I've never done a top albums list before, so I'll start out by listing my criteria for judging these projects. I pretty much look at only two things: continuity and listenability. Of those two, continuity is by far the most objective. Continuity is how well the album flows together. Does it have an overriding concept that ties the songs together, or is it just a loose collection of singles? I didn't select Blood Orange's album for this reason. I also look at the transitions between songs and the consistency in the quality of songs. Albums I enjoyed like Colouring Book and The Life of Pablo were ruled out because of their inconsistency. Likeability is just how much I enjoyed the music. This is purely subjective and I hated to exclude certain works because I just couldn't get into them. Carseat Headrest's Teens of Denial and King Gizzard's Nonagon Infinity were two such albums with fantastic continuity, but were not to my taste. Definitely listen to them though, they're excellent projects in their own right. Let's get into the list:
10. Flamingosis - Bright Moments
Like the top 20 songs list, let's start this one off with something positive. I promise there are some darker tones in here, but lets keep it light for now. If 2015 was the year of funk, then 2016 was definitely the year for soul. Flamingosis is a low-key electronic producer with an ear for sampling catchy retro soul vocals. He was prolific this year, having produced not two, not three, but four full-length releases. Generally, quality is definitely better than quantity, but I enjoyed all of his projects. Ultimately, I've chosen Bright Moments because I think it comes together the best, not as a collection of previous songs (although I think that Pleasure Palette has more standout tracks). The album contains a lot of very relaxed instrumentals, with influences from down-tempo and chill-wave. Flamingosis isn't opposed to shaking it up a bit though, as evidenced on my standout track on the album, the remixed salsa of "Brunch at the Bodega". In general, the consistency on this album is there, but it could do with a few more surprises in order for to elevate it to the next level.
9. Anderson Paak - Malibu
I'll say it - there isn't a hip-hop artist as versatile as Anderson Paak out there right now. Possibly ever. His voice is velvety. His bars are meaningful, but catchy. He feels equally at home singing on a sexy R&B jam as he does rapping on a club banger. The sky is truly the ceiling for this swiss-army knife virtuoso and his latest project is definitely solid. Malibu spans many genres, but it generally stays within the R&B, hip-hop and soul spectrum. There's a heavy emphasis on live instrumentation here, which is definitely a conscious choice after his previous album's propensity for electronic sounds. Malibu lends itself much better to live performances, where Paak sings, raps, and plays the drums simultaneously (even though I prefer Venice). I wish he could be a bit more daringly inventive, which is why I don't have this album higher up the list. Highlights: the smooth and sexy "Room in Here", the rump-shaking hit "Come Down", and my personal favorite, the lazy, bubbly soul of "The Dreamer".
8. Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!"'
After 2013's comprehensive album, Because the Internet, I was super excited to hear Donald Glover's next effort. He showed on that project that he could craft a killer concept album, while still keeping around some standout singles. Another artist that metamorphosizes in 2016, Gambino brings a combo of soul, funk and psychedelia in "Awaken, My Love!". Aside from the genre switch, the big surprise here is how evolved his voice has become. Glover is a far cry away from the squeaky kid throwing down nerd bars in 2011. He announces this change immediately on the opening track, with a startling screech in the same vein as Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. He's not afraid to drop into a falsetto on the various crooners on this album, such as the mesmerizing mega-hit "Redbone". This album is interesting because it straddles two different eras exceptionally well. It pays homage to the aforementioned 70's funk and 60's soul, like his fellow hip-hop compatriot Kendrick Lamar did on last year's To Pimp a Butterfly. Unlike Kendrick however, he bridges the past and the present not with his lyrical subject matter, but with technology. As we hear on "Redbone", he's unafraid to modulate his voice electronically and he frequently provides a whole menagerie of psychedelic sounds through synthesizer effects.
7. Noname - Telefone
I didn't really expect to be putting Telefone on this list, because I liked it - but didn't love it - upon release. It has definitely grown on me more and more, and in retrospect, this is one of the strongest hip-hop projects of the year. I've already written a review for it, which you can read here
, but let's talk about what Noname does better than the competition. First, I think that her personality and introspective lyrics tend to separate herself from the pack. Not since Kid Cudi's debut mixtape have I been this intrigued by learning about an introverted, unsure rapper. In a genre that is dominated by braggadocio, it's always a nice change of pace. Noname's delivery feels genuine and she's inherently relatable. Secondly, her bars are killer, full stop. I made a big deal of her propensity for lyrical density in my review, so I won't delve into it. All you need to know is that her start in slam poetry has given her songwriting a depth that is hard to match in 2016, and she flows well on top of it. My one caveat with this mixtape is that it might be too consistent - the songs all have the same sunny, laid-back production.
