We can’t remember the last time a year featured so many well-produced, profoundly written and beautifully performed albums. Was it a reflection of 2016’s turbulent world events, gnarly scorched earth politics, the brutality of racial injustice, the loss of so many talented musicians? It certainly feels that all these things played a part in sculpting what feels like a watershed year for music.
Or at least the following list does a fine job quantifying that. But not everything here is darkness and despair. There are positive energies, reflective landscapes of sound, ruminations on the freedoms of childhood, explorations into new sonic terrain, laughter and joy. And while popular music is often a reflection of our culture at any given moment, it also serves as a safe and comfortable departure from it, especially in times of turmoil.
While we could have added at least another 10 albums to this list, we hope you enjoy what we found to be the strongest standouts of them all.
In Alphabetical Order; all album titles link to Spotify
A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – Reuniting to create their first album since 1998, Tribe shocked the world one more time with what will likely be their last outing following the passing of Phife in March. Like all their great albums, it’s chock full of fast clever rhymes, audacious beats and a plenitude of collaborators, from Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar, to Jack White and Elton John. It’s richly populated with samples from all generations and sounds culled from electronica, jazz, hip-hop and dub – there’s something here for everyone.
Bon Iver: 22, A Million – Making a big sonic departure from previous albums, Justin Vernon’s palatably short 34 minute bonanza of aural soundscapes is an amazing experiment gone awesome. While he’s historically trended toward piano, acoustic guitar and a small symphony of players, this album starts off with a much more electronic stance juxtaposing his vocals. After feeling like the last person in an abandoned foreign cityscape, the album ultimately resolves with his more familiar acoustic sounds and positive vibes. One of a number of excellent thematic, album oriented works this year.
David Bowie: Blackstar – Deliberately released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, the album was largely recorded in secret, catching everyone off guard. But the biggest shock of all was his death two days later, due to liver cancer, a prognosis also unknown to the public. The album’s opening and title track, a sprawling 10 minute missive, certainly sets a somber tone for the album. Yet, as a whole, the record plumbs both Bowie’s electronic leanings in the 90’s/early 2000’s, as well as his propensity for prog, which seems present throughout. Definitely one to sit and listen to late at night, once the party is over… headphones recommended.
Michael Kiwanuka: Love & Hate – The sophomore release from this talented soul singer is a huge leap forward. The album, produced by the renowned Danger Mouse, is a cohesive, complex and beautiful selection of multi-generational soul, blues, gospel and triumphant orchestrations. Clearly a more experimental concept album than his first release Home Again, this time around Kiwanuka brings an even more personal lyricism to the table, reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s most poignant work in the 70’s. You’ll definitely want to get this one on vinyl to properly soak in the soul.
Angel Olsen: My Woman – Well versed as a folk singer-songwriter, Olsen creates a new path with her fourth album in 6 years. My Woman is bathed in Spector-esque reverb and 50’s pop-rock balladry, all set to love lorn crooning lyricism. But she also expands into more unexpected realms that jive more with an early 80’s punk aggression and emotional melodies that draw the listener in, all the while weaving in unique time changes, keeping us guessing where she’ll go next. In all, it’s an impressive outing that’s certainly caught our attention, as her continued evolution will be something worth watching .
Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool – The ninth studio release and longest stretch between albums for these experimental Brits, A Moon Shaped Pool treads upon familiar ground. Primarily filled with new material, it mostly moves at a languid pace, choosing an abundance of piano, strings and atmospherics to propel the album. Their best album since In Rainbows it’s a darker bit of meandering bookended by two phenomenal tracks from the past – the opener, “Burn the Witch” sounding more like Greenwood’s work on ‘There Will Be Blood’ and the closer, “True Love Waits” a melancholy version of a song they never released, but played acoustically live. It’s a reflective set of tracks sure to settle your nerves.
Solange: A Seat at the Table – Too often known as the younger sister of Beyoncé, it’s clear that Solange Knowles has deliberately taken a different path, especially here, on her 3rd studio album. This 21 track opus, arguably the most culturally significant album this year, features a varied palate of R&B and soul, masterfully woven together with poignant interludes speaking to the black experience in America. There is a pace and timing to this album that begs it to be noticed, if you haven’t already been entranced by her smooth and soaring vocals. Yet another personal collection of tracks that will resonate for years to come.
The Avalanches: Wildflower – Another artist without a release in the longest time (16 years), The Avalanches finally dropped their long awaited second album in July. While a tall order to match the genius of their first release – Since I Left You, they did have to endure sample rights issues, personal illness and members leaving, yet still managed to produce another sonic collage of epic proportions. The best parts feel like reliving a childhood summer spent roaming the streets of New York. While speculation swirls about their next release (somewhere between a few months and “in three years”) this 64 minutes of plunderphonic happiness will keep us occupied in the meantime.
The Blind Shake: Celebrate Your Worth – You won’t likely find this album on many best of lists outside their native city of Minneapolis, though it should be on every list for those who seek thunderous Rock ‘n Roll. Not one for genre definition, this threesome just love to play tunes that stomp – hard rock, punk, surf, psychedelic… however you want to define it, it’s all in there. This 31 minute gem, their 11th album in 9 years, is the best produced and fluid we’ve heard from them yet and unlike any other rock album this year.
William Tyler: Modern Country – Following the success of his acclaimed second album, The Impossible Truth, Tyler has once again struck gold with his Americana infused instrumental soundscapes. This is the third album on this list that starts with a 9+ minute track – each unique in their own way, though here the depth of Tyler’s slow burning guitar crescendos are like food for a soul yearning for the Western days of yore. Great music for a road trip or just a calm commute home, Tyler’s beautiful work is at once haunting and inspiring.
Cover/Header photo courtesy of christhebarker.tumblr.com