Looking back on lists of my favorite albums from recent years, I feel safe in declaring 2016 the best year for music in over a decade. Even the rise of The Chainsmokers, America's douchiest chart toppers since LFO (never forget: "When I met you I said my name was Rich/ You look like a girl from Abercrombie and Fitch"), couldn't take away from all the exciting new music being released.
It seemed like there was a must-hear record every other week this year, and tons of event records from the biggest stars—David Bowie, Kanye West, Radiohead, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Drake, Frank Ocean—that either lived up to the considerable hype, or added fascinating wrinkles to their careers.
Below, you'll find my favorite albums of the year—there were of course tons of amazing records which aren't here, either because they didn't quite do it for me (I liked 22, A Million more than his previous two albums, but Bon Iver still makes me shrug), or I stupidly slept on them until very recently. A few honorable mentions: A Tribe Called Quest went out in style on We Got It From Here..., Paul Simon continued his late-period hot streak with Stranger To Stranger, Young Thug got weird in a good way on Jeffry, and ScHoolboy Q, Eleanor Friedberger, Animal Collective, Danny Brown and Cass McCombs all released very good albums worthy of your time, should you have it.
Check out my recommendations below, then tell me how wrong I am and share your own favorite discoveries of 2016 in the comments below.
21. Various Artists, Day of The Dead: Whether you are a Grateful Dead devotee or not, there's something here to please music fans of all varieties, and the album has likely made skeptics rethink some of your own assumptions about the Dead's craft. Created and curated by the Dressner brothers (of The National), these three discs are filled with some of the best musicians of the moment reinterpreting, reimagining and paying homage to the Dead. Some artists find themselves within the Dead's grooves (Courtney Barnett on "New Speedway Boogie," Unknown Mortal Orchestra on "Shakedown Street"), some in the spirit of camaraderie ("Sugaree," featuring Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis & Friends, is particularly joyous). You couldn't be blamed for thinking "Touch of Grey" really was written by the War On Drugs, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks conjure the ghost of the Dead for "China Cat Sunflower -> I Know You Rider." If you take some time with it, you will find a new favorite artist to follow—at the very least, you'll definitely find yourself reaching over to revisit Workingman's Dead.
20. Rihanna, Anti: Thanks in part to a confusing, prolonged rollout which ironically culminated in a premature release online, everything about Anti seemed underwhelming at first glance. This was supposed to be her Beyoncé moment, an album on which a beloved hitmaker explored her artistry in new and dazzling ways to universal acclaim. Instead, Anti was an underdog and, thankfully, a classic grower—Rihanna's first album that actually feels like a complete album experience that took some time to process. It's a moody, sultry, downtempo record that also contains some of her most addictive songs ("Sex With Me," "Work," the ecstatic throwback "Love On The Brain"). And for an album initially dismissed for its lack of singles, there was no better one than "Needed Me," whose hooks were sharper than a vulture's talons.
19. Deerhoof, The Magic: Deerhoof remained the greatest live rock 'n' roll band of its generation in 2016, able to weave in-and-out of complex time signatures or nail Def Leppard with the same joie de vivre. And whether they were offering to visit your town in "Acceptance Speech" or toasting to Bernie Sanders on "Model Behavior," they captured that spirit perfectly on The Magic. While not as focused as 2014's superlative La Isla Bonita, this album leaned more into the group's punk and polymath roots: "Kafe Mania!" sounds like something off of Milk Man, "That Ain't No Life To Me" is chaotic-good Sonic Youth, and the Stones would kill for a groove like "Plastic Thrills." Best of all, there's "Criminals Of The Dream," which climaxes and floats away on the most gorgeous (and optimistic) refrain of their career: "Things aren't as bad as they seem/Dream, you can dream, you can dream, you can dream/I know you can dream."
