Favorite Albums of 2016: Part 1

Favorite Albums of 2016: Part 1

Widely hailed as one of the most creative years in recent memory, 2016 was a blowout period across all genres and styles.

Between immersing ourselves in blockbusters, back door opuses, career-making efforts from relative newcomers and wonderful new sounds in the areas of metal, electronica, world music and beyond, there really hasn’t even a dull moment for music fans – let along a moment to sit back, reflect and try to soak it all in.

Consider, for instance, the world of hip-hop where we saw superb releases from top-shelf players Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest and J. Cole, alongside outstanding works from up-and-comers like Chance The Rapper, Anderson .Paak,  and YG.

Pop music saw extraordinary offerings from Beyoncé, Rihanna and Alicia Keys, while the world of indie witnessed compelling material from the likes of Radiohead, Rostam + Hamilton Leithauser, Whitney and Bon Iver.

In the world of country we saw the emergence of outliers Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson, while late genre-defying rock legends like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen offered their final testaments on love and life before departing for great beyond. The fact of the matter is that, no matter how you slice it, it’s been one hell of a year.

Below, enjoy the first of our two-part feature sharing 40 of our favorite albums released over the course of 2016. Read Part 2 here.

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David Bowie: Blackstar
ISO Records / Columbia
Released: January 8, 2016

Released just after New Years, on his 69th birthday, it was immediately apparent that David Bowie’s 25th studio album, Blackstar (styled ‘★’), was his finest work in years. Little did we know the album would also be his last. Just two days later, the rock icon passed away peacefully at home from what was later revealed to be a private 18-month battle with cancer. A true artist and poet, even while in the very process of dying, Bowie’s longtime producer and intimate Tony Visconti said the album was intended as a “parting gift” to his fans. And after a few listens and the benefit of hindsight, the signs are everywhere: this album is about a man confronting his own mortality. (In medicine a “black star” is a kind of lesion indicative of cancer.)

Blackstar consists of just seven tracks, each as rich and riveting as the last. From the striking title number to closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the records never lets up until its conclusion. Filled with guitar screams, drum diversifications and insurmountable lyricism, the emotional intensity runs so deep, words alone can hardly do it justice. The instrumentals provide the album with an eerie yet forceful sound that compliments Bowie’s prayer-like vocals. Said to be inspired by jazz and the recent work of Kendrick Lamar, and featuring a cast that includes jazz greats and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Blackstar is yet another socially, culturally and profoundly progressive album that brings its listeners through a narrative of cryptic emotional thrill. David Bowie’s swan song is every bit as vital and modern as anything in his discography, marking a most extraordinary bookend to a legendary career. We lost a god.

Read our feature Changes: The Many Faces of David Bowie and this piece from The Talkhouse where artists remember the late icon. Hear David Bowie’s Legends playlist here.

Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Steel Wool / OBE /Art Club / EMPIRE
Released: January 15, 2016

Pegged early last year as a TIDAL Rising artist to watch, Anderson .Paak is without a doubt one the biggest and busiest breakouts of 2016. First jumping onto our radar after featuring on half the track list for Dr. Dre’s Compton last year, the Oxnard, California-bred singer, rapper, drummer and producer dropped his latest LP Malibu to wide and still-growing applause.

Funky, mellow, rich, soulful – and featuring an esteemed cast of collaborators that includes Talib Kweli, ScHoolboy Q, The Game, Hiatus Kaiyote and Robert Glasper – Malibu is .Paak’s most personal and mature project yet. Openly delving into his life story in a manner not unlike fellow West Coast talent Kendrick Lamar on good kid, m.A.A.d city, .Paak smoothly straddles the line between rapping and R&B crooning with charisma and flow that perfectly complements the production’s jazzy, sensual undertones.

