The 50 Best Albums of 2016

Music Lists Best Albums of 2016
Share Tweet Submit Pin

40. Dawn Richard, Redemption
On her final album in the Goldenheart/Blackheart/Redemption trilogy, the onetime P. Diddy protégé proves her staying power as not just a solo artist, but as one with an untouchable perspective. It’s a point of view that has been shaped by her time as a possible Top 40 contender in pop-R&B outfit Danity Kane, and later as simply DAWN—an independent performer who refuses to mold herself into whatever shape the mainstream music industry asks. This conundrum is a major theme on Redemption. “I don’t mean to talk about my personal business, but I’mma have to put it out there,” she sings on the undulating “Vines,” concluding that “you been putting me in boxes and I don’t really feel comfortable for you to talk like this; I feel stifled and I feel like a seed that can’t grow.” And music-industry battles make up only a fraction of Redemption—Richard likewise addresses Black Lives Matter on the soaring “Black Crimes” and the journey toward acceptance on the tittering “Lazarus” (“I didn’t change I became… My ascension is a spirit being”). Running in tandem with its multifaceted subject matter is Richard’s ability to draw from a bottomless well of genres. Together with producer Machinedrum, she showcases dance culture on “Love Under Lights,” whining guitar licks on “LA” and distorted horn- and clarinet-work on “Voices.” This is all to say that Redemption is not just a triumph in musical transcendentalism (no boxes in sight for Richard here)—it’s an unapologetic celebration of the self. —Rachel Brodsky

39. Paul Simon, Stranger To Stranger
Folk rock legend Paul Simon’s latest album Stranger To Stranger is, as expected, a master course in songwriting. However, this LP is even more notable for its sound design and production techniques. Simon’s son, an avid music producer, introduced him to Italian underground electronic producer Clap! Clap! who collaborated with the legendary songwriter on a few tracks. This unique pairing of a folk icon and an underground electronic musician works so well that these collaborations with Clap! Clap! are the pinnacle of Stranger To Stranger. Ultimately, the album is a testament to an artist who refuses to be ordinary and pigeonholed. With this LP, Paul Simon has created his best work in many years. —Ben Rosner

ANOHNI’s debut album is bruising and beautiful, made indelible by its dissonance—the glittering lust with which its creator flings herself towards an apocalypse. Perfectly summed up in its announcement as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth,” HOPELESSNESS is a passionate protest record as dazzling as it is devastating—co-producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke create gorgeous, glitchy soundscapes, but its ANOHNI’s ethereal vocals that animate them. Toni Morrison said all good art is political—even by that measure alone, this album is fucking great. ANOHNI begs to be a target on undeniable opener “Drone Bomb Me” and prays for catastrophic climate change in stellar second track “Four Degrees,” yearning for doom as if in an attempt to convince herself it’s what she wants, since it’s so clearly what she—what all of us—are going to get. HOPELESSNESS will convince you it’s what we deserve, but despite its fearless eye towards the world’s horrors, this album is anything but an admission of defeat—it’s a rallying cry. “Let’s be brave and tell the truth as much as we can,” ANOHNI urged upon its release. Yes, let’s. —Scott Russell

37. Whitney, Light Upon The Lake
Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, Whitney’s songwriting duo, have been preparing to release this debut album since shortly after their last band, the Smith Westerns, split in 2014. When writing songs together, Kakacek and Ehrlich developed a persona: Whitney is a lonely guy who drinks too much and lives alone. It was probably a pretty easy idea to embody. Both Max and Julien are quick to admit that the songs for Light Upon the Lake were written in the midst of consecutive breakups. They felt a little bit like Whitney, so they built this as a bit of a concept album.

But, the weird thing about labeling this record as a breakup album is that it’s both accurate and—paradoxically—widely off base. It’s not angsty, or hastily prepared in a few drunken nights off of some fit of red-eyed nostalgia. Sure, literally speaking all of the songs off of Light Upon the Lake conjure up failure to maintain a relationship with a loved one, but how can you relate a new band’s debut record—and one that’s so so fully realized to the point of even having a mission statement in the Whitney, as a man, as a writing prompt and concept—with a break up? If anything, it’s the start of something new. —Nikki Volpicelli

36. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered.
Kendrick Lamar is a pretty varied guy, as horny as he is existentialist. His harrowed and ongoing metamorphosis into a butterfly is the narrative he’s chosen and is the story he’ll likely stick with for the foreseeable future, but untitled unmastered. shows that the holes in his willed chrysalis might be more interesting than the beauty promised by the cocoon. Featuring many of the same collaborators, themes and sonic templates as To Pimp A Butterfly, untitled unmastered. necessarily lives in that album’s shadow. Each song is time-stamped and untitled, stillborn inside the To Pimp a Butterfly session in which it was conceived. But that’s precisely this album’s beauty: instead of shying away from the long shadow of To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled unmastered. happily embraces that shared DNA, reveling in the subtleties that set it apart. This isn’t just a collection of b-sides: this is Kendrick’s What If version of his own mythology, flaws as alternate histories, unrealized retcons. —Stephen F. Kearse

