Well, that was a weird year. From the thrillingly unthinkable (the drought-ending triumph of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers) to the depressingly unthinkable (the entire election cycle), 2016 just wouldn’t stop heaping strange, incredibly unlikely events upon us.
And yet, almost everyone agrees this is the best year music has had in a long time. Throughout this weird and improbable year, we were lucky enough to get undeniably brilliant and essential music. Many of pop and hip-hop’s titans unveiled new albums (Kanye, Beyonce, Drake, Rihanna). Several up-and-comers burst through with enjoyable and challenging work (Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada). Enigmatic luminaries returned out of the blue (David Bowie, Radiohead, Frank Ocean).
Of course, 2016 will also be known as the year music lost some of its all-time visionaries. The deaths of Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, and more hit the music world with a heavy, solemn thud. Although too young for their heyday, I traversed through the discographies of Bowie, Prince, and A Tribe Called Quest to remember my favorite songs and discover new ones.
So while we lost some greats, we gained a whole slew of seismic, statement-making, indispensable new albums that we will continue to unpack for years to come. Now to my favorites from the year.
Anti – Rihanna
We got it from Here… – A Tribe Called Quest
Sunlit Youth – Local Natives
10. Telefone – Noname
For obvious reasons, introverts seem to be somewhat rare in the pop music sphere. Frank Ocean is one, Kendrick Lamar is probably another. But this year, Noname arrived on the scene in a likably reserved manner with Telefone. Connected to Chance the Rapper’s Chicago crew, her fresh, relaxed, and clear voice draws you in immediately.
The easygoing and breezy production is paired with often devastating content. Amid catchy melodies, Noname paints a melancholy picture of the violence and anxiety of her hometown. Death may hang over the album (literally on the cover), but Telefone still presents a life-affirming message from an intoxicating new voice.
9. Cardinal – Pinegrove
This is one that I discovered late in the year, but quickly became the album I didn’t know I was missing: an eloquent, unabashedly emotional, alt-country record. On Cardinal, New Jersey band Pinegrove don’t innovate musically as much as they offer youthful intelligence amidst enjoyable rock tunes.
The writing on Cardinal is endlessly engaging and clever. The very first song, “Old Friends,” features the words “labyrinthine” and “solipsistic” — words you don’t stumble upon too often outside academia. However, it’s not just the unconventional use of big words, but how Pinegrove can turn a phrase to articulate the difficulty of expressing oneself (“Apparently my ventricles are full of doubt“).
What’s most amazing about Cardinal is that it is both earnest and laid-back; it’s utterly sincere, but with a sense of perspective. They gloomily ask, “How come every outcome’s such a comedown?” only to turn around and say, “There’s nothing really bad to be upset about“.
8. 99.9% – Kaytranada
Similar to Jamie xx’s In Colour from last year, Montreal producer Kaytranada created a fascinating melting pot of hip-hop, R&B, house, and electronic vibes on 99.9%. Just like its cover, the record features a colorful array of sounds, both bright and dark. Most importantly, it’s never dull and fantastic for studying, writing, and working.
“Glowed Up” is probably the standout track, as 2016 breakout star Anderson .Paak flexes over an eerie, atmospheric beat. Each song seems to bring something fresh to the album, though, such as highlights “Got It Good” and “Lite Spots”. In such a competitive year for music, it’s a testament to Kaytranada’s talent that 99.9% was able to make it on so many year-end lists.
7. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
About three minutes into Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a brave new sonic direction is announced when a burst of horns arrives on the scene. Known previously for his throwback country crooning and trippy, metaphysical musings, Simpson expands and diversifies his sound on his new record.
But he also has a new direction in content as well. With the birth of his first child, Simpson has clearly been given a fresh perspective. On “Keep It Between The Lines,” he commands his son to “Do as I say, don’t do as I’ve done“. On “Brace For Impact,” he advises to “Go out and live a little” and to “Make sure you give a little“. Simpson has always been capable of doling out profound nuggets, but his practical wisdom for his son on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is the most relatable he’s been.
As a concept album, it all comes together beautifully in a tight nine tracks. There’s a wonderful Nirvana cover, a heartfelt dispatch to his wife, and a “call to arms” against U.S. military propaganda. Simpson’s brave new direction finds him insightful, forthright, and generous.
6. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
Kanye’s 2016 had its share of highlights and lowlights, to say the least. His wife was robbed at gunpoint, he abruptly ended his tour, and checked himself into the hospital for “temporary psychosis.” He also created The Life of Pablo.
For his seventh solo record, Kanye gave us a glimpse of his messy, visionary album-making process through Twitter and then innovated yet again by continuing to tweak the material post-release. Despite its unfocused nature, The Life of Pablo is a fascinating piece of art that fuses gospel, rap, and R&B together for a wholly unique batch of songs. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Famous” have brilliant, heavily-sampled production that is undercut somewhat by facepalm-worthy Kanye lyrics. Still, the album’s best moments are stunning and vivid, particularly “Ultralight Beam,” which actually has a minimal amount of Kanye but literally sounds like heaven.
