I’m not going to go through a whole, long preamble here.
I will say-there’s been a lot of great music to come down the pike in the last two years. I don’t know if it’s a qualitative thing, or if I’m listening differently, but holy crap-what a strong year for music this was. Of course, a sad postscript is the fact that we’ve lost so many big , meaningful names this year (and two of them show up on this list.)
I will clearly delineate that this is a “my favorites” list. Sure, you can call it a “best of” list if you’d like, but to minimize the “well, why didn’t you put…” arguments, let’s all agree that calling something “the best” or even “good” is completely subjective, whether you’re Mike Joseph or the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. These albums all made my head bob, or they made me think, or they moved me in some meaningful way. If there’s anything on this list that you’re unfamiliar with, Spotify embeds are below. Enjoy!
Oh, also, I’m listing these albums alphabetically as opposed to ranking by enjoyment. I’ll submit to the imaginary pulling of my leg and admit that ATCQ’s album ranks as my clear #1, with Gallant at #2. Every other album on this list (and even a few of the ones in the second tier) have ranked at various positions since I’ve heard them and probably will continue to do so.
Anderson.Paak Malibu (OBE)
Sometimes you have to keep giving an album chances. I picked Malibu up at the beginning of 2016, and was expecting to be blown away instantly. Between the orgasmic press and “Mike, you gotta listen to this. You’ll love it”, I have to say that I was unimpressed and actually kind of disappointed after my first several listens. Months later, commuting from work (and on a train that happened to be going extremely slowly), I finally gave it a full and concentrated re-listen. It was worth it. In a year when albums by offbeat Black folks (or offbeat albums by Black folks) reigned supreme, Malibu‘s Dilla/Madlib meets Adrian Younge musicality and Anderson’s Miguel meets K-Ci Hailey vocals ultimately sat near the head of that particular table. Even if it took me a few months to feel that way.
Bruno Mars 24K Magic (Atlantic)
It would be very easy to write 24K Magic off as Bruno Mars a) attempting to write an album full of “Uptown Funk”s and/or b) taking the piss out of ’80s-’90s R&B a la Chromeo. It’s a testament to Bruno’s superior singing and songwriting talent that his third effort transcends potentially insulting pastiche. From the throwback title track (which practically drips Care Free Curl) to the stellar Babyface co-write “Versace On The Floor”, 24K Magic is the best album of 2016 that should’ve been made in 1990. And at a compact nine songs, Bruno doesn’t overstay his welcome.
Childish Gambino Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote)
The question, at this point, should be “what can’t Donald Glover do?” Consider the CV: Acting, directing, doing stand up, creating shows, reprising Billy Dee Williams’ role as Lando Calrissian, rapping (well), crooning, and now delivering a funk-fueled freakout that takes cues from Westbound-era Funkadelic, Rick James, The Ohio Players, and even Prince alter ego Camille (Come on, “Redbone” would’ve fit perfectly on Sign ‘o The Times or The Black Album). Is there anyone else out there who thinks that, after Lin Manuel-Miranda, the entertainment business’s next best shot at an EGOT winner is Donald Glover?
David Bowie Blackstar (RCA)
2016 has turned out to be a dumpster fire for so many different reasons, with a major one being the breadth of talent (particularly musical) that decided to depart Earth in their physical forms. Bowie’s final transmission before entering the spirit world is eerie, and prescient, and gains a great deal of emotional depth in light of his passing, but would’ve been damn good even if we got sucked into an alternate universe where he was healthy and alive.
Dawes We’re All Gonna Die (HUB)
Taylor Goldsmith is an amazingly effective, efficient songwriter; the songs he writes are extremely powerful and profound without being pretentious or wordy. Musically, Dawes (the quartet that he is the focal point of) continues to expand. The California folk-pop of their debut, North Hills, has given way to the anthemic pop-rock of “Roll With The Punches” and the metronomic pulse of the ruminative title track. Every lyric on We’re All Gonna Die sounds like it was pinched from a journal entry. Taylor’s journal or my journal? Not sure.
