My Top 50 Albums of 2016
The years of my life where one of my children is still in diapers are, as a rule, more of a hectic blur than others. That is to say, I didn't sit and listen to music as much as I wish I had, but I never do. I heard so much, and still wanted to hear more. Albums are the artform, the unit of measurement, that mean the most to me, and in 2016 I finally released my own album, but spent more time, as usual, thinking about everyone else's albums. Here's a Spotify playlist with a favorite track from each of these records.
1. The 1975 - I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
The 1975's second album is the kind of overflowing 74-minute album that a young band makes when it's trying to prove something, and they even gave it an ungainly overlong title to put a bow on their ambition to do too much and be too much. As someone who only has faint firsthand memories of the '80s, it's a little funny to hear guys quite a bit younger than me drawing so heavily on the decade's sound. But the gleam and gloss of the '80s pop in the band's sound has, by now, been incorporated into the band's own fairly distinct personality and sonic approach, with Matt Healy operating as a classic neurotic, verbose, sex-obsessed and status-obsessed British frontman in the tradition of Elvis Costello and Jarvis Cocker. They can make gorgeous, unpredictable ambient instrumentals with titles like "Please Be Naked" that don't let you forget the cheeky perspective of the band's songs with vocals, but everytime the album dissolves into a warm pool of synths, it comes roaring back with another anthem.
2. Maren Morris - Hero
Maren Morris is this year's critical darling who mostly gets praised as an antidote to mainstream country's status quo. But to my ears, she's as much as cosmopolitan product of a melting pot of influences from different genres as any bro country star, with surprising little modern production touches on "How It's Done" and "Once" that somehow feel right alongside the more traditional material.
3. Esperanza Spalding - Emily's D+Evolution
Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding has won Grammys for her earlier albums, but I don't imagine The Recording Academy will know what to do with her latest album, which takes a turn into rhythmically knotty but lyrically vivid and melodically unforgettable prog rock that reminds me more of Shudder To Think's Pony Express Record than anything else. In a year when Tony Visconti got a lot of deserved recognition for his lifetime of work with David Bowie, this album was his greatest production job.
4. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
Hip hop history is increasingly littered with shoulda coulda woulda rappers who demonstrated seemingly unlimited potential on their early mixtape work and then stumbled on their way to the big time. Chance The Rapper is an exciting and inspiring rapper for a lot of reasons besides just his squirrely flow and casually brilliant writing, but most of all because Coloring Book is the sound of a rapper changing the industry instead of letting the industry change him, bringing big name guests into his self made sonic universe rather than following their template. If Kanye and Chance had swapped the two album openers they collaborated on this year, Coloring Book would be about ten times as good as Pablo instead of merely twice as good.
5. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
The Low End Theory is my favorite rap album of all time, and Q-Tip's done enough great work in the 21st century that I thought he had another great one in him, but I never dared to dream that Tribe would give us another record, and that it would be this great, and that it would be this emotional to hear Phife's voice mere months after his death. All these years, I thought Jarobi was a glorified hypeman, and then he fucking snapped on this album. Who knew?
6. Boosie Badazz - In My Feelings (Goin' Thru It)
Boosie released a staggering five full blown solo albums in 2016. And unlike most of his southern rap contemporaries who release multiple projects a year, it rarely feels like Boosie just walks into the booth and knocks out a song as a matter of routine -- he's always fired up, worried or pissed off or excited about whatever he's rapping about. In My Feelings is the shortest of Boosie's 2016 releases, and has a rawer, less polished sound than most of the others, but it was released mere weeks after a cancer scare, and takes the emotional immediacy of his music to a new level.
7. YG - Still Brazy
Few rapper/producer duos came into the game with a more perfectly symbiotic relationship than YG and DJ Mustard, which resulted in an instant classic in My Krazy Life. But they temporarily fell out while YG was recording his follow-up album, which spurred him to step up his rhymes with a production lineup including Swish and P-Lo that gave Still Brazy a more varied but still thoroughly west coast sound. And the closing trio of songs, including "FDT," was the unexpected source of 2016 hip hop's most potent political commentary.
8. Nels Cline - Lovers
On paper, Lovers, which is full of songs penned by the likes of Rodgers & Hart and Henry Mancini along with Cline originals, might seem like an 'avant garde noise guitarist assaults the American songbook' novelty. But the 60-year-old guitarist says he's been conceptualizing Lovers for 25 years, before most of his dozens of other albums as a composer and bandleader. And it's an affectionate, creative reimagining of jazz's anachronistic status as romantic 'mood music,' from someone who's more known for sticking kitchen implements into his guitar strings, full of his beautiful trembling slide guitar and lush strings and horns arranged by Michael Leonhart.
