The 30 Best Albums of 2016, Ranked
Following music in 2016 is complicated. By now, most fans have gotten used to the idea that artists both young and old can release new music at any moment, but with the rise of monolithic streaming services like Spotify, Tidal, and Apple Music, it's possible to discover new music every single day -- or to avoid it entirely. You can be a model of eclecticism or live in a self-created cocoon of Pearl Jam bootlegs.
So, in the spirit of our best movies of 2016 list, we've collected all the albums released this year that we 100% love, and ranked them. These aren't records that have one or two hits and a bunch of filler. These are records that people will be talking about at the end of the year, the debuts that will spark long careers, the comebacks that redefine certain artists, and the masterpieces you'll be playing years from now, when you want to remember what was popular before Kanye West became president. Make sense? Now turn the volume up.
30. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARSRelease date: April 1st
Label: Western Vinyl
If you've ever gotten lost in a Boards of Canada record or found yourself humming the pleasantly unnerving music of a cheesy late-night nature documentary, this record will be a revelation. Smith, long a favorite of anyone who hunts for Eno-esque synth soothers on Bandcamp, is an experimental artist who melds the astral pull of Oneohtrix Point Never with all the earthly bliss of a songwriter like Julia Holter. Listening to this album is like watching a UFO land on a lily pad.
29. Bruno Mars, 24K MagicRelease date: November 18th
At 33 minutes, 24K Magic is not a slow, meditative deep dive into the rich inner life of Bruno Mars. No, this randy little guy just wants to smash. On these nine sleek, retro-pop tracks, the Super Bowl halftime show headliner casts himself in cheeky loverboy roles ranging from the Snapchat generation's James Brown ("Perm") to a one-man band version of New Edition ("Versace on the Floor") to a super-funked-up take on his own "Uptown Funk" (the title track). If these songs have a unifying theme it's that professionalism conquers all -- and that Bruno Mars really wants to "kiss till we're naked, baby." Sometimes that's enough.
28. Chance the Rapper, Coloring BookRelease date: May 12th
"When did you change?" asks Chance the Rapper on the wistful "Same Drugs." "Wendy, you've aged. I thought you'd never grow up. I thought you'd never... " It's telling that the line fades out there. Despite its grinning cover art, collaborative spirit, and gospel leanings, Coloring Book is a record defined by moments of soulful melancholy. The Chicago rapper is only 23 years old -- he's got the Harry Potter and Dragon Ball Z references to prove it -- but he's toured the world, collaborated with his heroes, and fathered a child since his star-making Acid Rap mixtape. He's grown up.
So, this mixtape is filled with grown-man shit. In between all the joyful partying ("All Night" and "Juke Jam"), he's pondering his legacy ("Mixtape"), worrying about his city ("Angels"), and fearing God ("How Great"). Putting aside the indie-policing -- riding Steve Jobs' ultra-corporate light beam to a possible Grammy nomination isn't the same as giving a mixtape away at a playground -- this record is still a model of independence that's based in community. "I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom," he raps on "Blessings." "Don't believe in kings, believe in the Kingdom." By now, you better believe.
27. Cobalt, Slow ForeverRelease date: March 25th
Label: Profound Lore
At 84 minutes, Slow Forever is a commitment. It's not every day you decide to listen to a metal band that specializes in brutalizing your eardrums with songs with titles like "Beast Whip" and "Elephant Graveyard." But the Colorado metal duo's first album since 2009, their first one released since founding member Phil McSorley left the band after spewing hateful rhetoric, is worth journeying into the abyss for. Discarding their black metal aesthetic for a more eclectic blues- and punk-inflected sound, Slow Forever is a new creative peak. It's filled with rage and beauty, with epic, riff-heavy songs pummeling you with the same intensity of a Swans record or an unrelenting horror film. The meek should stay away.
