With only a few days left in 2016, it’s easy to reflect on the amount of loss we’ve experienced in the art world. Iconic artists have slipped from our grasp, though some not without leaving us with a new album to remember them by.
That being said, let’s take a step back from the loss that music has endured this year, and take at some of the best music that was gifted to us in 2016. Here is our list of the year’s best albums.
Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Dr. Dre disciple Anderson .Paak took an original approach to telling tales of a troubled past filled with family turmoil. Piano keys and synths blend together perfectly behind Paak’s soulful voice. It’s soul, funk, jazz, blues, and one helluva of a formal introduction to the the 30-year-old California native.
Angel Olsen — My Woman
Angel Olsen’s follow-up to 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness is the indie singer-songwriter’s finest work to date. It’s both intimate and expansive. It’s Olsen at her best, working in some synths, delivering catchy numbers like “Never Be Mine”, and baring it all on an eight-minute opus of a single “Sister.”
Band of Horses — Why Are You OK
BOH’s last full-length Mirage Rock (2012) was largely a live off-the-floor attempt at loose, breezy roots-rock. Frontman Ben Bridwell was publicly self-critical of the release which led to a completely new process to their latest album. Enlisting the help of Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle at the production helm, Why Are You Ok? is a highly constructed soundscape and is also the bands best record since their 2005 breakthrough Everything All The Time.
Beyonce — Lemonade
Lemonade‘s release was accompanied by a one-hour film that aired on HBO that completely blew anyone watching away. The visual album itself is intense and haunted with commentary and themes on black womanhood, racism, gender, infidelity, and power imbalances between partners. Lemonade is one of Beyonce’s most moving and powerful works yet.
Bon Iver — 22, A Million
One of the year’s most anticipated releases was Justin Vernon’s third album under the Bon Iver moniker, the first since his 2011 self-titled album took over the music world. This album found Vernon taking a more experimental approach to songwriting, incorporating a lot more of the vocal processing, sampling, looping and other electronic elements he’s played with in the past. 22, A Million sounds nothing like previous Bon Iver releases, yet incredibly it is still instantly recognizable as a Bon Iver record.
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
On the surface, Chance’s motivation seems very simplistic: Make music fun again. He succeeds, but it’s hardly a simple exercise. The Chicago-based artist pours his everything into his latest “mixtape,” enlisting the likes of Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Future, Kirk Franklin, and Jeremih to pull it all off. If Chance the Rapper threw up a flag with his guest turn on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam,” then Coloring Book represents the 23-year-old planting it firmly atop the mountain.
Danny Brown — Atrocity Exhibition
Its title alone, a reference to the opening song from Joy Division’s 1980 album Closer and J.G. Ballard’s 1970 collection of short stories, is a reminder that Danny Brown is a unique artist. Brown’s first release on Warp Records features guest turns from Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar, B-Real, Kelela, and Petite Noir. The production is outstanding and Brown’s voice takes care of the rest…no vocoder required.
David Bowie — Blackstar
Blackstar was not only released on Bowie’s 69th birthday, but also two days before his death, making this album feel more like a strategically planned parting gift from Bowie to the world than anything else. Death and a longstanding struggle with cancer surrounds Blackstar and the music videos that accompanied it, giving this album a very supernatural presence, and dubbed by many as Bowie’s final “swan song.”
Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser and former Vampire Weekend producer/instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij have paired to create one the most unexpected and rewarding collars in recent memory. The trademark croon of Leithauser paired with infectious song-craft create something incredibly rewarding. “A 1000 Times” is the standout lead single and a great entry point to this project.
July Talk — Touch
July Talk has come a long way since the release of their self-titled debut in 2012. An expanded version and a few EPs later, July Talk released Touch, the much-anticipated follow up to their first album. Touch saw a more mature and focused sound for July Talk, though completely different from anything they’ve done before.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith — EARS
In this case you can judge an album by its cover. Smith’s EARS is just as bright and colourful as its album artwork suggests. Both sonically rich and full of life, EARS will leave you wondering what more Smith could possibly have in store for us in the electronic pop world.
Kanye West — The Life of Pablo
The Life of Pablo‘s release was backed by a long editing process, including a few last-minute changes that the album received right before its release. Following the release, West dubbed the album a “living breathing changing creative expression” and announced his intention to continuously change The Life of Pablo even after its release.
Kaytranada — 99.9%
Born in Haiti, raised in Montreal, Louis Kevin Celestin (aka Kaytranada) had himself a year. His Polaris Prize-winning debut album 99.9% has been called the future of music. Multiple elements are at work here, from funk, soul, R&B, and electronica, not to mention guest spots from the likes of Syd and Anderson .Paak.
Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered.
The release of untitled unmastered. came as a surprise to a lot of fans, though Kendrick Lamar dropped subtle hints building up to the release (like performing one of the songs on The Colbert Report before the album surfaced). Much of the compilation consists of previously unreleased songs that were recorded during the making of To Pimp A Butterfly. With every release, Lamar reaffirms his propensity for creating great music.
Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
2016 took another legend with the passing of Leonard Cohen. The iconic Canadian artist went out on a dark, but high note releasing an album imbued with the spectre of death and the knowledge of a life spent exploring the higher callings of love and spirituality.
Mitski — Puberty 2
26-year-old New York-based singer-songwriter Mitski’s fourth album is a fearless confessional on the journey of adulthood. It reaches brooding depths and explosive heights, all centred around relatable tales of relationships and discovery. “Your Best American Girl” is a sneaky contender for song of the year.
Operators — Blue Wave
After giving fans a taste of his new project Operators with 2014’s EP1, Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Divine Fits) followed it up with a full length in 2016. For fans of Boeckner’s work, Operators will sound like a natural progression. The precise 80s-style synth-pop songs are coloured with a dark paranoia and, like everything Dan touches, a fence-swinging punk-rock heart – that comes alive in their live show.
Pup — The Dream is Over
The Dream is Over is a direct reference to a damaged vocal chord scare that frontman Stefan Babcock endured leading up to the band’s sophomore release. Packed with even more fist-raising shouting and relentless guitar work than the band’s debut, this is how we should all strive to see the dream through.
Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
After 20+ Years of making some of the best alternative music of our time Radiohead continue to evolve, aging like a fine wine. A Moon Shaped Pool is simultaneously infectious, beautiful, and heart-breaking. The re-working of album closer “True Love Waits” is a revelation.
Rihanna — ANTI
Anti served as a new and fitting step for Rihanna. The album reflects her ability as an artist to grow, adapt, and live her music in a way that makes her hard not to like. Rihanna is at a point in her career where she can do pretty much whatever she wants and still deliver great music, and Anti reaffirms that notion.
Solange — A Seat at the Table
With three years in the making, A Seat at the Table came as a musical gift to 2016. This album is not only beautiful to listen to, but also contains powerful and pivotal reflections on black womanhood. Now 30-years-old, this album shows just how much Solange has grown into her music over the past 15 years and what she is truly capable of as an artist.
Sturgill Simpson — A Guide to Earth
Simpson’s latest serving of American folk was realized as a document for his wife and newborn son…thankfully it’s been shared with the rest of us. The 38-year-old earned a surprising Grammy nomination for album of the year, and he just might pull off a major upset.
Tanya Tagaq — Retribution
Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq does not sugar-coat or oversimplify the themes at work on her outstanding 2016 effort Retribution. “I wanted to draw a line with non-consensual land grabs and non-consensual, non-renewable resource development and the day-to-day horrors we inflict on each other and in particular, women,” Tagaq told Pitchfork of Retribution. She remains one of Canada’s most unique and important artists.
Tegan and Sara — Love You to Death
Our favourite Canadian sister duo brought producer Greg Kurstin back to follow-up 2013’s career-altering smash Heartthrob. The result is another beautifully polished piece of work that charts the waters of new wave. It’s great pop music that once again doesn’t sacrifice the Quin sisters’ greatest strength: Songwriting.
A Tribe Called Red — We Are the Halluci Nation
ATCR’s third album was a huge step in the group’s evolution from political party music to a full-on philosophical concept album and cultural movement. Their production was taken to new heights with the inclusion of the newest member of the group, Tim “2oolman” Hill, plus working directly with the Black Bear Singers drum group to record the powerful sound of powwow drumming and singing. The album features appearances from all over the map, from Tanya Tagaq to Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), to writers like John Trudell and Joseph Boyden.
A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
A Tribe Called Quest’s return to music has to be one of the best stories of the year. They had originally reunited for a single performance on late night TV, which ended up being the night of the Paris attacks. With the political turmoil that overtook the world stage in 2016, ATCQ realized they still had a message to share, and they returned to the studio to create one of the year’s best albums. The record returned the group to the top of the charts, and features major contributions from member Phife Dawg who passed away just months before its release.
Vince Staples — Primma Donna
With a debut album as explosive as Staples’ Summertime ’06, the expectations for the follow-up are always huge and frankly impossible to live up to. But on his 2016 EP Prima Donna, Staples brings a lot of new ideas to the table, seemingly with more of a focus on growing as an artist and storyteller and less on meeting expectations. Prima Donna proves that Vince Staples is still one of hip-hops most promising young artists.
Wintersleep — The Great Detachment
Wintersleep emerged from a four year hibernation between records to deliver their finest work since 2007’s Welcome to the Night Sky. The album scored the band two massive commercial hits with “Amerika” and “Spirit”, but many of The Great Detachment’s finest moments rest between the singles. From the vocoder-driven “Santa Fe” to the stomping rock of “Freak Out”, Wintersleep have returned to form with their 2016 effort.
Stay tuned to Indie88.com over the holidays for our entire Best of 2016 series.
Up next: Biggest Toronto Moments of 2016 (Friday, December 30)