Top 10 Albums of 2016

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2016 needed a good music year – and it delivered in a huge way. But what topped everything else?

There’s no if’s, and’s or but’s here – 2016 kicked us all very hard. On a global standpoint, on a regional one, and for many, on a personal one, 2016 rocked us all into mental and emotional states we weren’t necessarily prepared for. From the sharp rise of global fascism, to enhanced climate change, to ceaseless tragedies both domestic and abroad, to the deaths of countless artistic legends – 2016 delivered us bad news on every single day. The only upside is that, when times are tough, musicians come together and harness that negative energy into creative masterpieces. 2016 could easily go down with 1967, 1976 and 1994 as a year where music across all genres peaked, because of tumultuous times worldwide. The world lost a lot of legends this year, but not all of them. Not everyone on this following list is still with us, but most are; some had breakout years, some had huge comebacks, and some simply released the best works of their careers. I, for one, am already tired of writing about this year – so let’s get into it.

Because of the excessive amount of incredible albums this year, I wanted to quickly honor the ones that didn’t make this cut as well:

#20. School of Seven Bells – “SVIIB”

#19. Lady Gaga – “Joanne”

#18. Jeff Rosenstock – “WORRY.”

#17. ANOHNI – “Hopelessness”

#16. Anderson .Paak – “Malibu”

#15. Blood Orange – “Freetown Sound”

#14. Angel Olson – “My Woman”

#13. Leonard Cohen – “You Want It Darker”

#12. Frank Ocean – “blonde”

#11. Kanye West – “The Life of Pablo”

 

#10. Savages – “Adore Life”

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Waaay back when this album was released, on January 22nd, it didn’t feel like an album that might be necessary for the year. We had already lost Bowie, but the awfulness of 2016 hadn’t clicked in yet. But in hindsight, this album’s whole statement is a giant contradiction, and it ended up being one necessary for this year – anger and love. To anyone into Savages or post-punk in general, anger is a part of life. The band jumped off their tremendous debut by wanting to record the “loudest songs ever,” and ultimately felt they failed. They mused on the idea, and on their own success, and built a narrative about anger within love. The end result is a set of songs bent on a specific emotion – the strife of a relationship in crisis, one that will work out but isn’t at the moment. Singer Jehnny Beth always comes to the defense of love, even when she sounds completely defeated, angered, or pained. There aren’t many songs for this situation, but Savages dropped a bunch of them, and they ended up relating to the year more heavily than anyone is comfortable with. Not to mention, it’s loud. The love comes out in the lyrics, but the anger comes out in the music, no less ferocious than their debut. Even if they have accepted success and love, the women in Savages still have plenty to rage against.

Key Tracks: “Adore,” “The Answer,” “T.I.W.Y.G.”

#9. Solange – “A Seat at the Table”

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2016 followed a growing trend of pop, rap and R&B artists feeling the need to push the limits of an 80 minute CD. Many albums this year, from Drake to the Weeknd to even Metallica, suffered from an egoistic inability to cut tracks. But Solange’s album, which clocks in at 51 minutes, couldn’t lose a second. Solange takes a blunt and necessary look at the life of black America, in a way that most artists don’t. Even her sister could not get away with the searing musings, complaints and open questions that Solange does. The album – 21 tracks total – is permeated with 10 songs that are under two minutes, interludes that are often conversational about personal experience in the wrong end of institutional racism. They even include some from the Knowles parents. They serve to transition between various songs, often back and forth, which creates a very disjointed narrative. Just when Solange’s soul and R&B starts to sound settled, it gets uprooted by an interlude. This album has songs meant to please everyone – but the whole is designed to only be understood by some.

Key Tracks: “Cranes in the Sky,” “Rise/Weary,” “Don’t Touch My Hair”

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

2016 was such a bad year that we quickly ran through our usual voices of reason and still, none of us were doing well. A Tribe Called Quest finally sealed up the package in November, though, releasing their first album in 18 years. They deployed their usual formula – simple beats, and simplistic lyrics, sometimes in characters. But just like each of their previous 5 albums, the whole package was deeply effective in it’s tell-it-like-it-is format. While other artists may have hit hard political points through metaphor or satire (or were YG), ATCQ directly and nearly immediately address Trump’s America. “We the People…” is a message from the higher-up, through an unnamed narrator that’s probably Trump, telling everyone who isn’t rich, straight and white to get out of America. The lyrics continue throughout, as the Tribe adapt jazz, R&B and even rock influences, as a few tracks see Jack White pop up. A cast of well-chosen guests round out the album. Q-Tip’s voice is unique as ever, and Phife Dawg’s is just…nice to hear. He didn’t survive long enough to see the album come out, stricken by the plague that was 2016. The group entered the studio inspired and sickened by the Bataclan attack, and left with a looming President Trump. The final A Tribe Called Quest was the exact album that 2016 needed.

