The Best Albums of 2016
Only Good Things About This Trash Fire Year
We don’t get to choose what music connects with us when. That’s about all the lesson I got out of 2016.
Even beyond the election and political turmoil, here and seemingly everywhere else in the world, 2016 was more destructive than I expected. I graduated, left all the friends I knew, and moved twice; I searched desperately for a job; I dealt with the end of a long relationship; I tried to build a new life in a new city. Some of those came easier than others.
In 2016, music was seemingly the only good thing that happened. Well, and television. I consumed plenty of both. Not all my favorite music actually came out this year, though: I spent a great deal of time with The Long Winters, Francis and the Lights, PWR BTTM, Grimes, Art Sorority For Girls, and Leonard Cohen, of course. They came into my life when I needed them, it seemed, regardless of release date.
I spent ages struggling with difficult albums I wish I loved better, by artists from whom I expected the world (Kanye West and Radiohead), while taking pleasure in artists I’d given up on who made albums so effortlessly enjoyable (Jimmy Eat World and Regina Spektor, to name just two). Again, it’s hard to tell what will connect.
Out of necessity, I’ve expanded my annual Best Music list to include the large number of incredible albums that couldn’t squeeze into my Top 10, and to dedicate more words to the songs that helped define this year for me.
1. Car Seat Headrest,
“Teens of Denial”
No other album got so much play this year, because no album felt as immediate and necessary as this one. The project of one prolific Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest launched into its first real full-length album with an ode to depression—and dealing with the people who doubt it—that hit close to home. But this is a band with a wicked sense of humor and detail, something I crave more than anything in my rock music. In the album’s second track, the almost 8-minute masterpiece “Vincent,” Toledo points out, correctly, that the Wikipedia page for clinical depression prominently displays a Vincent VanGogh painting. “Well, it helps to describe it,” Toledo shouts over and over. For most of 2016’s best music, guitars seemingly dropped out of the picture. Not so here. They ring out in harmony and in dissonance, feeling symphonic yet urgent—and not just because songs on this album tend to morph midway through, taking off into another direction entirely as in “Not What I Needed.” With Teens of Denial, Car Seat Headrest captures the ordeal of coping with everything the world throws your way, and not always successfully. In that sense, it’s perhaps the most 2016 album this year could have produced. Must Hear: “Fill in the Blank,” “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “Not What I Needed”
2. Beyoncé, “Lemonade”
When Lemonade dropped, I had already submerged myself in the brilliance of “Formation” for months. I was writing my honors thesis on the politics of soul music and performances of blackness, and to me, this song — brought to the national stage in Black Panther uniforms, broadcast as a refutation of police violence — shepherded the legacies of Nina Simone and Sam Cooke into the immediate now. My opinion on Beyoncé, really, is the least necessary of all the takes. Better discussions are out there. But it can’t be overstated how important Lemonade is as a work of musical reclamation, bringing genres like blues-rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) and country (“Daddy Lessons”) back into the possession of the black women without whom they would not exist. That’s a legacy-defining move from Beyoncé, continuing to reject a simple “pop” categorization by crafting an listening (and viewing) experience so emotionally rich that I had to stop playing it for a number of months. But the thing about Lemonade is that it always comes back around. Must Hear: “Formation,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself (feat. Jack White),” “Daddy Lessons,” “Hold Up”
3. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”
Chancelor Johnathan Bennett had the best year of us all. He pulled off the biggest guest verse coup of 2016, claimed the title of Kanye West’s favorite protege, brought some holiness to late-night television, and guided some of his favorite collaborators into the limelight alongside him. Oh, and he dropped one hell of a heaven-hailing album — er, mixtape. “The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” Chance raps on Coloring Book’s final song, one of two with the title of “Blessings.” He’s got a lot of things to be blessed for, not least of them the soul-stirring instrumentation and production of The Social Experiment. Not only is Chance writing some of the most insightful lyrics in the game, but he’s assumed his rightful place as bandleader for the young and hopeful. Coloring Book is a gospel album, make no mistake: just listen to “Finish Line / Drown,” the hidden masterpiece of this effort. But Chance impresses most when he slows down his nostalgic yearnings to find the forlorn. “Don’t you miss the days, stranger? Don’t you miss the days? Don’t you miss the danger?” he asks on “Same Drugs.” There are fewer dark spots than on his last mixtape, the radiant Acid Rap, but no loss of uncertainty. Here, though, Chance knows the only way is forward, and he’s ready to go. Thank god someone is. Must Hear: “Blessings,” “Finish Line / Drown (feat. T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Eryn Ellne Kane & Noname),” “All Night,” “Same Drugs”
4. Angel Olsen, “MY WOMAN”
The only album on my list that could be truly considered a “singer-songwriter” record, MY WOMAN is also the only one for which I will recommend a book pairing. Moving from folk territory into what can only be described as “depressed 1960s girl group,” Angel Olsen made a dreamy, uneasy piece of art that feels like the perfect companion to Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls, which also came out this year. A book about a teenager who, wrestling with identity, becomes obsessed with a group of girls in a Charles Manson-like cult, The Girls comes across as an eerie sort of beautiful. MY WOMAN strikes me in the same way, especially the floating synth of opener “Intern” and the almost 8-minute-long “Sister,” which culminates in Olsen’s mantra-like repetition of the line, “All my life I thought I’d change.” Same, girl, same. Must Hear: “Intern,” “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Sister”
