The Best Albums of 2016 (so far)
Hard as it may be to believe, 2016 is already more than halfway over. And despite what the Trump campaign or British xenophobia may have you believe, it hasn’t all been terrible this year either, at least not music-wise.
2016 so far has been a year of surprise mega-releases, coupled with a sprinkling of both underrated mixtapes and genre-bending indie breakouts. Who’s to say what the rest of the year has in store for us (maybe a Frank Ocean album? Who the hell knows) — but without further ado, here are the admittedly subjective, maybe just a touch biased, but altogether undeniably sound best albums of 2016 we’ve heard so far:
10. Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered
In a year of underrated mixtapes and surprise releases, Kendrick’s Untitled Unmastered somehow, like just about everything else he does, both fits the bill and feels like nothing else we’ve witnessed before. Coming hard on the heels of one of 2015’s most heralded records, the purpose of Untitled Unmastered‘s collection of previously-unreleased demos seems mostly to cement Lamar’s status as the best and most free-wheeling MC in the game right now.
Unlike most releases of previously-locked up material that was left scattered on the cutting room floor, which tends to solidify the artist’s skills as an editor of a final product, this surprise 2016 release instead showcases just how much jazz and funk-inflected incisive commentary Kendrick has to deliver on sexuality, power, oppression, blackness, the city of Los Angeles, and whole lot else.
9. Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost
A lot of albums this year have tried to capture the feeling of youth, from Mitski’s sonic travels back to pubescence to Radiohead’s conversation with the soundscape that brought them into the 21st century. But Modern Baseball’s Holy Ghost gets the closest to capturing the ineffable essence of youth — the earnestness, the tension, the frenetic energy, the hot and humid summer nights spent driving with the windows down falling in love with a girl or a boy, or at least the feeling of being young and driving around on a hot and humid night with the windows rolled down.
But Modern Baseball isn’t as naive as that above description might make them sound, and their awareness of the stakes at hand for the plots that they soundtrack (not to mention the cliches inherent in them) is matched only by the extreme empathy that the band extends to both its characters and the predominantly teenage crew of ardent followers they have developed. It’s truly great to see the increased exposure that Holy Ghost has brought the band, and even better to imagine what lays ahead for the group in the future.
8. YG, Still Brazy
Kendrick Lamar may be the king of Hip-Hop, but for years now YG has been prosecuting his case to be considered at least for the position of Hand of the King, West Coast Division. The lushness of Still Brazy is only matched by YG’s imaginative qualities, plus a textbook delivery of L.A.’s aesthetic with bass and beats turned up just right to bang around whatever speakers your car is working with.
Tracks like “Word Is Bond” and “Twist My Fingaz” are undeniable, and even “FDT” (‘Fuck Donald Trump’) is at least as enjoyable as it is goofy (or at least as goofy as a stridently angry song can be). Chance’s Coloring Book might be the feel-good album of the year, but whether you’re rolling around town or just coding while plugged into earbuds, few albums as as purely pleasurable as Still Brazy.
7. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
How do you feel about Muscle Shoals horns, slide guitar stolen right out from under a Nashville studio’s nose, outlaw alt-country covers of Nirvana, and the ghost of Waylon Jenning’s voice, returned from hell and encapsulated in Sturgill Simpson?
If you’re any rational human being the answer should be ‘hell fucking yeah,’ which is why any rational human being should dig themselves some Sturgill. Like Simpson’s second-to-most-recent album Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, this year’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth blends hyper-literate, existentialist lyricism with the sound and attitude of alt country. Simpson is a master of not just paying homage to the hard-drinking and hard-rocking country stars who came before him, but also of intertwining that legacy with a more contemporary blend of influences and appreciation.
If there’s any strike against Simpson, it’s that his recordings have become a bit more of a thesis statement (“see, country musicians can appreciate Kurt Cobain and Merle Haggard equally“) than insightful musical products that stand on their own, but then again, it’s next to impossible to argue with those horns that come in on the opening track “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” and stay for the rest of the album.
6. Pinegrove, Cardinal
For an album as concise and coherent as Pinegrove’s incredible 2016 release Cardinal, it can be a difficult album to describe. Maybe it sounds like if Ryan Adams got whiskey drunk with the members of Rilo Kiley. Maybe it sounds like if other passing-fancy roots-rock acts like The Head and the Heart or The Avett Brothers cut the cutesy shit, added a dash of distortion and banjo, and a truckoad of morning-after consequences. Or maybe it sounds like a surprisingly refreshing, intelligent, and straightforward rock album that’s everything you want in a record — emotional highs, stellar musicianship, and lyrics that somehow pack in more feeling and vivid imagery than the space they take up.
There isn’t much surprising about this album besides how incredible it is and how astonishingly few people who would certainly fall in love the band have so much as heard of Pinegrove on the sidebar of their Spotify. Give Cardinal 30 well-deserved minutes of your time, and you won’t just walk away with one of the most unexpectedly great albums of the year, but possibly one of your favorite albums of all time.
5. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
What can be said about Kanye’s The Life of Pablo that hasn’t already been said, tweeted, blogged, re-blogged, unpacked, questioned, countered, challenged, criticized, re-countered, and on and on? TLOP is an album as flawed and incredible as the artist’s career, with peaks (Chance’s verse on “Ultralight Beam,” the crashing synths opening up “Waves,” the seamless transition in “Famous” from Rihanna to Sister Nancy) and valleys (the prolonged and take-laden Twitter rollout and ensuing rushed clean up of the LP, the album’s general lack of focus or sharp editing, and pretty much the rest of “Famous”) that embody the turmoil, the astonishing ups and downs, that constitute Kanye the genius and Kanye the artist and Kanye the fuckup and the several hundred other Kanye’s we’ve examined and skewered for the better part of the 21st century.
