Let’s not beat around the bush—2016 has been an incredible year for music. In fact, it’s been a little overwhelming. What other year can boast opening with Bowie’s magnificent swan song, a Kanye album that was debuted at a Madison Square Garden event and is still being changed, sneak attacks from Beyonce, Radiohead, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar, and a successful supergroup release from case/lang/veirs. Those are some heavy, heavy hitters.
Since we’re officially past 2016’s halfway point, I thought we should all take a breath and reflect back on some of the year’s best albums. Part one of the list, below, will feature my current top ten. Because I feel weird about posting a top ten consisting mostly of major artists, I’ll run a part two in two weeks that will include ten other exceptional albums from 2016, some from major artists, some form some lesser known acts.
Both halves of the list will be presented in alphabetical order because I’m just not ready to rank these yet.
After 2013’s fine but not that special The Next Day, I can’t say I was all that excited about Blackstar. Sure, any time an artist like Bowie releases new work, especially after a long period of relative inactivity, we’re going to care a little, but more often than not, an outcome like The Next Day is a best case scenario. Then Bowie shared Blackstar’s jazz inflected sci-fi-from-hell title track with us and the album suddenly seemed far more interesting. Sure enough, Bowie’s latest and last is a stunning album that blends styles and sounds to impressive ends. I could go on and on talking about the album’s treatment of mortality and Bowie’s knowledge of his impending death, or about how the album feels like a synthesis of sounds from across all of The Thin White Duke’s best creative periods, but why bother. You’ve read it before. We all know that this is a special album and we’re lucky to have it, but not nearly as lucky as we were to have Bowie, period.
Generally speaking, supergroup projects don’t have a great track record. The dynamics involved with bringing a group of supremely talented individuals together to work on an album usually results in the most exciting elements of each artist’s work somehow sanded down, leaving us with a middling, good-but-not-great end product. When news broke that Neko Case, k. d. lang, and Laura Veirs were teaming up for an album of original songs, I was half expecting something that might feel like a gentle Portlandia punch line. Instead, case / lang / veirs recorded one of the year’s finest albums, a delicate exploration of folk, country, and indie rock in which each member’s strengths shine. Listen to Lang’s stunning performance on “Honey and Smoke,” with gorgeous backing vocals from Case and Veirs, or check out Case’s lead turn on “Delirium,” or the lush and humid, Veirs-penned “Greens of June,” with its effervescent string arrangement and haunting vocal interplay—listen to all of it. This one is a stunner. Treat yourself.
Coloring Book | Chance the Rapper | Self-Released
In what’s already shaping up to be an excellent year for the genre, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is a strong contender for best hip hop album of the year. Hell, it’s a strong contender for best album of the year, period. While that might seem a bit odd, considering Chance’s best verse of the year isn’t even on his own album (See The Life of Pablo, but you knew that), with its combination of fun jams like “No Problems,” uplifting, chill joints like “Blessings,” and sexy slow, sweet tracks like “Rink Jam,” Coloring Book didn’t need Lil Chano from the 79th’s best verse. But let’s talk a little about the album’s closing suite of songs, “Smoke Break,” “Finish Line/Drown,” and “Blessings (Reprise).” If Kanye West showed hip hop a way forward on 2003’s The College Dropout, the back end of Coloring Book feels like it could be showing the next way forward—these songs are ambitious and sincere. They trade on a warmth that isn’t all that common in hip hop, while providing Chance the, erm, chance to show off his impressive chops as an mc. In the days leading up to the release of The Life of Pablo, Kanye famously declared that he was making a gospel album. Outside of that album’s incredible Ultralight Beam, it wasn’t. But with Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper has put together a collection of songs that bounce with the optimistic spirit of gospel while still keeping both feet planted firmly in hip hop.
Freetown Sound | Blood Orange | Domino
Dev Hynes’ third full length as Blood Orange begins with “By Ourselves,” which opens with quiet piano and eventually slides into an Ashlee Haze poem about feminism, delivered over scorching jazz saxophone. Right away there is no doubt about it—Freetown Sound is going to be a political album. But even when Hynes evokes Trayvon Martin on the shimmering “Augustine,” the album never feels like anything less than a pristine, meticulously crafted pop album. The album’s explorations of race in America are stirring and filled with a simmering emotional energy. Every step of the way, Hynes’ arrangements are breathtaking—listen to the space in the arrangement at the end of “Best to You,” which also features a gorgeous vocal turn from Empress Of, or the sweet lift beneath the otherwise ominous chorus of “Hands Up.” And it’s on that latter song that Blood Orange’s project finds its most perfect example, blending the personal (“Are you sleeping with the lights on baby”) with the more overtly political (“Keep your hood off when you’re walking”) before asking, in heartbreakingly direct terms, “Are you ok? What’s in your way?” and closing with a collage of news coverage in which we can hear a woman repeatedly yelling “Don’t shoot.” Freetown Sound is protest music for now, is a stunning and moving collection of songs that successfully locates the intersection of interpersonal relationships with the politics of race in America.
