Let's first of all discuss how Rihanna won 2016. I know, you thought Beyonce won 2016. Sure, Lemonade was good, but you're going to see it on the list below because the music part of Lemonade didn't really match the pop culture significance of Lemonade to me. Plus, mixed in with the social issues were too many people wondering who Becky-with-the-good-hair was. Meantime, let's enumerate how Rihanna won the year:
- Put out her own generally well-liked album
- Sang on Calvin Harris' "This is What You Came For," which was the song of the summer
- She was even good on the songs she wasn't on, such as Sia's "Cheap Thrills," which was so plainly written for her that the fact she could walk away from it shows how much other good stuff she has in the hopper.
- She was in the middle of that song on Kanye's album that had that line about Taylor Swift and all the schadenfreude that came out.
- Basically, Rihanna was unavoidable in 2016 wherever you went. She wins.
Which brings us to ultimate display of weird in 2016: the contrast between how people released music. In this corner, you have Kanye releasing an album only in certain places, deciding once the album is out that he doesn't like a mix of a song, so he re-does that song, then puts the album out again, but still only on limited channels and geez, man. Just put out your music. Contrast it with Kendrick Lamar who put out an album of sorts on every channel and everyone and their sister listened to it and didn't care that the songs were even rough cuts. Compare it to Chvrches, who put out an entirely new mix of "Bury It" featuring Hayley Williams and just let the thing go on every streaming service. Or Grimes who, with little fanfare, put out a new mix of "California" for her video but unlike Mr. West didn't feel the need to re-release her whole damned album. Musicians have more options to get their music into everyone's hands as quickly as possible, yet some seem to want to make it harder for the listening public. Whatever.
Anyway, honorable mention-wsie this year, just check out the Kendrick Lamar, Ra Ra Riot, Bob Mould and Tribe Called Quest releases. Especially Tribe, though a double album gets a bit long. Oh and the Weeknd album, which is another prime candidate to be turned into an EP. Skip to the Kendrick song "Sidewalks" after track 5 and call it a day.
As always, presented with a second opinion so you know I'm not crazy:
10) Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
Second Opinion: Consequence of Sound
The album Kanye probably wishes he had made. Where Life of Pablo seemed like a ton of effort to produce, much less listen to, Coloring Book comes off as nearly effortless for as complex the style, lyrics and issues are. Released just in time for summer for the low low price of free, the album was a joyful listen in a dark year. Gospel-tinged in style and content, even the sinners among us (and we know who we are) can enjoy and songs like "Same Drugs" and "All Night." Chance can keep aiming for the sky and let's hope he does.
9) The Dandy Warhols - Distortland
Second Opinion: Exclaim
The year's best guitar-oriented-rock album goes to los Dandys. Seemingly more relaxed than ever, somewhat (but hopefully not totally) more sober, the knee-jerk reaction is to call this "vintage" Dandy Warhols. The truth is, since about 2004, the beauty is in the details with the Dandys. A song like "Semper Fidelis" seems like a fuzz bomb with no real direction on a casual listen, but after a few, the hook grabs you. Hell, it's dance-able. "You are Killing Me" does everything the band is best at and is so completely different from "Pope Reverend Jim," which does everything the band is best at. The highest height, though, is "Doves," which (again) sounds like 1999-era Dandys, but the simple attention to the guitar riff here, the drums here, create a perfect storm of psych rock. The Dandys aren't back; they were always here. Please stay a little longer, too.
8) School of Seven Bells - SVIIB
Second Opinion: Pitchfork
From the booming opener of "Ablaze" to the more ethereal "Elias," School of Seven Bells is cooking with straight fire here. The Pitchfork review says all you need to know about band personnel, etc., so we'll stick to the music. There are a handful of bands using the synth-pop methods to best execution. Chvrches may be the reigning champion, but School of Seven Bells should be in the conversation if they turn this material out. "On My Heart" is probably my favorite track on the album, combining a pounding beat with hard/soft sections and sorting through all-too-common-but-frustrating-all-the-same relationship drama. Bonus: fair chance this album sounds just as good 10 years from now!
7) Carly Rae Jepsen - Emotion: Side B
Second Opinion: Entertainment Weekly
Last year's Emotion was a carefully curated album that cemented Jepsen as an actual purveyor of good pop music rather than that girl who had that one song that time. Emotion: Side B contains the tracks that didn't make the cut. If this is Jepsen's also-rans, I can only assume that when she blows her nose, it sounds like a perfect A-note vibrating the air at 440 Hz. Oh you're still skeptical. Go listen to "Higher" and open your cold cold heart. It just keeps going. "Fever" tells of a breakup that somehow involves Carly stealing her ex's bike and damn if she doesn't make it sound like perfect sense over a perfect dance beat and sugary vocals. "Cry" changes up the tempo with equal aplomb and "Store" threatens to change the way you break up with the next ex. All of these songs are A-sides and the facts that Jepsen didn't use them last year and that this album is so good shows just how flipping good Emotion was last year.
