2016 was quite the year for music. We saw old legends return triumphantly, current superstars release career-defining albums, and up-and-comers show us what we should be excited for going forward. You'll find all of these represented in our Albums of the Year countdown, the construction of which was particularly hard this year and led to some gut-wrenching decisions. Here are our ten favorite albums from a year packed with incredible, moving art.
10. A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here, Thank You 4 Your service
Tribe’s sixth and final album has been heavily anticipated since their last release,The Love Movement, in 1998. We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service debuted in November, shortly after Phife Dawg’s death in March. This politically charged album exudes the familiar and seamless flow that Tribe has maintained since 1990. Previously featured on The Love Movement, Busta Rhymes drops incredible bars in my favorite song on the album “Dis Generation.” This track praises some of the artists of the new generation of hip-hop, one of which is featured on the song “Conrad Tokyo”, Kendrick Lamar. Even 18 years later, A Tribe Called Quest proves they have some of the tightest raps out there, while praising the new-age rappers that will keep spitting what’s real.
—Bridget Van Dorsten
9. Rihanna - ANTI
A commercial powerhouse for over a decade now, Rihanna wasn’t afraid to eschew pop music’s conventions on this year’s stunning ANTI. From the soaring guitars of “Kiss It Better” to the industrial warble of “Woo,” ANTI sees Rihanna venture into newer, bolder territory, and the songs are better for it. Even mega-hit “Work” rode an understated club beat all the way to nine weeks at #1 on the charts. Beyond the experimentation, the songs on ANTI are stellar in their own right: “Love on the Brain” is one of the top tortured love anthems in recent memory, and Rihanna gives one of the year’s most impressive vocal performances on the skyscraping “Higher.” With ANTI, Rihanna has pushed beyond her role as a pop star and fully established herself as a progressive force in R&B music.
8. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
From his controversial political rants to his admission into medical care for paranoia, it has been a difficult year to be a Kanye West fan. West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, is a collage of his previous projects, blending together elements from all of his previous albums to create a piece of work as interesting and chaotic as its creator. On “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1”, West samples a gospel record in classic College Dropout style, while tapping young producers such as Metro Boomin to lend their bass heavy trap percussion to the mix. If anything has remained consistent for Mr. West, it is his willingness to push himself and his musical collaborators technically and creatively. While his previous works were centered around specific themes, this album’s defining characteristic is its lack of one.
7. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead’s 9th album, A Moon Shaped Pool, is their most somber release to date. The classic electric guitar riffs are long gone and have been replaced by lush swells of strings on singles like “Burn the Witch” and “Daydreaming”. Composer, guitarist, and programmer Jonny Greenwood has taken cues from 20th century minimalists, favoring deliberate rhythmic repetitions over complex improvisations or time signatures. The result is a simple, and meandering album, with more focus on the sounds themselves than any previous Radiohead release. Analog synths back-up acoustic instrumentation to create a gloriously glitchy effect. Buzzy pads and warbly delay alongside the drones of cello and simple strums of classical guitar make the entire work sound light and watery, a departure from their more recent electronic and mechanical releases. Five years after the disappointing release of The King of Limbs, Radiohead has redeemed themselves with A Moon Shaped Pool, and are again at the forefront of experimental and alternative rock.
6. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Five years, two Grammys, and multiple high-profile collaborations later, Bon Iver returned with their highly anticipated third record 22, A Million. A clear departure from their folksy-rainy-day sound, 22, A Million is Bon Iver’s most powerful and experimental album yet. From the enigmatic track titles to Justin Vernon’s heavily-vocoded singing, Bon Iver has put down the acoustic guitar and opted for an innovative mechanical sound that oozes both emotional and musical confidence. While 22, A Million bears little resemblance to its predecessors, one thing remains the same: Bon Iver’s ability to create a beautiful and passionate narrative.
5. Noname - Telefone
2016 was the year of black women in music. When Fatimah Warner, better known by her stage name Noname, released her much-anticipated mixtape this past summer, she made sure that it was worth the wait. After several features on the albums of her fellow Chicago natives, including Chance the Rapper and more recently Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, we’d heard Noname’s talent and knew that she was just what we needed. Telefone mixes bouncy synths, R&B, jazz, and soul to tell the story of a young girl through a musical stream-of-consciousness that can heal our battered souls.
Noname’s relaxed tone blends rap and spoken word poetry in a way that makes her artful lyrics feel like a late-night conversation with a friend. Playful sounds dance around the vocals to paint a nostalgic image of growing up that feels all too relatable. But this story of youth is not all orange Rugrats tapes and building blocks - the hovering somber tone and lyrical punches of moments when life and happiness meet death and fear remind us of our reality, with bodies robbed of their existences too soon. Noname doesn’t try to sugar coat mortality, but rather allows complex beauty to peek through her memories.
4. Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
After contributing multiple writing credits and a song stealing guest verse on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is one of the year’s most unique hip-hop projects. Fusing together his signature jazz rap style with gospel and trap influences, Coloring Book feels fresh, yet familiar. While Chance’s performances across the album take center stage, the album is complimented with a diverse group of collaborators such as The Social Experiment, Kanye West, Lil Yachty, and more. Chance showcases his versatility on tracks like “No Problem” a braggadocious collaboration with southern rap legends Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, and “Juke Jam”, a slowed down ballad with Towkio and Justin Bieber. Chance is yet to release a project on a major label, but his latest project reminds us why he has risen to become one of the most exciting acts in modern hip-hop music
3. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
I’ve never been to Malibu, but I can only imagine that Anderson .Paak has encompassed the California beach town in its purest form. With tasteful and smooth sounds that seem to transcend musical eras, it might be easy to overlook the poetic narratives .Paak articulates throughout the album. Each track fills up space at an mellow tempo that can only be comparable to riding a wave in the warm Pacific Ocean, an experience .Paak is likely familiar with as an Oxnard, California native.
Showing clear development since his previous album, Venice, .Paak infuses his familiar energy with new maturity, sounding both familiar but like nothing you’ve ever heard before. His work on the Compton soundtrack seems to have had a profound impact on his musical development, and this lengthy album has taken .Paak on a world tour this past year, including to our very own Providence, RI this past June. If you’ve never seen .Paak live or watched videos of his performances, you’ll be astounded to know that he’s the drummer, doing much of the vocals in his live shows while simultaneously grooving on the drums. You may have heard “Come Down” or “Am I Wrong,” but I’d advise you to check out “Parking Lot” and “Room in Here,” or to watch his Tiny Desk Concert. It’s a real treat, just as Malibu has been all throughout 2016.
2. Beyonce - Lemonade
Queen Bey is back at it, never failing to disappoint. The internationally platinum selling album, Lemonade, took the world by storm as Beyoncé’s first album in three years. It produced charting favorites, such as "Formation" and "Sorry,” and led to the incredible Formation World Tour. Featured artists range from Jack White to Kendrick Lamar, giving the album a broader range of sound and genre than her previous work. The accompanying visual album is a must-watch for any Beyoncé lover. What sets it apart from the rest is its strong political and cultural message, with a drive toward social change. Lemonade stands for female empowerment, African-American pride, and the powerful intersection of the two: black feminism. So don’t “Hold Up” any longer and go give the album a listen. I promise you won’t be “Sorry.
1. Frank Ocean - Blonde
In the summer of 2012, Frank Ocean released his full-length studio debut, channel ORANGE, and secured his status as an up-and-coming R&B powerhouse. Through his prolific ghostwriting career (and a critically-acclaimed Internet mixtape), he had already garnered a small-but-loyal following, as well as a reputation for avant-garde vocal chops and deeply personal, narrative lyricism. But when the world needed Frank most, he vanished.
After four summers and a lengthy, enigmatic social media campaign, Frank Ocean pulled off one of the biggest musical stunts since that of Beyoncé’s legendary self-titled visual album. In less than 48 hours, he leaked a music video, 45-minute visual album, full-length LP, and an accompanying zine titled Boys Don’t Cry. Though perhaps released in the most traditional format of the four works, his LP Blonde is anything but. Never having been one to conform to conventions (of genre, of sexuality, of fame), Ocean toggles between themes of lovesickness, nostalgia, and drug-fueled introspection as gracefully as he slides in and out of his masterful falsetto. From its spare, sparkling guitar riffs (“Nights”) to its clouds of droning synth (“Nikes”), Blonde is an album of thematic and tonal highs and lows--and proof that the king of dreamy, alternative R&B has returned to reclaim his throne.
Honorable Mention: Childish Gambino - Awaken, My Love!
Note: “Awaken, My Love!” was released after voting for our albums of the year closed, but we wanted to recognize it in some capacity and are thus giving it an honorable mention.
Still glowing from the success of his new TV show, Atlanta, and his casting as Lando Calrissian in the new Star Wars series, Awaken, My Love! is Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) exclamation point on 2016. Completely free of Glover’s usual rapping, Awaken is a fascinating adventure inspired by ’70s funk, soul, R&B, and rock. “There’s something about that ’70s black music that felt like they were trying to start a revolution,” Glover remarked in an interview with Billboard. And one can’t help but feel the revolution intertwined in the soulful crescendos of emotion (“Me and Your Mama”) and the funky electricity (“Zombies”) that courses throughout the album. “Awaken My Love!” is a passionate homage to a history of black music, and a vivid symbol of Glover’s artistic growth — a combination that makes a strong argument for one of the best album experiences of the year.