2016 has been a hell of a year for music. Despite a seemingly endless onslaught of icons’ deaths, it’s also been a nonstop barrage of amazing records from artists including James Blake, Bon Iver, Kanye West, Rihanna, The Last Shadow Puppets, A Tribe Called Quest, Skepta, Iggy Pop, and Childish Gambino. You won’t find any of those below but, while no means definitive, here’s our 10 favorites of the year’s best.
When you’re done, check out our (slightly OTT) end-of-the-year Spotify playlist for a bit of everything that made 2016 so memorable as well as our top 10 overlooked albums of the year.
10.) Is the Is Are by Diiv
After a solid debut album, the members of Diiv overcame a bout of personal issues and public kerfuffles and wrote a follow-up that was anything but a sophomore slump. If you’re a fan of bouncy melodies and jangling guitar rhythms, look no further.
9.) Sirens by Nicolas Jaar
As moody and evocative as anything else Nicolas Jaar has ever alchemized, but also personal and political, Sirens is a record that sounds unmistakably Jaar without sounding like retreaded territory.
8.) I Had a Dream That You Were Mine by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
The Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser layered his genteel snarl over eclectic and upbeat notes from Vampire Weekend’s former musical polymath Rostam Batmanglij in one of the year’s most pleasantly surprising collaborations.
7.) Freetown Sound by Blood Orange
Dev Hynes has penned pop songs for a wide range of musicians over his career so it's no surprise that the majority of his output under Blood Orange thrives on hooks and funky riffs. Freetown Sound has plenty of catchy singles but its best moments stem from little sonic details tucked away in its less obvious tracks.
6.) A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
With every album, a reinvention. That’s par for the course with Radiohead, but the Brits’ ninth album melded the old, pulling decades-old songs ("True Love Waits"), with the new, in the form of arrangements so epic even by Radiohead standards, to result in something truly timeless.
5.) Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Skeleton Tree exudes such creeping dread in its melodies and Nick Cave’s haunting vocal delivery. But as anxiety-inducing as the atmosphere is, the record is rendered insurmountably more ominous by the lyrics, which grapple with his fifteen-year-old son’s tragic death. The year’s darkest, most personal record by no small margin.
4.) A Seat at the Table by Solange
Who else to top the reigning queen of intelligent pop music but her own sister? Solange Knowles dropped a seemingly out-of-nowhere masterpiece late in the year that offered beautiful contemplations ("Cranes in the Sky"), slow-build jams ("Don’t Touch My Hair") and plenty of spoken word interludes to elevate A Seat at the Table to a pop album with a message.
3.) Blackstar by David Bowie
Melding cosmic jazz, cool-not-corny art rock and celestial imagery, David Bowie’s Blackstar was a high-concept masterpiece in its own right. Factor in all the cryptic lyrics and hints that suggest the pop chameleon knew his end was nigh and it’s no surprise that his last album (and only one not to feature his likeness on the cover) already seems to feel like the stuff of legend.
2.) Malibu by Anderson Paak
Anderson Paak was undeniably 2016’s breakout star. And it was his early-year statement of intent, Malibu, that set off a chain reaction of phenomenal live shows (where he trades off drumming and rapping), a collaborative album with L.A. beatmaker Knxwledge, and a ton of guest verses that kept up his momentum. At the end of the day, Malibu was just the most fun album of the year.
1.) Blonde by Frank Ocean
Eclecticism felt like a big theme in 2016, better encapsulated in Frank Ocean’s super-hyped Blonde than almost anywhere else. Its highs ("Pink + White") and its lows ("Nikes"), its extroversion in the form of so many guests (Andre 3000 on "Solo Reprise" being the highlight) and its loneliest moments ("Seigfried") all came together in a seamless album better than the sum of its parts. An essential sonic snapshot of a fearless musician living in the modern era.