Our Favorite Albums of 2016

Our Favorite Albums of 2016

Below are our 21 favorite albums of 2016, presented in alphabetical order. Many thanks to all who read our words and attended our shows this year. If you're interested in keeping up with what we do, sign up for our mailing list on the right side of this webpage, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service [Epic]

I come from the generation when rap started to break into well-to-do suburban neighborhoods. Just before it became a major commercial force in the second part of the ’90s, hip-hop was effectively my generation’s punk rock. Especially growing up in a trailer park, hip-hop made a major impact by voicing a multi-faceted language of disadvantage. The rhythms, content, and aspirations of hip-hop seemed to offer many—especially the confused and apathetic youth—means of expression and engagement. So it’s affirming that all these years later, A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most important groups of that time period, still carry such cache and still speak to and for the confused and enraged—that they’re prescient but also in-step within a new era of hip-hop fan caught up in social media scenes and The Breakfast Club blasts. I can’t dare argue how We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service speaks to and for specific people of different races, genders, or socioeconomic groups, but as a still-struggling adult with children, every beat, idea, and expectation crammed into this great hip-hop group’s last effort (jam-packed with star performances by peers and protégés alike) speaks volumes for those of us who have lost the words to explain where things have gone awry. [Justin Spicer]

Angel Olsen: My Woman [Jagjaguwar]

Angel Olsen’s 2014 LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness ends on an exhale. On “Window,” the record’s slow-burning closer, Olsen asks, “Won’t you open the window sometime? What’s so wrong with the light?” On “Not Gonna Kill You,” the final track on the A-side of her latest full-length, My Woman, a decidedly more upbeat Olsen answers her own question: “I’ll let the light shine in,” she says. Like much of My Woman, the song has a tone both self-possessed and wise, reflecting a palpable shift from the erstwhile delicate, lo-fi Americana on Olsen’s previous releases. In 2016, her vocals feel more lived in, more emboldened by the warmth of experience.

The brilliance of My Woman, then, is Olsen’s ability to balance her newly wizened demeanor with coy fatalism. Following the assertion that she’ll let the light shine in, Olsen drawls the titular coda: “It’s not gonna kill you.” One can’t help but picture the requisite wink upon delivery. Sure enough, My Woman has a sardonic sheen—perhaps best exemplified by “Intern,” the intentionally synth-laden red herring. But once you look behind the candelabra—or, more accurately, under the silver wig Olsen dons in that song’s video—there’s tenderness lurking underneath. It shows up even stronger elsewhere: “Show me the future,” Olsen sings on “Sister.” “Tell me you’ll be there.” It’s as much an earnest plea as a coy provocation. [Julia Selinger]

ANOHNI: Hopelessness [Secretly Canadian]

As I reflect on all the momentous issues covered in Hopelessness—state-sanctioned executions, extrajudicial killings, surveillance, climate change, the rise and fall of the Obama generation’s optimism—I think back to an interview where ANOHNI describes our generation’s ability to forget the collective trauma inflicted by capitalism: “The trauma is so quickly erased,” she told The Creative Independent, “and the new terms for engagement are accepted as an inevitability.” 2016 has been nothing but a continuous cycle of outrage, emotional outpour, and despondency. It has left too many without the energy or tools for meaningful political and social action. What ANOHNI achieves here is a method of bypassing the anxieties of the political situation and concretizing the danger they present and fear they inspire. Our instinct is to feel embarrassed as she repeats the president’s name on “Obama,” addressing him so directly for his faults. In doing so, she opens up a line of dialogue, one that pokes and prods throughout the entirety of Hopelessness. Through it, ANOHNI demonstrates the necessity for directness in our conversations, for opening up to vulnerability and honesty in today’s increasingly inhospitable world. [Ivan Krasnov]

Babyfather: “BBF” Hosted by DJ Escrow [Hyperdub]

Never giving a damn about a coherent or consistent narrative to back up his various projects, Dean Blunt—a.k.a. Babyfather, neither of which is his real name of course—in many ways anticipated the emergent post-truth age. Still, at the end of this strange year, after all the Brexits and “Make America Great Agains,” the overbearing presence of “BBF” Hosted by DJ Escrow’s leitmotif—the sinister iteration of the catchphrase “This Makes Me Proud to Be British”—has left a lingering, bitter aftertaste that its creator couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Yet it’s been with us for almost all of 2016, repeating in much the same tone. To call Blunt a prankster is a misunderstanding. The opposite is true: Blunt’s work has become so overly sincere that it inevitably verges on the absurd. Ever since his earliest works as one half of Hype Williams, his music has never been meant for us to be entertained. He’s laughing at all of us, but despite the state of the world, not because of it. What kind of art are you supposed to create if reality and satire have become congruent? This is what makes “BBF” deeply, inherently political: an album unlistenable in the same way that 2016 was unlivable. [Henning Lahmann]

