TOP 50 ALBUMS OF 2016

At the end of 2016, I promised myself (and, I believe, my YouTube channel) that I’d seriously rank and write about my favorite albums of the year before the year was up. 4 months later, it’s clear that didn’t happen, but I’m altogether happier for it. That’s because, by dedicating these last few months to listening and relistening to all the great albums of the year (and catching up on important releases I missed), I was able to form a deeper appreciation for music than I’ve ever had.

I’ve always been a breadth-over-depth kind of person, perhaps from a continuing attempt to find myself in new places, but diving deeper into each of the following albums has been, in all seriousness, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. To choose the 50, I considered the albums that left the greatest impact on me after the first few listens, and then went back for further listens to work out the ordering and the messages I wanted to convey with my mini-reviews.

I’ve listened to some of these albums over 10 times, and, in many cases, read their lyrics in-depth (typically on genius.com), as well as reading albums’ Wikipedia articles and other assorted background info. I’ve fallen in love with albums I didn’t understand at first, and become more confident on ones I’d initially had mixed feelings about. And, most importantly, I’ve come to understand myself a bit better, and I hope that comes across in my comments.

This is possibly the longest piece I’ve ever written. The longest non-fiction piece, certainly. These lists might not matter to most others, but they’re a personal passion, a record of internal and external growth and development over time. In this case, it’s an artistic journey through one of the most tumultuous years in modern history. It covers my burgeoning affinity for K-Pop, my appreciation of country concept albums, and my Fantano and All Music-assisted discovery of many of my new favorite artists. Perhaps more so than anything else I’ve ever written, this is me.

50. Paul Simon – “Stranger to Stranger”

Simon adapts his sound to the digital age with boinging, fluid instrumentation, utilizing custom-made instruments by mid-20th-century music theorist Harry Partch, such as the “Cloud-Chamber Bowls” and the “Chromelodeon”. It’s as otherworldly as those instruments’ names sound, with songs as weird and diverse as materialism cautionary tale “The Werewolf” and American death lamentation “The Riverbank” – which pulls inspiration from wounded veterans and the Sandy Hook massacre – flowing by with an ethereal ominousness. Simon says “it’s not a lyrical theme. It’s a sound theme. This is the time that we’re living in and this is what it sounds like to me.” He enlists the help of Italian electronic artist Clap! Clap! to accomplish that sound; the songs they collaborate on are some of the best. Though I’m a fan of a lot of Simon’s work, this was a bit difficult for me to initially dive into, but idiosyncratic soundscapes – the quirky bouncer clapper “Wristband”, the mesmerizingly simple interlude “The Clock” – kept drawing me back: for further understanding of this genius singer-songwriter’s unique mind.  

Highlights: “The Werewolf”, “Wristband”, “The Clock”, “The Riverbank”

49. Robbie Fulks – “Upland Stories”

At times relentlessly twangy and steeped in sagely poetics, at others soft and sentimental, Fulks’ album is always moving, each song rolling along its effortless melody like a reverberation of rural fables through generations of American history. From love songs both tender (“Sarah Jane”) and cheeky (“Katy Kay”) to odes to the land both delicate (“Alabama At Night”) and definitive (“America Is A Hard Religion”), Upland Stories creates a musical record of frontier living, proving that old-school combinations of banjos and fiddles (ft. jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman) will never get old – if the passion’s still there. And it certainly is, most of all in Fulks’ vocal performance; listen to how he breaks into sincere laughter near the end of “Katy Kay” – one of 2016 music’s purest emotional moments.  

Highlights: “Alabama At Night”, “America Is A Hard Religion”, “Katy Kay”, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals”

48. Lady Gaga – “Joanne”

Gaga, who’s consistently been one of my favorite pop artists, went back to the drawing board with Joanne, the title a tribute to an aunt who passed away before Stefani Germanotta was even born but, through leftover poetry, left a deep impact. Reeling in the flashy extremity of Artpop, Gaga focuses on pure, uncomplicated soft rock centered mainly on slight pianos and acoustic guitars, her voice front and center. And her singing game’s strong, most obvious on hit “Million Reasons”, which is simultaneously the most grounded song of her career and one of her most transcendent. Other pleasant new turns are taken on Beatles-esque banger “Come to Mama” and Flo Welch sisterhood duet “Hey Girl”, but there’s still a lotta quintessential Gaga in here, with the Josh Homme-co-written stomper “Diamond Heart” and the wonderfully dissonant “Perfect Illusion” propping up the wall of sound.

Highlights: “Diamond Heart”, “Perfect Illusion”, “Million Reasons”, “Come to Mama”, “Hey Girl”

47. The 1975 – “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it”

Pretentious poseur posturing at its finest. Overlong, messy, anthemic, orchestral, ridiculous, and ridiculously catchy, The 1975’s latest collection of compositions – actually the first I’d personally heard – is heavily flawed, but incredibly memorable. Revitalizing that classic 80s British synthpop sound with more vision (if less consistency) than the – also fun – musical Sing Street, I like it… is equally dreamlike and futuristic, a statement of all-time greatness than damn near almost justifies its own ego through sure will. And with singles as darkly moving as “A Change of Heart” and undeniably dancy as “The Sound”, plus album nuggets as creepingly infectious as “Lostmyhead”, and the heavenly instrumental interlude that is the title track, its pleasures are undeniable. The band intends for their next and third album to be G.O.A.T.-tier. And though this second effort shows a need for refinement, they certainly seem to have the vision.

Highlights: “Love Me”, “A Change Of Heart”, “Lostmyhead”, “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it”, “The Sound”

46. Ka – “Honor Killed the Samurai”

I didn’t much get the hype for this the first time I listened to it, finding it underwhelming. Repeat listens corrected that misunderstanding. Indeed, Ka’s soft, low-key rapping is key to the album’s effect. Over uncomplicated, often echoey beats obviously influenced by traditional Japanese music, Ka explores a clear internal conflict, contrasting the strict focus of the samurai with the complications of his modern, urban life. The straightforward melodies, coupled with Ka’s smooth, continuous, focused delivery, creates a determined effect, with repeat listens – including the skim-listen I’m having while writing this paragraph – revealing extra layers of the rapper’s personal mythos.

Highlights: “Just”, “Mourn at Night”, “Ours”

45. A Tribe Called Quest – “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”

Another album that took repeat listens to appreciate fully, largely because it’s such a long, complex work that explores countless different styles and ideas (and also because, admittedly, I wasn’t too familiar with Tribe beforehand). The hip hop group’s first album in 18 years, and their last, it’s a vast and experimental piece that is also heavily political and culturally-textured. I’m not near qualified to analyze those elements, but I can appreciate the blunt power and fusion of old and new in premier single “We The People…” – which would surely feature on my Best Songs of 2016 list were I to have a redo – and the earworm production of the likes of “Solid Wall of Sound”, “Kids” and “The Donald”. For me, it’s an album that will take many more listens to master (would rank higher on a redo), but a vital part of the sonic story of 2016 nonetheless. Essential listening.

Highlights: “We The People…”, “Solid Wall of Sound”, “Mobius”, “The Donald”

44. Street Sects – “End Position”

This was my first *real* exposure to industrial music of this intensity. Pure novelty (and to me that’s not much of a dirty word) might be a large factor in propelling the album this high onto the list. But opening track “And I Grew Into Ribbons” is such a dense, hardcore eruption of noise, digging the album that follows isn’t too hard of a task. To be honest, at this point, 4 or 5 listens on, I haven’t put much thought into decoding (or even listening to) the lyrics, and doing so might decrease (or trampoline) my appreciation of the work. As is, it’s a pulsating bombardment of very dark and very loud drums, guitars, basses, synths and assorted other sounds that creates a sense of intense, relentless pain. For me, one of the most immediately impactful albums of 2016.  