Hopelessness | Anohni | Secretly Canadian
Anyone who was listening to Antony and the Johnson’s lovely chamber pop in the 00’s couldn’t have seen this coming. Anohni’s Hopelessness is a fierce, powerful album, mixing huge and noisy electronic arrangements with politically charged lyrics that aren’t afraid to go dark. With Hudson Mohawk and Oneohtrix Point Never sharing producer duties, it’s hard to be that surprised by the result, but once we begin to hear Anohni’s rich, warm voice barreling through the prior’s thick, heavy beats and the latter’s desolate retro-futurist soundscapes, it’s hard not to be a little bit taken aback. “Drone Bomb Me” is presented as a monologue in which a nine year old girl whose family has been killed by a drone bomb longs for another drone to “Blow my head off/Explode my crystal guts.” Elsewhere, Anohni rails against weak environmental policy, the surveillance state, and Obama. It’s a powerful album that spits fury into the heart of an American political system that more often than not seems hell bent on destroying everything it touches.
Lemonade | Beyonce | Columbia
As fantastic as Lemonade is, I can’t help but think it’s a smidge overrated. It’s an album that’s as easy to love as its importance is recognizable. It’s an album about marginalization and empowerment. It’s an album about deep emotional pain. It’s an album that balances the quiet, ponderous “Pray You Catch Me” with the simmering angry bounce of “Hold Up” with the shiny pop of “Love Drought” with the explosive rage of “Freedom.” Still, there are just a few songs here I don’t love—“Don’t Hurt Yourself” and “Daddy Lessons” come to mind. Still, most of Lemonade is magnificent for its writing, for its production, and for its interest in bringing autobiography into a genre that has traditionally resisted ever seeming too personal or too sincere. Don’t get me wrong Lemonade is an exceptional album, but I end up wanting to like it just a little more than I actually do.
The Life of Pablo | Kanye West | Good
And as I end up wanting to like Lemonade more than I do, I have the opposite problem with The Life of Pablo. I mean, I don’t even know what the fuck this album is, but for some reason I adore it. Through the promotion cycle for The Life of Pablo, Kanye reached peak obnoxious, peak crazy, and peek embarrassing. Here’s the thing—I sincerely believe that West is one of the most important and influential artists of all time (OF ALL TIME!). I’m also a West apologist. And, while I tend to think much of his public behavior is designed to provoke the establishment that always, on cue, takes the bate, I find myself exhausted by defending West’s art against those who want to shit all over everything about him because he said something stupid on Twitter again or whatever. So yeah, I’ll admit it, part of me doesn’t want to like The Life of Pablo. In addition to being sick of Kanye’s antics, I don’t even know if this is an album? Are those bonus tracks on the end? Why is the album still changing? Is this an experiment in creating a living album? Or did West simply set too early a deadline for himself then scramble to get something out, only to want to take some time to keep tinkering? Alas, despite all of this album’s problems—and I haven’t even mentioned its casual misogyny—it’s a brilliant album. If you count the bonus tracks, it’ s a bit flabby, but if we treat those as bonus tracks, Pablo is as lean and tight as Yeezus¸ and easily more listenable, if not quite as transgressive and challenging. So I don’t know, fuck man.
A Moon Shaped Pool | Radiohead | XL
It’s always nice when a band twenty-odd years into their career defies expectations and puts out a vital, thrilling masterpiece. I can’t say I thought Radiohead had it in them, what, after the lackluster King of Limbs, the good enough, but let’s be honest, not that good In Rainbows, and the why-the-fuck-is-this-so-long-snooze-fest Hail to the Thief. I thought Radiohead had peaked with Kid A/Amnesiac and were just riding out the dad rock glow until they had enough money to each save their own icecap or whatever. And then this fucking album dropped—from the anxious paranoia of album opener “Burn the Witch” to the stunning-and-I-mean-stunning beauty of “Daydreaming,” to the nervous beats of “Identikit” to the elegant simplicity of “True Love Waits,” what ends up being most striking about A Moon Shaped Pool is its restraint, it’s insistence on craft and form over innovation, and it’s quiet humanity. Radiohead haven’t sounded this human since The Bends. Of course, they haven’t really been trying. Turns out their still pretty fucking great at it.
Teens of Denial | Car Seat Headrest | Matador
When I listen to Teens of Denial, a very secret, but utterly undeniable part of me wishes great harm on Ric Ocasek. I can’t imagine any scenario where an aging, washed up rock star could listen to an artist as fun, loose, and vital as Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo quoting and inverting his song and not being happy, no, thrilled about it. Who does Ric Ocasek think he is? Does he think “Just What I Needed” is some unfuckwithable masterpiece that will go on forever? It’s not. It’s fine I guess. As for Teens of Denial, this is a special record. Toledo and co.’s sound is rough around the edges, always feeling as if they might drive their songs off the road and into a ditch, but they never do. Whether we’re talking about the sweet and loose “Drugs With Friends” or the ebb and flow of “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”—the later of which is, for my money, already one of the great indie epics, earning space alongside the likes of Built to Spill’s “Velvet Waltz,” Slint’s “Good Morning, Captain” and Sonic Youth’s “Diamond Sea” as a track that’s willing to go there and somehow manages to not fuck it up—Teens of Denial is one of the rawest, most exciting albums of 2016, hands down.
Kendrick Lamar | untitled unamstered. | Aftermath
When To Pimp a Butterfly was released last year, despite that album’s stunning unquestionability, I remember feeling a little disappointed that so many of the song’s he’d previewed on television appearances didn’t show up on the album. Of course, To Pimp a Butterfly was good enough that those disappointments were quickly forgotten. Still, Lamar decided to release those songs anyway. The result is a more straightforward, stripped down set of songs than what he gave us with Butterfly, and what this collection lacks in overall vision, when compared to its predecessor, it makes up for in downright excitement.