2016 Album Superlatives: The Year in Music

While 2016 proved to be quite a savage year, taking the lives of legends like David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, it still paved the way for some outstanding music by and large. The year brought triumphant returns, brave departures, grand finales, broken records and so much promise, each of which served a significant purpose in shaping that moment in time. Of course, we’re expecting as much of a fruitful year in 2017 with long-anticipated albums from The Shins, Vampire Weekend, HAIM and St. Vincent (to name a few). Until then, here are some notable releases from the last year to tide you over.

Most Likely To Give You Closure With 2016: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service,” A Tribe Called Quest

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Image via Complex

In a year rife with the passing of exceptional artists, A Tribe Called Quest powered through recording their final album after losing founding member Phife Dawg in the process. With the release of “We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service,” Tribe return to the hip hop game with the jazz-laced beats and self-possessed flow that solidified their status as innovators in the early ‘90s, all while confronting more current sociopolitical issues. As they examine America’s future, Tribe expertly samples the works of performers who died in 2016 (Gene Wilder’s eerie boat song from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is featured in the opening track; The synth drum from Prince & The Revolution’s “When Doves Cry” carries the beat on “Melatonin”) to augment the gravity of each track. For their grand exit, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jacobi White tapped some of the hottest names in hip hop — including Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Talib Kweli — along with Jack White to lend his hand on guitar. 

Most Likely To Help You Survive 2017: Coloring Book,” Chance the Rapper   

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Image via Genius

While 2016 might’ve sucked for most people, it was certainly a banner year for independent hip hop artist Chance the Rapper. With the release of his third mixtape “Coloring Book,” the 23-year-old Chicago native explores old demons (prescription drug addiction) and new hopes (his daughter and growing family) while buoyed by an unabashed union of hip hop and gospel music. On every track, Chance weaves nimble rhymes around upbeat, soulful melodies that are drenched in brass, strings and choir harmonies. Some of the standout tracks, such as “Same Drugs,” “Finish Line/Drown” and both “Blessings,” capture an ardor often heard in church hymns, but it can easily translate to a packed arena with its humility and universality intact. In the wake of his mixtape’s critical success, Chance earned his first spot on the Billboard 200, seven Grammy nominations — making him the first unsigned artist with a streaming-only title to be considered — and top billing for this year’s Governors Ball Music Festival. All in all, it’s an underdog story that would inspire even the saltiest cynic.

Most Likely To Remind You Prince Can’t Truly Die: Awaken, My Love!” Childish Gambino

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Image via Pitchfork

Much like his frequent collaborator Chance, actor and singer Donald Glover staked a claim in 2016 for his return to the mainstream. Aside from creating and starring in last year’s breakout FX show Atlanta, Glover — performing under the stage name Childish Gambino — dropped his third studio album “Awaken, My Love!” in early December. Deviating from his earlier hip hop records, Gambino croons his way into a sultry mix of ‘70s funk, late ‘80s R&B and psychedelic pop that evokes notes of Parliament and Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times.” Gambino instantly sets a heady mood with the singles “Me And Your Mama” and “Redbone” that it feels almost imperative to dim the lights before listening to his album in full. (It’s optional to listen by yourself, but recommended to do it with a partner.)

Best Alternative For Keeping You Warm During Cuffing Season: 22, A Million,” Bon Iver

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Image via Genius

The only way to describe indie band Bon Iver’s latest release “22, A Million” is by comparing it to wearing a wool sweater on a winter day: replete with static and comfort. In a slight departure from his folk roots, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon embraces a heavier use of synths and autotune over acoustic guitars, banjos and woodwinds, creating a colder tonality for his lyrics of longing and alienation (“Not sure what forgiveness is / We’ve galvanized the squall of it all / I can leave behind the harbour”). The group’s third album is imbued with such a sonic decadence that each song must bleed into the other to not disturb the soundscape. It would ruin the experience to favor just one track off the record, so it’s advised to listen in its entirety.

Freshest Face: Teens of Denial,” Car Seat Headrest

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Image via Bandcamp

If you took one look at Will Toledo, the 24-year-old frontman and founder of garage rock outfit Car Seat Headrest, you could easily mistake him for the college sophomore who always loiters around your campus radio studio. Before emerging onto the indie scene last year with the band’s first label release, “Teens of Denial,” Toledo had spent six years perfecting his lo-fi style in the vein of The Strokes. On the record, Toledo’s vocals sound reminiscent of Julian Casablancas’ listless yawping, except they are supported by more profound harmonies with an anxious yet snarky tone (“This isn’t sex, I don’t think, it’s just extreme empathy”). Each song is rooted in sloping chord progressions and shrill distortions that intensify the driving drumbeat, often feeding off each other in a mischievous dynamic. While the band continues to wrack up praise for its first studio album, Car Seat Headrest has proven its status as one of the most promising acts out of 2016.   

Most Depressing Album: Blackstar,” David Bowie

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Image via Billboard

Two days before his surprising death, glam rock icon David Bowie released his twenty-fifth (and consequently final) album “Blackstar,” which received a widespread response of both celebration and grief. On the seven-song LP, the Starman returns to humble beginnings as he calls on a lone acoustic guitar, a sleepy sax and a keyboard to orchestrate his exploration of demise and legacy. Bowie’s strained vocals exude both physical and spiritual anguish — most notably on the third track “Lazarus” — that only seemed to resonate once he passed. However, one year after his death, Bowie continues to live on through his classics and even posthumous releases. On Sunday, which would’ve been his 70th birthday, Bowie’s very final recordings were released on a new EP titled “No Plan”, along with a video by the same name, to honor the late rock legend. Read our tribute to David Bowie here.

Most Likely to Make You Dance Even If Everybody’s Watching: Side Pony,” Lake Street Dive

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Image via Paste Magazine

It’s almost impossible to pin down the genre of Lake Street Dive, a group of four friends that studied together at the New England Conservatory of Music. What’s more, the band’s fifth album, “Side Pony” — its first release on Nonesuch Records — makes it blissfully harder. The quartet emulates the blithe energy of an early ‘60s pop group while tipping its cap to the cool rhythms of jazz, soul and funk. At the helm, lead singer Rachael Price strongarms each lyric with a powerhouse voice all her own, demonstrating a versatile range with ease and attitude (“Spectacular Failure” and “Hell Yeah” are prime examples). Despite its stylistic ambiguity, Lake Street Dive offers an hourlong dance party on “Side Pony” that’s even more fun when performed live.

Most Likely To Teach You That Patience Is A Virtue: Blonde,” Frank Ocean

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Image via Pitchfork

It’s often said that good things come to those who wait (albeit impatiently), and Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” is no exception. After a four year hiatus — one year later than promised — the R&B crooner independently released his 17-song record last August without his label’s involvement on Apple Music. Similar to his debut album, “Channel Orange,” Ocean returns to deliver earnest odes to unrequited loves, but this time on a more stripped down note (“Self Control”). For “Godspeed” and “Solo,” Ocean is accompanied by an organ that invokes a sense of comfort and innocence as he explores his own coming-of-age story about sexuality and self-love. While it might’ve taken a while, Ocean’s heart-wrenching return will surely give you all the feels. (Seriously, if you don’t smile from that sample of birds chirping on “Pink + White,” then you might not have a soul.) 

Want to add another album to the list? Leave your suggestions in the comments. 

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