18. Wilco, Schmilco: On a solo project, Jeff Tweedy once sang, "I've always been low key/ Let's let the record show." But even that Tweedy album was a rollicking affair compared to Wilco's latest. I think it's safe to call Schmilco "minor Wilco" without meaning that as some grave insult—it's a purposefully insular, largely acoustic affair in which Tweedy opens up about childhood memories ("Normal American Kids," "Quarters"), lets his vulnerabilities hang out ("Cry All Day," "Happiness"), and generally leans into a "joyously negative" psyche ("Why kill a man when you can drive him crazy?" from "Nope"). It's looser than any other Wilco album, and still includes room for extreme beauty, especially in the delicate harmonies of highlight "If I Ever Was A Child."
17. GBV, Please Be Honest / ESP Ohio-Starting Point Of The Royal Cyclopean / Robert Pollard-Of Course You Are: Robert Pollard is the greatest rock songwriter of the last thirty years, an uninhibited explorer of the four Ps: pop, punk, psych, and prog. It's easy to take him for granted when he's releasing anywhere from five to ten records a year with various projects, as he has pretty steadily since disbanding GBV the first time in 2004. 2016 was a relatively light year for him, with only three major releases, but they all have something to recommend: Of Course You Are has the widest range of songs with the cleanest production, including power pop ("I Can Illustrate"), baroque string pieces ("Come And Listen"), and organ rock ("The Hand That Holds You"). Royal Cyclopean is a joyous reunion with guitarist Doug Gillard filled with the kind of riffs ("Lithuanian Bombshells") and instantly-memorable melodies ("Miss Hospital '93") associated with mid-period GBV. And best of all, Please Be Honest is a new mission statement for GBV featuring Pollard on every instrument. It's a messy record filled equally with human errors and human amusements, but tracks like "Glittering Parliaments," "My Zodiac Companion" and "Kid On A Ladder" have that GBV magic that can still send shivers up the spine.
16. Parquet Courts, Human Performance: Parquet Court's full-length debut, Light Up Gold, remains one of the best NYC albums of the last decade—in the records since, they've only made their sound bigger, their lyrics more anxious, and their songs more songy. They hit a peak here with the title track, which sounds like an expressive Blonde On Blonde-era Dylan verse married to a U2 stadium chorus (but...not embarrassing). A couple of tracks guided by Jeff Tweedy in the booth are maybe the best recordings they've made ("Dust," "Keep It Even"), and there's still room for gorgeous Velvet Underground ballads ("Steady On My Mind"), Orange Juice-aping singles ("Berlin Got Blurry") and "One Man, No City," which offers the delightful thought of Jonathan Richman fronting the Talking Heads.
15. Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered: I still remember watching Lamar perform then-unreleased tracks on The Colbert Report ("untitled 03 | 05.28.2013") and The Tonight Show ("untitled 08 | 09.06.2014") and thinking, "Where the hell did these songs come from, why aren't they on To Pimp A Butterfly?!?" This album, made up of jazzy works-in-progress from the TPAB-era, are exhibits A through H that even Kendrick's leftovers are better than most artist's main work. You'll have "Get Top on the phone!" stuck in your head within minutes.
14. Solange, A Seat At The Table: Solange stepped out of the shadow of her big sister in a big way this year, garnering well-deserved acclaim for her brilliant forays into soul, indie, and R&B. The vocal arrangements are dizzying and complex (especially in the vapor trails of "Cranes In The Sky"), buoying lyrics that are all about black women reclaiming their narratives out of other people's mouths.
The social and political commentary, aided by several interstitial spoke word interludes featuring friends and family members, reaches a peak on the wonderful "Mad," in which Solange refuses to apologize for her most human qualities: "I ran into this girl, I said, "I'm tired of explaining."/ Man, this shit is draining/ But I'm not really allowed to be mad."
13. Hamilton Leithauser / Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine: Even before he (formally) left Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij had turned into an indie pop Johnny Greenwood-for-hire, writing and arranging for the likes of Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Ra Ra Riot and Frank Ocean, as well as composing tunes for a Kenneth Lonergan play and finalizing his first solo album. But his best collaboration to date has been with Hamilton Leithauser, the former/sometime frontman of The Walkmen, whose raspy, powerful voice could make Sam Cooke's ears perk up.
