Artwork by Suejee Lee
A lot of ink has been spilled over what a terrible year 2016 has been, and that pessimism runs deep and infects everything. With the onslaught of death, division and desolation — especially at the end of the year — even the most mundane tasks take on an air of nihilism. So we walked into the list making process wondering, would we even make it to 30 albums? After so many years of incredible music did we finally reach the drought that infected so much else this year. Turns out, there’s still hope.
2016 didn’t have much, but what it did have was exceptional art. It’s a year that began with a moving David Bowie opus that’s full meaning didn’t take shape until weeks later, when he left us with a gaping hole. It’s a year where some of the best selling albums were also some of the most sonically interesting, and fittingly, it was a year full of moving and cathartic music. 2016 may have given us deaths of icons and the rise of a tyrant, but it also gave us works of empathy and pathos.
We tried our best to do justice to the incredible music that was created this year, and we know that some favorites didn’t made the list. For us, these 30 records brought some much needed sweetness to our ears — they were the ones that we hit replay on over and over, sometimes to the point of utter exhaustion. Take a look below, and let us know your favorites in the comments.
Click here to check out our Top 100 Songs of 2016
30. Chairlift – Moth
29. GOAT – Requiem
28. Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math
27. Conor Oberst – Ruminations
26. Sad13 – Slugger
25. Solange – A Seat At The Table
24. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
23. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Skeleton Tree
22. Parquet Courts – Human Performance
21. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
20. Frank Ocean – Blonde
19. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
18. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
17. Andy Shauf – The Party
16. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
15. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
14. Beyonce – Lemonade
13. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
12. Drake – Views
11. How to Dress Well – Care
Care is a completely captivating record. It’s captivating because it’s gorgeous through and through, weaving lush tapestries of sound so dense it often feels like you can touch them. It’s captivating because there are so many ideas on display that sometimes they seem like they’re fighting each other to get out. Mostly, it’s captivating because it’s a record with a unique and singular point of view — it’s art that has something to say. It’s stands out because it’s something that no one else could have made, in no other time. It’s a work of a particular, clear voice.
We get caught up sometimes in championing construction and perfection, so we forget to celebrate the beautiful mess — Care is a stunning mess. Not everything works, but even the things that fall flat are more sincere and fascinating than just about anything else. It’s a rare work that actually, really tries. Audacity like that should be rewarded. — Hannah Angst
10. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
Rarely do I come across something as genuinely likeable and instantly listenable as Whitney’s debut. Chock full of feel good riffs and breezy melodies, the songs inhale deeply from the classic rock era, but breathe out something with an entirely new flavor. The music is an amalgam of that period, piecing together enough brightly-lit pieces that the stunning whole seems conjured from scratch. The lo-fi vocals, easy lead guitar and lovely acoustic strums never fail to amaze and unwind.
Feel-goodery aside, I don’t mean to imply that Light Upon the Lake is an easy throwback without depth. Good vibes are definitely seeping out of most tracks, particularly songs like “No Matter Where We Go,” but these are intelligent songs constructed to stand the test of time. This album will feel as relevant and enjoyable decades from today as it does right now. — Lauren McKinney
9. Mitski – Puberty 2
Mitski’s newest release, coming just a year after her last acclaimed LP Bury Me at Makeout Creek, is a kind of coming-of-age for the artist. Carrying one of the strongest voices in indie rock, her songs remain genuine and contemplative — her insightful lyricism more powerful than ever. Don’t be fooled by the title of opening song “Happy” — throughout the album, Mitski explores an inexplicable discontent, contemplating the injustices of life and love. “Your Best American Girl” is a rousing standout, an anthem of self-acceptance that’s sure to strike a chord with listeners. While many of her lyrics deal with the struggle of identity, Mitski seems completely at ease in the role of a solo artist, and her electrifying presence ties Puberty 2 together through its layered depths. — Sarah Hojsak
8. Flume – Skin
Flume’s second studio album is an eclectic mélange that ricocheted between skittish synths, siren-like whooshes, and long, lush crescendos that break into lyric-less segments of chopped-up beats. He demonstrates more than ever his ability to float between his own distinctive, other-wordly sound and the mainstream pop/dance/electronic trend that artists like The Chainsmokers, Lost Kings, DJ Snake seem to have mastered. The difference with Flume is that with Skin, he managed to hold onto a certain idiosyncrasy that many artists like him have completely abandoned. The throaty refrains of alt-pop female artists like Tove Lo, Aluna Francis, Kai, and Kučka cut easily into his own decisively electronic mixes, which range from heavy, apocalyptic bass to uplifting chord sequences. — Danielle Cohen
7. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
