Billboard charts and Spotify rankings will tell you what music got bought or heard the most in 2016, so here’s a more subjective view. Our staff music writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Peter Blackstock, along with social media & engagement editor/music contributor Eric Webb, share personal favorite records of the year.
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DEBORAH SENGUPTA STITH
1. Beyonce, “Lemonade.” Beyonce’s evolution from pop star to cultural touchstone is one of the most fascinating phenomenons of modern music. At the top of the year, she marched into the most male space on the planet, the Super Bowl, with an army of smartly-clad black female revolutionaries to put us all in “Formation.” In April, she delivered this masterwork, weaving a painful personal story about infidelity into a much larger meditation on the devastating betrayals that black woman in America must work through every day. She invokes the power of ancient feminine divinity to save us all. Releasing this album the way she did — it was originally available as exclusively as a video piece on HBO or to stream on Tidal before she made it available for sale — she elevated the music video as an artistic medium while simultaneously perfecting the art of the surprise drop.
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2. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.” After 18 years, one of the most visionary hip-hop crews of all time, logged an unexpected comeback album that rejects nostalgia. Instead, it harnesses the power of the group’s characteristic wit and wisdom to speak with urgency to the challenges facing the hip-hop generation right now. In the bittersweet final chapter of the emcee’s Phife Dawg’s remarkable life he died in March at age 45, months before the album dropped, but we can rest easier knowing he went out on top.
3. Solange, “A Seat at the Table.” The artist we are no longer referring to exclusively as Beyonce’s sister blesses us with a magnificent meditation on the ways our country’s deep rooted racism manifests in the lives of black people, as overt and dangerous discrimination, but also through devastating casual indignities. The gorgeous Raphael Saadiq-produced ode to healing and self-care arrived at exactly the right moment in history.
4. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book.” The 23-year-old whiz kid picks up the “Jesus Walks” Chicago sound pioneered by his mentor Kanye West with soulful integrity. He fervently takes us all to church, going to “war with his wrongs” with such ecstatic grace it reminds all of us to count our “Blessings.” This album takes honors as the first streaming-only release to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
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5. David Bowie, “Blackstar.” I listened to this album the day it came out and marveled at its scope. Even so late in his career, here was an artist who was brilliantly pushing boundaries, making brooding, cinematic and complex music that sounded like nothing else. And then he was gone, the first agonizing hit to modern music in a year full of them.[spotify id="spotify:track:0bPREZOF43e3EIu0zdfLBp" width="300" height="380" /]
6. Various artists, “The Hamilton Mixtape.” You know what’s more culturally subversive than a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers? Hip-hop superstars remixing that musical to more explicitly use history to contextualize this moment in the modern world. Mexican-American rapper Snow tha Product’s brutal verse on “Immigrants,” which includes the blistering bars “I’ll outwork you, it hurts you/ You claim I’m stealing jobs though/ Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo,” is one of the most crucial pieces of political hip-hop of the year.
7. Mitski, “Puberty 2.” As she builds “Your Best American Girl” from a quiet confessional into a declaration of independence that soars on a grandiose swell of sound, so go the hopes of each of us who failed to find a place within the confines of confines of Norman Rockwell’s white picket fence America. The sting of failure, reclaimed as triumph is glorious.
8. Emeli Sandé, “Long Live the Angels.” The 29-year-old Scottish singer was 2016’s tormented angel of mercy, weaving her own pain into choruses so urgent and beautiful they illuminate the human potential to shimmer through agony. One week in November I listened to “Sweet Architect” on a loop and it helped more than anything else.
9. Frank Ocean, “Blonde.” Personal and revelatory, the long-anticipated follow up to 2012’s “Channel Orange” is a complex examination of love and masculinity that unwinds as a sonically adventurous emotional typhoon.
10. Anderson Paak, “Malibu.” Riding on the hype for this funky, jazzy gem of a hip-hop breakout, the Afro-Korean, Cali emcee won South by Southwest 2016, then went on to keep us grooving all year long.
Honorable mention: Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exibition”; Kaytranada, “99.9%”; D.R.A.M., “Big Baby D.R.A.M.”; Noname, “Telefone”; Zayn, “Mind of Mine”; Bon Iver, “22, A Million”; Yuna, “Chapters”; King, “We Are King”; Gallant, “Ology”; LeCrae, “Church Clothes 3”; Anohni, “Hopelessness.”
1. David Bowie, “Blackstar.” It’s rare to hear an album in the first few days of January that winds up still outshining everything else released through December, but in this case there really was no question. “Blackstar” was on an entirely different sphere than anything else, and that probably would have been true even without the surreality of Bowie’s passing two days after its release.
2. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker.” Cohen’s death just a couple of weeks after this album’s October release eerily mirrored what had happened with Bowie, even if the loss of Cohen was less of a surprise. The masterful poet not only said goodbye with passion, grit and grace, he also tapped directly into much of the nation’s psyche with the title track’s declaration: “You want it darker/ We kill the flame.”
