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The 25 Best Albums of 2016

The specter of death and sting of betrayal have cast a somber mood onto many of the best albums of 2016.

The 25 Best Albums of 2016

Year-end lists are meant to be lively affairs, but the specter of death and sting of betrayal have cast a somber mood onto many of the best albums of 2016. We were gifted with final acts by David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, who passed away in the wake of Blackstar and You Want It Darker’s releases, respectively. We also heard some unexpected final bars from the late Phife Dawg, as A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years shot out of leftfield in November, at a time when much of the country was reeling from an altogether different form of grief.

Ruminations on mortality also trickled into the work of those artists who’re still with us as 2016 draws to a close: Nick Cave’s teenage son accidentally fell to his death during the recording of Skeleton Tree, while Lucinda Williams uses the death of her father as a catalyst to revisit childhood haunts in The Ghosts of Highway 20.

Elsewhere, focus shifts to broken trust and damaged relationships. Beyoncé examines the emotional fallout of a cheating spouse on Lemonade and Gwen Stefani takes on a messy divorce in Is This What the Truth Feels Like. While grim details may surround a bevy of our picks for the 25 best albums of 2016, the silver lining, of course, is that out of darkness can be derived the most vibrant art. Josh Goller


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

25. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch

Norwegian avant-garde musician Jenny Hval declares in a conversational interlude that her sixth album is “about vampires,” but this purposely oversimplified description of Blood Bitch can’t obscure that Hval more specifically examines taboo, at least as viewed by ancient patriarchies, where aberrant women were quickly deemed witches, and even the misogynist notion of feminine purity could be marred monthly by the arrival of menstrual blood. Leaning on electronic textures more than discernible melodies, Hval also draws influence from the transgressions of ’70s-era exploitation films, a disorienting aesthetic bubbling up most notably on the dark vortex of “The Plague.” Yet for all its unholy flourishes, ragged breaths, and sticky surfaces, Blood Bitch’s imagery can’t be reduced to a fixation on vampirism, for Hval ultimately taps into a very human form of yearning and desire. Goller


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

24. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound

In a year in which social issues have remained at a constant boil, music can provide a form of relief that doesn’t necessarily constitute distraction, streamlining tough, complicated topics down to their essential points. There’s no better argument for diversity, pride, and the riotous mélange of viewpoints that make up the real spirit of America than Freetown Sound, an album that acts as a living rebuke to a persistent cultural undercurrent of ignorance and hate. Kicking off with oddball polymath Dev Hynes crooning over a warm, sonorous piano line, opener “By Ourselves” then cedes to a lengthy sample of feminist-focused slam poetry, before melding seamlessly into a second track on which Hynes jumps back into the mix, doing his own spin on spoken word. These kinds of wild, rhythmically rhyming leaps—lyrical, musical and stylistic—occur throughout, cementing the effect of an album that’s theatrical, expansive, and reassuringly weird. Jesse Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

23. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial

From Ray Davies to Julian Casablancas, the whole history of guitar-based indie rock can be heard right there in Will Toledo’s smirking, laconic warble. On Teens of Denial, the 24-year-old becomes something of a culminating millennial avatar for this entire lineage. Coming on the heels of a series home-recorded affairs self-released on Bandcamp, Toledo’s Matador studio debut, Denial, is a fully realized, sprawling statement of purpose. He uses his newfound recording budget to fatten up his compositions with layers of chunky guitars; as a result, the breakneck pace and anthemic heaviness established early on by the charging “Fill in the Blank” and the chugging “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” rarely let up for well over an hour. Jeremy Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

22. Gwen Stefani, This Is What the Truth Feels Like

As these pages have suggested before, the best Annie Lennox album isn’t the Eurythmics’s Touch or Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), but the artist’s first solo effort, the immaculately sustained 1992 mood piece Diva. Gwen Stefani’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like follows a roundly failed attempt at rekindling No Doubt’s early-aughts flame with 40 minutes of modern, commercially competitive and stylistically diverse pop. If Lennox’s album moved away from the sharp synthesizers of the 1980s toward the moody atmospherics that would define pop in the following decade, Stefani’s distances itself from the last No Doubt album’s retro-leaning fetishism by embracing a kaleidoscopic electronic palette, one which more than justifies her individualist instincts. Sam C. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