9. Fantasia - The Definition Of...
I thought Fantasia Barrino had come into her own creatively with 2013's Side Effects Of You, having no idea how well she'd top herself with her next album. Tapping into her inner Tina Turner, the American Idol vet brings her onstage charisma into the studio like never before, purring and howling through rock and soul anthems like "Crazy" and "Lonely Legend."
10. Meek Mill - DC4
Meek Mill never stopped being one of my favorite rappers working, even when his response to Drake's "Back To Back" was too little, too late. But after he spent over a year previewing songs and snippets from his next project, I did started to worry that the 4th Dreamchasers mixtape would also be too little, too late to help his career recover from that setback. So I was relieved when DC4 finally arrived a couple months ago, not just shaking off the drama of 2015 but locking into Meek's signature sound and songwriting strengths more successfully than Dreams Worth More Than Money.
11. Maxwell - blackSUMMERS'night
In 2009, Maxwell emerged from a nearly 8 year hiatus between albums with a promise of a trilogy of albums ready to go in quick succession. So it became somewhat comical that it took him nearly 7 years to delivery the second album in the series, but I'm glad he finally came back around. Maxwell and longtime collaborators Stuart Matthewman and Hod David have always had a knack for fusing acoustic and electronic sounds into something nobody else had thought of, and there's a wealth of gorgeous percussion and keyboard textures on this record.
12. Kevin Gates - Islah
Kevin Gates is the kind of idiosyncratic regional rap hero that rarely sticks the landing on a major label debut. But Islah got almost everything right, managing to go platinum without substantially changing his sound or relying on famous guests or producers (with the notable exception of "Jam," a in-case-of-radio-single-emergency-break-glass bonus track featuring 3 R&B stars that they never needed to use). Unfortunately, Islah also features "The Truth," an unconvincing defense of the incident in which Gates kicked an concert attendee, which ultimately resulted in him getting sentenced to 6 months in jail by the end of what should have been a triumphant year.
13. David Bowie - ★
My firsthand memories of David Bowie are mainly all those '90s and early 2000s album rollouts, where he tried to refresh and disrupt his legacy more than just about any Boomer rock legend, often to an indifferent public. So it's bittersweet that he finally hit a creative sweet spot just before the end, an achievement that was evident to most of us on the first listen that week of release, even before we found out that it was the end.
14. Flock of Dimes - If You See Me, Say Yes
I've been a huge fan of just about everything Jenn Wasner does ever since I caught an early Wye Oak show nearly a decade ago, and was also at the live debut of her solo project Flock Of Dimes in 2011. So it was exciting to finally hear a Flock Of Dimes full length that showed what she's capable of when producing and playing everything herself, and bringing the synths and programmed beats of Wye Oak's Shriek further to the forefront.
15. K. Michelle - More Issues Than Vogue
The 3 albums K. Michelle released in the space of 3 years (plus a pretty enjoyable mixtape) have made her one of the most prolific and consistent artists in R&B right now, and I'm frustrated that her commercial profile has slid in that time while most critics have failed to even start to notice her. The first two tracks on here that T-Pain worked on are a killer opening, I really hope he and K. Michelle continue to work together.
16. Brothers Osborne - Pawn Shop
In a mainstream country landscape with only a couple of aging guitar heroes (Brad Paisley and Keith Urban), John Osborne's fantastic playing on the platinum single "Stay A Little Longer," and the rest of the Jay Joyce-produced album that followed it, gives me hope that his brother T.J.'s voice could help shepherd more guitar solos onto the one radio format that still has room for them.
17. Beyonce - Lemonade
I'm glad that we're at a point, as a culture, where we can rightfully celebrate Beyonce as a premiere album artist, even if it means slightly overrating what I would call her 4th best album (5th best if we count The Writing's On The Wall). Lemonade is remarkable for its balance of a wide range of styles and sounds from song to song while a narrative throughline connects nearly every song (maybe every song -- does "Formation" happily conclude the story at Red Lobster?). There are just a few songs too many that I don't think I'd ever want to hear outside of the album's well constructed arc.
18. Young Thug - I'm Up
Young Thug released 3 solo projects in 2015 that averaged nearly 70 minutes apiece. In 2016 he again released 3 projects, but they averaged more like 38 minutes, and the newfound ability to release concise, digestible records was a welcome change of pace. And I'm Up felt the most like a properly sequenced album of the whole bunch, with opening and closing tracks that actually felt like opening and closing tracks.
