So, before I start this list, please know that 2016 was the first year during which I truly became an avid music listener/”critic.” I’ve only begun to try my hand at understanding the delicate nuances and artistic themes which separate a great album from a slightly-lesser album. It’s one of the reasons I use decimal points in my scores (ok fine, I also try to take after pitchfork). But just know that my opinions will change and that this list is not definitive. I will factor in the cultural significance and impact of some certain albums on this list but it is mainly based on how I was personally affected. I’m not going to pretend to be objective. These are my personal opinions, ones that will differ from my initial scores. But before I start, I need to recognize a few honorable mentions. The following are listed in no particular order.
“22, a Million”-Bon Iver
“Yes Lawd”- NxWorries
“The Life of Pablo”-Kanye West
“Skeleton Tree”-Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
“Teens of Denial”-Car Seat Headrest
“You Want it Darker”-Leonard Cohen (RIP)
And many more. Now, let’s start with #10
#10: “Run The Jewels 3”-Run the Jewels
What a fucking Christmas present. Run The Jewels ended their two-year hiatus with an earth-shattering release. It was a perfect way to end an incredibly contentious and divisive year. Both sides of the american political spectrum vented like crazy throughout the year, which is why it was no surprise to see that RTJ would not revert to a calm demeanor and instead stuck to their ruthless, politically-charged style of rap. Killer Mike and El-P are absolute godsends, as was the late release of this album. And yes, RT and J are the new PB and J.
Favorite Three Tracks: Legend Has It, Hey Kids (Bumaye), Call Ticketron
#9: “untitled unmastered”-Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is one f the main reasons I got into music. I remember feeling completely enraged after Taylor Swift, an artist who’s popularity surpasses my own belief, won over him at the Grammys for album of the year. It was following this tragedy that I decided to listen to To Pimp a Butterfly another time through, and another, and another, and another, until it became one of my favorite albums of all time and Kendrick became one of my favorite rappers ever. It’s refreshing to know that someone with so much prominence and popularity among a younger audience is making some of the most expressive and meaningful music today. And even with this collection of rejected tracks, Kendrick Lamar still delivers a wonderful production that tops even some of the better albums of the year in my opinion.
Favorite Three Tracks: Untitled 2, Untitled 7, Untitled 3
#8: “Blonde”-Frank Ocean
This guy is on every fucking list out there holy shit. I’ve seen so many people call this their number one album of the year and for plenty of reasons. But my main reasoning is different from the fact that he ended his four year hiatus, during which people even rumored that he had died (well, at least that’s what I heard). Rumors aside, the minimalism on this album is ridiculous, and it’s done with the goal of allowing Ocean’s beautiful falsetto shine through every instrumentation on this project. People were begging Frank Ocean to come back, and he brought back his lyrical prowess but with a stripped down production to show that he would not slip into banality.
Favorite Three Tracks: Ivy, Pink + White, Solo
#7: “A Seat at the Table”-Solange
Everyone ignore her last name and her relationship with “you know who” and instead pay mind to this painfully cohesive and impactful work by Solange. I’m still a little aggravated by the fact that there are still a handful of people who believe that heavy production equates to good music. While it certainly helps in certain cases, going back to the roots of R&B, in the current genre of Neo-Soul, has yielded far more powerful album releases, most notably Black Messiah by D’Angelo, an artist called by legendary critic Robert Christgau as “R&B Jesus.” And in adding to the tapestry of Neo-Soul, Solange has brought life and dignity back to the genre by supplementing her subtle approach to the subject of black female empowerment with spoken word interludes, helping to shine the brightest light possible on the topic’s importance. Oh yeah, and her voice is beautiful.
Favorite Three Tracks: Rise, Cranes in the Sky, Don’t Touch My Hair
I’d try and point out a specific genre for this album, but that would be pretty tough. Beyoncé transcends belief with her amazing versatility as a singer, as she delves into the realm of Country, Pop, R&B, Ballads and Soul. All of this culminates in one of the best albums of the year and, by far, the best visual album of the year. Throughout the 60-minute film, Beyoncé goes through stages of grief, attempting to come to grips with her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity. Upon first processing the news, she becomes completely overwhelmed. Her insecurity overwhelms her to the point where she envisions denouncing her own individuality to fit her husband’s desires. Accompanying these troubling thoughts Beyoncé recalls are visuals exhibiting her anger through strong action. But through developing acceptance for her situation, she forgives Jay-Z while simultaneously solidifying her identity as a powerful, prolific black woman. In addition, Beyoncé expresses her individuality to prove her superiority. The pattern of infidelity within african-american communities, described in a Complex Magazine article by author Jesmyn Ward, is one that Beyoncé displays throughout her album and is a contributing factor to the moment in which her acceptance of her situation is backed by her affirmation of her eminence as an african-american female artist.
Favorite Three Tracks: Freedom, Forward, Formation
#5-“We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service” – A Tribe Called Quest
The only artist we’ve lost this year, who’s talents have been woefully under appreciated following his death, is Phife Dawg from the legendary Conscious Rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Let’s just all agree that with his untimely death, we should all be humbled that Phife’s recordings were preserved in time for the release of the group’s first full-length album in 18 years, We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service.
