I don’t pretend to have listened to every great album that came out in 2016, but I did find a lot of ones I really liked. This is a list of the 25 albums that have stuck with me in what was a pretty great year music-wise. Find out who cracked my 25 Favorite Albums of 2016 in this Best of Music 2016 feature. Each album cover links to the Spotify listening link for each record, and I’ve included my favorite tracks as well.
Seeing this Aussie singer-songwriter open for Julien Baker at the El Rey was one of my favorite discoveries this year. Jacklin wields a ton of emotion and depth despite it mostly just being her and her guitar. She reminds me of Angel Olsen’s earliest work and Jenny Lewis’ record with The Watson Twins — riding the indie and folk line really well. Her first effort made our Best Debut Albums of 2016 and just sneaked into our Top 25 records on the year
I’m unsure why the second full-length album from this New Zealand sibling synthpop duo got so overlooked on year-end lists. They’ve fine-tuned their ability to write the perfect hook and there’s a great balance between dance club tracks and slower-tempo tunes. Both siblings have really grown up in a short time — and Georgia Nott’s vocals only keep getting better.
Listen If You Like: MØ, CHVRCHES, Oh Wonder
Best Songs: “Are You Home,” “Hold The Line,” “Free”
Joseph Arthur has long been one of my favorites and he continues to find ways to do something new. The extremely prolific Arthur went the concept album route for what I think is his 13th record. He recorded all of the songs utilizing a Steinway Vertegrande piano he acquired that had only been owned by one family. Inspired by the history of the family,
Listen If You Like: Mark Kozelek, Conor Oberst, the more folksy Ryan Adams
Best Songs: “The Family,” “You Keep Hanging On,” “Sister Dawn”
I saw St. Lucia six times in 2016 (including three times in one week in March) and a lot of it had to do with how much I enjoyed their second album. Husband-wife duo Jean-Philip Grobler and Patti Beranek write catchy pop songs with the best of them — there’s a reason Grobler made a living writing jingles for commercials before he got his own project off the ground. There’s a broad range of tunes on this record — from the dance-til-you-drop chorus of “Physical” to the slow-tempo “Love Somebody.” The record’s most overlooked track is “Game 4 U,” which sounds like it could’ve come from Kygo. I get the feeling that Patrick Bateman from American Psycho would’ve listened to them.
Listening to M83 always feels like you’re time traveling — sometimes backwards, sometimes forward. On this record, they explore a variety of instruments from decades ago that aren’t very common in pop music. They didn’t lose a step despite dropping collaborator Morgan Kibby from their lineup. Mai Lan and Susanne Sundfor shined when used to replace Kibby’s vocals. A lot of people were caught off guard by the sound of the record, their first since the smash hit Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming five years ago. It was an album that really grew on me the more I listened to it, and especially after seeing them perform three times in a span of four weeks at Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, and Firefly festivals this summer.
Listen If You Like: ’80s synths, sexy saxophone sounds, disco pop
Best Songs: “Go! (ft. Mai Lan),” “Do It, Try It,” “Laser Gun (ft. Mai Lan)”
Ambient electronic music was never really my thing until I discovered Tycho a few years ago. Scott Hansen built on the soundscapes he created on 2014’s Awake. Epoch offers much of the same, layers upon layers of beauty. Listening to his music, I can’t help but feel like my soul is being purified or something. His sunset set at CRSSD Fest this March was one of the best things about 2016 for me. The BPMs pick up a bit from where they were his last record, giving it a more funky and dancey groove. It’s great to listen to while driving.
These Aussies pick up where Oasis left off. Who would’ve thought the Britpop banner would be picked up from a few lads Down Under? The opening track of the album “Timeless” was one of my favorites of the year — I might have listened to it 100 times in a row when I got an advance copy of the record. I could hardly make out what the fuck lead man Tommy O’Dell was singing but got to ask his bandmates during an interview at SXSW this year to clarify. The Oasis comparisons are obvious when comparing O’Dell’s voice to that of Liam Gallagher, as well as the funky guitar solos that punch up many of the tunes. There’s a great mix of songs that are straight-up bangers and more quiet tunes, like the beautiful “Step Up the Morphine.” For a debut record, it’s wildly impressive.
