It’s almost the second month of 2017, so you know what that means. It’s time to relive everyone’s favorite year! That’s right, I finally finished my top 50 albums of 2016! This was incredibly time consuming, and I actually quit at my top 42.0 albums. That’s partially a product of me being sick of writing this, it getting dangerously deep into 2017 for me to be writing 2016 recaps, and that I didn’t really like the eight albums composing the remainder of my top 50. For the curious reader, here they are, listed:
50. Adore Life
49. Blood Bitch
48. Puberty 2
47. Atrocity Exhibition
46. All My Friends EP
44. Prima Donna
43. Still Brazy
That’s not to say those albums were bad by any stretch of the imagination – they just didn’t move me much, or at least enough to write 100-something words on them.
And that’s what I did here: a hundred-plus words on my favorite records of the year and include three or four songs for each that you should check out. Those songs are a mixture of essential tracks, intro tracks that will get you into an artist, and fantastic deep cuts. I really hope you find a new favorite here – I love each of these albums deeply, and the rankings could easily vary depending on the time of day and mood you’re in.
I’m interested in hearing your opinions, but you are less right than me, so keep that in mind if you tweet at me. Sorry for forgetting your favorite sleeper album, though. I know I’ll kick myself when I discover it two months from now. Without further ado, here are Jake’s Top 42.0 Albums of 2016.
42. Cozy Tapes: Vol. 1 Friends x A$AP Mob
It’s nice to hear ASAP Rocky swagging and in the pocket again after his lukewarm At. Long. Last. ASAP. There isn’t much to write home about, but “Yamborghini High” and “Crazy Brazy” are classic ASAP Mob bangers, and the squad really does have solid chemistry. “Put That On My Set” is the dark side flip of Chance’s “Lost” I didn’t know I needed, and it’s dope to hear Skepta on something mellower than his usual fare. Finally, “Telephone Calls” made me buy into the “Rocky vs. Tyler” concept that was floated around earlier in the year. Go in expecting a decent mixtape and you’ll be happy with what you get. Check out “Yamborghini High”, “Crazy Brazy”, “Put That On My Set”, and “Telephone Calls”.
41. Next Thing x Frankie Cosmos
Next Thing is a series of bedroom-pop vignettes, the longest clocking in at 2:44. The worst songs sound like background music for a Toyota Camry commercial, and that’s not terrible – just boring. But those moments pass quickly, fading into intimate, tender, and, that loaded word, quirky, tunes. There’s nothing explosive here, but there’s a lot of innocent and subtle pleasure to be derived from the record. Call it comfort food for the introverted and gentle soul. Check out “Fool”, “Sinister”, and “Outside with the Cuties”.
40. JEFFERY x Young Thug
While it wasn’t the best thing Thug put out, JEFFERY garnered significantly more press attention. Why? Well, there was the instantly-iconic dress cover art, a song named after an infamous ape, and the presence of the song of the summer, “Pick Up The Phone”. Oh, and the record is really good. Each song being dedicated to a different influence of Thug means Thug gets a great chance to try on a few different voices. He does staccato rap on “Future Swag”, a breathy croon on “RiRi”, and, erm, a gorilla growl on “Harambe”. If you’ve listened to Thug before, you have an idea of what’s in store here. But just because you see it coming doesn’t mean it’s not worth a few hundred dozen spins. Check out “Future Swag”, “RiRi”, “Guwop”, and “Kanye West”.
39. Genesis x Domo Genesis
Genesis is defined by pleasant moments weighed-down by a few weak decisions. “One Below”, a pleasant track, is indicative of the album’s issues. The intro narrated by Domo’s mother is miserable, even ignoring how clichéd it is, as are a few wholesale bars (“Took some losses, see where I faltered/And learned some lessons from it”; “I wear my heart on my sleeves/It’s been a while since I felt like I was part of a team), and the chorus really should have been sung by someone else. Still, the record is coherent and well-paced, the beats and features well-considered and placed. And even though the record is riddled with throw away bars, Domo is earnest and engaged. On the intro to highlight “Dapper”, a snippet of Anderson .Paak muttering “It just needs that… uh…yeah!” is included, and he’s right. Genesis is just missing a spark of soul from Domo to elevate it from solid background music to an interesting piece. He clearly has the ear, and he has the heart. If he can make every bar vital and remove the chaff, his next release could be huge. Check out “Questions”, “Coming Back”, “Faded in the Moment”, and “Dapper”.
38. Introverted Intuition x Lance Skiiiwalker
Introverted Intuition is packed with great ideas and melodies, and Skiiiwalker doesn’t dwell on many of them for longer than sixty seconds at a time. Each song has a highlight – a catchy hook, a perfect drum fill – that fades in and out just quickly enough to leave you wanting more. It gives one the sense that the T.D.E. signee has released a portfolio showcase rather than a full-fledged album, but somehow it works. If you’re interested in murky, mournful, soulful hip-hop with a signature sound, you might fall in love with this. Check out “Lover’s Lane”, “Stockholm”, and “Speed”.
