Best Albums of 2016 by Cameron Lee

10271522_10203741738927794_9164528609210639581_nBy Cameron Lee

December 24, 2016

It’s been a wretched year for most music fans, as we saw the passing of several legends in the entertainment business in 2016. Although many may believe the best music commonly originates from sorrow and pain, when we look back at the artistic contributions we received in 2016, the music from this grueling year may help heal us more over time when we look back. A plethora of great releases from multiple genres and a few albums of historic magnitude make 2016 a truly monumental year in music.

11. Lucius – Good Grief 

Adorned in their vibrant Bowie-esque matching outfits on stage, jumping, dancing, playing instruments, with full designer capes included, indie folk-pop group Lucius brings a certain vintage artistry to the style and design of their music. Good Grief is the sophomore offering by Lucius, led by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. The duo met at Berklee School of Music before starting the group and now are based in Brooklyn. Good Grief evolves from their debut studio album, Wildewoman, which had more of a ‘60s folk and Americana sound with hints of the synth-driven ‘80s and ‘90s pop stylings of Good Grief. “Gone Insane” is a rumbling break-up song packed with poignant emotions and lush vocal harmonies. “Almighty Gosh” is a glorious high-energy track that showcases a wide range of their ‘80s sounds and instrumentation, at their live shows, the song usually ends with Holly and Jess in the middle of the audience bouncing like House of Pain.

Favorite tracks: “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain,” “Gone Insane,” “Almighty Gosh,” and “Better Look Back”

10. The Weeknd – Starboy

In September, The Weeknd announced a new album, Starboy, with a sleek, booming dance single collaborating with fabled French electronic duo, Daft Punk. As immediately catchy as the single “Starboy” was, there was some concern that the Daft Punk influence would create a sound, similar to, well… Daft Punk’s latest album, Random Access Memories (not my favorite). Starboy is an album packed full of imagery of a seedy and sensationalized world coping with super stardom through sex, drugs, money and alcohol. The sanctuary like sounds from “All I Know” reveals a hauntingly dark trap beat with rapper Future echoing the words “All I know, all I know, all I,” following The Weeknd’s howling empty pleas. “I Feel It Coming” and “A Lonely Night” are the songs that most deeply resemble the 1980’s pop sound of Michael Jackson, who he often draws vocal comparisons to. Kendrick Lamar on “Sidewalks” is one of the few features on the album, a lazy autotune-heavy track is saved by what sounds like a emailed-in verse, albeit a great one. Starboy may not be inventing any new sounds or winning awards for creativity or Avant Garde music, but the album is loaded with entertaining “hits” well suited for a myriad of moods. At one point, all 18 songs from Starboy charted on Billboard, a pretty astonishing feat.

Favorite tracks: “All I Know,” “Ordinary Life,” “Reminder,” and “Starboy”

9. Frank Ocean – Blond(e)

Frank Ocean had, by far, the most anticipated album of 2016. So anticipated that it actually spawned one of my favorite viral videos of the year because of the excruciating wait. The album plays like a personal journal of Ocean’s thoughts, fears, and conscience with a sedated collage of voices, sounds, raps and of course, Ocean’s distinct voice. With subtle collaborations with Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams, Jamie xx, Kanye, Beyonce, and Tyler, The Creator, the most distinct feature is an impressive tongue-twisting poetic lyrical barrage from Andre 3000 on “Solo (Reprise).” The album carries some dark emotional weight with an absorbing psychedelic soundscape.

Favorite tracks: “Solo,” “Nikes,” “Ivy,” “Solo (Reprise),” and “Pink + White”

8. Pinegrove – Cardinal

Back in March, CLTure music writer Sean Titone included Pinegrove’s debut label release, Cardinal, in his February album release picks. When I heard “Old Friends,” I was immediately smitten by the adolescent reverberating voice coming from lead singer and guitarist, Evan Hall. His lyrics and voice exude lackadaisical content with songs like “Cadmium,” which has an oddly satisfying pitch of the ‘80s Sub-Pop Records Seattle grunge sound with a twist of alt country and folk rock. Their music mildly fuses genres without really trying; they are mainly driven by Evan’s vocal crooning sometimes yodeling-like screams, and the band’s simple but melodic tones and backing vocals. Since the album released in February, they’ve been featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk, CBS This Morning: Saturday, and several 2016 best album lists.

