Cover of the album Blonde by Frank Ocean

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

In this post: an introduction, reviews of the top 10 albums of the year, a complete top 50 list, and a streaming playlist with a track from every top 50 album save for those not on Spotify. See you in 2017!

There were no seismic shifts in the pop landscape in 2016, nor in 2015, nor in 2014, nor in recent memory. The last time I remember feeling a legit sense of the earth moving under my feet (um, ears?) was when in 2006-2007 the Neptunes and Timbaland ceded ground to Kanye West’s now-dated chipmunked vocal samples, The White Stripes (and before them, The Strokes) firmly rewrote the pop-rock template and the Dixie Chicks told the world they weren’t ready to make nice. All the change since then has felt incremental, which may be a function of my age, but aside from maybe Drake and 40, who has rewritten the playbook — anyone’s playbook? Maybe it doesn’t work like that anymore. Technological change can generally be seen only in the rear-view mirror, but I can’t help thinking it’s changing the way the music evolves. Weep for the future historians who have to find a through-line in the evolution of music in the teens.

If that’s the way things are, or will be, then 2016 was the year I stopped worrying and learned to love the absence of a bomb. None of the albums on my top 10 list feel like any kind of quantum leap forward, but they are all masterful and constantly stimulating, even surprising, on the tenth or even fiftieth listen. It’s pretty shocking to me that a straight-up gangsta rap record like Still Brazy or an instrumental-rock spazzout like Return To Sky would end up atop my list, to the point that I often wonder whether I’ve started privileging the familiar over the unexpected as a kind of defensive mechanism, against the shell-shock of the new. But the flipside of that is my disdain for the records proclaimed as epochal (Arcade Fire durrr, Taylor Swift yawn) has made me more enthusiastic about records that feature maturing talents, like Blonde, and that showcase mature artists operating at their peak, like Anguis Oleum and A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s exciting to be around when the music world is being turned upside down, but it’s no consolation prize to bear witness to a crop of artists who be doin it and doin it and doin it well.

