Ten Best Albums of 2016 by Lane Claffee

By Lane Claffee

December 22, 2016

10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

In mid-2015, Cave’s follow-up to 2013’s Push the Sky Away was already near its completion when his son, Arthur, tragically passed away due to injuries sustained from falling from a cliff. Two weeks after the accident, Cave revisited the material and what resulted was one of the most haunting, despondent, and emotionally devastating albums of 2016. As most of the album was already written prior to Arthur’s death, many lyrics are eerily prophetic of the horrific incident, specifically the opening lines to the album’s single, “Jesus Alone” (“You fell from the sky / crash landed in a field.”). The album shows Cave still obviously in a grieving period, displaying elements of spoken word, drone, and minimalism throughout an expansion of the spacey, poignant art-rock of his previous 2013 album.

Favorite tracks: “Jesus Alone,” “Rings of Saturn,” “Girl in Amber,” and “Skeleton Tree.”

9. Injury Reserve – Floss

Arizona underground hip-hop trio Injury Reserve’s Floss arrived late into 2016 on December 15th, and immediately became one of my favorite hip-hop releases of the year. Laden with beats that “make you wanna drink a whole fifth” and “leave your nine-to-five and never come back,” Floss is brash, exciting, and also controversial. With references to NC hip-hop legends Little Brother, like on the jazz-rap cut “S on Ya Chest” to Ritchie With A T’s statement, “I’m the black Ben Carson,” the album is funny, brazen, and exhilarating.

Favorite tracks: “Oh Shit!!!,” “Bad Boys 3,” “All This Money,” “S on Ya Chest,” and “What’s Goodie?”

8. DIIV – Is The Is Are

Is The Is Are snuck past me when it was released in February. When the single “Bent (Roi’s Song)” was released, I hung onto it and it alone from the album, and I honestly have no idea why. In my opinion, Is The Is Are is a huge step forward from their 2012 release Oshin. It incorporates their usual shoegaze/dream-pop style, as well as themes of post-punk, and krautrock bands like NEU!, which make them stand out among their contemporaries of the dream-pop music trend, who have a tendency to sound way too similar to each other.

Favorite tracks: “Out of Mind,” “Under the Sun,” “Bent (Roi’s Song),” and “Healthy Moon.”

7. Swans – The Glowing Man

The Glowing Man is more of an experience than just an album. It shares that characteristic with the first two albums in the album trilogy of this particular incarnation of Swans. It’s meditative in comparison to 2014’s To Be Kind but with the same intense, orchestral build-ups into full-scale cataclysm that you would come to expect from Gira and his collective. The most gargantuan points of the album can feel like getting curb checked by Sigur Ros, but even then it doesn’t fully describe how intense and transcendental the album can be. It’s difficult to pick particular tracks from this album, but many of the personal high-points for me include “Cloud of Forgetting,” “Cloud of Unknowing,” “When Will I Return,” and the aptly-titled final track, “Finally, Peace.”

Favorite tracks: “Cloud of Forgetting,” “Cloud of Unknowing,” “When Will I Return,” and “Finally, Peace.”

6. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

After the release of Danny Brown’s 2013 album Old, Brown said that he felt as if his image started to get more recognition than his music. “I started to make me feel like a spectacle or something,” he said in a recent interview, “like people were taking it as a joke.” His response to this idea of being spectacle, whether falsely perceived or not, was arguably the darkest and most experimental album of his career. While the album is obviously named after the Joy Division song, which shares a similarity in meaning of the feeling of being a spectacle, Atrocity Exhibition evokes the same imagery as the warped glitchy album art is indicative of the music it contains: twisted, avant-garde, and unrelentingly hype.  

Favorite tracks: “Downward Spiral,” “Rolling Stone,” “Really Doe,” “When It Rain,” and “Hell For It.”