Favorite tracks: “Cadmium,” “New Friends,” “Aphasia,” and “Old Friends”

7. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

There’s no question 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly had a huge impact on the music industry and the design and production of studio albums. Comprised of freestyle jazz, soul, funk, and experimental sounds, the recording sessions produced so much great music that Kendrick essentially packaged a masterful surprise mixtape with incredible instrumentation and a range of his distinct rap stylings. “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.” is a smooth and bouncy west coast rap track produced by Mono/Poly with clever bars and vocal arrangements. “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.” is an incredibly soothing number that includes effortless vocal contributions by Cee Lo Green and perfectly merges easy listening jazz, R&B, soul and hip-hop sounds.

Favorite tracks: “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.,” “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.,” and “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.”

6. David Bowie – Blackstar

2016 was a somber year in music with the passing of several great humans. Prince, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Phife, and David Bowie all had unique stories and pure appreciation for creating great music and gifting it to their adoring fans. It’s a rarity to stay relevant in the music business while also captivating the minds of critics and the commercial masses alike. David Bowie’s childlike wonder and fascination with space, art, fashion and a deep appreciation for a multitude of musical genres over his illustrious career, makes Blackstar his ultimate swan song. Released January 8 on his 69th birthday, Bowie passed away two days after from liver cancer. “Lazarus” is a Pink Floyd-esque poetic self-epitaph, while “Blackstar” is a moody multi-faceted psychedelic electronic, jazz-influenced track that exemplifies his genre-bending artistry. Bowie once said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring”; Blackstar was the final act of one of the truest artists and creators of our lifetime, and his career and life was nothing close to boring.

Favorite tracks: “Lazarus,” “Blackstar,” and “Girl Loves Me.”

5. De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…

In early 2015, in a groundbreaking move in the music industry, independent hip-hop icons, De La Soul announced they would be launching a Kickstarter for their new album. Sampling mostly sounds from sessions at the famed Vox (Electro-Vox) recording studios in L.A, De La Soul promised a hip-hop rooted album that incorporated jazz, funk, rock, and country western sounds. In the short skit, “You Go Dave,” a voice says “Providing comprehensive substance for you and your loved ones, we offer you peace of mind knowing your investment in our music lasts a lifetime.” and the Anonymous Nobody… is a journey of sounds and instrumentation that exemplifies the prowess and versatility of one of the most naturally innovative rap groups of our generation. Collaborations with David Byrne, Damon Albarn, Estelle, 2 Chainz, Jill Scott, Usher, and Snoop make and the Anonymous Nobody… a very compelling musical adventure that will indeed last a lifetime.

Favorite tracks: “Memory of…,” “Greyhounds,” “Pain,” and “Here in After”

4. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

Not since Merle Haggard, who also passed away this year (damn it, 2016), has there been a voice like Sturgill Simpson in country music. Although he may not carry the “Outlaw” resume Haggard had, Simpson has taken the music world by storm and A Sailor’s Guide To Earth serves as a beautiful soundtrack to a story gifted to his new-born son. Simpson’s voice alone has an echoing and soulful twang that calms your nerves and allows you to think past the singular formula of modern conventional country music. “Welcome To Earth” is a nearly five-minute theatrical play with a motion picturesque intro, welcoming his first son into the world in the second act with a gospel backdrop, while the final act is a refreshing upbeat southern soul apology. “All Around You” showcases the subtle touches of depth the The Dap Kings brass adds to the album while “In Bloom,” the Nirvana cover, swells into a new song when the vintage soulful horns arrive in the second half.

