The 25 Best Albums of 2016
The 25 Best Albums of 2016

5

David Bowie, Blackstar

David Bowie’s final album may also be his strangest, a concise collection of outré mood pieces doubling as improvisatory free-jazz vamps. In keeping with his celebrated practice of blending self-commentary, cerebral philosophizing, and ribald showmanship, Blackstar coalesces as a commentary on the artist’s impending death while also covering a wide variety of other topics, an approach that leaves Bowie’s final creative form feeling both immediately present and completely detached, gone but still speaking back to us from the other side. From an opening track that extends the exoticized mysticism of Lodger to a closing one that samples one of Low’s more upbeat transitional tracks, Blackstar maintains a morbid focus, yet never feels remotely gloomy or grave. An essential sense of hope is ingrained in the album’s tone, which manages to sound both apocalyptic and optimistic, a final vanishing act which allows music’s most famous extraterrestrial to disappear with his dignity, mystery, and panache all intact. Cataldo

The 25 Best Albums of 2016

4

A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thank You for Your Service

Drawing in a host of featured guests, these 16 sleek tracks serve as far more than a nostalgia act, a tribute to the late Phife Dawg, or a last hurrah for collagist hip-hop artists whose genre-bending union of disparate styles set them apart from their 1990s contemporaries and pioneered positively themed alternative rap. With its surviving members now well into their 40s, the group doesn’t chide the shifting tides of culture, even admitting on “Kids” that today’s youth do the same stupid stuff kids have always done. Yet social commentary rises up throughout We Got It from Here… Thank You for Your Service, most obviously through the circa 2016 bigotry-in-a-nutshell of “We the People…” and “The Space Program.” But A Tribe Called Quest doesn’t use this platform as a protest so much as to artfully shine a light on society’s ills through the kind of impeccable production and seamlessly crafted verse we’ll never hear from them again. Goller

The 25 Best Albums of 2016

3

Beyoncé, Lemonade

Surprise-released in February, and accompanied by an intricate full-length film, Beyoncé’s Lemonade was most revelatory as an open-faced discourse on her husband’s infidelity and her own insecurity. Otherwise stylistically meandering, cycling from modernized R&B (“Hold Up,” “Sorry”) to country (“Daddy Issues”) to soulful rock (“Freedom”), the album holds up as a body of work thanks to its consistent exploration of Beyoncé’s emotional devastation, and the pairing of her trademark showiness with a captivating intimate drama. Yet perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Knowles/Carter dynasty appears healthy as ever 10 months later, and so the complex legacy of Lemonade is at once personal, commercially viable, and theatrical—a perfectly conceived and dynamic show originally disguised as a tell. Wroble

The 25 Best Albums of 2016

2

Kanye West, The Life of Pablo

“We don’t want no devils in the house,” squeaks a sampled Christ-worshipping pipsqueak in the first seconds of The Life of Pablo, and unsurprisingly her words go unheeded: After the benedictory blessing of “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West is back to his sinning ways. The Kanye of this album is the least likable one yet, and even more repelling for his apparent proximity to the real Kanye: Unlike those of the “monster” on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or the “god” on Yeezus, there’s always a sense that the narratives here—the one about Taylor Swift, the shot at Ray J, etc.—are his own. But the thing is, amplification is Kanye’s art: Sounds are always getting bigger and sharper, production progressively more expansive and diverse, and emotional honesty is taken to the most vivid of extremes. The Life of Pablo is a masterwork because it pairs Kanye’s best executed musical ideas with the most revealing expression of his character. Mac

The 25 Best Albums of 2016

1

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool

In one of the most politically volatile years since Radiohead’s career began, the famously opinionated band sidestepped headlines in favor of personal trauma on A Moon Shaped Pool, their most nuanced work to date. Apart from red herring “Burn the Witch,” which indeed skewers the times, the album cycles through grief, loss, and quiet anger, with exquisite orchestration that underscores—as opposed to obscures—Thom Yorke’s stunning melodies. Radiohead finally recorded some of its oldest skeletons for A Moon Shaped Pool (the glitchy “Identikit,” which becomes a muted, Eastern-tinged storm; “True Love Waits,” which simply and gorgeously hovers) and yet, given the album’s atmosphere of heartbreak, these songs sound less brought to life than just barely rescued from death. When Yorke laments plainly on “Daydreaming” that “this goes beyond you, beyond me,” he’s not singing about typical Radiohead themes like corruption and greed, but of the private world where he once escaped shattering before his eyes. Wroble

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