Entertainment » Music

A Year in Review: The 10 Best Albums of 2016

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Saturday Dec 31, 2016

To call 2016 an unconventional year would be an understatement. And pop music reflected that. As mentioned in my best songs of the year post, the album format, once thought of as a dying way to delver music, became the go-to method in which high profile acts shared their music. Huge pop stars didn't care about singles charting but instead wanted to tell a narrative.

Albums from Beyonce, Rihanna, Kanye West, Solange, Lady Gaga and Frank Ocean demanded to be heard from start to finish. On top of that, the music from these artists and others were challenging: Rihanna was lauded for making her first Album (with a capital "A") with "Anti." Ocean returned after vanishing for years with two records: "Endless," a shapeless ambient album that ends with a 10-minute electro piece by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans and the more conventional, albeit restrained, "Blonde." Beyonce's "Lemonade" came with one of the best films of the year and West's "The Life of Pablo" showed listeners the maddening way in which the sausage is made. Chance the Rapper again avoided signing with a major label and released another "mixtape" called "Coloring Book." Additionally, both the Weeknd and Drake turned out albums with a whopping 20 tracks.

Below are the best ten albums of 2016. Some artists mentioned above made the top 10 cut while a good chunk are from musicians who don't dominate headlines or music charts. Also below are ten more honorable mentions.

10. M83 - "Junk"

It is understandably no easy task to follow up a breakthrough album that launches a musician's career. M83's Anthony Gonzalez has been making cinematically nostalgic and epic music since the early 00s. After crossing over in 2011 with "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" and the single "Midnight City," Gonzalez's latest album "Junk" is a direct response to fame: He hates it. "Junk" is a fascinating album that purposefully sets out to sound bad (the album title is "Junk" after all), finding the French band taking on 80s trends like muzak, corny sitcom theme songs, and trashy euro dance bangers. But Gonzalez and co. pull it off, making "Junk" an enjoyable album with some incredible jams.

09. How to Dress Well - "Care"

How to Dress Well's Tom Krell has fully embraced his sound and his wonderful voice. On "Care," Krell, who started off his career blending R&B with lo-fi experimental music, incorporates current pop trends, like EDM and tropical house, into his moving odes of love and loss. Once tucking his falsetto behind a blanket of reverb and synthy production, Krell now puts his voice front and center, which is accompanied by a hi-fi and clear production.

With help from artists like Fun's Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tegan and Sara, Grimes), indie musician CFCF and dancehall producer Dre Skull, "Care" has more in common with Justin Bieber's "Purpose" than Burial's "Untrue."

08. The Radio Dept. - "Running Out of Love"

The Radio Dept. has been absent for far too long: "Running Out of Love" is the Swedish indie-rock band's first album in six years. And the new album proves to be a magnificent return and well worth the wait. Lead single "Occupied" is an epic way to come back. Clocking in at seven minutes, the brooding song samples the iconic dark synths from Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks "Laura Palmer's Theme." On the hypnotic "Swedish Guns," the band opts for a slight reggae tinge but holds on to their jangly guitars, making the song an interesting blend of old and new.

Unlike some dream pop and shoegaze acts, the Radio Dept., comprising members Johan Duncanson and Martin Carlberg, put time into crafting their lyrics, even though their vocals are often buried in the mix or blanketed in fuzzy reverb. The band has always been political, and things are no different on "Running Out of Love."

07. The 1975 - "I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it"

When the British band the 1975 first burst onto the scene, they were a joke: With songs named "Sex" and "Girls," the group wasn't taken seriously. But their sophomore album "I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it" is undeniable, showing the 1975 is more than a novelty.

Emulating music from the 80s is something every pop musician seems to do. But its something few artists get correct. The 1975 impeccably call on a wide range of artists, including Price, David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine and Janet Jackson. "I like it..." is full of stellar songs, like "The Sound," "A Change of Heart," and "Paris," all of which carry an emotional heft with brazen lyrics: "Mr. Serotonin Man, lend me a gram /You call yourself a friend?/I got two left feet and I'm starting to cheat/On my girlfriend again."

