Best New Albums of 2016
Solange — “A Seat At The Table”
In a year marked by many as one of increasing racial strife and division, 30-year-old Solange Knowles’s third full-length album is a gorgeous, thematically consistent and musically daring exploration of what it means to be a black woman in contemporary America. From start to finish, “A Seat At The Table” blends elements of jazz, funk, R&B and soul to confront painful realities and celebrate the history of black music. The album draws inspiration from a wide range of artists — Janet Jackson, Aaliyah and even Herbie Hancock — but never once seems derivative. Solange’s airy, glossy delivery is unique and compelling.
A Tribe Called Quest — “We Got it From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service”
Legendary New York hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest waited 18 years to deliver its sixth and final album. However, “We Got it From Here” proves that the group is more relevant and necessary than ever. The album refuses to rest on nostalgia, boasting experimental production that effortlessly merges jazz influences with left-field electronic flourishes, bottom-heavy beats and smooth arrangements. Q-Tip, the late Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad rekindle their infectious chemistry alongside an all-star list of features including Kanye West — on the standout track “The Killing Season” — André 3000 and Kendrick Lamar.
Beyoncé — “Lemonade”
Although “Lemonade” is in part a personal narrative about heartache, supposedly at the hands of an adulterous Jay Z, Beyoncé’s opus speaks to the ubiquity of human struggle, particularly that of black women. Sonically, the album is unrelentingly adventurous: few, if any, other artists can explore bluegrass, hip-hop, rock, reggae and gospel on the same album and still present a cohesive, captivating project. From the unfiltered rage of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” to the defiant exuberance of “Freedom” — featuring Jack White and Kendrick Lamar, respectively —, Beyoncé asserts herself as one of the most important voices in music today.
Chance the Rapper — “Coloring Book”
No other album this year exudes as much joy, positivity, love and passion as the third mixtape from Chicago’s best young MC. Equal parts spiritual and grounded, reverent and rebellious, the project is a triumphant moment for both independent artists — Chance remains unsigned and plans to keep it that way — and fans of hip-hop looking for optimism in the next generation. “Coloring Book” is bursting with personality, as Chance nostalgically reflects on lost love in “Same Drugs” and gleefully challenges record labels to stop him (the infectious “No Problem,” featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz. No other rapper today is doing what he is doing or how he is doing it, and he continues to improve his craft with every release.
Kanye West — “The Life of Pablo”
In some ways, West’s seventh studio album is his first that does not completely redefine what a hip-hop album can be. Still, even in the absence of major statements and reinventions, “The Life of Pablo” is an infectiously energetic project exploding with big ideas about love, forgiveness and karma. It forces listeners to balance undeniable artistic genius with crass provocation: In other words,it is a microcosm of West’s legacy and everything that makes him such a compelling figure. The album may be his least thematically cohesive, but that also makes it one of his most authentic and revealing. “I been thinking about my vision, pour out my feelings, revealing the layers to my soul,” West sings on “FML.”
Bon Iver — “22, A Million”
Indie folk band Bon Iver, the brainchild of singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, has undergone quite the transformation since its inception. Gone is the downcast, acoustic sound of debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago.” “22, A Million” is experimental and deeply strange, full of stuttering glitches, pitch shifted vocals and electronic waves of sound. There are still echoes of the group’s earlier folk sound — the leadoff track “22 (OVER S∞∞N),” for example — but the album is largely a leap into the future of sound manipulation and abstract melodies: the grating buzz that forms the backbone of “10 dEAThbREasT,” or the otherworldly vocal effects on “33 ‘GOD’”.
Frank Ocean — “Blonde”
Few albums this decade have been as anticipated as the follow-up to Ocean’s breakout 2012 project “Channel Orange.” When “Blonde” finally arrived in August, it was not the album that many were expecting. Rather than continuing to embrace the pop-friendly, maximalist aesthetic of his first album, Ocean instead opts for a far more subdued, stripped down and intimate sound. Ocean sings of lost friends and lovers, youthful trysts, drug use and sexual desire but also philosophy, isolation and vulnerability — sometimes all at once. “Blonde” is hazy and beautiful, an album rife with intricacies and hidden revelations.
