The 10 Best Albums of 2016

The 10 Best Albums of 2016

It is often the case that times of difficulty beget great art, and with no year was this truer than 2016—a period of seemingly endless cultural and political setbacks paralleled by an onset of musical releases equal in power and measure. Here, we highlight the ten albums that defined music this year.

It is often the case that times of difficulty beget great art, and with no year was this truer than 2016—a period of seemingly endless cultural and political setbacks paralleled by an onset of musical releases equal in power and measure. Here, we highlight the ten albums that defined music this year.

Text: William Defebaugh

A Seat at the Table—Solange

Solange Knowles's A Seat at the Table stands at once as both a breathtaking record and a cry for unity (perhaps best represented by "Mad" and "Don't Touch My Hair"). The album's roots reach deep into themes of black womanhood and social injustice, while Solange herself remains cool and collected as ever, lending her soothing vocals to topics that are anything but. While the answers to many questions asked on Solange's album remain uncertain, one thing is clear: 2016 will be remembered as the year she came into her own as an artist, more than earning her seat.

Lemonade—Beyoncé

While Lemonade will perhaps best be remembered for its visuals, the music stands as a hard-hitting album in its own right. Aside from Beyoncé's unparalleled vocals, which everyone should be familiar with by now, the album's impressive list of collaborators is an expertly-curated one, with contributions from Kendrick Lamar, James Blake, Jack White, and Frank Ocean. Not to mention its unforgettable one-liners, many of which came to define popular rhetoric in 2016 (slay, hot sauce, Red Lobster, Becky with the good hair, etc). The true genius of Lemonade, though, rests in its parallel themes of cultural strife and the strife within Bey's own marriage, converging in one the record's standout tracks, "Freedom."

Hopelessness—Anohni

Anohni's Hopelessness is a meditation on the political state of the world ("Drone Bomb Me," "Obama"), as well as the artist's own journey as a trans woman ("I Don't Love You Anymore"). Miraculously, she manages to pull from this dark subject matter without drowning in it, mixing gut-wrenching lyrics with dancehall beats reminiscent of the artist's previous work as part of Antony and the Johnsons. On "Execution" she calls the act in question "an American dream" as she sings against an upbeat, electronic melody, that makes for a contrast that's as heartbreaking as it is sonically beautiful—much like the album itself.

Anti—Rihanna

As a prolific artist who's had more number one hits than Michael Jackson and Madonna, Rihanna has developed a tried-and-true formula for mainstream radio success—one that she threw out the window with the release of her eighth studio album. Aside from "Work"—which was, undoubtedly, the anthem of 2016—the record was primarily composed of down-tempo beats and experimental ballads worthy of Prince ("Kiss It Better," "Love On The Brain"), and served to highlight Rihanna's voice more than anything else.

Blonde—Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean's Blonde was without question the most hyped album of the year—so much so that its numerous false starts and delayed (rumored) releases sent fans, and the general public, into mass hysteria on multiple occasions. With that kind of anticipation, inevitable disappointment is seemingly guaranteed—but Ocean managed to thwart all expectations. Blonde achieved everything that a successful sophomore release should, carrying over signature traces from the first album but packaged in a new context. In the case of Blonde, this context was minimal, with sparse, lovelorn melodies that allow Ocean's poetic lyrics to shine through. We dare say that "White Ferrari" might be the most beautiful song of the year.

The Life of Pablo— Kanye West

Say what you want about Kanye West as a cultural figure, there's no denying his genius as a musician. The Life of Pablo found Yeezy going full-on gospel, brazenly juxtaposing tracks like "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1" with "Famous," where he preaches about the premiums and pratfalls of that ultimate 21st-century religion: celebrity. Throw in a line about Taylor Swift and the indelible "Waves," and you have what is likely to be remembered as West's greatest accomplishment yet.

22, A Million—Bon Iver

Speaking of religious experiences: Justin Vernon outdid himself with the release of Bon Iver's third LP, 22, A Million. The album finds Vernon exploring uncharted electronic territory while maintaining his alternative, folk-laced roots. Tracks like "22 (Over Soon)" and "00000 Million" are nothing short of prose, with the latter song beginning on what may be the most beautiful lyrics composed by the indie legend: "Must've been forces, that took me on them wild courses." The sentiment rings true for the project as a whole, leaving listeners awestruck from start to finish.

Coloring Book—Chance the Rapper

Ironic given its name, Coloring Book finds Chance the Rapper all grown up, having come into his own as a bold visionary in pop music. With an undeniable gospel influence, the album finds Chance tackling the present state of his hometown of Chicago, where violence has reached a pinnacle. The project supports an impressive roster of talent as well, including Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Justin Bieber, among others. Above all else, Coloring Book is an outlet of creative expression, an emotional release as powerful as the Chicago Children's Choir on the album's opening track, "All We Got."

Joanne—Lady Gaga

With Joanne, Lady Gaga released her most personal body of work yet, detailing her journey of post-trauma healing starting with the first track "Diamond Heart" ("Some asshole broke me in/ wrecked all my innocence"). With collaborators Mark Ronson, Kevin Parker, and BloodPop, the album gives room for Gaga's vocals space to soar on tracks like "Million Reasons," and do what she does best: use her voice to preach a message of peace and togetherness. "Everybody's got to love each other," she sings on the Beatles-worthy "Come to Mama." And what could be more poignant in 2016?

Blackstar—David Bowie

Released on his 69th birthday, David Bowie's Blackstar holds up as the visionary musician's 25th and final album. The symbolism surrounding the intersection of these moments—Bowie's birthdate, his untimely death, and the release of his latest opus—speaks volumes about the year that would follow, one made up of unspeakable setbacks and creative successes. Incorporating elements of rock and experimental jazz, songs like "Lazarus" and "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" (the latter getting its name from a 17th-century play about a man who has sex with and then murders his own sister) highlight Bowie's undying legacy of irreverence, reminding the world why it fell in love with The Man Who Fell From Earth in the first place.

Runners up: Freetown Sound by Blood Orange; A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead; The Colour In Anything by James Blake; Dangerous Woman by Ariana Grande; This Is Acting by Sia.

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