Anderson .Paak grabbed the spotlight like he knew it was his moment, and he hasn’t let go yet. Since dropping Malibu in January, he’s become the bona fide golden goose of featured appearances, lending his numerous talents and permanent grin to more recent records than we can keep track of, and dropped the similarly superb full-length, Yes Lawd!, under his NxWorries project with producer Knxlwledge (featured on Part 2 of our Favorite Albums os 2016).

Check out our Anderson .Paak Essentials playlist, along with his TIDAL Rising Q&A and Connect interview with DJ Reflex.

Rihanna: Anti
Westbury Road / Roc Nation
Released: January 29, 2016

On her highly anticipated eighth studio album, Rihanna doesn’t play nice. She isn’t here to make friends or amends. Instead she’s doing things her way, resulting in her most confrontational and uncompromising statement yet. As she sings on “Needed Me”: “But baby, don’t get it twisted. You was just another nigga on the hit list. Tryna fix your inner issues with a bad bitch. Didn’t they tell you that I was a savage?”

A gorgeous and thoughtful work of pop art, Anti is easily Rihanna’s most mature and musically varied effort to date, featuring classic chart-topping pop (“Work”), devastatingly beautiful doo-wop (“Love on the Brain”) and heartbreaking piano balladry (“Close To You”), not to mention a cool-as-ice cover of Tame Impala. Anti is something that must be experienced to be understood.

Check out our playlists Legends: Rihanna and The ANTI World Tour Set List while reading our feature Rihanna: The Only Girl In The World.

Majid Jordan: Majid Jordan
OVO Sound / Warner Bros.
Released: February 5, 2016

A Canadian R&B duo hailing from the city of Toronto and signed to Drake’s OVO Sound label, Majid Jordan is at the forefront of that fresh new northern sound some have coined New Toronto. Comprised of singer Majid Al Maskati and producer Jordan Ulman, the pair first met back in 2011, and quickly rose in the musical ranks after co-writing, producing and guesting on Drizzy’s smash single “Hold On, We’re Going Home.”

Emotive, hypnotic and substance enhanced just enough to spice things up, Majid Jordan’s self-titled debut demonstrates the duo’s powerful knack for infectious and sensual nocturnal pop that’s equal parts heartbreaking and heartsoothing.

Hear Majid Jordan and the others artists from Toronto’s new guard in our playlist Other Views From The 6: Sounds of New Toronto.

Kanye West: The Life Of Pablo
GOOD Music / Def Jam / Roc-A-Fella
Released: February  14, 2016

At this point, what hasn’t been said about The Life Of Pablo? And yet what have we agreed upon? Hailed by critics as “a complex, conflicted masterpiece,” a “brilliant work-in-progress,” a “radical act of creative transparency” and his “most complicated album yet,” Kanye himself has in instances called it a gospel record, a family record and a “living, breathing, changing creative expression.” Pablo is impossible to miss.

As the most visible and emblematic artist of today, Kanye West’s every move is watched, reported on and dissected, and like no artist before him he’s used modern tools and mediums to communicate directly with his audience at a level of public intimacy that was previously impossible. As such, The Life of Pablo is the ultimate document of an artist living in the present and pulling back the veil on both his personal life and his creative process.

Months after Pablo’s premier at Madison Square Garden, he continues to make updates and additions, and share new visuals and edits, each creating its own tidal wave of news stories, think-pieces, Twitter trends, memes and controversies. Just by being himself, Kanye creates a conversation in his wake. If that’s not the definition of a powerful artist, we don’t know what is.

Read our feature articles Kanye: Album by Album and Kanye Unfinished: The Evolving Life of Pablo. Check out some of our Kanye West-related playlists here.

Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.
TDE / Aftermath / Interscope
Released: March 4, 2016

In March 2015, Kendrick Lamar brought the world to its knees when he surprise released his third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly, a jazz- and politics-infused masterpiece of incalculable depth that topped uncounted year-end lists and will stand as a landmark in hip-hop and American culture at large for a long time to come. Dropped just shy of 12 months later, untitled unmastered. is not a proper album per se, but rather an incredible companion piece that adds newfound insight to its predecessor while standing solidly on its own two feet.