37. Views x Drake
It’s a testament to Drake’s pop greatness that Views is both a precipitous dropoff from If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and a fine collection of solid tracks. At this point, it’s hard to tell if Drake is capable of putting on a serious face for long enough to avoid “Chaining Tatum” references and nationally-televised Rihanna swerves, but in the meantime, I played the hell out of Drake’s sterile, quintessentially 2016 cuts and weirdly enjoyed them. There’s not much soul here, but if you mainline the twenty-track chart-exploiting behemoth (and don’t stare too closely at year’s worst cover art), you can still get your rocks off. Check out “Feel No Ways”, “Weston Road Flows”, “Controlla”, and “Views”.
36. Konnichiwa x Skepta
Skepta is far and away one of the most exciting rappers in the game today, and Konnichiwa keeps him front and center. The grime beats feel at once retro and futuristic, booming and simple, all the better to get down to business. Tracks like “It Ain’t Safe” should sound ridiculously dated (and they likely will at first listen), but Skepta’s charisma somehow makes it work. He won’t be wowing anyone with his wordplay (“You say you always got the toast / But when you see my niggas you look like you see a ghost), but when the hook of a song like “Shutdown” hits, you really won’t give a fuck what he’s saying anyway. Check out “Crime Riddim”, “Man”, “Shutdown”, and “That’s Not Me”.
35. How To Be A Human Being x Glass Animals
Glass Animals expand on the tropical and flouncy that made their name on Zaba. Unlike that debut, How To Be A Human Being feels airier, more open, spacious. A concept album where each song is sung from the point of view of a different character (found on the album art), How To Be calls a few specific images to mind – the languidness of the jobless graduate, the disorientation of being severely stoned, the slow tempo of summer. How To Be is just the right amount of weird to hold your attention throughout, and it’s good to see the band confident enough to experiment with the sound that made it a coffee shop favorite. Check out “Life Itself”, “Youth”, “Season 2 Episode 3”, and “The Other Side of Paradise”.
34. Who The Fuck Is Chris Spencer?? x Vic Spencer
Who The Fuck Is Chris Spencer?? feels like punch in the face someone sent forward in time from 1995. Rappers Vic Spencer and Chris Crack complement each other perfectly, the former’s bars growling and gravely, the latter’s biting and teeming with wild anxiety. The combination of the hypnotic, slightly psychedelic beats with the intensity of the vocal delivery is at times blood-pumping, at times relaxing, albeit in a disoriented, stoned way. The best part of the project? Neither rapper seems to care about the trends of times, trading punchlines and pager references like two buddies trying to one up each other for the sake of competition, not glory. Check out “Cue Ball”, “Ice Cubes”, and “Drunken Monkee”.
33. Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’ x Kid Cudi
Cudi’s back, baby! Well, sort of. There is no evidence that he touched an electric guitar, at least. Seriously though, there are some almost-vintage Man on the Moon II cuts on here, complete with that glorious Cudi hum (he acknowledges as much on the triumphant closer, “Surfin’” – “Make ‘em go dumb with hums/Hmmmm!). The beats are the best he’s had since those glory days, and guest features from Andre Benjamin, Willow Smith, and Travis Scott are much appreciated. On tracks like “Rose Golden” and “Baptized In Fire”, Cudi conjures up the mystique and wonder that made him a legend. He’s never been much one for profound lyrics, or coherent lyrics, but he has such a presence that even the mundane and cliché sound galactic. Is there some filler in this 19-track creature? Absolutely. But at this point, we’re all so grateful for a confident, in-the-pocket, Cudi, we’re not complaining. Check out “Releaser”, “Rose Gold”, “Baptized In Fire”, and “Surfin’”.
32. 4 Your Eyez Only x J. Cole
Although the rollout was abrupt and hasty, 4 Your Eyez Only is the most predictable record of the year. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough to like here. Yes, Cole notoriously raps about folding laundry and sipping almond milk, and yes, his flip of Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange” is underwhelming. Still, the guy made real forward steps as an artist – “Neighbors” is more interesting than anything on the milquetoast 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the concept of the album (songs told from a deceased father to his daughter) is promising enough, and some of the production here (the previously mentioned “Neighbors”, “She’s Mine”) is sweet. If you can look past the meme long enough, you might find yourself enjoying this record and looking forward to a bigger step on his next release. Check out “Ville Mentality”, “Neighbors”, “4 Your Eyez Only”.
31. Indigo x River Tiber
The signature acid-syrup sound that inflects Toronto hip-hop and is spreading south of the border is the signature sound of River Tiber’s Indigo. A moody ride through carefully crafted soundscapes, the atmosphere is the star of the show. Each song is layered with detail weaved so intricately that it’s difficult to latch on to any particular sound for too long. The result reads as the best bedroom-produced-sounding album you’ve ever heard. While Indigo leaves the listener wanting more in the way of sonic diversity, it’s exciting to hear a new artist create so many solid songs with such a limited palate – here’s to hoping the next release builds on this muddled, intriguing portfolio. Check out “No Talk”, “Acid Test”, “West”, “Motives”.