 The List: 1-10

  1. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
    • Team Frank Ocean was already a heaving bandwagon when Blonde dropped, though to these ears the hype was premature when Channel Orange was the only evidence on offer. Whatever, I probably wouldn’t have thought Prince was a genius on the basis of his first album, and yet, and yet. Blonde is plenty full of genius-signaling greatness, in flashes of wry lyrical humor (“did you call me from a seance? You from my past life”) and epic ballads like “White Ferrari” that just scream This Is Everything You Never Dared Hope He Could Become. There’s something in Ocean’s ability to leave a line hanging in the synth-soaked, sometimes guitar-wrist-flick-punctuated air. He owns the space between words, shapes it invisibly with the last line and the next one. Even the funkier moments like “Pink + White” are expertly paced hops from one melodic cloud to the next, with his signature move of brightening the harmony in mid-lyric. More than any other impulse he seems to have, Frank Ocean just loves to yank the listener from nostalgic, sometimes idyllic images drenched in romance to mundane, pungent detail about drugs or, often, driving. “We’re alone, making sweet love, taking time / but god strikes us!” To me, the centerpiece of the album is “Solo” for the simple reason that it works on a granular detail level — capturing a moment of pure bliss from an acid trip on a dance floor — but it also works its way gradually through a heartbreak that left him alone, exposed without a lover and without the rhythm section whose absence leaves a joy-shaped hole in the track. Absence and space are the most expressive parts of the album, and knowing how to play them is irrefutable proof that Frank Ocean has ascended to a higher plane. Though if he really were some kind of god, he’d be the kind that likes to day-trip back to earth, maybe as a swan, just to mess with some poor human for a few hours before returning skyward.
  2. YG – Still Brazy (400/CTE/Def Jam)
    • Just when I thought I was out. YG pushes all my buttons with ease – he’s lyrical but ignorant, full of contradictions and oddly consistent, troubling and inspiring in equal measures. From Scarface to Biggie to Beanie Sigel to UGK to T.I., I have always been a sucker for talented loudmouths throwing their deuces up. (Also, people who brag about stealing shit. I don’t care if you’re a mogul, it will always be cooler to be a guy who says he steals peoples’ chains.) Still Brazy feels like Amerikkka’s Most Wanted for 2016 – sometimes foul, sometimes righteous, but always angry, spitting venom in all directions rightly or wrongly. Cops, rival gangs, out of town rappers, women, random thugs, everybody can get it – and all over a G-funk soundtrack that’s pure bass pleasure. (Favorite line: “I’m the only one to make it out the west without Dre!”) Then again, trying to zero in on why it feels amazing to hear a record that reminds me of a record that sounded ignorant when it came out 25+ years ago is a struggle. Tracks like “Blacks and Browns” and “Police Get Away With Murder” are invigorating but, for the would-be unrepentant fan, ultimately just a fig leaf; the bloods are not community organizers. So why do I rank YG above his rivals? Because try as I might to adopt more socially acceptable rap idols, I can’t get with these self-conscious womanizers, these lotharios begging for redemption on track 5 for what they bragged about doing on track 4. (Not Drake so much anymore, and he sounds tighter than ever on “Why You Always Hatin’” – thugs bring out the best in him. See also: Future.) YG says he doesn’t give a fuck at all, but it’s complicated – from the police to the president-elect, he speaks up when he sees Babylon. At no point does he ask anyone to forgive him, whether he’s baffled by a shorty’s freak-out turning into a vendetta by her brother (“Bool, Balm and Bollective”) or musing on leeches in “Gimme Got Shot.” He deals with problems the way we all wish we could – telling them to fuck off, and backing it up with the hammer. Irresponsible? Absolutely. But only a fool would look to music for sensible policy suggestions. Well, except for one. “FDT” is the anthem we needed before the election, never mind after it, and the most surprising thing about the best protest anthem in a mighty long time is that it came attached to a deliciously entertaining gangsta rap album.
  3. Lorenzo Senni – Persona (Warp)
    • I like to tell people that I’m not a snob about music, just movies, and they laugh. But this record is proof! I would never go for Lorenzo Senni’s gigantic bludgeoning neon big-budget digi-synth multiple-orgasm silliness if it were say a Marvel movie, I’d probably switch it off and put on another French police procedural from the ’50s, ugh. But when it comes to music I can’t resist this stuff, from Rustie’s majestic first album to TNGHT and Hudson Mohawke and now Lorenzo Senni’s similarly over the top take on what to these ears sounds like early 2000s euro-trance, ratcheted up to a level of antagonistic intensity and dancefloor-unfriendliness that’s almost offensive. Even in these originality-starved times I can’t imagine thinking it would be anything other than hilariously gauche to take a thundering synth lead worthy of “Sandstorm” and building a whole drumless track around it, with a smattering of totally epically corny pizzicato strings (“Angel”). Not only did Senni do it, he put his name on a whole album of it. …respeck.
  4. *Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Anguis Oleum (Screwgun)
    • Released on his own label Screwgun rather than on his recent home, ECM, it’s tempting to read this as too wild for the majors. I doubt that – all of Berne’s stuff has an intensity even if it’s not over the top skronk, so I was a little surprised to see him on ECM in the first place. At any rate, the wide-ranging alto player is my current favorite working jazz musician by a hefty margin. Part of it is partisanship – we’re both alto saxophonists, and Berne’s tone is to my ears absolutely perfect. Inside baseball alert: alto players have a harder time than tenor players getting a great tone, in my experience, because unlike when tenor players get big and brassy, we don’t sound imposing and serious, we just sound like a ponytailed dweeb leading a late night TV show band. Berne doesn’t go too far in the other direction, but instead finds ways to deliver a satisfying crunch without going Full Sanborn. Also, his improvisation grabs me because not only does he have a strong and deliberate sense of rhythm – he’s got a great sense of how to play a spiky little line with just the right notes accented in a way that makes my face screw up with curious delight – his abstract melodic choices have their own internal logic that I can actually follow, at least sometimes. Plus, the players he surrounds himself with in Snakeoil are top notch; I love hearing Berne with a gonzo electric guitarist like Marc Ducret but Matt Mitchell doesn’t need an amp with an overdrive channel to make his piano perfectly bracing and raucous. Nor does thunderous yet attentive drummer Ches Smith, not Oscar Noriega whose bass clarinet at the end of “Deadbeat Beyoncé” goes from placid to pummeling with such intensity throughout that you feel like a lobster in a pot – suddenly he’s full on Albert Ayler and you’re like, how did we get here? I don’t know, my inner monologue replies, but don’t stop.
  5. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani – FRKWAYS Vol 13: Sunergy (RVNG Intl)
    • I’m sure somewhere in a basement apartment in a college town, a Ph.D music composition candidate is ranting furiously about how cliche-riddled this album is. I mean, sure – Suzanne Ciani’s Buchla Concerts are more radical, and her 1980s practice of designing sound ‘logos’ for companies like Atari is far more interesting conceptually than returning to lengthy minimal arpeggio jams. Still, have you ever actually sat and played with a modular synth rig? I own one, and I never got anywhere close to the kind of perfectly paced ambient space-boogie that Ciani and Smith just nail here. It’s never boring, and frankly I fully expect even the best of this kind of music to be boring sometimes. Again, it’s not the Laser Floyd textures – Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream fans will feel perfectly at home – it’s the arrangements and the pacing, that turn this into proper pop music the likes of which ambient music has never seen, and from the Pop Ambient series to The Orb, we are living in a golden age for it.
