BrooklynVegan’s Top Albums of 2016
You don't need us to say it again... 2016 was a bad year, but a bad year with great music, some related to why it was so bad.
It wasn't an easy task, but we narrowed down our favorite albums of the year to a list of 45 (with 48 albums represented total), plus a few personal Honorable Mentions. Like BrooklynVegan's music coverage, our list spans indie rock to hip hop, R&B to metal, pop and punk too (though for even more punk, check out our full list of the Best Punk Albums of 2016, and for more metal, check out the Best Metal of 2016).
Woods went from a low-fi experimental band to reliable makers of jammy, pysch-folk (whose live performances were even better than their records). Sun City Eater in the River of Light, however, is a wonderful curveball that has main men Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere venturing into uncharted sonic territory: Southern soul, jazz and reggae, enlivened by horns and keyboards, and recorded in the highest fidelity we've heard yet. All of it works like gangbusters, and still makes room for Earl and Taveniere's crucial guitar interplay. (Woods still sound like Woods.) Where will they go next? - Bill Pearis
For their first record for Rough Trade, Parquet Courts let down their arty guard, just a bit, letting heart compete with head, appropriate for a record called Human Performance. Andrew Savage's title track and Austin Brown's "Steady on My Mind," two of the record's highlights, are among their most affecting songs to date. They've still got the DIY punk rippers, and the arch bon mots, but Parquet Courts' expanded palette (both lyrically and sonically) makes this their best record since Light Up Gold, one that connects to a wider audience without giving up an ounce of their independence. - B.P.
Chilean-American electronic musician and composer Nicolas Jaar refuses to cleanly separate the personal from the political on his latest LP, Sirens, the Darkside member’s first non-soundtrack, non-EP, proper solo studio album since 2011’s Space is Only Noise. This much can be heard just in the lush, musique concrète-esque found audio he chooses to include. Jaar deems political dialogue and intimate, private life equally relevant by sampling everything from the riotous sounds of shattering glass to recordings of himself as a child, speaking to his father. Jaar melds the personal and the political in individual musical moments, too, placing homey piano melodies and warlike stabs of electronics right next to each other. - Daniel Evans
A former axeman for Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn came into his own on his first solo record for Matador which is perhaps 2016's mellow bliss-out guitar album of choice, radiating warm vibes, impressive chops and, keen observational lyrical style. We're coming up on 60 years of rock n' roll where the guitar is king, but Steve still manages to find some killer riffs we haven't heard yet on songs like "Ancient Jules" and "Conditions Wild," and his equally impressive backing band makes it all the better. It goes down so smooth, some might not notice the exceptional musicianship on display, but its understated style is another of Eyes on the Lines' great qualities. - B.P.
Kate Tempest's second album plays like a table read of a screenplay for an Altman-esque anthology that visits the only seven residents of a particular London block who all happen to still be awake at 4:18 AM. Tempest, dropping perfect little details, sets the scene for each of them: some desperate, some drunk, all a little lost. A master storyteller with seriously impressive flow, Tempest draws you into the lives of the characters, finding the humanity in all of them, and eventually tying them together with a thunderstorm. Collaborator/producer Dan Carey matches terrific backing to Tempest's rhymes, for what is one of the more moving works of the year. - B.P.
Mike Kinsella released not one but two great albums this year. The more popular one was the long-awaited sophomore album from American Football, released seventeen years after their debut, and the other was the latest LP from his more prolific solo project Owen. Both had songs that came from the same writing sessions, and both contain some of Mike's best work in at least ten years. For a few reasons, these two albums are more similar than any Owen album ever was to American Football's debut. Not only were they written the same year, but Mike's songwriting and vocal chops have progressed a lot since 1999. American Football (LP1), as great and as influential as it is, never had choruses like LP2 does. The American Football album has plenty of the math rock chops that most Kinsella-inspired bands tend to employ, while the Owen record is something entirely new for Mike. It's his most fleshed-out album yet, thanks to an ensemble of backing musicians (including Sean Carey and Mike Noyce of Bon Iver's band), and closer to chamber pop than to emo. Mike Kinsella's a legend in certain circles for music he came up with as a teen and young twentysomething in the '90s, but these two albums remind us his ideas have only gotten better. - Andrew Sacher
Montreal's Besnard Lakes haven't messed much with the formula they created 15 years ago -- ocean-sized space rock with soaring harmonies -- but they have continued to refine it. Few have such mastery of loud-quiet-loud dynamics, and even fewer groups are able to sound this big without a whiff of bombast. With A Coliseum Complex Museum, Besnard Lakes continue to give "epic" a good name, even if it remains a four-letter word. - B.P.