5. Angel Olsen – My Woman

I became aware of Angel Olsen about a week or two before My Woman was released, when I heard her incredible Tiny Desk performance on NPR. As most of her previous discography, such as Burn Your Fire For No Witness, consists of mainly lo-fi, singer-songwriter indie rock, My Woman is a vibrant, expressive rock record that is explosive in comparison. Starting off with the gorgeous but out-of-left-field synthpop track “Intern,” the rest of the album is a beautiful mixture of various genres, such as indie rock, alt-country, psychedelic rock, and garage rock. With a myriad of different styles being joined together on the album, My Woman is Olsen branching out from her previous lo-fi style, and expanding into new territory that is as intimate as it is emphatic.

Favorite tracks: “Intern,” “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Sister,” and “Woman.”

4. Blond(e) – Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean’s follow-up to 2012’s channel ORANGE was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated records of 2016. Plagued with release date mishaps and Ocean’s typical elusiveness, the album finally came out slightly more than a year after the originally anticipated date. I remember during the prolonged wait, thinking to myself “this better be on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah level of greatness” and, ultimately, it was. A minimalist, experimental neo-soul album released to the mainstream, boasting liner notes with contributions from Brian Eno, Gang of Four, David Bowie, Elliott Smith, and Andre 3000, among a plethora of other incredible artists, should be enough to excite anyone with a pulse. Blond(e) is definitely one of the most forward thinking, adventurous albums that has been released to the public this year, and I think that it’s enough to hold me over until his next album, which will presumably be released around 2050.

Favorite tracks: “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Solo,” “Self Control,” “Nights,” and “White Ferrari.”

3. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

The initial announcement of this album was “at the age of 82, Leonard Cohen is releasing his fourteenth studio album, You Want It Darker,” implying that fans should begin to brace themselves for 2016 to take it’s toll on another one of music’s greatest figures. Even more so, before a week of the album’s release, Cohen announced that he was “ready to die.” By the time Cohen had actually passed a few days after the election his sooner-than-later death had already seemed to sink in. It had already been established through analogous references to death such as card games in “Leaving the Table,” as well as Cohen’s raspy, rattling vocal delivery throughout the album. As Cohen had suffered back injuries, he had to craft the album from a medical chair, adding to the somber imagery to You Want It Darker. A thoughtful, personal send-off from Cohen to his fans, and just as original and authentic as any of this other monumental albums.

Favorite tracks: “Treaty” (and its reprise), “On the Level,” “If I Didn’t Have Your Love, “Leaving the Table,” “Traveling Light,” and “Steer Your Way.”

2. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service

This album is (or at least should be) on everyone’s year-end list. It’s A Tribe Called Quest’s return to form after almost two decades and it doesn’t miss a beat, as it holds up against the group’s history of creating perfect hip-hop albums like The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. Loaded with socio-political commentary and appearances of other acclaimed MC’s new and old, such as Busta Rhymes, Andre 3000, and Kendrick Lamar, Thank You 4 Your Service showcases a reinvented, 2016 version of the Tribe that we all know and love.

Favorite tracks: “The Space Program,” “We The People…,” “Whateva Will Be,” “Solid Wall of Sound,” “Dis Generation,” “Conrad Tokyo,” “Ego,” and “The Donald”

1. David Bowie – ★

Bowie’s swan song shows him as he always was; ever-evolving and recreating himself in order to push the boundaries of his own creativity, and inherently pushing popular music culture forward in doing so. Cited by Tony Visconti as taking influence from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, as well as experimental rap group Death Grips, Blackstar is an avant-garde, boundary-pushing experimental art-rock album dropped on his 69th birthday merely two days before Bowie’s untimely death. The title track is the second longest track in Bowie’s entire discography, falling second only to “Station to Station,” conceived during his infamous “peppers, milk, and cocaine-only” diet stint. “Lazarus,” the album’s single, sounds like a seance orchestrated by Bowie himself. The final track on his farewell album “I Can’t Give Everything Away” features a sample of his song “New Career In A New Town,” a song influenced by his move to Berlin, and the beginning consequential “Berlin album trilogy.”

Favorite tracks: “★,” “Girl Loves Me,” “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Honorable Mention:  Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!, Death Grips – Bottomless Pit, Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression, Preoccupations – Preoccupations, Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

A playlist of our favorite songs of 2016

Read next:

In this article