5. Solange, “A Seat At The Table”
Who saw this coming? Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé, has been doing her own thing for a while. But A Seat At The Table arrived a full-fledged soul statement, quietly storming to the top of the Billboard 200 with its own vision of black womanhood. Solange’s voice can seem delicate at times, but she layers her vocals so intricately they operate as instruments of their own. And that’s on top of the jazz-funk grooves that make these melodies so memorable — it takes a light touch. A Seat At The Table reveals itself as a masterpiece of production, and not just because of Solange’s stunning television performances. There’s room to breathe here. “Cranes In The Sky,” especially, hits the ears like a prayer. Other songs come off more forcefully, more direct declarations of pride and pleasure. I know this is one I’ll keep coming back to— and with 21 tracks, there’s more than enough music to dive into. Must Hear: “Cranes In The Sky,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U. (feat. The-Dream & BJ The Chicago Kid)”
6. Mitski, “Puberty 2”
I’ll say it over and over again: “Your Best American Girl” is the song of the year, and perhaps the song of the decade. No contemporary artist other than Mitski Miyawaki has used dynamics as such a weaponized force. Every time you reach that anthemic chorus, it’s a shout-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-windows-down moment, followed by a sit-quietly-to-recompose-yourself aftermath. Mitski takes her cues from ’90s, guitar-driven alt-rock, while her lyrics — the most poetic on this list by far — twist and contort with the pain of others’ expectations. Puberty 2 clocks in at just over a half-hour but with a heart-ripped-out-of-your-chest ratio far higher than any of Mitski’s would-be peers. Must Hear: “Your Best American Girl,” “Fireworks,” “I Bet On Losing Dogs”
7. The 1975, “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it”
Okay sure, that’s one hell of a douchey romantic title, but I’ll bet that not only do The 1975 understand this, they think it’s hilarious anyways. This album is pure endorphin rush at first listen, all bouncing synth lines and chirping fake-strings. But one, have you heard all the bummer music I’ve been listening to this year? What a relief it is to find such gleeful, playful jams like “Love Me” and “The Sound” at last. And two,over this ridiculously-long album The 1975 flex not just their power pop hooks and Top 40 cheeseball chops but also their penchant for ambient electronica-by-way-of-The Postal Service. Did I mention how wicked of a sense of humor these Brits have? There’s a real sense of self-deprecation in their lyrics that helps cut the sweet taste. “A Change of Heart,” by far the best song on the album, boasts the line of the year: “You were coming across as clever, then you lit the wrong end of your cigarette / You said I’m full of diseases, your eyes were full of regret / And then you took a picture of your salad and put it on the Internet.” More music like this, please. Must Hear: “A Change of Heart,” “Love Me,” “The Sound,” “Loving Someone”
8. Frank Ocean, “Blonde”
I enjoyed channel ORANGE well enough when it came out, but not so much that I spent the last four years pining for a new Frank Ocean album. After all, it could only ever come on his terms. Unlike the other R&B album on this list, Blonde doesn’t put much stake into things like choruses—or even hooks, really. Not that there’s nothing to latch onto; just let the bass of “Pink + White” move you. Frank Ocean knows how to sing a melody so you ache to hear the end of the thought, and that’s all songs like “Self Control” and “White Ferrari” require. He stretches songs only as much as he needs confessional space, whether that’s one minute or 10. If Blonde takes a while to embrace, it’s because Frank Ocean needs us to operate on his level of musical expression. Must Hear: “Solo,” “Pink + White,” “Self Control”
9. PUP, “The Dream Is Over”
If Kanye West is the super-ego of music in 2016, PUP is the id. (And Beyoncé is the ego. I’m comfortable with this metaphor.) The raucous pop-punk explosion you didn’t know you needed, PUP sneers and shouts their way to big, singalong choruses. No other record provides as much release as The Dream Is Over, which meditates—so to speak—about refusing to grow up and deal with life and relationships. Sure, not the most original subject matter for a pop-punk band, but the form gets honed even further here. Just listen to how the intro song, the brutal and hilarious “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” kicks off into the headbanging “DVP.” It helps these boys really know how to play, and aren’t afraid to mess around with weirder, almost sci-fi elements, like on “The Coast.” Free advice: Blast this at the gym. It’ll whip you into shape. Must Hear: “Sleep In The Heat,” “Doubts,” “DVP”
10. Bon Iver, “22, A Million”
Does Justin Vernon lose his humanity when he electronically alters his voice? Or does he only enhance it? That’s one of the central questions behind the third album of the man whose folky origin story, born in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, has long overshadowed one important fact: Bon Iver has never tried to be authentic. From the very start, Justin Vernon has used electronics to alter his singing, distorting what feels like a sacred connection between the human voice and our emotional reception. The glitchy song titles just make this ever more obvious. 22, A Million begins as far away from natural as possible, and devolves over the course of the album to something bare and vulnerable. By then, though, we know it’s a beautiful lie. Must Hear: “8 (circle),” “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” “33 ‘GOD’”
Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool returned from their last two, heavily electronic-anchored albums with a mix of previous unrecorded songs that—according to people who know Radiohead more than I do—span much of their career. What I do know is that a minimally-orchestrated song like “True Love Waits” best showcases the ethereal quality of Thom Yorke’s voice, and that paranoia has rarely been captured so well as in “Burn The Witch.”
