It’s finally time to break down my favorite albums of 2016! Please note: I won’t say these are the “best” albums of the year, because I obviously couldn’t listen to every last thing that was released. I can definitively say, though, that these are my favorites out of everything I did hear.
Now, with that out of the way …
- De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody …
Twelve years after releasing their last studio album, The Grind Date, Posdnuos, Dave, and Maseo proved that they haven’t lost a step with the genre-smashing, forward-thinking And the Anonymous Nobody … It’s pretty bonkers that we heard a new De La Soul album in 2016, and it’s even more bonkers that it featured riveting contributions from David Byrne and Justin Hawkins. That all happened, though, and And the Anonymous Nobody … was another strong effort from one of the most influential groups in hip-hop history.
Highlights: “Royalty Capes,” “Lord Intended”
- Mudcrutch – 2
When Tom Petty got his old band, Mudcrutch, back together for an album in 2008, it was enjoyable, but didn’t necessarily stand out. The band’s second album, however, is a rousing success and perhaps the most consistent thing Petty has been a part of since he Echo back in 1999. If you’re like me and grew up listening to a healthy dose of classic rock radio, 2 is an album you will want in your life.
Highlights: “Dreams of Flying,” “I Forgive it All”
- Metallica – Hardwired … to Self-Destruct
Metallica didn’t do anything new on Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, but they did do everything right.
These guys have already cemented their legacy as one of the most significant rock bands of the last four decades, but it’s nice to see they can still write good, consistent music after the disaster that was 2003’s St. Anger and the mediocrity that was 2008’s Death Magnetic. I grew up obsessed with Metallica like so most other kids my age, and it’s been pretty damn enjoyable listening to Hardwired … to Self-Destruct over the last month or so. “Atlas, Rise!” and “Spit Out the Bone” stand out the most, but “Hardwired,” “Moth into Flame” and “Now That We’re Dead” are all solid as well. Look, I don’t know if this album is actually all that great, but it came out at a time when I really needed a big, loud metal album to play as loud as possible. Metallica’s music was there for me when I needed it, just like it was in high school.
Highlights: “Atlas, Rise!” “Spit Out the Bone”
- Kvelertak – Nattesferd
I’m no expert on Norwegian heavy metal bands, but I do know Kvelertak is my favorite one. Nattesferd is loaded with energy and aggression, and the band also drops in a lot of melodies and intricate guitarwork not necessarily heard in most modern metal. These guys are loud and fast, sure, but they don’t get lost in their own chaos. “1985” is one of my absolute favorite songs of the year, energized by a riff that’ll be stuck in your head for days at a time, and “Bronsegud” sounds like early NWOBHM at its finest.
Highlights: “1985,” “Bronsegud”
- Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
I listened to a ton of hip-hop, R&B and jazz in 2016, but there’s still something satisfying about putting on a straightforward rock album by a smart, talented songwriter. Singing Saw is a record I went back to a lot this year—it’s relaxing in a way, but there’s still a lot of power in Morby’s music.
Highlights: “I Have Been to the Mountain,” “Dorothy”
- Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
I will forever be grateful to Nicolas Jaar for his role in crafting Darkside’s Psychic, one of my favorite albums of 2013. And now I’m bowing to his greatness once again, because Jaar’s most recent effort, Sirens, is a fun, adventurous listen that only gets better the more you listen to it. Just try to listen to the 11-minute “Killing Time” without feeling completely in awe by about the fourth or fifth minute. Go ahead, I dare you …
Highlights: “Killing Time,” “The Governor”
- A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
New De La Soul and Tribe albums in the same year? And they were both legitimately good? 2016 was a shitshow of the highest order, but at least we did get a few positives mixed in with all that death, hate, and, you know, the potential destruction of our democracy. I’ve always felt Q-Tip was one of hip-hop’s most underrated talents, especially in terms of production, and We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service is yet another reminder of the man’s greatness. I love how he mixed so many different ideas into this record—movie samples comes and go, emcees jump over one another like they’re fighting for control of the mic—while still maintaining order throughout; it makes this new record sound like a spiritual sequel to the band’s 1990 debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Also: I didn’t realize I needed more Busta Rhymes in my life right now, but this album helped me see that that’s the case.