21. Big Black Delta, Tragame Tierra

A Spanish-language expression of exasperation informs the title of Big Black Delta’s Trágame Tierra. So it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that the album itself is rife with crisp beats, bubbly synths, and big, bright major chords. Surprising, that is, if the album’s opening track, the ironically titled “H.A.,” doesn’t tip you off to Jonathan Bates’s cheeky sense of humor: “A house without the roof/A tree without the fruit…A heart without the chest,” he croons atop a lullaby-baby melody and flurry of digital swirls. As on past Big Black Delta releases, Bates’s vocals are masked, distorted, and sweetened with copious overdubs and harmonies—but only to a point. Despite his fondness for distortion pedals, the hook of “Kid Icarus,” for example, is straight out of a Hall & Oates song. Bates’s skittering effects and big, cavernous soundscapes can leave a metallic aftertaste like a mouthful of antibiotics, but the album’s female guests—including Debbie Gibson and Kimbra—provide the blood for Trágame Tierra’s big, beating heart. Sal Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

20. Allen Toussaint, American Tunes

Rocking, roiling, and rhapsodizing with equal brilliance, the final album from the late Allen Toussaint is everything anyone who’s loved the New Orleans native’s music through the last few decades could want it to be. There are gorgeous, heart-expanding ballads (Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” and the twinkling original “Southern Nights”) and virtuoso workouts (a full-band take on Fats Waller’s elliptical solo “Viper’s Drag” and Duke Ellington’s smoldering “Rocks in My Bed,” reimagined with Carolina Chocolate Drops’s Rhiannon Giddens). But as good as all the material here is, Toussaint’s take on Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is a special highlight: The piece becomes not only a personal meditation on mortality, but on the travails of the American spirit, at the time it’s most needed. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

19. Drive-By Truckers, American Band

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been leveling bleeding-heart broadsides at the likes of George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater, and other right-wing forces of oppression since even before they started Drive-By Truckers 20 years ago (it wasn’t the first band they were in together). But politics have never been a primary album-long thematic focus for them until American Band. In a uniquely heated election year, the potential for the album quickly dating itself was dangerously high. But Hood and Cooley have achieved something approaching timelessness the same way they always have: by telling uncommonly trenchant character-based stories and turning their guitars up loud. Cooley’s indignant missives “Ramon Casiano” and “Surrender Under Protest” indict American white nationalism as forcefully as Hood’s “Guns of Umpqua” and “Baggage” deftly and sensitively tie incidents of personal tragedy to 2016’s messy, terrifying political landscape. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

18. Tove Lo, Lady Wood

The cover photo of Tove Lo’s sophomore effort is a close-up of the Swedish singer’s ringed fingers provocatively tugging on her denim shorts and exposing her navel, a clear homage to the front of Madonna’s Like a Prayer LP. Lady Wood’s gestures to ’80s music, however, are filtered through a patently contemporary lens a la Taylor Swift’s 1989. The album’s sleek minimalist pop is, like that of Lorde or Banks, less stylistically varied and more interested in creating a mood than Lo’s debut. This results in music that, like lyrics about the perils of fame, keeps its audience at somewhat of a remove, but Lady Wood is admirably lean and tightly focused, making it ripe for repeat spins. In short, Lady Wood is a grower. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

17. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Opener “Hands of Time” is a masterful country composition—as if Margo Price just wants to prove herself capable of that standard. That the rest of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter avoids living up to it shows that Price is less concerned with making a respectable album for cross-genre tastemakers than one enjoyable to the already initiated. You won’t find straight-up shit-kickers like “About to Find Out,” “This Town Gets Around,” or “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)” on a Kacey Musgraves album; their concise hooks hinge on classically economical phrasing, as well as Outlaw Country’s flare for rhythm n’ blues. The second best song here? Sexy kiss-off “Four Years of Chances,” as much about the mistreatments of a no-good man as those of the patriarchal country establishment. Price’s feminist, formalist music acts, finally, as indie’s own rejoinder to the similar insurgency that Miranda Lambert’s led in the genre’s mainstream. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