30. The Divine Feminine x Mac Miller
Mac Miller has been steadily shedding snapbacks and Huf socks, adding nuance, jazz, and vulnerability to his music with increasing effectiveness on 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off and 2015’s GO:OD AM. All of the sudden, we’re being smacked in the face with the jazzy, soulful sex-opera that is The Divine Feminine. Incredibly, and I’ve always had great faith in Mac, he mostly pulls it off! Some of the more graphic sections, like those found on “Skin” feel more comic porno than art-house vignette, but for the most part, the lyrics keep pace with the instrumentals. And that’s really all Mac needs to do here, since the instrumentals are perfectly mixed silk-and-sandpaper. The major knock here? He’s oft outshined, by guests Anderson .Paak and Ty Dolla $ign and by the instrumentals themselves. But the guy does it all so earnestly, it’s hard to hold it against him. If you’re keeping track, make sure you have Mac Miller in the “Actually, have you listened to him recently?” section of your music board. Check out “Dang!”, “Stay”, “Cinderella”, and “My Favorite Part”.
29. A Moon Shaped Pool x Radiohead
I don’t want Radiohead to be on this list, and I mean that in the way that I feel I never fully understand what the band is trying to convey, and I thusly don’t want to embarrass myself by pretending to understand the layers here. Still, the record is sonically interesting enough to make me write some words on it. Moon carries the undercurrent of isolation and melancholia that most associate with Radiohead, but the flavors here are decidedly sweeter and more peaceful. If I were to speculate, I would say Thom Yorke and the boys have taken the blue-pill and have either accepted the imminent defeat of the human race at the hands of computers or have become enlightened beyond my understanding and are enjoying existence on a higher plane. But, I won’t speculate. Check out “Daydreaming”, “Decks Dark”, “The Numbers”, and “Present Tense”.
28. Blackstar x David Bowie
An appropriately grand and obtuse final release for the legend David Bowie, Blackstar is best understood in context. The power of Bowie regally singing “Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose/I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl” is magnified a hundred times over when you know he was acknowledging a lost battle with cancer. In a year marked by a bizarre obsession with celebrity death and a sadly less bizarre public grappling with the likelihood of impending apocalypse, Blackstar is absolutely vital. There isn’t much I can say about it that wouldn’t be better left to individual interpretation and reflection. Go in after reading about the making of the record with an open mind and give it the respect you would give a piece of classic literature. Thanks, Dave. Check out ‘Blackstar”, “Lazarus”, and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.
27. Big Baby D.R.A.M. x D.R.A.M.
D.R.A.M. isn’t a Chance the Rapper associate – he’s D.R.A.M. While he can veer into the Nebraska cornfields-level corny on the drop of a dime, more often than not, his songs read as genuinely joyous and loving. Most of Big Baby feels like a talent showcase, where D.R.A.M. is testing out how good he is at rapping, teasing, crooning, and preening, but every now and then, a great moment of music shines through. D.R.A.M. is warming up for his own game with his own ball right now, and it’s exciting to imagine what he can do when a great production team is there to keep him within the boundaries of the court. Listen to how in the pocket the guy is on “Sweet Va Breeze” and try to tell me you’re not excited too. Check out “Monticello Ave”, “Cash Machine”, “100%”, and “Sweet Va Breeze”.
26. My Woman x Angel Olsen
It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly My Woman, a heart-on-the-sleeve record, sounds like. Inspired by the images on Angel Olsen rollerblading at the rink in the “Shut Up Kiss Me” video, I can’t help but think about roller derbies and basement house shows listening to My Woman, until the guitar-driven and crunchy sound melts into Fleetwood Mac-esque Americana. Olsen is a classic folky songwriter and a powerful vocalist, but you can hear tinges of artists as unexpected as Jefferson Airplane and Jane’s Addiction crop up from time to time. When those influences shade her roots as a mid-Western singer-songwriter, notably on the country dive-bar ballad “Heart Shaped Face”, the results are intoxicating. Check out “Intern”, “Shut Up Kiss Me”, “Heart Shaped Face”, and “Sister”.
25. Awaken, My Love! x Childish Gambino
This is the album Childish Gambino is supposed to make. I enjoy some of his catchy older tracks, but for the most part, they were paper-thin. On Awaken, My Love!, every track sizzles with energy and soul. The organic instrumentation is a refreshing turn from his synth and drum machine-heavy work of yesteryear, and damn, does this guy have a set of pipes. Ignoring the ankle-shatteringly bad knee-blowout of a misstep that is “California”, there’s a lot to love here, and “Redbone” and “Me and Your Mama” in particular are two of the most gorgeous songs to come out this year. Check out “Me and Your Mama”, “Boogieman”, “Redbone”, and “Baby Boy”.