Highlights: “And I Grew Into Ribbons”, “In Defense of Resentment”, “Feigning Familiarity”

43. M.I.A. – “AIM”

A recurring quality in the albums I’ve selected for this list is messy expression. Read: albums that are long, complex, meandering and flawed, yet nonetheless say a lot about the artists that made them. Perhaps that’s just how I see myself – as someone with a lot of fleeting thoughts and interests rather than one defining focus – and I’m able to relate to the disorganization. In the case of AIM, apparently the last studio album M.I.A. will be making, there isn’t much of a tight, focused concept, though naturally the inclusive, internationalist political energy of audacious opening single “Borders” is a recurring theme (“Visa”, most obviously). Otherwise, M.I.A. takes the opportunity to have as much fun as possible, blending a wide range of worldly musical styles and rapping over them with her peerless assertiveness. Some moments seem random, even silly, but however jarring the transitions between songs may be, the overarching effect is one of a sweeping musical journey, one that’s always danceable and never boring.

Highlights: “Borders”, “Freedun”, “Visa”, “Talk”

42. Ital Tek – “Hollowed”

In deciding which albums to feature on this list, and how to rank them, I focus largely on my instincts, on the emotions I feel and the memories that surface upon thinking about an album or seeing its cover. With that in mind, it helps a lot that Hollowed has one of the most distinct cover arts of the year; no doubt a factor in me thinking “heck, this album NEEDS to be on my list” upon looking back on it. Of course, it helps that the actual music is just as stunning. I’m an unironic fan of vaporwave, and this dark ambient work fits into the same dreamlike digital A E S T H E T I C A, if with a much more foreboding feeling than, say, Macintosh Plus. “A Delicate Balance” sets a creeping, hellish tone, before Ital Tek takes things a step further into the theological with the hymn-like “Redeemer”. Later songs explore different sounds, but the atmosphere remains airily sinister.

Highlights: “Redeemer”, “Beyond Sight”, “Memory Shard”

41. Touché Amoré – “Stage Four”

My first exposure to Touché Amoré, and one of my first to post-hardcore. On early listens, I was drawn to the energy of the instrumentation and the raw introspection of the vocals, though it wasn’t until further reading that I really understood what the album was about (note: I rarely read anything about albums before I listen to them, so as to have as few preconceptions as possible. Going in, I had no idea who Touché Amoré were – not even their style of music. For a second I thought the band’s name referred to one person). What the album does deal with, predominantly, is the death of  singer Jeremy Bolm’s mother from cancer (the title being both a reference to the fourth stage of the disease, and to it being the band’s fourth album). Reading it as such only makes appreciating the intensity of the music – and the sincerity – easier. The feels are real.

Highlights: “Rapture”, “Benediction”, “Water Damage”

40. Eliot Sumner – “Information”

I don’t even remember how I came across Eliot Sumner. Search for them anywhere and most likely you’ll see numerous references to them being Sting’s kid. Certainly, the similarities on the vocal delivery is clear. And coming from such a musically-gifted – and privileged – background is vital to their artistic identity. But otherwise, I’d prefer to separate Eliot’s work from their father’s, drawing attention to the intense, Killers-esque rock anthems Sumner crafts on Information (not a debut, but the first album under birth name Eliot Sumner). On the likes of “Information” and the irresistibly stirring “Species”, Sumner searches for clarity and connection in our turbulent world, undercutting gender roles in the process. Other tracks are less demanding (stadium-ready rocker “Halfway to Hell”), but the whole album impresses and lingers in the memory.

Highlights: “Information”, “What Good Could Ever Come Of This”, “Species”

39. Muncie Girls – “From Caplan to Belsize”

It’s propelled mainly by my love of single “Respect”, which was third on my songs of the year list. But beyond that track’s politically-charged feminist assertions, Muncie Girls have crafted a helluva sharp collection of indie-punk tunes on From Caplan to Belsize, from anti-establishment youth empowerer “Learn in School” to depression pick-me-up “Balloon”. The to-the-point instrumentation isn’t at all game-changing, but the warm, perceptive and assertive lyrics assure that lead singer-songwriter Lande Hekt and her bandmates are leaving their own little mark on this world.

Highlights: “Learn in School”, “Respect”, “Balloon”, “Social Side”

38. Chairlift – “Moth”

With an album cover that screams ICONIC and a quasi-title track that hasn’t left my head since it first flew in there (“Moth to the Flame”), Moth was one of 2016’s unforgettables, an album so strikingly-packaged it pretty much demanded a place on this list. Of course, good cover marketing and a strong lead single aren’t enough to earn a spot, so luckily the synthpop band back up the vision with a plethora of fantastic dance tracks, the likes of “Romeo” driven by upbeat drum-and-bass and rocketed into the musical stratosphere by Caroline Polachek’s wholehearted, soulful pop vocals. Swaggering funk guitars, horns and layered harmonies build an irresistible backdrop for the uncomplicated ditties and impassioned ballads.  Unfortunately, this’ll apparently be Chairlift’s last album (it was also my first exposure to them); at least they went out on an exclamation point.

Highlights: “Romeo”, “Moth to the Flame”, “Show U Off”

37. Wynonna & The Big Noise – “Wynonna & The Big Noise”

Early last year, I came across this set of timeless country ballads while looking through recently-reviewed albums on allmusic.com. Seeing it had a 4* review, and was country, I was instantly intrigued, and the songs ended up leaving a profound impact. There’s nothing too fancy about the music and lyrics; it’s just pure, hearty, stadium-ready comfort food that celebrates love, community, religion and family in a manner I suspect perfect for huddling around a campfire. The sound is steady, stomping Americana, Wynonna’s heartfelt vocals drifting elegantly over thumping drums, smooth guitars and suspenseful keys. Half of the songs feel like instant classics; the sheer volume of authoritative melodies makes it an obligatory selection.

Highlights: “Things That I Lean On”, “Jesus And A Jukebox”, “I Can See Everything”, “Something You Can’t Live Without”

36. Lucy Dacus – “No Burden”

Little over a year older than me, Virginia native Lucy Dacus has already made quite the impression on the music world, even catching the ears of current Vice President that one guy Tim Kaine, and, more importantly, making her way onto my best of the year list. She’s got the classic indie sound, with a backdrop layering fast, gravelly electric guitars and increasingly thunderous drums. But most important is Dacus’ earthy voice, which holds an unflinching, pensive warmth through songs looking both inward and outward. Her ability to compose catchy declarations is most obvious on opening track “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”, where Dacus asserts her fatigue at being the joke-maker in her squad. Other songs are strikingly intimate (“Green Eyes, Red Face”) and enchantingly grandiose (“Map On A Wall”).

Highlights: “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”, “Green Eyes, Red Face”, “Troublemaker Dopplegänger”, “Map On A Wall”

35. Matmos – “Ultimate Care II”

The first few times I listened to Ultimate Care II, which I’d only heard of before Fantano hit it with an 8 and decided to check out because I thought the title was especially god-tier, I had no idea that the point of the album was to turn the sounds of a washing machine doing a spin cycle into listenable electronic music. I seriously thought it was a sequel to an album about caring really hard about stuff. First couple goes-around, I simply admired the creativity and intensity of the sounds, which have a metallic bang to them couple with imagistic ripples of dropping water. I loved the textured liquidity of it all. But knowing the production info now only makes appreciating it even easier. I’m a sucker for any kind of music that tries new kinds of sounds, new noise materials, and this is one of the purest examples of that kind of concept album I’ve yet heard. What’s more, beyond being a phenomenal experiment, it’s actually very compelling as a continuous musical composition.