The Body: No One Deserves Happiness [Thrill Jockey]

Little did anyone know that 2016 would see the release of the greatest pop music-influenced noise-metal record of all time, yet no one should be surprised that it came from the Portland-based duo of heavy experimenters The Body. Despite having a sui generis and inimitable take on the doom-sludge sound, they have remained astonishingly flexible with their choice of collaborations, which has led them ever further away from the realm of metal purism. While fans of extreme brutality have still much in store for them on the No One Deserves Happiness (e.g., the malevolent “For You”), much of the LP triumphs in sounding like “the grossest pop album of all time,” with hints of Beyoncé’s “Jealous” and Kanye West’s “Lost In The World” mixing in with distorted trap beats, a Björkian use of choir, and a Wagnerian use of trombones. Members of Assembly of Light Choir Chrissy Wolpert and Maralie Armstrong take solos on the album and one must say that Armstrong’s presence on “Adamah” could be 2016’s “Great Gig In The Sky” performance of the year. The Body doesn’t get carried away, however: “The Fall and the Guilt” could have easily fit on their 2013 masterpiece Christs, Redeemers, and shows they’re still the most nuanced songwriters in metal. [Isaiah David]

Dedekind Cut: $uccessor [NON / Hospital Productions]

A knowledge of Dedekind Cut, a.k.a. Fred Warmsley's diverse career arc helps to place some of the more serrated alien textures that lurk under the surface of $uccessor’s lush new age experimentalism. What sets the album apart is its ability to intertwine the calming synth washes, choral effects, and pan flutes with pummeling rhythmic interludes and mangled samples, suggestive of drum ’n’ bass. This inclination makes historical sense from an artist who spent the last decade bouncing back and forth between producing mutant jungle under his Lee Bannon moniker and a long string hip-hop instrumentals for rappers ranging from Joey Bada$$ to Inspectah Deck. $uccessor reflects the output of the burgeoning community of artists associated with the NON Worldwide umbrella like N-prolenta and Chino Amobi, both of whom released cacophonous, ambient meditations on identity over the past year. Accompanied by its Deana Lawson cover photo depicting black horse riders, $uccessor infuses a cross-legged, meditative headspace with notions of black identity and street grit in a work that is as elegant as it is mysterious. [Max Parrott]

Elysia Crampton: Demon City [Break World]

Critics have been bending over backwards all year trying to make sense out of the wicked collaborations and artistry that spill across Elysia Crampton's Demon City. If they're not trying to string together as many superlatives into one sentence about how it sounds, then it’s micro-thesis papers on what it means or whether it has to do with Crampton's gender or globe-hopping. Is it the club as science fiction or is it setting a new precedent? What does it mean?

The trick of Demon City isn't that it's about anything that will come after it or before, but that it's a record very much of the now, a conversational piece between like-minded musicians meeting halfway between their unique voices today (NON's Lexxi on “Red Eyez,” the title track with Halcyon Veil boss Rabit, “Dummy Track” between Chino Amobi and Why Be), and Crampton's own blockbuster refinement of the paranormal sound she first put forward proper on the big screen with last year’s American Drift. Demon City feels like a record made among friends, a private conversation about what they'd like to hear and express in the club, before going out and doing just that. Its production is familiar and hollowed out at the same time, playing hide and seek with texture and often swerving away from a Big Moment only to save it for later. That all these voices behind her are coming into their own while Crampton's music gets better and better is humbling and astonishing today. Tomorrow can come later. [Brad Stabler]

Frank Ocean: Blonde [Boys Don’t Cry]

Throughout Blonde, Frank Ocean’s second full-length project of 2016, the artist performs a type of restless cruising. In L.A., you inevitably spend a lot of time on the highway, an endless loop of numbers that takes you from the foothills to the ocean and back. Exit signs, relics of old apartments, past lives float by. Shrouded in delicate arrangements that hang like weed smoke (or nuts, per “Futura Free”), Ocean sings to old lovers and old cars. He goes to Colorado. He yearns for people who are barely there. He crashes the galaxy. He sees the future first, and then lands back on Earth, bones dense as fuck. Blonde is beautiful in its roving plurality—its helium ballads and ghostly cameos whipped into frothy, prismatic choruses. It gently refuses to stay in a lane. As the critic Aria Dean theorizes—citing the Middle Passage, viral images of Black death, memes, and the fugitive nature of Black survival—historically and ontologically, Blackness circulates, troubles boundaries, makes them “a little bent.” Frank Ocean knows insofar as a Black man ever “makes it,” the world will try to own him. Blonde lives in the drift away from this capture, the detours. [Joseph Ocón]