26. Kendrick Lamar, Untitled UnmasteredRelease date: March 4th
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
"Get Top on the phone!" says Kendrick Lamar early on in "Untitled 02," referring to Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith, the CEO of TDE, the label that's been Kendrick's home since he was a teenage whiz kid. It's a conversational aside, but it's also a telling moment, showing that the Compton rapper has reached the point in his career where even his in-jokes become hooks.
More than a collection of To Pimp a Butterfly cast-offs, Untitled Unmastered is a brain mapping of one of our most politically curious MCs. What's on his mind? The role of the Supreme Being, police violence, genocide, racism, the materialism of the record industry, blow jobs, and everything in between. And, instead of looking only inward, Lamar shines the spotlight on his inner circle, particularly collaborators like Terrance Martin, Thundercat, Jay Rock, and Adrian Younge. Be glad he got them all on the phone, and be even more thankful that he lets us listen in.
25. Jubilee, After HoursRelease date: October 21st
After Hours is a panoramic vision of a life spent in the club. Drawing inspiration from her time growing up in Miami, producer and DJ Jessica Gentile soaks up all the foam-powered excess and booty contest joys the neon-lit city offers. But she also makes time for moments of quiet contemplation and pan-regional partying, allowing her debut LP to careen from bouncy, bass-filled highs to bleary, synth-soaked hangovers. The record nimbly shifts between dancehall, techno, grime, and trap without sacrificing pace or tone. It's an ideal soundtrack to a carefree night out -- or the perfect companion for a reflective night in.
24. Angel Olsen, My WomanRelease date: September 2nd
On her last album, 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Angel Olsen sounded forlorn singing over fuzzed-out guitars, blown-out drums, and the buzz of an old-fashioned microphone. By contrast, My Woman is an opulent affair: eclectic, adventurous, and, somehow, even more emotionally rich. On tracks like the glittery "Intern," the sneering punk howler "Shut Up Kiss Me," the sprawling country guitar jam "Sister," and the jazz-inflected "Those Were the Days," Olsen displays a versatility only hinted at on her previous records. Before she was a wise, poignant songwriter, but this record reveals her as a peerless shape-shifter, trying on musical identities and vocal styles while remaining true to herself.
23. Neurosis, Fires Within FiresRelease date: September 23rd
Label: Neurot Recordings
There's a song called "Broken Ground" on Fires Within Fires that lurches to life like a monster rising out of a swamp. The growl of the vocals, the squall of the guitars, and the steady thump of the drums create a mental image of mist rising, and then -- without warning -- the creature appears, thrashing about in a sludge-metal muck. It's exhilarating. At a brisk 40 minutes, the 11th album from these Bay Area doom lifers cuts away some of the sonic girth that defines their classic, monolithic LPs -- there are only five tracks here -- but these swirling psych-folk fever dreams linger. When the riffs arrive on a song like the epic closer "Reach," you'll be begging for the monster to take you.
22. David Bowie, BlackstarRelease date: January 8th
When David Bowie died, he left behind a legacy that stretched beyond the limits of music. Fittingly, his final album artfully dodged the expectations for aging rock stars. Instead of repeating old tricks and returning to the comforting -- and legendary -- sounds of his art-rock youth, the space oddity kept pushing forward, experimenting with free jazz, sample-ready drums, and post-rock guitar tracks. The atonal cries of "Lazarus" give way to the groove-heavy "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)," and it all ends with the moving electro-pop flitter of "I Can't Give Everything Away." It's not as death-obsessed as it may appear; it's bursting with life.
21. Rae Sremmurd, Sremmlife 2Release date: August 12th
This young Atlanta rap duo goes hard on their second album, leaning into the more experimental edges of their party-rap debut. "Black Beatles" might be the most beguiling song ever written about flexing on your haters in a crowded club -- and that's nearly as close as this collection gets to the giddy, hit-making heights of the duo's earlier Mike Will Made It-produced smashes like "No Type" or "No Flex Zone." Will is still a presence on the record -- he produced and co-wrote most of the songs -- but brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy aren't afraid to get weird here. "Set the Roof" finds crunk elder-statesman Lil Jon joining the pair for a menacing bonfire, "Came a Long Way" sounds like a moody ballad from an '80s cop show, and the catchy closer "Do Yoga" gets philosophical about the joys of doing yoga and getting high. It's like your teachers always said: the unexamined Sremmlife is not worth living.
20. Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D + EvolutionRelease date: March 4th
There were many paths bassist Esperanza Spalding could've taken after becoming the first jazz musician to win the Best New Artist award at the Grammys in 2011. She could've courted the Starbucks crowd, or stepped away from the spotlight. Instead, after 2012's Radio Music Society, she regrouped, revealed her nefarious prog inclinations, and made her best album yet. While her arrangements have always been mischievous and adventurous, Emily's D + Evolution is a wild and invigorating reinvention. On tracks like "Good Lava," "One," and "Funk the Fear," she slams together fusion, hard rock, funk, and, of course, the jazz rhythms she made her name with. It's tender, frenzied, and personal. It's the sound of joyful change.
19. Tim Hecker, Love StreamsRelease date: April 8th
Tim Hecker makes post-apocalyptic cubicle music. You put on your headphones, close your eyes, and let his ethereal, haunting drones, feedback, and fuzz take you away from the bullshit of work. While previous Hecker records explored the limits of white noise, the Canadian electronic artist is pushing himself even further here, taking inspiration from choral arrangements, Yeezus, and, according to this interview, the sound of Chewbacca singing into a saxophone. At the very least, you've gotta hear what that sounds like, right?
18. Frank Ocean, BlondeRelease date: August 10th
Label: Boys Don't Cry
Would it have killed Frank Ocean to add more drums to his long-awaited follow-up to 2012's Channel Orange? Putting aside the album's prolonged rollout, the drum question is the most pressing (and justified) complaint fans can throw at this otherwise excellent, blurry-eyed record. Though most of the songs won't make you hum along, you'll probably be too busy gazing up at the stars, pondering a cloud of smoke, or sticking your head out a car window to notice. This is a contemplative record. While Ocean's scrolling Tumblr-core approach to album sequencing means that songs often blend into each other, tracks like "Solo," "Nights," and "White Ferrari" pop with the same unhurried magnetism that first made the shy Odd Future-adjacent singer a superstar. "There's a bull and a matador dueling in the sky," he sings. "Inhale, in hell there's heaven." It's vintage Ocean: always playing with dualities, confounding expectations, and keeping listeners on their toes.
17. Blood Orange, Freetown SoundRelease date: June 28th
Protest music is often directed outward. What makes the new album by Blood Orange, a project by Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer Dev Hynes, so fascinating and complex is how inward-facing it is. Working with mostly female voices -- blending established voices like Nelly Furtado, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Debbie Harry with talented newcomers like Ava Raiin and BEA1991 -- he's crafted an immersive meditation on black identity that effortlessly mixes R&B, funk, dance-pop, and spoken word. Freetown Sound is headphones music that you want to wrap around the ears of the world, with ballads like "But You" and "Hands Up" carrying the planet-conquering potential of Michael Jackson and Prince. The range of ideas, emotions, and musical styles on display proves the best soul music comes with some heavy soul-searching.
16. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your ServiceRelease date: November 11th
In these perilous times, there's comfort to be found in Q-Tip's voice. The rapper and producer returned to the spotlight with We Got It From Here…, a brain-cooker of a record about perception, protest, and perseverance. Instead of killing time between lifetime achievement awards, the ageless 46-year-old reunited with his Tribe cohorts -- including the gone-too-soon Phife Dawg -- for a revolutionary-minded collection of sinewy beats and caustic observations. Tracks like "We the People," "Solid Wall of Sound," and "Lost Somebody" display why Tip remains one of hip-hop's most bracing, eloquent visionaries. Really -- you can't thank him enough.