Key Tracks: “The Space Program,” “We the People…” “Conrad Tokyo”

#7. Danny Brown – “Atrocity Exhibition”

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Make no mistake – Danny Brown is the most innovative and unnerving rapper around right now. He’s innovative in a dark, artsy way that is never going to get him a headline festival set, but will get rave reviews and relentless listens for albums like this one. But, when you name your album after a 36 year-old Joy Division song, that’s the attention you’re seeking. Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly inappropriate, whether it’s crude sexual references, drugs, violence, dark and uncomfortable situations, or all of the above simultaneously. This album is truly all over the place, with Brown spending time rallying against police brutality, and time just rapping (again) about grinding his teeth on ecstasy. The beats range from casual, to funky, to chaotic (like lead single “When It Rain”), as Brown raps almost always in his knife-edged, shouty voice. This album might give you whiplash, it might tap into your deep subconscious, or it might just give you a good time – but it will be effective.

Key Tracks: “When It Rain,” “Really Doe,” “Tell Me What I Don’t Know”

#6. Car Seat Headrest – “Teens of Denial”

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The year’s best straight rock album came from someone who either is or isn’t a newcomer. “Teens of Denial” was the group’s first album of original material released under Matador Records – but that doesn’t count last year’s Matador debut, “Teens of Style,” which was a compilation of songs from the previous eleven albums. Still, with a solidified backing band and pronounced exposure, Will Toledo gained nationwide fame this year. “Teens of Denial” was the only noteworthy indie album that came from someone who wasn’t already very established. The album just ticks past 70 minutes, but like the Solange offering, none of it can be cut. Some songs are slow-burners, with long intros and tantric builds. Some cut more to the point, and some, like the 11:30 “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” ramble like a very-electric Dylan. The album reserves its quieter moments, but if often rocks harder than you expect it to. And the lyrics on nearly every track are golden – often depressing, but with a comical cynicism thrown in that makes them eminently quotable instead of weep-worthy.

Key Tracks: “Vincent,” “Fill in the Blank,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”

#5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – “Skeleton Tree”

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No parent should ever have to bury their child. Unfortunately, Nick Cave learned this the hard way last year, when one of his two 15 year-old twin sons died after falling off a cliff. Although this album was already in the works, the desperation he felt is palpable. He was already known as rock music’s “Prince of Darkness,” but his new album – his 16th with the Bad Seeds – takes a uniquely dark tone. It is minimalistic, to say the least. And to say the most, it gets downright blood-curdling. The opening track, “Jesus Alone,” sees him calling out to Jesus – someone he routinely scorns in his lyrics – for forgiveness. Cave sounds unusually broken and frail on this album, and the end result is the deafening quiet of loss, caught on tape. In a year of bleakness, “Skeleton Tree” is arguably the bleakest album of all.

Key Tracks: “Jesus Alone,” “I Need You”

#4. Chance the Rapper – “Coloring Book”

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Chance the Rapper had the best year of anyone – and all with a smile on his face. He previewed two songs (ultimately not on “Coloring Book”) on Saturday Night Live last December. Then he appeared again two months later, as a guest on Kanye’s performance of “Ultralight Beam.” And he was the guest again this past week. Chance the Rapper’s first “true” album really isn’t one – it’s streaming-only, and free; classified as an album just so Chance could get nominated for a Grammy (he got multiple nods). “Coloring Book” taps into the problems facing the country and his home city of Chicago, just as nearly every other rapper has this year. But Chance doesn’t paint grim messages, he harnesses the problems to talk about the good of God, life, and family; attempting to be optimistic with everything negative happening. And there are still obvious cracks. Chance flips from having a lot of fun, to having fun to forget the bad times. But “Coloring Book” is an absurdly-pleasurable romp through spirituality, raising a daughter, and Lyft rides. He’s joined by an array of guests – Bieber, Kanye, T-Pain, Future, even someone credited as “My cousin Nicole” shows up. “Coloring Book” is a life-affirming party, and Chance has personally made sure we’re all invited.