Highlights: “Excerpt One”, “Excerpt Five”, “Excerpt Nine”

34. Common – “Black America Again”

Common is an artist I’ve always had mixed feelings on, largely because his music is often blatantly and didactically political, and because he always seems to be there when there’s some sort of activism to be had. The causes he stands for, no doubt, are critical, but his constant public appearances (especially at awards shows like the Oscars, where, as an obsessive fan, I’m most likely to be watching) have sometimes been off-putting – as if he’s doing it for him as much as for the wider goals. But this album had me reflect on just how wrong – how pretentious – I might have been. Sure, Black America Again is a very obvious album – I mean, look at the title – but that’s part of its impact. It’s a detailed, relentless tapestry of Common’s eye on black culture, activism and the strength of marginalized communities fighting injustice. And it hardly ever feels insincere, largely because Common looks as much inward as he does outward, moving through songs of love and melancholy to add nuance to his sweeping portrait. Over beats and samples taking inspiration from R&B, soul, jazz and gospel, Common asserts himself as the ultimate rapper-activist, crafting songs as vibrant as they are vital. Sometimes he might seem like he’s trying too hard, but for me, that only adds to the album’s power.

Highlights: “Black America Again”, “Red Wine”, “Unfamiliar”, “Rain”, “Letter to the Free”

33. ANOHNI – “Hopelessness”

With her intense, resonant cry, ANOHNI has one of music’s most distinct voices, and with the heavily political, heavily euphemistic echoes of Hopelessness, in which she begs to be drone-bombed, executed, watched by Big Brother and injected “with chemotherapies” (a metaphor for fracking), it evokes a deep, almost pitiful sadness. Both unsettlingly personal and unflinchingly humanitarian, it’s an album that screams out against the establishment (environment-destroying capitalists, the surveillance state, “violent men” and even Obama) while forcing the listener to confront the individual pain these institutions can cause. It’s also darkly sexual, with songs creating a haunting physicality that takes us deep into a mind troubled – saddened – by a species destroying its own world. Musically, it meanders from blatant and accessible to odd and experimental, with ANOHNI’s unforgettable voice always the primary instrument.

Highlights: “Drone Bomb Me”, “Watch Me”, “Execution”, “Violent Men”

32. Nails – “You Will Never Be One of Us”

At 21 minutes, it’s the shortest album on my list. With 8 of its 10 songs under 2 minutes long, You Will Never Be One of Us is quick, to the point, and brutal. Hiding repetitive free verse salt-screams under crushing avalanches of hyperspeed drums and biting guitars, it’s a terrifying concoction of middle finger-raised headbangers that dive into the darkest depths of human existence. I’m also a defender of the fade-out at the end of the 8-minute concluding track “They Come Crawling Back”, which to me gives the impression of the band slowly gliding backwards into the hellhole from which they came. And yes, I only listened to it because of Memetano, but going back to hear the rest of Nails’ discography is a priority.

Highlights: “You Will Never Be One of Us”, “Friend to All”, “Violence Is Forever”, “They Come Crawling Back”

31. Japanese Breakfast – “Psychopomp”

Beyond having one of the best title/cover combinations of any 2016 album, Psychopomp also has one of its most distinct sounds, the sort I can immediately bring to mind – in a vague, condensed sense – upon hearing its mention. The hazy fog of surfy electric guitars, angelic synths and Michelle Zauner’s faded vocals makes for a mystical effect, only deepened with appreciation of the lyrical content, with which Zauner attempts to process, among other things, the death of her mother (a “psychopomp” is, in Greek mythology, someone who guides souls to the afterlife). Other songs deal with violence (“Rugged Country”) and sex (“Everybody Wants to Love You”, the album’s catchiest). All juxtapose grief, fear and melancholy with a dreamlike pull to something great and ethereal.

Highlights: “Rugged Country”, “Everybody Wants to Love You”, “Heft”

30. Robbie Williams – “The Heavy Entertainment Show”

When I first listened to The Heavy Entertainment Show, I thought it was some of the most shameful, cringeworthy pop music I’d ever heard. Those feelings still echo, but I’ve come to appreciate – even adore – the bravura with which Robbie handles his persona on this record. It’s a mess, to be sure, but a welcome one, continuing to entertain and excite, which is all Robbie’s ever really been about. I’ve been a fan of his since early childhood (hard not to be, growing up in England in the late 90s and early 2000s), always drawn to his charisma and warm-hearted cheekiness, and on those levels this is his magnum opus. Hooking back up with old songwriting partner Guy Chambers, Robbie crafts some of his catchiest (“Mixed Signals”), most ridiculous (“Party Like a Russian”) and most tongue-in-cheek (“The Heavy Entertainment Show”) songs yet. As a whole, none of it makes any sense, but that’s kind of the magic. In all the cringey britpop (“Motherfucker”), tone-deaf sentimentality (“Bruce Lee”, followed by the song “Sensitive”), and awkward boy-banding (“Pretty Woman”), England’s greatest showman absorbs all the dated tropes of his country’s pop-rock history, exploits as many modern trends and songwriting clichés as possible, and spews out the most gloriously shameless mess of his career. I can’t help but smile at the sheer gall.

Highlights: “The Heavy Entertainment Show”, “Party Like a Russian”, “Mixed Signals”, “Sensational”

29. Various Artists – “La La Land: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”

Part of me feels bad for including this on this list, and not just because it’s a film soundtrack. More on my reaction to the (justified) political backlash, and film in general, here. But I’d be lying to myself and y’all were I not to recognize this collection of songs as a crucial stop on my journey through 2016’s music. Start to finish, the film’s soundtrack is a joy. The ecstatic opening number “Another Day of Sun” hits all the optimistic buttons that define my taste (see also: a cover of a 90’s sitcom theme making my top 10 songs of 2016). “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” immediately brings out the feels whenever I hear it – pitch-perfect audio-cinematic manipulation. Hard to get “City of Stars” out of my head. “Planetarium” is classic cinema. John Legend’s “Start a Fire”, meant somewhat as a dig at modern commercial music, is nonetheless catchy as heck, and therefore perfectly subversive (John Legend’s work, in general, has grown on me recently, his album Darkness & Light almost making this list). “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is the film’s Oscar moment (or, retcon, Emma Stone’s). And “Epilogue” its greatest scene. You get the idea: I love every minute of it, and listening brings the film back to memory almost shot-for-shot. A whitewashed jazz tribute, for sure, but its blissful ignorance is irresistible. 

Highlights: “Another Day of Sun”, “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme”, “City of Stars”, “Start A Fire”, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”

28. Drive-By Truckers – “American Band”

These Georgia rockers have been going for a long time, but as is the usual trend with albums on this list, this was my first exposure to them. An impressive introduction, too, as American Band is a momentous southern rock project, examining gun violence, racism, repression and Southern identity in the post-9/11, proto-Trump America. On “What It Means”, a song that would surely make my Best Songs of 2016 list on a redo, singer Patterson Hood questions the unjust complexities of America post-Ferguson, questioning the government, media, police and courts, and exploring white Southerners’ processing of their identity in a world of political correctness. This introspection feeds other highlights “Ever South” and “Baggage”, and on musical terms, the whole album is a poignant listen.

Highlights: “Ramon Casiano”, “Sun Don’t Shine”, “Ever South”, “What It Means”, “Baggage”

27. Beyoncé – “Lemonade”

Certainly one of the definitive albums of 2016, if not necessarily one of my absolute personal favorites. That’s not to take away from its obvious qualities and impact, just an admission that this wasn’t made for me, and that’s o.k. Indeed, it’s more than o.k. – it’s vital. Let’s get the positives out of the way first: on Lemonade, Beyoncé crafts her most authoritative musical narrative yet, exploring her childhood, relationship with her parents and Jay-Z, fame, background, ancestry, womanhood, racial identity and culture, leaving behind one of the most complex pictures of modern America we’ve yet seen. Musically, she accentuates her strengths and experiments with new styles, lending her voice to songs mixing pop, soul, country, hip-hop, electronic and gospel music. Lemonade is loose and frequently tangential, but largely in the good sense, revealing the numerous intersecting shades of the identity of America’s foremost cultural icon.