This album, Leithauser's best solo record since The Walkmen disbanded, pairs his shotgun vocals with Rostam's twinkly, expansive production to create a unique take on the shooby doo wop genre. Every lyric and instrumentation choice sounds carefully considered, as if the tunes were left to simmer for years before anything was finalized. And yet, thanks for those vocal chops, it still has an urgency and spontaneity most artists could spend decades trying to capture. Harry Nilsson would be proud.
12. Frankie Cosmos, Next Thing: Her Bandcamp bio paints a decent picture: "blues dog sounds quiet sad secret stupid New York." If the songs on Next Thing were not so finely constructed, this could have just been another twee indie record. But Greta Kline writes evocative, intimate verses, filled with unforgettable images and unexpected cultural touchstones. The melodies get under your skin, and the lyrics leave you with a melancholy aftertaste. "I watch David Blaine/ Find myself believing/ In anything, in many things;" "You are bug bites on vacation;" "I floated in and started living/ Passed a Blondie asked you a question." Like the Buzzcocks once put it, small songs with big hearts.
11. Drake, Views: It's way too long, it's way too repetitive, and it's filled with completely self-involved lyrics wherein Drake hits the expected pressure points and nostalgic references he hits on all his albums. With his canny ability at transforming other people's castaways into his hits, Drake has turned into the inverse of Jay Z's old mantra, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man!" AND YET, the heart wants what the heart wants: it's my favorite Drake album yet, a chilly, overcooked and overflowing mess filled with monster singles ("One Dance," "Controlla," "Too Good," "Hotline Bling") and addictive, minimalist album tracks ("U With Me?", "Still Here," "With You"). Best of all, there's "Western Road Flows," riding on top of a Mary J Blige sample, and "Feel No Ways," which should have been the song that conquered the world. Of course he would declare, "Views already a classic" on the fifth song of the album.
10. Angel Olsen, My Woman: There are few things more exciting than hearing a promising, already-good artist taking the leap to the next level. Angel Olsen did it this year on her third album, honing her already impressive songwriting chops by incorporating a wider range of influences, including Bowie-esque '70s glam, '50s girl groups, Crazy Horse, PJ Harvey and country pop. Before, she made her name with austere, lonely campfire folk tunes; now, you could imagine her tackling any mood and owning it.
The added sonic variety leads to a classic Neil Young dichotomy: the first side is loose and glam and fun, with Olsen getting shouty on "Shut Up Kiss Me" and sexy on "Never Be Mine." The second half turns more overtly melancholic, with standouts like "Woman" and "Sister" slowly unspooling with a timeless ache and a buzzing guitar: "I dare you to understand/ What makes me a woman."
9. The Avalanches, Wildflower: Can you call an album that was hotly anticipated for 16 years across the globe a sleeper? The sample fairy dropped the perfect summer album of (give or take) 2006 in 2016, and it was the best party record I heard all year. The band took the template of their classic Since I Left You to new territories thanks to the added infusion of hip-hop (MF Doom, Danny Brown, Biz Markie, Sonny Cheeba) and indie rock (Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev, Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux, Dave Berman of Silver Jews) guest stars.
A lot of critics seemed to settle for the conclusion that Wildflower didn't live up to their expectations—but how can anyone expect a followup album to a revolutionary record to also be revolutionary? Instead, Wildflower was like the perfect Avalanches mixtape, with a consistent mood (a humid summer's day road trip across a hectic world) and imbued it with Smile-worthy zaniness. That includes the cartoonish "The Noisy Eater" (featuring the wonderful "Come Together" choir sample), the disco groove of "Subways" (featuring those unmistakable Bee Gees strings), the boisterous "Because I'm Me," and the festival romanticism of "If I Was a Folkstar." You won't find a more fun album in 2016 (let alone 2006).
8. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker: In a year filled with alarming, unexpected goodbyes (Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Hillary Clinton), Leonard Cohen gave us a whole album (and an endlessly memorable New Yorker article) to get used to the idea of him not being around anymore. One of the great poets of popular music got to go out with a fully-formed late period masterpiece: "They oughta give my heart a medal/ For letting go of you/ When I turned my back on the devil/ Turned my back on the angel, too," he sings in "On The Level."