Highlights: “The Space Program,” “Dis Generation”
- Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
There’s no one else in hip-hop quite like Danny Brown. He has his own delivery, his own style and he seems to openly embrace different genres more than a lot of other emcees. Danny’s last two records, 2011’s XXX and 2013’s Old, were outstanding, and Atrocity Exhibition is yet another success. “Tell Me What I Don’t Know” is bold and bleak, with Brown turning down his over-the-top persona just long enough to deliver a dead-serious track about losing friends to the neverending cycle of violence. And tracks such as “Rolling Stone,” “Really Doe,” Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance in the Water” sound like the kind of music you’d only hear on a Danny Brown record. They’re insane, yet focused; brutal, yet fun. Atrocity Exhibition actually fits somewhere between the unpredictable chaos of XXX’ and the slightly more polished vibe that surrounded Old. It isn’t necessarily the progression I would have predicted after first hearing Old a few years back, but I’m glad he went this way; the only Danny Brown I ever want is the one who does whatever he wants, however he wants. To hell with expectations.
Highlights: “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” “Really Doe”
- The Avalanches – Wildflower
It took 16 years for the Avalanches to release a proper follow-up to their classic debut, Since I Left You, and about 15 seconds for people to complain the new album didn’t sound exactly the same as its predecessor. I really enjoyed Wildflower, though, and it’s something I’ve listened to pretty consistently these last several months. The samples are complex and interesting, and I like how they’ve added more emcees to the equation. “Because I’m Me,” “Frankie Sinatra” and “Subways” are fantastic singles that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Gorillaz record, and deep cuts such as “Harmony” and “The Wozard of Iz” are just as good. My one complaint about Wildflower is that it loses a lot of steam at the end—if the second half was as strong as the first, this one would be even higher up the list.
Highlights: “Because I’m Me,” “Subways”
- Kaytranada – 99.9%
I had honestly never heard of Kaytranada at the beginning of this year, but he sure has my attention now. The guy is an excellent producer, showing that he can do hard-knocking hip-hop one second and club-ready R&B the next, and his beats have a raw, frantic energy that I absolutely love. Kaytranada uses 99.9% to show he can juggle these sounds all at once, and he even mixed in a few instrumentals as well just to make sure everyone knows what he’s capable of all on his own. “Glowed Up” with Anderson .Paak is the clear highlight here, but “Got it Good” with Craig David and the Vic Mensa collaboration “Drive Me Crazy” are just as captivating. At the end of the day, as much as I love 99.9%—I really do love it—I can’t wait to hear what Kaytranada does next. Now that he’s had such success and really made a name for himself, I bet he has even more confidence and an even more impressive list of guest stars on record No. 2.
Highlights: “Got it Good,” “Glowed Up”
- Noname – Telefone
Like a lot of people, I became familiar with Chicago emcee Noname from her guest appearances on Chance the Rapper’s various projects. She showed up on Acid Rap, Surf, and Coloring Book, so Chance definitely has a soft spot for her, and it’s easy to see why. Her cadence is subdued, but confident, and the actual content of her lyrics is lightyears above a lot of other up-and-coming rappers. The production on Telefone is exceptional as well—it’s a warm mix of drum breaks and keys that just begs to be listened to on a bright, sunny day. If nothing else, make sure you give “Diddy Bop” a listen; it is one of the better rap tracks I heard all year.
Highlights: “Diddy Bop,” “Shadow Man”
- Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Has anyone been as strong, as pure, as unpredictable as Kendrick Lamar in these past few years? King Kendrick is on a whole other level right now, pushing forward both lyrically and musically at the same time like no hip-hop artist has since Outkast in its prime. He’s on fire right now, and I haven’t seen any signs that he’s slowing down. Kendrick’s last two albums were the best of their respective years, and he unceremoniously dropped a record of leftovers on us this year called untitled unmastered. These aren’t just any leftovers, of course; their Kendrick Lamar leftovers, which is kind of like hearing unreleased Bob Dylan or Beatles songs. untitled unmastered. is an incredible effort, with songs that jump from one movement to another in an instant and raps that are every bit as strong as anything he’s done in the past. Just listen to “Untitled 07” and you’ll hear exactly what I mean. Come for the straight fire, but stay for the extended section where you hear him experimenting with hooks over nothing more than a bass. You occasionally hear the laughter of everyone else in the room, and you can tell they’rel enjoying every second of the show they get to witness firsthand. All hail King Kendrick!