Horse Lords: Interventions [Northern Spy]

Interventions is a classic breakthrough record, refining and broadening Horse Lords' sonic repertoire while also marking the best-sounding release by the group yet. The record offers a mind-expanding tour through the current preoccupations of the underground: foregrounding harsh guitar figures on "Interventions III,"  judiciously deploying loops and samples (the shorter sketches that serve as interludes highlight another key of the breakthrough record: thoughtful sequencing), and continually grounded in the band's ongoing relationship with hypnotic, syncopated polyrhythms. Like fellow travelers 75 Dollar Bill or Rangda, Horse Lords are the fruit borne of an increasingly interconnected and genre-blind subterranean scene, hovering at the midpoint of jazz, noise rock, and that knotty genre "world music." Arriving at a moment of renewed introspection and criticism across the independent music community, the aptly titled Interventions sings out with a vital urgency, a clarion call to renew one's engagement with the scenes that nurture these sounds. Interventions is certainly protest music, but it's also liberation music, and we need a lot more of both now more than ever. [Max Burke]

Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch [Sacred Bones]

Jenny Hval’s somewhat-vampire-themed LP Blood Bitch resonates with the past year in several intervals. The songwriting embodies the ever-flatter borders between genres in independent music: icy black metal, synth-driven dream pop, and the spoken-word librettos of Robert Ashley’s operas get equal time here in terms of reference, all rendered under a cool sonic patina by Hval and her co-producer, the Norwegian noise master Lasse Marhaug. Lyrically, Hval’s totemic references to technological anxiety (“I clutch my phone in my sweaty palm”) and the interplay between desire and violence (“I have big dreams,” she declares, “and blood powers”) speak to the ongoing concerns of 2016 in a poetic, reflexive tone exemplified in the self-deprecating dialogue in “The Great Undressing,” in which Hval and a friend laugh about making an album about bloodsuckers. One of Blood Bitch’s primary preoccupations is the exercise and evasion of power, a concern Hval attributes to two very different filmmakers. That she samples an Adam Curtis documentary to underscore cultural confusion as a political weapon is understandable. That she cites the films of grindhouse hack Jess Franco as an inspiration is less obviously clear, until you understand that, in an era where reality can vault you to the most vaunted position in the world, there’s a revolutionary strategy to staying on the margins. [Lance Higdon]

JJ Doll: JJ Doll [Katorga Works]

They've unfortunately already played their last show, but JJ Doll's self-titled 7" documents a band buoyed by the more classic (for lack of a better term) roots of contemporary New York City hardcore, and who embrace these roots in a way more particular and nuanced than most. Borne from the ashes of former local favorites Ivy—who, after their break up, now share members with Kaleidoscope as well—JJ Doll were an important cultural force, welcoming touring punk bands from the Midwest, down South, and internationally as a gateway to the character of NYC punk indicative of the last near-decade's scene. That description could lend to the idea of JJ Doll as a “band's band” or a local capsule, and although those aren't inherently wrong or bad things, they would be misleading about what’s ultimately one of the best punk releases of the year. [Matt Sullivan]

LVL UP: Return to Love [Domino]

Following 2014's critically acclaimed Hoodwink'd, Brooklyn outfit LVL UP took two years to build their third full-length, Return to Love. The quartet's latest is a massive stride forward in terms of creative ambition, scope, and unabashed feeling. 2016's difficulties sent a lot of people searching for their own discovery of spirituality and reasons to find, or keep, faith. Over 10 tracks of barbed, ’90s-leaning magic, LVL UP not only grapple with questions concerning those themes but provide a new source of inspiration.

On "Hidden Driver," Dave Benton—one of the band's three core songwriters—fuels a surging insistence that never wanes over the course of the record. Bassist and vocalist Nick Corbo's four contributions provide Return to Love with its beating heart and mark an exhilarating new chapter for an already promising talent. Michael Caridi's "Pain" serves as the record's most towering moment, even while returning the narrative to slightly smaller (and far more personal) stakes. Return to Love poses bigger questions in its narrative than the band’s past efforts do, yet they've never sounded more in control. [Steven Spoerl]

Mal Devisa: Kiid [self-released]

