a few evolved along the way (Kanye West, Rihanna).
Below is a brief list of my top 20 albums of the year with an accompanying Spotify playlist for your streaming pleasure.
20. Weezer – Weezer (White Album) (Spotify)
Album numero ten from Rivers Cuomo and company was a late find for me in 2016, but well worth the wait. I was instantly transported back to my middle-school days as the influence of the band’s first album and Pinkerton were immediately present. The concept album with a ’90s sound excels on nearly all tracks (particularly “Thank God For Girls”), while pop gem “(Girl We Got A) Good Thing” offers variety without distracting from the overall set.
19. White Denim – Stiff (Spotify)
White Denim didn’t necessarily need a full reboot on their seventh album, Stiff. However, the album did feel like a refinement of sorts with a concise collection of 9 tracks ranging from southern rock, blues, and soul. I was glad to see the body-shaking riffs of tracks like “Hold You (I’m Psycho)” and “Hard 2 Know (Personal)” in person front row at Wayhome Festival.
18. James Blake – The Colour in Anything (Spotify)
The English singer-songwriter was already having an amazing 2016 with a feature on Beyonce’s Lemonade, but James Blake’s own third album was a statement in its own right. Though the feel of The Colour in Anything is still an emotion-filled rollercoaster, songs like “Love Me In Whatever Way” seemed accessible without sacrificing experimentation. Collaborations with kindred spirits like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (“I Need A Forest Fire”) and Frank Ocean (“My Willing Heart”) were welcome surprises as well.
17. Marian Hill – ACT ONE (Spotify)
Marian Hill’s energetic vocals were a perfect match for the stuttering synth and buoyant sax throughout ACT ONE. One of my most played albums of the summer and best sets of Wayhome Festival.
16. The Weeknd – Starboy (Spotify)
Starboy was a single-filled-palooza with current hits like “False Alarm” and the album’s namesake. “Party Monster”, “Sidewalks”, and “I Feel It Coming” will likely continue the Weeknd’s reign in 2017. The full set of electro R&B sounds (reminded me of Bladerunner mixed with Prince at times) seemed a tad long, but still satisfying.
15. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!” (Spotify)
Donald Glover had one helluva 2016 between TV show Atlanta being praised near and far and the buzz that led up to the release of “Awaken, My Love!”. I was ready to be disappointed (as I was on Because the Internet), but AML surprised with its funk-filled dish. Gambino didn’t rap a bar on the album, but showed off strong vocal chops inspired by Prince and D’Angelo on cuts like “Redbone” and “Boogieman”. Sidenote: Young Lando would be an amazing rap name if this whole Childish Gambino thing doesn’t work out.
14. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo (Spotify)
Even an uneven Kanye West album is better than most albums in a given year. The Life of Pablo wasn’t always a successful, but Yeezy managed to inspire (“Ulralight Beam”), enrage (“Famous”), and haunt (“Wolves”) with experimentation that showed his quest to evolve continues. The collaborator list on the album was nearly as long as a Star Wars crawl, but more assistance on the lyrics of the album (I’m thinking of a certain bleach-related line on “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”) could have pushed Pablo to greater heights.
13. Anderson .Paak. – Malibu (Spotify)
Cali’s Anderson .Paak had a breakthrough on Dr. Dre’s return in 2015, but 2016 pushed him over the top with features on Kaytranada’s album and his own release, Malibu. The soulful set balanced throwback sounds (“Celebrate”, “Parking Lot”) with neo-soul (“Lite Weight”, “Am I Wrong”) that punctuated .Paak’s unique vocals.
12. Solange – A Seat At The Table (Spotify)
The sisters Knowles had an amazing year and both made statements of their own. Solange arguably made the bigger surprise though with a consistent effort filled with sonically could have been from neo-soul collective Soulquarians in the late ’90’s. Poignant lyrics and themes of racial struggles on “F.U.B.U.” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” were apt for 2016’s seemingly daily conflicts. “Cranes In The Sky” may be Solange’s best song to date.
11. Car Seat Headrest – Teens In Denial (Spotify)
Car Seat Headrest was another late find for me this year, but quickly moved up my top albums list. The narrative-filled battle with depression was expertly documented through Will Toledo’s pained vocals and blistering guitars.
10. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Spotify)
Jack White’s latest find should not have really been a surprise, considering his love for country & western acts like Loretta Lynn. Margo Price certainly has a throwback sound on favorites like “Hands of Time” and “Since You Put Me Down”, but tales of heartbreak prove still relevant today.