24. A Good Night in the Ghetto x Kamaiyah
Kamaiyah’s debut album feels like a throwback to the heyday of the East Coast debut album. Good Night wears its West Coast badge proudly, but the album is almost more evocative of classic Bad Boy debuts (Harlem World, Ready to Die) in the way the lyrics dominate the proceedings. Even the way the subject matter is discussed feels like Sean Combs played a part – placing two rich-overnight tracks, “How Does It Feel” and “Mo Money Mo Problems”, right in the center of the album, along with the arrival anthem of an album opener, “I’m On”, lays the album’s priorities out clearly. “Big dreams/big wishes/big gold/check spender” sums up the champagne popping affair nicely. Check out “I’m On”, “Out the Bottle”, “How Does It Feel”, and “Mo Money Mo Problems”.
23. Birds in The Trap Sing McKnight x Travis Scott
After the masterclass in maximalism that was 2015’s Rodeo, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the straightforward Birds. But once you judge the record on its own merits, there’s plenty to love. Sure, La Flame isn’t beat switching, rapping about the personal in a new way, or really saying much at all, but that’s not what Scott is for. When asked about the Kendrick collaboration on “Goosebumps”, he said, “I’m not the most rappity rap ass nigga. That’s not me but…I like rappers. It’s just dope that these dudes came to La Flame’s world to get down on some ill beats.” Visit Birds with no expectations beyond getting down on some ill beats. Check out “the ends”, “goosebumps”, “pick up the phone”, and “lose”.
22. Hotel Paranoia x Jazz Cartier
Don’t call Jazz Cartier a Drake clone just because he’s from Toronto. Hotel Paranoia follows up on every ounce of considerable potential Cartier displayed on 2015’s Marauding in Paradise tape. The album is a testament to Cartier’s range as a musician. The thing is bursting at the seams with hype tracks which are complemented by a few nice trap-type ballads. The wordplay won’t melt your face, but the theme of paranoia that inflects every track holds the album together in a compelling way. Hotel Paranoia is the most theatrical hip-hop album to grace 2016, and the almost-cartoonish exuberance and despair make it one of the best listens too. If you don’t get enough here, run through his recent string of singles. They outshine most of the work on the album – I’d bet on an even bigger 2017 for Cartier. Check out “Talk Of The Town”, “Opera”, “Better When You Lie”, and “Tell Me”.
21. 99.9% x Kaytranada
Haitian-Canadian Kaytranada’s 99.9% is like the music from a futuristic sci-fi film soundtrack that plays in a club on the moon in the year 2039, except it’s actually good. The production here is booming on the low end and twinkling on the high, although not quite as colorful as the fantastic cover art. Kay gets assistance from a slew of features. Some, like AlunaGeorge, Goldlink, Vic Mensa, and Anderson .Paak bring vocals, and others, like fellow Canadians River Tiber and BadBadNotGood, lend instrumentation and general vibe curation. While each song on the record is enjoyable, and a few, like the excellent Anderson .Paak-helmed “Glowed Up”, are even excellent, there is a certain level of personality lacking. Of course, that’s always the difficulty with a voice-less producer expanding to fill an entire album. As it stands, 99.9% is one of the best produced albums of 2016 and one of the more imaginative as well. Check out “Drive Me Crazy”, “Despite the Weather”, “Glowed Up”, and “Lite Spots”.
20. No Burden x Lucy Dacus
With No Burden, Virginia-based singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus has crafted something silky. The highlight is always her crystal-clear voice, but a distinctly liquid guitar style and some inspired drumming really bring it all together. Dacus is an expert at ramping energy levels up and down within tracks and playing with phrasing to bring something unexpected to each verse – it’s hard to explain in writing, but on the radio-ready “Strange Torpedo”, her cadence speeds and slows, drawls and lingers. It’s the kind of detail and off-kilter-ness that makes No Burden a better-than-good singer-songwriter record. Check out “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”, “Green Eyes, Red Face”, and “Strange Torpedo”.
19. The Sun’s Tirade x Isaiah Rashad
The wait was well worth it for Isaiah Rashad’s debut. The Sun’s Tirade sounds more like Rashad’s looser, older, unofficial mixtapes, Pieces of a Kid and Welcome to the Game, than it does the hazy and heavy Cilvia Demo. While the arrangement and production of the album feels at times unfocused and half-baked, the execution is about as spot on as one can hope. Stretching over sixteen tracks, there’s something for everyone here – ‘Nooga bangers, smoker anthems, and the signature half-decipherable Rashad highlights. Those riddles, songs so muddled with snippets of thoughts and sentiments, offer the promise that Rashad is sitting on something great – it’s not here quite yet, but spinning Tirade is a good way to pass the time until then. Check out “4r Da Squaw”, “Rope // rosegold”, “Park”, and “Silkk da Shocka”.
18. Savage Mode x 21 Savage
In a year of big breakouts, 21 Savage had the biggest. Breaking onto the scene with a fully realized aesthetic and sound, thanks in no small part to the production wizardry of Metro Boomin, 21 established himself as a tastemaker for a new generation, a Future for the kids, sort of. The subject matter is dark, 21 is a truly awful singer, and he doesn’t make for much of a sympathetic figure. Still, Savage Mode is hypnotic, inimitable, and as much a part of the 2016 zeitgeist as anything released this year. Check out “No Heart”, “X”, “Feel It”, and “Ocean Drive”.
