The 50 Best Albums of 2016

Music Lists Best Albums of 2016
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10. Frank Ocean, Blonde
Ocean has mostly existed in suspended animation in the interim between channel ORANGE and Blonde, leaving his fortress of solitude for the occasional feature or broadcasting his thoughts from within its dungeons via oblique tumblr dispatches. His absence from public life has been so absolute that it has spawned memes, conspiracy theories and fan fiction about him being seen IRL. Blonde is just as evasive—Ocean obscures his face on the album cover—but it’s his most resonant work yet, constantly pushing past profound alienation to connect, however fleetingly, to something, someone.

Throughout the album, Ocean flits in and out of memories and relationships, replacing the set pieces of channel ORANGE with slipstream vignettes. Genre is also a blur. channel ORANGE may have been eclectic, but it was clearly an R&B record. Blonde is thoroughly radioactive, always unstable. Surf rock transforms into new wave that morphs into electrosoul that evaporates into vaporwave. The only thing stabilizing this chaos is a folk sensibility: a persistent emphasis on the power of the voice. —Stephen F. Kearse

9. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
After a few years of introspection (along with producing albums for other artists and starting the Eaux Claires Music Festival), Justin Vernon has come back to Bon Iver. If he’s not exactly refreshed, it’s clear on 22, A Million that he feels a renewed urgency to create. There’s certainly a sense of urgency here, and also sublime moments on songs that overlay beauty with turbulence in a way that suggests an anguished soul reaching for solace amid turmoil. The beauty comes in layers of ethereal vocals, an echo of Bon Iver’s earlier work. But 22, A Million is neither the spare whisper-folk of For Emma, Forever Ago, nor the gauzy soft-rock of Bon Iver, Bon Iver. These 10 tunes have sharper edges, with touches of abrasion that extend to the song titles: each contains a number, and many replace letters with symbols that sometimes look as though Vernon found them scrolling through Wingdings. As a whole, it sounds as though Vernon is rediscovering—or maybe recreating—his own identity in the context of what Bon Iver has become, sifting through the dysfunction, demands and general weirdness of a public life in search of what is real and tangible, at least to himself. —Eric R. Danton

8. Lucy Dacus, No Burden
Virginia singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus’s No Burden is astounding for two reasons. First off, this is the young artist’s debut album, but it is surprisingly genuine and mature. Second, she reimagines the indie folk and rock scene because she does not fall victim to the one-dimensional melancholic trope and rather opts for a frank and beautiful style.

With her warm, dreamy voice, Dacus has an artful swagger and constructs wry and acute observations about her experiences. Accompanied by her mesmerizing guitar, Dacus bravely traverses and articulates the inner workings of her self in songs like “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” and “Map on a Wall.” A self-described restless soul, Dacus is on a quest of endurance, “how to survive the bendin’ and breakin’.” With a breezy attitude, Dacus’ drops the “g’s” from “-ing” verbs in a charming manner, but she still maintains a modern elegance. All the while, No Burden has a tinge of optimism and hope, making it a gorgeous and insightful work. —Taylor Ysteboe

7. Angel Olsen, My Woman
After 2014’s stunning Burn Your Fire for No Witness dramatically raised her profile, Olsen perhaps felt pressure to make a big statement the next time out. My Woman finds her up to the challenge, maintaining a harrowing intensity in full-band rockers and solitary confessionals. Olsen is a brilliant songwriter and an even better vocalist, who can go from stern to tender to deranged, and back again, in a single verse. In the beginning of My Woman, Olsen mostly pursues love with wild-eyed fervor, whereas the closing songs disconsolately consider its ruins. Yet, the relentless heat of My Woman can be exhausting over the course of 10 searing tracks—the addition of a throwaway would give a weary listener time to regroup. But Angel Olsen’s fearless and eloquent embrace of raw emotions in all their messy splendor ultimately feels oddly uplifting, the way it always does when you witness a gifted artist at her best. —Jon Young

6. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead  has seemingly run out of reinventions, but that could be for the best. A Moon Shaped Pool, the quintet’s ninth LP, is more summary than new chapter. Thom Yorke’s oceanic piano loops, half-mumbled falsettos and reversed vocal wails recall the insular Kid A-Amnesiac era, while Greenwood’s dense string orchestrations echo the warmest stretches of The King of Limbs and its more organic predecessor, In Rainbows. Slow-burn synth-rock epic “Identikit” climaxes with their wildest guitar solo—arguably their only real guitar solo—since OK Computer. Collectively, A Moon Shaped Pool proves that Radiohead has resumed its greatest winning streak in modern popular music. Not by flaunting any new tricks—just by delivering their normal quota of catharsis.—Ryan Reed