Favorite tracks: “Breakers Roar,” “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” “In Bloom,” and “Keep It Between The Lines”

3. Anderson .Paak – Malibu

Anderson .Paak might be the biggest breakout star in 2016, having been signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment in January, he already boasted an impressive indie catalog. Recent collaborations with Kaytranada, A Tribe Called Quest, Rapsody, Goldlink, The Game, and Jill Scott have .Paak buzzing across the entire hip-hop landscape. Born into a Korean and Black family, and growing up in a troubled household in Oxnard, California, .Paak collides soul, rap, and funk sounds in an endearing style over his achingly sincere voice. “Celebrate” is a spirited and sanguine song, packed with sage words and vintage soul and gospel roots. “The Bird” is a gritty speakeasy soulful and bluesy number reminiscent of the late great Bobby Womack.

Favorite tracks: “Celebrate,” “The Waters,” “Come Down,” “Room in Here,” “Without You,” “The Bird,” and “The Dreamer”

2. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3 

Run The Jewels 3 follows a similar formula of the previous two projects by Killer Mike and El-P, with hard-hitting futuristic beats and clever rapid-fire politically charged rhymes. Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine joins the duo on “Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Master” with a vicious verse on the anti-corporate track, spouting “Master P’ing on these lost Europeans, thieving.” Back in September, El-P confirmed that he was working with De La Rocha on a solo album due out in 2017. “Panther Like a Panther” resurrects the career of Trina (Da Baddest Bitch) with a masterful Knight Rider theme-like horror beat. “Hey Kids” featuring Danny Brown is classic Jamie (El-P) and Mike (Killer Mike), a thumping complex spaced-out beat with tongue-flipping razor sharp bars capped off by an amped Danny Brown verse. Jazz saxophonist, Kamasi Washington adds his touch to “Thursday in the Danger Room” while producer BOOTS laces “2100” with his sultry vocals. “Stay Gold” and “Call Ticketron” are also standout tracks on yet another banger from the Run The Jewels camp.

Favorite tracks: “Panther like a Panther,” “Hey Kids,” “Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Master,” “Stay Gold,” and “Call Ticketron”

1. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

On March 22, 2016, one of the most charismatic voices in hip-hop, Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor passed at the age of 45 due to complications from diabetes. After announcing a reissue campaign in 2015 and an appearance on the Tonight Show (same night as the Paris Attacks), rumors surfaced about a new album or tour. In August, famed music executive L.A Reid confirmed on The Rap Radar podcast that ATCQ had indeed been working on a new album with all members included. There was still a general aura of skepticism, as the group had not released an album since the lackluster The Love Movement in 1998. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is vintage Tribe, modernized. Replacing the rich sample-driven beats that the iconic group made famous, with more jazz instrumentation and sounds effects, the album encapsulates the thoughtfully abstract rap that defines ATCQ. “Ego” combines the smoky spoken-word vibe of their earlier work with the classic and radiant jazz energy that makes Tribe sound so distinct, while “Conrad Tokyo” seamlessly blends two great verses from Phife and Kendrick Lamar, bridging the gap of hip-hop history in a spacey, keyboard-driven loungy jam. The world has been yearning for a new A Tribe Called Quest album, and as many losses we may have taken in 2016, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service was definitely a huge win for music.

Favorite tracks: “We The People….,” “Ego,” “Conrad Tokyo,” “Movin Backwards,” and “The Space Program”

Honorable Mention: Kaytranada – 99.9%, Fruit Bats – Absolute Loser,  Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto, Whitney – Light Upon The Lake, HONNE – Warm on a Cold Night, Lake Street Dive – Side Pony, Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,  J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only, Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial, Blood Orange – Freetown Sound, The Range – Potential, St. Paul and The Broken Bones – Sea of NoiseElevator Jay – Slurred in Mecklenburg (Charlotte), Well$ – The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous (Charlotte), Bless These Sounds Under The City – On the Brink of Life (Charlotte), Deep 6 Division – Deep 6 Division (Charlotte)

A playlist of our favorite songs of 2016

Read next: 

In this article