Best of 2016: Top 15 Albums

News / Special Features / December 22, 2016

The Lineup:
12/22: Top 15 Albums
12/23: 2017 Predictions/Most Anticipated/Biggest Disappointment/Top Reissues
12/23: Label of the Year/End of year podcast

Top 15 Albums of 2016

In Alphabetical Order, MV Staff Members

ANOHNI — Hopelessness
Secretly Canadian

Most pop stars don’t mix their upbeat tunes with themes like war, death and politics. And it’s hard to really blame them, as when the beat drops, the audience is likely expecting to sing along to tracks about love or heartbreak, not songs making them question governmental action. But this is part of why Anohni’s 2016 full length, Hopelessness, stands as a bold and impressive feat. The artist, who used to perform under the name Antony and the Johnsons, teamed up with high profile dance producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never to craft one of the most powerful pop protest records of this generation. Covering a multitude of difficult topics, all lyrics are written by the outspoken Anonhi, also a transgender woman. With the album’s opening track (“Drone Bomb Me”), she crafts synth pads layered under blunt lyrics asking for death by a drone bomb. It’s followed by the second track’s heavy drums and swelling strings, throbbing beneath Anohni’s unmatched vibrato voice belting about the denial of global warming (“4 Degrees”). Each of the 11 tracks on the record come from a speaker suffering from catastrophic grief, the voice delicately dancing between hope and defeat. A confusing and brilliant experience, Hopelessness contains many moments of heartbreak, but the album still manages to get your foot tapping to the beat.

Michael Escanuelas (Modern Vinyl Podcast)

Beyoncé — Lemonade

Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman, so when life gives you lemons, you make some damn good Lemonade. While the world was anticipating a new song, Queen Bey dropped an album instead, her best to date. That album left the world wondering if Jay-Z had actually cheated on Beyoncé, thus inspiring her to create a powerful album filled with anthems for the modern woman; no matter the circumstances, though, it stands as one of 2016’s watershed pop-culture moments. Themes of infidelity, heartbreak and raw angst take center stage, overlapping with social and political issues plaguing today’s society. Stylistically, Beyoncé shows her range, surprisingly branching out into the world of rock and country, with Grammy-nominated “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” which features Jack White, and “Daddy Lessons,” which was performed at this year’s Country Music Awards with the Dixie Chicks. What results is an immensely powerful narrative that needed to be told in today’s day and age, especially for women of color everywhere.

Meghin Moore (MV Managing Editor)

Bon Iver — 22, A Million

Justin Vernon, echoing the work of David Abram, uses 22, A Million to give himself over to nature, over to fire, over to rain, over to lightning. From a broader standpoint, he gives himself over to the possibility of commercial, career harm, releasing a record that’s the least accessible of his career, further purging any hopes one held of returning to the lands of folk-pop. But back to Abram. He writes in his book Becoming Animal that “for too long we’ve closed ourselves off to the participatory life of our sense,” and that we’ve close ourselves off to the earth at large. And so the journey of this record begins with a spirit quest of sorts, a solo trip to the Greek Islands. But it ends in a recording process where he leaned on others to complete the record, where he calls out to and commends his “A Team.” This journey matches the record we eventually received. In songs like “715,” the natural world sparks remembrance; in “A Million,” he talks of natural forces once again, living where “the days have no numbers.” But Vernon’s heavily auto-tuned voice slowly reveals itself, becoming less and less guarded by “8 Circle” and “00000 Million.” Much like Abram’s aims, Vernon goes off, looking to connect with the natural world like never before. Yet he can’t scrub away those human tendencies, he can’t fully scrub topics of human love from his system, and he seemingly couldn’t finish the record without human intervention.

Chris Lantinen (MV Editor)

Butch Walker — Stay Gold

Butch Walker’s Stay Gold wasn’t the most socially or politically “important” album of the year, but it was sure as hell the most fun. Throughout the 10 songs that make up this record, Walker waxes nostalgic about young love, cars he doesn’t own anymore, and record stores that have long since closed down. He does it with the exhilarating adrenaline of a street race (“Ludlow Expectations”), the muscle of a Springsteen anthem (“Wilder in the Heart”), the innocent shimmer of a John Hughes flick (“East Coast Girl”), and the intricate detail of a country song (“Record Store”). The result is the year’s most gleeful rock ‘n’ roll throwback. In the dark doldrums of 2016, it was a glowing reminder that sometimes, the best thing you can do is turn up the volume and drown out the noise.

