The year 2016 will always be remembered as an annus horribilis for music.
It was a year that saw the passing of a number of icons, from Prince and David Bowie to George Michael and Leonard Cohen. And Merle Haggard. And Glenn Frey. The list, sadly, goes on.
If that weren’t enough, the top-selling album released this calendar year, Drake’s Views, was a colossal disappointment—a slickly packaged, overproduced product meant to propel a few catchy singles and nothing more. Oh, and two egregious hacks who go by the name of “The Chainsmokers” made an earache-inducing EDM tune that somehow spent 12 weeks at No. 1.
And yet, amid the death and din, 2016 gave us some truly worthwhile gems, from the soulful crooning of Solange to the furious rhyming of Skepta. So without further ado, here are The Daily Beast’s picks for the best albums of the year.
10. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
This marks the sixth album for the Norwegian dynamo formerly known as Rockettothesky, and, I must embarrassingly admit, the first one I’d listened to. It is—bear with me—a concept album following a time-travelling vampire as she exsanguinates her way the sensual ‘70s. Hval touches on themes of menstruation and unwavering feminism through songs of unspeakable beauty, combining hints of folk, noise pop, and goth metal. Blood Bitch is a trip you’ll find yourself taking many, many times.
9. Frank Ocean – Blond
It took four years—and several stops and starts—for New Orleans’ finest R&B-soul singer to drop the follow-up to stunning debut LP Channel Orange, and while Blond doesn’t achieve those operatic heights, it remains a transfixing and ambitious (if a tad overwrought) curiosity. Here, Ocean combined his unique talents with those of numerous collaborators, from James Blake and Jon Brion to Pharrell Williams and Malay, his chief co-producer, in crafting an atmospheric album with more layers than a matryoshka.
8. Viola Beach – Viola Beach
This is heartbreaking. The British indie rock quartet Viola Beach had just put the finishing touches on their self-titled debut album and were set to embark on a series of tour dates when, on Feb. 13, all four members—along with their manager—died in a freak car accident in Stockholm, Sweden. Tributes poured in from all over, including a viral campaign supported by the likes of fellow Northerner Liam Gallagher to get the band’s catchy single “Slings & Waterslides” to the top of the UK charts (it briefly reached No. 1 on iTunes five days after the tragedy). Devastating context aside, this is cheery, unpretentious, feel-good guitar music from an exciting young band just scratching the surface of their abilities.
7. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Desiigner was one when Tribe dropped their last album, 1998’s unextraordinary The Love Movement, so confidence was not high when the Queens natives announced they’d be dropping their final album this year—which contained contributions from the late Phife Dog, who’d passed away in March. But good lord they proved us wrong, delivering a lyrically rich love letter to hip-hop that managed to seem both history-laden and urgent, with the trio of MCs putting everything from Black Lives Matter to Donald Trump on wax. These fellas sure know how to make an exit.
6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
They say all great comedy is born from tragedy, and, as 2016 proved, some of the best music is, too. During the recording of this, the 16th studio album from Nick Cave and his band of brooding Australian rockers, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died after accidentally falling off a cliff. Cave channeled his grief, pain, and philosophical ruminations into an 8-song minimalist triumph—one that’s far more experimental and ambient than we’ve come to expect from these rugged chaps. It’s an album that yo-yos between darkness and light, providing a wormhole into Cave’s subconscious as he struggles to come to terms with the adventitiousness of mortality.
5. Skepta – Konnichiwa
There exists a certain bias against non-American rappers—both in the hip-hop community and the media—that is a tad unsettling. Konnichiwa, the fourth studio album from UK grime veteran Skepta, should have been his mainstream breakthrough. Combining fast and furious rhymes with pounding beats, it hit harder than any rap album this year, and yet, despite winning the coveted Mercury Music Prize for best UK album over the likes of Radiohead and Bowie, it fell on deaf ears stateside. For shame.
4. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Kanye’s The Life of Pablo got the most play this year, but Solange’s A Seat at the Table was the one I thought about the most. The younger Knowles’s highly anticipated follow-up to 2012’s True builds on that EP’s promise. It is, as our writer Amy Zimmerman noted, a “bold, poetic meditation on being black in America,” blending psychedelic funk grooves with intimate lyrics (as on the brilliant “Don’t Touch My Hair”) and socially conscious interludes exploring the lingering effects of white supremacy. It’s high time we recognize Solange as not just Beyoncé’s little sis, but one of the most powerful voices in music.
3. Angel Olsen – My Woman
The pride of St. Louis’s last album, 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, was a lo-fi rumination on the agony and ecstasy of romance. Olsen took a different tack for this, a collection of Fleetwood Mac-esque tunes that compliment her achingly sincere vocals with pop trappings. In a press release, Olsen said it tackles “the complicated mess of being a woman” through a series of “scenes that I’ve replayed in my head.” Indeed, My Woman feels at once cinematic and deeply personal; expansive and vein-opening.
2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
I must admit: I was not the biggest Beyoncé fan prior to Lemonade, even going so far as to claim that her work in Destiny’s Child was vastly superior to her solo efforts. This transcendent visual album changed things. No album projected a more unifying vision than Lemonade, a fierce paean to marital fidelity that is equal parts soul-baring autobiography, political manifesto, and self-assured musical statement. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre of music that Bey doesn’t incorporate here, as she samples the stylings of reggae, country, gospel, blues, electronica, you name it—all with her “middle fingers up.” Beyoncé didn’t need to take the risk—she doesn’t need to do anything, truth be told—but she did, and boy did it pay off.
1. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Like its erratic, divisive creator—who still owes his legion of adoring fans explanations for his Trump outburst and that Cosby tweet—The Life of Pablo was released haphazardly, with Kanye crowdsourcing certain tracks online and tweaking them to align with the court of public opinion. By the time the smoke cleared, we were left with an uneven albeit wildly ambitious gospel marvel—one whose peaks reach higher than any other artist could. Take “Ultralight Beam,” a track fusing organs, sonic beats, Chance rhymes, and a crescendoing choir that reaches for the heavens and damn near takes you there. No artist alive is as preternaturally gifted—or as haunted—as Kanye West, and no one can architect a song quite like ‘Ye, the Le Corbusier of music.
There were too many good albums released this year, so in addition to the above, I’d highly recommend the funky Malibu by Cali native Anderson Paak, who’s a joy to watch live as he alternates between microphone and drum kit; Young Thug established himself as an elite MC with his thrilling mixtape Jeffery; Dev Hynes cemented his status as one of the preeminent producers of R&B with Freetown Sound; and Chance the Rapper exploded into mainstream consciousness with his densely packed, feature-rich mixtape Coloring Book.