In short, 2016 was a pretty s**tty year. Donald Trump ran for President of the United States – and won. We lost Prince, Muhammad Ali, Tommy Ford and a host of other Black national treasures. Philando Castile was shot dead in front of a four-year-old. Alton Sterling was killed for selling CDs. And we have a whole month left for new forms of f**kery.
The music gods must have known we’d need a resolution; they gave us quite the soundtrack to face such a challenging 366 days. Frank Ocean crawled out of the shadows. Beyoncé dropped a whole damn movie to accompany her surprise album. Chance the Rapper took us to church. And Solange kept it Black AF. If there were ever an audible definition of “silver lining,” 2016’s stellar music offerings were it.
While we’re grateful for each artist who has helped soften the blows, it's still the end of the year and we still have a job to do: our list of 2016’s top albums. Other, more crappy, years in music have made these feats a lot easier. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the theme of 2016 can be summed up in one word: HARD.
We’ve narrowed it down to ten projects. Come see us.
2016 was one of those glorious moments when the student becomes teacher for Travis Scott. Like his predecessors Kid Cudi and Kanye West, whom he drew much influence from for his earlier projects, Scott found his groove as the ultimate maestro on his sophomore effort. The album itself is a vibrant yet hazy sonic point of view of the pitfalls of fame and not succumbing to the social trap that ambitious young creatives can find themselves in these days. But perhaps what registers most is Scott’s awareness of his contributions to the genre. While he’s certainly not your rapper’s rapper, there’s an effortless ability to shapeshift his robust sound to the likes of André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd and many more. Creating vibes in the form of distorted sounds and volatile textures, he excels and so does Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. – Ashley Monaé
It didn't take long for heart-eyed fans to dub Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered. an instant classic, with the olive green pantone swatch of an album cover dominating Instagram the very second it was released on March 4, 2016. While technically the project acts as a compilation of previously unreleased demos that didn't make the cut for 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, it cannot be written off as a random batch of throw-away tracks Lamar himself had once discarded as average or not worthy of the airtime. Although Lamar's only 2016 release exists, by definition, as less than a studio album and more than a mixtape, the project truly is one of a kind. In fact, it is an unprecedented, intimate look into the celebrated genius of the Compton rapper – one that we didn't necessarily deserve or ask for, but are more than grateful to have. If To Pimp a Butterfly is revered as an unparalleled opus, untitled unmastered. is the footnotes, the prologue and the epilogue combined. Cornrow Kenny graciously adds to his allure by proving that, while he is undeniably an iconic rapper, he's still human, too, and figuring it all out along the way like the rest of us. – KC Orcutt
Decade-crawling to every golden age of jazz, soul, pop and R&B, Bruno’s latest body of work is a compilation of glitz, glam and groove for his third studio release. It doesn’t matter what era you were born in — after a spin through the nine-track time machine, you can no longer be ignorant to the spirit and fiber of ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s funk. This, coupled with Bruno’s energizing vocals that polish so seamlessly over invigorating instrumentals are what makes 24K Magic, well, magic. — Diamond Alexis
ATCQ ringleader Phife Dawg's passing earlier this year left a gaping hole in hip-hop and furthered the uncertainty that we would ever get another Tribe album. Call it the swan song for the legendary group, as their sixth studio album came after more than a decade of wanting. With Phife generously peppered throughout the entire work, the increase in presence of Jarobi and the much needed energy from Busta Rhymes, Consequence and a few other pleasant surprises, A Tribe Called Quest honored their fallen brother with a masterpiece. It's crazy to think after waiting so long for this project that we will never see another like it again, but that's perhaps the beauty of Phife's parting gift to us — a work that proved the level of magic that can cook up when a couple of legends hop in the studio for a good time and press "record." — Kathy Iandoli
TLOP, much like Kanye West himself, was a total work in progress. His seventh studio album underwent a few name changes before settling upon this one. And thanks to technology, the project kept undergoing maintenance almost up until the Saint Pablo Tour. However, Kanye West put his genius hat on, as he always does, and provided a mind trippy sonic experience. Grabbing elements from his previous works, including Yeezus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 808s & Heartbreak, Ye spun us a web full of turmoil and bravado — all while giving us a musical experience to both dance and zone out to. 2016 certainly didn't shape up to be the year Kanye probably intended, but by reliving TLOP, it becomes clear how cathartic it was in many ways for Mr. West. Isn't that the whole point of art anyway? – Kathy Iandoli
Blonde is not for the faint-hearted.
In all of Frank Ocean’s idiosyncrasy, the most mesmerizing component is his natural ability to pleasurably intoxicate you with taboo thoughts. On Blonde — his well overdue comeback — each song sits down and has an intentional conversation with itself, forcing listeners to fall in love with the art of Ocean’s lyrical labyrinth. With vocal assists from Kendrick Lamar and Andre 3000, standout tracks such as “Skyline To,” “Self Control” and “Nights” are mystifying, esoteric, disquieting and soulfully numbing. Nobody was safe.