17. Visions of Us on the Land x Damien Jurado
Visions veers from folky desert psychedelia to grounded and pained self-reflection multiple times over its runtime. It feels a little too long, but maybe that’s part of the point. Visions gives the impression that one is peeking in on another’s lucid dream, and there’s a more intimate story dwelling just beneath the surface, if only you could decode the details. Check out “QACHINA”, “ONALASKA”, “Exit 353,” and “A.M. AM”.
16. Slime Season 3 x Young Thug
It got less attention than the eye-catching Jeffrey, but SS3 is the superior listen. Seriously, three of the ten hardest rap songs of the year might be on this eight-track wonder. Thug is a master of flow and unusual melody, and in this condensed format, he has no choice but to keep his songs tight, catchy, and to the point. Call it a mixtape, call it an album, but whatever you do, treasure a Thug release that doesn’t challenge you to expand your understanding of hip-hop and simply bangs. Check out “With Them”, “Memo”, “Drippin’”, and “Digits”.
15. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service x A Tribe Called Quest
In a year of final acts, A Tribe Called Quest released an epic. The instrumentals feel classic and extraterrestrial, and the flows on the record match that retro-space vibe. Q-Tip is on the top of his game here, and the Phife Dawg verses feel extra poignant in light of his passing. The feature list is a who’s-who of the early aughts: Andre 3K continues his reign of terror with another terrific guest verse, Kanye provides a quietly soulful hook sandwiched between Talib Kweli and Consequence, and Busta Rhymes sounds like a regular Tribe member on a few verses throughout the record, too. We got it from Here isn’t just an old man’s game, though. It’s a treat to hear Kendrick come through with an incisive verse that serves as evidence that he would be the king of whichever generation of rap he was born to, and Anderson .Paak spices the proceedings with a taste of 2016. Ultimately, what makes the record great is the intimacy and joy exuded even in the bleaker tracks – you can tell every guest is bringing their A-game, and it’s obvious that years of partnership have yielded an irreplaceable cohesiveness when bars are being perfectly weaved over and over. There’s really too much to explore and love here for one paragraph – listen for yourself. Check out “Enough”, “The Killing Season” “Lost Somebody”.
14. 22, A Million x Bon Iver
You can be forgiven if you don’t think anything about 22, A Million suggests it was made by the same man who created “Skinny Love”, but you would also be wrong. You can still hear those folky melodies, acoustic guitar sometimes even rising to the foreground. Justin Vernon just decided there were some sounds a guitar can’t make, hence, the pixelized vocals, spritely howls, and growling synthesized bass. The vast and spectacular musical climaxes Bon Iver is known for are still there – the only difference is the grandeur is accessible only after listening to some strange squawks, glitches, and dissonant honks, almost as if Vernon were tired of college freshman strumming his songs on the quad and added a paywall. Still, aren’t the vistas sweeter when you have to work for them? Check out “33 “GOD””, “29 #Strafford APTS”, and “8 (circle)”.
13. Teens of Denial x Car Seat Headrest
OOOOOOIEEEEEEE this is some cut-to-the-core stuff. The lyrics here are like teenage poetry, but the good version. “Drugs are better, drugs are better with/Friends are better, friends are better with/Drugs are better, drugs are better with…” is the dizzying outro refrain of “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”, which is like the good version of a Fall Out Boy song title. If you’re not careful, the album will punch you right in the gut, like on dazzling centerpiece “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” where frontman Will Toledo sings “I have become such a negative person/It was all just an act/It was all so easily stripped away” with such emotion you would know what he was saying even if you didn’t speak English. Your experience may differ, but I found Teens of Denial to hit as close to home in its metaphors and poetry as anything this year. I also happen to value a poignant album closer, and it doesn’t get more plainly elegant than “Joe Goes to School”: “I saw a horse and it saw me/You know their skulls are so crazy but they still can see/It had big brown eyes, shining and sad/It was just a horse, I couldn’t tell if it was sad or not/I held out my hand like there was something in it/Managed to touch it, it did not seem interested/Then a car pulled up, so I split the scene/I am a tourist attraction biking down Dog Street.” Check out “Fill in the Blank”, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, and “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”.
12. Anti x Rihanna
Like a few high-profile releases this year, Anti was a victim of sky high expectations and an obnoxiously obtuse release process. As the year has gone on, though, appreciation for Anti as a great piece of art has swelled, and deservedly so. Album opener “Consideration” is as fire of an intro as anything this year, growling bassline and crunchy drums underscoring the fierceness of Rih’s patois (which sounds better with each patois-inflection Drake tries out). While the rest of the album drops off in terms of personality (with one notable exception), the entire album is a masterclass in truly cool, sexy pop. She nails the club hits (“Work”) and sex jams (“Yeah, I Said It” and “Sex With Me”) she made her name off, but the real highlight of the album is the sublime pairing of “Love On The Brain” and “Higher” near the end of the record. “Love On The Brain” is a classic Al Green-meets-Amy Winehouse soul ballad, and “Higher” is perhaps the most dazzling vocal performance of the year. When Rihanna sings “You take me HIGHER/higher than I’ve ever been, babe”, it makes you wonder why every song on Anti isn’t a variation of “Higher” – it’s a love song for a generation that only Rihanna could sing, all spirit and fire, everything muddled by a glass of whiskey you can’t afford. Check out “Consideration”, “Yeah, I Said It”, “Higher”, and “Sex With Me”.