Stereolab may be no more, but Tim Gane remains on his continuing mission to explore the outer reaches of krautrock and electronica with his current trio, Cavern of Anti-Matter (that also features one-time Lab member Joe Dilworth). Here, though, he's moved out of the bachelor pad, going fully into space on their official debut album, visiting galaxies ferocious ("Hi Hats Bring the Hiss"), sleek ("Liquid Gate" featuring Bradford Cox), beautiful ("Melody in High Feedback Tones), and funky ("Black Glass Actions"). What a trip. - B.P.
In the Vocoder Folk R&B Wars of 2016, as they won't be called one day, on one side you have Bon Iver who has basically created a whole new sound on his new LP (see elsewhere on this list); and Kurt Wagner, who uses keyboards and those vocal effects to make a record that is still, wonderfully, warmly, a distinctly Lambchop record. (There's no war, either; everyone wins here.) FLOTUS (which stands for "For Love Often Turns Us Still" and is not about Michelle Obama) earns its place on this list with the two lengthy songs that bookend the LP: The gorgeous, cyclical opener "In Care of 8675309" and motorik closer "The Hustle," both of which play out like perfect short stories. What's in between is nearly as good. - B.P.
These days, checking in with social media has become as much of a morning ritual as brewing coffee and stretching. Lately though, the coffee seems spiked with arsenic. Surfing the web has gone from being a passive activity to one fraught with anxiety. Each morning starts another cycle of atrocities and ill-conceived hot takes. The notion that the internet could lead to a utopian society where people could communicate directly and freely increasingly seems like a sick joke, but James Hinton isn’t laughing. Potential, Hinton’s newest album as The Range, could not exist without a sincere belief in the power of the internet to unite people. Hinton wrote the record from collaborations with strangers he met through Youtube. That isn’t just a clever conceit either, the songs that Hinton sampled are all vessels put out into the vast darkness of the web with the hope of someone finding them. There’s a desperation to the voices that crop up across Potential but also a confidence, each expressing a belief in their ability and a need to speak to the world. Concept aside, Hinton’s production is detailed and emotive, drawing from footwork for its syncopated rhythms and physical heft. - Ian Cory
Schoolboy Q has spent the entire decade showing hints of genius, and Blank Face LP is the album where he finally found his sound. He sounds best at his coldest and darkest, and that's the mood Blank Face LP is in from start to finish. It might be the only album out this year that you could accurately call "gangsta rap" that doesn't sound indebted to a previous era. It's a place where veterans like E-40 and Jadakiss can show off that no one flows quite like them, where young West Coasters like Anderson Paak and Vince Staples can continue to prove themselves, and where Kanye West can be in pure ridiculous mode, and it all makes sense. And still, Q never lets anyone out-rap him on his own shit. He is the star here, proving again and again that he's got hooks and bars for days, that he's as skilled as the golden age rhymers but never jacking anyone's style. Q's major label debut Oxymoron suffered from a lack of vision. On Blank Face LP, his vision has never been clearer. - A.S.
It's been almost 35 years since the Descendents released the game-changing Milo Goes to College, an album literally thousands of bands have been influenced by, and still no one does it quite like the Descendents. Hypercaffium Spazzinate, their first LP in twelve years, has the band firing on all cylinders. It's as driving and hook-filled as their classics. It stays true to its roots without ever feeling like "been there, done that." It's an album that most veteran punk bands would probably kill to have written, but few punk bands age this gracefully. It's also unfair to just compare this to other veterans. If you dug newer pop punk this year like Joyce Manor, PUP and Modern Baseball but never got around to hearing Descendents, Hypercaffium Spazzinate would be a fine entry point. - A.S.
It's probably safe to say that not one artist on this list is happy with Donald Trump's election, but only one of them wrote the 2016 election season's defining protest anthem. With "FDT" (aka "Fuck Donald Trump"), YG basically cemented himself a place in music history. He was a fine rapper before 2016, but this is the year he stepped his game up, made his voice heard, and said what everyone else in music (besides Kid Rock and Ted Nugent) wanted to say. On Still Brazy, the song comes third to last, followed by the equally angry, political songs "Blacks & Browns" and "Police Get Away Wit Murder." That one-two-three punch of protest music sometimes overshadows the rest of the album, but it shouldn't. Musically speaking, Still Brazy hits higher highs. Most of the album's production is a modern update on early '90s G-Funk and YG's flow has hints of the South's early '00s breakout moment. YG probably grew up listening to both of those things and doesn't care what's in style now. He puts enough of his own twist on it and dishes out enough memorable hooks that we shouldn't care either. - A.S.
