Written by Sam Keeling
There’s no question that 2016 was a rough year. From tragic deaths of icons from practically every field to national crises, international catastrophes and a presidential election-turned-media-circus, there is a lot we’re ready to move on from in the new year. On the bright side, 2016 happened to be one of the greatest years in recent memory for music.
Here’s a look at 15 fantastic albums that served as beacons of hope or chronicles of pain in this turbulent year as we look ahead to 2017 and the upcoming Grammy awards.
- Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
Mere weeks before passing away, the 82-year-old singer-songwriter legend released this dark blues- and gospel-infused album, in which Cohen struggles with his religion in the face of declining health and impending death. The music is raw, insightful and moving, and serves as a fitting finale to a prolific musician’s career.
- Kanye West, “The Life of Pablo”
Kanye’s seventh solo LP sounds messy and unfinished. Some of the interludes are unnecessary, some tracks end too soon, and others drag on for too long. However, “The Life of Pablo” finds beauty in its flaws. In fact, it is much like its creator: boundless, intriguing, and above all, brilliant.
- KAYTRANADA, “99.9%”
The safest way to make dance music is to follow the trends. Producer/writer KAYTRANADA is a breath of fresh air because he makes music his way. Each track feels breezy and catchy, and with unmatched percussion and great guest vocals, KAYTRANADA takes a bold new stance on EDM.
- A Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”
One of rap music’s most esteemed and influential groups, A Tribe Called Quest broke an 18-year dry spell with their sixth and reportedly final album. Luckily, Tribe is at the top of their lyrical and production game, and the album’s themes of racial injustice, especially in politics, are timely and effective.
- Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exhibition”
Danny Brown creates nightmares, spitting stories of drug addiction, street violence and paranoia over beats so sparse and obtuse that only Brown could rhyme over them. His high-pitched, demented voice lends to the morose atmosphere. “Atrocity Exhibition” is yet another twisted masterpiece from a rapper without mentors or apprentices.
- Angel Olsen, “MY WOMAN”
Singing with her lower register, Angel Olsen sometimes sounds like Lana del Rey, and she’s got the stubbornly independent personality to boot. But the comparisons end there: “MY WOMAN” is a biting rock album brimming with spunk and rebellion against expectations placed on women in relationships, punk music and indie culture.
- Anderson .Paak, “Malibu”
Anderson .Paak’s breakthrough year is encapsulated on “ Malibu,” an exploration of chill R&B and laid-back rap that’s as sun-soaked as the titular city. From the dance-floor funk of “Am I Wrong” to the dreamy vibes of “The Bird,” “Malibu” succeeds most when it focuses on fun—something that everyone needs, especially after 2016.
- ANOHNI, “HOPELESSNESS”
On her stunning electronic debut, ANOHNI (formerly Antony Hegarty) makes sure that every line strikes a raw truth on the state of the world. She writes on key global issues with empathy and insight. “Drone Bomb Me” — sung from the perspective of an Afghani girl whose family was just killed by drones — is pure heartbreak.
- Bon Iver, “22, A Million”
On Bon Iver’s third album, folk and electronic clash in a battle of musical opposites. Is this meant to be a metaphysical examination of the duality of existence? Hard to tell. Regardless, this new direction for Bon Iver is difficult upon entry, but somehow manages to be his most gorgeous work yet.
- Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound”
Devonté Hynes makes music indebted to Prince and Michael Jackson, complete with a crooning falsetto over 80’s funk rhythms. His third album as Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound,” packs decades of musical legacy into an epic ode to women, black Americans and anyone that feels like society could offer them more.
- Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”
With their ninth studio album, Radiohead retain that cerebral quality which made them alt-rock legends while also making their most emotional, personal music to date. “A Moon Shaped Pool” is everything that is to be expected from Radiohead — expertly engineered, perfectly conceived, overall excellent — but it’s also something else entirely: beautiful.
- Solange, “A Seat at the Table”
While Beyoncé was topping charts and performing Super Bowl halftime shows, her younger sister Solange released “A Seat at the Table,” a gorgeous exploration of black womanhood that entrenches itself in soul that is both classic and modern. Solange claims her own identity with introspective, thoughtful commentary amidst gorgeous melodies.
- David Bowie, “Blackstar”
“Blackstar” is a jazz-rock odyssey made poignant by its depiction of a man looking death in the eye. Even at age 69, Bowie was an adventurous artist with plenty more ideas to present to the world. Although we’ll never know what Bowie’s future might’ve held, “Blackstar” is the best farewell gift we could ask for.
- Frank Ocean, “Blonde”
Transcendent and spectacular, “Blonde” finds Frank Ocean ditching any notion of genre to make pared-down music that combines sweet melodies and peerless songwriting to create the most spellbinding sonic representation of emotion of the year. The album explores semi-autobiographical themes of self-discovery, lost love and the simultaneous desire to and fear of belonging, with superb results.
- Beyoncé, “Lemonade”
“Lemonade” is many things. It is simultaneously a pristinely crafted hip-hop album, an artsy and emotional visual album and a lyrical exploration of the subjugation of women in America. Presented as the tale of a woman that discovers the infidelities of her husband, Beyoncé paints a larger picture that calls upon those who have been discriminated against to stand up and fight back. Her rallying cry, “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation,” is hard to ignore – we’re all happy to obey Queen B.
With the Grammy awards historically leaning toward universally popular music (and away from Beyoncé), it’s hard to tell whether “Lemonade” will triumph over such monolithic figures like Adele or Drake for the coveted “Album of the Year” award.
Whatever the results, the musicians listed here progressed their respective genres and created some of the most beautiful and intriguing art of the year, and their work remains impactful beyond recognition at an awards show.