What even is ranking music? It’s difficult to do and harder to qualify – especially given how difficult it is to be an expert in any profession and have your work judged. To me these “best of” lists are a means to keep track of the albums and artists I’ve enjoyed listening to the most over the course of the year. Here are my highlights for 2016.
Are You Serious
I’ve never been a huge Andrew Bird fan. This record changed that. Maybe his brand of alternative classical folk rock (or whatever you choose to call it) finally resonated with me. Maybe his passionate duet with Fiona Apple is just that good.
Album highlights: Left Handed Kisses, Are You Serious, Capsized, Valleys of the Young.
I wasn’t familiar with .Paak’s previous record and studio debut, 2014’s Venice , so Malibu prompted me to go back and listen to it. What struck me was a talented artist full of promise but hadn’t yet found his voice. Thankfully, Malibu brings .Paak closer to finding his voice. It isn’t a flawless album; it’s uneven and unfocused at times. The strengths more than make up for its shortcomings. This was one of my most listened to albums of 2016.
Album highlights: The Bird, Heart Don't Stand A Chance, The Waters, The Season / Carry Me
Citizen of Glass
Agnes Obel’s third album is a suspenseful, well-measured, passionate, and thoroughly interesting one. When placed aside her previous albums it stands out, to me, as a clear favorite. I’m super excited to see her perform here, in Minneapolis, in March.
Album highlights: Stretch Your Ears, Familiar, Stone, Grasshopper
I love this record for its feel more than anything. It instills a comfortable nostalgic feeling. Specifically, it feels like taking a long drive through town and country in a vintage automobile. It feels like the soundtrack to my father and me shopping at Goodwill in the 1980s. It evokes a feeling; a time and place to me that is more realized in my brain than is able to express in words. For all of these reasons, I love this record.
Album highlights: Petals, Town & Country, Feeling, C'est La Vie.
I’ve referred to Jack Garrett as a “more poppy dancehall James Blake” and I feel it’s an accurate description if you’re familiar with James Blake. Somewhat coincidentally between the two artists: Jack’s lyrics are also not anything notable. They too are vague, often shallow in-depth, observations about life and love. In many ways, Jack’s approach is more playful in contrast.
Jack has so many stand-out talents: a sense for melody, an ability to play multiple instruments and to build tension in his compositions. His hooks and melodies echo in your head for days. This record stayed in my daily music playlist for the entire year; making it, perhaps, my most listened to album of the year. It keeps me pumped, positive and motivated.
Album highlights: Breathe Life, Weathered, Worry, Fire.
The Color in Anything
I adore James Blake and hold his previous two records in high regard. This third album feels like a mixed bag of ideas instead of a fully realized and edited cohesive work. Much of these feelings come from James’ greatest weakness: lyrics. While his simplistic and sometimes memorable lyrics have been considered a strength, like on his self-titled debut and more emotional sophomore release, here they stand out as a clear weakness. I do give him credit for trying a different approach. Another real negative found here is an odd-but-prevalent use of out-of-place and distracting samples (I Hope My Life, Put That Away and Talk To Me).
With that said, it still remains one of my most played and favorite records of the year. I’m hoping James’ fourth record challenges some of the ideas he played with here coupled with a greater degree of editing.
Album highlights: Radio Silence, Timeless, I Need a Forest Fire, Put That Away and Talk to Me
This record might be both Aesop’s most fun record and most personal to date. Through small vignettes, we gain deeper insight into Ian Bavitz’s life – passion for drawing, affinity for cats, and conversations with his psychologist. It’s just a fantastic record that ranks higher than most in Aesop’s stellar body of work. I wish I could say the same for the artwork – but I understand the purpose and aesthetic decisions.
Album highlights: Rings, Lotta Years, Shrunk, Get Out The Car, Kirby.
Danny Brown’s fourth studio album is abrasive, challenging, hilarious, and truly remarkable. You can praise Danny for his eccentric delivery, flow, voice, and lyrics; but his true strength lies in his ability to surprise. The production on this record is nothing short of brilliant, bonkers, flat-out nuts? Danny’s ability to ride these seemingly un-rappable-over-beats is the technical peak of rap records released this year. It’s also not at all a typical rap record. He is an acquired taste; for me taking three previous albums to get to one that resonates.