Listen If You Like: early-era Oasis, Sticky Fingers, The Preatures
Best Songs: “Timeless,” “Step Up the Morphine,” “Play It Out”
Speaking of excellent debut records, British singer/songwriter Holly Lapsley Fletcher delivered one of the year’s best. She’s being hailed by many as the next Adele for a reason — though she’s got a bit of an electronic sound to go with her adult-contemporary friendly tunes. She dropped this album before her 20th birthday, an impressive feat no doubt. She mixes things up — the doo-wop sound of “Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me)” contrasts nicely with some of the more ballady tunes like “Hurt Me.” She shows immense range on this record and is only going to get better from here.
As much as I loved lead singles “Gemini Feed” and “Fuck With Myself,” there are some gems elsewhere on the record. “Weaker Girl” is one of BANKS’ strongest songs she’s ever written. Her brand of alt R&B evokes a bit of Aaliyah for me. One of the stronger points throughout her career has been the level of production, and that continues on this record. She is more vulnerable on this record than her debut — just look at the chorus of “Gemini Feed” — “To think you would get me to the altar/ Like I’d follow you around like a dog that needs water.”
Another artist that took a major step forward on their second record is this LA group. The addition of Micayla Grace on bass gave this band a bit more depth. They really perfected their sound — which I describe as Best Coast meets Hole meets early Weezer. There isn’t a bad track among the album’s 10 songs. There’s a pop aspect to their rock-based sound. Jessie Clavin shreds on the guitar on some of these tunes — the solo work on “Sleepwalking” is really fun. I saw them four times this year because they were so fun live, and the new tunes translate well to the stage. They write catchy choruses — my favorite being the one on “Sour Candy” that sounds like a call back to ’60s pop.
Angel Olsen just keeps getting better and better. She went in a more straight-up pop direction on her latest album, a slight departure from 2014’s excellent record Burn Your Fire for No Witness. She seemed to have more confidence in her vocals on this record, hitting a larger range than before. She isn’t just a great folk singer anymore. She still retains her vintage sound — on killer lead single “Shut Up Kiss Me” more than any previous track. This album would fit perfectly in a jukebox circa 1965.
Donald Glover might have taken the biggest leap of anyone in 2016 — his sound on his latest album is nothing at all similar to his rap-happy earlier work. He started to experiment with singing a bit more on the 2014 EP Kauai. He went full-on Parliament Funkadelic on Awaken, My Love! with impressive results. The one slight drawback from this album is there aren’t any songs quite as good as the two lead singles “Redbone” and “Me and Your Mama,” but those two tracks were among my 100 favorite in 2016. Glover has proven himself to be a creative genius whose potential is limitless.
Once most bands reach their fifth album, they plateau, but not The Kills. Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince managed to keep things fresh. Mosshart is a certified bad ass and these two have incredible chemistry in the studio and on stage. This record was very riff heavy and Hince has crafted some masterful ones all over the record. He also had to change up his playing style a bit after having a terrible hand accident. Mosshart’s vocals are just as gloriously raspy as ever.
It took me a while to fully digest Frank Ocean’s long-awaited record. In fact, I spent a lot of time on his visual album Endless before diving into Blonde. Though both are strong, the latter is the only masterpiece between the two. Ocean takes a lot of creative risks on the record. From the opening track “Nikes” where he sings “RIP Trayvon, that nigga look just like me,” Ocean’s words are powerful. This album was well worth the long wait as a follow-up to his Channel Orange debut. Our patience was rewarded by an album that grows on you with each listen. It’s got a psychedelic vibe to it.