As with the best of Cohen's later period works (Old Ideas, Popular Problems), the songs are wry and clever, touching on romantic separation, spiritual loss and his resolve toward "leaving the table." There's also a clarity to the arrangements—warm keyboards, minimal synths, live string instruments—that harkens back to Cohen's naturalistic approach to his best music of the '70s (New Skin For The Old Ceremony, Recent Songs).
7. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool: Radiohead have always written songs about alienation through technology (in this way, they were the proto-Black Mirror). It's almost ridiculous now thinking about how paranoid they were on OK Computer in the midst of the swinging '90s. But anxiousness has always been their raison d'etre.
Now, faced with the rise of totalitarianism across the globe, their worst fears about the future starting to come true, they chose to fight against the darkness by releasing an album that turns inward. Despite the specters of loss all around (this is Radiohead, after all), this was their warmest-sounding album yet, filled with bossanova touches ("Present Tense"), understated acoustic guitar ("Desert Island Disk"), buoyant string arrangements ("Burn The Witch") and most surprisingly, hard-earned optimism ("The Numbers").
The loss In Yorke's personal life (he recently separated from his partner of 23 years) fills the lyrics throughout with heartbreaking, casually vivid details, as with "Glass Eyed;" "Hey it's me/ I-I just got off the train/ A frightening place/ The faces are concrete grey/ And I'm wondering, should I turn around?/ Buy another ticket?" Coming at the climax of the album, the long-awaited studio version of "True Love Waits" (written...around 23 years ago) almost floats away along with Yorke's falsetto. And best of all, there's "Daydreaming," which could be about Yorke's divorce, the end of Radiohead, the political state of the world or your run-of-the-mill apocalypse—but it's certainly the most gorgeous song they've released since "Pyramid Song."
6. Beyoncé, Lemonade: 2014 and 2015 were sorely lacking in new Beyoncé albums, but this year Beyoncé unveiled her visual album Lemonade, a meditation on infidelity, black identity and a political awakening in age of Trump. It dropped with a one-hour HBO extravaganza in April. There may have been other albums I listened to more this year, but there was no bigger album than this one. And when Beyoncé has something to get off her chest, all we mortals can do is stand in awe and take it in.
But Lemonade was more than a collection of good ("Daddy Lessons," "All Night") and great ("Hold Up," "Freedom," "Sorry," "Don't Hurt Yourself") songs about fidelity and forgiveness—it was the first top-to-bottom song cycle of her career. 4 was her marriage-is-fun album, Beyoncé was her sexy self-empowerment album, but neither of them necessarily held together as great albums. On Lemonade, all of her various personas—hitmaker, black feminist, fashion icon, visual artist, empowerment symbol—coalesced into something fierce and transformative.
5. Frank Ocean, Blond/Blonde: "I'm not brave," Frank Ocean sings on "Seigfried," the emotional climax of his second album of 2016 (the first, Endless, was more a head-fake outtakes collection than a full release). Ocean likes keeping his fans at arm's length—a little mystery can go a long way, especially if you're already preternaturally shy—but the struggle to connect, to create lasting bonds, to survive the emotional washing machine of fame and romance and personal expectations would be a lot for anyone.
The way night and day seem to merge and emerge from one another, the contradictions piling up like weed crumbling in the glitter, turn a tune like "Nights" into a near-impenetrable, unceasingly compelling dark night of the soul. Appropriately, for a musical genius who seems slightly uncomfortable with the world and how best to use his talents, some of the best tunes conjure up Brian Wilson's haunted spirit, as on the climaxes of "Skyline To" or "Self-Control."
The most surprising thing about Blonde isn't that Ocean has taken his gifts to the next level—it's everything he's shed to get there (which includes how little percussion is on it, compared to channel ORANGE). It makes sense, because this record is filled with secrets and personal anecdotes shared late at night, maybe on some rooftop overlooking some city after an aimless party ("I'd do anything for you/ in the dark"). These tunes would be overwhelmed by too much accompaniment: "I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me," Ocean sings, startling even himself, on standout "Ivy," a tune which gets lodged in the brain on a hypnagogic wave of Ocean's escalating vocals.
4. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book: "I don't make songs for free/ I make 'em for freedom," is a tidy summation of Chance's label-avoiding career thus far. In a scant five years, he's gone from a Chicago kid coming up with rhymes while suspended from high school to singing "Sunday Candy" at the White House tree lighting ceremony (to the visible delight of Sasha and Malia), eclipsing Kanye West with his guest verse on "Ultralight Beam," and charming the bejesus out of Ellen.
I was bowled over by how much Chance has matured from his last mixtape, Acid Rap: he's more in control of his flow, he sings on-key, and he isn't trying to throw the kitchen sink into every song. The gospel elements ("How Great," "Blessings," "Finish Line/Drown") give more focus to his joyous musings on childhood haunts ("Summer Friends") and abiding love for music ("All We Got"). He celebrates God, his daughter, even his record label troubles ("No Problems")—if being an unapologetic optimist at the end of the Obama era is too corny for some hip-hop heads, that says more about them than Chance.
3. Car Seat Headrest, Teens Of Denial: An authority no less than Gene Simmons has declared that rock is dead (and that rap is dying, pop is karaoke, and EDM is all light shows), and who are we to argue? Dear lord, the biggest rock acts of the year were Twenty One Pilots and The Lumineers—Drake had the most popular album on iTunes, and the best selling physical CD of the year was the proto-Drake, Mozart. What can a new rock band say that hasn't been said before?
And yet, once every two or three years, a new voice emerges out of the indie rock murk that can restore your faith in the simple power of ragged detuned guitars ("Fill In The Blank"), jangly singalong choruses ("Friends With Drugs"), and wet wet drums. Car Seat Headrest came into their own as a band with their Matador debut, like a magical concoction of The Replacements at their most energetic and Pavement at their most thoughtful. Songwriter Will Toledo isn't reinventing the wheel ("Vincent" has a Television riff in air quotes, which doesn't make it any less thrilling), but he's able to articulate complex, hilarious and heartbreaking stories about the most confusing period in most people's lives. Take epic highlight "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales," which shifts through multiple stages of “post-party melancholia" on its way to the catchiest chorus ever about captive killer whales.
2. David Bowie, Blackstar: What sounded at first to me like a more tasteful, but still hard-to-love update on Black Tie White Noise, turned out to be Bowie's most disarming album, a brilliantly-crafted parting gift to his fans. His restless creative spirit would not bow before the illness eating away at him—he went out swinging, still inspired, still exploring, with one last masterpiece.
The jazz quartet backing band, the song lengths, and the unconventional structures all have a veneer of impenetrability, but this adventurous album is packed with hooks all around (especially "Girl Love Me," "Lazarus" and "Tis A Pity She Was A Whore"). The title track is the spiritual successor to Station To Station; "Sue (In The Season of Crime)" nailed the '90s aesthetic he tried on Outside; and the last two songs offer mantras for letting go: "Dollar Days," which was written in the studio in the midst of the sessions, is the sound of a man absolving himself of his regrets, culminating in the repeated refrain "I'm trying to/I'm dying to," which is as much ellipses as it is conclusion. In the lush finale, "I Can't Give Everything Away," Bowie's vulnerabilities are laid bare, touching on his cancer treatments, his mortality, and his musical legacy. The hairs on my spine stand up when Ben Monder's Fripp-inspired guitar line breaks through for the cathartic, spiraling ending.
1. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo: 2016 was a strange, sprawling, never-ending mess, and no album better captured the confusion, the momentary highs, and the many confounding lows like The Life Of Pablo, West's seventh studio album. "This is not album of the year. This is album of the life," he tweeted with typical aplomb a few weeks before its release. The Life Of Pablo didn't turn out to be the album of life, but it was the album that most defines 2016, in all its ugliness, its unlikely beauty, its disappointments, and its honest attempt to reckon with a present that doesn't seem like reality anymore. It's a fascinating, bifurcated masterpiece filled with some of his best ever tunes ("Ultralight Beam," "Real Friends," "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1 & Pt. 2," "Wolves") and some of his most indulgent ("Freestyle 4," "I Love Kanye," the misunderstood wavy epic, "Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission").