As the title, track names and artwork might suggest, the project is an unprocessed counterpart to To Pimp A Butterfly’s lush and intricately crafted perfectionism — as if you stripped that ornate opus of its rich, decorative flourishes to reveal the pure, raw talent underneath. Featuring previously unreleased demos from the Butterfly sessions – including the talked-about “Untitled” songs he’d performed for The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show and the 2016 Grammys – and as such the tracks are similarly political and psychological in content and experimental in sound.

Even the most supremely gifted creators of our time might sound naked or unfinished without the tools and crutches of the modern day editing suite. These songs prove that Kendrick doesn’t need smoke, mirrors or studio trickery to spit some of the most substantial poetry of his generation. Somebody hold a mic up to this man and don’t stop recording.

Check our playlists The Best of Kendrick Lamar and Kendrick Lamar’s Guest Verses.

Iggy Pop: Post Pop Depression
Loma Vista
Released: March 18, 2016

“You take your motherfucking laptop. And just shove it into your goddamn foul mouth,” snarls Iggy Pop on his cleverly-titled seventeenth solo album, Post Pop Depression, and quite frankly, there’s nothing like being on the receiving end of an Iggy Pop trash talk. Backed by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita, and with Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders on drums, Post Pop Depression is a stomping and gritty ride that sonically and spiritually channels the early days of Iggy’s post-Stooges solo career, in particular his two Bowie-produced classics The Idiot and Lust For Life. Anyone who has had the fortune to witness Iggy live in concert knows that he can front a rock band better than anyone on this planet.

There’s simply a ferocious and fierce energy to Iggy that is unmatched. Luckily this energy rubs off on his band, who seem to be having a hell of a time laying down the musical backdrop to Iggy’s erratic ramblings. And still, through it all, Iggy manages to keep a noble, elder statesman-like posture, like Leonard Cohen on speed. The result is both riveting and thought-provoking. But beyond that, it’s also just plain fun and timelessly cool. It’s like a young Iggy once sang while fronting the Stooges: “Can I come over tonight? I say we will have a real cool time tonight.” Oh yes Iggy, yes you can.

You can listen to our best of Iggy Pop playlist while reading an exclusive excerpt from the new book, Total Chaos: The Story of The Stooges, along with this conversation between Iggy and author Jeff Gold.

Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Third Man Records
Released: March 25, 2016

Despite being deeply steeped in the proud tradition of country music, Margo Price follows her own path and plays only by her own rules. Rejecting the glitz and glamour of Nashville, the 32-year old singer wrote the songs for her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, released by way of Jack White’s Third Man Records, about the daily struggles of ordinary people. As she told the Guardian: “What I always liked about country music was the stories, the ability to talk about very real things like divorce and drinking and death and jail.”

This approach to songwriting is no more evident than on the album’s haunting opening track “Hands of Time,” where in classic country fashion she sings, “When I rolled out of town on the unpaved road. I was fifty-seven dollars from being broke,” before crying of packed suitcases, getting job at the prison, buying back the farm and turing back the true hands of time.

What follows is an autobiographical and heartbreaking depiction of life as it unfolded before Margo Price at a crucial time in her life. The magic is that Price succeeds in turning these private, real life events into universal truths that manage to touch the heart of listeners with ease. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a deeply personal album from one of country music’s finest new talents.

Woods: Sun City Eater in the River of Light
Woodsist
Released: April 8, 2016

Nine albums into their career, psychedelic indie troubadours Woods have returned with their strongest effort to date. Contrary to the opinions of some, City Sun Eater in the River of Light is hardly an abrupt departure from their irresistible, signature mellow folk-rock and breezy sound. As a matter of fact, Woods has been in constant motion since they formed as a lo-fi band in Brooklyn back in 2005, centered around founder, lead singer and primary songwriter Jeremy Earl. With their sound largely defined by Earl’s high-pitched, Neil Young-esque vocals, the troupe of loose and jam-happy musicians has consistently searched to evolve and expand their musical horizon.

