You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.
20. Black Mountain – IV
If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.
19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – one last crack at the god that never wrote him back. He may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.
18. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.
17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.
16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs
When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.
15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.
14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”
13. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.
12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season
A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.
11. The Monkees – Good Times!
On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop. Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.
10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.
9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd
A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.
8. Anderson Paak – Malibu
Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”
7. Solange – A Seat at the Table
In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. A Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.
6. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.
5. Rihanna – Anti
Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.
4. William Tyler – Modern Country
There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.
3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service
The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.
2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto
In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.
1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.
Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3