I think a large part of Lemonade being this low (it’s dropped a good 10 places while I’ve made the list) is that I’ve only experienced it as the visual album – which is fantastic, placing highly on my films list as well – and haven’t had the chance to binge it on Spotify like many of the others. Because of that, and also because I don’t much relate to it, and it’s hard for me to pin down musically (both a strength and a weakness, in regards to my enjoyment), it hasn’t been quite able to seep into my consciousness as more than something I highly appreciate. In other words, I love Lemonade as an idea, but don’t feel too drawn back to actually listen to the music, vital for a high place on my list. But again, this wasn’t made for me, and as a white guy who hasn’t had anywhere near a similar experience to Beyoncé, I have no real place in commenting on the album’s legacy. Only my own personal appreciation of it (which is still strong).

Highlights: “Hold Up”, “Daddy Lessons”, “Formation”

26. Jessy Lanza – “Oh No”

I imagine Jessy Lanza’s work on Oh No as the sort of music you’d hear over the speakers on a spaceship-mall a couple hundred years in the future. It fits into the whole vaporwave thing I’m so obsessed with, then. Over some of the cleanest, most hypnotic synth beats and drum machines I’ve heard anywhere, the Canadian composer and vocalist sings in a surreal and obscured yet powerful high pitch, as if a lost, lonely soul wandering through the cyber-ether. It’s a beautiful wandering, though, marked by distressingly desperate, heartwarmingly intimate love songs (“Going Somewhere”) and audacious, cheerleader-esque dance tracks (“VV Violence”). Lanza’s quirks are clear (the way she says “yeah” offhand to fill space), but validated by some of the most enthralling electronic production this side of the 25th century. The three highlight tracks are especially essential.

Highlights: “VV Violence”, “Never Enough”, “Oh No”

25. Blank Banshee – “MEGA”

Vapor legend Blank Banshee’s latest album didn’t fully resonate with me on first listen, purely because I felt it was quite generic and thin. But time tells, and despite the relative simplicity of this 90s nostalgia-tinged exploration of modern dance music, I’m continually drawn back for more. Maybe it’s the cleanliness of the production, every song sounding like a smooth cross-section of a computer’s inner thoughts. Tinged with fragmented vocal samples, layered trap beats and lush digital noises, it’s a vivid exploration of a world scattered yet smooth, futuristic yet nostalgic. It’s a fun, comforting album to close your eyes to, and one that feels like its maker had a lot of fun putting together.

Highlights: “Frozen Flame”, “Ecco Chamber”, “Xenos”

24. Crying – “Beyond the Fleeting Gales”

As petty as I am, I’m only putting this so “low” on my list because I feel the album cover could be a bit better (>inb4 I learn to love the cover in the future anyway). But technicalities aside, I don’t know if there was another 2016 album that made such an uplifting first impression as Beyond the Fleeting Gales, a cheery power-pop rollercoaster ride through candy-coated clouds that sees singer Elaiza Santos’s cotton-candy vocals fade into a charmingly bright arrangement of sharp electric guitars, banging pop-punk drums and adorable synths. It’s an endlessly empowering high that transports me into a big, wild blue sky, with the incredible shreds on songs like “Patriot” feeling downright blissful. Certainly one of the most purely fun albums of the year (though no doubt further listening/reading could reveal currently-unseen depth). Another album I admittedly have to thank Fandango for.

Highlights: “Wool in the Wash”, “Patriot”, “There Was a Door”

23. Various Artists – “Southern Family”

I’m an especially big fan of concept albums, as I like to imagine albums as a complete, progressing story as much as a collection of songs, and albums with a coherent, consistent hook – lyrically, stylistically, thematically, visually (re: music videos & album art) – are often the ones that easiest linger in the memory. They’re also often the easiest to get into, allowing me to stop everything for a specific kind of escapism. In the case of Southern Family, an ambitious collaborative project spearheaded by producer Dave Cobb that features country artists both niche and world-famous, that escapism is to the modern (white) South; to a family gathering, of sorts. Through tender love songs, rustic folk hymns, nostalgic childhood throwbacks and numerous family tributes (“Grandma’s Garden”, “Mama’s Table”), the likes of Miranda Lambert, Chris & Morgane Stapleton, Zac Brown, Jamey Johnson, Holly Williams, Brandy Clark and Shooter Jennings sing a gentle ode to the generational ties of southern living. It’s some of the most touching, honest country of our time, all of it driven by the central theme of family.   

Highlights: “Simple Song”, “Down Home”, “Sweet By And By”, “Grandma’s Garden”, “Can You Come Over?”

22. Danny Brown – “Atrocity Exhibition”

I’m not quite as enthusiastic with this one as is Anthony Fantano, but I can certainly see why he loves it. On Atrocity Exhibition, Detroit native Danny Brown – certainly amongst the most idiosyncratic modern artists in any genre – crafts the wildest collection of rap tracks of the year. Each one of them’s set to a zanier and more experimental beat than the last, and each one’s topped off by Brown’s distinctly off-kilter moan-rapping. Aptly beginning with “Downward Spiral”, its borderline free-jazz melody giving off the impression that Danny’s performing from a spinning, melting platform, the album only goes deeper, darker, lower, weirder – making new, more personal sounds out of songs about sex and drugs (which, with Brown, are best written SEX and DRUGS). My only misgivings are the album’s length and big-picture consistency; further listens may fix the issue, but it’s hard for my mind to see a coherent whole with an album that takes so many bizarre directions. That’s good for the album’s importance and impact, but not so much for someone like me who, as mentioned earlier, connects easiest to concept albums. But that’s my battle, not Danny’s. He seems to be winning his.

Highlights: “Downward Spiral”, “Rolling Stone”, “Really Doe”, “Lost”, “Ain’t It Funny”, “Golddust”, “When it Rain”, “Today”, “Get Hi”

21. Regina Spektor – “Remember Us to Life”

One of 2016’s prime smilers, with the lush symphonies of bouncy keys and cheery strings skipping along to Spektor’s adorable uplifters and intense fairy tales. Every song is fully unique and distinct, but each of them is crafted with a captivating grandiosity; I’m getting emotional just listening to “Tornadoland” as I write this (the ending refrain of that song is one of last year’s highest musical highs). I admittedly haven’t had much time to look into the specific meanings of these tracks, but on purely emotional terms, this is maximum empowerment, even in its darkest moments, and as cinematic and stunningly-produced a singer/songwriter album I’ve found anywhere. Thanks again, Fantano.

Highlights: “Bleeding Heart”, “Older and Taller”, “Small Bill$”, “The Light”, “Tornadoland”

20. Andy Shauf – “The Party”

In terms of concept albums, The Party is one of 2016’s most blatantly conceptual, each song forming part of a heartrending retelling of an awkward, eventually tragic gathering of friends. It’s an eventful night, with cheating, drunken confessions of love, and even death*, but Shauf performs it in a distinct drawl that, combined with hauntingly repetitive guitars, drums and keys, creates a ghostly picture of small-town social interaction, loneliness and vice. On the first few listens I was struck by Shauf’s unique vocal delivery, and on further dives his characters continue to fascinate, in the same way the best ensemble movies do (I’m especially reminded of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Goodbye, Dragon Inn and Twin Peaks). *Is there such thing as a spoiler alert in music?