In a year when the public has come to rethink the media’s role in personal and political taste-making, Mal Devisa’s Kiid stands out as an uncompromising reflection on our times in its tone and, also, simply, in that its fans have come to love it so organically. Self-released in March, the record comprises ten tracks that range from tender ballads like "Sea Of Limbs" to stomping electronic recitations like “In My Neighborhood.” Kiid brilliantly draws from jazz, hip-hop, folk, and electronic music to create a dynamic batch of musical textures over which the glorious voice of Mal Devisa (real name: Deja Carr) soars. As independent music seems to beg to be contextualized in a scene or movement, Mal Devisa has consciously avoided the social trappings of the music industry, building a following by playing heartfelt shows, making art on her own terms, and being damn good at it. [Mike Kolb]

Mitski: Puberty 2 [Dead Oceans]

The bitter yearning and frustrated rebellion of 2016 has been well documented. Mitski's fourth effort, Puberty 2, deftly catalogues many such moments of bleak desperation and rarely offers relief. She recounts hard decisions, lost love, and dreams crushed by the need to pay rent each month. In a year when the summer seemed it would never end—bitter political quarreling and all—Mitski, too, cries during summertime fireworks. Along the way, her voice shape shifts, representing the contortions needed to reconcile her bitter nostalgia with the disappointing present. At times, she sounds like she is shouting through a phone, at others, as if as if she's in an empty lounge at the end of the world.

But Puberty 2 also serves a hard-nosed, equivocal optimism that fits the restless uncertainty of the past few months. Mitski’s anthemic defiance brims with passion but is short on resolution: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do. I think I do.” Gravelly textures of chopped electronic drum beats, abusive strumming of acoustic guitars, and full-throated saxophone add to the album’s feeling that even in principled resistance, everything still turns out a mess. [Robert Szypko]

Pinegrove: Cardinal [Run for Cover]

Pinegrove's second LP Cardinal strikes a nerve, even if it’s impact is hard to articulate. The album is threaded deeply with the rich personal details and wry musings that frontman Evan Stephens Hall shares in his lyrics—and in his emotive and expressive country drawl, and in the intricately woven banjo and slide guitar arrangements. Most of all, it's in the extremely relatable feelings and worries that make up the backbone of the album. When Hall sings, "I should call my parents when I think of them / I should tell my friends when I love them," it's all but impossible not to reflect and realize you should do the same yourself. Cardinal is lovingly crafted and deeply resonant. It's a comfort to experience something so genuinely pure in its intentions in 2016, with much of the world in chaos and our country's future seeming bleak and uncertain. There will always be a place for earnest indie rock records like this one, and Cardinal is a reminder of just how important they can be. [Connor Rush]

Princess Nokia: 1992 [self-released]

A firm believer in DIY, Destiny Frasqueri, a.k.a. Princess Nokia, really did do it herself. Head spinning from the pressure of major label battles, the Bronx rapper revisited her birth year and self-release her first mixtape, 1992. Enlisting an all-star lineup of producers—A-Trak and Lex Luger to name a couple—Princess Nokia lets us glimpse into her difficult childhood and displays the unafraid, calculated recklessness that emerged henceforth. One of her lead singles, “Kitana” is a battle cry against her self-doubts, where she bitingly spits, “I just wanna have fun / And to live without fear.”

Living without fear for Princess Nokia is living without shame, a sentiment that rings clearly through the love of both her physical self and her bloodline. Bursting with pride for her Afro-Puerto Rican and Native Arawak heritage in “Bruja,” she proclaims herself a “black-a-rican” witch, warding off her haters. In “Mine” and “Excellent,” she highlights her hair and skin, which aren’t so readily accepted by others. “Is that your real hair?” she asks, mimicking the questions of strangers. “It’s mine, I bought it,” she retorts. With “melanin heaven sent,” Princess Nokia’s 1992 is knowing your worth and exuding a confidence in spite of all odds. [Meilyn Huq]

serpentwithfeet: Blisters [Tri Angle]

It’s hard to write words these days, knowing full well that no amount of hyperbole or Pynchon-esque similes will come close to encapsulating the bizarre, multi-layered irony of 2016. In the United States, less than half of the voting population achieved a scrappy victory, rejecting the perceived threat of “PC culture” for their own form of “correctness.” Those people most likely would not approve of serpentwithfeet, but it is necessary and life-affirming that challenging artists like serpentwithfeet’s Josiah Wise, who identifies with minority groups increasingly facing marginalization and normalized bigotry, are channeling their stories into unique, exciting music. Wise is a classically trained vocalist, and seconds into his debut release, Blisters, his unadulterated voice stands out as naked and bold in year of heavily-processed musical voices. The complex naturalness on Blisters is like a mountain stream replenishing brutalist desolation. Wise’s interest in the occult, in the ethers, in the sensuality of chastity is a beautiful queerification of what some might otherwise consider “gospel” music. Collaborating with Tri Angle labelmate Haxan Cloak, Wise swims in baroque instrumentation throughout. Harps cascade. Huge swells of strings bolster his velvety vibrato. serpentwithfeet upends some of pop’s tired cliches, and although his songs concern personal relationships and conflicts, they will inevitably stand for much more. [Ross Devlin]