06. Terror Jr - "Bop City"

Sometimes music just needs to be addictive and catchy. Not every song needs to carry the social commentary of a Beyonce song or needs to be game-changing like a string of Drake singles. Terror Jr's "Bop City" is a collection of fun pop songs that run away with PC Music's subservice take on Top 40. The mysterious trio, which may or may not feature Kylie Jenner, blend trap, electro and a dash of Lana Del Rey to create a minimalist pop album that's sexy and intriguing; a rare combination.

05. Carly Rae Jepsen - "Emotion: Side B"

Only Carly Rae Jepsen, one of pop music's most interesting and daring artists, can release a throw away collection of B-sides that's actually one of the best albums of the year. The leftovers from "Emotion," the best album of 2015, thrive in their own space and sound anything but toss-offs. "Side B" shows Jepsen's range; in one moment she's Cyndi Lauper and in the next, she's channeling a-ha. If "Side B" is a gathering of songs left on the cutting room floor, I can't imagine what she'll delver on her next album.

04. David Bowie - "Blackstar"

David Bowie's final album "Blackstar" will go down in music history. His farewell album might be about the iconic singer leaving Earth but it sounds full of life, offering Bowie's most interest and exciting music in decades. It thrives with creative ideas, proving Bowie was taken from us too soon. From the hypnotic acid-jazz title track to the devastating final song "I Can't Give Everything Away," "Blackstar" celebrates Bowie's life with his death. It's a mind-blowing statement that could only be pulled off by one of the best musicians to ever live.

03. Beyonce - "Lemonade"

Beyonce exists in a realm of her own. She doesn't compete with anyone; she's no longer even a pop star - she's her own genre and her own medium.

"Lemonade" is the second visual album from Beyonce, which first debuted as a film on HBO earlier this year. Listening to the album, "Lemonade" is about one woman's journey as she learns about, processes and, eventually accepts and moves on from her husband's infidelities. But watching "Lemonade," Beyonce frames her music in a completely different way, showing that her struggle is one that several women - especially women of color - have endured for generations.

Politically charged, emotionally gripping and relentlessly beautiful, "Lemonade" is one of the most confidant and powerful records of the last decade.

02. ANOHNI - "Hopelessness"

ANOHNI's "Hopelessness" is one of the pieces of art that has taken on a stronger meaning in the wake of Donald Trump becoming the next president of the United States. Her album is critical of a number of hot button issues, ranging from human rights to climate change. (One song, aptly titled "Obama," sharply criticizes the outgoing president for not carrying out the promises of hope he championed during his 2008 campaign.)

"Hopelessness" is a complex electronic record, politically fueled and remarkably dark. With her signature striking vocals, "Hopelessness" is a culmination of frustrations and protests backed by waves of experimental electronic music from producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never.

01. Kanye West - "The Life of Pablo"

"The Life of Pablo" is an album stitched together with brilliant moments. There really isn't one full song that's perfect from start to finish (except maybe the house-infused "Fade"). Instead, Kanye West gives us the perfect album for the social media age: An album that feels endless, ongoing and always evolving - West was still adding songs to "TLOP" months after the album was "officially" released.

West gave his fans a behind-the-scenes look on how his music is made: A frantic, 11th hour method that was more like a college student finishing a term paper the night before its due date than a genius crafting a masterpiece. Sharing manic updates via Twitter, West gave glimpses of his album, which changed titles three times and had a track listing that continued to grow. In the end, however, "TLOP" is West's most joyous work: It's a huge party and everyone is invited.

Honorable mentions: "Views" by Drake, "Reverie" by Postiljonen, "Hero" by Maren Morris, "Yoncalla" by Yumi Zouma, "I Just Wanna Dance" by Tiffany, "La La Land Official Soundtrack" by Various Artists, "Meta" by METAFIVE, "Glory" by Britney Spears, "Dangerous Woman" by Ariana Grande and "Square One"/"Square Two" EPs by BLACKPINK.


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