19. 2 Chainz - Daniel Son; Necklace Don
Like Young Thug, 2 Chainz was probably spurred by the success of Future's run of fairly short mixtapes, and went even further in the direction of brevity -- his 4 projects this year average only 30 minutes. And while 2012 will probably always remain the biggest year of his career, 2016 was the year he became scarily consistent, bar for bar and verse for verse almost never stumbling or failing to deliver a memorable line.
20. Shy Glizzy - Young Jefe 2
Every year brings a new XXL Freshmen cover, a new crop of buzzing rappers who are either beginning a serious career or enjoying a brief moment in the limelight. And while there sometimes seems to be a Darwinian logic to who thrives and who falls by the wayside, I often get frustrated when young rappers seem to lose their buzz just as their hitting their stride as MCs. Shy Glizzy is still a star in Washington, D.C., but I wonder if the rest of the country is missing out on how much better Young Jefe 2 is than the first Young Jefe, which spun off his biggest hit, "Awwsome," 2 years ago.
21. DeJ Loaf - All Jokes Aside
DeJ Loaf is another rapper who rose to national stardom in 2014 and didn't get enough credit for her improvement on the mic in 2016. Her debut album is supposedly due out in early 2017, but All Jokes Aside is strong enough that I think an opportunity was missed to just put this out with a bar code while "Back Up" was on the radio.
22. Dawn Richard - Redemption
Dawn Richard has undergone a pretty remarkable creative metamorphosis since auditioning for Making The Band 3 in 2004. Now that Redemption has completed the long planned trilogy of her fist three solo albums, and she's traced this unusual journey from R&B and pop to a kind of post-EDM artsong, I'm curious if she's arrived at a sound she'll stick with, or if she'll keep reinventing her sound.
23. So Nice Yesterday - Best Party Ever
Thom and Berko really sound like nobody else in Baltimore, or anywhere else, and it was fun to hear them roll out these songs one at a time before putting it all together as an album, just hearing all the odd creative ways they put together beats and voices.
24. Tate Kobang - Since We're Here
Most of Tate Kobang's great previous mixtapes were vanished from the Internet by the time "Bank Rolls" made him famous outside of Baltimore, so I'm happy that he put out a new project that does a pretty good job of splitting the difference between the idiosyncrasies of his early work and the accessible side he discovered on "Banks Rolls."
25. Usher - Hard II Love
In 2000, Usher scrapped his 3rd album. All About U, and its misfire single "Pop Ya Collar," went back to the drawing board, and came back with 2001's triumphant 8701. For his 8th album, Usher once again went through a tortured process of shelving his first attempt and making another album, but this time the process took over 2 years, included a couple of pretty massive radio hits now orphaned with no parent album, and seemed to drain so much momentum from the project that it landed with a thud as the least successful record of Usher's adult career. And yet, Hard II Love, despite the title that begs a snarky one liner, is actually really easy to enjoy, with great vocal performances and surprising experiments like the 8 minute "Tell Me," but none of the strained stylistic misfires of Looking 4 Myself or Raymond v. Raymond.
26. Against Me! - Shape Shift With Me
Transgender Dysphoria Blues was a monumental record, and I already feel like a fairweather fan because I didn't play the follow up as much. But now that I've come around to how good this band is, I feel like I need to go back and appreciate the whole catalog more than I have so far.
27. Kendrick Lamar - untitled ummastered
In an era in which most of the best rappers have no sense of 'outtakes' or 'b sides' or any way of doing things other than recording a ton of music and releasing all of it, Kendrick Lamar has established himself, perhaps a bit self importantly but also justifiably, as a serious album artist in the classic rock mold. So untitled ummastered is less like a stopgap mixtape and more like Bruce Springsteen's The Promise, presenting a cutting room floor of great ideas that had to be carved away to create To Pimp A Butterfly. There's little here that I would've preferred to save for the 'real' album, but it's a testament to how talented Kendrick is that these scraps are more impressive than a lot of proper albums released this year.
28. Boosie Badazz - Out My Feelings (In My Past)
The 2nd of Boosie's 5 albums of 2016 isn't as raw and immediate as its counterpart In My Feelings, but it's one of the best collections of beats he's ever rapped over.