Sheer Mag: III [Static Shock / Wilsuns RC]

2016 has been a year defined by tumult and uncertainty. As the world perilously shifts in unfathomable ways, it’s crucial to find solace in the reaffirming consistencies of life. Thankfully, one small thing that we can always seem to count on is Sheer Mag annually releasing a mind-blowingly phenomenal EP. On their third release in as many years, the Philly punk crew continues their steady climb to the top of the rock world. At this point in their career, they’re comfortable with continuing to refine the formula that’s treated them so well. The blown-out, Thin Lizzy-worshipping guitar work remains front and center. Tina Halladay’s vocals are just as invigorating. However, there’s a newfound sense of urgency in Halladay’s lyrical message that makes this EP an absolutely necessary listen. “All my life I’ve felt the eye of the catcall / We’re striking back baby, and you can find me in the vanguard” she grittily howls on opening cut “Can’t Stop Fighting.” With III, it’s obvious what Sheer Mag came to the party to do: viciously dismantle the patriarchy through the uniting power of a strong voice and an infectiously catchy riff. [Dylan Farrell]

Solange: A Seat at the Table [Saint / Columbia]

A Seat at the Table is an understated affair, full of relaxed, considered grooves which sound intimate and feel so good. Magic abounds in unexpected moments and places—the cascading entrance of Sampha’s vocals after the main hook of “Don’t Touch My Hair” or the bassline of “Cranes in the Sky,” which traces Solange’s vocal acrobatics like spotters carrying a trampoline. The austere palm-muted guitars that open “Don’t You Wait” are the most foreboding musical moment on a record that confronts anti-blackness and her experiences as a black woman with miraculous levity. Here, she addresses the hubris of white cultural gatekeepers who embraced her last record, True, and accused her of “biting the hand that feeds” for expressing her racial politics and exposing the condescending critical assumption that R&B “just got interesting and experimental.” In truth, it has always been. A Seat at the Table undeniably deserves its spot amid this year’s best of lists, AdHoc’s included. But our inclusion of A Seat at the Table—and its embrace by a wider critical tradition that has done both Solange and black music wrong—isn't an appropriate measure of success; look to “F.U.B.U” to see where Solange takes hers. [Miguel Gallego]

Weyes Blood: Front Row Seat to Earth [Mexican Summer]

Though modern American life is frequently a far cry from a battle for survival, it’s not easy. I don’t know if any year can be objectively worse than another, but 2016 saw tragedy heaped upon tragedy, culminating in a cruel twist of fate in early November when, for the first time in as long as I can remember, people “viewed each other strangely, and as strangers,” to quote Truman Capote. Hadn’t we learned from Bush… or, you know, Andrew Jackson? And yet, out of this wretched, ugly year, Natalie Mering birthed something pure and unafraid. I don’t know what place art has in the face of an aggressive government or an army of ignorance, but I know the act of creation is an act of hope and necessity, one with the capacity to salve the sporadic pain of being alive. In all its resplendent orchestration and beauty, Front Row Seat To Earth has been a trusted companion against the darkness, the kind of companion we’ll need in the years to come. [Jordan Reyes]

Yves Tumor: Serpent Music [PAN]

Yves Tumor is distinct in his clear desire not to imitate anyone, instead developing his own stylistic language to express an inner world. On Serpent Music, the result of this process is a work that feels very personal and expressive, and dynamic in its contrasts. At times very beautiful, at others very ugly, at times free-flowing, at others highly constructed: Tumor’s compositional approach and sonic palette are wide-ranging. Beautiful soft loops meet acoustic and electronic sound sources, and the real world is invited in through the use of technical feats and field recordings: a diverse array of screeching feedback, cop sirens, and broken beats. But silence also plays a large role. He communicates much without words and uses complete aural silence to build anticipation and to accentuate a recurring feeling of fragmentation. Listening to everything existing in simultaneity, a larger picture emerges. Yet no matter how abstract the album, the sequencing is so even that if you get lost, upon repeat listens you get the feeling like you’re gently being pulled through a specific sonic environment—a feeling not unlike dreaming. Often the fact that our ears don’t immediately understand what they’re hearing makes us focus and pay closer attention. [Tobias Rochman]

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