Craig Manning (MV Writer)

Camp Cope — ST
Poison City Records

The ST album from the Melbourne-based three-piece stands as a varied musical journey, full of standout moments, written and led by singer/guitarist Georgia Maq. Just as the album dodges “emo revival” classification, Maq’s vocals vary from the field, showcasing a dynamic, powerful range. Being a therapist, and with Maq having experience working in a clinical setting as a nurse, I found myself connecting on a deeper level, especially with track “Flesh and Electricity.” Beyond occupation, I can’t help but feel and relate to the pain, longing, frustration, and anger she sings about. Camp Cope is a band I’m excited to see grow, and if you haven’t checked out the album and are into meaningful songwriting, I suggest you hop on. Here’s hoping for a U.S. tour in 2017.

Zachary Behm (MV Art)

Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

2016 goes to Chance the Rapper. A couple of other artists have released arguably better records, gone on massive tours, and kept their public image consistent, but nobody’s done all of that better than Chance. A huge feature on one of the greatest tracks of the year (Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”), several appearances at the White House, his own Chicago festival, and seven history-making Grammy nominations have all happened within the past 11 months. But the epitome of all this success can be found in a mixtape styled packaged called Coloring Book. Tracks like “Same Drugs” and “All Night” make for an invigorating experience, while features from up and coming artists like Saba and Noname, to big time names like Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne show his love and respect for the great artists around him. “All We Got” has felt like the anthem of 2016: in a year of crazy downs, at least the music has been great, and Coloring Book leads that pack.

Abby Kruthoffer (MV Writer)

Childish Gambino — Awaken, My Love!

Quite possibly the most surprising, wholesale sonic alteration of 2016, Donald Glover’s foray into funk brought 2016 to a rousing conclusion. Sure, there’s times when the ode to a genre long past feels a bit copy and paste (see: “Have Some Love”), but for the most part, it’s a thrilling transformation, Glover growing past the pop-culture laden snark that defined his early work. The record’s structure, with love letters to his son (“Me and Your Mama,” led by the baby mobile, and “Baby Boy”) framing tales of being a black man in 2016 America, is revealed by deeper dives and an openness to dropping standard Gambino wordplay. This frames tales like “Riot,” in which Glover takes on the majority politician desparately reaching out to minority groups, trying to connect with those they have no real passion for, Glover singing the line, “Love to say they feel us.” And these tales, which in album standout “Boogieman” talk of a shared language, yet a remaining fear of the “other,” eventually lead to Glover’s final message: “Keep all your dreams. Keep standing tall.” It’s an album of an artist taking control of his own destiny, empowering the next generation along the way.

Chris Lantinen (MV Editor)

David Bowie — Blackstar

 It’s entirely likely this is the best record which is nearly impossible to listen to. The unlistenable nature of David Bowie’s Blackstar is completely unrelated to quality  far from it, actually. This is a gorgeously elegiac suite of songs, and it’s probably the best album Bowie has made since Black Tie White Noise, if not Let’s Dance. Still: it was recorded while Bowie was dying, and the lyrics are as confrontational regarding impending death as anything ever recorded. It’s hard not to feel the specter hanging above everything, and the absolute weight of Bowie’s death just a week after Blackstar’s release makes this an achingly difficult record to revisit without sobbing uncontrollably. The vinyl release is one of those items which even a year later is still revealing hidden secrets, and it’s hard to decide whether or not that makes it easier or harder to deal with the great loss music has suffered.

Nick Spacek (MV Writer)

Field Music — Commontime
Memphis Industries

Field Music channeled their inner Hall and Oates last February with the funk and R&B tinged Commontime, the band’s sixth full length album. It’s easily their most accessible work to date, combining Peter and David Brewis’ penchant for writing fun and rhythmic hooks, with a lyrical take on family life in North East England. A clear highlight is lead single “The Noisy Days Are Over,” a track so funky that even Prince was a fan, tweeting a link to the YouTube video for the song when it premiered in late 2015. For me though, it’s the quieter moments that really make this album shine. “The Morning Is Waiting” has some achingly beatiful piano and strings, and album closer “Stay Awake” has some of the best lyrics on the album, echoing the struggles of being in a relationship while becoming new parents. Combining that with hip shaker “Disappointed” and the gritty “Trouble At The Lights,” and this album delivers on all fronts.

Alan Miller (The Vinyl Crawl)

Frank Ocean — Blonde
Boys Don’t Cry

Blonde opens with “Nikes,” which in turn opens with soulful vocals pitched higher than the drum machine kicks simmering underneath. Perhaps this jarring choice exists as a commentary on the LP’s surprise rollout, sneaking out of the woodwork after millions watched Mr. Ocean build stairs with some Endless anticipation. If Endless brought the stairs, Blonde exists as Frank’s rollercoaster, volleying lush highs with lows dislodged from a pained psyche. This duality plays out in singular tracks, like “Ivy,” a song psychoanalyzing departed love and departed youth. It’s clear that we’ve been presented with an older artist here, a product of the hypermedia climate which allowed him a platform and shrieking hype. For all its multipatterned splendor, found sound backdrops, and restrained pomp, Blonde isn’t a statement as much as it’s a relic presented without context, only to be made sense of at a listener’s own speed and age.