Frank Ocean Blond(e) (Boys Don’t Cry)
Yes; I thought that I was going to fall in love with Blond(e) seconds after I hit play and proclaim it my favorite record of 2016 somewhere by track 5 or 6. That did not happen. Where were the hooks? What was up with all of this digital voice manipulation? Was an album that I’d pined for destined to become the biggest disappointment of 2016? As with Malibu, let’s just say that patience turned out to be my friend when it came to Blond(e). Much denser than its predecessors (let’s not forget the excellent Nostalgia: Ultra mixtape), there are a million little earworms waiting to be identified. The almost tossed-out identification with Trayvon Martin. The cracks in Frank’s voice when he shouts “I’m not brave!” throughout “Siegfried”. Kim Burrell and Jazmine Sullivan’s voices creating the equivalent of a maternal embrace at the conclusion of “Godspeed”. Everything from the content to the distribution model of Blond(e) was unconventional and fearless, and my admiration of the music gradually increased to the point that it eventually outweighed my admiration of Frank’s chutzpah.
Gallant Ology (Warner Bros.)
The success of the aforementioned Mr. Ocean has created the lane responsible for albums like Gallant’s Ology. Had this been 1996 and not 2016, an artist like Gallant would either be relegated to the fringes or would’ve had to adjust his singing and songwriting style to match up with cats like, say, Ginuwine. Then again, Gallant’s a largely self-contained entity, so there’s the possibility that he could’ve jumped on the neo-soul train alongside Maxwell and D’Angelo. At any rate, Ology is most easily compared to Channel: Orange and doesn’t suffer much for the comparison. Gallant is a somewhat less evocative lyricist, but he’s clearly a better vocalist, and his falsetto (utilized to its best extent on songs like “Weight In Gold”) is knee-buckling. One foot in the future + one foot in the past equals a glorious and engaging album in the present.
Glen Phillips Swallowed By The New (Umani Music)
Not a divorce album in the Here, My Dear sense, the latest solo effort from the Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman is certainly inspired by the dissolution of a relationship that began in the forty-something singer’s high school days. Warm and largely acoustic (as one would expect), there are several interesting and unusual touches I noticed over the course of a few listens, like the gospel choir that appears on standout cut “Held Up”. Glen’s work over the past decade and a half has retained an optimistic lyrical approach that continues on his latest solo effort. There’s certainly a sense that Glen has gone through difficult and painful times, but he’s learning from them and pushing forward. It’s the perfect album to listen to in this climate, sober and pragmatic, but hopeful.
HONNE Warm On A Cold Night (Atlantic)
Why am I still so surprised when an album that lives largely in the electronic space turns out to be so soulful? Even though I grew up in the ’80s (when everyone from Prince to Depeche Mode made emotional masterpieces on a keyboard, a room full of keyboards, a computer or all of the above), there’s still an elitist snob stuck somewhere in my body saying “synthesizers can’t transmit feeling”, I guess. Blame it on a decade of influence from my rockist colleagues during a 10 year stretch in music retail. British duo HONNE’s full-length debut is equal parts lyrical warmth and musical cool. Depeche Mode meets ’87-era garage meets Drake (incidentally, the 2016 album I’d compare it to would be the full-length bow by Drake cohorts Majid Jordan).
Jim James Eternally Even (ATO)
The My Morning Jacket frontman goes from triumph to triumph on his second full-length solo album. The lyrics are his most straightforwardly socially conscious, but his music is as non-straightforward as ever. Last year’s MMJ album, The Waterfall, suggested a stylistic branching out, complete with a Giorgio Moroder remix. Eternally Even has nothing on it that could be considered Euro-disco, but it does contain a healthy helping of soul mixed with proggier elements, as exemplified by the two-part suite entitled “We’re Not Getting Any Younger”.
John Legend Darkness & Light (Columbia)
Married, with a kid, and focused, John Legend created his most consistent work in some time with Darkness & Light. His previous albums have largely been a patchwork quilt of musicians and producers, and John keeps this album tight. Most of the production is handled by Blake Mills, who gets my personal Producer of the Year award (he also helmed Dawes’ magnificent album). Blake also assists John in the sanding away of the singer’s propensity to create overtly commercial tunes that clash wildly against his more organic singer/songwriter style. Pointedly dropping knowledge on relationships as well as politics (themes that permeate just about every LP on this list), Darkness & Light certainly exhibits more insight into John’s actual personality than has ever been exhibited on an album of his. The stellar guest list includes Miguel and the Alabama Shakes’ brassy lead singer Brittany Howard, who brings down the house on the title track.
