We don’t have to tell you 2016 was a terrible year in many ways. But, we made it through! Let’s focus on the music and remember the incredible amount of good albums that came out.
This simple fact says it all: we rated no less than 83 albums 8 or higher. Some of these records are overtly political, some not at all, some artists turn out to have questionable political persuasions. Some other records are deeply personal, some simply offer great music.
In a way, it was the year of veterans; there’s a surprising amount of experienced artists doing what’s expected of them, and more. Some of these heroes we sadly lost this year. Bowie, Prince, Cohen and others will be sorely missed. We believe there’s a bright future in music, though: only a few albums in our Top 20 are by artists we heard about for the first time (Whitney, Methyl Ethel), but they promise great things for the future.
For every album in our Top 10 we wrote an additional, personal story.
Let’s make next year another great one. Enjoy.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
Oh Inhuman Spectacle
The Glowing Man
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
As I wrote in my review, Blonde initially disappointed me. We had waited four years for Frank Ocean’s follow-up to channel ORANGE, and it didn’t seem up to par. Maybe it was impossible to instantaneously quench our thirsts. With hardly any beats and no songs as directly devastating as ‘Thinkin about you’ or ‘Bad religion’, this is a totally different album. It’s so spare, it takes some time to land. But oh boy does it find its way into your heart. ‘Solo’ and ‘Seigfried’, with their impressive words and details, are among his best work. 2016 needed a sincere and personal album like this. Don’t forget that channel ORANGE has had four years to grow into the classic it is now. Blonde will do the same. – Jorre
Light Upon The Lake
Light Upon The Lake is the album with the most distinctive mood of 2016. It’s the ultimate summer record, or more precisely: the ultimate record to spin when you’re drinking with friends and the sun sets in the background. Falsetto, gentle guitar and trumpet: the ingredients are all here. I’m not always a fan of this kind of laidback vibe, but Whitney are no Jack Johnson by any means. Go beyond the initial layer of lightness and you’ll find a surprisingly rich, creative, innovative world that can help you through the winter as well. Vintage, timeless. Nostalgia can be a bitch, but in this case it’s the sweetest sensation to revel in. – Jorre
Some lyrics: “Who you think you are? / Fuck’s like “do you know who I am?” / Fucks fail to understand / I’m like… Eh.” Hard to expect much less from the trio putting hip-hop on its ass by punching it with noisy, chaotic production and gargantuan drum pounds from Hell. MC Ride continues his incredible streak of giving no fucks while pushing some of the more interesting bars of his career, all while his lyrics continue their entirely askew and strained delivery. – Dylan
It wasn’t entirely clear at first, but LEMONADE is the most prominent in an impressive row of protest albums by black artists released this year. Initially marketed as an album about marriage and infidelity (‘Formation’ being the political exception), it soon turned out to be so much more. Beyoncé proves she doesn’t have to apologize, she can be proud of where she’s from, she can swing a baseball bat, she can break chains all by herself. Musically, it is no second BEYONCÉ, with its trap beats, but she has already moved past that. LEMONADE effortlessly mixes R&B with rock, hip-hop, country and more. When she swings, Beyoncé hardly ever misses. – Jorre
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Thirty years after forming, the ones with the vibe and impeccable taste, A Tribe Called Quest, laid out a message in their title. Paying respect to their fallen comrade, Phife Dawg, the Tribe perfectly encapsulated a fiery time in America with political and spiritual messages aplenty. Some of the tracks invoke pure glee with how much fun they are having (‘Black Spasmodic’, ‘Movin Backwards’, ‘Conrad Tokyo’) .What makes this new record so phenomenal is its sheer ease to submerge and wrestle with an anarchic energy they previously only tapped on The Low End Theory. – Dylan
The Colour in Anything
Blake’s toolset, since the crazily young age he entered the scene, has always been expansive. But The Colour in Anything is beyond anything he’s achieved to date. A wildly unpredictable masterpiece from start to end of its eighty minute journey, cataloguing the tribulations of his early adult life. Few artists can so tantalizingly marry near-radio-friendly accessibility with the weird and challenging; nearly every moment of simple beauty has its reins yanked by an obscure key change, a harsh, scalpel-clean synth, or a nightmarish onslaught of samples. The Colour’s success lies in this unique way Blake expresses himself. Nothing sounds quite like it. – Chris
22, A Million
Since the curious ‘hang on, is that… auto-tune?!’ moment way back in Bon Iver’s ‘The Wolves’, nine years ago, it seems 22, A Million has been an album waiting to happen. Indeed, it’s more For Emma’s spiritual successor than it is Bon Iver, Bon Iver’s. Inside the discord, industrial crunch, and the digital torture Vernon’s vocals are put through, the willing listener will find an astonishingly raw, human album at 22, A Million’s heart. When ‘29 #Strafford APTS’ falls to bits at the last hurdle and Vernon’s voice, just when he needs the swell of music, is left utterly naked, the gain turned up piercingly high, it must be the most powerful moment in music I’ve heard this year. – Chris
The Life of Pablo
Sloppy as the tracklisting and roll-out was, Kanye’s genius and the brilliance of the individuals he recruited paid heavy dividends. The Life of Pablo merely confirms Kanye’s legacy rather than adding to it, but he’s directly added to the hip-hop lexicon by offering Desiigner the opportunity of a lifetime and giving Chance The Rapper the platform he needed. More importantly, he’s held down the fans. The release may have been sloppy, but the record is meticulously crafted. – Ben
A spiritual statement from release, Bowie’s death overshadowed a genuinely wicked 2016. But his farewell is not just a diatribe on death, it is actually a far-reaching seven-song scripture on Bowie’s life. Through the sax wails of ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ to the drum machine sampled on ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, Blackstar ventures deeply through a large swath of sounds like any one of his immensely special records from years before. But what places this record so far away is Bowie’s massive performance on ‘Lazarus’, a track that will never escape his already acclaimed legacy. – Dylan
A Moon Shaped Pool
Five years! The longest gap between any Radiohead album, and 2011’s The King of Limbs was, by their standards, met with worryingly luke-warm reception. Then A Moon Shaped Pool swung down this spring: a rich, beautiful world engrossing enough to envelope oneself in and forget all about 2016. Rarely have their lyrics been so straight-forward and affecting: Yorke describes the onset of panic through a phone line in ‘Glass Eyes’, analyses ‘half of my life’ in ‘Daydreaming’, resigns that ‘In you I’m lost’ in ‘Present Tense’. Greenwood musters the London Contemporary Orchestra to full effect, their strings chomp, sigh and soar behind a band firing on all pistons. Radiohead’s confidence is palpable. – Chris