Highlights: “The Magician”, “Early to the Party”, “The Worst in You”, “To You”

19. Rihanna – “ANTI”

I’ve gone back and forth with Rihanna in the past, but listening to her trailblazing 2007 album Good Girl Gone Bad in 2015 for the first time helped me understand her appeal. Of course, ANTI comes after 9 years of growth in-between, and presents a slower, darker, maturer side of RiRi. Like the aforementioned AIM and The Heavy Entertainment Show, ANTI is a bit of a mess, jumping from style to style without a care in the world, but Rihanna’s captivating vocals – as much a celebration of the art of singing as anything else (see: “Work”) – helps the jarring collection of songs find reacher a deeper meaning. What at face value seem like simplistic sex jams and dance beats build, on repeat listens, into a trance-inducing expression of Rihanna’s inner passions. The progression/ordering of the tracks no doubt helps with that as well (I’m an especially big fan of “Love On The Brain”’s late-album placement). And the sheer amount of memorable tracks is undeniable; every one of my “highlights” is among Rihanna’s best.  

Highlights: “Consideration”, “Kiss it Better”, “Work”, “Desperado”, “Needed Me”, “Love On The Brain”

18. Chance the Rapper – “Coloring Book”

It’s no surprise that Chance has become a cultural phenomenon. On Coloring Book, he shows off his own unique sound, heavily gospel-influenced and equal parts personal and communal. Of all the albums on this list, his is the one for which it’s easiest to look at the album art and imagine, in my head, what it sounds like. Its title is apt, as this streaming-only mixtape is vivid and vibrant, Chance’s cool, often low-key raps floating above explosive, kaleidoscopic choral samples. Most of the songs have features, but whereas that’d usually be a question mark, it only adds to the familial feel of the tape. In no place is that more obvious than “No Problem”, one of the most exciting – and downright iconic – songs of the year. And when Chance is front and center, as on “Same Drugs”, it’s a revelation. My generalized descriptors indicate I need to give it further listens, but as is, this is something I’ll likely look back on as a vital release of 2016.

Highlights: “No Problem”, “Blessings”, “Same Drugs”, “Mixtape”, “Angels”

17. TAEMIN – “Press It”

Besides the obligatory Gangnam Styles and Girl’s Generations, I wasn’t too big on K-Pop until last year, when a close friend began showing me recent classic music videos in the genre, hooking me onto the likes of EXO (see later), GFriend, BTS and SHINee, the latter of which TAEMIN is a member. I’m still far from a superfan of the genre, having only listened to a small cross-section of the best music South Korea’s industry has to offer, but I’ve started to latch on to a few favorites, Press It being one of them. TAEMIN’s first full-length solo album, it’s a stellar showcase for his stunning vocals, featuring some of the best pop production I’ve ever heard. Take, for example, the trancy teases of the backing synths of “Drip Drop”, and the way the piano and percussion blend into the sound to create a suspenseful, liquidy effect. Seldom has a ready-made pop tune melded its music, lyrics and vocal performance with such consistency of vision. And then there’s “One By One”, which begins with one of the most stunning guitar riffs I’ve ever heard – nevermind in a mere pop song – and builds into a gorgeous layer cake of spectacular vocal harmonies, tense bass and mesmerizing synths. Other songs are more by-the-books, like the Timberlake-esque “Mystery Lover” and “Sexuality”, but those have their simple pleasures, too. All in all, one of the most consistent and arresting pop albums of 2016.

Highlights: “Drip Drop”, “Press Your Number”, “One By One”, “Sexuality”

16. Anna Meredith – “Varmints”

As the echoing horns of “Nautilus” blare, so begins one of 2016’s most spectacular electronic compositions, a stampeding symphony of operatic progression, cutesy diversions and expectation-popping experimentation. As the title would suggest, each song on Varmints is its own beast. But between dark and light, repetitive and deviating, snappy and grandiose, Meredith finds a common DNA: her own species of jarring, avant-garde music-making. As with Regina Spektor’s album, there’s still work I have to do in deciphering much meaning, but there’s so much going on in the underlying melodies of these songs, and in their interlaying of odd instrument pairings, that each return is a treat too good to be true.

Highlights: “Nautilus”, “R-Type”, “The Vapours”, “Shill”

15. Oddisee – “The Odd Tape”

Another Allmusic find. Simply a collection of jazz-influenced instrumentals for rap tracks, The Odd Tape is an album I found at the right time, one that tapped into a random affection for a certain kind of musical atmosphere. That atmosphere is one of light, relaxed coffee shop daydreaming; to me, it evokes images of urban creativity. Imagine notes and letters flowing up from an apartment window like bubbles, as a young city artist unleashes their spirit on the world. From the sweeping “Alarmed” to the smooth “Right Side of the Bed” and the energetic “Live from the Drawing Board”; from the airy “Silver Lining” to the funky “Out at Night” and the gleefully reflective “Long Way Home”, Oddisee crafts the feeling of a long day well-spent making art. It’s “only” a beat tape, but it’s done with enough care to tell a coherent story, and the lack of vocals allows the listener to make that story. My go-to background noise for inspiration and relaxation in 2016.

Highlights: “Right Side of the Bed”, “Live from the Drawing Board”, “Silver Lining”, “Long Way Home”, “Still Sleeping”

14. YG – “Still Brazy”

On the surface it’s, for me, the catchiest rap album of 2016, with many of its most memorable beats and hooks (“Why You Always Hatin?” and “Still Brazy” especially). Under the skin, Still Brazy is an assured, deeply personal expression, strongly rooted in YG’s LA identity and not hesitant to get bluntly political. Confronting violence on the micro (“Who Shot Me?”) and macro (“Police Get Away Wit Murder”) scales, he always hits home, largely because of his down-to-earth, often humorous delivery. The songs are upfront and fluff-free, but the album’s straightforward nature only adds to its appeal; this is life as YG sees it, through the sound of his hometown, and his messages get across because it clear he’s sincere. That’s no clearer than on “FDT”, the realest protest song of the generation.

Highlights: “Who Shot Me?”, “Twist My Fingaz”, “Gimmie Got Shot”, “Why You Always Hatin?”, “Still Brazy”, “FDT”

13. Death Grips – “Bottomless Pit”

Angry reacts only. Bottomless Pit was only the second Death Grips album I ever heard (after Exmilitary), but theirs is a discography I intend to fully absorb. Their sound – abrasive, violent, repetitive, riotous – is utterly unique, to the point where Death Grips might as well be a genre of its own. They’re, hands down, the most idiosyncratic (and, therefore, exciting) music artist I’m currently aware of. On Bottomless Pit, they create some of the most inexplicably infectious musical experiments of the digital age, MC Ride’s iconic spits on “Eh”, “Trash” and “80808” constantly popping into my head whenever I least expect it. Even more impressive is the conceptual vision within the individual tracks; each one, in a weird way, sounds exactly like its title. “Hot Head” is fast, buzzing, and scorchingly layered. “Spikes” is piercing and pokes with pistons of drums and synths. “Warping” evokes a heavy metal Salvador Dalí painting. The album as a whole, too, feels like a Bottomless Pit, a descent into the darkest depths of a digital hell. Every moment is ridiculous, loud and completely singular. To say these guys are ahead of their time would be to limit them to laws of physics they clearly don’t concern themselves with. Placement very conservative; this is still growing on me.   