Jones New Skin (PIAS)
There’s a sense of passionate cool (the two terms are not mutually exclusive) in the vocals of many of my favorite British singers (Annie Lennox, Tracey Thorn, Skye, Seal even Adele to an extent.) The latest artist to join that circle is Jones, who has previously worked alongside Sam Smith and Lana Del Ray, to name a few. Lack of melisma doesn’t equal lack of feeling, and there’s not a note sung on New Skin that feels oversold (or over-souled.) Even with largely electronic soundscapes, New Skin is a classic singer/songwriter album, and songs like the triumphant “Out Of This World” reveals a stunning talent in the making.
Justice Woman (Ed Banger/Because Music)
The latest record by the French neo-disco outfit has a throwback vibe, of course. These dudes have obviously studied the work of Giorgio Moroder and Gino Soccio, to name a few. Being obvious music junkies (they’re DJs, after all), they’ve also put together an album with a diverse crate-digger’s sensibility (and done so without using any-obvious-samples). Most stunning is “Heavy Metal”, which sounds like a long-lost Rush disco record. Dance music that’s not mindless? I’m all in.
Kaytranada 99.9% (XL)
In which a Canadian DJ/producer gets his Quincy Jones on and pulls out fantastic guest appearances from Little Dragon (who, I must admit, are best taken in small doses…see also their appearance on this year’s De La Soul LP), Syd from The Internet, Craig David and Phonte. The comparison to Quincy’s all-star efforts is not hyperbole at all. Most producer-helmed all-star efforts suffer from a lack of consistency, as the performers’ personalities are generally divergent and can cause weird clashes in album continuity. Not the case with 99.9% The beats skitter from hip-hop shadings to smooth grooves to straight up jack-and-juke house music. Extra props to Phonte for being 2016’s best collaborator. He was the best thing on RJD2’s Dame Fortune, delivered his vocals and pen to Zo!’s solid SkyBreak, put out a duets album with his homeboy Eric Roberson, and is a comedic force to be reckoned with on Questlove’s Pandora radio show Questlove Supreme.
Kendrick Lamar Untitled Unmastered (Top Dawg/Interscope)
It’s a testament to the genius of To Pimp A Butterfly (my favorite album of 2015…hell, my favorite album of the 2010s) that the album of songs that weren’t good enough for Pimp is (in my estimation) the second best hip-hop album of 2016. We should all run on fumes this strong.
Nao For All We Know (RCA)
2016 was a great year for albums by left-of-center Black artists (or left-of-center albums by Black artists), but one of my unexpected faves of the past few months is this relatively straightforward album by British vocalist Nao. Well–relatively straightforward if you’re a fan of post-new jack ’90s R&B. For All We Know gave me a little bit of Brandy, a little bit of janet. era Miss Jackson, and a heaping helping of Baduizm (with maybe a little Ndea Davenport thrown in.) The 55-minute running time also gave me 1990s-era flashbacks, but unlike many albums from that time period, For All We Know doesn’t sound padded down with filler. These are snappy, relatively straightforward love songs delivered by a fascinating new voice that reminds us of some of our favorite old voices.
Paul Simon Stranger To Stranger (Concord)
See the old man next to you on the park bench? The one reading the paper, wearing the weathered-looking hat? The one who occasionally looks up and tosses off a line that manages to be incredibly profound and devastatingly witty? He just made an awesome album. The late-career renaissance of my favorite sighted American songwriter continues…
Pegasus Warning PWep2 (Melanin Harmoniq)
I discovered Pegasus Warning a couple of years ago, opening for (I think) Solange in Boston. I was completely blown back by the act, led by Guillermo E. Brown (who I literally just discovered is the house band leader for the Late Show With James Corden…guess I need to watch more late night TV.) In concert, Brown projected a dramatic forcefulness, calling to mind the unholy alliance of Bad Brains’ H.R. and disco icon Sylvester. On record, Brown is just as unclassifiable.
Roosevelt Roosevelt (Greco-Roman)
If you need to hear music that takes you back to the glory days of 1980s dance-pop (the kind that routinely pops up on the Jheri Curl Chronicles radio show) and Daft Punk is on vacation, you’ll find a more than worthy substitute in Roosevelt, the first full-length album by German producer and multi-instrumentalist Marius Lauber. He doesn’t sacrifice things like songcraft for the sake of beats, delivering a fully engrossing set of winning melodies atop lush and danceable grooves. Works equally well as a headphone listen as it does on the dance floor.
