Politically and personally, 2016 was unkind to most. But in between the sucker punches and the disenchantment, there was the music that got us through it all. Below are the albums (and no, The Life of Pablo and Joanne did not make the cut) that brought a touch of sparkle to the year of the mass celebrity exodus off of earth and the year the world proved we’re still very much stuck in the Dark Ages, open mind-wise.
David Bowie, Blackstar: As usual, Bowie blazed the trail in trends by being the first major icon to check out this year, but not before he left us with the gift that was Blackstar, a prophetically eerie album featuring the telling video for the eponymous single.
Suede, Night Thoughts: Starting with the first track, “When You Are Young,” Suede showcases itself at its most mature–with Brett Anderson’s distinct voice proving that melancholic lyrics and tones resonate at every age, whether you grew up with the band in the 90s or not.
Rihanna, ANTI: Though Rihanna’s eighth album (per her churn out one a year plan) was initially somewhat overshadowed by the surprise birth of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, it only took the gradual release of all her best singles from the album for ANTI–plus a technically elaborate world tour–to finally get the recognition it deserved. Highlights include “Love on the Brain” and her cover of Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes.”
Junior Boys, Big Black Coat: As one of Ontario’s finest, Junior Boys have a unique mastery of the dance genre (the kind that rivals Flume’s). It’s been roughly since around the time their 2006 album, So This Is Goodbye, came out that the duo has made a noticeable mark on the electronic scene. While there’s been Begone Dull Care and It’s All True in between, Big Black Coat is arguably their best to date.
Mýa, Smoove Jones: Not bothering to cater to “radio-friendly” bullshit at this juncture (after all, she’s a member of the over thirty set now, which Madonna addresses candidly in her Billboard Woman of the Year speech), Mýa goes full-fledged feelin’ on your booty R&B for her seventh album. And, if we’re being honest, it’s unlikely that anyone has given too much thought to her music since 2003’s Moodring, which offered the still vital “My Love Is Like…Wo.” Smoove Jones once again spotlights Mýa’s singular vocal abilities, as well as a style that most aren’t willing to explore for fear of not selling enough “units.”
Animal Collective, Painting With: Ten albums in, Animal Collective shows no signs of slowing down their creative innovation and influence on others. The tribal tone is set with “FloriDada,” and prevails in all of its witchy glory on the likes of “Bagels in Kiev” and “Summing the Wretch.” After long ago reaching a point of not needing to prove themselves, which only seems to make them all the better, Animal Collective finds genius in liberation from public opinion. Moreover, who else would pen an homage to Golden Girls called “Golden Gal”?
Gwen Stefani, This Is What the Truth Feels Like: After an unpleasant but longtime coming divorce from Gavin Rossdale, Stefani presented us with her much anticipated third studio album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. Exploring not only the heartache of losing her greatest love on tracks like “Used to Love You,” Stefani also highlights the potential for renewal (thanks to her romance with Blake Shelton–one that, yes, will invariably come to an end) on songs such as “Make Me Like You.” Vacillating between severe melancholy and pure jubilance, This Is What the Truth Feels Like is, indeed, what the peaks and valleys of life feel like.
Beyoncé, Lemonade: What can possibly be said about Lemonade that hasn’t been already? It’s Beyoncé one-upping herself–her own prior first visual album in 2013–and one-up it she does, proving to women everywhere that you can have everything: revenge against the man you love and the man you love.
Flume, Skin: From the moment Skin opens with the mentally trippy “Helix,” Flume proves that his talent has only blossomed with a higher budget to work with in the studio. Though it’s been four years since his very homemade, but very successful self-titled debut, it’s all been building toward this record’s shattering of any accusation of a sophomore slump.
Garbage, Strange Little Birds: Every time people are about to forget that Garbage existed, occasionally remembering them when it rains and they want to post “Only Happy When It Rains,” they come back just when you least expect it. And with Strange Little Birds, the Shirley Manson-fronted band continues to showcase a timeless relevancy to the alternative rock music genre. Nor has age caused Manson to lose her edge. Though she may lyrically express, “Sometimes I feel like I’ve vanished in thin air/sometimes I feel like I’m not here,” there’s no forgetting Garbage after this album. And what could be a more anthemic song for describing 2016 than “Empty?”
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound: Though Blood Orange a.k.a. Devonté Hynes waited three years to present us with his follow-up to the immaculate sophomore album that was Cupid Deluxe, it’s easy to hear why when taking the seventeen-track auditory journey that is Freetown Sound. Named for the town Hynes’ father was born in–Freetown, Sierra Leone–the first single from the record, “Augustine,” pays immediate homage to his heritage with, “My father was a young man/My mother off the boat.” Combining a reexamination of the past while looking to the future, earnestness and lush vocals triumph throughout, particularly on “Chance,” “Better Than Me” and “I Know.”
Frank Ocean, Blonde: A level of richness matched only, incidentally, by Freetown Sound makes Blonde one of the most standout albums of the year. And, like Beyoncé, Frank Ocean knows the value of creating an event around an album’s brewing media storm, further promoting Blonde via the release of a limited edition magazine entitled Boys Don’t Cry. Though Blonde may be looked upon as an “appetizer” to the visual album, Endless, that Ocean soon after released, Blonde is far more sumptuous for the ears.