Label: Interscope/Dirty Hit
There are legit reasons to be defensive about liking the 1975. They look like coked-out Muppet Babies, have horrible album titles, and even their instrumental tracks rock icky names like "Please Be Naked." But all 73 glitzy minutes of this indulgent album are exactly what M83's more academic 2016 record wanted to be: junk. The difference here is that these English bad boys make transcendent junk, and singer Matthew Healy can sell all the drama of songs like "The Sound," "A Change of Heart," and "The Ballad of Me and My Brain." If you wish more modern pop bands sounded like INXS doing whippets with the Cocteau Twins, this will be your Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Grab the guyliner.
14. Danny Brown, Atrocity ExhibitionRelease date: September 30th
Danny Brown clearly cares about legacy. With 2011's hedonism-as-self-care classic XXX, the Detroit rapper was a drug-hoovering mad rap scientist who could be poignant, funny, and nasty in a single song. His next record, 2013's Old, was divided into a reflective, soul-searching first half and a EDM-driven, pill-popping second half. Like all ambitious artists, he evolved. He refused to be reduced to a party-rap caricature. Now we get the joyfully strange Atrocity Exhibition, which finds Brown grabbing left-field (and expensive) samples, overseeing virtuosic Bomb Squad-esque production, and diving even deeper dive into his drug-fueled anxieties. Brown is putting himself on display here, but it's always on his own terms. "I just wanna make music," he raps on "Hell for It," the album's closing track. "Fuck being a celebrity/Cause these songs that I write/Leave behind my legacy." Mission accomplished.
13. Pinegrove, CardinalRelease date: February 12th
Label: Run for Cover
Is it time for a Saddle Creek revival? Pinegrove thinks so. If you like your indie rock with a hint of twang, emo vocal-cord abuse, and Conor Oberst-worthy histrionics, this New Jersey group has the ideal record to quietly sob into your IPA with. Songs like "Old Friends," "Aphasia," and "Waveform" tear at your heart with bleary-eyed tales of loss, betrayal, and regret. Play it for your friend who only listens to Wilco.
12. Kanye West, The Life of PabloRelease date: February 14th
Label: Def Jam
A few months removed from the frenzied context of the Wiz and Amber tweet-storm, the MSG spectacle, and the SNL appearance, The Life of Pablo feels like a major work. Songs like "Ultralight Beam," "Father Stretch My Hands," "Famous," and "Waves" have taken their place as spiritual anthems, and the darker, inward-gazing tracks like "Real Friends" and "Wolves" have only gained more emotional power. Ever the obsessive workaholic, West has continued to make small tweaks to the album, but at this point, the imperfections, flubs, lame punch lines -- even the indefensible "I'm from a tribe called check-a-hoe" -- are now a part the record's scrappy charm. No God dream is perfect.
11. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped PoolRelease date: May 8th
I was nervous about this Radiohead record. While the band is one of the most consistently innovative rock bands of the last 20 years, it wasn't crazy to think that their new album, the follow-up to 2011's underwhelming King of Limbs, would be disappointing. But, surprise: A Moon Shaped Pool is a triumph of patience, restraint, and careful modulation. Leaning into Jonny Greenwood's experimental work as a composer while revisiting unreleased songs like "True Love Waits," plus “Present Tense,” “Ful Stop,” and “Burn the Witch,” the band has created an album that looks at their pet themes -- social alienation, the encroachment of technology, the surveillance state -- through a wiser, gentler lens. Like In Rainbows, it's a beautiful record blemished by emotional pain and saved by the wails of Thom Yorke's voice. There are still plenty of things to worry about, but listening to the first shitty Radiohead album shouldn't be one of them.
10. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These WingsRelease date: November 18th
Label: RCA Nashville
By most accounts, Miranda Lambert set out to make a record that reckoned with the emotional fallout of her split with fellow country star Blake Shelton, and while it's possible to read the tabloid tea leaves here, her sixth major-label LP is much more than a breakup record. Lambert takes a widescreen approach here, using the sprawl of the double album to do droll covers ("Covered Wagon"), clever character sketches ("Ugly Lights"), and earnest ballads of devotion ("Dear Old Sun"). Somehow every part of The Weight of These Wings works. Lambert's wings might be heavy and nicked, but they still fly real good.