Highlights: “Untitled 02,” “Untitled 07”
- Gallant – Ology
R&B singer/songwriter Gallant released his debut album, Ology, back in April, and it got a bit lost in the shuffle as a result of so many other huge records coming out around that time. Heck, I know I underappreciated it at the time—it wasn’t until about a month ago that that I really started focusing on Ology, and now that I have, I can’t stop listening to the damn thing. My wife, working on her laptop one day while I was blasting Ology, said it reminded her of the Weeknd, but a lot better. I can’t disagree there; Gallant is more interesting and fearless than Mr. Starboy, and his lyrics are a thousand times more introspective and poetic. And STinT’s production throughout this record is also worth mentioning. The slower numbers are fairly straightforward, though they were all engineered and mixed incredibly well, and then there’s a whole lot of boom-bap, electronics and blistering guitar work thrown in the mix as well. “Talking to Myself” and “Weight in Gold” are perhaps the two best songs to play for someone new to Gallant, but the entire album is truly worth hearing. There’s not a dud to be found anywhere.
Highlights: “Talking to Myself,” “Miyazaki”
- Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
The release of each new Radiohead album since OK Computer has been a bit of an event. I can still remember the day Kid A came out, for example. And Amnesiac. And Hail to the Thief … OK, you get the idea. A Moon Shaped Pool was no different; we had a few music videos in advance, the mysterious website went live and then boom—we all had a new Radiohead record to listen to, think about, write about, and argue about. And as much as I liked A Moon Shaped Pool at first, I’ve found over the last several months that it never really grabbed me like the band’s work has so many times in the past. But it’s still a very strong album, and one that is most certainly worth hearing. The two songs released in advance—“Burn the Witch” and the surreal, claustrophobic “Daydreaming”—are actually my two favorites, and both “Ful Stop” and “Identikit” deserve a lot of praise as well. And the musicianship is a clear highlight, with bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Philip Selway reminding the world they make up one of the better rhythm sections going today. Even if it’s not my absolute favorite record of the year, it’s still pretty damn good.
Highlights: “Burn the Witch,” “Daydreaming”
- Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Each Bon Iver album has been significantly different from the last, yet I still end up obsessing over each and every one of them. When songs from 22, A Million first started to come out online, I thought this might be the end of that run. The lack of melodies, the over-the-top studio trickery, the unnecessarily abstract song titles … I just didn’t know if I’d be able to connect with it like I had with 2008’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s Bon Iver. But once the full thing was released, I found myself once again in some sort of trance; I bet I listened to it 5 or 6 times a day for two solid weeks. Vernon played a pretty mean trick with the tracklisting of 22, A Million, putting the two most challenging tracks at No. 2 and No. 3. I think this has caused a lot of listeners to be down on the album, and I understand that reaction completely—but if you stick with it, the album reveals itself as a big, beautiful statement from a dude who just continues to evolve and grow with each release. Dig how the final four songs all flow into one another—it’s not like he’s made a concept album or anything, but he very much thought about how they’d sound in that exact order, and listening to the back half of the album is a truly rewarding experience.
Highlights: “#29 Stafford Apartments,” “8 (Circle)”
- Solange – A Seat at the Table
Yes, she’s Beyoncé’s younger sister, but A Seat at the Table proves shows that Solange is very much her own woman. When Solange released A Seat at the Table at the end of September, it took a lot of listeners, including myself, completely by surprise. I knew she had a ton of talent, but I didn’t expect a classic like this, jam-packed with one gorgeous slice of soul-infused R&B after another. This album is a bold, prideful statement not unlike D’Angelo’s Black Messiah or Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is the smart, tasteful use of interludes. Using quick clips of conversations from her mother, father, and, yes, Master P, Solange has crafted a wonderful R&B record you can listen to from beginning to end.
Highlights: “Cranes in the Sky,” “Don’t You Wait”
- Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
Whitney, made up of former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and former Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich, stands as one of 2016’s greatest surprises. The duo sounds like a mix of early My Morning Jacket, the Band and Woods, with just a hint of Neil Young and Crazy Horse thrown in for good measure, and they’ve put out one hell of a record. Light Upon the Lake It’s one of those records you put on when you aren’t sure what else to play—dependable, enjoyable from start to finish, and short enough that you can pretty much always listen to the entire thing in one sitting. “No Woman,” “Golden Days,” “Dave’s Song,” “Polly” and the brief instrumental “Red Moon” are among some of the best rock tracks I heard all year. Give the whole album a listen, though … trust me on this one.
Highlights: “Golden Days,” “Dave’s Song”
- Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson’s 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, was a terrific slice of modern outlaw country, and then he took a huge step forward with album No. 2, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Simpson pushed ahead even further for his third album, this year’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, crafting a song cycle all about the birth of his newborn son and embracing R&B, folk, rock and roll and a healthy dose of the blues. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is Simpson’s best album yet, though it does take a few listens to let everything soak in. I was expecting something a little closer to Metamodern Sounds in Country Music myself, and I was a tad disappointed when I first heard this new record. I realized pretty quickly, however, that I should have just trusted Simpson all along; he hasn’t made a bad album yet, and I kind of doubt he’ll be making one anytime soon.