A Sailor’s Guide To Earth by Sturgill Simpson and Midwest Farmer’s Daughter by Margo Price both technically fall under the umbrella of country but have greater sonic ambitions than that—no disrespect. Price builds luscious landscapes with piano and slide guitar, before breaking into a dirty honky-tonk. Simpson, writing an album-length letter to his son, borrows here from the horn-heavy Stax Records sound (including the most creative Nirvana cover I’ve heard). It’s earnest as anything.
HEAVN by Jamila Woods and Telefone by Noname arrive from the same scene as Chance The Rapper, who’s featured both of them prominently on his own releases. You can hear it, too, in their laid-back flow and merging of classic gospel and modern R&B production. Jamila Woods, who shines as a singer, has made a compelling protest record, taking schoolyard rhymes styles to address issues like police brutality and protest on “VERY BLK” (on which Noname raps, surprise!) and “Blk Girl Soldier.” Noname’s album is more localized to Chicago, but on songs like “Diddy Bop” proves she’s bound for the big-time.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Emily’s D+evolution by Esperanza Spalding, ANTI by Rihanna, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine by Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam, and Emotions and Math by Margaret Glaspy.
Favorite Singles of 2016
1. Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I think I do.” Everything I could possibly express about how this song shakes me I said above in my review of Puberty 2. Everything builds up and breaks down in a perfect three-and-a-half minutes, hitting every nerve around identity and love on the way.
2. Kanye West, “Ultralight Beam feat. The-Dream, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin & Chance The Rapper”
My feelings about Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo are complicated. I couldn’t quite bring myself to include it in my best albums roundup, because it feels so disjointed and incomplete in many ways. But in places, like opener “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West truly transcends. And that’s in part from the orchestra of voices he conducts here, including some serious gospel muscle and no other than Chance The Rapper to deliver the sermon of the century.
3. Beyoncé, “Formation”
With the sudden drop of “Formation,” Beyoncé not only demanded immediate attention to her extraordinary artistry, but to her business acumen as well. Like I wrote in my thesis earlier this year, Beyoncé put on an eminently political performance in a song that declares herself the “black Bill Gates in the making” and embraces her “Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” Beyoncé is the Nina Simone of the 21st century, and “Formation” proves it.
4. Francis and the Lights, “Friends (feat. Bon Iver & Kanye West)”
2016 was a good year if you love electronically altered vocals, from Bon Iver and Kanye West (who both make appearances in the above video) to Chance The Rapper and Lambchop. “Friends,” by indie artist Francis and the Lights, was the best of the lot. Francis always strikes me as a Randy Newman sort of voice, but this glistening production brings such joy to his understated lyrics.
5. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
I know I’ll continue to explore You Want It Darker as a whole, but the title track has not left my head since Cohen’s sudden, tragic passing. The organs and chugging bass line further elevate his voice, deep and knowing. As Cohen says “I’m ready, my lord,” he takes his final bow with a reverence that escapes the rest of us in such dark times.
6. Lucy Dacus, “I Don’t Want To Be Funny Anymore”
What a great refrain, and an inescapable melody. It’s a feeling I’m quite familiar with, and this song is far under-appreciated for how tightly the guitars meld with Dacus’s voice.
7. Solange, “Cranes In The Sky”
I could listen to that drum beat and those strings all day. But the “doo doos” in the chorus are the secret weapon here, bringing the spacey soul tune back down to earth.
8. Courtney Marie Andrews, “Rookie Dreaming”
I wanted a folk album to get attached to this year, and Courtney Marie Andrews delivered with her incredible Honest Life. “Rookie Dreaming” is an immediately classic.
9. Dirty Projectors, “Keep Your Name”
My love of The Dirty Projectors arose, unfortunately, after their last album in 2012. So I’m beyond excited to find what David Longstreth will bring in 2017, after hearing how evocatively he highlights his own voice in “Keep Your Name.” With the band’s internal drama fueling this record, it’s only going to get weirder from here.
10. Sylvan Esso, “Radio”
I finally got my job in public radio this year, and this is my new anthem.