It takes a lot of hard work to harmonize as close to perfection as Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe do, now on their second album. They were a little less Americana/folky than on their first record, with great results. “Gone Insane” was one of the most emotionally-charged songs of 2016 — culminating in a powerful shoutoff between the two ladies, reportedly after having a bit of a rift in their recording sessions. It brought out an intense level of passion in them. Seeing them sing this song at Spotify House at SXSW was one of a handful of live music moments that gave me actual goosebumps. The record manages to capture the same feeling. There’s a lot of diverse sounds on the record, with “Almost Makes Me Wish For Rain” being ridiculously catchy and something you could dance to. They hop between genres pretty seamlessly on this glorious record.
It’s hard to make an accessible mainstream pop EDM record that isn’t considered shit by purists — but Aussie producer Flume managed to do it on his second go-around. He found the right mix of collaborators, from Tove Lo to Kai to AlunaGeorge to Vic Mensa. He’s adept at fusing straight-up pop into his brand of electronic music, as well as hip-hop. I don’t love everything on this record — I’m not cool enough to dig the weird track “Wall Fuck” — but everything else is pretty much a smash.
Anderson Paak can do no wrong in my mind. “Who put the pussy in the coffin / then make it rise to God above?” he sings on “Lyk Dis,” and though it’s a goofy verse, he pulls it off because he just has so much swag. “Suede” was the first song I ever heard Paak on and though I’ve fallen in love with everything else he did, I was excited to see that the full record from his collaboration with Knxwledge was fantastic from top to bottom. “Scared Money” has this GTA: Vice City vibe to it, like you’re driving a boat out in the ocean in that game.
This comeback record was well worth waiting about half my life to hear. They dealt with the death of the legendary Phife Dawg with immense class and they filled in special guests like gang busters. Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and Anderson Paak all made worthy contributions. The timing of Tribe’s record couldn’t have better as our country faces a greater divide than any of us thought before this past year’s presidential race. There’s a take-no-prisoners approach to the songwriting and Tribe always seemed ahead of their time with their earlier output and this record sounds far from dated. In fact, it couldn’t have been more right on the mark.
The pacing of Radiohead’s ninth record is really on point. Seeing them kick off their Outside Lands set from 20 feet away with a handful of tracks from the record was a real treat. I remember getting a copy of the record and listening to it on my hammock with headphones on while my roommates watched Game of Thrones inside — it really is an incredible headphones record. Many of the songs just build to a wail so perfectly. There is an exquisite use of synths and drum machines all over the record. It reminds me of In Rainbows in that this record will only grow in stature the further we get from its release.
I’m not a religious person in the slightest but I came away with an appreciation for Chance’s faith because of his latest record. Seeing him at Outside Lands, a friend told me they couldn’t really relate to his tunes about his faith. Neither can I, I said, but I also can’t relate to hip-hop that’s about getting money and hoes, etc., so at least these Chance tunes come from a place of positivity. “Same Drugs” isn’t about drugs at all but about growing apart from someone you grew up with, something we can all relate to. For a young twentysomething, he’s a very adept songwriter and he also thinks outside the box with his collaborations — namely with Francis and the Lights on the killer song “Summer Friends.” His backup band The Social Experiment killed it and they bring a ton of life to his live show. He’s fully picked up the baton from Chicago hip-hop that Kanye West and Common carried for the last decade — simply put, Chance the Rapper is the bright future of the genre.
Listen If You Like: Kanye West, gospel
Best Songs: “Same Drugs,” “No Problem (ft. Lil’ Wayne & 2 Chainz),” “Summer Friends (ft. Jeremih & Francis and the Lights)”
I didn’t think I could like Warpaint any more than I did, but then they released their third full-length record and it knocked me on my ass. Their second record with drummer Stella Mozgawa as the band’s backbone, she really took a more important role as the group punched up the BPMs to a more pop and danceable rhythm. The lead single “New Song” is a straight-up pop song, and one that they constructed flawlessly. Their vocal layering has always been a strong point and it only gets better on this record. The bass playing of Jenny Lee Lindberg becomes more of a focal point on this record — particularly on “The Stall,” one of the many standout tracks. When Emily Kokal sings “I get high when I’m low / I get wrong when I know” right before the song’s big breakdown, I get chills. They’re a band I can’t wait to see over and over again on the festival circuit in 2017.