This constant and consistent journey naturally led into City Sun Eater in the River of Light, where, most notably, the band in their ongoing sonic exploits introduces elements of Ethiopian jazz. All in all, Woods manage yet again to reinvent themselves with a set of tunes magically captured, carefully handled and let loose to live a life eternal.

Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Atlantic Records
Released: April 15, 2016

In 2014, following his enjoyable albeit conventional debut, High Mountain Top (2013), Sturgill Simpson sent a shock-wave through the Nashville establishment with his Dave Cobb-produced sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. With this year’s self-produced, universally-hailed A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, Simpson further proves Cosmic American Music to be the only descriptor that’s broad yet ideologically unified enough to suit his expansive vision.

While ostensibly labeled as country music, Simpson feels free to explore the entirety of the cosmos without justification, guided by his wanderlust fascination with the undefined; or as Son Volt’s Jay Farrar put it: “searching for a truer sound.” As was the case with Gram Parsons in the ’60s and ’70s, “country” simply isn’t big enough for the ambition of Sturgill Simpson.

With its elaborate horn flourishes, soulful breaks, deep, dark corners and soaring finish, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is one of the finest albums of the year, even recently securing an unlikely but deserving Grammy nomination for Album of the Year in a field that includes LPs by Beyoncé, Adele, Drake and Justin Bieber. It’s a beautiful, universal and American record that’s as timeless as it is ahead of its time, and one that demands to be heard from start to finish.

Read our feature article on Sturgill Simpson and Cosmic American Music while listening to this supporting playlist. You can also read our Simpson entry of our column Still Rock and Roll To Me here.

Beyoncé: LEMONADE
Parkwood Entertainment / Columbia
Released: April 23, 2016

Back in February, the Saturday before the Super Bowl, Beyoncé unleashed a strike on the world in the form of a brand new song and video titled “Formation.” Thumping with the bounce beat of New Orleans hip-hop, the Mike Will Made It-produced song features Bey singing about Southern heritage, identity, self love and hot sauce, on top of a whole lotta swaggering and slaying. Backed by such powerful visuals as plantation houses and a sinking police cruiser in a flooded post-Katrina landscape, Beyoncé delivered the heaviest, most politically saturated expression of her career to date, alluding to police brutality, gender, culture, class, history and the greater black experience in today’s America. To put it modestly, she started one hell of a conversation.

On another unsuspecting Saturday in April, Beyoncé released LEMONADE, a visual album based on every woman’s journey of self knowledge and healing, featuring 12 new songs and a corresponding short film. Awe-inspiring, breathtaking and groundbreaking in every way, LEMONADE is not simply an album but a cultural event from the most powerful music star on the planet. “Hey! I’ma keep running. Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves,” Beyoncé sings on the powerful “Freedom.” A winner indeed.

Read about The Formation to Lemonade, and explore our playlists collecting Beyoncé’s Biggest HitsDeep Cuts and Music Videos.

James Blake: The Colour In Anything
Polydor Records
Released: May 6, 2016

On his stunning new record, The Colour In Anything, James Blake perfects his one-of-a-kind sound and manages to expand it with newfound strengths and confidence, all while sounding even subtler than his previous efforts. A master exercise in minimalism, the synths and loops are made to equally important here as silence and breaths. It definitely takes more than one or even ten listening sessions to discover all the brush strokes and layers of The Colour In Anything, which might be what make it so rewarding.

While it’s more of an album to be heard in full than a hit parade, one of the record’s standouts, the Bon Iver collab “I Need A Forest Fire,” is certainly a highlight, harmonizing two beloved voices in the most satisfying of circumstances. Goosebumps guaranteed.

Read our report from James Blake’s last performance at New York’s Webster Hall while listening to our playlist of Blake’s essential songs.