6) Radiohead - A Moon-Shaped Pool
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone
I have to be honest, this felt like Radiohead mailing it in. New material, but a lot of old songs that have finally been packaged up. Thing is, Radiohead mailing it in is like a superstar chef making pancakes: probably going to be way better than average. Such is the scene on A Moon-Shaped Pool, where "Decks Dark" and "Desert Island Disk" absolutely stun with their beauty. It's an easy, rewarding listen, with "Burn the Witch" telling the cautionary tale we all should have heeded in 2016 and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief" seemingly providing the gloomy soundtrack this flipping year deserved. The true winner and absolutely-not-mailed-in is "The Numbers," which kills on all levels and, not the least of them, in its complexity. Yes, Radiohead, give me aural pleasure.
5) Phantogram - Three
Second Opinion: Pretty Much Amazing
The album reviewers thought too much about in 2016 deserved better from most of them. A warning call as much as a lament, Three presents us with a world that is teetering. Opening with "Funeral Pyre" and changing the level of burn throughout, Sarah Barthel discusses life, death, relationships and the bad dreams we're probably all having these days. "Run Run Blood" is the true "we're so screwed" moment of the album and it is bracketed by great songs. "Answer" builds to a glorious coda. "Destroyer" probably should close out the album it's so good and "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" captures all sorts of relationship drama in a drug metaphor. The track that keeps surprising me is "Cruel World," which presents the albums one break away from the truly ominous. There's a lot of dark on this album. It's well executed dark, for sure, and given what we're looking at in the world, oddly appropriate.
4) The Naked and Famous - Simple Forms
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone
Apparently, unless you live in Australia or New Zealand (where the band is from, despite current LA address), this album didn't happen. Good luck finding an American review. It's a crime because this album is one of the most out-of-the-box killer of the year and it keeps giving on repeat listens. Ultimately, this is a breakup album. That said, the breakup is of the band's two leads: singer Alisa Xayalith and singer/guitarist Thom Powers. They were together for eight years and, holy, do songs like "Girls Like You" and "Hearts Like Ours" have a whole new meaning now that I know they were together. Anyway, this album brings all the sadness, anger, bitterness and even hope of a breakup and just works it out musically. Opening track (and single) "Higher" should have been huge everywhere and, when Xayalith speaks of the need to "put these battered bones to rest," who can't relate? Powers gets his licks in, too, most notably on "Backslide" where there can be no mystery who he's referring to when he says "You can tell them you're the girl who sold her magic to the world" only to have Xayalith come back with "Who's to say you won't find love again?" "The Water Beneath You" slays with a pounding beat and Xayalith's vocals, then segues into "My Energy," where both sing about everything they had has "all been one big joke." I'm fine with them breaking up again if it means they can channel all the emotion into another album like this.
3) Frank Ocean - Blonde
Second Opinion: Pitchfork
The most creative R&B artist of the current era slays with an album that begs attention, awe and effort from the listener. Like the best albums, it rewards the repeat listener with subtle lines and hooks that don't always jump out of your headphones and attack you. I mean, sure, there's the automatic "Pink + White" that would fit in on any album. "Ivy" on the other hand, doesn't grab you from the get-go. It invites you in and, after a while, you realize you really just want to spend the night. "Solo" is a clear standout and Ocean seems to know this by purposefully bringing it back as a reprise later on. "Nights" is another that is immediately a favorite track. But it's songs like opener "Nikes" that show the depth of what Ocean is bringing the table. Maybe it's the New Orleans roots. Surrounded by jazz in a city that really doesn't care what you're into and if you want to try that, Ocean is unlike any other popular artist right now, unafraid to try the unconventional in every sense.
2) Tove Lo - Lady Wood
Second Opinion: Entertainment Weekly
This album goes fast and it's because it's that good. Much more subtle than its predecessor, it still brings that dark side of pop. The title track is a great example. A couple year's back, the chorus would have required some big EDM noises. Instead, Tove Lo further sets the mood of the song with a sexy, subtle beat. "True Disaster" is the big winner here, showcasing all the bad decision making you've come to expect from Tove Lo in glorious musical style. The hooks keep coming and it never gets redundant, partially because the lyrical content is strong and personal and partially because Tove Lo is, herself, a tremendous producer. There's a double entendre in saying she knows what buttons to push and knobs to turn... but in a music studio that's certainly the case. The end result is honest pop, insecurities on display and struggles men and women (mainly women here, though, in line with the album's theme) all set to pop beats that can contend with anyone.
1) Sia - This is Acting
Second Opinion: A.V. Club
Over the summer, a coworker and I got to playing overrated/underrated, where one of us would name something and make a call on if it was rated properly and why. We overwhelmingly agreed this was the most underrated album of the year. Gathering songs Sia wrote for other artists, it's fun to sit there and wonder who were these songs for? "Unstoppable" is apparently for Demi Lovato and I'm not nearly enough of a fan of hers to know if she was smart to walk away from this one or not. "Alive" could not be more suited for Adele. And, of course, "Bird Set Free" and "Cheap Thrills" are so obviously for Rihanna that there's no sense in anyone saying otherwise. That said, the album is all Sia and what is remarkable is how well she performs these songs. I actually forgot it wasn't Rihanna singing "Cheap Thrills." The breadth of voice and style exhibited here would be notable by any of the artists Sia emulates here and, honestly, it's clear she could hang with any of them. It's the ultimate case of "let me show you what you didn't want." By the way, this album is almost a year old, the oldest one on this list. Still in heavy rotation on my playlists. All that together? This isn't an album of the year contender; it's the year's best.