3. Drive-By Truckers, “American Band.” Another record that addressed the national condition head-on, the 11th album from the long-running Southern indie-rockers found songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley on a mission, forerunning what’s now likely to be a firestorm of politically charged American music.
4. Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.” The Grammys recognized rising stars Sturgill Simpson and Maren Morris in their nominations, but this debut solo record by the former leader of Nashville band Buffalo Clover was by far the best country record of 2016.
5. Lydia Loveless, “Real.” What Price brought to more straight-ahead country music, Ohio singer-songwriter Loveless provided for the more underground rock ‘n’ roll strains of Americana music.
6. Case/Lang/Veirs, self-titled. On their own, Neko Case, K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs consistently press toward challenging and creative sparks in the singer-songwriter realm, so it was no surprise that this trio project proved to be deeply enchanting.
7. Basia Bulat, “Good Advice.” A Canadian whose music fits within Americana but sprouted largely from indie-rock/pop ties to Arcade Fire, Bulat contrasts envelope-pushing arrangements and rhythms with the beguiling sweetness of her singing.
8. Alejandro Escovedo, “Burn Something Beautiful.” Now living in Dallas, Escovedo falls outside our “local albums” consideration for the first time ever, but his collaboration with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of R.E.M./Minus 5 fame resulted in a vibrant rock record that ranks with his career best.
9. Sarah Jarosz, “Undercurrent.” Like Escovedo, Wimberley-raised Jarosz no longer fits as local since her move to New York a few years ago, but her exquisite acoustic music keeps getting better with every release, including this Grammy-nominated collection.
10. Robbie Fulks, “Upland Stories.” Twenty years into a recording career that has mostly lingered beneath the pop-music radar, roots-music master Fulks has persevered, honing his considerable instrumental, vocal and songwriting talents into perhaps their finest point yet on these 11 tracks.
Honorable mention: Parker Millsap, “The Very Last Day”; Paul Simon, “Stranger to Stranger”; Bonnie Raitt, “Dig in Deep”; Little Green Cars, “Ephemera”; Jake Shimabukuro, “Nashville Sessions”; Mandolin Orange, “Blindfaller”; Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Silver Tears”; Andrew Bird, “Are You Serious”; Jayhawks, “Paging Mr. Proust”; Big Head Blues Club, “Way Down Inside: Songs of Willie Dixon.”
1. Frank Ocean, “Blonde.” Everyone from Fader to Ann Powers to your cousin who’s still in high school waited for Frank. And waited. Then, after cryptic clues and a riddle of a visual album, we got “Blond.” Or “Blonde,” depending on where you’re looking. And the wait was worth it, if you like dense, mystical R&B that takes you on a stream-of-consciousness ride through time, space and love. “Channel Orange,” Ocean’s debut and much beloved LP, luxuriated in idiosyncratic details about cab rides and super rich kids. It peeled back the curtain on his interior life just enough to peek, but “Blonde” plays all of Ocean’s cards closer to the vest. Behind a veil of smoke. At night.[spotify id="spotify:track:2ZWlPOoWh0626oTaHrnl2a" width="300" height="380" /]
The one-two punch of “Ivy” and “Pink + White” lead off with the slick and easy confidence that earned Ocean accolades in the first place. The crooner’s finely rendered sketches on “Orange,” however, eventually give way on “Blonde” to a longing that protects its modesty with metaphors of bulls and matadors in the sky: “It’s hell on Earth and the city’s on fire/Inhale, inhale, there’s heaven.” The album begins and ends with hallucinatory poetry, as on the distorted, eerie “Nikes,” which through its delirium both grieves for Trayvon Martin and namechecks FKA twigs’ bangs. “Good Guy,” a melancholy blind date to a gay bar, grazes the type of carnal memoir that defined “Orange.” But even there, Ocean hides, beneath tiny-voice bedroom demo production value, beneath a toy keyboard, beneath a mumble. No sophomore slump. Just a sophomore slip into the shadows in the most fascinating way possible.
2. Mitski, “Puberty 2.” The New York singer knows that happiness is a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kinda guy, so she wields her chameleonic voice to expertly land the harshest realizations that love just plain sucks. No better display of this exists than critically lauded single “Your Best American Girl,” which soars with punk beauty into the year’s most satisfying climax. It’s the defiant thesis of Mitski’s ode to the other, brandished with the power to burn away all the hushed whispers and sideways glances of those who only want to see an America that looks like themselves.
3. Basia Bulat, “Good Advice.” In a year with few albums I found invincible to track-skips, the oft-golden-caped Canadian singer stacked her album like a layer cake of unmissable bites, holding it all together with ’60s-era buttercream. Witness the crackling kiss-off “La La Lie,” the organ-backed aisle rolling of “In the Name Of” and the gauzy swoon of “Fool.” Bulat is a folk force who muscled her way into retro-pop perfection without a single sequin out of place.