Highlights: “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” “Keep it Between the Lines”
- David Bowie – Blackstar
At this point, what else can really be said about this album? Bowie knew he was dying when he completed Blackstar, but the news never became public. The world was happy to have a new Bowie album, of course, and the video for “Blackstar” had all of us mesmerized … but then, just like that, he was gone. I still remember reading that Bowie had died; it will happen to all of our heroes at one time or another, sure, but Bowie? Just days after releasing his best record since the early 80s? It hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m confident we would all still be singing the praises of Blackstar if Bowie was still with us, of course, but we’ll unfortunately never know for sure. To focus just on the music for a moment: “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are two of the man’s most dense, layered masterworks, elegantly shifting from one movement to the next. “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Girl Loves Me,” on the other hand, show that Bowie never forgot how to piece together an excellent rock song, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is more than 5 minutes of pure, majestic perfection. Blackstar was Bowie’s final gift to the world, and it’s remarkable that the whole thing is truly good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as his many other classics.
Highlights: “Blackstar,” “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
- Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
I’ve been borderline obsessed with Chance the Rapper since I first heard his Acid Rap mixtape. It’s been a joy watching him climb higher and higher in the hip-hop world ever since, and Coloring Book is yet another powerful effort from Chance, who sincerely seems like one of the nicest dudes on the planet. It’s not quite on the same level of Acid Rap from start to finish, but Coloring Book is jam-packed with fantastic music. “All We Got” is a ferocious opener, though Kanye’s quick contribution always strikes me as being much too high in the mix, “No Problems” with 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne might just have been the song of the summer, and “Blessings” follows the same basic blueprint as “Ultralight Beam” from Kanye’s The Life of Pablo to similarly great results. “All Night,” produced by none other than Kaytranada, is another standout song; I would be shocked if dance club DJs haven’t already made it a staple of their live sets. And you can’t forgot about “Mixtape” with Young Thug and Lil Yachty, or “Smoke Break” with Future!
Highlights: “No Problems,” “All Night”
- Flatbush Zombies – 3001: A Laced Odyssey
I spent a lot of time this year listening to 3001: A Laced Odyssey, the debut album by Brooklyn hip-hop crew Flatbush Zombies, and I think it’s one I’ll be going back to again and again for a long time. The group is made up of three emcees, Zombie Juice, Meechy Darko, and Erick the Architect, and Erick also handles all production duties. These guys have everything I look for in underground hip-hop—creative production built around obscure samples, interesting flows and cadences—and as far as I’m concerned, 3001 is a straight-up masterpiece. Erick’s beats are flawless, and there isn’t a bad verse on the whole thing. And dig how they hardly have any guest spots on the album, and the ones they do have are far from mainstream names. They don’t just stick to one sound either; Erick’s beats are tense one moment, but then they’re relaxed and carefree the next. Some of the group’s lyrics are introspective and serious, but then others are all about getting high and just having a good time. It’s that balance that helps 3001 remain fresh and interesting after numerous listens. Just when you start to maybe get tired of one style, the next song starts and they’re off in another direction. What’s really remarkable about Flatbush Zombies is that they achieved such high heights on their debut, when most rap groups are still trying to find their own identity. And I’m starting to think there’s nothing they don’t do well, because their album art, their videos, and even their merchandise all looks amazing.
Highlights: “Bounce,” “This is It”
- Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Damn. I’m not even sure where to start with this one. I’ve been a Kanye fan since I first read his name in the liner notes of Jay Z’s The Blueprint in 2001, and to say it’s been an eventful 15 years would be the understatement of the century. I’ve remained a loyal fan through all the ups and downs, though, and am happy to report that, yes, The Life of Pablo is yet another fantastic record from the man everyone loves to hate. It’s sloppier than anything he’s ever done, sure, and it includes probably my three least favorite Kanye songs of all time, but the rest of the songs here are sensational. In fact, album opener “Ultralight Beam” is my favorite song of 2016 and one of the better things Kanye has ever released. (It doesn’t hurt that Chance drops the verse of his life about halfway through!) “Ultralight Beam” is also one of the most effective gospel songs I’ve ever heard—I’m not religious at all myself, but the way Kirk Franklin and a full choir show up is downright moving, no matter what you believe in. There’s a lot of other greatness on this album as well: both parts of “Father Stretch My Hands,” “Famous,” “Waves,” “FML,” “Real Friends” and “Wolves,” and “No More Parties in L.A.” are are all great, and even “30 Hours,” which sounds unfinished and thrown together at the last second, is a whole lot of fun. Before The Life of Pablo was ever released, Kanye already had arguably the most impressive discography in hip-hop history. I do think this may technically be his weakest album, but it’s far from a dud. This is still an otherworldly talent pouring out his heart and soul for more than an hour straight, and I’m happy to have it. Just take care of yourself, Kanye, OK? Get whatever help you need and move forward.