West dominated the news and music cycle nearly as much as Trump did, so of course the year would end with a newly-blond Kanye waltzing into Trump Towers on a Tuesday morning to have an awkward conversation about life and bullying with the President-elect. When once Kanye was the kind of person who would call out the president of the United States live on national television about being a racist, now he's the kind of person willing to serve as the latest pop culture-related distraction from Trump's many alarming and dangerous transition decisions. This doesn't make Kanye brave or cool or deserving of apologias—it makes him frustratingly, disappointingly human. It is a reminder: your idols will let you down. (Unless their name is David Bowie.) Maybe this is why he had so much trouble telling 'real friends' from the users and sycophants.
How did we get here? Ye started out picking out couches and spouting "Facts" on New Year's Day (unfortunately, in its pre-Charlie Heat version); then came the meaty singles, "Real Friends" and "No More Parties In LA" (as well as numerous album title and tracklist changes). After the giant Madison Square Garden premiere of the still in-progress album came the surprise drop after SNL a week later. Then, months of fiddling on the album (with numbing Twitter updates), adding songs wholesale at times ("Saint Pablo")—it all turned out to be truly revolutionary, redefining the boundaries of what an album can be in real time. "Life Of Pablo is a living breathing changing creative expression. #contemporaryart," West tweeted during one of his many post-album release tweaking sessions.
Even when he seemed to be lying low for a bit, Kanye kept popping up on guest spots on songs by the likes of Chance The Rapper, ScHoolboy Q, French Montana, Drake, Desiigner, Francis and the Lights and more. Next thing you know, he's boarding a giant spaceship and selling out Saint Pablo Tour shows across the country... and then came the Yeezy Season 4 disaster, the controversial and uncomfortable rants, the mental breakdown and hospital stay. Voila, he's now Donald Trump's new hype man. So much for only making the highlights.
Then again, this is an album where the moments (glorious, unforgettable, at times unfathomable) add up to something more than just a collection of songs. Again and again, he somehow pulls off some batshit genius idea that shouldn't work: the Section 25 sample on "FML," the "ghetto Oprah" pause in "Feedback," the gorgeous coda that is "Frank's Track," the ecstatic melding of chorus and Young Metro tag on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1," Chris freakin' Brown on "Waves," the story about his cousin and the stolen laptop in "Real Friends" and the subsequent callback on "No More Parties," chopping up "Panda" wholesale and dropping it in pieces into "Pt. 2," taking Vic Mensa and Sia off "Wolves" so he could sing about meeting Mary in the club (and then putting them back on), the "Fade" music video (which makes the song about 10x more badass)! I mean, he uses the exact same drum beat on "Famous" and "Real Friends" and it works both times!!?!
It wasn't exactly the gospel album he touted, but it did wrestle with spirituality and forgiveness in honest, deeply-moving ways ("Ultralight Beam," the song of the year in an insane year); it mixed the profane (Kanye's musings on sex and bleach) mixed with the profound ("I just want to feel liberated"), as on "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1;" and then it got repulsive (Kanye's unnecessary Taylor Swift "shoutout" on "Famous"). Will Toledo (of Car Seat Headrest, album number three on this list) wrestled with his own complicated emotions about the album and brilliantly articulated the core reason he loves it despite itself:
What Kanye understands, what he was recently trying to convey through a somewhat muddled series of speeches on Donald Trump, is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, no act so heinous as to make the man intolerable, either in the eyes of God or ultimately of the public. The Life of Pablo thus shines in its heinousness. The album encompasses simultaneously the contemplation of the crime, the crime itself, the repentance of the crime, and the granting of forgiveness. It would be a thoroughly despicable exercise, except for the fact that we do forgive it; we do see the beauty in it.
A human being is a repulsive creature, too, when broken down into parts. It is only upon glimpsing the whole that beauty can be found.
Maybe Pablo is Kanye's Hail To The Thief, a transition album touching upon everything he's done so far. Maybe it'll go down as his most frustrating and imperfect record; maybe the weirdness will only bolster its reputation. Maybe he'll go around the country campaigning for Trump and we'll never be able to look at him the same way. I just know that when I think back to this year, this is the album I'll reach for.