Highlights: “Giving Bad People Good Ideas”, “Spikes”, “Eh”, “Trash”, “BB Poison”, “80808”, “Bottomless Pit”

12. EXO – “Ex’Act”

I’ve loved many songs, but Ex’Act was the first K-Pop album I truly loved, that I’ve really seen become a part of me. It’s a comfort food I keep coming back to when I need to relax, reflect, concentrate or feel a little better. Opening single “Lucky One” sets the tone with some of the most flat-out luxuriant pop production I’ve ever heard, muted backing synths creeping under irresistible electric guitars before pop-dropping into one of the catchiest choruses of the decade so far. On top of it all are EXO’s pitch-perfect vocal performances. They’re a hand-picked, conveyor-belt boyband, no doubt, combining some of the best singers and rappers in the K-Pop game, but in their case, they transcend the formula (given the album art, wittily so). On prowling “Monster”, futuristic “Artificial Love”, angelic “Cloud 9” and “Heaven”, and empowering “Stronger”, they elevate cliché concepts into revelations, positioning themselves a few realms higher than mere mortal boy bands. Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface of K-Pop, so I’m hardly picking from much, but this is the best album I’ve yet heard from the genre. Placement would be higher if not for a few filler-ish tracks between “Cloud 9” and “Stronger”; I really want to rank it in the top 10, though.

Highlights: “Lucky One”, “Monster”, “Artificial Love”, “Cloud 9”, “Stronger”

11. Tegan and Sara – “Love You to Death”

Power pop straight from the heart. Aptly titled, Love You to Death is an album about desire and affection, about the constricting, obsessive magic of love. It’s a heavily danceable, club-heavy sound from the incredibly lovable duo, the songs kindling images of standing, staring at a crush in a crowd of ravers, watching in slow-motion as the world’s lens focuses on the only person that matters. These are Tegan and Sara’s most instantly gratifying songs yet, with “Boyfriend” and “Stop Desire” especially hooking me the first time I heard them, and never getting old. Best of all is “U-turn”, a surreally good late-album track on which Tegan gushes apologetics to a love she’s hurt through selfish pride. Further readings into the song’s irony only add to its texture, but however I look at it, I’ll never get enough of that stop-drop (u-turn) into the final chorus at 2:23, a musical moment so pure and simple it feels historic. This album makes me feel so warm inside. Heart reacts only.

Highlights: “Faint of Heart”, “Boyfriend”, “Dying to Know”, “Stop Desire”, “U-turn”

10. Mitski – “Puberty 2”

Mitski’s lo-fi indie production didn’t leave much of an impression on initial listens, but how wrong I was. Time, and close lyric reading (with help from Genius), reveals a nuanced, poetic record of depression, love, loneliness, cultural identity and most of all, as the title would suggest, awkward, complicated personal growth. Listening now, having gotten to know her words better, Mitski sounds downright prodigious. She carves brooding, intimate myths into the American cultural record, using elaborate metaphor and analogy but never forgetting the complex, human identity behind it. It’s an album that recognizes the nuances of life, and that’s never clearer than on “Your Best American Girl”, which organizes ponderings on gender, race, country, culture, family, work, personality, identity, lust and love into one of the starkest individual statements – any genre – of 2016 (insert “would’ve been on my top 50 songs list had I *got it* before here). But every song matters, building up the intricate story of one of the country’s most exciting artists.  

Highlights: “Happy”, “Your Best American Girl”, “I Bet On Losing Dogs”, “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”, “A Loving Feeling”

9. David Bowie – “Blackstar”

It took a long time for this album to settle with me, and it’s still growing. The dark, experimental, obscure sound of the record has been difficult to decipher, and only by just now reading through the lyrics, after recently watching the album’s few music videos for the first time, do I feel like I have even a slight grasp on Bowie’s immense, tragic, beautiful, staggering swan song. Only seven songs, each of them quite long and structurally unorthodox, Blackstar eschews the typical rules of mere mortals, as Bowie always did. Borrowing from many styles but never feeling like any of them, Blackstar is distinctly Bowie: enigmatic, supernatural, with an unsettling blend of carnality and crypticism. Bowie’s voice is central, the eclectic, loosely jazzy sound layered with wails, moans and the occasional shiver-inducing ASMR breath (note, for instance, the opening of “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”).

Dealing with his own death and everything leading up to it, throwing in textured allusions to 17th-century plays and A Clockwork Orange, Bowie leaves us with a parting gift that’s as disturbing as it is beautiful, as odd as it is cinematic. It’s no doubt one of 2016’s landmark albums, and a fittingly eccentric ending to one of music’s most eccentric careers. New truths are drawn with each new listen. My own personal relationship with Bowie isn’t one of a superfan, more an awe-struck admirer, though that’s mainly through lack of consistent exposure than personal nonchalance; I of course know and love all his major hits, and have listened to a few of his albums, though my most personal connection to his work has been on the screen – in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Labyrinth, and Extras. Relistening to this album numerous times (must be 10+ by now), I now feel a strong urge to go back and explore the rest of his career like everyone else.

Highlights: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, “Girl Loves Me”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

8. Kero Kero Bonito – “Bonito Generation”

When I first heard “Picture This” in mid-2015, I knew Kero Kero Bonito would be special to me. Said song ranked third on my Best Songs of 2015 list (reading which is making me cringe), but amongst the rest of Bonito Generation, it could just be a filler track. That’s how good the album is. Carried by Sarah Midori Perry’s gleefully droll rap-sung delivery – in both English and Japanese in most songs – KKB deliver a delightful sugar rush that never crashes, singing about everyday things (“Waking Up”, taking a “Break”, having a job interview) that most pop acts wouldn’t have the imagination to touch. Musically, it’s some of the catchiest, brightest polymerization of bubblegum pop, hip hop, J-Pop and synth-heavy electronica coming out of the human imagination right now. With its relentless cheer and multicultural collaging, KKB’s album tells a cute, colorful story that’s at once charmingly universal and fascinatingly singular. Look at how the songs progress. Rising excitement and inspiration on “Waking Up”. Then “Graduation”, and release into the “Big City”. Stopping for a “Break”. Trying to figure out the “Lipslap”. Applying for a job, pleading “Try Me”! Letting go of stress on a “Trampoline”. Capturing the world for social media on “Picture This”. And then, finally, thanking parents for all they’ve done on “Hey Parents”. Pure magic.

Highlights: “Waking Up”, “Fish Bowl”, “Break”, “Lipslap”, “Try Me”, “Trampoline”, “Picture This”, “Hey Parents”

7. Solange – “A Seat at the Table”

When I first encountered A Seat at the Table, I assumed that the album’s title referred to Solange being overshadowed by her more famous sister, and finally demanding her seat at the table. It was a misreading – this interview on her record label’s site (which is a more important discussion of the album than my comments) suggests a more familial, inclusive meaning – but one that nonetheless led to immense enjoyment of the music, which is soft, unhurried and graceful. Serene arrangements of peaceful pianos, relaxed strings and minimal percussion create an atmosphere of clear-headed reflection and self-assertion. But that shouldn’t be construed to argue that the album’s messages aren’t strong-willed and aggressive. Seeing it now as an album about self-care and solidarity, the power is immense. On “Rise”, Solange urges her audience to “fall in your ways…so you can sleep at night”, emphasizing sincerity and self-determination. That direct audience is not me; “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” make that clear. But interludes that include interview snippets with Solange’s parents assure that that’s o.k.; on “Interlude: Tina Taught Me”, mom Tina Lawson asserts that to be pro-black is not to be anti-white (and no, it’s not a double standard when the reverse is not true). And so I just listen, and listen, and listen again: the sense of vision, the journey of self-understanding, and the themes of family and cultural expression make it one of 2016’s most vital soundscapes.