— James Cassar (MV Managing Editor)

Jeff Rosenstock — WORRY.
SideOneDummy Records

The 17 tracks of Jeff Rosenstock’s WORRY. go by far too quickly, in a rush of sonic styles which change and switch and mutate, yet in such a fluid way that the listener’s never quite certain as to when a track ends and another begins. It’s not so much a series of songs as one big musical work, thematically linked with the idea of being constantly beaten and knocked down, but still managing to stand up. Rosenstock’s words speak directly to the heart of living in modern society, whether the lyrics find you shaking your fist and screaming along, or using the words to hold yourself together one more day. It takes a special kind of lyricist to be able to start a song with “Fuck off, the internet,” as he does on “To Be A Ghost …” and still have it resonate, rather than evoke laughter, but it happens, and while perfect may not exist, Rosenstock certainly knocks right up next to it.

Nick Spacek (MV Writer)

Kanye West — The Life of Pablo
Def Jam/GOOD Music

It’s taken just a little over a decade filled with seven studio albums, features on high-profile tracks, Twitter beefs, attempts at fashion, outbursts on tours and at awards shows, and plenty of other “moments” to get us to this point in the life of Mr. West. But it takes just 45 seconds on “I Love Kanye” to establish everything you need to know about him. The Life of Pablo is made up of these moments, both old and new, and what moments these are. They’re also all over the place constructively, with ups-and-downs no one drug could possibly alleviate, but that is Kanye, for better or worse, who injects himself into its construction just as much as its production, which can sometimes be both refreshing and downright infuriating. His personality is felt everywhere, and though there are more guests on this record than any other of his before it, he said he would go out and create a gospel record and he indeed preaches his word. This self-reflection of a madman is in excess, and if “Pablo” is supposed to be Pablo Picasso, then Kanye has made his “Guernica,” a gargantuan meta-art masterpiece, existing in an era when even the loudest statements can be swiped left with little cause.

David Fisch (MV Writer)

Posture & the Grizzly — I Am Satan
Broken World Media

As a sophomore record, I Am Satan uproots this Connecticut’s band’s snarling DIY ethos and replaces it with the better blink-182 album released in 2016. The anxiety present here matches Tom DeLonge’s own worries in 2002, but updates them to include several layers of internal dysphoria, crippling self-doubt, and suicidal thoughts. It’s a darker ride than what even Box Car Racer’s studio-aided “grit” could produce, and perhaps the result of the time gap: 2016 reflections on a chart-topping sound come with more teeth this time around. With those teeth come the scars, here displayed with reckless abandon.

— James Cassar (MV Managing Editor)

PUP — The Dream is Over
SideOneDummy Records

Toronto’s PUP put out their debut album three years ago. In the time since, they’ve become the sort of act other bands cover SideOneDummy labelmate Jeff Rosenstock has repeatedly busted out his “Reservoir” and inspired the fervent lyric memorization that I haven’t felt since high school. They’re a band that writes hooks as easily as I drink beer, and they make records which accompany beer-drinking quite well. There are gang vocals galore, breakdowns, and it’s the sort of album where the lyrics are worth studying, even though the best listens involve cranking the stereo to the point of distortion. PUP’s not only avoided the sophomore slump, they’ve creatively one-upped themselves from their self-titled debut. It’s Pinkerton by way of The Godfather: Part II: everything which worked in the original, but with none of the mistakes.

Nick Spacek (MV Writer)

Solange — A Seat at the Table

The Knowles sisters reigned in 2016, with Solange giving Beyoncé a run for her money. She takes an astonishing turn for her third studio album, released in the wake of heartache throughout America and on the cusp of artistry breathing its final breaths just to be noticed. Everything about the project sounds like it was meant for the studio, but it was really birthed from the bedroom, its R&B and funk production frank, subdued, and stripped of its sheen, making way for the deeply personal and truthful layers underneath, revealed in Solange’s exquisite vocal delivery and in the writing itself. Featuring one of the best tracks of the year in “Cranes In The Sky,” the embrace of the trials and pursuits of the African-American community is completely immersive, and themes of identity and empowerment and femininity  tied together with interludes of dialogue from those close to the heart are emboldened to make the experience uniform. With Solange at the head, forging on toward perhaps an impossible dream for anyone anywhere, A Seat at the Table is something to behold.

David Fisch (MV Writer)

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James Cassar
James Cassar is Modern Vinyl's Managing News Editor and a co-host of The Modern Vinyl Podcast. He is also an artist manager, co-owner of the record label Near Mint, and can be found in bed before 9 p.m. James lives in Philadelphia and no, he won't check out your band if you add him on Facebook.

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