2016 has clearly been one hell of a mixed bag as far as years go, but it certainly did not disappoint in the realm of extraordinary music. This year, the art of fusing hip-hop, jazz and soul together reached an all-time apex thanks to any number of remarkable talents—Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, and Solange, to name a few. We saw in 2016 the awakening of long-dormant beasts like the Avalanches, A Tribe Called Quest and American Football, as well as the rise of newer talents such as Pinegrove, Car Seat Headrest and Whitney. And we bade affectionate farewells to scores of musical luminaries, from David Bowie and Prince to Phife Dawg and Leonard Cohen.
So dense was the tidal wave of musical brilliance 2016 rained down upon us that compiling my annual best-of list was even more grueling a task than usual. There are plenty of incredible albums that I was forced to tearfully knock out of the ranks (sorry, Crying’s Beyond the Fleeting Gales), but the albums that follow are a summation of what I feel are the best of the best in a year with plenty of bests.
Read on, and enjoy my two cents. (Oh, and Radiohead-heads—by all means, feel free to cyber-crucify me for excluding A Moon Shaped Pool. I’m not sorry.)
Where the fuck did Death Grips come from? In just five short years and six proper albums (no, I’m not counting you, instrumental compilations), the raucous experimental trio have garnered hipster accolades left and right and accumulated one of the most rabid fanbases in modern music. While Bottomless Pit doesn’t exactly break new ground for the group, it definitely proves that they have yet to run out of ideas that astound and disorient in the most dazzling possible way. MC Ride’s trademark bellows and cryptic lyrics surf atop some of the most gloriously brutal beats Outlander and Zach Hill have created, from the hellfire guitar-drum blasts of opener “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” to the future-sludge doom-and-gloom of “Hot Head” to the robotic stomp of “Bubbles Buried in This Jungle.” It’s a more-than-worthy addition to DG’s hallowed catalog—and they didn’t even have to put a penis on the cover this time.
American Football (LP2)
On their first release since their landmark 1999 debut, American Football prove they haven’t lost a beat in those 17 years – in fact, quite the opposite. The band’s juxtaposition of gently floating guitar lines and bizarre time signatures is just as strong as ever – ditto Mike Kinsella’s sublimely understated vocals and emotive, existentially panicky songwriting. Next to its predecessor, it’s just about the loveliest record about someone’s life falling apart you’ll hear this year.
What [You] Desperately Need
The Philly-based singer-songwriter takes us on a hypnotic trip through the cosmos on his bold debut, wherein he blends gorgeous, lilting acoustic folk with touches of neo-soul, his delicate guitar tones and crisp tenor wisely kept at the forefront, the eye of the quiet storm. Muli’s deeply poetic lyrics and arrangements invoke the spellbinding mysticism and spirituality of such troubadours as Van Morrison and Lauryn Hill while presenting a voice and artistry that are distinctly, unabashedly his own. Truly one of the most transcendent listening experiences of the year.
The incredibly prolific, endlessly creative Richard D. James surprised us this summer with his first music video in nearly two decades – for the broody, pulsating “CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix],” to which a young boy in a James mask danced gleefully in distorted landscapes in the clip. The ensuing EP, CHEETAH, includes some of Aphex Twin’s most enticing latter-day compositions. It’s an arresting sequence of chilly, colorful sound experiments that betray a sense of unbridled fun and creativity in the studio – the kind James specializes in and mastered on Selected Ambient Works and Richard D. James Album. It’s a perfect balance of profound electronic beauty and haunting disorientation.
The garage-pop eccentrics keep all their cylinders a-churning on their brazenly confident fourth LP, seamlessly blending the band’s varied influences—alt-country, post-punk, Krautrock—into a fuzzed-out, hyper-melodic noise-fest that demands to be blasted from your speakers at max volume. A thunderous rhythm section undergirds giddy blasts of squealing guitar and the delightfully loopy, often shouted lyrics (IT COMES THROUGH THE WINDOW! IT COMES THROUGH THE FLOOR! IT COMES THROUGH THE ROOF! AND IT COMES THROUGH THE DOOR!) we’ve come to expect from the Courts. Sure, it sounds at times like four dudes just dicking around in a studio (the Wilco Loft, to be exact)—but hey, man, that’s rock ‘n roll.