5. Mitski, Puberty 2
Mitksi is a bonafide rock star, as proven on her 2016 standout album, Puberty 2. Her fourth studio album is an exceptional exploration of universal truths for a certain sect—unrequited love, financial instability and hungry ambition. Despite these coming of age tales, Puberty 2 is anything but ordinary. Mitski’s telling offers a refreshing and emotionally raw account of life in a way that avoids being precious. Each track offers a unique approach in terms of sound but is woven together and amplified through brilliant songwriting. With “Happy,” the album opens combining pulsing drumbeats and horns, gradually progressing to the distorted, power-chord driven rock anthem, “Your Best American Girl.” In “A Burning Hill,” the album’s final track, Puberty 2 comes full circle. The less-than-two-minute closer completes the grieving process, which Mitski embraces by singing, “I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep / and I’ll love the littler things.” The lyrics may be simple but they highlight the wisdom possessed by the 26-year-old, making this one of the year’s best albums. —Jaimie Cranford

4. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders are great Tribe albums. But We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is a great Tribe album that has André 3000 and Kendrick Lamar. That’s just math making a strong case that this LP is the best thing this group’s ever done. With absolute certainty, “The Space Program” and “We the People…” are the greatest one-two opening punch in their catalog, and fairly strong arguments that a band would make a better President than our current elect.

On the latter, these everymen know what unites America (“The ramen noodle”), and they know the bigotry that rips it apart (“Muslims and gays / Boy we hate your ways”). And in one career-best verse on the former, Q-Tip rightfully salutes Confederate flag-capturer Brittany Newsome, the murdered Eric Garner and a doomsday premonition from his own “Excursions.” Inverting a storied history of legendary African-American musicians from Sun Ra to George Clinton to Lil Wayne, Tribe cement their rep as the most earthbound crew of all time: “There ain’t a space program for niggas / You stuck here nigga.” Call it “Incursions.”

Yet, We got it from Here… proceeds from one crucial innovation since Tribe last made a record in 1998: the jazz-rap album you cannot relax to. Kendrick himself pioneered this with last year’s unanimously received masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, and Tribe’s most political album by miles is almost as fraught. All sorts of arresting, arrhythmic junk clutters their chewiest grooves while Q-Tip, Jarobi and the one-of-a-kind Busta Rhymes one-up their own high-anxiety flows in these secretly recorded tracks like the Navy playing war games. Just listen to Q-Tip’s hiccuping breathlessness on “The Donald” or Busta’s exorcisms on “Dis Generation.” These guys never rapped like this before, and they never will again, at least not in this configuration. —Dan Weiss

3. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Will Toledo is the creative force behind this Bandcamp success story. The new album is out after his Matador debut, Teens of Style, which culled from his self-released records for songs he wanted to give a more official treatment too. Now though, he’s coming through clearer than ever. His voice isn’t shrouded by reverb and distortion, and his songwriting is crisp as can be. This style of indie rock can benefit from the lo-fi treatment, and it did for most of his career, but the clarity here puts on display that his talent really carries through as well if not better with a cleaner production style.

With Teens of Denial, Toledo has practically guaranteed himself a viable career for years to come. The fact he did it while still in his early 20s after laying a foundation of solid self-released records proves even further that his most creative days are probably still ahead of him. This is an album that makes you really fucking glad to be alive. For that matter, the very fact albums like this are coming out is enough reason alone to hope you get to stick around on this planet for a long, long time. —Mack Hayden

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade
The album Lemonade tells the story of a woman experiencing the high highs and low lows that come from loving, from believing, from existing. She’s confident (“6 Inch”), she’s scorned (“Hold Up”), and she’s vengeful (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”). She’s painfully aware (“Pray You Catch Me”), blinded, then restored by love and lies. She’s open, she’s hopeful (“Sandcastles”), and she’s incomprehensibly fierce (“Sorry”). She is everywoman—in love and in pain (“All Night”), defined as much by her romantic life as she is by her parents (“Daddy Lessons”), and the cultures and worlds that birthed her (“Formation”).