Kevin Morby has been making terrific folk-rock since his days in The Babies (when he was also still bassist in Woods), but he's only gotten better with each record, and Singing Saw (his third solo LP) is his best by a mile. He's always been a great songwriter, with a smoky voice that fits his style (Dylan and Leonard Cohen come up a lot and are not far off) but, working with producer Sam Cohen, the arrangements really make the songs on Saw sing, whether it's the Spanish horns on his ode to Eric Garner, "I Have Been to the Mountain," or the detuned piano on the joyous, moving "Dorothy." Morby has a big heart and it’s heard loud and clear throughout Singing Saw. - B.P.
When Smith Westerns broke up at the end of 2014, Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek continued making music together as Whitney, eventually turning the band into a septet, channeling the laid back sounds of the '70s Laurel Canyon scene. The year started with "No Woman," a grower of a single that bested pretty much anything Smith Westerns did, and set the template for the album to come: warm, easygoing guitar pop, draped in strings and horns, and led by Erlich's falsetto. Producer Jonathan Rado has a way with getting the right sounds for music like this without making it sound slavishly retro, and the band make it sound like it all tumbled out of them over a weekend. - B.P.
On the surface, British soul singer/guitarist Michael Kiwanuka's sophomore album Love & Hate could qualify as "easy listening" or "adult contemporary" -- his debut certainly did -- but this album goes deep. It's got much lengthier songs, bits of psychedelia (possibly courtesy of co-producer Danger Mouse), and heavier lyrical content. Look no further than lead single "Black Man in a White World" to see how much bolder Michael gets on this album. It's an ambitious work, favoring organic sounds without feeling rooted in the past. It's as much an orchestral record as it is a guitar-oriented one, fleshed out by gorgeous string arrangements. It sounds like an album that aims to sound grandiose and professional, and succeeds. - A.S.
Brother Peter and David Brewis returned with their first Field Music album in four years, which is also, without a doubt, their best to date. Their musicianship and skills as producers and arrangers have always been exceptional; here, however, there is an excitement, a playfulness, a connection we haven't felt from Field Music before. David, in particular, has loosened up and delivers his best songs ever, including heartfelt knockout "Disappointed" (not a word to use with Commontime). - B.P.
Listen via Bandcamp.
Extreme music’s emotional range has been forcibly expanded over the past few years. Bands like Alcest, Deafheaven and Vattnet Viskar used the tools of black metal, a genre founded on a very specific flavor of rage, to grapple with nostalgia, urban ennui, and space travel. But even as the genre’s sound and thematic interests have broadened, heavy music remains exceptional at expressing pain above all else. Although Rheia is part of the same lineage as Oathbreaker’s former labelmates in Deafheaven, it is a record that has none of Sunbather’s wistfulness or the shoegaze colored glasses of Alcest’s best work. Oathbreaker’s newest is their prettiest but also their most agonizing. Lead singer Caro has been gradually incorporating clean singing into the band’s work, but here she uses melody not just as a dynamic contrast but as a searing depiction of the music’s emotional core. Producer Jack Shirley, who seems to be having a bit of a moment, doesn’t sugar coat the band’s performance. Caro is often barely audible, which makes her eruptions into full blown screams all the more hair-raising. The rest of the band have also stepped up their game accordingly, blasting and barreling through songs with an urgency and edge that was occasionally missing from previous albums. - I.C.
After making major waves with excellent songwriting and clear-as-a-bell croon on the comparatively traditional country record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson decided to go big, and do it gloriously. I can't entirely tell you why, but this album reminds me, more than anything, of the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The ambition here is on that level, as is the naked sentimentalism and the ability to devastate with sonics that range from grand and bombastic to hushed and intimate. Opener "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" is like the entire album in miniature, opening like a movie soundtrack with strings and soft-rock piano before breaking into a joyous, horn-blasted celebration. "Breakers Roar" is a hushed, lovely folk song, "Keep it Between the Lines" is a swaggering, James Brown-conjuring soul jam, "Oh Sarah" is a string-laden love song that is really murderously beautiful, and that cover of "In Bloom" is better than it has any right to be. It's a stunner of an album, and one that should appeal to anybody (even people who don't like country). - Rob Sperry-Fromm
After six years away, Sweden's The Radio Dept. return with their fieriest, most political album to date; a call-to-action strike against fascism, racism, apathy, the military-industrial complex, and their own record label. Their message is delivered in the Swedish band's gorgeously melodic, understated (and in this case, highly danceable) way, making it an insidiously catchy sleeper cell of an album. 2016 saw a lot of great protest records but few were as gorgeously subversive as this. - B.P.
Listen to it on Spotify.