11. Pool x Porches
Pool feels nonsynchronous. Thunderous 80s programmed drums, barebones synth lines, a handful of clean guitar licks, simple melodies, the catchiest bass riffs of the year, and a dash of Autotuned vocals for seasoning is all it takes for Pool to bury itself in your head. Pool is a simple album about simple things that mean the world – high school love, a first car, smoking weed under suburban streetlights. Porches frontman Aaron Maine said the record is a “collage of emotions.” The stripped-down nature of the record removes the pretense of the concept album to better highlight those emotions. The result is the alternative album of the year. The b-sides-type sister release Water is worth a look as well. Check out “Underwater”, “Be Apart”, “Glow’, and “Car”.
10. Yes Lawd! x NxWorries
Yes Lawd! is the perfect title for this celebration of success. Reminiscent of Freddie Gibbs’ and Madlib’s excellent Pinata collaboration, the album is built on Knxwledge’s smooth production of vintage funk and soul samples. Anderson .Paak provides his own style of soul, at times braggadocious, tender, and crass. The storytelling here is almost as magnificent as that of Malibu, but in an entirely different manner; the swag is dialed up to eleven, the grown-ass-ness to twelve. On “Wngs”, for example, he sings “Go get the liquor, leave the kids at your sister’s/A little while longer, longer, I’m gon’ get you” in a way only a grown ass man could. On the next cut, “Best One”, there’s pain when he sings “You telling me to stay until the morning/You know a nigga homeless”. A little while later, on “Suede”: “Most of y’all can’t do shit/But all my chicks cook grits…You ain’t live long enough, to have a bitch this fine”. The soul here works because .Paak has an old one, and you feel like there’s an old story behind every lyric. The joy works because you can hear that after everything .Paak has been through, he’s just happy to be here. “Check out “Best One”, “Lyk Dis”, “Suede”, and “Another Time”.
9. Telefone x Noname
Soft, infinitely intimate, and conversational: you finish Telefone feeling like you know Chicago rapper Noname like a childhood friend. Warm and warble-y production from Cam O’bi, Saba, and Phoelix gives Noname a colorful backdrop to better highlight the subtle changes in her cadence and tone that add subtext to each line. If you want a taste of the album, just check out the cover art – muted colors complement each other perfectly as Noname stares stoically at something beyond the frame, surrounded by flowers and a skull. It’s only underrated because you haven’t played it yet. Check out “All I Need”, “Forever” and “Shadow Man”.
8. A Seat at the Table x Solange
Solange fully emerges from her sister’s shadow with A Seat at the Table by choosing not to compete. Rather than try to measure up with Beyonce’s pipes, Solange sings with an airy clarity, her voice more flute than trumpet. A Seat, released in another year of violence against black bodies, is a beautiful celebration for the black community, as the lyrics meld the personal with the communal immaculately. It’s clear who A Seat is for – “This shit is for us,” she lilts on F.U.B.U. (For Us, By Us), and there is a level of subtext that will mean infinitely more for black people, and black women specifically, than it could for any other group. But A Seat glows with such grace and harmony, you can’t mistake it for anything other than a gift for us all. Check out “Cranes in the Sky”, “Mad”, “Don’t Touch My Hair”, and “Don’t Wish Me Well”.
7. Blank Face LP x Schoolboy Q
Schoolboy Q always felt like he was on the verge of making something really dope. Yeah, “Collard Greens” banged, and older tracks like “Hands on the Wheel” and “Druggys wit Hoes Again” were some of plain coolest tracks that heralded the new vanguard of rappers in the early 2010s. But it wasn’t until Blank Face LP that Q shook off the languidity and soullessness that plagued his major label debut, Oxymoron. The production showcases great range from the haunting black soul choir of “Lord Have Mercy” (the sample of which sounds like source inspiration for the excellent Netflix “Luke Cage” soundtrack) to the Wild West-meets-West Coast waviness of “JoHn Muir”, and when you consider tracks like “Neva CHange”, “Tookie Knows II”, and “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”, this is likely the best produced hip-hop album of the year. The album is immersive and visceral, with each feature (excepting a drunken-sounding Kanye feature on the still-great “THat Part”) nestling perfectly into the atmosphere Q and his production team created. Of all the successes of Blank Face LP, and there are quite a few, the most satisfying is the sense that Q had a total artistic vision for the project and absolutely nailed it. At 17 tracks and 72 minutes, the record feels just right. It doesn’t slip into that dreaded valley of the “over-indulgent”, instead reading like an epic more akin to his label mate’s 68-minute Good Kid, M.A.A.D City than the dragging 60-minute Oxymoron. The icing on the cake are the vivid videos that accompanied the album, including the series starting with “By Any Means” and the standalone “JoHn Muir” video. Schoolboy has established himself head-and-shoulders above the T.D.E. roster excluding Kendrick, and even then, if you wanted to make the argument that Q put out the best hip-hop album of the year, you’d have my ear. Check out “Lord Have Mercy”, “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”, “JoHn Muir”, and “Neva CHange”.