Frank Ocean’s dangerously-anticipated sophomore project officially redefined the connotation of having a “blonde moment.” – Diamond Alexis
Chance the Rapper had a landmark year, with 2016 elevating him from Chicago's unlikely 23-year-old hero to a household name. His third mixtape, Coloring Book, was to thank. The vivid 14-track collection, creatively fusing hip-hop with soul and gospel, became the first project to chart on the Billboard 200 based solely on streams, peaking at No. 8 and persuading the Recording Academy to consider streaming-only projects for Grammy nominations. While revolutionizing the genre of gospel was not necessarily his goal, the rapper's forward-thinking approach helped propel his visibility as an artist, with the important messages found within his mixtape righteously reaching mainstream audiences.
His activism, mixed with his musicianship, makes him a perfect candidate for Best New Hip-Hop Artist, an accolade he earned at the 2016 BET Hip-Hop Awards. Coloring Book is both a timeless and timely album, something that not many artists can say they’ve created with confidence while also managing to remove their ego from the equation. In a day and age where powerful, meaningful art is needed more than ever, Chance the Rapper is letting his music do the talking — and we couldn't be more excited for what he'll put together next. — KC Orcutt
Lemonade was nothing short of an event. In true Queen Bey fashion, Beyoncé showed out for her sixth solo album, with a rollout that included an HBO unveiling with a full visual experience. Not to mention it gave TIDAL's stock a boost with the exclusivity that followed the premiere. But strip away the savvy marketing plan and remove the documentary-slash-blockbuster quality visuals and what you have is an entire outpouring of emotions. "Formation" arguably set the pro-Black tone, but as we drank more of the Lemonade, we felt the pain, stages of emotional betrayal and resilience of Black women. What Beyoncé did was craft a work that spoke to how women deal with various elements of loss and the sense of sisterhood that uplifts them. Somehow, some way, Bey outdid herself again. — Kathy Iandoli
Yes, ANTI is a clear reminder that badass pop princess Rihanna truly gives zero f**ks, but what made us fawn over her for the millionth time was the endless piles of risks she took with her long-awaited eighth album. There’s no dichotomy to plow through, no mythical veil to uncover. What you see is what you get and what we heard on wax is undeniably her most compelling work to date. Laying on a thick coat of cool rationality (“Woo,” “Consideration” ), her candid sexpot temperament (“Sex With Me,” “Kiss It Better”) and unexpected glimpses into her soul (“Needed Me,” “Same Ol' Mistakes"), the LP flourishes beyond the mainstream pop lane she’s owned for the past decade and into an alt-R&B zone where her once prosy vocals prove to be just as magnetic as her hazel gaze. In an industry where vulnerability still seems to be taboo, Rihanna took a chance and found her own musical masterpiece in escapism. — Ashley Monaé
There is substantial relief in the moment when someone says exactly what you’ve been thinking. Usually followed by a dramatic release of breath, wide eyes and a finger point, the connection is automatic, as it is made clear that you are not the dreaded “only one.” The only one stewing in a certain emotion or the only one mulling over a particular question. This is the relief Solange gifted Black people with on A Seat at the Table. Vocalizing our innermost emotions through song, the eccentric Knowles sister brought our thoughts (and tweets and think pieces) to life: “Don’t touch my hair,” “I tried to drink it away,” “I’m weary of the ways of the world,” “I got a lot to be mad about,” “Some s**t is for us.”
After pressing play, Black people collectively released their breath, widened their eyes and pointed.
You too, Solange?! You too?! – Iyana Robertson
Of course 2016 was a good year for Drake, but for many of his musical peers it was great. His only project of the year, VIEWS, sold over one million copies and simultaneously broke the record for album streams in a single week, which is surely nothing to scoff at, as numbers don’t lie. What feels like it should be an exercise for Drake at this point was anything but. Both a cautionary tale and shameless musing of his beloved Toronto, the style and story is one we’ve heard from the MC, who’s made a career off of reminiscing before: lady friends and squandered attempts at love, trust issues, arrogance. Lyrically, his flow is watered down, as accusations of ghostwriting linger. But lush production from Noah “40” Shebib, Boi1da, nineteen85 and Maneesh, among others serve as a buoyant backdrop that can make one think again before pressing stop. As heavy-handed as VIEWS plays at a claustrophobic 81 minutes, there’s something remarkable about Drake’s ability to make music that’s uniquely his own. From the dancehall-tinged “Controlla” and “One Dance” to the Rap&B lullabies of “Weston Road Flows” and “With You,” there are just some moments you can’t deny. — Ashley Monaé
(Photos from left: Westbury Road Entertainment, Parkwood Entertainment, Boys Don't Cry)