29. The Posies - Solid States
Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow are one of my favorite songwriting teams of all time, still pushing each other into interesting new terrain after three decades of collaborating. And this year I saw them play an incredible show in a church in Baltimore, not long after the deaths of two Posies rhythm section players, drummer Darius Minwalla and bassist Darius Minwalla. And the humor, political commentary and literary density that's seeped more and more into the band's lyrics since their '90s heyday has been a welcome addition to their effortless popcraft and vocal harmonies on strangely poignant songs like "Squirrel Vs Snake."
30. Justin Moore - Kinda Don't Care
Justin Moore may be the most underrated vocalist in Nashville, one of the few current hitmakers whose forceful growl actually conjures a little of the '70s legends that all of his contemporaries namecheck as a matter of routine. His songs aren't always as classic as his voice, but they're getting there.
31. Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger
A lot of still living or recently deceased pop music legends released respectable albums in 2016. One that really stood out for me, however, is Paul Simon's latest, released an entire half century after his first masterpiece, Sounds of Silence. His way with words is still lucid and unique his, his voice has aged handsomely, and he's still remarkably experimental, piling polyrhythms on top of each other in delightfully unusual electronic and acoustic textures.
32. Dave Fell - Modern Easy Favorites
Dave Fell is one of my favorite musicians in Baltimore who's done a lot of different kinds of music as both a bandleader and a sideman and doesn't seem to stay in any particular niche. Modern Easy Favorites is the simplest, most direct thing I've ever heard him to do, singing and playing acoustic guitar live to tape, these lovely tuneful little unadorned songs. Listen to it on Bandcamp.
33. Mick Jenkins - The Healing Component
Mick Jenkins is a young Chicago rapper who writes earnestly and unapologetically about love and Christ, but he's got a deeper voice and much darker musical palette that makes The Healing Component a pretty different album from Coloring Book and indispensable in its own way. Shame about the extremely bad "Drowning" being the most popular song from this record, though.
34. KING - We Are KING
This dreamy vocals and languid tempos of this album are not really my thing enough to have kept the album in rotation throughout the year, but it was pretty impressive when I did listen to it, and some of the synth work is inspired.
35. Ro James - El Dorado
This is an album that would probably be a lot higher on the list if it was sequenced better, but it starts off with my least favorite track and takes a while to really build up momentum. It has a ton of awesome songs though, I hope a couple of them run R&B radio in 2017 the way "Permission" ran 2016.
36. SiR - Her EP
SiR is one of my favorite under the radar R&B singer-songwriters who's mostly made his name for guesting on TDE releases and writing a Jill Scott single. But he quit his day job shortly after the release of this follow up to the 2015 album Seven Days and sounds increasingly ready for primetime.
37. Dreezy - No Hard Feelings
Dreezy is one of the more promising rappers to have made their major label debut in 2016, even if Interscope chose to promote the album through the tracks where she sings. I'd love for more people to hear songs like "Spazz" and "We Gon Ride" before she completely gets mislabeled as purely an R&B act.
38. Jumpcuts - Fiber Optic Bondage
I've met or been in touch with many of the musicians on this list, particularly the ones from Baltimore, but I think people know I'm always honest with my opinions. That said, Andy Shankman plays with me in Western Blot, and made his 2nd Jumpcuts album with my producer Mat Leffler-Schulman, so you can take my perspective with a grain of salt if you want, but I loved hearing these guys make a record together and thought Andy stepped up his songwriting.
39. Dinosaur Jr. - Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not
Now that Sonic Youth aren't making albums anymore, Dinosaur Jr. kind of occupy their role for me as the '80s indie trailblazers who are still getting an incredible amount of mileage out of their particular brand of blown out guitar rock. J Mascis generally gets more credit for his blazing solos and charmingly plainspoken lyrics, but we don't appreciate him enough for the unusual song structures his sneaks into deceptively catchy tunes, for the unexpected twists that a song like "Knocked Around" can take.
40. Young Thug - Jeffery
Of Young Thug's three 2016 releases, Jeffery is the one that was framed the most convincingly like an album -- great cover art, conceptual tracklist, etc. -- but in practice, it just sounded like another grab bag of songs that were arbitrarily renamed after people to fit the record's theme. Some of those songs were pretty great, but the fact that I still don't know whether to call my favorite one "Kanye West" or "Elton John" or "Pop Man" or something else entirely kind of illustrates my point.
41. Wye Oak - Tween
Like Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered, Wye Oak's Tween is defined by what it isn't. It's songs that Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack recorded but decided not to use for their 4th album Shriek, perhaps less because of any quality deficiency than because they're simply not the dramatic musical departure that Shriek very deliberately was. But as much as they may have been loathe to make 'just another Wye Oak album,' they are one of the most brilliant bands of the past decade, and it's great to hear them pick up where Civilian left off even if they ultimately decided to temporarily shelve that direction.