A Seat at the Table
Saint / Columbia
By far her finest work to date, Solange Knowles’ vivid, masterful A Seat at the Table was released on the heels of a series of tweets from the performer after she and her daughter were harassed by a white audience-goer at a Kraftwerk concert. Solange’s response? A beautiful celebration of blackness and all it entails, complete with intermittent recorded discourses on learning to love one’s own skin. Tracks such as “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” comprise some of the courageous musical statements of the decade, with Solange’s passionate, understated vocals driving the point home with devastating subtlety and strength. If I ever hear anyone refer to this extraordinary, forward-thinking artist as “the lady who punched Jay-Z in an elevator” again, there will be hell to pay.
The Sun’s Tirade
Top Dawg Entertainment’s current roster holds no shortage of dynamite talent—the inclusion of the Black Hippy collective alone is enough to make it a formidable force in the rap world. But if you need any proof that the new blood has just as much skill and charisma, look no further than The Sun’s Tirade. Rashad’s proper studio debut is a lush, intense and thoroughly impressive experience and an ideal highlight for the 25-year-old’s unique verbal stylings. Guest spots from TDE’s Kendrick Lamar, SZA and others propel the tracks forward, but make no mistake: this album establishes one of the most singular, fascinating new voices in hip-hop. Here’s hoping it lays the template for years of future greatness.
The Higher Up
The Higher Up Album (HGHR)
The Philly hip-hop duo are at the height of their powers on their latest release—their most brash and fully-realized yet. MC Mark Scott, managing to sound simultaneously raw and polished, drops dizzying torrents of science about anxiety and depression, relationships and the game itself onto producer Kye Brewin’s expertly-arranged bed of vibrant beats and rich sonic textures. The Higher Up houses some of the most underrated and finely-honed talent in indie rap, and their future shows no signs of dimming.
Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade
The artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty hits us with a work of stark, terrifying beauty. With her unmistakable androgynous croon – flanked this time around by icy synthscapes courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never – she launches a fierce attack against the many ills of our fucked-up modern world, from global warming (“4 Degrees”) to American exceptionalism (“Marrow”) to the U.S.’s unyielding war machine (“Crisis”). She lashes out at “Violent Men” and exposes the shortcomings of President “Obama.” To be sure, it’s a major departure from the beautiful baroque pop of records like I Am a Bird Now and The Crying Light, but the destination is more than worth the journey.
Boys Don’t Cry
The most highly-anticipated record of the year mostly failed to live up to the impossible amount of hype it received. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find an artist more meticulous and creative than Frank Ocean. Released a mere day after the pretty but ultimately superfluous visual album Endless, Blonde traffics in variations on the minimalist neo-soul that made him a surprise superstar. It’s a subtle but rich sonic tapestry, often overwhelming in scope but never short on inspiration and heart. Sure, it’s not the groundbreaking statement channel ORANGE was, but it was never supposed to be that. Instead, you appreciate it for what it is: a grand expression of a true genius’ inner workings.
The Life of Pablo
GOOD / Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella
Sure, it’s not his best record (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), his most enjoyable (The College Dropout), or his most experimental (Yeezus), but America’s provocateur-laureate has proven himself incapable of creating uninteresting music – or, at the very least, music that provokes a whole hell of a lot of discussion and hubbub. Yeezy’s sonic craftsmanship remains unmatched, and the music of TLOP reflects its tumultuous, fussy creation (an act that seems to still be taking place as we speak). Gospel choirs, dark atmospherics, narcissistic lyrics, and a veritable fruit salad of collaborators and genre-hopping samples abound. It can be a bit all over the place and downright brutish at times, but in its best moments it serves as a poignant reminder of West’s fearless, uncompromising creative spirit.
Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
The gifted young creator of last year’s best record has consistently shown a dogged refusal to rest on his laurels, though it would be tough to blame him for doing so. Here, he documents his insatiable work ethic by presenting us with eight tracks assembled from various previously unreleased demos, some of which date back to the aftermath of 2012’s good kid m.A.A.d city. Butterfly‘s riveting jazz-funk-soul-avant-garde amalgam continues to unfold and flourish, as do Lamar’s unfiltered, revolutionary lyrics. The end result is TPAB‘s less-polished but just as hungry kid brother – a deep, eccentric, laid-back affair (possibly even more so than its predecessor) that simultaneously soars far above the average B-sides and rarities disc to become a powerful statement in its own right. King Kunta reigns on.
In retrospect, it’s surprising that this didn’t happen sooner. This self-titled debut sees legendary country-pop chameleon k.d. lang joining forces with two of the leading voices in modern indie folk—Neko Case and Laura Veirs—to create a work of spectacular depth and beauty. You might be wondering how three such monumental personalities as these could ever share equal time and space on a single album. God knows how they did, but, happily, they pull it off, and then some—mesmerizing harmonies, richly-textured sonic landscapes that manage to exude ice and warmth simultaneously, and some of the finest songwriting any of the trio have ever crafted. These are songs that you know will stay with you the instant you hear them. More, please.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Bad Seed Ltd.
What does one do after experiencing the unspeakable loss of a child? In the case of Nick Cave, whose son Arthur tragically fell to his death last summer, one strips an already-barebones sound back even further and pens some of the loveliest, most meditative songs in one’s extensive catalog. The Crown Prince of Melancholia sounds naked and devastated here, but ultimately hopeful; despite the grim, desperate atmosphere of most of its songs, Skeleton Tree is fundamentally a celebration of life, not a lamentation of death. Remember when Cave and the Seeds covered Dylan’s “Death is Not the End” at the end of 1996’s Murder Ballads? This is that idea applied to an entire record, with faint glints of light and love seeping into even the bleakest moments.
The Impossible Kid
There’s no question that Aesop Rock ranks high among the most gifted MCs of his generation; however, throughout his long career, he’s occasionally fallen into the trap of favoring technical prowess over lyrical content. The Impossible Kid, however, is possibly the best job he’s done so far combining the two. On Kid, the impressive verbal gymnastics are still very much present, but the songs have more substance. Rock regales listeners with harrowing tales of childhood over some of the scuzziest, grimiest beats he’s ever utilized; even his signature detached flow carries a sort of introspective urgency. He’s never been more personal – or sounded like he’s having more fun – than he does here.
Ever wonder what might have happened if David Lynch had rewritten his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune into a heavy metal musical? Well, it probably would sound something like Terminal Redux. As far-fetched as a 73-minute prog-metal epic about an astronaut discovering a space mineral that can grant immortality—in 2016, no less—may sound, Vektor manages to pull it all together and create the most powerful and exciting metal record in recent memory. In the telling of their grandiose tale, the Philadelphians craft a debilitating wall of sound punctuated by spine-shattering guitar solos, rapid-fire drums, and the hell-spawned screech of lead vocalist/axeman David DiSanto. From the ambient opening of “Charging the Void” to the ultra-intense show-stopper of a finale “Recharging the Void,” it’s a mightily ambitious exercise in over-the-top ridiculousness. Don’t be surprised to find yourself relishing every minute of it.
You Want It Darker
In what would turn out to be the last four years of his remarkable life, the Canadian poet-crooner extraordinaire made some of the most beautiful and deeply affecting music of his career. You Want it Darker continues in the minimalistic folk-blues vein of its excellent predecessors, Old Ideas and Popular Problems, only with a mesmerizing air of darkness and holy fear that, in retrospect, feels all too appropriate. These songs are the words of a man at the edge of the abyss, coming to terms with his mortality and ready to put to rest his squabbles with his enemies and his lovers. “I wish there was a treaty we could sign,” he achingly intones on “Treaty.” “I do not care who takes this bloody hill…I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine.” At the center of even the darkest Cohen album, however, there is a certain calm, a sense of peace and hope – in this case, the pastoral strings and keys that counter the title track’s grim choir tones and Doomsday canticle. We can safely assume Cohen passed on with peace in his soul, even as the demons surrounded him.