16. Julianna” barwick, Will

Scaling back the polish of previous work ever so slightly, experimental artist Julianna Barwick relies more heavily on her voice as a primary instrument throughout her self-produced third album, Will, looping and multi-tracking her vocals over simple synth tones or snippets of piano melodies to create a majestic and sprawling sound, one that’s otherworldly and ethereal but also more accessible than her past work. Barwick’s haunting, reverbed voice comes as close to articulating the ineffable as one is likely to find, as though these were long-forgotten fables plucked from a unified field of consciousness. Goller


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

15. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Sturgill Simpson described A Sailor’s Guide to Earth as “a love letter to my boy and wife,” but the album isn’t hung up on sentiment. “Do as I say/Don’t do as I’ve done,” he sings to his newborn on “Keep It Between the Lines,” telling him to stay in school and off drugs—a bit of life advice by way of autobiography. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth also features a Nashville-coffeehouse take on Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” the rollicking antiwar stomp of “Call to Arms,” and a Stax workout on “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog),” making it gleefully zigzagging and unapologetically soulful. Another massive step in Simpson’s musical evolution, the album further positions the world-weary songwriter as the outlaw’s outlaw, whose strangest move yet is starting a family. Jonathan Wroble


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

14. Garbage, Strange Little Birds

Shirley Manson has lamented the absence of darkness and vulnerability in pop music of late, which perhaps explains why the album lacks both a sense of humor and a sense of fun—two things that made Garbage’s early work stand out in the post-grunge modern-rock landscape of the mid-1990s. The singer has likened Strange Little Birds to the group’s self-titled debut, but it quickly becomes clear that the comparison is one of spirit, not sound. Indeed, what the album lacks in cheeky wit, it makes up for in grit. This is a band very much alive, and hungry, not simply a bunch of middle-aged rockers taking a victory lap. Rock n’ roll is, of course, the foundation here, but Strange Little Birds is defined—and elevated—by its quieter moments and cinematic production choices, emerging as the band’s most compelling, adventurous album in 15 years. Cinquemani


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

13. Solange Knowles, A Seat at the Table

Finally moving out from the fringes to offer an audacious personal statement of her own, Solange Knowles’s third album is an explicit breakthrough, both a stately, pride-inflected response to her sister’s bombastic almost-breakup opus and a momentous standalone achievement. Sparkling, magisterial soul with a mission statement, the album assembles an argument that’s firm but never didactic. A Seat at The table stands as a reminder that black lives don’t just matter, they excel, inspire, and endure, in all their complex glory. A celebration of culture and history that functions as its own personal story quilt, the album patches together a wide range of different voices representing black experiences and perspectives through the lens of a singularly assured artist. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

12. Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20

The Ghosts of Highway 20 is a loose concept album stylistically and thematically broad enough to serve as a suitable summary of the entire musical and cultural heritage of the part of the country surrounding the Southern-spanning interstate after which it’s named. At nearly 90 minutes long, covering genres ranging from jazz to gospel and topics from romantic contentment to death’s icy grip, it’s certainly sprawling enough for that. But two cohering factors—Lucinda Williams’s ever-craggly sandpaper voice and especially Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz’s brilliant guitar work—keep the album’s scope from getting out of hand. Other than some fleeting pyrotechnics near the end of the sweeping, freewheeling opener “Dust,” Frisell and Leisz don’t hog the spotlight, and they eschew the same old twangy Americana licks that these songs would seem to call for. Instead, they add silky, lonesome-sounding atmospherics around the edges, allowing Williams’s deliberate, lived-in story songs to breathe with splendor. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

11. Lambchop, FLOTUS

Despite a frequently shifting lineup swirling around core member Kurt Wagner, Lambchop has made consistency of understated sound their strong suit. Wagner’s filtering of witty observations on Americana through an offbeat lens persists on FLOTUS, but for the first time, he shifts to largely electronic production and most often sings through a vocoder. Despite its title (which is actually an acronym of “For Love Often Turns Us Still”), FLOTUS isn’t a political album, even as Wagner invokes mention of a “New York Stock Exchange of ideas” amid synth stutters, drum loops, and piano on the sublime “JFK” or almost indecipherably hints at the wastefulness of consumer culture on the shifty “Harbor Country.” And just when you think you’ve got Lambchop’s new sound pegged, the album closes with an uncharacteristically robust 18-minute lead single that uses forward-thinking production to nostalgically look back. Goller


