The 50 Best Albums of 2016

Music Lists Best Albums of 2016
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

In addition to its dreadful international crises and politics, 2016 has been harsh for musicians. Some of music’s greatest icons—including Prince, David Bowie, Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen—departed this earthly plane in 2016, but not before leaving us with legendary last words. Still, throughout a tumultuous year, musicians served as commentators and activists, while also providing respite and escapism through their works. Paste staffers, writers and interns voted on the best, most meaningful, and relevant albums of 2016, yielding nominations for more than 100 LPs. And you can win 25 of these albums on vinyl when you sign up for the free Paste email newsletter.

Here are our top 50 albums of the year, and we hope you’ll share your favorites in the comments below.

50. Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life
Plenty of vocalists can sing with power, and some can sing with convincing subtlety. There aren’t very many who can do both in the same breath. Courtney Marie Andrews is one of those rare artists. Though Honest Life is technically Andrews’ sixth album, she has withdrawn the first three, so these 10 new songs are likely to serve as an introduction. They make a hell of a first impression, too. Andrews sings with the knowing air of someone who has seen a lot of life, and the quiet optimism of someone who knows there’s so much more yet to see. It’s a powerful blend on songs about itinerant lives, fragile hearts and the steady determination of people searching for something they themselves would likely be hard-pressed to name. Alongside her quietly picked acoustic guitar, the songs on Honest Life comprise an album at once elegant and deeply moving. —Eric R. Danton

49. Fruit Bats, Absolute Loser
Though it sounds perfectly natural in the line of succession of Fruit Bats albums, it’s the five-year hiatus preceding Absolute Loser that makes all the difference. That album, as cohesive and strong top to bottom as anything frontman Eric D. Johnson has made, gathers its sense of purpose from the sort of self-reflection and search for meaning that caused Johnson to put Fruit Bats on the shelf after 2011’s Tripper. But Absolute Loser unfolds as a rock-solid example of what Johnson has done best for more than 15 years. Although the album stacks more of its mellower songs toward the end—trading some of the enthusiastic spirit Johnson brings to Fruit Bats’ return for a finale that sounds thoroughly peaceful—in the end, anyone who’s tapped feet or nodded along to Fruit Bats in the past will find plenty to embrace with this new batch of familiar, comfortable tunes. —Eric Swedlund

48. Drive-by Truckers, American Band
American Band is not a bashful album. As a collection of songs, it’s not quite as effective as Southern Rock Opera or The Dirty South. But as a political statement, it’s easily the Drive-by Truckers’ most emphatic work. “What It Means” takes a subdued approach to the subject of African-Americans killed at the hands of police (or, in the case of Martin, a vigilante cop-wannabe). “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” is the brawny flipside, full of the growling, intertwined guitars that have become something of a Truckers signature over the years. Singer Patterson Hood mostly handles the downhearted tunes, singing from the perspective of a military veteran wounded as a civilian by an act of domestic terrorism on the moody “Guns of Umpqua,” sighing in the gloom over a gentle piano phrase on “When the Sun Don’t Shine” and parsing his own struggles with depression on “Baggage,” written after Robin Williams committed suicide. Although the songs on American Band are arguably not the band’s catchiest, it’s a body of work that is starting to feel increasingly essential as the American political landscape gets more and more surreal. —Eric R. Danton

47. St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sea Of Noise
While Sea Of Noise—the follow-up to their widely hailed debut, 2014 ‘s Half The City—doesn’t shirk from offering commentary on society’s failings, it doesn’t revel in them either. To the contrary, it attempts to rally its listeners to a higher calling where intelligence and inspiration take precedence over name-calling and accusations. Singer and frontman Paul Janeway exhorts his listeners to find that higher purpose that great music strives to attain. Like another of soul music’s revered roots, the rousing gospel sounds that gave congregations reason to look heavenward, St. Paul & The Broken Bones use their effusive, ecstatic revelry to rouse their audiences and encourage them to get caught up in a kind of aural delirium. —Lee Zimmerman

46. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
Hamilton Leithauser, former frontman for The Walkmen, and his new musical partner Rostam Batmanglij (ex-Vampire Weekend) have achieved something increasingly rare in the indie rock landscape on their first fully collaborative album. The 10 tracks on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine use small signposts that point to music of the past without fully devolving into pure pastiche. Although both men had day jobs playing various strains of post-punk, together their baseline is the much broader idea of pop music, plain and simple. At least how pop music was created in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It allows them to gild the edges of these songs with the “sha-dooby” backing vocals of doo-wop, some Dylanesque harmonica ramblin’, finger-picked acoustic guitar a la Leonard Cohen’s early work, and some U.K.-style folk rock. Again, those elements are only signifiers, a way for fellow music obsessives to latch on to a song before Leithauser and Rostam take you on a much different journey. —Robert Ham

45. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee
M.C. Taylor’s sixth album as Hiss Golden Messenger is arguably his best. While 2013’s Haw served as the band’s initial breakthrough and 2014’s Lateness of Dancers brought about late night revelry (featuring Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath and Reggie Pace from No BS! Brass Band) on Letterman, Heart Like A Levee serves as a deeper incarnation of those predecessors. The album is steeped in the duality of leaving one of his greatest loves in life—his family—only to venture off into the world to embrace his other love—music—and exemplified in the gutting title track and “Cracked Windshield.” Yet, Heart Like A Levee reconciles with a singular musicality. Multi-instrumentalists and brothers Phil and Brad Cook have finally perfected the Hiss Golden Messenger sound by balancing the meandering guitar noodling and reverberating Wurlitzers worthy of a jam band breakdown with Taylor’s acoustic Americana foundation. —Hilary Saunders

44. The Coathangers, Nosebleed Weekend
The Coathangers’ transition from raw to razor-sharp was essentially complete by 2014’s Suck My Shirt, but Nosebleed Weekend displays an even greater capacity for churning out maniacally captivating tunes. On this fifth album, The Coathangers haven’t compromised a bit of the defiant edge that made the band such subversively charming rookies. Only now, 10 years in, The Coathangers have everything nailed down tight enough to withstand a hurricane.

The Coathangers  have always been barbed with stay-out-of-my-way put-downs, but they also open up the lyrical themes on Nosebleed Weekend. The self-reliant streak shows up stronger than ever, aided by experience and The Coathangers’ continued dedication to making music their own way. And musically the record is more also complex. The Coathangers know how to employ these more dynamic song structures to maximum effect. And though they’re just as snarling as ever, The Coathangers find balance by ceding a bit more emphasis to the melodic side. Overall, Nosebleed Weekend The Coathangers’ strongest top-to-bottom album and one that proves the band can maintain its essence as it evolves. —Eric Swedlund

43. Charles Bradley, Changes
Charles Bradley  is a soul survivor who came up the hard way, scratching out every break he ever got through a combination of working his tail off and perseverance. You can hear it in his voice, a magnificent, gravelly shriek that retains traces of the James Brown impersonation he used to do under the name Black Velvet. By now, at age 67, that electrifying voice has definitely become its own thing, and he inhabits the songs on his new album as if he lived them. And on Changes, his third album, Bradley draws on recent experiences traveling around the world to perform, as well as more standard soul tropes of love and heartache. He sounds humble and grateful on “Good to Be Back Home,” bemusedly lovelorn on “Crazy for Your Love” and vexed on “Ain’t It a Sin,” a bone-rattling boogie tune propelled by choogling guitar, blaring horns and rapid handclaps. But the improbable centerpiece of the album, though, is the title track, a reworking of a mawkish Black Sabbath piano ballad from the group’s 1972 album Vol. 4. Bradley turns the tune into a deeply soulful tribute to his late mother, with tremolo guitar taking over the piano part and accompaniment from low horns, the gentle burble of a Hammond organ and a solid, subtle rhythm. —Eric R. Danton

42. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
Jenny Hval has never shied away from the taboo. That much was clear on the opening track to 2013’s Innocence Is Kinky, where the Norwegian avant-pop artist utters “That night, I watched people fucking on my computer,” placing special emphasis on the verb. She has likewise asked “What is soft dick rock?” before moving on to define it on 2015’s Apocalypse, girl. Hval keeps intellectualizing the body on the still atmospheric but considerably poppier Blood Bitch, which throbs with references to menstrual blood, vampires and ‘70s horror films, subjects that repeatedly get woven together in a dreamy stream of consciousness. On the spare, scrawling “Untamed Region,” Hval actually touches her menses and feels surprised “to find I still have it in me.” The haunted, organ-laced “The Plague” absurdly instructs, “keep that birth under control!” after Hval washes the Pill down with a gulp of rosé. And album single “Female Vampire” breathlessly captures two women’s flows synching up (“When I’m near you become someone else… Here it comes”). Set against noise producer Lasse Marhaug and Hval’s pensive yet buoyant soundscape, Blood Bitch succeeds in taking its singer’s free, er, flowing ideas to new, grander heights. —Rachel Brodsky

41. Margaret Glaspy, Emotions and Math
Emotions and Math is the moody, indie rock debut from guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Margaret Glaspy. Known previously for her roots-folk stylings, Glaspy shows a different side on Emotions and Math—more like Elliott Smith with a splash of vintage Billie Holiday. Gritty and vulnerable, Emotions and Math explores lesser-narrated personas with disarming honesty. “You and I,” examines the perspective of a disinterested lover who just wants to keep things casual, while “Somebody to Anybody” validates a character—presumably a woman—who just doesn’t want or need a significant other. These songs are still sung with the tenderness of a tradition love song, but expand the scope of folk songwriter themes in the way that Joni Mitchell did. The bulk of Emotions and Math features just Glaspy’s rasping voice and melody-driven guitar playing at the forefront—an apt instrumentation for these intimate songs from an artist who’ll, undoubtedly, be on more lists like these in the future. —Alexa Peters

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