Skepta: Konnichiwa
Boy Better Know
Released: May 6, 2016

Though a relatively new name to many folks on this side of the Atlantic, London rap veteran Skepta has been considered an focal point of the U.K. grime scene for quite some time now. Five years since his last release, Skepta dug deep to rediscover his creativity and the results do not disappoint. Konnichiwa is an album that has truly breathed new life into the grime scene and put the U.K. hip-hop on the international map like never before. Producing 8 of the LP’s 12 tracks himself, the acclaimed album features, among others, Pharrell Williams, Wiley, Novelist and A$AP Mob’s Young Lord and A$AP Nast.

Dig deeper into Skepta and his greater scene with our Skepta Essentials and New U.K. Grime playlists.

KAYTRANADA: 99.9%
HW&W / XL Recordings
Released: May 6, 2016

On KAYTRANADA’s illustrious debut effort, the buzzed-about Haitian-Canadian producer and electronic artist clearly wants to prove something. Very much representative of the eclectic CV he’s racked up while remixing songs by Erykah Badu, Disclosure and Robert Glasper and producing for the likes of Vic Mensa and Chance the Rapper, 99.9% is not true to any one genre. Walking the line on dance-house, electronic, hip-hop and jazz, the music differs significantly from one track to the next, allied primarily by Kay’s unique percussion style.

The album contains a charming variety of guest performances that assist the alteration of styles throughout – be it with R&B men Anderson .Paak and Craig David, electro-pop duo AlunaGeorge or jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD – all of which create equally memorable moments that are entirely distinctive. If there’s any other consistency across the album, which recently napped the Polaris Prize for Canadian Album of the Year, it’s that it’s virtually impossible to sit still through any track.

If you like 99.9% you’ll love our Glowed Up playlist.

ANOHNI: HOPELESSNESS
Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade
Released: May 6, 2016

Following a decorated career leading Antony and the Johnsons, HOPELESSNESS is the electrified full-length solo debut by ANOHNI and one of the most powerful protest albums of recent memory. Not many artists these days sing so bravely and explicitly about the topics that are so painful and current to consider, be it drone warfare, the death penalty, disappointment in the Obama presidency or climate change. Anger, frustration and displeasure are palpable in all of these songs, and ANOHNI somehow manages to make all of those negative feelings sound beautiful.

In a refreshing departure from the downbeat baroque pop of her work with the Johnsons, her otherworldly voice is accompanied here by a electronic-infused music co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Sometimes it’s monumental, experimental and impassioned, other times delicate, sweet and nuanced to makes the razor-sharp lyrics even more distinctive. In both modes, it packs a mighty punch.

Read the ANOHNI edition of our column Still Rock And Roll To Me. Listen to our best of ANOHNI and Antony and the Johnsons playlist here.

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
XL Recordings
Released: May 8, 2016

“I’ll drown my beliefs. To have your babies. I’ll dress like your niece. And wash your swollen feet” sings Thom Yorke on album closer ‘True Love Waits’ off of Radiohead’s triumphant ninth album. It’s a hauntingly beautiful and emotionally raw composition dating back 15 years, wrapping up an record that, from start to finish, simmers with subtle, ethereal, seductive and breathtaking soundscapes and a refreshingly reflective viewpoint previously unobserved in the forward-looking British treasures.

From the gorgeous string arrangements on cuts like “Burn the Witch,” “Daydreaming” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief” to the soulful acoustic shuffle on “Desert Island Disk,” this is yet another gift from one of the most untouchable bands of the last 20 years, and like all their efforts the full extent of it complexity will be revealed only with time.