But the film Lemonade tells a story that takes all of this and socializes and politicizes it—as it should be. Songs about heartbreak no longer merely signify love lost, but must be understood alongside certain losses unique to women in the black community. Anthems about reclamation of power in the aftermath of an unfaithful lover take new meaning, when you see images of black women gathered. I stress the word because of all the different ways Lemonade the album and Lemonade the film embrace the notion of black women gathering. Useless lovers who have failed to appreciate a certain magic in their midst must be gathered—as in almost violently collected, if only to be torn apart; a community of women bound together by a history that stretches from the continent of Africa, to the Caribbean Islands, to the French Quarters must gather to share collective tales and to pull on each other’s individual talents for strength. And of course, the reaction to Lemonade reflects such gathering. Since the album was released, black women have been gathering to speak, write and reflect on the impact of the album, to share syllabi—required reading to understand the layers Beyoncé veils and unveils—and to simply exist in a certain glory that we only feel in the presence of those who know us well—Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Julie Dash, Kara Walker, Mara Brock Akil—those women whose work we have been gathering around for years. Now of course, Lemonade is to be enjoyed by every gender and every race the world over. And it has been. But if anyone feels the need to ask why Lemonade exists, and how Lemonade came to be and what it means that the album arrived at this time in American history, well, I believe Bey made herself quite clear. Everyone else (the others) gets to look on and listen in, as she sings her own interpretation of a deceptively simple hymn that’s been passed down through generations of black women, to the black women of this moment: Gather, heal, slay, repeat. —Shannon Houston

1. David Bowie, Blackstar
The death of David Bowie in early 2016 somehow seemed to set the tone of the rest of the year. His many fans and supporters thrilled at the release of his latest album Blackstar, a masterpiece that found him threading modern jazz into his already multi-colored tapestry of sound, and talked excitedly about what looked like the start of a bold new chapter in his storied career. Two days later, all that hope and promise was yanked away when the news came of Bowie’s death due to liver cancer.

Quickly, the discussion about Blackstar turned from celebratory to eulogistic as many of us pored over the lyrics and the two videos he made for the album for clues and signposts. Bowie did not disappoint on that front, as the LP is suffused with references to the inevitable and to looking back at his own legacy as one of 20th century’s most innovative pop stars.

With his clear-eyed view of his divine status, Blackstar becomes, then, a worship album about Bowie. His chosen cadre of musicians certainly treat it as such. Though the hard grooves that the members of Donny McCaslin’s quartet aren’t too far afield from what they presented on their 2015 album Fast Future, it’s still obvious that they’re pulling their punches a bit, all the better to let their new bandleader run as wild as he pleases.

That approach still leaves the door wide open for some remarkable sounds. The skittering 4/4 beat of “Girl Loves Me” should be the envy of every hip-hop producer worth his/her weight in vintage vinyl, and drummer Mark Guiliana’s work on the re-recording of “Sue, Or In A Season of Crime” brings back the spirit of Bowie’s ‘90s dalliances in drum ‘n’ bass to exalting effect.

Things get even more interesting when the members of the group dare to take the spotlight away from Bowie. McCaslin lets loose in spare moments throughout, as on the pealing solo that rounds out the driving “‘Tis Pity She Was A Whore,” and both he and guitarist Ben Monder provide the tender, almost mournful heart of album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

True to the tone of the record, Bowie is almost a spectre throughout. His vocals are often doubled in tight harmonies, or given an alien-like echo that might as well be broadcasts from the beyond. He never sounds less than marvelous, through. After 45+ years of work, his voice has lost a little of its high end, but is possibly stronger. It’s definitely capable of reaching more sinister aims on songs like “Whore” and “Girl Loves Me,” and with a smattering of vibrato, he can unearth some still-rich wells of emotion.

Bowie circles back to himself on Blackstar as well. During the breakdown of the title track, his backing vocal insists that he’s not a rock star or a film star, even though he’s played both roles. “Girl Loves Me,” on the other hand, returns to his fascination with the made up language of A Clockwork Orange and uses, at times, a similar rhythm that recalls “Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family” from Diamond Dogs.

Bowie’s biggest reveal comes at the end of Blackstar, pulling back the curtain long enough to let us know that for as much of himself as he has offered up to the music lovers of the world, as the title goes, he can’t give everything away. He had to hold something back, be it his soul or his body or his always nimble mind, to be able to weather his final moments on this planet. But what Bowie did gladly and willingly offer up is a grand closing statement that will, like every other bit of art he created during his life, resound through the ages and shine glimmers of hope and humanity upon generations of boogie-ing children.—Robert Ham

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