  6. Causa Sui – Return To Sky (El Paraiso)
    • Denmark’s premier stoner rock outfit? Don’t let that put you off. There’s more going on here than endless riffage, thought there are also some great riffs that put me a little bit in mind of Black Mountain. Which is no bad thing. Causa Sui have apparently released eight albums, but this is the first one I’ve heard that really hangs together despite the lack of vocals. Instrumental rock is hard, especially when there’s no high-concept identity or musical plan to distract the listener from hearing the same riffs ten or twenty times in a row, only more louder with each passing repetition. Two things set Causa Sui apart: first, drummer Jakob Skott, who deserves to be held in the ranks of drummers who are practically bands in and of themselves, along with Can’s Jaki Libezeit and Ginger Baker. Skott (whose solo albums are also just killin’) doesn’t draw too much attention to himself with flash, but he has such a visceral sense of groove and pacing that every drum hit feels like it’s leading to something huge, and when he lands on a fill you think the kit is going to collapse in a battered, worn out heap. Second, the band strikes a delicate balance between playing hard and playing intricately – there’s complexity here without jamming it in the listener’s ear hole through widdly widdly notes crammed into split seconds, or worse, with that post-rock affliction of changing the feel up every sixteen bars to keep the listener from noticing that they can’t write riffs worth repeating. From the juddering outer-space boogie of “Dawn Passage” to the smoked-out sludge rock of “Mondo Buzzo,” Causa Sui know when to drill a groove into your brain and when to subtly switch things up with a squealing counter-melody or a jagged keyboard slicing across an ocean of fuzz. It stoned me, to my soul.
  7. Pangaea – In Drum Play (Hessle Audio)
    • Riding trains should be the perfect time to read. There’s nothing to do and rarely much to look at. So why, when I ride trains, do I tend to look out the window at the post-industrial visual sludge that is concrete, rail cars and the occasional uninspired graffiti mural? Related thought: Pangaea seems nominally to make techno, a genre that frequently consists of melodically-challenged slabs of numbing repetition (and not the kind I like). And the tracks of In Drum Play are plenty repetitive and only marginally melodic. In that sense, it’s a bit like looking out the window on a train, and it has that same oddly captivating power, the rough yet soothing machinic relentlessness of anti-scenery zooming by. In the industrial itself, there is a kind of pleasure. But the true joy in Pangaea’s music is that a patient listen reveals perfectly arranged, brazenly varied techno with more musicality and feeling than even the best of the genre usually allows. Drop the needle on any ten second excerpt of the pounding “DNS” or the chattering “One By One” and you’d think this was unlikely to entertain – if I’d tried it in a record shop in the usual manner I doubt I’d have bought it. Instead I listened with headphones and fell in love with the intricate layers of drums and gelatinous bass, the swelling and shrinking sonic palette, the strangely melodic qualities of everything from hi-hat patterns to super-short vocal loops. It is beautiful in the aggregate, in the 100 foot view or the 10,000 foot view; it’s only when you look at its grains that you can see the roughness of the textures.
  8. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
    • Joseph Heath posted a great story recently on his blog about how, despite knowing how the brain induces people to fall prey to cognitive fallacies, he fell for one anyways. I know well that a fallacy I know about and still can’t avoid is the idea that some bands will never make albums as good as their early ones. It’s easier to evaluate late-catalog entries once their makers are long gone (brace yourself for the post-Warner-era Prince revisionist cottage industry). I think I treasure A Moon Shaped Pool because to me, it mixes their latter-day idiosyncrasies (strings, motorik repetition, a glaring lack of noisy guitars) with their most romantic, wistful, downright dreamy songwriting in years and years. Not to beat a dead horse with the Pink Floyd comparisons (still deeply relevant, to me, at least) but it’s interesting that when post-Syd Floyd went dreamy and solemn, they wrote campfire songs like “Fat Old Sun” and “Wish You Were Here,” and there’s a similar sense of folksy wonder in “Desert Island Disk” and “Glass Eyes”. Even when they rock out a bit, like on the orchestral Neu! of “Ful Stop” and “Burn The Witch,” there’s a spooky presence throughout that feels like a distant cousin of the ghoulish interloper in The Shining, reaching out through string swells to make your heartbeat flutter for a moment. My fear is that fighting the tendency to say they’ll never again reach the heights scaled on OK Computer may make me overrate this album, like some Rolling Stone shill praising U2’s latest legacy-destroying monstrosity, but here we are.
  9. DVA [HI:EMOTIONS] – Notu_Ironlu (Hyperdub)
    • Being a self-proclaimed fan of deeply weird music offers lots of opportunities for self-reflection. Mostly because nothing clears a room like playing Albert Ayler records, but also because you spend a lot of time asking yourself, do I really like this? After all, once you’ve realized that there might be virtue in various types of squalling mess, you end up feeling duty-bound not to dismiss it out of hand. My conclusion about a lot of weird proto-dubstep-noise type stuff by the likes of Rabit was that I just didn’t need it, any more than I needed what Third Eye Movement and Kid606 were doing to drum ‘n’ bass in the late ’90s. DVA’s playing in a neighboring sandbox to grime producers, but he’s not so far away that he loses the rhythmic thread – the groove that others are so eager to do away with. “Dafuq” has the orchestral bombast of a great trap track, turned up to 1000, and with a face-melting interpolation of the THX jingle, it gave me a tingly sensation I didn’t realize I was missing listening to more conventional stuff. Blippy bleeps cuts like “memoriesofofflineactivity” (isn’t that a President’s Choice Vietnamese-style hot sauce?) would get tired fast if they didn’t dash back to the groove right as your patience is being tested, and the album’s dystopian fake-ads would be annoying if they weren’t so brief. Most of the time, though, I can’t help just marveling at how startlingly inventive DVA is, and how, unlike a lot of artists with such prodigious creativity, his beats keep your neurons firing. They never overload you, and yet they never let you go.
  10. Kaytranada – 99.9 (XL)
    • Montreal is the best Canadian city to be a DJ in. At least I think it is, most of our dance floor heroes seem to come from there, parties like Bounce Le Gros are legendary and now we have Kaytranada. Anticipated since the announcement that he’d signed to XL for his debut, having had little previous fanfare, 99.9 dropped a cluster bomb on me. At first I was obsessed with bits of it, like the Craig David feature “Got It Good” that sounds like a million-dollar single workshopped to perfection by an R&B dream team adding wide-tire XL rubbery bass and hypnotic vocal filips. I actually went straight to “You’re The One,” a lush, Latin-inflected re-teaming of Kay and Syd The Kyd from The Internet after the Kay-produced track “Girl” on their storming Ego Death album last year. I was like, save some heat for the rest of the album, guy! Spoiler: he did. A very well deserved Polaris Music Prize sealed the album’s status as probably the best R&B album Canada has ever produced.