2016 was, not surprisingly, a year where a lot of artists got political, and Blood Orange was no exception. The '80s pop homage of 2013's Cupid Deluxe could be a little too kitschy, but Dev Hynes and his rotating cast of guests mean business on Freetown Sound. It's an album that celebrates pride in one's race, gender, or sexual orientation, and protests inequality. It's an album where downtempo, R&B, real-deal funk, classic synthpop, and ambient atmospheres all co-exist. Where Empress Of, Debbie Harry and Nelly Furtado are all equals, acting as parts of a bigger whole, not as guest stars. Even Dev himself rarely comes off like the star of the show. Blood Orange may have started out as a solo project, but it turned into a community. - A.S.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a new, great Radiohead album, and what else could we have asked for? They show a range and a breadth here that rivals their best work. The lush, Neil Young-inspired folk of "Desert Island Disk," the piercing string-led hook-mongering of "Burn the Witch," the jazzy, woozy, Amnesiac-recalling groove of "The Numbers," the Krautrock churn or "Ful Stop," the achingly, devastatingly resigned croon that Thom Yorke breaks out on "Decks Dark," and the disorienting atmospheric landscape that is "Daydreaming." It's all a worthy addition to their catalogue, and it simply doesn't get much better. - R.S.F.
To continue the Beach Boys references, Margo Price just wasn't made for these times. There's not a sound on her debut album that feels like it was made after 1973. She takes on Southern rock ("Tennessee Song"), blues ("Four Years of Chances"), and country (most other songs), and sounds like an old soul on every song. But the modern world welcomed her with open arms -- she went from tiny venues to playing SNL and making chart history in about four months -- because her songs are just that good. It's not often we get storytelling like this, and she wastes no time letting us realize that. The album opens with the heartbreaking (and apparently autobiographical) "Hands of Time." It leaves you emotionally crushed before you even hit track two. - A.S.
Instead of falling deeper into the abyss, The Hotelier followed up 2014’s painful, anthemic (and beloved) Home, Like Noplace Is There by climbing out into the light. Sonically Goodness doesn’t quite stray from the emo label often given to The Hotelier so much as it builds upon it; there are spoken word fragments, sound collages, and bits of lullaby throughout the album, textured naturalistic findings between songs. Peace in nature and peace with death are recurring themes; deer in snowy woods leads our narrator both to exalt in nature and wish for a greater connection to it. A grandmother's postcards from the dead and soon-to-be dead are clues to her own acceptance of her place at the end of the life cycle. Beyond the transcendentalism in the lyrics, the guitar interplay is striking, and the choruses cathartic as ever. - Amanda Hatfield
By the end of last year, the young Oakland rapper Kamaiyah was a relative unknown with an undeniable banger, "How Does It Feel?". It's a deceptively simple dose of retro-futuristic G-funk synths and a melodic rapping style that explodes into an unforgettable chorus. It's familiar enough that it's easy to grasp, but it never sounds quite like its influences (Missy Elliott, TLC, and Aaliyah, as Kamaiyah would tell you). A lot of young rappers slip bangers onto Soundcloud and YouTube these days, but there's something extra special about Kamaiyah, whose A Good Night in the Ghetto may very well be the best rap debut of 2016. It's got a guest spot from YG (who would give Kamaiyah even more exposure when he put her and Drake on "Why You Always Hatin?"), and 12 other proper songs that all go as hard as "How Does It Feel?". She released the mixtape in March, but it was Song of the Summer contenders from start to finish. If you needed something to blast while driving around with the windows down, or to soundtrack a block party in the blistering heat, all you had to do was throw this on. - A.S.
From vampires to menstruation, there’s a current of blood running through Blood Bitch. “Don’t be afraid, it’s only blood,” Hval’s fragmented voice intones at the end of “Period Piece,” but she also admits to having “big dreams and blood powers” in “Untamed Region.” A scene of waking up with one's period and feeling compelled to mark objects in the room with its blood is primal and almost disgusting, but isn't blood both the essence of life and the harbringer of death? Blood Bitch exists in these extremes. There are lovely pop songs, some of Hval’s most accessible yet, alongside chaotic noise and horror movie screams. Hval also has a sense of humor. Background meta-commentary mocks the absurdity of the subject with a laughing, "vampires? That's so basic!" "Keep that birth under control!" Hval exclaims in "The Plague," after slyly admitting to taking her birth control pills with rosé. Blood Bitch's many layers make for a fascinating, engaging listen. - A.H.
Before 22, A Million came out, it could be easy to pigeonhole Bon Iver as a folksy cabin-dweller, but that would be forgetting the major domino effect caused by his 2009 auto-tune experiment "Woods." It directly inspired Kanye West and James Blake, and indirectly inspired tons of pop songs that came out in those artists' wakes. With 22, A Million, Bon Iver made the rare album that puts him in direct competition with mainstream pop stars while being his most experimental yet. "715 - CR∑∑KS" is the vocoder-powered sequel to "Woods" and one of the album's most powerful songs. Some of the songs sound as inspired by Yeezus and James Blake as those albums sound inspired by Bon Iver. "29 #Strafford APTS" is the only song that recalls his early folk days, but it's also full of glitchy electronics. A lot of songs on 22 are, though there's also a song like "8 (circle)" that reveals Justin Vernon is still a sap who likes Bruce Hornsby ballads. It's an album like nothing he's ever done, yet it manages to sort of sound like everything he's ever done. It's one of the year's most difficult albums to decipher (in many more ways than one), and somehow it's so easy to enjoy. - A.S.