6. Malibu x Anderson .Paak
He popped up anywhere and everywhere, bringing soul and flair to each record he graced. He joined Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller, Snakehips, Kaytranada, and Chance the Rapper on some of the biggest releases of the year, and he even co-headlined the award-winning (I’m not sure which, but it definitely won an award) Yes Lawd! with Knxwledge. Still, he did his most intimate and compelling work at home on his breakthrough, Malibu. While much of the subject matter is heavy, filled with stories of sleeping on floors as a new father, making do without, and surviving without incarcerated parents, there’s an undeniable joy that shines throughout, the kind of joy that can only be felt after the complete lack of it. You can almost see.Paak’s pearly whites beaming through the speakers when he cries on “The Dreamer”, “who cares that Daddy couldn’t be here? / Momma always kept the cable on!” If you’re looking for even more of a hit of that exuberance and fluidity, you need to see him work with The Free Nationals live. I recommend their too-brief Tiny Desk concert. Check out “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance”, “The Season | Carry Me”, “Put Me Thru”, and “The Dreamer”.
5. Coloring Book x Chance the Rapper
Joyous, innocent, godly, and nostalgic – that’s how Chance the Rapper’s music used to be described, and that’s how it’s still described today. Seeming more comfortable in his skin than ever before, and dialing back the Corn-o-meter from the Surf-era, Chance is a bona fide superstar, and well deserving of it (although word on the street is Chance is the feds). Production on the album is a cleaner, sharper version of his trademark chipmunk soul/gospel/horn band sound, and he thrives on slow tracks that highlight his melodic talents (“Juke Jam”) and upbeat cuts (“All Night”) alike. He’s also displaying the Kanye-esque ability to bring out the best of any guest, snaring high quality verses from Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Future, and Jay Electronica. I’ve always found Chance’s highs magnified by their juxtaposition with his piercing lows (see: Acid Rap’s excellent “Pusha Man”, “Acid Rain”), but maybe a little extra optimism was what this point in time called for. The future is bright for the young rapper, and I can’t wait for more news about his upcoming first true “album”. Just make sure you don’t skip his verse in “How Great”. Check out “All We Got”, “No Problem”, “How Great”, and “Smoke Break”.
4. The Life of Pablo x Kanye West
People love saying Kanye West fell off. Ask anyone with a pulse for an opinion on Kanye, and even if they manage to stick to strictly music-based opinions, you’re liable to get your eyebrows singed off by a hot take; he strayed too far from the soul on Graduation, 808s is an Autotuned snoozefest, and Yeezus was too weird to love. But while Yeezus may work in mysterious, inscrutable ways, he is a loving and gracious Yeezus, and The Life of Pablo brought all of his sheep back into the flock. It ended up being decidedly less gospel-y than originally advertised, and less coherent and narratively-driven than any of his prior releases, but that made for one of the most thrilling releases of the year. From the future-gospel of “Ultralight Beam” and “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” to the instantly iconic saga “No More Parties in LA” to “Real Friends”, the antithesis of West’s classic “Roses”, you get the sense that the scrambled arrangement of the tracklist and frenetic album release was a byproduct of a West with a mind overflowing with ideas. West had a troubled year outside of the record, with his hospital stay, Trump visit, and alleged marital strife leading to questions about his mental and physical health. In that context, The Life of Pablo becomes something else entirely, a creature teeming with stress, anxiety, and passion. Whatever your reading, Pablo captured every sign of the times in 2016, and whether you need a pick-me-up or put-them-down (“Facts”), West has a holy text for you here. Check out “Ultralight Beam”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties in LA”, and “Facts”.
3. Untitled unmastered. x Kendrick Lamar
That Kendrick Lamar could release an album of unfinished b-sides that vied for the best album of the year, forget hip-hop album of the year, is incredible. It established just how much Lamar has to offer. First, consider these b-sides are from the same sessions that produced the essential To Pimp A Butterfly yet form a completely new energy and vibe on their own. It’s a credit to Kendrick’s ear for album pacing and arrangement that this album is as great as it is. And alone among the hip-hop contenders for album of the year, it carries with it a real social weight. No other rapper floating in the same strata of popularity today – not Kanye, not Drake, not Chance, and not J. Cole, has been able to rap about social issues in a nuanced, creative, and powerful way like Kendrick has. In “Untitled 7” in particular, The instrumentation and arrangements on untitled unmastered. are the best hip-hop had to offer this year – apologies to Childish Gambino’s pleasantly surprising “Awaken, My Love!”. Ultimately, untitled unmastered. is an intimate glimpse of a master crafting a masterpiece and creating another with the shavings. The unfinished nature of the album creates an ambiance less Kanye West-off-the-Lexipro and more “An Intimate Evening with Kendrick Lamar and the Band”. Check out “untitled 2”, “untitled 5”, “untitled 7”, and “untitled 8”.