35. Lake Street Dive, Side Pony
Ten years in, and a fully realized Lake Street Dive had finally arrived and announced itself as a force to be reckoned with. Their new Nonesuch follow-up, Side Pony, provides both an encore and procedural evolution of the songs that were presented on 2014’s Bad Self Portraits. The earlier tracks on the new record find the band adeptly grooving in the particular, difficult to categorize niche of neo-soul and jazzy pop that they’ve made their signature, and one initially fears if perhaps there’s been little additional growth. The revelation of Side Pony, however, is in the album’s final third. —Jim Vorel

34. Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop, Love Letter for Fire
Despite their disparate backgrounds, Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop have managed to make an album that’s both hushed and harmonious, one that finds this, their first dual effort, blurring the lines between the sedate and the seductive. Beam’s no stranger to this approach; his efforts with Iron & Wine generally find him dwelling in more cerebral realms. Hoop, on the other hand, has yet to establish an identity with any such distinction; four albums on, she still resides well below the radar.

Happily then, Hoop’s recognition factor is likely to climb significantly. Beam may be the marquee name here, but it’s Hoop’s supple harmonies that give this effort its sense of purpose. Most of these songs rarely rise above a whisper, their dreamy designs and precious approach suggesting a nocturnal feel that’s consistent with a nu-folk noir. Songs like “The Lamb You Lost,” “We Two Are A Moon,” “Every Songbird Says” and “Bright Lights and Goodbyes” keep that consistency intact. Likewise, Hoop’s focused take on “Soft Place To Land” and Beam’s immediate follow-up, “Sailor to Siren,” suggest each of these artists might qualify as dimly-lit folkies if that was indeed their desire. It’s not exactly Gram and Emmylou, but at times the symmetry does come close. —Lee Zimmerman

33. Hinds, Leave Me Alone
If frolicking on a warm beach in golden light with your best friends had a musical equivalent, it would have to be the debut album from Hinds. Though the Spanish quartet is said to be at the forefront of a growing indie scene in Madrid—a city much better known for many other things—Hinds could have just as easily grown up in a garage a few blocks from the ocean somewhere in southern California.

Co-fronted by Ana Perrote and Carlotta Cosials—who started the band as a duo called Deers before recruiting Ade Martin and Amber Grimbergen and, for legal reasons, changing their name—Hinds play shaggy rock ’n’ roll with a casual, shambling feel. Perrote and Cosials trade lead vocals, and they often give the impression they’re singing through broad smiles of amazement at how much fun they’re having. Their enthusiasm carries over to Martin and Grimbergen, and the quartet plays with a sense of joy that feels genuine and anything but cynical. Although the group sometimes wanders or gets sloppy, precision isn’t the point. Leave Me Alone manages to be a nostalgic album that nevertheless lives in the moment. It’s a moment worth celebrating. —Eric R. Danton

32. Case/Lang/Veirs, case/lang/veirs
Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, whose unexpected partnership has yielded a stunner of a debut. The 14 songs on case/lang/veirs come with three distinct moods that reflect each musician’s considerable strengths as singers and as writers. Case is the restless one, always on the move through songs at once evocative and mysterious. Lang is the torch singer, wrapping her sensuous voice alternately around tableaus of seduction and heartache. Veirs is the fantasist, conjuring scenarios worthy of Walter Mitty (“From the oriental rug you meet my gaze/ And all my desperation retreats into the haze,” she sings on “Greens of June”).

Though each singer takes the lead on songs that fit her individual style, no one brought tunes to the sessions. The musicians are said to have written the songs on case/lang/veirs for each other, from scratch—all the more impressive, given that they didn’t really know each other before lang emailed the other two a few years ago to suggest they make an album. During their respective well-established careers, Case, lang and Veirs had traveled in fairly different circles, which made the initial news of their collaboration a surprise—one that lasted just long enough to realize how well matched they really are. —Eric R. Danton

31. Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp
Psychopomp is the perfect moniker for this devastatingly dreamy noise-pop album from Japanese Breakfast, the first solo project from Michelle Zauner (of Philly punk fame). Named for the deities whose responsibility it is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife, Psychopomp was created as a cathartic personal exploration after Zauner watched her mother suffer through illness before passing away. The artist doesn’t waste any time asking listeners a question she was surely struggling with herself while writing and recording. “Do you believe in heaven?” she sings on the opening track, setting the tone for a catchy, yet complex body of work that explores lo-fi loss, loneliness and love. Like denial turns into grief, lighter crystalline melodies early on eventually give way to a heavier experimental rock sound. The title track is a short, swirly instrumental piece. Ending on the motherly words, “It’s okay sweetheart. Don’t cry,” “Psychopomp” leads into the darkest, most dynamic song on the album. Stylish production makes it easy to overlook Zauner’s incredible range, that is until she confronts you with the assailing vocal performance on “Jane Cum.” Definitely makes a believer out of me. —Emily Ray

Also in Music