Richmond metal outfit Inter Arma blend doom, death, black, and thrash metal into something totally singular and imposing. This band is simply massive-sound, and especially in a live setting they come across as one of the most unique metal bands in the game today. On Paradise Gallows, they bring highly developed compositional chops to go with their genre-blending approach--they'll spend big swaths of sonic space grinding you up with Swans-like noise or hammering you with big, chunky doom hits before breaking out with something quietly beautiful, or maybe just even more crushing. It's the type of album where you never know what's around the corner, and to Inter Arma's credit, it might not always be pleasant. - R.S.F.
If this year’s presidential election was the realization of your worst political fears and cemented your growing uncertainty about the state of America, listening to HOPELESSNESS may serve as a reminder that ANOHNI saw the signs you were blind to. It’s easy to make oneself ignore the dark underbelly of the Obama administration, to push aside fears of the effect of global warming on the planet - "it’s only four degrees," after all! But on HOPELESSNESS, ANOHNI starts off by bringing us right into the human face of drone warfare, "crystal guts" viscera and all, and continues unrelenting, examining the evils of the death penalty, the sleazy gaze of surveillance, and our ultimate complicity in the destruction of the planet. These visions of horror are realized over electronics co-produced by Oneohtrix Point Never, Hudson Mohawke, and ANOHNI herself. It’s a change from her work as Antony and the Johnsons, and the result is a stark, haunting protest album you can dance to. - A.H.
After an eight-year break from releasing music, Leonard Cohen began a new creative hot streak in 2012 that ultimately resulted in a trilogy of albums. The trilogy is one of his strongest moments as a songwriter in a nearly-fifty-year music career, and the best of the three is the final one, this year's You Want It Darker. It's sadly his last album ever because, as you surely know, Leonard passed away a few weeks after its release (at age 82). Like the other album on this list written by an icon who knew it'd be his final statement, the album is inseparable from his death. It always will be, as it's right there in the lyrics, but it does the album injustice to only see it as sentimental. It's one of the darkest albums from an artist who at times helped define the last half-century of dark music. It's a challenging album from someone with nothing left to prove. As a music fan, it can be tempting to always be looking for the next thing, but You Want It Darker is a reminder of what can happen when you allow an artist to grow. You almost definitely can't get an album with this level of wisdom from a new artist. - A.S.
Where has Frank been? Working on two albums. Writing a zine. Building stairs. Living. And god does it sound like it. Between Blonde and Endless Frank Ocean more than made up for his absence in the public eye. Taken together, along with the Boys Don’t Cry Zine, Ocean put together a multimedia expression to rival any other in 2016. And yet despite giving over so much, Ocean remains a master of withholding. These two records are both intensely personal but you don’t walk away knowing much beyond the broad strokes. Ocean leaps from one intimate moment to the next, moving from country to country, back and forward through time. You are experiencing Ocean in totality, but only on his terms.
The music on Blonde and Endless is just as obtuse. Endless is more of a sketchbook than an album. It’s a record about record making. It’s littered with good ideas and frustrating dead ends, snippets of brilliance obscured by hazy execution. Blonde is more conventional, but not by much. Anyone expecting another “Thinkin’ Bout You” or hell even another “Forest Gump” was bound to be disappointed. Ocean, his voice often stretched out by digital effects, floats through a cloud of guitars, crunchy electric piano and organs. The only hooks are sky hooks, the floor of these songs fall out as soon as you get solid footing. Voices familiar and foreign offer advice and admonishment. But Blonde isn’t some icy art piece. It’s warm with humanity and full of clever turns of phrase. Frank Ocean has confirmed himself as one our greatest pop writers. If it takes another half decade to see where the stairs lead next, I’m happy to wait. - I.C.
In the documentary One More Time With Feeling, Nick Cave says that he doesn’t believe in narratives anymore. He’s given up on the "pleasing resolve" of their highs and lows, which has been the bedrock of his murder and love ballads over the past 30 years. The very medium he’s enamored and frenzied listeners with has been left behind for something closer to the truth. 2013's Push the Sky Away hinted at this realization as a breakthrough, a new way for the Bad Seeds to play beyond common song structures to flirt with the prophetic. He followed its release with renewed celebrity, a living legend only peeking up at his laurels with a high-concept biopic, 20,000 Days on Earth, and two world tours that reasserted the Bad Seeds' ferocity.