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

10. Britney Spears, Glory

From Glory’s opening “Invitation” to its (deluxe edition) closer, “Coupure Electrique,” it’s no surprise that Britney Spears stocks her latest album with expressions of uncontainable horniness. What is surprising is the degree to which her agency in the act is emphasized, and how sex here is rarely an act of exhibition. Songs like “Private Show” and “Do You Wanna Come Over?” yearn for a specific intimacy, a moving expression from an artist whose public relationship with sexuality once seemed disturbingly out of her control. The album’s key lyric comes from the single “Slumber Party”: “We use our bodies to make our own videos.” Glory is an album-length reclamation of Britney’s sexual autonomy. Mac


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

9. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

A sense of finality pervades You Want It Darker, as Leonard Cohen seems to make peace with his mortality. That sense of bowing out is most obvious in the card-game imagery of “Leaving the Table,” as well as on the title track, where a backing chamber choir adds solemnity to a song that finds Cohen gruffly intoning, “I’m ready, my Lord.” But it’s not all end-of-the-road gloom. Even as he laments old age during “On the Level,” the singer-songwriter basks in a woman’s smile and fragrance, still finding space to take in those moments of fleeting beauty that can make even a person in the bleakest of circumstances feel momentarily happy to be alive. Though rife with his customary religious imagery, Cohen’s final album never seeks to lead us down a particular path, but instead challenges us to play the hand we’re dealt. Goller


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

8. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

Chance the Rapper kicked off the year with a sinuous, intricately constructed verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” cementing the song’s religious themes in a way the older, far-less-buoyant rapper couldn’t have done himself. This appearance announced that the precocious author of 2013’s Acid Rap had definitively grown up, a transition Chance confirms with Coloring Book, an album delivering on the gospel masterpiece Kanye promised but didn’t quite deliver. The West-produced opening track “All We Got” connects Chance’s earlier coup with the triumphant tone pursued across this diversely arrayed mixtape, with the 23-year-old rapper sounding so happy to be rapping he nearly breaks into joyous laughter on his opening line. The rest of Coloring Book is just as irrepressible, packed with a sense of infectious fun modern hip-hop often lacks, while still managing to insert real gravity at opportune moments. Cataldo


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree

Over a nearly 40-year career, Nick Cave has crooned dew-eyed love poems, bellowed profane murder ballads, and preached about God, but he’d never been forced to reckon with personal tragedy through his music until his 15-year-old son, Arthur, fell from a cliff and died in Brighton last year. It follows, then, that the album resulting from this tragedy stands alone in Cave’s vast and impressive catalogue as his most experimental, spellbinding, and emotionally devastating work to date. Cave doesn’t explicitly address Arthur’s death, largely couching the event in lyrical abstraction and some of his usual menace on tracks like the swirling drone “Jesus Alone.” But his grief comes pouring out on a trio of album-closing ballads, most notably the towering “I Need You,” on which the singer displays a level of emotional vulnerability that’s as borderline uncomfortable as it is profoundly moving. Winograd


The 25 Best Albums of 2016

6. Frank Ocean, Blonde

Frank Ocean’s Blonde is the year’s most enigmatic and difficult mainstream release—less a cohesive album than a collection of beautiful, half-polished ideas. Its impressionistic songwriting often does more to confuse Ocean’s identity than reveal it: The thumping “Nikes” and the jangly, upbeat “Nights” feature layered vocal effects and evasive lyrics, while “White Ferrari” renders a Beatles melody nearly unrecognizable in a fog of voice loops, ambient synths, and improvised guitar. Acoustically warm yet thematically oblique, Blonde is a fascinating, challenging assessment of one of music’s most temperamental creators, and in the way of true art, it draws more attention to his process than his persona. Wroble


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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