09. Angel Olsen – My Woman (Spotify)
“Shut Up and Kiss Me” was the song I kept coming back to on Angel Olsen’s My Woman with its blistering guitar and engulfing vocals. However, the entire album has repeat-worthy hooks and sounds that include grunge, country rock, and 60s pop. “Never Be Mine” was particularly engaging with Olsen’s hovering vocals and addictive chorus.
08. Beyonce – Lemonade (Apple Music)
Lemonade was the most talked about album of the year for a variety of reasons, including the true/not true narrative of infidelity, striking imagery, and surprise nature. The album wasn’t an easy listen the first time I pressed play, but Beyonce clearly wasn’t interested in recreating past records filled with pop candy. Lemonade was dark (“6 Inch”), proud (“Daddy Lessons”), emotional (“Pray You Catch Me”), angry (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), and beautiful throughout while not being concerned with pop radio. “Hold Up” probably would have been the most accessible song on the record for the masses, but even on that track toyed with a variety of tempos and moods. To my surprise, “Formation” would end up being the record that garnered the most attention for its grimy beat and memorable video.
07. Drive-By Truckers – American Band (Spotify)
Athens, GA’s Drive-By Truckers are no stranger to strong song-writing with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, but the band’s narratives and melodies seemed particularly important this politically charged year. “What It Means” was especially gutting in covering the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but racial conflict was also poignantly profiled on “Guns of Umqua”, and “Surrender Under Protest”.
06. Haley Bonar – Impossible Dream (Spotify)
It was certainly easy to play Haley Bonar’s latest 10-track album over and over due to its run time. However, I would have loved for Impossible Dream to be twice as long due to dreamy indie rock and alt country-influenced songs like “Hometown” and “I Can Change”. Bonar’s spiraling vocals, catchy hooks and songwriting remain an under appreciated treasure.
05. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You For Your Service (Spotify)
I will admit that I under appreciated Tribe until a few years ago (Thanks Tom!), but their return this year was the reunion album I never knew I needed. I could listen to this album front to back with its politically charged anthems (“Space Program”, “We the People…”) and throwback production (“Lost Somebody”, “Movin’ Backwards”). I’m guessing I will continue to listen in 2017 with what appears to be another year in need of quality protest music. RIP Phife.
04. Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Spotify)
I’d say from the first note of “22 (Over Soon”) I knew I was going to love 22, A Million. Justin Vernon and company stayed consistent with their formula of emotive indie folk, but ratcheted up the electronic elements that some called “folktronica”. The rumble of vocal distortion and percussion that kicked off “10 (Death Breast)” may have scared off some past fans, but served as an exciting development to my ears. Nearly any of these tracks could have been in my top songs of 2016 list, but “666 (Upsidedowncross)” and “33 “God”” were constant replays.
03. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book (Spotify)
If you didn’t listen to Chance the Rappers third mixtape, affectionally called “Chance 3”, with a smile on your face, you were doing it wrong. The young Chicago rapper’s enthusiasm on cuts like “All Night” and “All We Got” was contagious and even outshined Lil Wayne & 2Chainz on “No Problem”. The gospel-inspired album managed to achieve the joy Kanye tried to create on cuts like “Jesus Walks” and “Ultralight Beam”, with ease.
02. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Spotify)
Its not that Frank Ocean’s first release of 2016, Endless, was bad. Its just that Blonde was soooooo much better. In fact, after hearing the first three cuts (“Nikes”, “Ivy”, “Pink+White”), I was fairly certain Ocean was on pace for a flawless album. While less concise than Channel Orange, Ocean and guests (Pharrell, Andre 3000, Jon Brion) were content to explore each song to dream-like depths while not being bound to pop standards.
01. Kaytranada – 99.9% (Spotify)
Seeing 99.9% at the top of this list should not be a surprise to many of you, but Kaytranada’s official originals album was certainly my most played of the year. The Montreal producer’s production catalog was already stellar in previous years from a strong remix game and that translated into an album filled with dance, R&B, house, funk, and jazz elements. Features were well-placed with Vic Mensa, AlunaGeorge, Anderson .Paak, and even Craig David infusing each production. “Lite Spots” didn’t have a famous feature, but its sample of “Pontos De Luz” by Gal Costa was an unsung hero. Press play and be prepared to hit repeat.