Young Thug — “Jeffrey”
Anybody still dismissing Young Thug as a throwaway “mumble rapper” is not paying attention. The Atlanta hip-hop star may not be exploring any groundbreaking themes, but his wordplay and delivery when it comes to debauchery are unmatched and thoroughly inimitable: name another rapper who could pull off the voice cracks and guttural yells on the impassioned “Harambe,” or the “e-e-e-e-e-e-earn it” stutter in the hook of “RiRi.” Thug’s sense of flow and rhythm is endlessly impressive, as is his unbridled energy.
David Bowie — “Blackstar”
Never before has an artist given a musical farewell quite like Bowie’s “Blackstar.” The legendary musician’s twenty-fifth studio album is a grand, unflinchingly introspective work that reveals something new with each listen even a year after its release. The Starman, who drew inspiration from artists like Kendrick Lamar and R&B singer D’Angelo while recording, brings listeners along on a journey through galactic jazz ballads like “Lazarus,” bittersweet epics like the 10-minute title track and driving rock grooves on songs like “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” Bowie died of liver cancer just two days after the album came out, but it is clear that he knew all along that the end was near: After 50 years of shaping rock & roll, it was time to go out with a bang.
Danny Brown — “Atrocity Exhibition”
Detroit’s Danny Brown is hip-hop’s greatest oddball — would any other rapper name their album after a Joy Division song? — and arguably the genre’s most versatile MC. “Atrocity Exhibition” is grim, anxiety-ridden and haunting but also a masterclass in mind-melting wordplay and experimental production. Brown continues to prove that he can take command of any beat, be it in a dusty, propulsive banger like “Really Doe” or a psychedelic curveball like “White Lines.” The former, produced by Black Milk and featuring stellar verses from Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, is quite simply one of the best hip-hop tracks of the year.
Radiohead — “A Moon Shaped Pool”
For its long-awaited ninth album, Radiohead delivered a brooding, symphonic and eerie rock epic well-suited for our age of fear and paranoia. “This is a low flying panic attack,” Thom Yorke sings on the leadoff track “Burn the Witch.” The album was years in the making — the lyrics for “Burn the Witch” were in the liner notes of 2003’s “Hail To The Thief” — but feels tailor-made to today. Yorke sounds more isolated than ever before, floating his way through gorgeous, meticulously crafted arrangements. The beauty of a swelling orchestra often masks the gloom of Yorke’s lyrics: In this way, “A Moon Shaped Pool” is simultaneously the band’s bleakest and most bewitching album.
Skepta — “Konnichiwa”
Uncompromising, aggressive and pissed off. U,K grime MC and producer Skepta brought the genre back to its gritty roots for his fourth studio album, released a full five years after his third and proved that a combination of fierce bravado and earnest self-reflection is a winning formula: The project garnered the Mercury Prize, beating out David Bowie and Radiohead. On “Konnichiwa,” Skepta shuns the trappings of wealth and fame but also warns his rivals that his throne is not up for grabs.
Anderson .Paak — “Malibu”
After bursting onto the scene with his attention-grabbing performances on Dr. Dre’s underrated 2015 comeback album “Compton,” the West Coast’s most soulful crooner, drummer and sometimes rapper released a 16-track neo-soul masterpiece that cemented his status as one of music’s best emerging artists. Rife with salutes to old-school R&B and 1970’s soul — but never dwelling on the sounds of the past — “Malibu” is .Paak’s most personal project to date. The album shines with gospel flair, lush soul and even a dose of trap flavor.
Anohni — “Hopelessness”
On the first track, entitled “Drone Bomb Me,” English singer Anohni — formerly Antony Hegarty — sings from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl whose family in Afghanistan falls victim to a targeted attack. The contrast between the darkness of the lyrics and the beauty of her voice is perhaps the most striking aspect of Anohni’s artistry on this project, which explores the depths of modernized warfare, mass surveillance and the toxicity of rampant masculinity. Brimming with stunning electronic soundscapes of rumbling bass and blaring horns, the album is a somber yet ultimately inspiring take on the world in which we live.
PJ Harvey — “The Hope Six Demolition Project”
The ninth studio album by English singer-songwriter and musician PJ Harvey has a title referring to a controversial U.S. government program meant to revitalize the worst public housing projects in the country and convert them to mixed-income developments. As such, it is a politically charged rock project that finds optimism in droning guitars and steady drums. Inspired by Harvey’s trip to Washington, D.C., the album drew criticism from local politicians for its negative portrayal of the city.