Then death struck the hero, and changed him. This is the tragic arc on paper, but the lived experience of it tells a different story. Cave knows that, and Skeleton Tree proves that the narrative may have been the one that left him behind. It’s hard to look past the personal tragedy that shadows most of this album. Cave’s loose, cryptic allusions surf across the static hum of synthesizers, mimicking medical equipment in measured tics or dreams in muted analog waves. Closure isn't present in his verse and resolution does not deliver. Life without the relief of resolve is coping, and Cave's expression of which, either within the fatalist tendencies of modern life proclaimed in "Anthrocene" or a struggling couple's failing daily routine — perhaps in wake of loss — on "Magneto" captures the experience of people facing conflicts without tidy endings, if any ending at all. "I love, you love… and one more time with feeling," Cave croons, his delivery a pained chant of life’s motions that belie their savage engine. "I laugh, you laugh, we saw each other in half, and all the stars are splashed and splattered across the ceiling." Skeleton Tree chronicles the pains of life without closure, destinies made and unmade in every moment. For a writer specialized in combing life’s darkest trauma for inspiration, Cave has found its deepest quake. - Andrew Marinaccio
Solange's strongest album yet is a musical world of its own. It's a world where R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq has as prominent a role as Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, and that feels natural. It's not concerned with underground vs mainstream, indie vs hip hop, retro vs futuristic. It's got elements of all of those things, and it's tied to none of them. It's a psychedelic, soulful world, and perhaps most importantly, it's a world where black pride is at the forefront. Even if you miss what Solange is singing, the spoken-word interludes get this album's message across loud and clear. She enlisted the help of her parents Matthew and Tina Knowles, plus rap mogul Master P, to discuss their own experiences with racism, their own pride in themselves and in their communities. Like when Beyonce's 2013 album got impressionable fans worldwide quoting a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speech on feminism, A Seat at the Table may be responsible for teaching young Solange fans why there's no white history month. Those interludes are crucial to the flow of the album, often making several songs feel like one piece of music. And the breaks between proper songs only make Solange's soaring voice stand out more each time. - A.S.
After a handful of self-recorded releases on bandcamp, Will Toledo signed with Matador and turned Car Seat Headrest into a proper band. This is his first collection of brand-new material with the group. Toledo's self-obsessed, depressed, naval-gazing stream of consciousness lyrical style works in part because he is a smart, funny guy who calls himself out regularly. He also has a way with a turn-of-phrase, and he tends to wrap his best lines around giant hooks. Toledo is also clever without getting in the way of heart. People (wrongly) compare CSH to Pavement but Pavement never made an emotional connection with listeners the way "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" and "Cosmic Hero" do. "Indie rock" may or may not be dead but long live Car Seat Headrest. - B.P.
When Dr. Dre dropped his long-awaited Compton in 2015, it looked like his next breakout protege would be Anderson .Paak, and boy has Anderson had a breakout year. He released not one but two great albums (his solo album Malibu and the debut LP by NxWorries, his duo with producer Knxwledge), and just over a year after lending his talents to Dre's comeback album, he did the same for A Tribe Called Quest's comeback album. You know you're something special when the kings of East and West Coast golden age rap want you on their comebacks. (Both also had Kendrick Lamar.) It's no surprise that these legends are wanting to work with him -- it's really not that often that you get a talent as unique as Paak. He's a guy who's genuinely good at singing and rapping, and usually doing a mix of both at once. He's only been getting major exposure for about a year and a half, and his voice is already instantly unmistakable every time you hear him on a track. Funk and soul aren't just source material for his samples; he blends them with rap until he's operating with one super hybrid genre. On Malibu, he often employs a live band that includes Paak himself on drums, and bands of any genre would kill for a guy who mastered the instrument like he did. That album dropped in January, and December had him picking up a Grammy nom. 2016 was a great year for a lot of music, but there might not be anyone else who literally dominated all 12 months like Anderson .Paak did. - A.S.
2016 gave us brilliant music from some of the most legendary and most popular artists of our time, but one of the most enjoyable records of the year came from the young rock band Pinegrove. They started the year off as a little-known band from Montclair, NJ, and have since toured the world endlessly, playing to increasingly bigger crowds and winning over music fans of all kinds. They're especially appealing to the type of music fan who treasures that moment when indie rock started to get really ambitious without losing its punk spirit, like Neutral Milk Hotel or early Modest Mouse. These guys spent all year playing punk shows, but you never know when they might show up with a banjo and a pedal steel. Those embellishments add a lot to Pinegrove, but at the same time, this is a band who sounds as gripping as ever even when it's just frontman Evan Stephens Hall playing solo. It's that voice. It's not just that he can write a hook and turn a phrase. He was blessed with a set of pipes that your average indie rock mumbler can only dream of. - A.S.