Modular / Astralwerks / XL / EMI
Since I Left You, Pt. 2 this isn’t. The much-anticipated return from the Australian plunderphonic wizards features yet another breathtakingly beautiful, continuous patchwork of unearthed sounds, yes, but it’s another beast entirely from the group’s 2000 masterwork. Mixed into the funk-soul-jazz-rock alchemy this time around are colorings of psychedelia (I mean, just look at that cover) and calypso (the so-catchy-it-should-be-illegal single “Frankie Sinatra”). Adding to the Wildflower experience (and believe me, it is an experience) are a flurry of able-bodied live session musicians, from MF DOOM and Danny Brown to Father John Misty and Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue. Put this shit on a sugar cube and dunk it in your coffee; you’re in for one heck of a trip.
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Epic / SME
The venerated hip-hop institution closes out its extraordinary run not with a fizzle, but with a gigantic explosion. Released directly on the heels of Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, ATCQ came back with a vengeance just when we needed them most. “Gotta get it together for brothers/Gotta get it together for sisters,” Q-Tip chants on “The Space Program” as the lead in to a bristlingly brilliant, firebrand, jazz-soaked double album that updates the Tribe’s message of uplift and support for a new generation without sacrificing any of that message’s urgency. The spirit of the late Phife Dawg presides over the proceedings with his series of posthumous contributions. The affair is further augmented by guest spots from the ever-reliable Busta Rhymes as well as Anderson .Paak, Elton John, André 3000, and many more. The world needed this record. My God, did we need this record. Can you kick it, you ask? Yes. Yes, you bloody well can.
On January 8, one of the world’s true musical originals released his twenty-fifth record. Three days later, he was gone. Blackstar became his final statement to listeners – and what a hell of a statement it is. As one of the most wildly experimental works of a career built upon constant left-field reinvention, it’s a disconcerting, enticing, and often gorgeous listen from start to finish. The sprawling, mystical title track; the howling sax and choral oohs of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”; the warped funk of “Sue”; the buzzy, Nadsat-screeching “Girl Loves Me”; the grand vulnerability of album closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – it’s all there, and it’s all magical. Appropriately, it’s also a record rife with mortality; Bowie knows death is coming for him, and he intends to go out with a bang. The beauty and fearlessness of the record is remarkable and refreshing, the kind he was always capable of and which seemed to have evaporated from his latter-day work. Just as Christ raised “Lazarus” from the dead, so does Blackstar resurrect our fallen idol in our hearts, making him live on forever despite having passed from this mortal plane. “Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me.”
There’s really nothing that sounds anything quite like Danny Brown. His warped, frenetic flow, like the ravings of a mad scientist gene-spliced with an anxious dog, and his funked-up, bugged-out atmospherics make him a truly inimitable voice in ’10s rap. Atrocity Exhibition displays Brown at his most unhinged; on motley barn-burners like “Pneumonia” and “Ain’t It Funny,” he sounds very much on the verge of a nervous meltdown. His electric presence carries the record so well that all his special guests seem unnecessary (though, of course, it’s well-nigh impossible to pass up Brown hot-potatoing the mic with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt on the spastic “Really Doe”). Atrocity Exhibition (yes, he knows it’s a Joy Division song) is a superbly weird effort from one of the most gifted and uncompromising performers of this generation.
One of the most ambitious debuts of this year, 99.9% is a remarkable tour-de-force that sees the young Canadian (by way of Port-au-Prince) producer blending a variety of tropes from the last four decades of EDM – from 90s house and disco to new jack swing and trip-hop – into an immaculately-produced sound that feels instantly familiar yet uniquely and undeniably belongs to him. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Kaytra has assembled a winners’ circle of collaborators that make the affair something truly magical – we hear the dark, airy jazz-hop of Badbadnotgood on “Weight Off”; the ultra-confident rasp of Anderson .Paak on “Glowed Up”; the crisp, breathy vocals of Syd tha Kid on “You’re the One”; AlunaGeorge’s cool, club-ready aesthetic on the bright, Control-era Janet Jackson-channeling “Together.” It’s a sexy, slick, playful, lovingly-crafted record that honors its inspirations without resorting to pastiche or glib parody. If only all dance music could be this much fun.
