Here’s a list of my favorite albums from 2016. Somewhat unusually for me, my favorite music this year was almost entirely hip-hop and R&B. I’ve got a few thoughts about why that was, some of which I’ll share below. Mostly, though, I think the reason for this was simply that 2016 was a fantastic year for hip-hop and, especially, R&B. Here’s my list:
1. Frank Ocean, Blond – This is the best album of the year for me because I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Many of the songs are weird agglomerations of several ideas, some of the songs are just short sketches. Somehow it all hangs together, though, and for me that makes the album an incredibly engaging listen.
In a way, the thing this album feels most similar to is the stuff that Kanye has been doing recently on his album from this year The Life of Pablo, and on his last album Yeezus. But unlike Kanye’s recent most recent music, Ocean’s lyrics are consistently interesting, and the music is great from the first song to the last. Because it’s so different from anything out there, this album is a grower. I was intrigued by it the first time I heard it, but it took three or four listens for it to really grab me. If you still haven’t given this album its due, it’ll be worth your time. Key track: Nights
2. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book – This was the other contender for my choice of best album of the year, because no other album brought me more pure joy this past year. Most of the albums I played on repeat this year were pretty downcast, which is fitting, I guess, for the type of year 2016 was. Coloring Book was different though. The word that sticks out from other reviews I read of this album is “generous,” and it’s such a perfect word for Chance. The lyrics here are warm and nostalgic. The music is full of the Kanye-influenced Chicago soul Chance is known for, but it’s also infused with gospel and trap. Most of all, though, this album is fun, and this year really needed some fun. Key track: Same Drugs
3. Solange, A Seat at the Table – I’ve never been a big R&B listener, but 2016 was the year that changed. Along with Frank Ocean’s album, which for me was the year’s best, this year had great R&B releases from Beyonce, Solange, and Jamila Woods, among others I’m sure. While A Seat at the Table was not as hyped as Solange’s sister’s album Lemonade, and it’s not quite as ambitious or musically diverse, it had more staying power for me. One of the reasons 2016 was such a great year for R&B was the cultural relevance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Each of the R&B albums I mentioned are political in their own way, but Solange’s album is overtly so. Aside from the politics, though, I just liked the songs on A Seat at the Table. Key track: Mad.
4. David Bowie, Blackstar – I’m not a David Bowie obsessive, and I’m generally skeptical of late-career works by classic rockers, so it took me a while to get around to this one. If you’ve been in that camp too, I recommend getting over it and checking out this album. Blackstar might be better classified as a jazz album than a rock album, but it’s hard jazz. It’s an adventurous and creative album, with tremendous musicianship throughout, a great gift for Bowie to leave us just before he died. Key track: Lazarus.
5. Tribe Called Quest, We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service – This album came out in November, so while I’m not 100% sure of how this album will stand up over a period of months or years, I’ve been playing it on repeat since it was released. It has the feel of an old school Tribe album, but also feels totally contemporary. There are great features from Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Busta Rhymes, who sounds great. Key track: Black Spasmodic.
6. The I Don’t Cares, Wild Stab – On this album, Paul Westerberg (together with Juliana Hatfield) captures the spirit of the Replacements as well as he’s done since the third to last Replacements album. Though this album didn’t crack my top five, that’s enough to earn it an honorable mention. As was true of the best music by the Replacements, the songs here are carefully crafted pop songs performed without much at all in the way of care. The effect is an energetic and fun album that feels and off-the-cuff. Key track: ½ 2P
Honorable mention: Albums (in no particular order) by Drive-by Truckers, Beyonce, Sturgill Simpson, Kanye West, Noname, Jamila Woods