9. YG, Still BrazyRelease date: June 17th
Label: Def Jam
With 2014's My Krazy Life, West Coast rapper YG and his frequent collaborator DJ Mustard brought you into their neighborhood, providing a widescreen view of Compton life that made room for strip club anthems, crime narratives, and heartfelt apologies to mom. It was a coming-of-age story written in fresh tattoo ink. While this Mustard-less follow-up lacks the hit singles of his debut, Still Brazy brings something new to the table instead: a startling political immediacy. On tracks like "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)," "Blacks & Browns," and "Police Get Away Wit Murder," YG's targets are made explicit, each song rattling with the righteous indignation about racism, police brutality, and immigration. Updating the classic California G-funk of the '90s without ever sounding like a corny nostalgia grab, the album speaks to the present through the lens of the past. Whether he's calling out the future President, talking about a girlfriend, or chronicling his very real shooting last year on tracks like "Who Shot Me?" YG puts you in the front seat with him. It's a bumpy but invigorating ride.
8. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Pretty YearsRelease date: September 16th
The lyrics of Joe D’Agostino cut like lines from Dennis Cooper novels here: tweaking teens hunt for cheap drugs, the smell of sex festers in the air, and the possibility of violence hangs over every moment. Where bands like the Hold Steady and Titus Andronicus elevate teen angst to bar-rock tragedy, this Staten Island group stages mini-psychodramas on a smaller, knottier scale. But there's still fun to be found here. They've added some E-Street-esque sax ("Wish"), lush dream-pop keyboards ("Dancing Days"), and mosh-ready punk screams ("Beam") to their layered guitar work and bristling melodies. More importantly, Pretty Years retains the thematic approach of their excellent previous albums: cosmic in scope but grounded in small details.
7. Rihanna, ANTIRelease date: January 27th
Label: Roc Nation
There's a song called "Higher" on ANTI that will break your heart. "I know I could be more creative and come up with poetic lines," sings Rihanna over a mournful No I.D. loop. "But I'm turnt up upstairs and I love you is the only thing that's in my mind." It's a blunt-hit to the heart, the moment that helped me understand and ultimately embrace a record that on first listen felt incomplete and messy. Now, after spending a few months with it, I can see how tracks like "Work," "Needed Me," and even that Tame Impala cover all fit into a smudged Instagram portrait of an artist as a young savage, telling all her haters and her handlers to oh-so-gently fuck off.
6. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to EarthRelease date: April 15th
Sturgill Simpson is not country music's savior. Instead, on his first record for Atlantic, he's a savvy disruptor, carefully blending '60s soul horns and string arrangements with evocative memories of his time in the Navy ("Sea Stories"), anxieties about fatherhood ("All Around You"), and, yes, a Nirvana cover ("In Bloom"). The album has a painting of a sailboat caught in a tempest on the cover, but listening to these soothing, thoughtful tracks will put you at ease. Though the waters may be troubled, you know the captain has a steady hand.
5. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton TreeRelease date: September 9th
Label: Bad Seed Ltd.
The sixteenth album from this peerless Australian post-punk group is difficult to talk about without acknowledging the tragedy that shaped it: in July 2015, one of Nick Cave's twin 15-year-old sons, Arthur, fell to his death off a cliff in Brighton, England. That loss permeates the record. Cave's pioneering work with the Bad Seeds has always been brooding, grisly, and death-obsessed -- his most famous album is called Murder Ballads -- but previous records often had a mischievous touch of dark humor to them. Skeleton Tree is a harsher, more hollowed out affair. "Nothing really matters," he sings on the haunting "I Need You." "Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone." If that sounds too bleak to bear, rest assured there are moments of musical beauty, like the twinkling "Rings of Saturn," the sparse "Magneto," and the delicate folk ballad of a title track. Even in the darkness of grief, light flickers through.