On it’s face, Freetown Sound is an immaculately produced alt-pop gem that has funk to spare. But that’s not what makes the record great, what makes it great is the fact that in addition to being an incredibly dancable modern opus, it’s a meditiation on the many facets of Dev Hynes‘ and the identity issues that he and countless others grapple with daily. It’s a record that leaves enough space for duets with Empress Of and Debbie Harry as well as poetry from Ashlee Haze and readings from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Like many of the other best records of the year, Freetown Sound is an expression of the individual that made it – a unique and booming voice rising above everything else. — Hannah Angst
6. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
Frankie Cosmos specializes in evoking a great deal of feeling with little ornamentation and zero pretension. She illuminates everyday things, turning them sacred with her sincerity and candor. The melodies on Next Thing stick after just one listen lending to gratuitous repeat plays, each one feeling a lot like having dinner with an old friend who actually listens. — Charity Painter
5. Kyle Morton – What Will Destroy You
Few albums this year hit me as deep this year as the debut solo release by Kyle Morton. As a big fan of his releases as Typhoon, I was ecstatic to find out Morton was releasing a solo effort, not to mention one that captured me from first listen and failed to grow old even as I played it to death. Evoking thoughts of early Bright Eyes with its emotive lyrics and dynamic instrumentals, What Will Destroy You is as complete a record as I heard in 2016. It doesn’t have a standout single for the most part but plays beautifully as a whole album from start to finish. While there really are endless aspects of this album that resonated with me, it was the vulnerability that Morton exudes with his quivering vocals and honest lyrics that shook me the most. This might be one of the albums on this list you might not have expected or seen on other publications so make sure you give it a proper listen and hopefully you’ll fall in love. –Eric Weiner
4. Angel Olsen – My Woman
The “My” in My Woman is not about possession — it’s about self-proclamation and affirmation. This is Angel Olsen’s attempt at showing the world who she really is, even if she doesn’t quite have it all figured out yet. You may have liked Olsen better when she was a “folk singer,” but that was only ever one facet of an increasingly complex artist. My Woman may not be Olsen’s final answer to those wondering what exactly her sound is, but it is a beautiful exploration. The song styles change, but each shift feels appropriate to whatever plane she’s exploring at the time. “Shut Up Kiss Me” is the most assertive lyrically, paired perfectly with garage rock reverb and brash vocal delivery. But the album’s shining moments are the ones that find her continuing to question who she is and where she’s going, like the blues rock lament “Woman,” or the soaring, exploratory ’70s rock anthem “Sister,” which captures a sound that pairs perfectly with Olsen’s repeated lament, “All my life I thought I’d change.” If this album is any indication, Olsen will continue to change, and we’ll gladly join her on the journey. — Jenny Gumbert
3. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Coloring Book, summed up, is a modern masterpiece of musical dynamics — balancing moments of subtlety with elements of perfect bombast, punchy beats with waves of electronic pulses, highly-emotive tunes with obvious party anthems. Chance the Rapper never rests comfortably within a particular soundscape, instead allowing each song to stand comfortably on its own. Still, there’s a unifying thread of joy that stitches these disparate sounds together — a sense of possibility, purpose and elation that seems to permeate the album. Perfectly stated, and of course more broadly meant, he says: “I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom.”
Each track is also anchored by his perfect verses, woven together so deliberately and smoothly, they’re delivered with the ease of an exhale. Coloring Book feels like the result of creative collaboration and manifestation done right — an explosion of frenetic energy and pure expression that was collected and served for our listening pleasure.
2. Big Thief – Masterpiece
For a debut album, Big Thief’s Masterpiece is an incredibly rich listening experience — and an unexpected one. The Brooklyn four-piece seemingly came out of nowhere this year, and have been capturing hearts ever since. Masterpiece is scattered with moments both fragile and robust, from the energetic title track to the beautifully delicate “Paul,” anchored through and through by lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s stirring vocals. Despite its overall polished production, interspersed homemade-sounding elements like the sparsely acoustic opener “Little Arrow” and the spoken word recording on “Interstate” add an approachable element to Big Thief’s sound. Even the album’s slightly tongue-in-cheek title isn’t that far from reality – Masterpiece is really just that. – Sarah Hojsak
1. David Bowie – ★
“I’m not saying David Bowie was holding together the fabric of the universe but *gestures broadly at everything*” So stated a popular meme following David Bowie’s death on Jan. 10, 2016. Those words continued to circulate as what was already a trying year became more and more hard to bear. Such a statement seems ridiculous at face value, but when you consider all that Bowie accomplished during his time on earth and how much he meant to those whose lives he touched through his music, it seems genuinely possible. The triumphant Blackstar felt like the beginning of Bowie’s late-career renaissance, but any hopes for more of his truly unique perspective were cruelly torn away. The album starts with the tragic dystopian epic “Blackstar,” but ends with something verging on hope on the shimmering “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” The lyrics speak of uncertainty and weariness, but the instrumentation is light and lilting. Perhaps Bowie, ever the wise one, was foretelling the dark, ambiguous times that lie ahead, and reminding us that at end of it all there is still light to be seen. — Jenny Gumbert