How do you follow-up two beloved, fists-in-the-air, wall-to-wall banger metal albums that simultaneously scratch an itch for In Flames and AC/DC? You get better. Kvelertak ditched frequent producer Kurt Ballou, and came out with something that, while it retained every ounce of the infectious fun-seeking that's Kvelertak's stock-in-trade, is a different beast. Same old Kvelertak, but lusher, more layered, proggier, able to lift fists in a larger variety of ways. It's a blast that suggests these guys are going to have a longer shelf-life than some of us might have anticipated. - R.S.F.
On Blackstar's predecessor, 2013's The Next Day, David Bowie tapped directly into the sounds and images of his Berlin Trilogy, down to the Heroes-referencing album artwork. It may have sounded like late '70s Bowie, but Blackstar feels like it. That era was the last time he made an album that was simultaneously this non-commercial and genuinely enjoyable. He brought in jazz musicians for lengthy sonic explorations, he took influence from To Pimp A Butterfly, he sang "I'm not a pop star." When did Bowie do anything quite like this before? It's a truly special album, but it's also of course one that carries a lot of weight. Bowie would pass two days after its release, and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti would tell us Bowie knew this would be his goodbye. Fans went digging for hints about our hero's demise within the album, and the lyrics were certainly vague and surreal enough to read into them however you'd like (or not vague at all, like "Look up here, I'm in heaven"). There are cynics out there who will say this album is only getting extra attention because of Bowie's death, and to those people I would say don't think about it that way. Think about how a guy who released his first hit in the 1960s, who helped introduce the world to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, who left an impact on virtually every style of mainstream and underground music, made the most adventurous rock record of 2016. - A.S.
Danny Brown has been weird since day one, but Atrocity Exhibition is his most boldly weird statement yet. It's the album where he ditched hip hop beats altogether and made unclassifiable songs like "Ain't It Funny" and "Golddust." He has spoken highly of (2016 year-end list opponents) Radiohead and David Bowie, and it's trailblazing albums like Kid A and Low that set precedents for Atrocity Exhibition more so than other rap albums. It even makes alt-rap classics like Madvillain and Deltron 3030 sound downright normal in comparison. Still, the album's biggest standout is the one that honors one of hip hop's oldest traditions. "Really Doe," a posse cut with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, has some of the best rapping -- in a traditional sense -- of the year. (Two of the four rappers would later be referred to by A Tribe Called Quest as gatekeepers of flow.) Auto-tuned guys like Young Thug and Lil Yachty spent 2016 proving they could push rap in new directions, but with Atrocity Exhibition, Danny Brown proved he could do that while still really rapping. - A.S.
Cody provides the best ear candy of the year. All over this polished, inviting album are hooks that will stick with you for days. The production is lush and accessible, with old Elliott Smith producer Rob Schnapf on hand to make these songs sound even more timeless. Barry Johnson's songwriting is so good, his hooks so to the point and his arrangements so fat-free that, rather than the emo revival stuff that Joyce were initially lumped in with, this album brings to mind some of the power-pop greats: Big Star, Cheap Trick, early Weezer. Cody is just that much of a sugar-rush, the kind of record you want to shout the lyrics to with your friends in a bar. I don't think listening to any other album this year was more of a sheer, pleasurable breeze. - R.S.F.
Listen to it on Bandcamp.
Puberty 2 proves Mitski to be a singular voice. After the strong songwriting chops displayed on her breakthrough LP Bury Me at Makeout Creek, it would have been easy for Mitski to stay somewhat lo-fi and keep letting her stark lyrics and unique singing speak for themselves. But the production on the new record sheds new, fascinating light on her gift for hooks, and for hiding her hooks in disorienting guises. "One More to See You" expertly taps into Joy Division-esque post-punk, "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars" is like a feral, wash-of-noise cry into the night, "Crack Baby" is a twisted R&B ballad, making great use of syrupy bass and crisp drum machine hits. And lyrically, these songs are treasures; mordant, intimate, dryly funny, and suffused with emotion. It all comes together on the centerpiece "Your Best American Girl," which is one of the very best songs of the year, with a chorus that makes you want to cry-headbang, which I've never wanted to do before being confronted with this gem of a record. - R.S.F.
