Scene’s Best Albums of 2016
- A Tribe Called Quest — “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service”
By Adrian Mark Lore
Suffice it to say that 2016 was a turbulent year, both domestically and internationally. For the music industry, it was a year of sad departures — the death of legends like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen— as well as of great reunions. The final album by A Tribe Called Quest — “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service” — was as much a comeback as a farewell. It captured all of these realities in a single powerful record. One of the rap group’s integral members, Phife Dawg, died last year, yet his presence infuses the record with cathartic energy: There is a heightened sense of urgency in the record’s message, as though Phife came from the beyond to relay important truths. And while, yes, the record is politically charged, it is never preachy while addressing the dichotomies of acceptance versus xenophobia, reconciliation versus retaliation, of love versus hate. Precisely because the issues transcend the political context that the group inhabits — these issues were salient from the United Kingdom to Turkey to Myanmar this year — there was without a doubt no better setting for the release of what is perhaps one of the greatest comeback albums in recent memory.
- Danny Brown — “Atrocity Exhibition”
By John Darr
If “The Life of Pablo” presents a fascinating portrait of an artist in decline, “Atrocity Exhibition” is the artist’s fist through the canvas. Relentlessly dark and difficult, Danny Brown’s “Atrocity Exhibition” confronts and embodies the pain of its architect while taking risk after risk after risk — and succeeding. “Atrocity Exhibition” is an unyieldingly difficult piece of hip-hop whose noisy, fractured beats match the extreme tenor of its emcee’s drug-and-sex-infused lifestyle. Backed by a gauntlet of jagged instrumentals that plunder relentlessly from genres ranging from industrial and soul to post punk and trap, Danny Brown rages against the demons that appeared on previous records “XXX” and “Old” with renewed urgency. The result is as terrifying as it is entrancing. In a crowded year, Danny Brown has crafted 2016’s most honest hip-hop record, one that reflects unflinchingly upon his rise to the top of the underground rap scene. From the sound of it, we should simply be thankful that he survived to tell the tale.
- Car Seat Headrest — “Teens of Denial”
By Mike Donovan
If you give an introvert a pen and teach him a few guitar chords, you best prepare yourself for a minor existential crisis — especially if the introvert in question is Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo. “Teens of Denial,” his first legitimate album with Matador Records, proposes a new grand unification theory for being young and sad — the best since Ryan Adams’ fervent ode to misery, “Heartbreaker.” Toledo’s emotional strength lies in his brevity and wit. He has the guts to be transparent in a genre suffering from chronic ambiguity. With simple quips about love (“Is this sex / I don’t think / It’s just extreme empathy), ambition (“Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out”), drunkenness (“Hangovers feel good / When I know it’s the last one / Then I feel so good that I have another one”), and depression (“You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it”), Toledo pours out the darkest parts of his experience in a blunt expression of abnormality. Of course, many of us also feel “just a little different.” For us, “Teens of Denial” offers common ground — a call to community hidden in a statement of isolation.
- Bon Iver — “22, A Million”
By Adam Ramos
In an effort to avoid the never ending post-album release press cycle, Justin Vernon held a small private press conference a few weeks before the official drop of “22, A Million,” his third full-length Bon Iver album. Among the many insights provided throughout the lengthy conference, Vernon admitted of his new album: “I think shouting. Whispering was maybe the thing before.”
Considering “22, A Million,” is among 2016’s most delicate records, it’s a puzzling description in retrospect. But the album’s chaotic song titles, endless OP-1 vocal manipulation and warped glitches tell the true story. The album exists in frustration, confusion and anger. It’s fitting then that spirituality attempts to guide the record — the despairing Psalm 22 is cited in the album’s liner notes. Like the psalm, the album is rooted in anxiety but manages to live in beauty. “22, A Million,” may not be Bon Iver’s best album, but in a career defined by innovation, daringness and brilliance, it may be his most important.
- David Bowie — “Blackstar”
By Jimmy Kemper
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. 2016 was shaping up to be a fantastic year when David Bowie released “Blackstar” on his birthday back in January. For a full two days, fans clamored and buzzed about how amazing the album was, how this was going to be a new chapter in Bowie’s career, how he had yet again transformed both himself and the whole music industry. With this praise though, came an undercurrent of worry. The lyrics were dark, even for Bowie, focusing heavily on death and leaving many puzzled about his health.
On Jan. 10, we finally found out why. The world was stunned to learn that David Bowie had passed away after secretly suffering through an 18-month long battle with cancer, and that “Blackstar” was meant to be his goodbye gift. In an instant, the narrative surrounding the album changed as we all struggled to reconcile this visionary’s death with his final labyrinth of a record.
Almost a year later, “Blackstar” remains a fundamental part of the year’s cultural consciousness, a keystone holding us up when everything else is falling apart. And while 2016 may have been rough and the world may seem a little darker, at least we know that there is a Blackstar out there, watching over us and guiding us back into a glam rock light.