Highlights: “Rise”, “Cranes in the Sky”, “Don’t Touch My Hair”, “F.U.B.U.”, “Junie”, “Don’t Wish Me Well” and all the Interludes

6. Kanye West – “The Life of Pablo”

Kanye is my personal favorite current artist – has been since high school. I only discovered his music half a decade ago, my first album of his being Watch the Throne, and so my own awe-stalgia has always been for the new Kanye: visionary, cinematic, overblown, gospel-inspired, autotune-heavy, ridiculous, all-over-the-place. Couple that with my general appreciation for long, messy, experimental albums (Trout Mask Replica is a genuine favorite, and The White Album is, as of now, my favorite Beatles record, though that’ll likely change with my next discography-binge), and you might imagine why I’d be the sort of person to defend what is possibly Kanye’s most divisive album. Either way, TLOP is quintessentially Kanye, for better and for worse. The album is an absolute mess, a product of its constantly-evolving pre-release tracklist organization, and a product of the unpredictable, flawed-genius mind of its maker. Starting with the stirring “Ultralight Beam” and moving through a jumbled hour of shameless sex jokes, complex, sometimes questionable reflections on fame, touchingly honest introspection, masterfully oddball samples and top-notch features, it’s Kanye’s most varied, continually fascinating work, only held down by the same indecipherable vision that makes it great.

While we’re fundamentally different people from largely different backgrounds, I’ve always found solace in Kanye’s splintered inner identity, and his unapologetic expression of such has continued to inspire. Many urged Kanye to seek help with his mental health in the wake of TLOP’s release, and maybe they’re right. I do also hope he’s focusing on self-care, and don’t want him to strain himself in some romanticized attempt to create great art, or be a great person (he’s already accomplished both). But as is, this album is a record of one of modern music’s most important artists at arguably the most pivotal moment of his career. It’s heavily flawed, but for someone like me, who is still trying to find himself, to discover what identity to forge out of all the dissonant notes ringing in my head, it’s precisely those flaws that resonate. Also, this album kinda had to rank this high for me sheerly through the amount of songs I loved on it; so many undeniably great beats and moments on this thing. (low key, I got really emotional writing that, more so than I’ve gotten writing something in a long time)

Highlights: “Ultralight Beam”, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”, “Famous”, “I Love Kanye”, “Real Friends”, “30 Hours”, “No More Parties in LA”, “Facts”, “Fade”

5. Brandy Clark – “Big Day in a Small Town”

As we’ve already discussed, I love concept albums, albums with a distinct theme and/or that tell a story. On Big Day in a Small Town, powerhouse country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark weaves a sweeping epic “Soap Opera” of small-town life, fleshing out nameless characters to evoke both specific images and universal themes. Some songs are first-person and heavily intimate, Clark dealing with love, loss and lack of money (assumedly, the latter is no longer an issue). Others turn the pages of a perceptive novella on close-knit American livin’, some scenes humorous (gossip about somebody going to Wal-Mart in a nightgown on a “Big Day in a Small Town”), others heartbreaking (a feeling of being forgotten after once being the “Homecoming Queen”). And, of course, the music’s phenomenal, too, each song lended a catchy melody and Clark’s impassioned vocal delivery.

Side note: Clark is from Washington state, where Twin Peaks is set. I watched that show last year, and it notably has a soap opera aesthetic, as does this album. Might’ve subconsciously influenced my mutual enjoyment of both artworks. In general, this sort of melodrama is something I’m usually enthralled by (perhaps because I’m from a pretty big family that likes to gossip, and that’s a big part of the appeal of small town soap opera). Second side note: this album was, for a long time, the #1 on my list, and my current ranking might be a bit low. The album is still joyous to listen to; it’s only really an impulsive feeling that it’s not quite as *important* and complex as some of the upcoming albums that’s caused the drop. Regardless, I love it.

Highlights: “Soap Opera”, “Girl Next Door”, “Homecoming Queen”, “You Can Come Over”, “Love Can Go to Hell”, “Big Day in a Small Town”, “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven”

4. Noname – “Telefone”

First impressions evoked a similar effect to The Odd Tape: set to calm, echoey, pensive piano beats and a backdrop of floating claps and whistles, Noname’s quietly optimistic raps give off a tone of liberated resolve, of the Chicago poet letting go of her inhibitions and revealing her true self to the world, free of labels. That’s part of it, of course, but under the positive sheen are dark, melancholy lyrics examining violence against the black community, death of loved ones, drug use and abortion. Other moments are lighter, reflecting on love, procrastination, and empowerment through music. As I see it, the album’s nostalgic atmosphere, textured by childhood memories and intricate references to Chicago life and the rap scene, is a compassionate, strong-willed tribute to a community troubled by injustice – but still fighting on. Like Coloring Book, though a lot more subtly, Telefone mixes the spiritual and the physical, the communal and the personal, with character and grace. The mixtape’s production, detailed here, was founded on a familial atmosphere, producers and collaborators bouncing ideas off of each other with Noname’s astounding lyrics finding their place amongst the serene beats almost by accident. Certainly an album that rewards further reading of the lyrics; as fantastic as Noname’s flow is to listen to, her words are strong enough – and written with enough poetic ambiguity – to be downright revelatory on their own.

Highlights: “Yesterday”, “Diddy Bop”, “All I Need”, “Reality Check”, “Casket Pretty”

3. Frank Ocean – “Blonde”

I can’t think of another album in my lifetime that was as awaited – to the point of being a meme – as this one (TLOP is the only other that comes close). Couldn’t go a week in the year or so leading up to Blonde dropping without seeing someone on Twitter complaining about it’s not-droppèd-ness. And yeah, I’ll say it was well worth the late*, while recognizing I personally wasn’t one of the people who got super hyped, despite enjoying Channel Orange. This was also an album that took a bit of effort to appreciate, as its slow, dreamy structure and lack of grippy beats doesn’t lend easy to instant favoritism. It’s one of those pieces that rewards repeat exposure; indeed, after spending 4 or 5 hours leading up to the writing of this snippet listening to the album and reading lyric examinations on genius.com, it might be the album on this list that I’ve listened to the most. That’s led to Blonde catapulting itself 40 or so places up the list, as simple appreciation of the creepingly infectious synths and eerie pitch-shifted vocals has morphed into outright awe at the complexity and personality charging Ocean’s lyrics. A hazy, angelic explorations of past loves, childhood memories, post-fame insecurities and late-night smoke breaks, it’s a miraculous, surreal articulation of Ocean’s identity and the machinations of time. Also, vapor’s most major mainstream representation to date? *[lol, I meant to write “wait”, but this works even better]

Highlights: “Nikes”, “Pink + White”, “Be Yourself”, “Solo”

2. Sturgill Simpson – “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”

When I first heard A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, I knew had come across something important. Without even listening, it’s an album that makes an impression. For one, the authoritative, highly conceptual title, combined with gorgeous, evocative cover art, assures the album is one of historic vision. Add to that my personal romance with the sea (explored in more detail in my comments about “Sea Stories” on my songs list), and you have a record that I was bound to feel a connection to. That it also happens to be one of 2016’s most fully-realized artistic achievements, and a masterpiece in melodramatic country epicism, is but the icing on the cake. Simpson, with his gentle-rough, fervent vocals, dives deep into his most meaningful life experiences – romance, fatherhood, his time in the navy – pushing a rip-roaring tidal wave of otherworldly Americana into the annals of music history in the process. Easily the most cinematic (non-soundtrack) album of 2016, with a clear, intoxicating progression over breezy, bobbing ballads and stormy shanties that’s cleanly bifurcated by a stunning cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. In terms of ups and downs, highs and lows, this is 2016’s most exciting collection of tracks, cementing Simpson as one of my favorite current artists.