This is the group’s final album, but they would make sure that they would not just be another rap group lost in the genre’s tapestry. Even though The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders will be remembered for decades by music enthusiasts, the group had no relevance with today’s generation. So Q-Tip, Ali, and newcomer MC Jarobi White set off to resurrect their old Jazz Rap identity while exhibiting some stylistic reinvention, and the result was mind-blowing. The relevance of the lyrics in tracks such as “The Space Program,” “Dis Generation,” and especially “We The People,” combined with the production so perfectly. Who better to pay tribute to a fallen comrade than the comrades themselves.
Favorite Three Tracks: We The People, The Space Program, Solid Wall of Sound
#4: “Coloring Book” – Chance The Rapper
It doesn’t matter how many times Kanye says that Yeezy has jumped over Jumpman. Chance is now the king of Chicago, and rightfully so.
Coloring Book was something completely different than anything I could’ve expected from him in 2016, not that I was even predicting him to release anything for that matter. I very well understand the hype behind Chance but was not a massive fan of his first few works. But Coloring Book saw Chance straying away from the drug use he went on about on “Acid Rap.” Instead, he took a soulful approach with the help of gospel tones and a simply happier demeanor. It makes you feel good knowing that someone is happy of the person they’ve become through pursuing their passion instead of obscene financial gains, evidenced in how he still chooses not to monetize his work for fear of a music label defining him. I may not be a fan of many of the features on this mixtape, but it doesn’t take much away from the prominence and the significance of this impeccable release. (also, that 3 hat he’s wearing is one of the most popular clothing items at my college next to Canada Goose jackets)
Favorite Three Tracks: No Problem, All Night, All We Got
#3: “Atrocity Exhibition” – Danny Brown
I really hate when people who listen to mediocre rappers try and use bullshit excuses for why they’re great, excuses like “he down to earth” or “he went double-platinum with no features.” But I also hate when these same people rant on genuinely-good rappers for similarly-bullshit things, like “I hate his voice.” If voice was the true testament to a rapper’s talent and greatness, Danny Brown would be the worst rapper today.
I’m not even going to lie, Danny Brown altered his previous, semi-accessible voice from XXX and Old to make himself sound absolutely crazy when recording Atrocity Exhibition. But it wasn’t without purpose. It’s not like Brown was trying to challenge his fans to like his music he put hours of work into. No one sets out to create something meant to challenge their own fans to enjoy. It was a plight meant to reflect the absolute insanity of the record, rather. Brown does not hold back, attacking fake rappers claiming they’ve seen something he hasn’t seen before while coming to grips with his overbearing fame consuming him. Not only that but the beats this dude raps over are insane. Paul White stripped down what would constitute a NORMAL experimental rap beat and made instrumentals that only Danny Brown could rap over. It’s this album that makes Danny Brown one of my three favorite rappers right now, the others being Kendrick and Chance.
Favorite Three Tracks: Really Doe, Ain’t It Funny, and Pneumonia
Score (updated from initial review): 8.9/10
#2: “Blackstar” – David Bowie
As much as it pains me to do this, I have to put Bowie at the #2 spot. I honestly can’t say that we lost a legend much better than David Bowie in the atrocious year that was 2016.
But I find that putting this at the #2 spot results from both my pure appreciation and fear of this album’s qualities (why I ranked it higher than most) and not a result of his loss to terminal cancer (why I didn’t rank it number one). I didn’t rank this album simply because we lost a legend. If that was the case, Leonard Cohen would have made this list.
I put this album here simply because Blackstar is a frighteningly brilliant release. Musically, his roots of Glam-Pop are not forgotten as he adds in bits of experimental rock and all of it combines to make one of the most outstanding, outlandish records of the year, especially considering the context of the album supplementing the impact of the concept.
Favorite Three Tracks: Lazarus, Blackstar, Dollar Days
#1: “A Moon-Shaped Pool” – Radiohead
Gonna start by saying two things. One: Want to reiterate that this is my personal opinion, and you could tell given the fact that Radiohead has been my favorite band ever since I got into music. And two: 2016 was not nearly as easy of a year in which identifying a #1 album would be as 2015, a year during which that #1 spot was almost unanimously known to be Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. If you didn’t rank To Pimp a Butterfly as the #1 album of the year, you were the Grammys.
But as for Moon-Shaped Pool, Radiohead fans like me could not have asked for a much better return to form than this. There were few who truly appreciated 2011’s The King of Limbs, and I did not take a huge liking to it either. But Radiohead has redeemed themselves, and proved after years of experimentation.
There are so many completely beautiful arpeggios and melancholic tones on this record and they all help create the saddest album I’ve heard this year. There’s also the overbearing theme of introspection on this album that engulfs the listener. For me, this return to form, evidenced in the bands resurrection of their “In Rainbows” style and simultaneous sonic reinvention, is nothing short of incredible. It’s just another amazing release from another amazing band. I hope that Radiohead will continue to make mind bending releases for as long as the band stays together.
Favorite Three Tracks: True Love Waits, Burn The Witch, Glass Eyes