2016 was an astounding year for music: chock full of amazing records, this list could have easily stretched to twenty-five or thirty and still not included anywhere near the best records of the year. We agonized over this list, and we know we’re missing some people’s favourites.
As our tradition is starting to dictate, we couldn’t stop at ten or twenty records though. A round number like that feels arbitrary. We wanted to stop when it felt right. And we think we got the mix just right, more or less.
The Very Last Day
Parker Millsap’s sophomore album is filled with some of 2016’s rowdiest country-influenced folk tracks. Telling the story of the end of the world, it sees Parker wrestle with everything from his faith to our culture. Often funny, sometimes irreverent, and full of charm, The Very Last Day isn’t worth missing. Read our full review.
School of Seven Bells
SVIIB is this year’s most authentic pop record. Born of tragedy, the record is vocalist Alejandra Deheza’s way of saying farewell to her best friend and former bandmate, Benjamin Curtis. Curtis passed away shortly after completing SVIIB in 2012, and Deheza spent time tinkering with it for years after the fact before finally releasing it as School of Seven Bells’ final parting letter.
SVIIB is one of the saddest records I’ve heard all year, but Deheza manages to find optimism in even the worst situations. While the album doesn’t break ground musically the way that some of the other albums on this list do, it’s filled with such emotional catharsis that it’s impossible to ignore. Sad, beautiful, and optimistic, SVIIB is a hidden treasure you need to hear. Read our full review.
Kaytranada is the king of the electronica pack right now. With 99.9%, he’s put almost everybody else in the genre to shame. It’s a tremendous record for anybody who likes bits and bops in their music, but it’s also one of those albums that just indicates a total prodigy is at work behind the scenes. Read our full review.
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
We Got It From Here isn’t a comeback for ATCQ. It’s a farewell. This is the group’s final album, largely because of the death of Phife earlier in 2016. But more importantly, it’s a reminder of the “service” of ATCQ throughout years. When Kanye guests on “The Killing Season”, it’s a reminder that ATCQ was one of his progenitors, one of the groups that birthed modern hip hop.
It’s not so much that We Got It Here is bringing anything new to the table; rather, it’s reminding us of what used to be. It’s like eating a meal with an old friend who just happens to be in town for a little while. It’s nice to reminisce.
Angel Olsen’s latest record is her best yet. Olsen is an enigma, and My Woman doesn’t change that. But it does reveal that Olsen is getting better and better at her craft.
If Olsen is anything, she’s a woman who deserves to be celebrated for being a woman. At this point, it feels like she represents women everywhere. She’s the feminist in all of us. Read our full review here.
The Life of Pablo
The Life of Pablo is a good record, but it’s ranking on this list for reasons other than just its music. I believe Kanye has stumbled upon the future of music with The Life of Pablo. I love the way he changed the music after release, often changing the production or verses on certain tracks. (You can read our piece on that here.)
That being said, the album was originally noted for combining hip hop and gospel. But Chance the Rapper ended up doing that much better only a few weeks later with Coloring Book, dethroning The Life of Pablo in the process. What we’re left with is an excellent record that nonetheless proves Kanye isn’t the king of hip hop anymore.
Telefone is one of the best hip hop debuts of recent years. Coming from the same crowd as Raury, Noname is quickly making a name for herself in the scene. She’s a clear example of the Chicago sound throughout her record, and not unlike Raury, wears all her influences clearly on her sleeve.
What makes Telefone work so well is its accessibility Telefone is one of the few albums this year that you could put on at a chill party without anybody raising an eye. Read our full review.
Esperanza Spalding’s second record is a huge turnaround for her. No longer traditional jazz, Esperanza is making jazz-influenced rock. With Evolution, she’s at the forefront of the jazz fusion revival.
But more importantly, she’s making a statement about the validity of traditional jazz. Like when Bob Dylan went electric, she’s saying there isn’t a lot left for her to mine in that genre, and it’s time for her to go on to more exciting pastures. I think D+ Evolution is a brave step in a bold direction, and I’m excited to hear what’s next from Spalding. Read our full review here.
Run the Jewels
Run the Jewels 3
I think most “Best Of” lists were written too late to include RTJ3, which was a late December surprise and one of the best hip hop records of the year. It’s a stronger record than RTJ2, with tracks that are more approachable despite the fact that the band isn’t losing their edge at all.
At this point, it feels like Run the Jewels might be one of the most important hip hop acts in our new political era. They speak their minds and don’t care what you think, and they’re willing to get involved on the ground floor (Killer Mike campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign). But most importantly, they’re completely fearless. RTJ3 was my favourite surprise album this year. Read our full review here.
Freetown Sound is authentic black music. When I was in university, I took a course on modern music history. The course started with slave music, which was music that the slaves used to sing together while they worked. The rhythm helped them stay on track with their work, and the singing made them feel a sense of solidarity despite their awful working conditions.