2. Lemonade x Beyonce
This is a generational, no, a once in a lifetime talent unleashing a masterpiece on the world with no warning. It was the biggest album of the year, and it would have been entirely colossal had it not tragically remained a Tidal exclusive for the entirety of 2016. But putting that business decision aside, let’s look at the facts of the record. It was far and away the most intriguing concept album in a year of disjointed and monochromatic mega-releases (see: The Life of Pablo, Views, respectively) in which the reigning queen of pop-stardom crooned and barked and howled about being cheated on by her husband with the twist that by the end of the story she has elevated herself far above such pettiness that you actually feel bad for Jay-Z and how small he is next to her. And it’s impossible to separate Lemonade the album from Lemonade the “visual album”. The storytelling is only enhanced by the instantly iconic visuals and narration, and the emotional “chapters” of the visual album (from “Intuition” to “Redemption”) are brilliant in a way Drake has desperately tried to be for quite some years now. In the year that the term “visual album” broke through to the mainstream, there isn’t an equal – not Drake’s weird Please Forgive Me, not Frank Ocean’s stairbuilding tutorial Endless, and not Kanye’s extended video for “Famous”. Beyond cementing Beyonce as the most unfuckwithable artist of the generation (don’t forget her “Formation” performance at the Super Bowl that deliciously pissed off sensitive safe-space type conservatives around the country), Lemonade is a collection of ten-out-of-ten standalone songs that are only elevated in album format. It’s also one of those classics where each time you return to it, you find you have a different favorite song. I’ll make you a case for “Hold Up”, “Freedom”, “Formation”, “Sorry”, and “All Night” being top-ten songs of the year, and if you ask me next month, I’ll probably have a case for the other half. Ultimately though, what Lemonade will be remembered for is how bold and emotional it is from beginning to end, without misstep. While they can’t be compared apples-to-apples, I think the closest analog to the record is Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: each was narratively groundbreaking; defined by passionate performances that covered the gamut of dramatic emotions from heartbreak to hubris to off-the-rails fury; painstakingly detailed by huge production teams of excellent musicians thrilled to work with the premier talent of their time; perfectly paced; and complemented by all-time great visuals. Listen to Lemonade start-to-finish and try to imagine another superstar artist of our time pulling off a stunt like this. Drake seems unable to get his head out of his ass for long enough to display the requisite emotional intelligence something like this calls for. Kanye seems incapable of holding his focus long enough to apply the polish that used to define his work. Rihanna doesn’t seem concerned with the notion of giving the world a masterpiece (although quite a few people think she did so this year, anyway), and Kendrick, while a genius, doesn’t seem likely to tread the same popular sonic space that giants like Lemonade and MBDTF dwell. So if it sounds like I’m stanning hard for Lemonade and Beyonce, that’s because I am. The thing is a bona-fide tour de force deserving of every bit of credit it has received, and probably quite a bit more from those who devalue anything associated with Beyonce. I’ve personally discounted her in the past, not taking much interest in the collections of (admittedly, good) singles that comprised past albums. Lemonade ain’t that. Check out “Hold Up”, “Formation”, “Sorry” and “All Night”.
1. Blonde x Frank Ocean
Of every great release of 2016, Blonde is the one that feels the least from this planet. That’s not to say the subjects aren’t familiar and relatable – “Good Guy” for example, is a product of the times, a lamentation of modern love routed through the iPhone. But through vocal effects (the up-pitching here should be grating, but it soothes a nerve I didn’t know needed soothing), the juxtaposition of abstract hymns and lines about balls sticking to jeans, and classic, emotive songwriting with a twist on each convention, something non-replicable is born. Blonde is one of those masterpieces that is so raw it could never be recreated, even by Ocean himself, while being intentioned to the point that the idiosyncrasies and stray buzzes all add to the purpose of the record. In a year when popular music often abandoned symbolism for straight-faced, clear-eyed earnestness, Frank Ocean was crafting stanzas like “Pretty fucking/Sunrise in sight/In comes a morning, hunting us with the beams/Solstice ain’t as far as it used to be/It begins to blur, we get older…” In the era of black and white, good and evil, with an answer for every problem ten seconds and a Google search away, an explainer to every obtuse lyric on Genius, and a made-for-Twitter lyric for every song, it is beyond refreshing and mentally-stimulating to have the colors blended by one of the generation’s premier vocalists and songwriters. To appreciate Blonde is to suspend reality for the briefest moment and find joy in deriving meaning where it hasn’t been pre-approved. I don’t know if there’s anything more valuable than that. Check out “Nikes”, “Skyline To”, “Self Control”, and “Nights”.