It’s hard to think of another year in music that has felt so much like watching an extended “in memoriam” reel. The year “2016” itself has become a kind of shorthand for the deaths of beloved artists, deaths that hardly feel like surprises anymore. Even so, a year that was marked by the loss of icons like David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen also a witnessed a remarkable amount of innovation. From the deeply personal to the stridently political, the best albums of 2016 are a comforting reminder of how much talent continues to shine.
10. Tove Lo – Lady Wood
Grunge-inspired dancepop may sound like an oxymoron, but if there was anyone who could pull it off it would be Tove Lo. The Swedish artist once again set out to impress and provoke with Lady Wood, an album in two parts that explores the highs — followed by the lows — of an uninhibited approach to life. On the surface it may resemble much of the rest of the synthpop on the radio, but Lo’s second album brims with a confidence, artistry and sense of ownership that is uniquely her own.
9. Rihanna – ANTI
Rihanna could have kept making the same club-ready music we’ve come to expect. Instead, she gave us ANTI, turning in a direction more cerebral but no less fierce. Aside from the single “Work,” the album’s pace was much slower than what we have come to expect, giving her plenty of room to deliver subtle barbs against those who have hurt her. Her confidence and swagger are fully present, somehow having become even more intense for being slowed down.
8. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange is totally at home in the neo-psychedelic fog of her latest album. As her voice rises triumphantly and falls back into a slow burn over heavy synths, she interrogates her own past as well as that of her country. A Seat at the Table is known to be a meditation on (and celebration of) the experience of black womanhood, but one has to wonder whether Solange is also seeking a seat at the table her older sister has long sat at the head of. With her best album yet, it’s safe to say that the younger Knowles sister has made that place for herself.
7. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town
Country music is having a girl power moment. A year that saw releases from icons like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn also saw Clark release an impressive second album, and in doing so bring her craft to ever greater heights. Big Day in a Small Town is full of tracks that represent Clark at her wittiest, rawest and most ambitious yet, all carried by her strong voice and the talent for stark, insightful songwriting that marked her 2013 debut. Along with Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, Clark represents a wave of younger female artists reinvigorating and redefining the genre, snubs from the CMAs be damned.
6. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
If Freetown Sound is any indication, Dev Hynes’s leap from indie rock to alt-R&B has paid off spectacularly. The artist formerly known as Lightspeed Champion and now as Blood Orange shines on this intensely autobiographical album. Freetown Sound spans his father’s birthplace in Sierra Leone to his childhood in London to his adopted home in New York City and recounts his experience as a young, queer black man. Hynes’s celebration and proud affirmation of his own identity is at the heart of the album, which he dedicated in an Instagram post to anyone who was ever told that they were “not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.”
5. Shura – Nothing’s Real
While Shura has already proved her talent for crafting a pop single, her debut LP proves she is just as capable of crafting an album that glistens from beginning to end. Nothing’s Real is a hazy callback to the sounds of the eighties, copping influences from glampop and early Madonna. Still, Shura does more than just riff on nostalgia — she makes it her own. Even in its up-tempo moments, Nothing’s Real is intimate and melancholy, suffused with a sense of longing and wonder, and a maturity that marks the album as one of the most impressive debuts of the year.
4. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Beset by delays, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow up to Channel Orange was beginning to look like it might never arrive. Once Blonde finally dropped, we finally had some indication why. The album is meticulously crafted down to its tiniest details, expertly produced and merits multiple listens. Ocean’s lyrics are internally contradictory and his intent is often hard to pin down, although this is appropriate for a record that above all else confronts the slipperiness of identity. As Blonde deals with the uncertainties of the present and the complicated nature of memory, its tone moves abruptly between manic and subdued, hopeful and uncertain, embracing the past one moment and recoiling from it the next. For an album this good, a few delays can be forgiven.
3. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Beyoncé was never one to mince words, but the surprise visual album Lemonade found her at her most defiant and furious yet. Personal as the subject matter might be at its core, it speaks to more universal feelings of hurt and scorn, of a vulnerability betrayed. Along with a raw, cathartic anger, the album also represents her most polished and ambitious work yet. Hear me roar, she seemed to say, and then hear me take a baseball bat to all your expectations.
2. Tanya Tagaq – Retribution
Comparisons to Björk, while inevitable, do no justice to Tanya Tagaq. The Inuk throat singer’s fourth studio album Retribution is at once musically adventurous and starkly political, blending her throat singing with an eclectic array of instrumentation into an intense, visceral, and at times disturbing call to arms. It is no coincidence that this album came out in a year that saw Native American activists gather en masse in North Dakota in defiance of an encroaching pipeline, while up north, her home country grappled with the shameful legacy of its Aboriginal residential schools. At a time when the world faces profound uncertainty as political and environmental crises loom on the horizon, Tagaq taps into currents of anger, frustration and fear, giving them powerful expression in a way no other artist can.
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
An excellent album on its own merits, Bowie’s final album is dark, complex and multilayered, full of meditations on loss and impermanence, as well as plenty of cryptic references and callbacks to his long career. It is impossible, however, to separate the album’s content from the circumstances of its release, just two days before Bowie’s unexpected death at the age of 69. His passing began a year that would turn out to be punctuated by the deaths of many celebrated artists, but for his fans, it was a small comfort to know that he left behind a parting gift that was every bit as unique and eclectic as he was. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting capstone to the career of a pop icon who sought to challenge, upend and reinvent until the very end.
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