Much of Freetown Sound reminds me of that record — not because it has a lot in common with the rhythms of slave music, but because it feels like it’s music that’s meant to create solidarity. It’s not a protest record, but it’s a record that is birthed out of protest. Freetown Sound is an important record, and one that sadly still feels necessary in 2016. Read our full review.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
In lieu of a new Vampire Weekend record, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine stood in nicely this year. Leithauser’s vocal performance, may be an acquired taste, but Rostam’s music is clearly coming from his work at Vampire Weekend. It’s a beautiful album that I hope begets more work from the duo. They work together so naturally you’d think they’d been playing in a band together for years. Read our full review.
The Lemon Twigs
I think Do Hollywood might be the best debut of the year. The Lemon Twigs are clearly Beatles fans, but their music feels so modern — despite its retro leanings — that it’s impossible to draw the comparison too strongly.
If anything, Do Hollywood is an astonishing record because it proves that there’s still room for unique voices in indie rock. The perfect driving record, Do Hollywood is the sort of album that gives you hope for rock again. And it’s only The Lemon Twigs’ debut! Read our full review.
I mean, seriously, how much does it say about Kendrick Lamar’s clear and obvious talent when his B-sides are better than all of his contemporaries’ real albums this year? The rap star is an unequivocal genius whose voice is only becoming more important.
Untitled Unmastered also succeeded in the difficult measure of following up To Pimp a Butterfly, largely thanks to its non-title and the clear attitude towards each track. Kendrick and Co. know that Untitled Unmastered isn’t going to become anybody’s favourite over TPAB, so they released it without fanfare and removed some of the weight from the difficulty of being a follow-up. The strategy worked. Read our full review.
A Moon Shaped Pool
There’s no way we could avoid putting the latest Radiohead release in the list. But A Moon Shaped Pool is seriously one of the best records of the year. There isn’t a single track that feels like filler, and the band hasn’t lost their edge even as they’ve aged.
The true pride and joy of A Moon Shaped Pool is the inclusion of fan favourite, “True Love Waits”. The song has been a live staple for over a decade, and Radiohead finally made an album they felt it was a good fit for. An impeccable song that truly captures the mood of the whole record. Read our full review.
You Want It Darker
Another one of the greats lost. You Want It Darker will be, for obvious reasons, Cohen’s final record. Even at the end, he continued to wrestle with his spirituality and all his inner demons. Maybe because it was the end for him.
As it is, You Want It Darker is the best Cohen record in a long time. Impeccably produced with beautiful songwriting and an unbelievable performance from Cohen, it’s easily one of the year’s standouts in a year filled with great music.
A Seat at the Table
What is their left to say about this record that hasn’t already been said? A Seat at the Table is simply tremendous. There’s a reason Solange is on this list, but Beyonce is not: at this point, Solange has overtaken her sister’s music. A Seat at the Table is that good.
There’s nothing more to say. (Frankly, we said it all in our full review.)
A Sailor's Guide to Earth
You don’t have to like country to love Sturgill Simpson. I still can’t get over his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. But beyond that single track, what makes A Sailor’s Guide to Earth so special is its dedication to Simpson’s son. From the opening track on, you know that Guide to Earth is going to be something special.
And what Simpson is doing is special: beyond the dedication, and beyond the “hip dad” Nirvana cover, he’s expanding the language of country. He’s proved that the genre still has lots of room to grow. And he’s done all that without going down the pop road that country went down in the ‘90s. This is an alternative country album that any diehard country fan will love, and any non-country listener will find approachable. Read our full review.
Frank Ocean made us wait too long for this. And while it can be a little long on occasion, it’s hard to be irritated that Ocean gave us more music than we originally wanted. There are so many great tracks here that it’s hard to recommend just a few.
Blonde proves that, no matter how many imitators come along, there’s nobody else who can be like Frank Ocean. Read our full review.
Malibu is an album that doesn’t care about genre, position, or what’s hip. .Paak knows none of that matters, because he’s the future. It’s absolutely one of the most exciting records of the year (if not the most exciting), because of the classy ways it blends hip hop and R&B without missing a beat (pun not intended).
There are sixteen tracks on the record, but it doesn’t feel too long or like there’s a lot of filler. This is just Anderson .Paak, making it clear to the world that he’s here to stay and to show us the way. Read our full review.
Chance the Rapper
Coloring Book is Chance the Rapper coming into himself. It’s also a pure representation of what the future of hip hop looks like. Kendrick and Chance have come to take over the world, and Coloring Book is Chance’s stake in the ground.
Featuring an incredible roster of guests and a ton of great tracks, Coloring Book feels like the sort of album we all wish Kanye West was still making. With tracks like “How Great”, “Blessings”, and “Same Drugs”, Chance the Rapper is doing something unique with the way he’s blending his gospel roots with hip hop. He’s creating the future. Read our full review.
Before Bowie passed away, it was clear that Blackstar was easily going to be among the year’s best. Jazzy and unapologetic, Blackstar was Bowie once again experimenting with the forefront of the future of rock music. (We wrote more about that here.)
And then, Bowie suddenly passed away. Unbeknownst to almost everybody in the industry, he had been preparing for his death for a long time. The metaphor of many of Bowie’s songs on the record became much clearer in the weeks after he passed. Blackstar was meant to be a parting gift to his fans. And it’s a beautiful one. Read our full review.