6. Flock of Dimes - If You See Me, Say Yes
The lead singer and guitarist of Wye Oak is the mind behind Flock of Dimes, her new solo project. Whereas Wye Oak was angsty, at times aggressive indie rock, Jenn Wasner's latest album is a dream pop record that soars into the skies of positivity. Sylvan Esso, who she shares the same label with (and has featured on one of her singles) seems to have rubbed off on Wasner, as synths replace guitars as her primary instrument. One of the highlight tracks for me, which really demonstrates this new style, is "Ida Glow". The retro percussion, coupled with the shimmering guitars and synths keeps the songs warm, even when singing about heavier themes. Her songwriting in general is excellent, with a great ear for economical lyrics that convey a great deal of meaning in few words. This is just a super solid album from back to front, with no bad songs and great flow throughout.
5. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
I'll get it out of the way - I really hated the song titles on this album, which stopped me from listening to it for a long time. People finally browbeat me into submission, so I gave it a spin. I'm really glad I did, because it's a gorgeous body of work, hipster song titles notwithstanding. In an unexpected turn, lead singer Justin Vernon decides to employ auto-tune, in addition to embracing other electronic stylings. Somehow, the album manages to retain the same sense of closeness and even more strangely, the folksiness of Bon Iver's previous releases. The instrumentals here are generally pretty sparse, but there are peaks and valleys of intensity and density throughout the album. I tend to favor the fuller tracks, like "666 ʇ", so the consistency isn't quite as high for me on this album as compared to others further below. Many of the songs divert completely from traditional song-writing structure, and Vernon uses this to explore some pretty deep themes. There are endless meanings here - does the minimalism symbolize a lack of faith in the way that music, or perhaps society, is trending? Then, does the integration of inorganic, electronic elements suggest a surrender to the inevitable passage of time, or perhaps inspire hope in the future? You decide after listening.
4. Kaytranada - 99.9%
A couple of words summarize the genius behind Kaytranada's debut hip-hop/electronic album - motherfucking percussion. Just from the opening track, you can tell that this isn't your average production, because of the way that Kaytranada seems to be improvising the percussion as the track progresses. There are too many examples of this to list throughout the album, but my favorite lies on the penultimate track, "Leave Me Alone". Somehow, the snaps, claps, and shakes just sound better on this album, with the aforementioned song letting all of those elements really drive an infectious dance-hall rhythm. On top of all of the awesome percussion, Kaytranada flexes his flexibility on this body of work by crafting chill, down-tempo instrumentals, booty-shaking club hits, smooth R&B tracks, and my personal favorite, wacky psychedelic trip-hop. The best example of the last category would be his killer collab with Anderson Paak on the wavy, woozy "Glowed Up". All of the features on this album kill it, but the Paak feature is my favorite.
3. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
It's a bit cliche to say, but nobody crafts an album quite like Radiohead. A Moon Shaped Pool features several of my favorite trademarks from Radiohead's signature style, like seamless song transitions, patient sound layering, and challenging song structures. I'm briefly listing them because I could go on all day about how much I like these things, but I'd rather talk about what Radiohead does differently on this album. One thing that is immediately apparent from the opening track is their implementation of a fuller, orchestral flavor. The inclusion of these elements results in a more more organic sound, especially considering that Radiohead have eschewed much of the experimenting with electronic sounds that they've tinkered with in the past. These developments, in conjunction with a slightly greater clarity in Thom Yorke's vocal delivery, create perhaps the most melodically accessible Radiohead album to date. Don't get me wrong, this album is very much dark and brooding throughout, it's just that this mood is accompanied by some very pretty and sonically pleasing instrumental arrangements.
2. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
Sturgill Simpson's latest masterpiece is a country album that has such a massive scope that you can't help but sit back and appreciate it's ambition.In it, soul, blues, and orchestral styles are effortlessly integrated into songs that have a backbone of country music. My favorite part of his arrangements on this album would be his masterful command of pacing. Mr. Simpson does a great job of creating intimate moments through simple instrumentation and lyrics, then increasing the scale of the music by suddenly layering on many more sounds. Throughout all of this experimentation in other genres, the album keeps one foot grounded. Like a ship's captain in a storm, Sturgill Simpon's voice keeps the style rooted in country, as the swirling seas of other music genres rage around him. There are loud moments and quiet moments in equal measure, but all of it is riveting listening.
1. Crying - Beyond the Fleeting Gales
This delightful surprise album was easily my favorite listen of the year. 2016 was a year for minimalism and while I can try to appreciate the craft and care that go into such works like Frank Ocean's Blonde, I'll always be a maximalist at heart. Crying's sophomore release delivers on this front in spades, creating a glistening sonic landscape that is replete with juicy guitar licks, twinkling chimes, and energetic synths. The upbeat nature of album is taken from their previous work as a chiptune band, but the inclusion of more 80's style instrumentation show growth and evolution for this young group. Even the vocals, which are very lo-fi and occasionally drowned out by the booming instrumentals, have a sort of innocent charm to them. Every song is unique, but they somehow fit together both thematically and sonically. This mash of 80's prog metal, pop-punk, and modern synth pop is a colorful journey that you'll want to go on again and again.