Enjoy some of our Radiohead-related playlists including The Best of RadioheadThom Yorke’s Guest Appearances and Produced by: Nigel Godrich.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens Of Denial
Matador Records
Released: May 20, 2016

“You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it/ Haven’t seen enough of this world yet/ But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.” So goes the telling first chorus on “Fill In The Blank,” the opening number on Teens of Denial, the titular sequel to Car Seat Headrest’s Madator debut, Teens of Style. Lead by 24-year-old frontman Will Toledo, the prolific Seattle-based four-piece crafts introspective indie rock ‘n’ roll with a vitality and intelligence reminiscent of Pavement or The Strokes at their very best.

Guitar-driven, scrappy and effortlessly catchy, Teens of Denial is easy to appreciate on a sonic level alone, though the album’s true treasures lie in its understated lyrics, made relatable by their keen ability to tap into the down-and-out disillusionment of today’s youth.

Check out our DNA video feature on Car Seat Headrest before watching their fill performance from the TIDAL Stage at this year’s Made In America here.

Chance The Rapper: Coloring Book
Self-Released
Released: May 26, 2016

In contemporary music today, there are few capable of keeping up with Chance The Rapper, a dynamic and genre-bending artist who has managed to consistently bypass the music industry’s most entrenched conventions to tremendous success on both a critical and commercial level. On his latest mixtape, Coloring Book (a.k.a. Chance 3), the 23-year-old independent artist offers his most full-bodied, thoughtful and inspiring project to date, realizing the gospel rap he teased on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” in true totality.

Religious, maturing, grateful and optimistic, Coloring Book perfectly demonstrates Chance’s belief in music as a means for positive social change, putting the progressive and insanely talent young Chicagoan in a lane of his own which can only maybe be compared to that of Kendrick Lamar.

Need more Chance in your life? Us too. Listen to his Guest Verses playlist here. You can also read our Still Rock And Roll To Me column entry on Chance here.

Whitney: Light Upon The Lake
Secretly Canadian
Released: June 3, 2016

Rising from the ashes of the short-lived but well-loved indie band Smith Westerns, Whitney was formed by guitarist Max Kakacek and vocalist/drummer Julien Ehrlich (also formerly of Unknown Mortal Orchestra), and completed by keyboardist Ziyad Asrar and trumpeter Will Miller.

With their debut release, Light Upon The Lake, Whitney offers an instant-classic of a summer album, one that, while being decidedly laid-back, breezy and loose on the surface, is simultaneously thoughtful and deeply introspective. Following in the tradition of L.A.’s 1970s mellow mafia, Light Upon The Lake is a comforting and happy-sad record comprised of crisp and sparkling tunes tailor-made for swirling summer sunsets.

Read our TIDAL Rising Q&A with Whitney’s Julien Ehrlich, where we get to know the fast-rising indie favorites a little better.

William Tyler: Modern Country
Merge Records
Released: June 3, 2016

You might not be familiar with the name William Tyler, but his musical output reaches far into the depths of modern, alternative folk music. Son of the acclaimed songwriter Dan Tyler, young William was born and raised right under shadow of Nashville’s famed Music Row, starting out his own career as a member of Lambchop at the age of 1, and playing with the likes of The Silver Jews, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Charlie Louvin since.

On his fourth solo album, Modern Country, Tyler combines the intricate wonders of his predecessors with a more accessible melodic sensibility. It’s worth noting that Modern Country is also the first album that Tyler has made outside of Nashville. Leaving town for Oxford, Mississippi, William Tyler stayed in the neighborhood of another famous William, Faulkner that is, and wrote songs that captured the essence of a vanishing America, drawing from the sounds of back roads, small towns and crackling AM radios.

As Faulkner did in his novels, Tyler introduces the listener to an impressive and colorful cast of characters, including Phil Cook (Hiss Golden Messenger, Blind Boys of Alabama), bassist Darin Gray (Tweedy, Jim O’Rourke) and percussionist Glenn Kotche (Wilco). But unlike the other Willam, Tyler lets the music speak for itself and thus, his stories are without words. Yet even in instrumental form, William Tyler’s work proves more communicative than that of most singer-songwriters out there today.

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Read Part 2 of our Favorite Albums of 2016 here.

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