- Kanye West — “The Life of Pablo”
By Erin McAuliffe
With Kanye’s recent hospitalization, “The Life of Pablo” and its lyrics like “I’ve been outta my mind a long time” (“Feedback”) take on a whole new layer of poignancy. The haphazard album release and Madison Square Garden hype session fronted the powerfully disjointed album and its consistent reworking.
From joyous opener “Ultralight Beam” (Kanye’s consecration of Chance the Rapper whose “Coloring Book” ranks 17 on our list) to Chicago house-inspired banger “Fade” (which Finni’s denied me one too many times this year), the album fluxes between celebration and reconciliation without floundering.
A late addition to “TLOP,” “Saint Pablo” embodies the self-affirmation and catharsis on the album: “The media said he’s way out of control / I know I’m the most influential / That Time cover was just confirmation / The generation’s closest thing to Einstein / So don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”
Sampha brings in the religious hook as Kanye addresses his relationship with Kim, problems with debt, the media, his ego and confidence, his “out of control” behavior, his Twitter trolling, racism, Hollywood complacency, music piracy, slavery, narcissism on social media and his religious faith all within the first four minutes of the track.
Kanye is 2016’s vulnerable venerable.
- The Avalanches — “Wildflower”
By Adrian Mark Lore
Another among many comebacks this year though quite unlike any other reunited outfit, the return of The Avalanches was something of a dormant miracle. For years the group had been teasing new material yet was unable to officially roll anything out due to copyright issues plaguing their sample-based approach to production. But finally — both expectedly and unexpectedly – they are back, and “Wildflower” is their way of making up for the lost time. Some will tell you that their new record pales in comparison to their revolutionary debut, but the reality is more complicated. While “Since I Left You” is a seamless flood of samples extracted from thousands of records, “Wildflower” is a tamer beast that plays on the group’s strengths; where the former was daring and ambitious, the latter is slick and professional. You may pine for the chaotic bliss of “Since I Left You” — and to be sure you will seldom find it on their sophomore effort — but “Wildflower” is full of its own merits: artfully crafted nostalgia, collaborations with hip-hop emcees that bubble with good chemistry and — of course — a healthy dose of sampling, proving that, even after 15 years, the group has still got it.
- Beyonce — “Lemonade”
By Jack Riedy
Beyonce’s only competition is her own past, and she keeps winning. Music videos for every song? Try a comprehensive short film so packed with symbolism and allusion that a syllabus was written just to keep up. Lengthy pop experimentalism? How about a dense 12 tracks, sprinting from club basement R&B to front porch country and mastering every stop along the way. And no emotional arc could convey utter dominance like broadcasting your husband’s infidelity, choosing to salvage the relationship and then profiting from your turbulence via the streaming service you own.
If that sounds too much like tabloid fodder, remember that this woman rocked Black Panther regalia at the Super Bowl. “Formation,” a mission statement seemingly perfect for an introduction, is placed at the end as a signal that though her personal conflict may have resolved, the struggle for black women at large is never over. Queen B concludes with a beginning, calling everyone to action. After all, her work never stops.
- Whitney — “Light Upon the Lake”
By Kelly McGarry
As the year ends, you can’t walk through an artsy Chicago neighborhood without Whitney catching your attention. A vinyl copy of “Light Upon the Lake” can be found in any record store, right among the greats. With their debut album, Whitney has become Chicago’s pride and joy of 2016 (forget sports).
The album is a feat of muted complexity. Bright, clear production blend its many elements seamlessly. From the climbing violin riffs and arcing guitar lines in opener “No Woman” to the dual guitar and vocal interplay in the title track, Whitney consistently creates motion in areas where their peers settle for static drum grooves and repetitive strum patterns. Its whimsical-yet-melancholic themes meet a sound too joyful to allow this to be a sad album.
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “Skeleton Tree”
By Kelly McGarry
In the album following the death of his teenage son, Nick Cave examines an identity-crushing tragedy. He opens up about the experience on the album’s accompanying documentary, “One More Time With Feeling.” Of the work that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have released consistently for over 30 years, this is not the first to contemplate death — but it is the bleakest. Though the playfulness of previous works was left out on this album, it does not lack for creativity.
The eerie din of opening track “Jesus Alone” sets a disturbing tone for the album. The track eventually comes to a repeated painful wail subtly reminiscent of Clare Torry’s wordless vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky.” A spirit of nightmare pop endures throughout, only interrupted by twinkling “Rings of Saturn,” whose airy instrumental is grounded by Cave’s deeply, darkly spoken lyrics that also convey a sense of rightness as the notes fall into place, “And in this moment, this is exactly what she is born to be.” To the funeral march evoked in “Distant Sky,” “Skeleton Tree” is the sound of grief.