In a year of what seemed like near-constant bummers, A Tribe Called Quest delivered the wonderful surprise of 2016. Considering they hadn't made an album together in 18 years, and the last two were not their best work, who would've expected that ATCQ would deliver not just a great comeback, but a great album period; a politically charged record that could not have felt more in the moment, dropping days after the presidential election. Certainly Phife's failing health (he died in March after working on most of the LP) contributed to a sense of urgency, but everyone truly brought their A-game here, and a joyous energy powers the whole album. Musically it's also a return to form, drawing from the kind of jazzy samples that powered ATCQ's first three LPs while pulling from today's sounds too. There are tons of cool guests (Kanye, Kendrick, Andre 3000, Jack White, Elton John), of course, but the record is never more exciting than when Q-Tip, Phife, and Jarobi (and unofficial members Busta Rhymes and Consequence) trade lines. It’s sad that they say this will be the last Tribe album, but what a way to go out. - B.P.
The definition of an "album" in 2016 is possibly vaguer than ever. Kanye West gave us the constantly-changing, possibly still-unfinished The Life of Pablo, a collection of songs that's like Leaves of Grass for the internet era. Drake gave us Views, which many agree functions more like a playlist than an album. Then of course there's the "mixtape," a title given to projects that sometimes feel more like albums than actual albums. Amidst all this, Beyonce made an album in the most classic sense. It hearkens back to the very beginning of the album's importance in pop music, when Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's defined an album as something that made a bigger statement than just a collection of songs. Sure Beyonce rolled the whole thing out as one music video (though The Beatles also did that), but the album on its own does just what those classic '60s albums do. It plays best from start to finish, it's got a clear concept running throughout, every song is its own beast, and most songs are different genres. Lemonade is home to some of the year's best pop-R&B ("Sorry"), rock ("Don't Hurt Yourself"), country-blues ("Daddy Lessons"), psychedelic soul ("Freedom"), and rap ("Formation"), and it all flows together seamlessly. This is the kind of thing you expect from the best album-oriented pop music of all time. In 2016, no one pulled it off better than Beyonce.
As great as that all sounds on paper, none of it would matter if Lemonade didn't succeed at giving chills on every listen. It's an album that angrily chastises adultery but also revels in true love. It celebrates blackness and boldly holds a middle finger up to anyone who doesn't. Maybe one day the album will exist separately from its visual component, from all of Beyonce's public actions in 2016, and from the political climate of this year, but that day is not today. The power of Lemonade is inseparable from Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar splashing through a pool of water on the BET Awards, Beyonce's Black Panther homage at the Super Bowl, or the many instantly-iconic scenes in the "Formation" video. Each of the performances Beyonce gave this year, in studio and out, were her most forceful ones yet. - A.S.
Get it on iTunes.
Erik Wunder returned to follow up the great Gin with a new vocalist (Lord Mantis's resident blood-curdler Charlie Fell) in tow and made perhaps the best metal record of the year. From the moment it starts, Slow Forever announces itself as a Serious Piece Of Work, and it doesn't let up, delivering with song after vicious song on that oft-unfulfilled promise of greatness. It's an album with a quiet self-confidence that comes from an ability to deliver the goods on command. It's an album of brutal, thrilling contradictions; raw but refined, furious but contemplative, catchy but punishing, literary but lizard-brained. Metal or not, it's one of the best albums of the year. - R.S.F.
Listen to it on Bandcamp.
My Woman is an undeniable high point for Angel Olsen; all of her considerable gifts as a singer and a songwriter crystallized into music that's well-wrought, raw, accessible, and emotionally powerful. The first half is unstoppable traditionalist pop. After the lone, highly effective flirtation with synth-pop on "Intern," we get a string of '70s by way of the '50s style folk jams, each catchier and more laconically devastating than the last. These songs feel timeless, inspired by artists you can name but never overly reverent or seeking to "modernize." And of course there's her voice; it's powerful and peerless, and it situates this material firmly with the classics. She has the kind of voice that can unearth powerful emotions with a simple melodic turn, and her songwriting complements it so perfectly at this point, allows her to wield it for maximum possible effect. She can do luxuriously despondent (on "Never Be Mine"), playfully commanding (on "Shut Up Kiss Me"), pained and agitated (on "Not Gonna Kill You") or wistful and resigned (on "Heart Shaped Face").
The first half is a tour-de-force of catchiness, but the second half of My Woman chills things out and burrows deeper. She repeats "all my life I thought I'd change" like a mantra on the show-stopping, slow-burning "Sister." She sings in a half-whisper on the lounge-y, openly nostalgic "Those Were the Days." "Woman" ends in a beautiful sprawl of strings, harmonies and guitar leads. The album gets longer, and as it does it gets more pleasingly messy. It all looks backwards musically and lyrically--this is a beautifully plain-spoken album that uses nostalgia for old forms as a vessel for almost jarringly naked, blunt emotion. As the piano balladry of "Pops" sends things out, it's hard not to be moved, and even harder not to start the whole thing over again. - R.S.F.
Listen to it via Spotify.