A lot happened in music this year. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died, but not before they each left behind one last album. Both Beyonce and Solange Knowles examined the experience of black women in 2016, and made some great music in the process. Kanye West released an album, then changed it, redefining the album in the age of streaming.
The year isn’t over yet, but it already seems like we’ll look back on 2016 as an important year for music. Here are ten of the best albums that defined the year.
- Car Seat Headrest — “Teens of Denial”
Gone is most of the low-fi charm of Car Seat Headrest frontman Will Toledo’s early work, but “Teens of Denial’s” dynamic songwriting and intriguing lyrics makes it the band’s most well-rounded album to date and one of the best rock albums of the year.
“Teens of Denial” reaffirms what anyone who listened to Car Seat Headrest’s previous work already knew: Toledo is one of the best rock songwriters around, and at just 24 years old, he is just getting started.
- Danny Brown — “Atrocity Exhibition”
“Atrocity Exhibition” is not an easy listen. Danny Brown’s demons, addiction and depression are on full display here, delivered over some wild and weird instrumentals that only Brown could make work. On “When It Rain,” Brown raps, “You ain’t heard it like this before,” an accurate description of “Atrocity Exhibition.”
Most of the beats on here seem almost impossible to rap over, like the insane horn instrumental of “Ain’t It Funny.” Brown somehow manages to make it work with his unique delivery and flow, making this abrasive, experimental album one of the most impressive hip-hop releases of the year.
- Mitski — “Puberty 2”
“Puberty 2” is a deeply personal album, one that sees Mitski trying to find happiness. After an album full of breakups and heartbreak, Mitski realizes this goal might be impossible, singing on the final track, “I’m tired of wanting more … I’ll love some littler things.”
“Your Best American Girl” is the standout track and easily one of the best songs of the year. Like much of “Puberty 2,” it is a devastating song about heartbreak and loss with just a hint of hope.
- Anderson .Paak — “Malibu”
There’s a lot to like on “Malibu” — Anderson .Paak’s soulful voice, great songwriting, standout features and grooves that are impossible not to nod along to.
.Paak had a lot of help on the album, with features and production coming from some of the best artists in hip-hop, including DJ Khalil, Madlib, Kaytranada and Schoolboy Q, to name a few. That much input can sometimes be overpowering, but .Paak’s voice and lyrics never fall to the background.
- Solange — “A Seat at the Table”
On “A Seat at the Table,” Solange paints a complex portrait of being a black woman in 2016, a role that comes with unrelenting challenges, but not without pride. Solange called “A Seat at the Table” a punk record, and as with all good punk records, it is unapologetic and angry.
On songs like “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” Solange makes her personal experiences a political statement, delivered over excellent R&B instrumentals. Though the music is great, Solange’s voice and message are always the focus.
- Frank Ocean — “Blonde”
Following up his 2012 release “Channel Orange,” Frank Ocean returns with a more reserved and introspective album that solidifies his place as one of the most creative pop artists of his generation. “Blonde” sees Ocean trade in hip-hop-inspired beats for finger-picked guitars and pianos, creating beautiful and subtle instrumentals to sing over.
Ocean’s lyrics are more reserved as well this time around with the New Orleans-born artist focusing on many of the same themes of “Channel Orange” but in a more personal and nuanced way. On “Channel Orange,” many of Ocean’s songs focus on characters and narratives, but the characters are gone in “Blonde.” All that’s left is Frank Ocean in all his complexities, contradictions and confusion.
- Jeff Rosenstock — “WORRY.”
The album cover of Jeff Rosenstock’s latest pop-punk album is a photo from Rosenstock’s wedding with a man dancing, looking completely carefree, juxtaposed with the album title, “WORRY.” This theme carries on throughout the album, as Rosenstock delivers song after song of conflicting emotions.
“WORRY.” is filled with plenty of catchy melodies and some great punk music, but the lyrics are what make this album great. Rosenstock has a way of writing simple lines that become profound personal or political statements.
Rosenstock is still trying to figure life out, and listening to him trying to do so over 37 minutes of catchy pop-punk is one of the most fun and intriguing listens of the year.
- Angel Olsen — “My Woman”
On “My Woman’s” opening track, “Intern,” Angel Olsen sings, “I just want to be alive and make something real.” In a year when many artists made albums focusing on politics and social issues to varying degrees of success, “My Woman” is the work of an artist focusing solely on herself and her craft.
Though “My Woman” contains an impressive array of musical styles, the album is cohesive. From hook-driven rock, like in “Shut Up Kiss Me,” to piano ballads, as in “Pops,” Olsen’s soaring voice and brilliant songwriting are present on every track.
“My Woman” is 10 hard-hitting songs with no filler or time to catch your breath. It’s an album that will leave you exhausted but with plenty to think about.
- David Bowie — “Blackstar”
“Blackstar” is unfortunately the last album by David Bowie, an artist whose influence on music and culture is immeasurable. Bowie released “Blackstar” on his 69th birthday before dying of liver cancer two days later on Jan. 10. Tony Visconti, who produced the album, said, “His death was no different than his life — a work of Art.”
Bowie has always been a pioneer, and on “Blackstar,” his 25th studio album, he continues to experiment and create new sounds, blending elements of jazz, electronic, pop and rock to create music that pushes the boundaries of genre.
Bowie makes references to his death throughout the album, and “Lazarus,” the lead single, became akin to a eulogy after his death. The song opens with Bowie singing, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” a line that didn’t reveal its meaning until Jan. 10.
- A Tribe Called Quest — “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your service”
Although “We Got It from Here” is A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years, the group clearly hasn’t lost its mojo. From the opening track, it’s obvious that this comeback album isn’t a cash grab — Tribe is back, and it has something to say.
This is arguably Tribe’s most political album with a number of the songs revolving around some of today’s most pressing social issues: racism and homophobia on “We the People…,” police killings of black men on “The Killing Season” and gentrification on “The Space Program,” to name a few.
Q-Tip and Jarobi are still at the top of their game, as was Phife, though he dies before the album’s release. Tribe’s signature creative wordplay and great verses still astound listeners as they pop up throughout the record. Add Q-Tip’s warm, jazzy production and features from both today’s best hip-hop artists, like Kendrick Lamar, and yesterday’s, like Busta Rhymes, and “We Got It from Here” is one of the best-sounding and most engaged hip-hop releases of the year.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified the man on the cover of “WORRY.” as Jeff Rosenstock. That was inaccurate, and the story has been updated to reflect the correction.