42. Kanye West - The Life Of Pablo
"Perfectionist" is one of those words that frequently gets thrown around to describe anyone who's good at anything, and it's always been inaccurately applied to Kanye West. The haphazard first draft moment of inspiration hangs over his best work even when he's meticulously updated it a hundred times since then, and one of the reasons that Late Registration is my favorite West album is its shaggy, tangential energy. His 7th solo album went through several titles and iterations during its interminably long and public gestation. And a couple weeks before its release, when it was still called Swish, he posted a handwritten tracklist for what would've been a 42-minute album that, upon reflection, would've totally sucked. Instead, he released a much longer album, adding great songs like "Ultralight Beam" as well as utter failures like "Facts," and continued adding to it after the initial release, ultimately ending up with a 66-minute data dump. There are too many potent songs like "Real Friends" to discard the whole, but it's definitely not an album I can play front to back easily.
43. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead have an even bigger reputation as meticulous album architects, and they undermined in their own odd, subtle way, by putting the songs on their 9th album in alphabetical order by title, as if they just let an iTunes folder arbitrarily determine the shape of years of work. But somehow, it works, and as someone who's generally been a skeptic of their later work, I've enjoyed this record more than any they've made since Amnesiac.
44. E-40 - The D-Boy Diary
E-40 has made about 14 solo albums in just this decade, and it's remarkable how much more durable his sound and formula is over that kind of volume output compared to much younger rappers. Lil B, a Bay Area rapper who's become a cult figure by making hundreds of songs with a minimum of effort and a maximum of quirk, shows up on The D-Boy Diary to sleepwalk through a standard chaotic, half assed Lil B verse, but after that's over, E-40 continues to plow ahead making an absurd number of top shelf E-40 songs at nearly 50 years old.
45. T.I. - Us Or Else: Letter To The System
In September, T.I. released the Us Or Else EP, 6 sharply political songs that crackled with a sense of purpose, and I lamented the fact that he'd probably never make a full length album in that vein without loading it up with Paper Trail style crossover attempts that have marred his last few albums. But a couple weeks ago T.I. added 9 more songs to Us Or Else and expanded it to a whole album that carries that same sound and theme, and sometimes I'm happy to be proven wrong.
46. YFN Lucci - Wish Me Well 2
When I got into YFN Lucci this year and checked out both of his Wish Me Well mixtapes, what struck me was how he sounds like a more forlorn version of his labelmate Rich Homie Quan, and how many of his songs feature plaintive piano loops. And honestly, YFN Lucci may be contemporary Atlanta rap's unlikely master of the piano ballad.
47. Chris Maxwell - Arkansas Summer
Chris Maxwell played guitar in the original lineup of the New York band Skeleton Key, which made one album, the delightfully odd and unlikely major label release Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon, in 1997, and sang one song on that album, the funky standout "All The Things I've Lost." I hadn't kept track of Maxwell in the last 19 or so years since then, but apparently he's been producing records and making music for TV shows like "Bob's Burgers." And then this year he resurfaced for the first time as a solo artist, with an impressive little set of acoustic and gently funny songs inspired by growing up in Little Rock.
48. The Joy Formidable - Hitch
The Big Roar still stands tall as one of the decade's best rock albums, and it's a shame that The Joy Formidable is no longer getting a big Atlantic Records promotional push, because they remain a fantastic band who keep adding more unpredictable elements to the kind of updated shoegaze sound they're known for.
49. Kodak Black - Lil B.I.G. Pac
In a year that saw a polarizing set of young rappers represent hip hop's incoming next generation, Kodak Black stood out from that crop as the only one in a Boosie lineage of more serious, introspective southern rappers, a sharp contrast to the cutesy likes of Lil Yachty. I probably would've been more excited about Kodak in a year when Boosie himself wasn't firing on all cylinders, but I'm still pretty interested to see what this kid is capable of, I think he's still developing as a writer but there are flashes of potential on Lil B.I.G. Pac.
50. Gucci Mane - Everybody Looking
Given the way "Black Beatles" has far outperformed Gucci Mane's solo work this year, and the way much of his best work of 2016 was on guest verses, I'm starting to picture Gucci Mane becoming the rap game Tony Bennett, only making waves when he duets with people half his age. But Everybody Looking was still this thrilling moment when this guy who'd seemed doomed for so many years came roaring back with a spring in his step, doing songs like "Pop Music" and "Robbed" that reminded me of what made him a legend in the first place.