  1. Pet Shop Boys – Super (X2)
  2. Vince Staples – Prima Donna EP (Def Jam)
  3. Weaves – Weaves (Buzz)
  4. Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Matador)
  5. Dinosaur Jr – Give A Glimpse Of What Yr Not (Jagjaguwar)
  6. Matmos – Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
  7. Gucci Mane – Everybody Looking (Atlantic)
  8. *Purling Hiss – High Bias (Drag City)
  9. A Tribe Called Red – We Are The Halluci Nation (Pirates Blend)
  10. *Useless Eaters – Relaxing Death (Castle Face)
  11. The Gaslamp Killer – Instrumentalepathy (Gaslamp Killer Music)
  12. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (Dirty Hit/Interscope/Polydor/Vagrant)
  13. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)
  14. Bardo Pond feat Guru Guru and Acid Mothers Temple – Acid Guru Pond (Fire)
  15. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)
  16. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service (Epic/Sony)
  17. Kenny Barron – Book Of Intuition (Impulse/Universal)
  18. Poirier – Migration (Nice Up!)
  19. Hieroglyphic Being And The Configurative Or Modular Me Trio – Cosmic Bebop (Mathematics)
  20. Camera – Phantom of Liberty (Bureau B)
  21. Rihanna – Anti (Def Jam)
  22. The Field – The Follower (Kompakt)
  23. Trevino – Front (C Birdie)
  24. Marquis Hawkes – Social Housing (Houndstooth)
  25. Warpaint – Heads Up (XL)
  26. *Fp-oner – 6 (Mule Musiq)
  27. Lone – Levitate (R&S)
  28. *Lawrence – Yoyogi Park (Mule Musiq)
  29. Black Milk and Nat Turner – The Rebellion Sessions (Computer Ugly)
  30. Pye Corner Audio – Stasis (Ghost Box)
  31. Africaine 808 – Basar (Golf Channel)
  32. *Andrew Cyrille – The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)
  33. Dr. Lonnie Smith – Evolution (Blue Note)
  34. Jakob Skott – All The Colours of the Dust (El Paraiso)
  35. Dynamis – Distance (Tectonic)
  36. Gerry Read – Chubby Cheeks (Timetable)
  37. Solange – A Seat At The Table (Columbia/Sony)
  38. Steve Haushcildt – Strands (Kranky)
  39. Future – EVOL (Epic/Sony)
  40. Prins Thomas – Principe Del Norte (Smalltown Supersound)
  • = not on Spotify





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