Key Tracks: “No Problem,” “Same Drugs,” “All Night”

3. Radiohead – “A Moon Shaped Pool”

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Radiohead previously stated that they weren’t sure if they were going to put out another album. One look at the tracklist – in alphabetical order, and complete with songs that have been live staples for years – and you might think it’s a compilation. In reality, though, it’s a new Radiohead album that stands up with their very best works – albums considered among the best in alternative history. This album is almost impossible to crack, especially after “Daydreaming,” when it falls into a pseudo-suite of synths fighting strings on tracks that are both distinct songs and parts of a whole. Radiohead have never been known for being an uplifting band (I would argue that “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Exit Music (For a Film)” both rank among the saddest songs ever written), but this album is particularly bleak. Thom Yorke channels the emotion and frustration of leaving his longtime partner into this gorgeous, heartbreaking work. With her not present, Thom instead turns to the audience for grief – and lets the listeners into him for the first time in the band’s career. Radiohead have remained the same five members since their formation, but it’s always felt like Thom Yorke is a conductor, and the other members follow orders. That feeling comes out in full force here.

Eleventh-hour addition: Rest in peace Dr. Rachel Owen, who learned she had cancer shortly after splitting with Thom Yorke. She passed hours before this piece was published.

Key Tracks: “Daydreaming,” “Glass Eyes,” “True Love Waits”

#2. David Bowie – “★”

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In a year of dozens of legendary albums and career achievements, Bowie’s final album – a puzzle filled with sharp left turns and symbolism – might be the album we remember from this year more than any other. As a parting gift (although he had literal last-minute plans for more), Bowie has given us an art-rock enigma that ranks as his best album in decades, and his strangest since “Station to Station,” an album which Bowie later admitted he had no memory of even recording. Bowie was always one for reinvention – he was inspired by Kendrick Lamar, and the way Lamar blended genres on last year’s #1 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” He also turns to usual sources: religion, death, references to drama. In hindsight, “★” is a not-so-coded message about Bowie’s then-inevitable passing, with multiple references to his own mortality, death, and heaven, as well as his conflicting thoughts about his own legacy. Bowie’s passing hurt like no one else’s has before. From all of us on Earth – wherever you are in space, David, thank you.

Key Tracks: “Lazarus,” “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” “Blackstar”

#1. Beyoncé – “Lemonade”

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What were you expecting? The best album of the year was so expansive that it couldn’t be told just on tape – it needed an accompanying movie. Beyoncé’s conceptual album told the tale of a marriage upended by a husband cheating, and the stages of grief that Bey’s narrator goes through. Sadness, anger, acceptance, relative forgiveness. The emotions of the narrator complement the drastic changes in genre. “Sorry,” with a red herring title, is a literal ‘bitch please’ in song form. “Daddy Lessons” led to Beyoncé performing at the CMA’s, using her Texas heritage as the basis for a legitimate country song. “Don’t Hurt Yourself” is nominated for Best Rock Performance (against Disturbed!) with Jack White’s aid on guitar. And “Freedom” is one of the biggest black anthems of the year, Kendrick Lamar verse or not. “Lemonade” plays like a greatest hits for a band that liked to experiment, except that there’s a dramatic, running narrative throughout. “Lemonade” isn’t music, it’s art, and it encompasses music, video, and poetry in a way that only one of the nation’s most talented and impressive artists could. I love Adele as much as the next person, but Beyoncé doesn’t walk home with Album of the Year at the Grammy’s, then it’ll be a travesty of the ages.”Lemonade” is one of the most diverse and comprehensive albums you can ever listen to, and it works hard to bolster the black female community. “Lemonade” is both the album we needed and deserved this year.

Key Tracks: “Sorry,” “Freedom,” “Formation”

2017 could prove to be just as good of a year, from a music standpoint, so make sure to keep checking back so you don’t miss anything extraordinary! You don’t want to be left out of conversations, right?

For a much more personal list, check my personal blog postgradmusicreviews.com by the end of the year. Read me emote about Dinosaur, Jr.

-By Andrew McNally

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