by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Top 10 Albums of 2016

December 29, 2016

In a year most of us would rather forget for one reason or another, 2016 was welcomingly giving when it came to dispensing albums from some of both this and last century’s greatest performers. The sheer wealth of material this year means fantastic work like Leonard Cohen’s swan song, Young Thug’s most cohesive effort to date, and The Avalanches nearly two-decades-in-the-making second album won’t get the expanded treatment here, while they likely would have in any recent year. But if that is the sacrifice we face in order to get a year full of singular, visionary artists delivering career-best albums, we’ll gladly endure. Luke Gorham

22-a-million10What Bon Iver accomplishes with 22, a Million is a feeling of organic terminus: the tendrils of the album reach back through time and reframe Justin Vernon’s first two efforts with this band as evolutionary snapshots, a context that allows for a feat few folk artists in recent memory have managed. Vernon here completes a transition from fragile acoustic strumming (2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago) to an exploratory formlessness—song structures are fragmented, his ethereal falsetto further warped. The music’s concern for chaos is mirrored in the lyrics: Vernon has always preferred impressionistic catharsis to exegesis, and his yearnings on 22 are predominantly existential. Songs layer musings on religion and relationships with questions of permanence and purpose, from the digitized crooning of the album’s opening track (“it might be over soon…”) to the Fionn Regan sample of its closer (“the days have no numbers”). LG

freetown-sound9. “I did not grow up to be you/But I did grow up to be me.” If 2016 reminded us of the more toxic worldviews that plague our reality, us and their increasing popularity, Dev Hynes, under his Blood Orange moniker, crafted a lush platform for acceptance, a shelter from such harmful ideologies. Freetown Sound uses a large assortment of vocal talent, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Nelly Furtado, for a mixture of R&B electro-pop that blends a unique vision of the post-To Pimp a Butterfly soundscape of personalized black identity. “Best to You,” a duet with Empress Of that probes different levels of acceptance in relationships, highlights this beautiful search for individuality with zero judgment or discrimination. In a world of obstruction and intolerance, it’s relieving to find somebody like Hynes still making music with the intention of creating dialogues. Paul Attard

real-midnight8.  The doomsday clock is ticking almost from the start: “Tomorrow’s on you like a pack of wild hounds,” the first song goes. But then, a couple of lines later: “Hold on tight, don’t let your baby go.Real Midnight is a record about how good things end and the apocalypse comes—if not now, then at least tomorrow. We’re born to die, but what do we do in the meantime? That’s what these songs concern themselves with, and what makes them celebratory rather than morbid: That all of this is finite gives meaning and urgency to the important work of singing and dancing, loving and forgiving. Formally, Birds of Chicago‘s second long player recalls prime Van Morrison; the group is committed to folk idioms but also threaten to burn them to the ground. This is really a pop record—notice how propulsive the hooks are, how economic the lyrics—but it draws on big gospel harmonies for its power. It’s an album to sing along with—at least while we still have time. Josh Hurst

american-tunes7.  That Allen Toussaint was an American composer, producer, and arranger without peer is something no one will dispute, or at least no one who’s familiar with his seminal body of work from the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Check The Allen Toussaint Collection, an unsurpassed stack of smooth, elegant, and righteously groovy sides from the man’s prime solo records.) That he was also an idiosyncratic pianist and imaginative interpreter of the canon is something that wasn’t really on evidence until he teamed with producer Joe Henry for the legacy-expanding The Bright Mississippi, a mystic swirl of classic Nola tunes released in 2009. American Tunes, AT’s posthumous masterwork, is that album’s scruffier big brother, a patchwork mosaic of American folk that nimbly pivots from classical orchestrations to bawdy, barrelhouse blues. Like everything Toussaint did, the album cheerfully abides contrasts and paradoxes: It’s low-brow and sophisticated; earthy and transcendent. JH

blackstar6Blackstar provides the final chapter in David Bowie’s legacy, yet it does not rest on it. Following a few albums of assured craft—including Bowie’s perfectly enjoyable comeback, The Next Day, which telegraphed its classicist bent with its very cover art—this swan song finds the artist reconnecting with his adventurer’s zeal, making a cagy, exploratory, and at times chaotic album that’s unlike anything else in his catalog. There is great catharsis in hearing him lose himself in sound and vision, and it’s that gusto for uncharted territory that makes the lyrics—riddles, allegories, signposts pointing toward the final curtain he knew was coming—bittersweet and exhilarating. At the end of the line, Bowie preferred outer space to creature comforts; to leave us bewildered and hungry for more. JH