4. Bon Iver, “22, A Million.” The explosive robo-odyssey of “22, A Million” imagines a musical future where sounds and lyrics are less a descriptive means of understanding the world and more an unhinged, late-night “Adult Swim” infomercial parody full of pure of madcap stimuli. Not to make Justin Vernon’s third LP seem like a MoMA exhibit, though. “22, A Million” builds on the cabin-bound beauty of 2007’s “For Emma, Forever Ago” and the cedar tree maximalism of his 2011 double-self-titled joint. Yet, it remains as hauntingly, starkly heartworn as ever. Think about it like a Pokemon evolution. This is just the Bon Iver equivalent of a Blastoise.
5. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Emotion B-Sides.” Since all the big pop stars hitched their wagons to the unknown this year (Bey made a multimedia magnum opus, Rih cobbled together a musical middle finger to radio expectations, Gaga put on a pink hat), the most undeniably contagious, purely poppy album of 2016 came from a singer who won the hooks-and-bridges game in 2015.[spotify id="spotify:track:3pIYV8ajPqkgTABRR54rWP" width="300" height="380" /]
Jepsen’s shimmery, lusty collection of B-sides — “Fever” and “First Time” are MTV-era Madonna-worthy, just perkier — even inspired a meme, just like the original “Emotion” album. Carly slay, as they say.
6. Beyoncé, “Lemonade.” It’s all there. The insta-classic lyrics about women named Becky and about Cheddar Bay biscuit appreciation. The indelible yellow dresses and black hats. The harrowingly vulnerable (for Beyonce) narrative and radical (for Beyonce) socio-political consciousness. Yeah, she’s an icon. But truthfully, Beyoncé is also our biggest rock star.
7. Kanye West, “The Life of Pablo.” “Pablo,” much like the U.S. Constitution, was a living document, which always seemed like less exciting of a stunt than the rapper intended. But the album that still should have been named “Swish” might be the first greatest hits album in history that doesn’t contain any previously released material. Classic Yeezy lives in all-timers “No More Parties in L.A.” and “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1.” Bawdy, celebrity-collecting Kanye shows up for “Famous,” and his weirdo sadboy impulses get full indulgence on the rainy window flow of “Real Friends” and the thrillingly spooky “Wolves.”
Then there’s the gospel question. West has played with religion since the beginning, but the evangelizing on “Pablo” comes alongside the rapper at his most debauched and Swift-baiting. If you’ve spent any length of time with contemporary Christian music, “Pablo” feels more honest than a hundred Hillsong albums. Didn’t Jesus want the tax collector to be upfront with him about what he does for a living? As West’s public persona fractured into shards, his musical persona coalesced this year.
8. Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound.” If you peck around the tracklist, you’ll never get a jolt, just the embrace of a rhythmic palette with a well-stamped passport. But Dev Hyne’s slick sonic glide is just a chaser for a vitally uncomfortable conversation about race and sexuality, especially on songs like spoken word opener “By Ourselves” and chilling police brutality confrontation “Hands Up.” Hynes said it best in his Instagram manifesto for “Freetown Sound”: “My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated, it’s a clapback.” Plus: There’s a badass Debbie Harry cameo.
9. American Football, “American Football (LP2).” For certain segments of the music world — people whose Spotify most-listened playlist is at least 15% “Clarity”-era Jimmy Eat World and “Cute Without the ‘e’” — the unexpected return of American Football bearing their second full-length album after an almost two-decade hiatus was akin to the “Lemonade” drop. Gone is the creaky dormroom beat poetry of their 1998 debut. Still here are the autumn-streaked guitars choking out maximum wistfulness and the ever-seeking spilled heart of singer Mike Kinsella. The band’s sophomore (!) LP leans heavily into getting older and looking back, which is fitting for a group of guys who left their most lasting mark on the world as college kid nobodies.
10. Lucy Dacus, “No Burden.” If Dacus’ wounds cut right to the marrow, her debut album holds up the blood and says, “Wanna see?” The Richmond, Va., singer’s voice — a dark, sweet swell — does the hard work of vulnerability for the listener, serenely requesting, “Oh please, don’t make fun of me, of my crooked smile and my crowded teeth, of my pigeon feet, of my knobby knees.”
The unfussy rock of “No Burden” sometimes floats in the eddy (“Green Eyes, Red Face”) and sometimes whips up a squall (“Map On a Wall”), but it sounds distinctly American throughout. The soundtrack of being OK with not being OK, a lesson it seems we’re all going to need.
Honorable mentions: Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”; Solange, “A Seat at the Table”; St. Lucia, “Matter”; Rihanna, “Anti”; Nice As F***, “Nice As F***”; Angel Olsen, “My Woman”; Tegan and Sara, “Love You To Death”; Wet, “Don’t You”; Wild Nothing, “Life of Pause”; Car Seat Headrest, “Teens of Denial”; Owen, “The King of Whys”; Lady Gaga, “Joanne”; The 1975, “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It”; Tacocat, “Lost Time”; Lucius, “Good Grief”; Gallant, “Ology”; various artists, “Hamilton Mixtape”; Sarah Jarosz, “Undercurrent.”]]