Few people would disagree that 2016 was a monumental year. No less so in the music and art created this year. Artists produced albums that took them from obscure figures to household names, vinyl records sales surpassed streaming services and the commentaries made in music this year were critical contributions to conversations about politics, art and life as it is continuously explored and redefined.
Music genres continue to evolve into new forces of creativity as artists explore unchartered territory in expression. Nowhere is this more evident than in fresh collaborations between Bon Iver and Kanye West, Gallant’s signature falsetto contrasted with drum kicks and electronic beats or Beyonce’s standalone visual album. 2016 was also a huge year in comebacks with Bon Iver’s return from a 5-year break and A Tribe Called Quest’s return after 18 years.
It was nearly impossible to narrow the diversity of music this year gave us into a “best of” list but after much debate, here are the top 10 albums of the year:
10. Phase – Jack Garratt
British artist Jack Garratt is a true musical virtuoso. A university-trained musician, Garratt’s proficient on several instruments, and has been writing songs that have gotten critical recognition since he was a teenager. Maybe that’s what makes his debut Phase so remarkable: Though it shows flares of musical innovations throughout, it’s not just about instrumentation or arrangements—it’s about great songs.
The record contains moments of indie-pop, R&B and electronica—with Garratt showing his range of musical talent—but at its core, what makes it such a great album are Garratt’s catchy, upbeat songs and soulful vocals.
Phase is a unique, hook-driven debut from one of the year’s best young artists.
9. Georgica Pond – JohnnySwim
Georgica Pond is the band’s second full-length album. The duo’s signature vocals and southern-inspired chorales are present, but there’s a depth to their music that is entirely new as they explore the themes of deep love appreciated and lost.
We interviewed Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano—the married couple that makes up this exceptional sound—to ask what makes this album so exceptional.
I think there was a sense of determination in this album, one because of deadlines but also, we had gone through so much between the process in our personal lives: losing parents, losing grandparents, losing some friends, relationships changing. These songs on Georgica Pond were written because they had to be. They are like medicine to us, they’re therapy.
8. 22, a Million – Bon Iver
The much-anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver garnered praise from critics everywhere. During the press cycle for this album, Justin Vernon noted his departure from his signature morose style saying that “circling the same cycles emotionally just feels boring.”
With 22, a Million the album opens up, letting Vernon take the listener to new spheres of his creative exploration in an concerted effort to move on from harder times. With each song, you feel Vernon’s reach towards healing as he wrestles with ideas of salvation, love and loss.
7. Love and War – Fleurie
Fleurie’s Love and War is best and most consistently described as cinematic, and coming off of the coattails of her last EP Arrows, we can see why.
While her last album offered brightly colored sounds layered in synth, Love and War‘s notes offer a little bit more depth and texture. The orchestral soundscape pairs perfectly with her stark raw vocals and is one of the reasons Fleurie has landed a spot on our list.
It is both haunting and heavenly, expressing the extremes of between love and war in sonic sound.
6. We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest
This is one of the hallmarks albums of the year. 2016 saw a resurgence of nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s, probably in longing for simpler times. A Tribe Called Quest encapsulated our hopes by releasing their sixth studio album, their first in 18 years. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard charts. The group’s influence far exceeds music charts, though.
We Got It From Here is an essential piece of work, urging the listener to engage the world in deeper ways. It’s a commentary on global uncertainty, on politics, on identity and clearly showcases the wisdom the group has collected to share over the years. It is also a triumphant celebration of their legacy shared in the wake of the death of one of the original group members, Phife Dawg. [Note: we recommend the clean version and just a heads up, the video below contains some somewhat strong language.]
5. We Move – James Vincent McMorrow
James Vincent McMorrow’s We Move is genre defying. The singer-songwriter has a background in folk and rock, but We Move is something all its own.
The album is beat-driven, atmospheric and poppy, all at the same time. Touches of ‘80s synth-pop can be heard throughout, but it’s never really nostalgic. Instead of just revisiting a retro sound, James Vincent McMorrow reclaims it.
Though each song stands on it own (there’s no filler on We Move), the record is best absorbed as a whole, with each track arranged as a stop on a journey comprised of James Vincent McMorrow’s full range of musical creativity.
4. Lemonade – Beyonce
When Beyonce first debuted a visual album in 2013, artists soon copied the same style. With Lemonade, Beyonce reclaimed her signature as a standalone music legend by telling a story no other artist could. Lemonade speaks to the experience of a woman living in a man’s world, themes of infidelity, racial disparity and Beyonce’s own pain growing up in the spotlight between her and her father (her previous manager).
The album is commentary on our world as much as it is a look into Beyonce’s personal experience. The visual component is a cinematic experience drawing on themes from the old South (a reference to Beyonce’s childhood in Texas) with interludes of poems recited by Beyonce between songs. With this work, Beyonce distinguished herself and her brand as Queen Bey once again.
3. Home of the Strange – Young the Giant
Young the Giant’s new release Home of the Strange isn’t just a really good album. It’s a really important one. Each band member is either an immigrant or the child of immigrants, and the record serves as an exploration and examination of the immigration experience in 2016 America. The album features the band’s brand of driving indie-rock, matched with introspective lyrics that offer an insider’s view to one of the year’s most important issues.
Frontman Sameer Gadhia recently explained to RELEVANT, “I think it’s a wider space than just trying to get any agenda. We’re not being cynical; we’re not being optimistic. There’s just something beautifully strange and human about America—or where I think we are in it.”
2. Ology – Gallant
Gallant is one of the most refreshing sounds in music this year. Ology is an ambitious album that exceeds his widely-received 2015 single, “Weight in Gold.” He may only be 24 years old, but he’s already earned the acclaim of highly respected artists including Sufjan Stevens, Elton John and Moby.
His struggles as an artist are central to the album’s theme and through the smooth R&B grooves, you can sense him coming to grips with his place in the world. This album does an incredible job at mixing ’80s and ’90s inspiration with a new hip-hop and soul sound.
1. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s independently released 13-track mixtape has made the biggest impact in the music industry this year, no questions. This album is an outstanding achievement in sound and artistic creativity with collaborations across every genre including artists like Francis and the Lights, Justin Bieber, Future and even Kirk Franklin. Coloring Book is the first digital-only album to be nominated for a Grammy—in this case seven, including Best Rap Album.
The lyrics explore subjects like identity, family and life in the crosshairs of music industry bureaucracy and faith. Many critics have called the work as a whole “new gospel,” a genre entirely its own. With anthems like “Blessings” and “Angels,” you can tell he’s also just having fun with it.
It’s definitely the most original hip-hop album of the year but Chance has said his work isn’t a commentary on faith or trying to carve out a new expression of faith in music. Instead, it’s the expression of a man of God living in the tension of living between culture and Christ. And staying real while doing it.