You can’t encapsulate the year in music for 2016. No genre, artist, or even song dominated the year. There were surprises, disappointments, and a few releases that exceeded expectations. Here are the highlights from 2016.
Beyonce – Lemonade
Whether there’s any truth behind these songs or not doesn’t matter. This new aggressive Beyonce is more focused than ever and this is her best album so far. It’s also her most consistent work yet, despite expanding her sound. In the past she stuck to mainly pop with R&B touches; here a harder and more varied sound appears with touches of rap, reggaeton, and even country flourishes.
Branford Marsalis Quartet – Upward Spiral
Branford changes his sound from his usual post-bop style. Instead he mixes light swing and straight-ahead vocal jazz with his usual modern jazz sound. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes comes across as staid, but jazz has always been about creating new sounds out of multiple influences.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
In terms of pure rapping, Chance may be the cleverest in the game right now. His raps flow casually but work on multiple levels. Buried in each line are in-jokes. The rhymes work whether you get the references or not, but there’s a whole other level for ’90s kids. Coloring Book is infused with gospel and positivity. It fits perfectly with Chance’s style and personality.
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
A great example of “indie bedroom symphony.” Will Toledo (the person who is Car Seat Headrest) has always been a talented lo-fi singer/songwriter. But here he layers sounds on top of themselves. It’s not quite polished and not quite chaotic. It is exhilarating.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Once again, Kanye set insane expectations for a release and exceeded them. He’s on a roll unlike one ever seen in rap before. You can’t compare his sound to other rappers anymore. He’s pushing his sound farther into avant-garde but somehow remaining catchy.
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Price has a straightforward timeless country sound. You could almost imagine Patsy Cline or early Dolly Parton singing these songs. But there’s a slight saltiness to the lyrics that sets Price apart as her own modern country singer.
Sia – This Is Acting
While this is a collection of songs Sia wrote for other artists, it doesn’t sound schizophrenic. The consistent production and her command of each song give the album a uniform sound. Sia shows incredible range here – in both vocal range and performance style. And since every song was written to be a hit, there’s not a weak one in the bunch.
Sleigh Bells – Jessica Rabbit
On Sleigh Bells fourth full length record there’s no quality drop-off. If you were a fan of their loud, layered, punkish indie-pop before, you’ll still love it on Jessica Rabbit.
Slothrust – Everyone Else
Though not labeled as such, Slothrust is basically an emo band with a Pixies sound. But they avoid the common annoyances of most modern emo bands. Their songs are almost surreal instead of diary-like. Slothrust is able to make the seemingly nonsensical line “Sometimes I think I’m a horseshoe crab” pack an emotional punch.
Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death
Tegan and Sara continue to move their sound further to ’80s new wave pop. They’ve mellowed the tempo on a few of the songs on this album, but the songs are still toe-tapping fun.
David Bazan – Blanco
The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
Lady Gaga – Joanna
Tinashe – NightRide
Potentially great albums released too late to be considered
J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only
Kid Cudi – Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3