Britney Spears, Glory: Britney is yet another musician on this list that people often like to write off as a thing of the past–part of a bygone era that can never again be resuscitated. But Glory very much reveals that Britney has a depth to her that is being unraveled slowly–perhaps a caution against unraveling too much at once as she did during her 2007 breakdown. Essentials include “Invitation,” “Slumber Party” and “Better.”
M.I.A., AIM: After all the fanfare surrounding the difficulty of releasing what M.I.A. has declared to be her last album, AIM didn’t dishearten listeners with its infectious and politically tinged anthems “Go Off” and “Freedun,” among the primary heavy-hitters.
Die Antwoord, Mount Ninji and da Nice Time Kid: For most, Die Antwoord is a duo that peaked with their first major hit, “Enter the Ninja.” Nonetheless, there’s no denying that Yolandi Visser and Ninja continue to stand alone in the rap-rave genre, bringing us unmatched beats and lyrics on tracks that include the likes of “We Have Candy,” “Banana Brain” and “Alien.” And you have to admire Yolandi’s sense of irony when she says, “Sometimes I get sad and I cut myself…a piece of cake.”
How to Dress Well, Care: When it comes to artists able to make cheesy as fuck music work, very few have been able to bring back a genre once seemingly reserved for Michael Bolton. Tom Krell a.k.a. How to Dress Well is the answer we’ve all been seeking to find a way back to our emotions. With his fourth album, Care, How to Dress Well further enriches the romanticism presented on “What is the Heart?”
Warpaint, Heads Up: Warpaint has come a long way from their Shannyn Sossaman days. But they still maintain that distinctly L.A. sound on their third full-length album, Heads Up. Moody in a controlled sort of way, “The Stall” is the track that most effectively sums up the entire motif of resigned yearning and disappointment on the album.
Solange, A Seat at the Table: Just when everyone thought there was no one who could topple Beyoncé from her perch as most woke, Solange comes along and surprises everyone with the stunning album that is A Seat at the Table. In many ways, it’s the record that Beyoncé wishes she could make, possessing a seriousness that has no place in the mass mainstream. Still, they both seem to make their daddy issues clear, as Solange has an interlude called “Dad Was Mad” on the album to match Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons.”
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker: Among the many who didn’t quite make it out of 2016, Leonard Cohen’s appropriately titled fourteenth album pretty much sums up the year. Beginning with its sultry yet disturbing title track, Cohen asserts himself one final time as a prophetic force to be reckoned with. Almost like a direct address to Donald Trump (we know, Cohen is Canadian, but still), “You Want It Darker” expresses, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame/If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame/You want it darker/We kill the flame.” And kill the flame the world at large has this past year. But there’s vague moments of hope elsewhere, as is the case with the mafioso-tinged “Traveling Light” and encouraging “Steer Your Way.” Who knows? Maybe we can steer our way past the ruins in 2017.
Melanie C, Version of Me: Yes, going there. As the only Spice Girl left standing with a legitimate solo career, Melanie C continues to challenge herself with each album, while still maintaining the dance sensibility her devout and casual fans count on her for. Her seventh solo effort, Version of Me, offers the perfect update to her best record, 1999’s Northern Star (which, yes, featured the majestic classics that are “I Turn To You” and “Never Be the Same Again”). Thus, in between Spice Girls reunions, it’s safe to say Mel C can still make her own dividends. Oh yeah, and try not to be skeeved out by the album cover, prominently displaying a cross tattoo.
Tove Lo, Lady Wood: Tove Lo’s extremely structured debut, Queen of the Clouds, may have been all about love found and lost, but Lady Wood finds her far more empowered and in control of her own sexual enjoyment–writing off men on songs like “Cool Girl” and, of course, getting aroused on the title track that, no, does not pertain to any sort of royal moniker.
Justice, Woman: Getting fucked up seemed necessary to coping in 2016. And Justice’s third LP, Woman, is an ideal complement to mind-altering substances. The disco-tinged “Safe and Sound” kicks off Woman with the sort of auditory escapism Giorgio Moroder would be proud of, and doesn’t cease in providing a liquid dreamy portal to another dimension on songs like “Pleasure,” “Randy” and “Love S.O.S.”
The Weeknd, Starboy: While you’ve probably already heard “Starboy” a nauseating amount of times at this point, The Weeknd has so much more to give once you get past the first single, including “Party Monster,” yet another song that explores Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s (that’s The Weeknd) longstanding period of drug addiction as he croons, “Woke up by a girl/I don’t even know her name.” And then there’s the interlude that’s kept dry-mouthed Lana Del Rey fans’ thirst quenched: “Stargirl Interlude.” It’s short, but memorable, and leads into the oh so sweltering “Sidewalks” with Kendrick Lamar (the king of duets in 2016). Starboy also presents modern audiences with that rare concept–bringing an album full-circle–by concluding it with another Daft Punk-aided song called “I Feel It Coming.” At his most Michael Jackson-sounding, The Weeknd apportions us with more than a hint of optimism for positive change–unless “I Feel It Coming” means the end of the world in 2017, which we used to dread in 2012 but now can only dream of.