2016 has been shit for a lot of reasons; a number of legends have left us (several are on this list), the political climate is oppressive and depressing, and Hollywood’s corner-cutting is starting to catch up with it, resulting in a year of mediocre big releases. Still, one area where 2016 has not disappointed, is music. Holy shit. Several artists return out of nowhere after years, others return with more of what they’re good at, and several more take big risks and explore new sounds to fantastic effect. Here are the best thirty of the bunch.
30. Noname – Telefone
Noname has been around awhile, hopping on a number of features but this is her first official project, and what a start. Her breezy, go easy, feel good sound and smooth flow make her one of the most exciting new MCs out there.
29. Weyes Blood – Front Row Seat to Earth
Weyes Blood’s (Natalie Mering) brand of pop/folk is something both gorgeous and brilliant. With a sound reminiscent of something out of the ’70s, with a young modern, flair, crisp vocals, and sharp songwriting, Weyes Blood has a winner here.
28. Solange – A Seat at the Table
The younger of the Knowles sisters pulls off the best record of her career with this one. It’s an incredibly personal work that weaves through Solange’s thoughts with her absolutely stunning voice as its vehicle.
27. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
Though a little long, and a little messy, there are cuts off “The Colour in Anything” that are absolutely incredible (“I Need a Forest Fire”) is jaw-dropping. Blake’s voice and production are as always in a league of their own, and his ambition here is palpable.
26. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
The fact that these are simply throwaway cuts that didn’t make it onto Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece “To Pimp a Butterfly” and this short record still ranks among the best, most creative music released this year tells you all you need to know about the talent this guy has.
25. clipping – Splendor and Misery
Thankfully, his success in the international hit “Hamilton” hasn’t kept MC Daveed Diggs from getting weird as fuck. “Splendor and Misery” is scary, fascinating, deftly produced and blasted through the depths of space by Diggs’ impeccable flow.
24. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of Donald’s Glover’s rap projects, as they come off as contrived and corny. This year, however, he’s really showing his talent with Atlanta perhaps the best new show on tv, and “Awaken, My Love!” a ballsy, immensely enjoyable funk record.
23. YG – Still Brazy
California rapper YG’s Still Brazy is pure, concentrated gangsta rap. The album plops out banger after banger (including the anthem of the year “Fuck Donald Trump”) that range from bleak to funny, but always catchy.
22. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai
Ka very well may be the most slept on rapper out there right now. Honor Killed the Samurai is dark, dense and personal, while Ka himself is hushed, while simultaneously having a huge presence.
21. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson puts the modern country music landscape to shame. The man pulls from traditional country sounds but does so with gusto and experimentation with other sounds as well, resulting in an all-around fantastic record.
20. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
Cohen’s farewell record, is both haunting and engrossing. His voice is raspy, deep and noticeably tired. His lyrics are both cryptic and lovely, making for a fitting cap on a decades long career.
19. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
“The Sun’s Tirade” may be the most exciting debut of the year. Bits of soul, jazz, and southern rap fuse along with crystal clean production and create a showcase for Rashad’s massive talent and potential. Can’t wait to see what this kid does next.
18. Swans – The Glowing Man
Michael Gira caps off this lineup of Swans, and their latest series of (excellent) records with the dense, loud and bizarre “Glowing Man”. It’s similar stylistically to “To Be kind” and “The Seer” albeit more ambient based, but no use fixing what isn’t broken.
17. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
“Bottomless Pit” contains some of experimental hip hop group Death Grip’s most accessible and bizarre material. Often enigmatic and abrasive, but always catchy, and embracing an overall more punk sound, this record makes for one of their best projects to date.
16. Anohni – Hopelessness
Anohni is probably the most ground-breaking artist in music. One of the few trans women on the industry, she uses absurdly catchy synthpop, fused with experimental lyrical structure and searing political commentary to create one of the most moving projects released this year.
15. Mitski – Puberty 2
Mitski is one of the best voices, and one of the most nuanced songwriters in indie rock today. Puberty 2 is a gorgeous, melancholy meditation on love and self that is often as heartfelt as it is heavy.
14. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Will Toledo is probably the years biggest success story. After years of recording Bancamp records by himself in his car, he finally makes it out with Teens of Denial an incredibly sharp and intelligent indie record.
13. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
My most hyped record at the beginning of this year. Disregarding the man’s meltdown throughout the year, and absurd antics before Pablo’s release, the album itself is a wonderful mess, each track crafted brilliantly, while the project itself breaks to boundaries for album concepts in general.
12. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Aesop Rock has always been one of the best underground rappers around, and The Impossible Kid is just further proof of that. His impeccable flow and brilliant lyricism are still here, but are more introspective than ever.
11. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Chance is finally on the come up. After the fantastic Acid Rap a few years ago, Coloring Book is the furthering of Chance as an artist. Simultaneously a celebration of faith and life, Coloring Book is the kid’s best record yet, and is guaranteed to brighten your day.
10. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Is it a predictable choice putting Beyoncé in the top 10? Maybe. But I don’t care. Whether the drama is fabricated or not, Lemonade is still a great piece of music. It feels empowering, angry, and sincere all at once, and doesn’t think twice about treading new ground, and admirable feat for one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
9. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Seminal ’90s hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest release their first album in almost two decades, months after the tragic death of Phife Dawg, and not only do they manage to sound as good as they did in their peak, but manage to create a sharp and poignant tribute to their lost ones AS WELL as dropping conscious, politically relevant material within. I didn’t expect it, but i’m more than happy it’s here.
8. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Angel Olsen’s voice is absolutely stunning, and My Woman is the perfect vehicle for her. Covering a variety of sounds from pop to folk and garage rock, the record is bold, smart, wonderful, and gorgeous.
7. The Avalanches – Wildflower
This is a record no one thought would ever happen, but after sixteen, the follow-up, to Since I Left You, one of the best indie records of all time is finally here, and somehow, it manages to be fantastic. It’s bright and sunny, within infusions of hip hop that feel like a natural evolution of The Avalanches’ sound. It’s like they never even left.
6. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3
This one made me glad I held off on this list. Killer Mike and El-P, somehow, shockingly manage to outdo themselves once again. RTJ3 is angrier and sharper than ever, and El-P’s production just keeps getting better. It’s also their most politically heated record yet: if violent revolution isn’t in your blood by the time the last track ends, better start right back at the beginning.
5. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead have nothing to prove at this point, but they still manage to affirm themselves as one of the best and most important groups of the past several decades. AMSP is constantly crushingly solemn. It’s a low-key record that will take a few listens to realize just how brilliant and painfully lovely it is.
4. Frank Ocean – Blonde
The wait was painful, and marred with uncertainty, but the final product, Frank Ocean’s follow-up to Channel Orange, one of the best records of the decade so far, meets expectations. It doesn’t tread the same ground, but experiments with new sounds that are often jaw-droppingly beautiful, and impressively mature for such a young artist.
3. David Bowie – Blackstar
Before Bowie died only a few days after the release of Blackstar last January, the record already felt like a goodbye (“Look up here I’m in heaven” in Lazarus). But even before we found out it was his farewell project, it was already a haunting, otherworldly thing. The music is dense and complex, and occasionally impenetrable, like the man who broke so many boundaries while he was with us decided to make one more massive leap forward to leave for us to decipher.
2. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
There is no other rapper in the game that sounds absolutely anything like Danny Brown. Taking nods from Post-punk (see the title), this is 2016’s most cryptic, bizarre, and off the wall record filled to the brim with experimental, often twisted, flows and beats. Every track is a delve into insanity. The full project is proof that Danny is one of the best and most unique out there.
1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
There were few albums this year that came close to matching the pure sonic beauty of 22, A Million. Justin Vernon isn’t the first to try out folktronica, or even experiment with a new sound (especially this year), but this one may be the most realized. Every single track is both eerie and gorgeous. Lyrics are mostly nonsensical, used for their sonic value more than anything, but explorations of the effects of fame, religion, and existence bleed through. Overall, it’s a brilliantly crafted, beautiful piece of sound, an impressive top off for an already incredible year in music.