4. Mitski, Puberty 2Release date: June 17th
Label: Dead Oceans
Mitski makes emotionally raw music, but I'm hesitant to call it emo. Genre tags struggle to contain the range of musical and emotional content on display here. As the title suggests, this is Puberty 2, a spiritual sequel to that horrible age when you want to escape your own skin. Instead of exploring the typical banalities of a "quarter-life crisis" post on Tumblr, 24-year-old Mitski Miyawaki does what songwriters like Patti Smith, P.J. Harvey, and Rivers Cuomo have done for decades: turn pain into beauty. "Fireworks" lights an electro-pop fire, "Your Best American Girl" explodes with guitar hero angst, "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars" rages against the dying of the light, and "A Burning Hill" gazes on the ashes with a sense of hope. Bring on Puberty 3.
3. Kevin Gates, IslahRelease date: January 29th
Kevin Gates is great at rapping -- that's important to understanding his underground appeal -- but there are countless technically brilliant MCs hawking their wares on DatPiff every day. What makes this controversial Louisiana artist a rising cult hero is his ability to combine vivid, imaginative rapping with killer songwriting instincts on tracks like "Really Really," "One Thing," and the infectious radio hit "2 Phones." Following an impressive mixtape run, Islah is the rare major-label rap debut without a bunch of unnecessary guest spots or big-name producers weighing it down. Instead, Gates keeps plugging away at confessional ballads ("Not the Only One"), vulnerable gross-out bangers ("Hard For," which is literally about the only woman he can get hard for), and songs that examine his ugly behavior onstage ("The Truth"). His comments about dog fellatio and sleeping with his cousin guarantee he won't be popping up on The Voice or pulling Drake-like numbers anytime soon. But in the fractured hip-hop landscape of 2016, he doesn't have to.
2. Beyoncé, LemonadeRelease date: April 23rd
It would be a mistake to look at Lemonade as only an academic text or gossip fodder: you'd miss so many knockout musical moments. The way Beyoncé says, "Suck on my balls," on "Sorry," the country twang of "Daddy Lessons," and the defiant chorus of "Freedom" show an artist in total control, able to follow tangents and explore new territory without hesitation or apology.
In combining the rhythmic ingenuity of B'Day, the eclectic warmth of 4, and the boundary-pushing spirit of her self-titled record, she's crafted her best album, the most perfectly conceptualized pop LP since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But, unlike Kanye's monument to narcissism and self-destructive assholery, this is a poetic visual album about love, betrayal, forgiveness, and the struggle of being a black woman in America. "If you get deep you touch my mind," she sings on "All Night," setting up the perfect sexual and intellectual metaphor for what this zeitgeist-capturing collection of songs is capable of. Let Beyoncé touch your mind.
1. Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the GhettoRelease date: March 14th
The Bay Area has a rich hip-hop tradition, dating back to Mac Dre, Too $hort, and the loose-fitting pants of MC Hammer, but Kamaiyah is something new. Her debut mixtape, A Good Night in the Ghetto, is the type of playful, spry, and forward-thinking retro-rap that works as both deeply felt party music and revealing autobiography. It's perfect for a BBQ, a car wash, or a meditative solo walk to the subway.
By pairing chant-able hooks (the West Coast minimalism of "Out the Bottle") with revealing introspection (her breakout single "How Does It Feel"), she makes pleasure and joy sound revolutionary. She's got sensual songs about sex ("Break You Down") and desire ("Come Back"), along with tough-talking, synth-speckled funk anthems like "Fuck It Up" and "Ain't Going Home." "I'm just a young black chick with an attitude," she says at one point. "Better move out of my way when I'm passing through." Listening to her rap is like watching Steph Curry shoot a 35ft three-pointer: the confidence is infectious, the form is impeccable, and the talent is undeniable.
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