If the name of this list is “most important,” this record probably finishes in the top three of the first half of 2016 due at the least to the sheer number of conversations it inspired. If this list was for “most anticipated,” it’s blowing everybody else out of the water. If this list was for “most coherent” TLOP‘s not even making honorable mentions. Considering this list is for the more amorphous quality of ‘best,’ it gets a solid middle-of-the-road rating.
4. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Did anybody expect Anderson .Paak’s album to be as good as this? No, nobody expected it, but holy shit this record is incredible.
Are beats supposed to be this luscious? Are Paak’s lines supposed to float above this beautiful assortment of bass and synths like one of Malibu’s blondest of blondes in a private pool, bottle of champagne in hand? Are we sure these aren’t fire breaks handed down from Kendrick on high?
Malibu is a glorious, relaxing, beautiful party, one that showcases Paak’s compositional and lyrical mastery. It’s an album wise beyond its years and exudes a sexiness that’s decades younger than the half century of musical past it draws upon. By the second-to-last track, “Celebrate,” we don’t need to be told twice to enjoy the last few minutes of the affair, but man, how freaking lucky are we that Anderson .Paak decided to throw this expansive get-together for us all.
3. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial is unquestionably the best rock album of 2016 so far, and I will fight anybody who says otherwise. No other rock album of 2016 is this smart, this witty, this insightful, and still rocks this fucking hard. For as many words as Will Toledo (essentially the judge, jury, and executioner of Car Seat Headrest) can pack into a stanza, what’s even more incredible is how much more vivid the imagery he unspools is, over some of the most gut-punching visceral rock n roll this side of the millennium.
Teens of Denial is like 70 minutes of a paint-by-numbers picture, if that picture was an album and the numbers were your favorite, coolest bands. You can hear a little of Pavement here, some Strokes or Guided By Voices or Minutemen or wait-was-that-Ric-Ocasek over there, but all filtered through the once-in-a-generation unique point of view and pen of Toledo.
Try not to dance around in your underwear singing along to the emotional climax of “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” or at least pretending you’re in a scene in a movie where you do just that. Try not to proselytize this band to all of your friends and coworkers and loved ones who will listen. Try not to listen to Teens of Denial again and again and again and try and fail to convince yourself that it’s anything short of amazing.
You can try, but it won’t happen.
2. Beyonce, Lemonade
In a year of anticipated musical releases, Beyonce’s surprise visual album drop of Lemonade trounced them all, shattering the Twittersphere and HBOGo with a record totally out of left field and with more jaw-dropping power than most left fielders sport. The album was impressive for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that a surprise Beyonce album about Jay-Z’s supposed infidelity was kept under wraps right up until its release, but the most stunning of all was her ability to weave a broad and seamless integration of several sonic and visual elements into one sweeping statement on identity along axes of race, class, gender, and more.
There’s no question that Beyonce’s album is important, and there’s really no denying the lyrical and compositional muscle on display either, or the love and enthusiasm Beyonce brings about from her fans.
But it does feel like the record hasn’t had the staying power of some of its peers to date, besides maybe as a vehicle for expressing disdain for the plaintiff in a Supreme Court test case. Part of that is likely because of the restriction of Bey’s music to TIDAL, the Drake of streaming services (lonely, aloof, and obsessed with self-aggrandizement past the point of relatability), which in turn seems to cheapen the message of female empowerment when its performed in service of your supposedly profligate husband’s profitability. And part of that might also be that we’ve become so accustomed to Beyonce being our foremost pop statesman that her greatness is somehow just expected, never really questioned because it’s not the least bit in doubt.
I think when we look back on 2016 in 6 months from now, or 10 years from now, with the hindsight of Twitter analysis and a trove of thinkpieces, Lemonade will be viewed as one of the most talked-about, and therefore important, albums of the decade. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the best of its own year, because how can anybody hope to compete with:
1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
It’s impossible to deny the rising star of Chicago’s Chance The Rapper — the dude got to design his own kickass White Sox hat, have his image plastered on bus stops all around his home city, and was officially dubbed ‘undeniable’ by
Grantland The Ringer over the weekend. And that doesn’t even deal with his music.
Chance’s release Coloring Book is less mixtape and more sonic explosion, the sound of a 23-year-old hitting his creative and commercial peak at just the right time. There’s nobody else I want to hear discussing Chicago’s musical past and violent present, or talking with Future about reaching an age where you might have more important stuff to do besides smoking weed, or sticking a children’s choir with top billing above Kanye West, or cranking up the jams and partying all night with Lil Wayne.
Coloring Book makes you hope. It makes you dream. It makes you dance and it makes you cry and it makes you love your city the way you might love a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.
And now for the top ten, in Spotify format:
Honorable mentions: Mitski, Puberty 2; Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool; Sia, This Is Acting; James Blake, The Color in Everything; Yo Gotti, The Art of the Hustle; The Hotelier, Goodness; Joey Purp, iiiDrops; Rihanna, Anti; The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It; David Bowie, Blackstar; PUP, The Dream Is Over; Young Thug, I’m Up.