The year 2016 will forever be remembered as a Annus horribilis for music.
It was a year that saw the passing of a number of icons, from Prince and David Bowie to George Michael and Leonard Cohen. And Merle Haggard. And Glenn Frey. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
If that wasn’t enough, the best-selling album released this calendar year, Drake’s Views, was a colossal disappointment – an overproduced, well-packaged product intended to propel a few catchy singles and nothing more. Oh, and two egregious hacks calling themselves “The Chainsmokers” made an earache-inducing EDM track that spent 12 weeks at #1.
And yet, amid the death and din, 2016 gave us some truly worthy gems, from the soulful crooning of Solange to the furious rhymes of Skepta. So without further ado, here are The Daily Beast’s picks for the best albums of the year.
10. Jenny Hval – blood female dog
This is the sixth album from the Norwegian dynamo formerly known as Rockettothesky and, I have to admit with shame, the first I’ve listened to. This is – bear with me – a concept album following a time-traveling vampire as she bloodles the sultry 70s in her own way. Hval tackles the themes of menstruation and unwavering feminism through songs of indescribable beauty, mixing folk accents, noise pop and goth metal. blood female dog is a trip you will take many, many times.
9. Frank Ocean – Blond
It took four years – and many stops and starts – for New Orleans’ top R&B-soul singer to drop the sequel to his jaw-dropping debut album. Orange Channeland while Blond does not reach these lyrical heights, it remains a piercing and ambitious curiosity (if a bit exaggerated). Here, Ocean has combined his unique talents with those of numerous collaborators, from James Blake and Jon Brion to Pharrell Williams and Malay, his co-lead producer, to create an atmospheric album with more layers than a matryoshka.
8. Viola Beach – Viola Beach
It’s heartbreaking. British indie rock quartet Viola Beach had just put the finishing touches on their self-titled debut album and were about to embark on a series of tour dates when, on February 13, the four members, along with their manager, were died in a freak car accident in Stockholm, Sweden. Tributes poured in from everywhere, including a viral campaign backed by the likes of fellow Northerner Liam Gallagher to put the band’s catchy single “Slings & Waterslides” to the top of the UK charts (it briefly hit No. 1 on iTunes five days after the tragedy). Devastating background aside, this is cheerful, unassuming, enjoyable guitar music from an exciting young band that only scratches the surface of their abilities.
7. A Quest Called Tribe – We got it from here… Thank you 4 Your service
Desiigner was one when Tribe released their last album, 1998’s Little Extraordinary The movement of love, so confidence was not high when the Queens natives announced they would be releasing their final album this year, which featured contributions from the late Phife Dog, who died in March. But damn it, they proved us wrong, delivering a lyrical love letter to hip-hop that managed to feel both storied and urgent, with the trio of MCs putting on all Black Lives Matter to Donald Trump on wax. These guys know how to make an exit.
6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – skeleton tree
They say all great comedy is born out of tragedy, and as 2016 proved, so is some of the best music. When recording this one, the 16and studio album by Nick Cave and his brooding Aussie rock band, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died after accidentally falling off a cliff. Cave channeled his heartbreak, pain and philosophical ruminations into a minimalist 8-song triumph, one far more experimental and ambient than we expected from these rugged guys. It’s an album that oscillates between dark and light, providing a wormhole in Cave’s subconscious as he struggles to come to terms with the adventitia of mortality.
5. Skepta – Konnichiwa
There’s a certain bias against non-American rappers — both in the hip-hop community and in the media — that’s a bit troubling. Konnichiwa, the fourth studio album by British grime veteran Skepta, should have been his mainstream breakthrough. Combining fast and furious rhymes with hard-hitting beats, it hit harder than any rap album this year, and yet despite winning the coveted Mercury Music Prize for Best British Album vs. at Radiohead and Bowie, it fell on deaf ears in the United States. Out of shame.
4. Solange – A seat at the table
Kanye’s Pablo’s life had the most play this year, but Solange A seat at the table was the one I thought about the most. Young Knowles’ highly anticipated sequel to 2012 True builds on the promise of this EP. It is, as our writer Amy Zimmerman noted, a “bold, poetic meditation on being black in America,” mixing psychedelic funk grooves with intimate lyrics (as on the brilliant “Don ‘t Touch My Hair”) and socially conscious interludes exploring the lingering effects of white supremacy. It’s high time to recognize Solange not just as Beyoncé’s little sister, but as one of the most powerful voices in music.
3. Angel Olsen – My wife
The Pride of St. Louis Last Album, 2014 Burn your fire without a witness, was a lo-fi rumination on the agony and ecstasy of romance. Olsen took a different approach to it, a collection of Fleetwood Mac-esque tracks that complement his achingly sincere vocals with pop trappings. In a press release, Olsen said he tackled “the complicated mess of being a woman” through a series of “scenes that I replayed in my head.” In effect, My wife feels both cinematic and deeply personal; expansive and venous.
2. Beyonce – Lemonade
I have to admit: I wasn’t Beyoncé’s biggest fan before. Lemonade, even going so far as to claim that his work in Destiny’s Child was vastly superior to his solo efforts. This transcendent visual album changed things. No album has projected a more unifying vision than Lemonade, a ferocious hymn to marital fidelity that is part bare autobiography, part political manifesto, part confident musical statement. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre of music that Bey doesn’t incorporate here, as she samples styles of reggae, country, gospel, blues, electro, and more, all with her “major up” sound. Beyoncé didn’t need to take the risk, she didn’t need do anything, actually, but she did, and the boy made her pay.
1. Kanye West – Pablo’s life
Like its erratic and divisive creator, who still owes his legion of adoring fans an explanation for his outburst of Trump and that tweet from Cosby—Pablo’s life was released randomly, with Kanye crowdsourcing some bits online and tweaking them to align with the court of public opinion. By the time the smoke cleared, we were left with an uneven but hugely ambitious gospel marvel – a marvel whose heights reach higher than any other artist. Take “Ultralight Beam,” a track fusing organ, sonic rhythms, lucky rhymes, and a crescendo chorus that reaches for the heavens and takes you there. No living artist is as supernaturally gifted – or as haunted – as Kanye West, and no one can conceive a song like ‘Ye, the Le Corbusier of music.
There were too many great albums released this year so in addition to the above I would highly recommend the funky malibu by Cali native Anderson Paakwhich is a joy to watch live as he alternates between microphone and drums; young thug established himself as an elite MC with his heart-pounding mixtape Jeffrey; Dev Hynes cemented his status as one of R&B’s leading producers with Sound of Freetown; and luck the rapper exploded into mainstream consciousness with his dense and feature-rich mixtape Coloring book.