Highlights: “Ultralight Beam,” “Waves”
- Frank Ocean – Blonde
Former Odd Future member and Watch the Throne collaborator Frank Ocean dropped Channel Orange in 2012, and it officially launched him into superstardom. But then … well, he disappeared for a while. Ocean came back in style this summer, dropping both a “visual album” called Endless and his next studio release, Blonde. I can’t speak about Endless either way, because I have yet to sit down and watch it, but Blonde? It’s another masterstroke, friends. He’s done it again! Ocean seems to take pride in defying expectations, and this album definitely finds him going a different route than many anticipated after the success of Channel Orange. “Nikes,” for example, opens the album with three minutes of pitch-shifted vocals that don’t even sound that much like Ocean’s voice. Once he does show up with his voice unchanged, of course, he sounds as incredible as ever, and “Nikes” is actually one of my favorite songs of the entire year. After “Nikes,” Blonde is one beautifully written song after another. And while some of it is fairly straightforward R&B, songs such as “Pretty Sweet” and “White Ferrari” find Ocean getting much more ambitious with his song structures. There are a few skits that could have been edited out altogether, sure, but other than that? I can’t think of a single thing I don’t like about this album. Blonde is another home run from Ocean, and I hope we don’t have to wait four years for the next one.
Highlights: “Nikes,” “White Ferrari”
- James Blake – The Colour in Anything
WIth The Colour in Anything, Blake has produced something truly special. I had liked Blake’s previous albums OK enough, and I certainly recognized the brilliance of “Retrograde,” but nothing prepared me for how much I would dig The Colour in Anything. It’s just a wonderful album from start to finish, alternating between subtle piano ballads and dense, complicated arrangements. There’s even a few moments, like “Timeless,” where the production sounds like high-quality instrumental hip-hop. One of the strongest moments on The Colour in Anything is “I Need a Forest Fire,” a collaboration with Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon, and it’s actually striking how much Blake and Bon Iver seem to be influencing one another right now. Blake takes that overall vibe into more interesting places, however, and he seems better at stretching out basic ideas into larger, more complex compositions. I will say that, at 17 tracks and 76 minutes, The Colour in Anything is too damn long. I usually consider this to be a huge flaw in an album, but this time around? For some reason, it just doesn’t bother me at all. Blake’s latest is just too mesmerizing, too gripping; right when I’m about to complain that it should have been trimmed by a few songs, I get lost in its beauty and just stop caring. That’s the power of this album, I suppose. One of its many powers.
Highlights: “Timeless,” “I Need a Forest Fire”
- Beyoncé – Lemonade
No surprise here, right? There’s a reason Lemonade is showing up at No. 1 on a lot of lists this year, and it deserves all of that praise. This is the album of the year, and as much as I’d love to be unpredictable and put something else in the top spot, it just isn’t going to happen. And as much as I loved the visuals she put together for this album, my opinion has nothing to do with those clips. I’m not rewarding ambition or filmmaking here; my laser-like focus is 100% on the music.
I also love how Kendrick Lamar and James Blake both play prominent roles on this record. Lemonade is clearly The Beyoncé Show, but Lamar and Blake both do a lot with their spotlight, adding even more variety to an album that was already bubbling with different ideas and influences.
Look, I wrote at length about Lemonade back in May, listing 50 different things I loved about it, and I could build an even longer list now. This is a phenomenal album, and one that we’ll be talking about for a long time.
Highlights: “Freedom,” “Formation”
And that’s that! For the record, these are 12 other albums I really enjoyed in 2016. I highly recommend all of them!
- Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
- Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
- Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
- Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
- D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M.
- Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
- Lambchop – FLOTUS
- Loretta Lynn – Full Circle
- Anderson .Paak – Malibu
- John Prine – For Better, or Worse
- Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
- William Tyler – Modern Country