coloring-book5. While perhaps not quite surpassing The Life of Pablo in depth of vision, with his third mixtape, Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper opts for a smorgasbord of styles instead—from the sweaty R&B crooning of “Juke Jam” to the melancholy synth and traps of “Summer Friends” to the propulsive speed beat of “All Night.” Outside of a number of gospel-inspired tracks, few of the songs here inform each other aurally, instead relying on Chance’s freeform interpretations of theme (and his dense metaphors) to bind them. Whether Chance is riffing on Peter Pan in his piano-laced ballad of young love (“Same Drugs”) or is waxing poetic on blunt-smoking as allegory for some much-needed TLC in a relationship (“Smoke Break”), his lyrics are consistently surprising and insightful, a far cry from the more freewheeling concerns of his first two tapes. Kanye described TLOP as “a gospel album with a whole lot of cursing on it,” but it’s actually Coloring Book that comes closest to embodying that description. A deeply personal album, preoccupied with questions of God, humanity, the past, and the future, this is Chance’s singularly panoramic look at the world through his own eyes, both intimate and epic, hopeful and melancholy. LG

we-got-it-from-here4. The best thing we can say about 2016 is that it’s ending; its days are numbered. Very high on the list, though, is that hip-hop luminaries A Tribe Called Quest put aside their differences and reconnected, and even in the face of tragedy turned out their greatest ever album: We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, cryptically named by the late, great Phife Dawg. It’s both a bonus and an inextricable truth that these three MCs and one DJ reemerge as prescient and tuned-in to the cultural moment as ever on their swan song opus, speaking with authority for “We the People….” (“we don’t believe you!“) and “Dis Generation” (“you could get it, get it, get it today“); all throughout, sounding as palpably angry about, and disenchanted with, modern times as the rest of us. Sam C. Mac

lemonade3. It’s rare when popularity and talent are able to sync up quite so perfectly. Beyoncé continues to prove her dominance not just as a pop-star, but as one of the finest artists working in the music industry. Lemonade takes some of Queen B’s established tropes of success (surprise release? Check. Visual album? Check.) and continues to push the limits of her forward-thinking sound. From the country twang of “Daddy’s Lessons” to the bombastic electric guitar of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé’s multifaceted sixth album combines the anger of betrayal with the power that comes from a desire for liberation, blending all its emotions together to craft a grand manifesto on black womanhood in the 21st century. There’s a surprising vulnerability to the openness of feeling Bey allows for here, letting all the secrets and lies pour out in a fury of rage (“I don’t wanna lose my pride, but I’m a fuck me up a bitch”) and hopelessness (“What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?”). And the result is as bold a personal statement as it is a political one. PA

blond2. One minute, Frank Ocean’s follow-up to Channel Orange was a hypothetical object of intense online speculation; the next, it was real, or at least as real as an album can be in 2016: barely existing in physical form, only available to hear as supplement to a limited-run art magazine or via digital subscription service. The stream is a fitting format for Blonde’s lush torrent of deeply felt ephemera, which finds the artist formerly known as Christopher Breaux doubling down on his breakthrough’s fragmentary nature; he moves further from song structures, beats, and linear storytelling toward a fluid consciousness, winding through poolside convos, cheap vacations, and saved voicemails. The music is largely ambient, beautiful, meticulously textured and characterized by a narrative voice that slips boundlessly back and forth in time and between memories and dreams. Orange opened with the sound of Ocean coming home and firing up his old Playstation; on Blonde’s gutting “Seigfried,” Ocean raises his voice to cry, “I’d rather live outside!” This album seems to live outside of everything: narratives that music media would like to pin on Ocean, the expectations of his fans, labels, genres, and forms. In a New York Times interview, Ocean likened his approach to “collage or bricolage…We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.” On Blonde, these flashes are abundant yet fleeting, at times even mystifying, and always dazzling. Alex Engquist

life-of-pablo1. After the most frustrating rollout of the year, the final version of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo feels like the “album of a life” its creator describes it as. Following the gorgeous, gospel infused “Ultralight Beam,” Kanye turns his attention to his own redemption for nearly the whole album, struggling with the worst aspects of his lifestyle before finding salvation in his wife, his children and, finally, in himself. Though it’s not entirely cohesive and Kanye’s year of loudly expressed toxic views leaves a bad taste, Pablo reasserts its euphoric vice grip whenever it threatens to exhaust. Every moment is inimitable, even as Kanye pulls from a vast pool of influences, repurposes “Panda” as a feature and offers a phone call from Max B. as an interlude. That the album sounds like it’s pulling itself in twenty different directions is an asset, not a bug. The Life of Pablo fascinates because it’s constantly trying to figure itself out. Twelve years after The College Dropout, so is Kanye. Chris Mello