By now, if you read lots of music website, you will have been bombarded with a relentless onslaught of year-end content. Most of these lists and rankings revert to a similar mean. Most came out by the beginning of December (and keep getting pushed up), which risked excluding many late year albums, but the majority of 2016's best came out in the beginning of the year. This may not be all that new, but we think there are a few surprises from us. Read on if you dare.
This is why you wait until the very end of the year to do these lists. There is the possibility that someone might just put out an album that will catapult themselves into best of the year lists. It can be difficult to judge album without being able to see its impact on the entire year, but with Kid Cudi, this feels like the triumphant culmination of a very tumultuous 2016.
After busting on the experimental Speedin Bullet To Heaven, he found his groove again with Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin. Some may categorize it as the third Man on the Moon album and they wouldn't be totally wrong, as this LP draws on many of the same themes and sounds from those seminal albums. However, the expansive album builds on something new with uptempo hip-hip and funky production. It tells a story of despair, independence, love and eventual hope for the future. These aren't new themes, but they are put together in a uniquely Cudi way that makes this album his best in years.
9. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Though Anderson .Paak was on his way to becoming a star at the end of 2015 with some big collaborations, notably as a part of Dr. Dre's Compton, it was Malibu that cemented his place as the breakout artist of 2016.
His voice immediately stands out in a crowded field of rappers and r&b crossover artists. As the internet hastens the rise and fall of acts, .Paak seems to have a recipe of musicality, songwriting and image that translates. Malibu is the culmination of all of that work, with a star-studded album on which .Paak grows exponentially as an artist.
8. Solange - A Seat at the Table:
Solange has spent her career in the shadow of her big sister Beyoncé and it felt like she was trying to reach for those heights immediately on her first album Solo Star. She started to transition to something she felt more comfortable with a more subdued r&b sound with hip-hop, jazz and blues influences on her second record. This transition continues and feels much more complete on A Seat at the Table.
Fans and critics did not know what to expect from this LP after an eight-year wait between albums and an admittedly tough time recording the music she wanted. However A Seat at the Table feels like an authentic and personal portrayal of her life and what she sees in the world. It isn't always pretty, but there is a power to this that resonates with the listener.
7. A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
18 years in between albums is almost unheard of in music, but A Tribe Called Quest Did It did it. The LP contains verses from recently deceased MC Phife Dawg and can be partially seen as a tribute to him. There are some poignant homages to Phife, but what really makes this album great is that it feels like Tribe haven't lost their touch but rather kept up with the times and reshaped it in their own model.
Tribe keeps their political touch and sharp rhymes, taking on current issues such as immigration, racism and much more. They keep the same classic beats that one expects from Tribe and don't give into over-emphasized snare rolls and synths.
It is an album that has the legs to be huge in 2016 without giving into the trappings that modern music can force artists to try. It remains uniquely Tribe, but ready for 2016 and beyond.
6. Beyonce - Lemonade:
In a year of continued civil unrest in the United States, Beyoncé became a voice for black women who were tired of being ignored, put down and disenfranchised. She spoke with anger, retribution at a potential infidelity by Jay Z and pride of being a black woman.
At times she would be as blunt as possible like on "Sorry" proclaiming, "I've had enough," or during the visual for Lemonade, where she famously smashed a line of cars with a baseball bat. The album had a logical, heady flow to it for a pop-r&b LP, noting the issues that effect her and women like her, then provide hope for them and provide the ultimate call to action on the addictive "Formation," demanding the "get into formation."
The image that comes to mind is her political statement at the Super Bowl where she got into formation in Black Panther-styled garb and has since used her voice to support black lives matter and other African American movements. This album had the right message for the right time.
5. Frank Ocean - Blonde:
Another artist on this list who made a return after several years of solitude, Frank Ocean surprised the world when he released not one, but two albums in succession. Channel Orange is what introduced most of the world to Frank, but Blonde is the album that has cemented his superstar status as an artist.
He may be generally pigeonholed as an r&b singer, but there is much more to Blonde than just traditional r&b. He incorporates ambient electronic, indie rock, hip-hop and experimental mixtures of each. Even with the several skits designed to provide commentary on society today and delve a little further into his upbringing, the album flows seamlessly from start to finish. It is contemplative and melancholic, representing the man singing.
This was one of music's great heroes final gift to the world. He knew he was losing a battle with cancer and at the end of it wanted to leave the world with one final musical note. There was a biblical symbolism to the LP, recalling the story of Lazarus and predicting his impending death.
He wasn't so overt as to spell out his own death in the LP, he was much more subtle in his songwriting. Bowie has been one of the better storytellers in modern pop and rock music since he began putting out records in the late 1960s. It is as anti-pop as he has ever been and the constantly evolving artist did it once again in his final chapter. It was one final stroke of brilliance from Bowie.
Blackstar helped introduce or reintroduce younger fans to the genius and eccentricities of Bowie just as much as his death.
3. Kaytranada - 99%:
Kaytranada isn't just another producer putting out some collection of beats with some random raps and vocals slapped on top with 99.9%. Kaytranada collaborated with a carefully selected group of artists like Anderson .Paak, Carl Craig, River Tiber and BADBADNOTGOOD. There is a special chemistry with each of these collaborators, either vocalists or producers, where Kaytranada shifts his sound to the strengths of his featured artists, but still manages to keep the central theme of the album intact.
The album title represents the fact that he is still not complete as a person and never done improving. Though this was his official debut, there have been plenty of mixtapes, EPs and unofficial projects in the past. 99.9% is the most complete project we have seen from Kaytranada and the best in 2016 we saw from a producer in any genre. It was cohesive and gripping all the way through without any lulls on the instrumentals.
2. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
His first album in five years, Bon Iver came back and showed exactly why he beat out J. Cole, Nicki Minaj and Skrillex for Best New Artist at the Grammys in 2012. 22, A Million was soft, meaningful, impactful and just the write sound that the end of the year needed.
It shifts back and forth between sad, mournful lyrics about loss and beautiful production soaring between proclamations of love, self-doubt and anxiety. Iver also embraces the future with autotune on "10 d E A T h b R E a s T." Exploring deeply personal stories in his life, Bon Iver fashioned a complex album that advanced who he is an artist and brought new elements to soft indie folk.
1. Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
2016 was an all around a terrible year. We lost too many music legends, Prince, Leonard Cohen, the aforementioned Bowie and so many others. But one highlight was the emergence of Chance the Rapper. He has eschewed the major label system his entire career and it has worked out so far. He has landed late night TV gigs, major festival slots and put out an incredibly successful album with big name features. These are supposed to be things that the machine has a monopoly on, but he is making his own machine to operate in and become wildly successful.
Coloring Book has been the culmination of his work as a mixtape artist and "going legit." It has the narrative of his independence that isn't anything new, but he tells it in a way that still sounds refreshing. There are elements of soul and gospel, blended in to his instrumentals as he pours out his heart for Chicago, god and lovers. Chance the Rapper wears his heart on his sleeve and Coloring Book is his manifesto. He has shown everyone how to draw outside the lines with his special Coloring Book.