Kanye’s strength as an artist has always been about letting us see his vulnerabilities and weaknesses with bracing honesty. The Life of Pablo is in no way Kanye’s best work — it’s overlong and overstuffed — but the musical genius is still there, amid all the messiness. So, in a way, it may be the most Kanye album he’s ever made.
5. Blonde – Frank Ocean
This is one that will probably take longer to marinate than any other album this year. Like an opaque, impressionistic film, Blonde is a work that demands time and reflection. It feels like there is something transcendent going on, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
Following the revelatory triumph of 2012’s Channel Orange, Ocean returned with something else entirely. Instead of dense drums, Blonde has almost no percussion. Instead of a fresh twist on R&B, Blonde really has no classifiable genre. Instead of outward storytelling, Blonde tells foggy, personal vignettes. Channel Orange felt immediate and endlessly listenable; whereas Blonde is intimate and airy, but eventually reveals more emotional depth.
It may not be my very favorite from the year, but the future may smile even more fondly on it. If it does, we shouldn’t be surprised. Frank himself told us in the opening track that, “We gon’ see the future first“.
4. Lemonade – Beyonce
How do you top that time you revolutionized the music industry with an overnight surprise release visual album? I guess you come back with another visual album, this time playing with your celebrity in a fascinating way to create a brilliant and deeply personal work. There’s a reason Beyonce is universally beloved; she makes all that look flawless.
Lemonade took us on a journey through disbelief, rage, conviction, and forgiveness. It spans genres, from rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to country (“Daddy Lessons”) to trap (“Formation”) and more, but it all unifies into a cohesive, compelling whole due to Beyonce’s gravity. While the middle section loses momentum a bit, Lemonade culminates with a bravura three-song finish. Beginning with “Freedom” (Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar’s black empowerment anthem that makes you feel like you could run through a brick wall) leading into “All Night” (a moving tribute to hard-fought love), and ending with “Formation” (one of the defining songs of a fraught 2016).
3. Malibu – Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak dropped his fresh and self-assured sophomore album in January and I’ve been rocking it all the way through the year. Even after countless listens, Malibu feels as personal and pleasurable as ever. “The Bird” and “The Dreamer” bookend the album, acting as intimate insights into Anderson’s life, but there’s also plenty of good times here as well. Like Chance the Rapper, he can fluently and enjoyably alternate between singing and rapping. “Come Down” and “Am I Wrong” glide along effortlessly, mixing R&B, funk, and hip-hop together for an addictive concoction.
I had the good fortune of seeing Anderson at a music festival in September. His swagger is so vibrant and infectious that it’s no surprise his star is rising fast. NxWorries, his side project, also released a record this year called Yes Lawd!, which, in addition to all his guest verses for other artists, only increased Anderson’s ubiquity in 2016.
2. 22, A Million – Bon Iver
I’ve written enough about Justin Vernon and Bon Iver’s outstanding third album 22, A Million already, but I just wanted to add that in a year when pop’s top artists (Beyonce, Kanye, Frank Ocean) were pushing themselves to be better, Justin Vernon was right there with them, forging a remarkably original path.
1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
Beginning with his curtain-parting entrance on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” 2016 was the year of Chance the Rapper. Then with Coloring Book, the young Chicagoan proved himself to be the heir to pre-808s and Heartbreak Kanye. His outstanding mixtape is so chock-full of radiant joy, gratitude, and wonder that it was impossible to deny Chance’s talent and cultural reach.
One of the great summer albums in recent memory, I continued to spin Coloring Book through the rest of the year. Whether you’re religious or not, Chance’s buoyant portrayal of faith is irresistibly uplifting. He makes a relationship with God the most attractive thing in the world: “When the praises go up, the blessings come down.” He reminds himself that even amidst life’s trials, “I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded.” He offers timely and Biblical advice in an election year: “Don’t believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom.”
And yet, all the optimism and joyousness resonates because of the pain underneath (something he also did well on his previous effort, Acid Rap), which is the secret to Coloring Book‘s brilliance. Chance hails from Chicago, so songs like “Summer Friends,” where he mourns the city’s summer spike in murders, lets us in on Chance’s suffering a little bit. In fact, despite all the victorious trumpets, the quieter moments on this record are just as powerful.
The cover shows Chance’s face as he gazes down at his newborn daughter with a gorgeous pink and red sky in the background. In such a weird year, Chance taught us to be grateful for our blessings and gave us joyful music to return to, even in the not-so-blessed moments.
Top 10 Songs
10) “Cranes in the Sky” – Solange
9) “Feel No Ways” – Drake
8) “untitled 05” – Kendrick Lamar
7) “Summer Friends” – Chance the Rapper
6) “Solo” – Frank Ocean
5) “All Night” – Beyonce
4) “33 ‘GOD'” – Bon Iver
3) “No Problem” – Chance the Rapper
2) “Freedom” – Beyonce feat. Kendrick Lamar
1) “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West