- James Blake — “The Colour in Anything”
By Maggie Walsh
If there ever was an album to judge by its cover, it would be James Blake’s “The Colour in Anything.” The album — and its cover — evoke an autumnal world of cold, driving rain and melancholy; a world that wills listeners to lose themselves in each beautifully layered track. Blake’s third studio album is his longest yet. Clocking in at just over 76 minutes, “The Colour in Anything” is a rain-lashed musical landscape where Blake’s production talent is equally as clear and far-reaching as his vocals.
While the singles “Radio Silence” and “I Need a Forest Fire” (which features Bon Iver) receive the acclaim and mainstream attention they deserve, Blake truly shines in the tracks that escape notice: his lyrical collaboration with Frank Ocean in “My Willing Heart,” and the album’s acapella capstone, “Meet You in the Maze.”
“The Colour in Anything” is an electronic rainstorm exploring lost love and frustration. Ultimately concluding with a message of hope and self-love, Blake’s album ends like the horizon on his album cover: a golden optimistic calm after a gorgeously vulnerable storm.
- Young Thug — “JEFFERY”
By Jimmy Kemper
2016 has been a busy year for Young Thug. Between releasing three mixtapes, rocking out as a model at Kanye’s “Pablo” party in Madison Square Garden and blowing up on social media, Thugga has quickly risen to become one of the most successful and well-known rappers of his generation. But of all this, the release of his mixtape “JEFFERY” stands out as the highlight of his year. When it first came out, fans were taken aback by the mixtape’s cover art, featuring Young Thug in a dress designed by Alessandro Trincone.
A closer inspection of the work’s art, lyrics and music reveals that “JEFFERY” is ultimately an album about identity. It’s not just about Thugga’s gender identity, but about his identity as an artist and that of pop music itself as Thugga proves that almost anything can become a hook, employing a variety of nonsensible vocal noises, buzzing synths, guest raps, trap beats and everything else he can find in order to make a jam.
Together, these disparate elements create a cathartic, emotional apex that transcends the status quo of rap music. In the “JEFFERY” mixtape, Young Thug has designed a bold, experimental, refined yet upside-down world that deconstructs our notions of what hip-hop can be by blurring the lines of identity and voice.
- Radiohead — “A Moon Shaped Pool”
By Christian Bunker
Much more than a breakup album inspired by Thom Yorke’s divorce, “A Moon Shaped Pool” is in many ways a reconciliation gift to an adoring fan base made anxious by years without material worthy of the band’s stellar standards. This album proved the band’s ability to stay relevant two decades after its first critically acclaimed work, giving us songs like “Present Tense” and “Daydreaming” that are sure to be future inductees into Radiohead’s canon of classics. Furthermore, the extensive use of classical instrumentation on the album, thanks to Jonny Greenwood’s stint as a Hollywood composer, showed that the band was willing to rewrite its formula for success yet another time. But for a botched attempt at recreating the heartrending acoustic ballad “True Love Waits” in the studio, this album could have been the best of the year.
- Rihanna — “ANTI”
By Erin McAuliffe
I’ll admit it — I slept on this album. “Yeah, I Said It.” But since its January release-date, “ANTI” has managed to “Work” its way “Higher” into my top 20 “Consideration” set.
I listened to the album expecting to discover some new dance floor anthems, but instead I found a “Same Ol’ Mistakes” Tame Impala cover. On “ANTI,” Rihanna left her radio-ready equation (see: “Umbrella,” “Pour It Up”) behind in favor of experiments like Western noir-inspired “Desperado” and cymbal-heavy grunge-synth track “Woo.”
And honestly I should have been more prepared for it — the transformation was apparent even on first glance: While her past albums have all featured Rihanna in seductive poses or close-up glam shots, the album’s surreal cover art features a child holding a balloon with a crown covering her eyes. And it is through this obscured golden vision that Rihanna created her innovative pop dynasty in 2016.
- Frank Ocean — “Blond(e)” and “Endless”
By Jack Riedy
Only Frank Ocean could make a Tumblr post about Prince as impactful as a live performance. Like his purple precursor, Ocean’s writing is suffused with emotion that renders his characters practically physical. On “Blonde” and “Endless,” Ocean is a pitch-shifted fashion killa, a testifying acid-tripper, an ironic technophobe, a love-stoned teenager and more. The same heart beats within all of them.
Frank Ocean’s writing has never sounded this personal. A direct line like, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” hits like a sucker punch. The subtle arrangements wisely leave room for Ocean’s nimble voice. When he sings to an anonymous you, it’s as intimate as his cover of an Isleys-via-Aaliyah tune. These albums are gloriously queer, unafraid to condense a lifetime of joy and sorrow into 35 tracks. Frank Ocean is back in a dangerous time, singing “I’ll always be there for you.” There’s no other feeling quite like it.