22, A Million
People say a lot of nasty things about Justin Vernon – that he makes nonsensical, pretentious beard-folk for jaded hipsters, that he sings that high just to annoy everybody, that his sole MO as a musician is to smoke weed. Some of the cliches are somewhat true, some aren’t; either way, he can certainly take the criticism. But if one listens with an open mind and acquires the taste for Vernon’s experimental noodlings and soul flirtations, one can find worlds of unsurpassed beauty within his music. An extra leap of faith, though, is required for 22, A Million – by a longshot, the most “out-there” thing he’s put out under the Bon Iver moniker, and not exactly meant for the uninitiated. But trust me, it’s worth it. Vernon and his large cast of supporting players unleash layer upon layer of chiming guitar, ghostly vocals, and distorted samples and, yes, AutoTune (it’s actually very beautiful, you guys, seriously). Pair that with the endlessly mystifying symbolism (good luck with those song titles and that cover) and what results is a short but life-altering sequence of truly gorgeous moments. Even when the flights of fancy fall flat, they do so with such effortless grace that you find yourself falling deeper in love with the songs with each listen. Love them or loathe them, Bon Iver is still making some of the most remarkable and fascinating music of this young century.
Parkwood / Columbia
One of 2016’s biggest and most refreshing surprises, Queen Bey’s fifth solo record is an uncompromising, unfiltered celebration of both blackness and black culture. The lyrics are a vivid, stunning exploration of heartbreak and redemption, and Bey’s message of rising above adversity has never carried more weight. Ever the gifted producer/tastemaker, Bey draws from a stunning musical palate on this record – jazz, funk, indie pop, gospel, and even boot-stompin’ country on the uplifting, tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek ballad “Daddy Lessons.” Its focal point, of course, is the cocky, jubilant “Formation,” on which Ms. Knowles-Carter, over thumping avant-soul beats, definitively acknowledges herself as both hero and provocateur, sinner and angel (“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”). Anthemic, sweeping and bursting with a punchy brashness throughout, Lemonade is the perfect rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and a gigantic middle finger in the face of impotent would-be oppressors. Slay on, Queen.
Chance the Rapper
Chancellor Bennett’s star-studded follow-up to last year’s Surf is a spectacular, jubilant affair – a soul- and jazz-informed, gospel-drenched celebration of life in all its triumphs and blunders, complete with choir outbursts, horn blasts courtesy of bandleader Nico Segal, and wailing church organ. Chance has been blessed beyond his wildest dreams, and he couldn’t be more humbled. His braggadocio is only in the interest of the exaltation of his Lord and Savior – and in defense of the belief that the ability to remain true to oneself is a greater gift than any earthly possession. As Surf proved, Chance has a blast just getting together with his friends and creating and performing his music. You can almost see him grinning ear to ear as he rips through tracks like album opener “All We Got” (produced by none other than his mentor, one Kanye O. West) and the absurdly fun “Angels.” Creators, take note: when an artist pours their entire heart and soul into their work, this is the end result. If KRS-One was right and hip-hop is meant to uplift the people, then this is just the record to do it. It’s a landmark musical achievement and the pinnacle thus far of the career of this already-shining young star. Even if you’re an atheist, Coloring Book will have you praising God – or, at the very least, embracing the joy and beauty of everyday life on this gigantic spinning rock we call home. You ready, big fella?
Car Seat Headrest / Teens of Denial (Matador)
Childish Gambino / ”Awaken, My Love!” (Glassnote)
Tim Hecker / Love Streams (4AD / Paper Bag)
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard / Nonagon Infinity (ATO)
Okkervil River / Away (ATO)
St. Paul and the Broken Bones / Sea of Noise (RECORDS)
Sturgill Simpson / A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
Teen Suicide / It’s The Big Joyous Celebration, Let’s Stir the Honeypot (Run for Cover)
Tegan and Sara / Love You to Death (Vapor / Warner Bros.)
Whitney / Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian)