This entire year has just felt like a meme gone wrong. As much as I just want to sit back and completely forget about 2016, I take solace in the fact that a lot of great music was released every single month. There were plenty of over hyped albums released, albums that I see on every single “Best of” lists too, so sorry no Kanye West or Drake here. And even though I actually enjoyed Beyonce’s Lemonade, I still don’t get why it’s the #1 album in a lot of publications. Even when it came down to December, there were still albums that I had to go back and truly grasp. Albums that I had missed or ended up growing on me as the year went on end up being some of the ones I treasure the most by year’s end.
As we treat this year like Fight Club, and never speak on it again, here are our top 10 albums of 2016.
#10. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Coming off hot from the best verse in Kanye’s overhyped album, Chance finally released his long awaited 3rd mixtape, Coloring Book. This project is a bit different in sound from Acid Rap, which gathered critical acclaim and helped him gain a loyal fan base. Coloring Book follows a similar path and the gospel sound he embraced on Kanye’s Ultralight Beam. This gospel influenced sound is showcased on his first single, Blessings, a track full of positivity and hope which contrasts a majority of today’s trendy rappers. No Problem with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz is a certified summer anthem and one of the best hip hop tracks this year.
The features in the album add to it’s theme while keeping a good amount of variety; they range from the Chicago Children’s Choir, Justin Bieber, and Kirk Franklin, to Young Thug and Kanye West. Even the Loch Ness Monster of rap, the man they call Jay Electronica, decided to show up for an amazing verse on How Great. Over 6 months after it’s release, this album is just as entertaining. if not better. Plus it propelled Chance to new found success without the need of a major label and made him a one of the biggest musical acts in 2016.
Stand Out Tracks: No Problem, Blessings, Angels
#9. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
I am not a country fan, far from it. However, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth isn’t your typical country album. This is a country album with horns provided by The Dap-Kings, a Kurt Cobain cover, and references to getting high while playing Goldeneye on Nintendo 64. Conceptually, the album is a collection of overseas love letters to his son and wife, but Simpson does so by finding new sound palettes which he’s never brought about on previous releases.
In the album intro, Welcome To Earth, Simpson welcomes his newborn son with his powerful voice over some melancholic strings and piano. The second half of the song is where Sturgill really blurs the line between country and soul, as a boisterous horn section gives the song new life. This type of production returns on Keep It Between The Lines and it’s this type of risks that power A Sailor’s Guide To Earth beyond the country genre. In Bloom is a beautiful cover of Nirvana’s classic which borders on country R&B and a definite album highlight. What makes this album so special is his adventurous attempts at combining his love of music without following a single path. After being nominated for Album Of The Year at the Grammys, at the end of the night I hope Sturgill Simpson will be the one holding that prestigious award. He sure as hell deserves it.
Stand Out Tracks: Welcome To Earth, In Bloom, Brace For Impact
8. Jeff Rosenstock – Worry
I wholeheartedly apologize for not giving this record enough spins on my first time around. A month or two after it’s release, Worry hit me like a ton of bricks and it’s been on replay ever since. Rosenstock’s lyrics are some of the most poetic and socially conscious of any album released in 2016. To Be A Ghost… touches on police brutality and those who chose to ignore it, as Jeff sings “I’m tired of circling amongst apologists who love ignoring the reality of unarmed civilians executed publicly.” Even among some of the gloomy yet realistic topics, the album never loses it’s sense of fun such as on Wave Goodnight To Me, essentially a middle finger to gentrification.
Like most punk albums, Jeff crams 17 tracks in 37 minutes and not a single second is wasted. Whether you know his name or not, the former frontman to Arrogant Sons of Bitches is one of the most important figures in punk today. With the release of Worry, he further cements his status as such.
Stand Out Tracks: Festival Song, Wave Goodnight To Me, To Be A Ghost…
#7. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
Will Toledo released more than a few projects independently, under the name Car Seat Headrest, all self produced as practically a one man band. But it’s Teens Of Denial, his second LP on the indie label Matador, that truly allowed him to grow as an artist. For the first time, Toledo has employed an outsider to help produce an album; not to mention Car Seat Headrest is now a full fledged band. This results in a fuller, more polished sound but one that won’t alienate the loyal fans of his old lo-fi records.
Vincent is a great illustration on how far Toledo’s product has improved with outside help, from the grunge-like riffs to the contrasting horns, CSR has never sounded better. Most tracks on Teens Of Denial exceed the five minute mark, but every track is so layered that they never feel dragged out. Just take a listen to Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales which has one of the most memorable hooks this year. Teens Of Denial is proof that a bigger budget and cleaner sound doesn’t harm an indie superstar, especially when you have one as creative as Will Toledo.
Stand Out Tracks: Vincent, Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, Cosmic Hero
#6. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love
From creating his own hit TV show, and being cast in an upcoming Star Wars flick, Donald Glover is having quite a year. One could say the same for his alter ego, Childish Gambino, who released what is quite possibly his best album in Awaken, My Love. Now Gambino has given us hip hop albums in the past, experimented with a hybrid R&B/pop, but now he has remarkably succeeded at putting together a complete R&B funk album. Gambino, who recently admitted he never used software to alter the pitch in his voice for this album, absolutely nails every facet and genre blending in AML. Honestly, I thought Gambino was full of shit, until I was forced to eat my own words when I watched him perform Redbone on the Jimmy Fallon show. It’s rare that an artist releases material that makes me respect them and their talent a whole lot more than I already did.
After this release, my appreciation for Glover has taken leaps and bounds. A majority of this album sounds right at home next to Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, such as the single Me and Your Mama which truly shows off Gambino’s abilities. The unsung hero in this album is producer Ludwig Göransson, who has produced most of Gambino’s previous material, but on this album he truly shines. Every string, horn and percussion element is beautifully composed and arranged; this elaborate composition makes ALS stand out as more than just a Gambino album. It truly is a product that stands by itself and must be heard even by those who were not fans of Childish Gambino’s music prior to this.
Stand Out Tracks: Me and Your Mama, Redbone, Baby Boy
#5. Radiohead – Moon Shaped Pool
A Moon Shaped Pool is a bit distant from the particular semi-electronic sound that Radiohead slowly cultivated through out the past 19 years. The band chose to put together a record filled with piano driven tracks and grand string arrangements. The end result is one of the probably the saddest, most beautiful, dreamlike album that Radiohead has ever put out. Thom Yorke’s heartbroken lyrics guide the listener through the woes and loneliness that Yorke himself has gone through since separating from his wife.
The sound is almost cinematic in it’s nature and a lot of it is because of multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood brings in a sound shaped by the film scores he’s worked on in the past few years (There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, etc) and it shows in the melodic progression of the album. One of my favorite things about A Moon Shaped Pool is a song’s ability to change instrumentally by progressively adding layers upon layers until almost every song reaches a musical climax; may it be with the symphonic arrangement in The Numbers, or the bass in Decks Dark. This might not be their best album but as a fan, one that has appreciated the changes that they’ve gone through sonically in each of their albums, this album is fucking enchanting.
Stand Out Tracks: Burn The Witch, Decks Dark, Ful Stop
#4. Solange – A Seat At The Table
Almost every single AOTY list has Beyonce as #1, but 2016 was really the other Knowles’ sister’s time to shine. Solange Knowles has very quietly developed her own talent and style that completely contrasts her sister’s widespread pop appeal. Eight years removed from her last album, the soulful Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, Solange returns with A Seat At The Table. It might not have a short film paired alongside it but overall, A Seat At The Table is a more focused effort than it’s predecessor and shows the growth that Solange has been through during that time frame. She delivers an honest album loaded with her effortless and confident vocals that compliment the neo-soul/jazz like production.
Cranes In The Sky is the album’s first single and it’s an upbeat track which can relate to anyone that has tried multiple ways to cope with pain. Solange even brings out the best in Lil Wayne, who gets personal about a failed suicide attempt and spits his best verse in years on Mad. The album is sprinkled with skits starring her parents and Master P, explaining personal experiences that tie the songs multiple concepts together. In a genre like R&B that gets over saturated with below average copycats, Solange is an artist that was sorely needed.
Stand Out Tracks: Cranes In The Sky, Don’t Touch My Hair, Mad
#3. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
The most criminally slept on album this year goes to Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate. The lush sounds in Love & Hate are arranged and produced by a trio composed of Paul Butler (who handled Kiwanuka’s debut album), Inflo and Danger Mouse. These three helped Michael Kiwanuka put together a project that rivals and surpasses damn near any household name in 2016.
The album’s initial five minutes are fully instrumental and manages to mix equal parts of the grandiose sounds of Isaac Hayes and Roger Waters. And this is only half of the 10 minute long opening track, Cold Little Heart, one of the most epic pieces of music this year. The title track has one of the catchiest melodies you’ll hear all year while Michael laments on a crumbling relationship.Though out the album, Kiwanuka puts on one of the best and most soulful performances of 2016. At the ripe age of 29, Michael Kiwanuka has the skills to become one of the best voices in modern music with Love & Hate being a prime example of his amazing talent.
Stand Out Tracks: Cold Little Heart, Love & Hate, Rule The World
#2. ATCQ – We Got It From Here…
This album should come with a neck brace. Eighteen years after their break up, A Tribe Called Quest put aside their differences and began recording a new project. An album that began as a way to rekindle old friendships took on a whole new mission when earlier this year Malik Taylor, better known as Phife Dawg, passed away. Before his death, Phife flew from Cali to NY for weeks at a time to work on the new album in Q-Tip’s home studio. The end result is a beautiful piece of music and arguably the best hip hop album this year. Sonically, Thank You For Your Service does not commit the same pitfalls that most older hip hop groups tend to when making a modern album. Instead this album uses their classic sound as a base and grows their production from there in order to fit the modern landscape.
After almost two decades, Q Tip and Phife trade verses without missing a step. The two core MCs are also accompanied by the return of their long lost member, Jarobi White, who only appeared on their first album back in 1990. One of the most impressive aspects of this release is the chemistry between ATCQ and their featured guests. Whether it’s Busta’s verse on Dis Generation, Andre 3k on Kids, or Elton John on Solid Wall Of Sound every single feature on this album sounds right at home. What Tribe has done in 2016 is equally monumental and bittersweet. As Q-Tip says on Ego “This is the last Tribe and our ego hopes that you felt us”, the answer from the fans should always be an overwhelming “Yes, and thank you for your service.”
Stand Out Tracks: The Space Program, We The People, Ego
#1. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Anderson .Paak had the midas touch in 2016. Every single track that featured his distinct vocal rasp was a banger. But none of those tracks touched the material in his own breakthrough sophomore album, Malibu. When this album dropped, I stated that if it had released a month or two before it would’ve also been at the top of my list for 2015. That statement also holds true for 2016. 11 months after it’s release, there’s not a single album I’ve played more. From the smoothness of Heart Don’t Stand A Chance, to the funk of Come Down, this album had something for everyone. Paak’s lightheartedness stood out on Slicon Valley as he courts a woman by playfully telling her “Open your heart, what’s behind them tig ol’ bitties.” On the Talib Kweli assisted The Dreamer, he reminisces on his childhood when he “wanted them Nikes, Mama got me Lugz.”
Perhaps is the fact that Anderson .Paak is immensely relatable and now acts like a big kid living out dreams. A personality that shines through on his lyrics and makes him so likable. In the wold of hip hop and R&B, where everyone is constantly pounding their chest in a dick measuring contest, Malibu is a breath of fresh air. Even with the amount of praise this album has received, I still consider it underrated because it deserves more than that. This album is straight up for those who are “a product of the tube and the free lunch,” and I can only hope this is the beginning for one of today’s brightest stars.
Stand Out Tracks: Heart Don’t Stand A Chance, Am I Wrong, The Dreamer