Highlights: “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, “Breakers Roar”, “Keep It Between the Lines”, “Sea Stories”, “In Bloom”, “Oh Sarah”, “Call to Arms”

1. Carly Rae Jepsen – “EMOTION: Side B”

Jepsen was the only artist with multiple (3) songs on my Best Songs of 2016 list, so it’s a natural fit for her to take this spot. That she was able to come out of a (fantastic) post-Idol one-hit-wonder to drop one of the best albums of 2015 was miraculous. For her to follow that album up with an even stronger, more thematically-refined collection of B-SIDES!!! is downright historic. With 8 songs and a 27-minute runtime, Side B is short and sweet, almost to the point that I question its ability to fulfill the weight of this exalted position. Almost. You see, god-knows-how-many listens later, Side B has taken a special role in my album rotation, becoming a personal solace from, well, emotion. Something I can always go back to for escapism and comfort. My “More Than a Feeling” day-forgetter. As with the original EMOTION, probably more so, Side B is a vivid exploration of emotion, each pristinely-produced pop track hiding potent reflections on connection and communication, with a noticeable album arc tracing the stages of relationships.

We start with “First Time”, which irresistibly deals with both the start and end of romances, before moving on to exhilarating early-days physicality with “Higher”, the complexity of friend-with-benefits-type-deals with “The One”, and unrequited post-breakup love with “Fever”. The latter contains the album’s most haunting lyrical snippet, Jepsen quipping about riding her ex’s bike to his house in the middle of the night, only for him to be AWOL. Then, the album reaches its emotional crescendo, with feelings-over-lasers ode “Body Language” and intimacy-issues dirge “Cry” finding Jepsen’s sound at its most exhilarating – and heartbreaking. The record closes with two songs about breakups: “Store”, in which Jepsen escapes a failing relationship with the cover of buying groceries, and “Roses”, which takes a darker, more ambiguous tone. The latter is, in retrospect, probably the album’s strongest moment, the chorus’ imagery of roses fading to black burrowing deep into my memory.

There isn’t a song I don’t love on Side B, every track piecing together a perfect synth pop dessert that’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The instrumentation is superb, with bouncy guitars, new-wavey synths and funky bass creating a soundscape that, in the era of vapor, creates a timeless, nostalgic feeling – wistful in its throwbacks and futuristic in its gorgeous electronic sheen. But the album’s greatest strength is Jepsen’s vocals. I’ve many-a-time called her our greatest pop singer (singer in general?), as she’s able to mix a great depth of – ahem – e-mo-tion into her delivery: equal parts innocent and mature, clean and raw, intimate and transcendental. I feel borderline creepy gushing so much about this album, but I’d be dishonest to not recognize its impact on me. For me, this is 2016’s pop masterpiece – 2016’s masterpiece – and the album I wholeheartedly consider my favorite of the year.

Highlights: “First Time”, “Higher”, “The One”, “Fever”, “Body Language”, “Cry”, “Store”, “Roses”


Note: 19/50 of my Top 50 list also appeared on Anthony Fantano’s list. As mentioned many times above, I only listened to many of these albums because he reviewed them positively, and in a few cases (Nails, Crying) only because they appeared on his list. Other sources for finding albums to listen to include the charts, AllMusic, Metacritic, Facebook music groups, and Robert Christgau’s Dean’s List.

Also Note: Christine and the Queens’ Chaleur Humaine, which ranked on many publication’s best-of-2016 lists, would certainly rank in my top 5, but I count it as a 2015 album (via the French release), even though I first heard it in 2016. Watch out for it at the decade’s end.

Honorable Mentions:

American Football – “American Football (LP 2)”

Anderson .Paak – “Malibu”

Angel Olsen – “My Woman”

Bon Iver – “22, A Million”

Bruno Mars – “24K Magic”

Cardi B – “Gangsta Bitch Music Vol 1”

Car Seat Headrest – “Teens of Denial”

case/lang/veirs – “case/lang/veirs”

Charli XCX – “Vroom Vroom” EP

Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”

Conor Oberst – “Ruminations”

D.R.A.M. – “Big Baby D.R.A.M.”

Denzel Curry – “Imperial”

Future – “Evol”

Har Mar Superstar – “Best Summer Ever”

Injury Reserve – “Floss”

Isaiah Rashad – “The Sun’s Tirade”

Jeff Rosenstock – “Worry”

John Legend – “Darkness & Light”

Kacy & Clayton – “Strange Country”

Katrynada – “99.9%”

Kendrick Lamar – “Untitled Unmastered”

Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – “Stranger Things Soundtrack”

Leonard Cohen – “You Want it Darker”

Lil Yachty – “Lil Boat”

Lori McKenna – “The Bird & the Rifle”

Margo Price – “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”

Marissa Nadler – “Strangers”

Mark Pritchard – “Under the Sun”

Mica Levi – “Jackie (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)”

Mica Levi – “Remain Calm”

Nao – “For All We Know”

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Skeleton Tree”

Parquet Courts – “Human Performance”

Preoccupations – “Preoccupations”

Radiohead – “A Moon Shaped Pool”

Rae Sremmurd – “Sremmlife 2”

Rolling Stones – “Blue & Lonesome”

Run the Jewels – “Run the Jewels 3”

ScHoolboy Q – “Blank Face LP”

Shura – “Nothing’s Real”

Skepta – “Konnichiwa”

Sleaford Mods – “TCR” EP

Swain – “Long Dark Blue”

Swans – “The Glowing Man”

Thalía – “Latina”

Vektor – “Terminal Redux”

Weezer – “Weezer (White Album)”

Young Thug – “Jeffery”

Youssou N’Dour – “Africa Rekk”

And the top 50 in list form:

50. Paul Simon – “Stranger to Stranger”

49. Robbie Fulks – “Upland Stories”

48. Lady Gaga – “Joanne”

47. The 1975 – “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it”

46. Ka – “Honor Killed the Samurai”

45. A Tribe Called Quest – “We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service”

44. Street Sects – “End Position”

43. M.I.A. – “AIM”

42. Ital Tek – “Hollowed”

41. Touché Amoré – “Stage Four”

40. Eliot Sumner – “Information”

39. Muncie Girls – “From Caplan to Belsize”

38. Chairlift – “Moth”

37. Wynonna – “Wynonna & The Big Noise”

36. Lucy Dacus – “No Burden”

35. Matmos – “Ultimate Care II”

34. Common – “Black America Again”

33. ANOHNI – “Hopelessness”

32. Nails – “You Will Never Be One of Us”

31. Japanese Breakfast – “Psychopomp”

30. Robbie Williams – “The Heavy Entertainment Show”

29. La La Land Cast – “La La Land (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)”

28. Drive-By Truckers – “American Band”

27. Beyoncé – “Lemonade”

26. Jessy Lanza – “Oh No”

25. Blank Banshee – “Mega”

24. Crying – “Beyond the Fleeting Gales”

23. Various Artists – “Southern Family”

22. Danny Brown – “Atrocity Exhibition”

21. Regina Spektor – “Remember Us To Life”

20. Andy Shauf – “The Party”

19. Rihanna – “ANTI”

18. Chance the Rapper – “Coloring Book”

17. TAEMIN – “Press It”

16. Anna Meredith – “Varmints”

15. Oddisee – “The Odd Tape”

14. YG – “Still Brazy”

13. Death Grips – “Bottomless Pit”

12. EXO – “EX’ACT”

11. Tegan and Sara – “Love You to Death”

10. Mitski – “Puberty 2”

9. David Bowie – “Blackstar”

8. Kero Kero Bonito – “Bonito Generation”

7. Solange – “A Seat at the Table”

6. Kanye West – “The Life of Pablo”

5. Brandy Clark – “Big Day in a Small Town”

4. Noname – “Telefone”

3. Frank Ocean – “Blonde”

2. Sturgill Simpson – “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”

1. Carly Rae Jepsen – “EMOTION: Side B”

Spotify playlist (descending order):

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