Album highlights: Downward Spiral, Tell Me What I Don't Know, Really Doe, Ain't It Funny, When It Rain.
This is absolutely one of the best metal albums this year and my favorite thrash record. Complex storyline, crushing grooves, epic solos and stellar vocals.
Album highlights: Charging the Void, Ultimate Artificer, Pillars of Sand, Recharging the Void.
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
This may be the last Tribe Called Quest record ever (with Phife at least), and if so, what a way to go out. This thing has hooks for days, social commentary that couldn’t be more timely and appropriate and straight up incredible performances all around.
Album highlights: The Space Program, We The People..., Black Spasmotic, Conrad Tokyo.
22, A Million
Justin Vernon led us to believe his Bon Iver project was dead. It wouldn’t have been shocking had it actually panned out, as he doesn’t tend to stay with one creative outlet for too long. This new project feels like fractured memories jumbled together and reassembled. The result is a challenging piece of work that still exhibits Vernon’s incredible knack for melody and emotion.
Album highlights: 22 (Over Soon), 715 (Creeks), 33 (God), 8 (Circle).
A Moon Shaped Pool
This is Radiohead’s most somber, most depressing, most understated release to date. It also took a fairly long time for me to appreciate. Melodies get stuck in your head for days and the record leaves a lasting impression. A Moon Shaped Pool is not Radiohead’s best work, but I feel it ranks rather high in their discography for me.
Album highlights: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Identikit, Ful Stop, True Love Waits.
This is one incredible achievement right here. Insomnium has always crafted suburb melodic death metal, but not at the scale of a 50-minute concept record. Vocalist Niilo Sevanen’s voice has never been better or more emotive. This record runs the metal genre gamut effortlessly blending death, black, thrash, doom, and exhibiting nothing but suburb atmosphere along the way.
Album highlights: All of it.
David Bowie could not have executed this final album more beautifully. With bleak and ominous subject matter the depths of which weren’t fully realized until his death, Bowie released a career highlight album. The album title very literally being named after common radiologist term for in spotting evidence of cancer. It isn’t the most accessible Bowie album, or the most enjoyable. I’m not sure how often it will get rotation in the years to come, but I know it’s an unbelievable end to a brilliant career and true artistic visionary.
As a long time producer and friend of Bowie’s, Tony Visconti, wrote after his passing:
He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was no different from his life – a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry.
Album highlights: The whole record
It comes as no shock to me that the heavily praised and widely anticipated sophomore release from Frank Ocean would end up being at the top of this year’s list. I listened to it almost as much as anything else this year. What was a bigger surprise is that Frank released two new full pieces of work in the video only Endless and his proper follow up to Channel Orange in Blonde.
It’s a shame that Endless hasn’t been released in any purchasable form. I no longer subscribe to Apple Music so I suppose I’ll never listen to it again. Truly unfortunate because I would’ve listened to it far more had I been able to play it outside of its Apple-only video form.
Blonde is a great record because it extends Frank’s unbelievable talent and goes far beyond the scope of Channel Orange. It’s a very different record from a more mature artist. I’m sure Frank will come back and impress everyone all over again with his third record.
Album highlights: Nikes, Ivy, Pink + White, Skyline To, Nights, White Ferrari
- Saor – Guardians
- Neurosis – Fires Within Fires
- Winterfylleth – The Dark Hereafter
- Damien Jurado — Visions Of Us On The Land
- Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor
- Katatonia — The Fall of Hearts
- Margaret Glaspy — Emotions And Math
- Phoria — Volition
- Luh — Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing
- Saul Williams — MartyrLoserKing
- Alcest – Kodama
- Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light
- Tycho – Epoch
- Pinegrove – Cardinal
- Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
- iTAL tEK – Hollowed
- Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
- Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
- Rihanna – Anti
- Coldworld – Autumn
- Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language
- ANHONI – Hopelessness
- Beyonce – Lemonade
- Har Mar Superstar – Best Summer Ever
- Huerco S. – For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)