KAYTRANADA had a massive 2016 thanks to this record that landed him on every major music outlet’s year-end best-of lists. Though he’s not the most compelling live performer, this record was able to soundtrack a house party and give you a diverse range of tunes without having to hit the skip button. He got really creative, linking up with early-aughts R&B favorite Craig David on the killer and groovy “Got It Good.” Helping Craig David’s comeback get off the ground is just one of the many positive things about this record. The Anderson Paak collaboration “Glowed Up” has a certain dream-sequence feel to it. The instrumental “Track Uno” is also a dance-floor favorite among my friends for good reason.
Listen If You Like: Goldlink, Mr. Carmack, AlunaGeorge
Best Songs: “Got it Good (ft. Craig David),” “Track Uno,” “Together (ft. AlunaGeorge & Goldlink),” “Glowed Up (ft. Anderson Paak),” “Drive Me Crazy (ft. Vic Mensa)”
As big of a fan of Francis and the Lights as I am, even I wasn’t expecting such a masterpiece when his record dropped out of nowhere at the end of September. His 2009 short play It’ll Be Better caught my attention but he fell off my radar before showing up unannounced at a February showcase from label Friends Keep Secrets at the El Rey with a few songs. His collaboration with Chance the Rapper on his mixtape had me curious what else he had up his sleeve — which was a magnificent full-length record. His voice is reminiscent of Peter Gabriel, with the ’90s solo sensibilities of Pete Townshend but with a minimal electropop approach. Francis doesn’t overthink things and each song shines. “Friends” was the first song to be released, complete with a video that has Kanye West looking aimlessly in the distance and Bon Iver aka Justin Vernon dancing like a fool. It was hard to top but the rest of the record is killer as well. It’s sort of an electro R&B record. The synths are played up on a few tracks — the energy on the big breakdown on “See Her Out” is transcendent because of them. “May I Have This Dance” is the most Peter Gabriel sounding song of the bunch.
Music at its best is supposed to make you feel all of the feels, and the late great Bowie’s final effort delivered on that more than any other record. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings on Lazarus, smashing all of our hearts into smithereens. His final record was only seven tracks long but there is a ton to digest. It’s a man dealing with his failing mortality. There was no record more poignant in 2016. He utilizes rock and jazz pretty effortlessly. He is said to have listened to a lot of Kendrick Lamar during the recording, and it is evident based on how he avoided making it a straight rock record the way Kendrick avoided making a straight-up hip-hop album. After Bowie’s death three days following the release of the record, listening to this all the way through was the most cathartic way to deal with the emotions that came with the news.
Anderson Paak’s second full-length record I can best describe as Kendrick Lamar meets James Brown. It’s hip-hop meets soul. “Come Down” was the rare inescapable jam that you never got tired of hearing, that always took a party to another level (which is why it was my No. 1 song of 2016) that really had the James Brown vibe in full force. It’s my favorite hip-hop record since Common’s masterful Be record. He hits some R&B vibes on a couple track — “The Waters”astronomical climb and “Room in Here,” two songs that are also excellent collaborations. On his second record, Paak could’ve gone for some big-name features but kept it cool and has a nice balance between his verses and his collaborators. There wasn’t a better album top-to-bottom than Paak’s masterpiece, which is a major reason why he had such an in 2016. That climb is going to only continue.
Listen If You Like: Common’s Be album, swaggy hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar meets James Brown
Best Songs: “Come Down,” “Am I Wrong (ft. ScHoolboy Q),” “The Waters (ft. BJ The Chicago Kid),” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Room In Here (ft. The Game & Sonyae Elise)”