- Anderson Paak — “Malibu”
By Adam Ramos
Anderson Paak might be the MVP of 2016. In addition to his sophomore record “Malibu,” Paak dropped the superb “Yes Lawd!” with his collaboration project NxWorries, performed a Tiny Desk and was a standout feature on a number of albums for artists including Mac Miller, Domo Genesis, A Tribe Called Quest, KAYTRANADA and ScHoolboy Q. But everything after “Malibu” seems superfluous.
The album’s sprawling blend of gospel, R&B and soulful hip-hop forces the multi-instrumentalist to push his tremendous talent in every direction while constantly maintaining a grounded emotional genuineness. But despite the many heavy topics explored on the album, “Malibu” is ultimately a celebration. “This one’s for all the little dreamers / I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch / And who cares daddy couldn’t be here?” Paak sings in front of a gospel chorus on the album’s closing track “Dreamers,” affirming the message that talent and hard work are enough to succeed in the face of adversity, something Paak, who only five years ago was homeless and raising and infant child, knows a lot about. And with the year we’ve had, it’s a message worth sharing.
- Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
By Jimmy Kemper
Chance put together the greatest album advertisement of all time when he hopped on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” off of his self-purported gospel album “The Life of Pablo.” In the middle of one of the best verses of 2016, Chance raps, “Let’s do a good ass job with Chance three / I hear you gotta sell it to snatch the Grammy.”
He certainly got the attention of the Recording Academy, as his streaming-exclusive album “Coloring Book” is not only the first online-only album to receive a nomination, it ended up collecting seven.
And it certainly deserves it. While “The Life of Pablo” is essentially the gospel according to Yeezus, “Coloring Book” is a gospel album in the purest sense of the word. It’s an album of praise, of hope and of fun. The sense of charity and love is so palpable in every track – from the killer opening track “All We Got” through the last seconds of the Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Blessings” – that it’s impossible not to smile.
Chance has crafted a gospel album to help each of us find that little light of ours to guide us through the worst parts of 2016.
- Death Grips — “Bottomless Pit”
By Brian Boylen
I didn’t realize how obsessed I was with this album until I sat down and tried to rank my favorite releases of the year. My common sense told me to put other, more traditionally appealing and universally loved albums of 2016 above it, but something inside of me wasn’t having it. “Bottomless Pit,” the latest LP from experimental hip-hop group Death Grips, has somehow carved a spot for itself in my everyday life. The noise of the outrageously aggressive shouted vocals of MC Ride over the abrasive, discordant beats of Zach Hill has become the soundtrack of my life when I just need to get something done. Whether I am maxing out in the weight room or grinding out some last-minute homework in Club Hes, “Bottomless Pit” kicks me into overdrive. The album isn’t for everyone — the cacophony of noise drilled into your ears will probably put off most listeners. If you can get over the bleeding ears, however, there is a certain beauty in the discord.
- Pinegrove — “Cardinal”
By Mike Donovan
“Cardinal” is an album about direction — or, more accurately — lack thereof. For one thing, it’s an uneasy mix of twang-infused roots rock and pop punk sensibility. If that tension isn’t enough for you, songwriter Evan Stephens Hall doubles down with his insatiable Byronic complex. Every crevasse of the record pays homage to his defining internal conflict — a bitter clash between his need for connection and his crippling solipsism. “So when I want to hang my head out / I hung behind your eyes,” he croons in with his distinctive drawl on “Cadmium.” “My eyes still flicker with doubt / Quickly no I can’t decide.” The more Hall tries to turn his life outward, the further he recedes inward. When he reaches the end of his thought line, he’s more distraught than before. Surprisingly, “Cardinal’s” pervasive tension is innately comforting. It does, in some ways, provide the direction that its title implies. The chaos of life, after all, needs an equally unhinged compass.
- Kero Kero Bonito – “Bonito Generation”
By John Darr
In an age where any ill-conceived musical idea can be hashed out and thrown on the internet, every listener should be wary of a band that is best described as “J-Pop meets UK hip-hop.” However, Kero Kero Bonito carries an unlikely triple threat: immaculate production, a talented and charismatic vocalist, and the good sense to stuff tracks full of ideas without crowding out the core arrangements. Producers Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled craft instrumentals with stripped-down, rock-solid drum beats and bass lines that leave plenty of room for bilingual vocalist Sarah Midori Perry to navigate her delightfully G-rated lyrics; the sonic space also allows for the producers to deck out each little gap with enjoyable synth riffs and sound effects. The resulting debut record from Kero Kero Bonito, “Bonito Generation,” is a joyous piece of stripped-down pop that never becomes boring or overcrowded. Don’t let this truly delectable slice of happiness pass you by.
This article is part of Scene’s The Year in Music series.