Santigold 99 Cents (Atlantic)
Three albums in, and I finally get Santigold (one of those artists I’ve always felt like I should enjoy but just never connected with me. See also: Blood Orange). She’s a great lyricist, and although she doesn’t have a traditionally “great” voice (see also: Frank Ocean), there is a sardonic quality to her singing that’s very New York. 99 Cents is a loose concept album about commodification, which I’m not sure I realized before consulting Santi’s Wikipedia page, but it flows well even without the context. TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam and ILOVEMAKKONEN all add to the experience, making 99 Cents the 2016 album I was most surprised to enjoy as much as I did.
Solange A Seat At The Table (Columbia)
Being Black is a burden. Being a woman is a burden. If you’re a Black woman (even if you’re the younger sister of the most famous female singer in the world), the burden is (I would imagine) almost too difficult to bear at time. Fortunately for us (and hopefully for her too), if you’re a Black woman who makes great art, albums like (the powerful, meditative, and triumphant) A Seat At The Table educates and enlightens (without being incredibly didactic) and also gives voice and acts as a soothing balm to those who have similar experiences. During a year in which women of color delivered some of music’s most powerful messages, Solange rose to the head of the class.
Tegan & Sara Love You To Death (Warner Bros.)
I’ll spend most of my write up of Tegan & Sara’s best album to date talking about a song by a different artist: Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”. As vulnerable and sad as that song is, there’s a spirit, a stubbornness, that makes you feel like even though Robyn’s getting her heart absolutely trampled on, she’s gonna be all right. Love You To Death is an album full of “Dancing On My Own”-type songs. And even though the sisters are filtering their wistful lyrics through a queer lens, the fact of the matter is that love and longing are universal. Especially when they’re as strongly melodic and well-produced as the songs here.
A Tribe Called Quest We Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s chemistry remained intact after a nearly 20 year break between records. Given the fact that Tip’s last solo effort-The Renaissance-was excellent, I also shouldn’t have been as surprised that the level of musicality Tribe’s latest-and final-album possesses. Everything about We Got It From Here is a win–socially conscious without being didactic, seamless guest appearances, Busta Rhymes giving his most inspired performance since the early days of his solo career, Jarobi White’s emergence as a fairly dope MC. My only wish is that Phife-who passed away last spring-was able to enjoy the creative triumph that this album represents.
Tweet Charlene (eOne)
Tweet (AKA Charlene Keys) made her debut in early 2002 with a co-sign from Missy Elliott and one of the best songs of the year-“Oops (Oh My)”. But the singer/songwriter/guitarist got lost in the shuffle amidst the success of fellow guitar-slinger india.arie and the piano-playing Alicia Keys (no relation, and “Keys” isn’t Alicia’s real surname anyway). After some label drama and time spent getting her personal shit together, Tweet returned with the mature, thoughtful Charlene. No trap beats, no electro experiments, no guest rappers (minus a return appearance from Missy), real talk about relationships and spirituality. I wouldn’t have even known this album existed had it not been for a Rolling Stone article, which is indicative of a music business that’s increasingly ignoring adult-oriented R&B music.
Young Gun Silver Fox West End Coast (Wax Poetics)
There are strong “yacht rock” vibes here. This project-an album length collaboration between California singer-songwriter Andy Platts, and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee. If you’re at all familiar with Lee’s main gig (as a member of UK soul combo Mama’s Gun), the content of West End Coast won’t be much of a surprise. This collection of songs is so in the pocket smooth that you’ll be checking the credits repeatedly for a member of Toto. To its credit, the performances sound fresh and inspired in a way that transcends pastiche. If you enjoyed last year’s Cool Uncle album (featuring yacht soul legend Bobby Caldwell), then you’ll definitely dig West End Coast.
Band Of Horses Why Are You OK (Interscope)
Chance The Rapper Coloring Book (self-released)
Common Black America Again (Def Jam)
Francis & The Lights Farewell, Starlite! (KTTF Music)
Majid Jordan Majid Jordan (Warner Bros.)
Maxwell BlackSUMMERSnight (Columbia)
Phonte & Eric Roberson Tigallero (FE+ Music)
Polica United Crushers (Mom + Pop)
Rihanna Anti (Roc Nation/Interscope)
Wilco Schmilco (Anti)
Zo! SkyBreak (FE+ Music)