I’m going to let you see the Top 20 Albums of 2016, as voted by nearly 7500 members of the Vinyl Me, Please community—who all voted for their 10 favorite albums of 2016— in a minute. The results will be as surprising to you as they were to us when we compiled the list. But first, I want to talk to you about music genres.
There exists, in our not-so-distant past, people who were genre provincialists, people who refused to listen to any music outside their chosen genre. These were the people who called ringtone rap trash in 2004 while listening to Fiery Furnaces. They were the people who thought only the Beatles made great music in the ‘60s, and who ignored Otis Redding. They were the people who said “Country sucks, I only like Johnny Cash.” They were the people who couldn’t make room in their heart for Kanye West, or any other genre iconoclast.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’m glad that that kind of person is going extinct. An underreported part of the Death Star that was the Internet on the Music Industry’s Alderaan is that it completely shattered the barriers of entry into any and every music genre. Do you want to know the history of zydeco? Do you want to understand why a bro-country dude is the number one selling act in a given week? Want to hear what rap is like in Poland? Do you want to make a playlist that goes from Atlanta trap to synthwave to Blog House to New Jack Swing to Classic Rock in the span of eight songs? All of that is possible at the push of a button.
It’s no longer sustainable to be a person who can dismiss a genre outright, who can live in the belief that one specific genre is making the only music worth listening to. Discovery, and opening up your own personal borders is going to be the defunct mode of every music listener—out of necessity, and out of the reality of our current access to music— and that’s the best development in music fandom of the last 20 years.
It’s also why we do what we do every year: We’re trying to help guide you into pockets of music you never discovered before. It’s why we programmed a year that went from ‘90s hip-hop, to modern jazz, to African rock, to experimental noise, to a classic album by a ‘60s icon. It’s why we run folk, rap, electronic, and metal columns every month. It’s why we run those Top 10 lists on everything from southern rap to desert rock. It’s the ethos behind our On Rotation playlist too. It’s also why this list can jump all over the place, genre-wise, to the point where we’re not sure it’s saying much except that y’all like different music as much as we like programming it for you.
So, without further ado, here are the Top 20 Albums of 2016, as picked by the Vinyl Me, Please community.—Andrew Winistorfer
20. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Appeared on 11.99% of Ballots)
Danny Brown worked over a decade to hit critical mass as an indie darling, which is why it’s a damn shame that he dropped a top-10 rap album (again) this year to get largely lost in the noise. Atrocity Exhibition is undeserving of the tragic fate of this digital age, and it’s unconcerned with keeping up with its surroundings anyway. Danny fused the high/come down arc found in XXX with the best shades of Old, to give us another thrill ride through his truth that’s frighteningly more sober no matter how quickly we lose track of the coke lines he’s done by the halfway mark. On top of a long-proven technicality that stands above most of his contemporaries, the Danny Brown we find here manages to be as enthralled by his adventures as he is by his will to repeat his mistakes anyway. He’s an addict, a survivor, and a cautionary tale on a collection of Paul White beats that sound like they’re caving your head in and pushing your tolerance for how strange you can handle your rap. Take the plunge you deserve while we still have him.—Michael Penn II
19. BadBadNotGood: IV (Appeared on 12.02% of Ballots)
BadBadNotGood’s IV exists in an alternate reality where jazz never became music for elevators, never became music you use to evoke times that are out of date, and never got lame. These Canadians bring the Future Islands dude, Mick Jenkins, and avant saxophonist Colin Stetson along for a ride on their Magical Mystery Jazz Tour of a fourth album, and deliver the finest album of their short, but prolific catalog. “Time Moves Slowly” deserves to be the centerpiece of every turn down playlist of the next half decade.—AW
18. Angel Olsen: My Woman (Appeared on 12.48% of Ballots)
There are enough indie rock albums about longing to snugly fill the Sears tower from wall to wall (please don’t fact check this), but very few hit insatiable love nail on the head, or speak to what it’s like to be a 20-something woman, like My Woman. Poised within the context of personal growth, Olsen turns to nostalgic influence, without sacrificing her voice as a young woman; she pulls and blends the sounds of the past to recontextualize them to be audibly and lyrically 2016. Her unique voice begs with blasé torment and numb passion, a pendulum between indifference and brute force; “Those Were the Days” is a soft observation of passed time, while “Shut Up, Kiss Me” justifiably belligerent scream of frustration, while “Never Be Mine” is an exasperated sigh of surrender. Regardless of whatever weird feelings flow through you in 2016 and beyond, My Woman understands and is refreshingly just as confused as you are.—Amileah Sutliff
17. Band of Horses: Why Are You Ok (Appeared on 15% of Ballots)
After spending some time talking with Ben Bridwell, I’m convinced he’s one of the nicest people currently living on planet Earth. After listening to his band’s latest record Why Are You Ok?, I’m convinced that he’s still an admirable songwriter. This wasn’t the album that would have made Band of Horses famous, but that’s ok because Everything All The Time was already that record. This was the record that invited us into the living room of Bridwell’s heart as he’s wrestling with his identity, the process of growing older, and the realization that life’s biggest questions will always be just that. It’s a privileged place to be allowed to sit, and after a big number of spins it’s a place we’ll come back to again and again.—Tyler Barstow
16. The Avalanches: Wildflower (Appeared on 15.33% of Ballots)
Comeback albums are a dime a dozen, and also very rarely executed with any kind of couth or in a way that honors the band’s earlier career. This Avalanches album had the unenviable job of trying to follow up one of the few modern masterpieces we can all agree on—2000’s Since I Left You—and succeeds by sounding like both an updated version of the Avalanches sample bouillabaisse and a spiritual sequel to their first album. They can take another 16 years for album three if the results are as fun as they are here.—AW
15. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree (Appeared on 15.7% of Ballots)
Nick Cave’s music has always hewed closely to the edge between total darkness and the kind of darkness you view from the light, and because of a tragic death—his teenage son died during the recording of the album after falling off a cliff—he goes darker than he probably ever has here. Personal grief, loss, and trying to find the inner resolve to somehow move on buoy the album’s darker moments, and the Bad Seeds’ haunted, sparse instrumentals give Skeleton Tree a broken, emotional heft. One of the finer releases in Cave’s catalog.—AW
14. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Appeared on 16.43% of Ballots)
Just because Will Toledo stands at the head of the most airtight indie rock bands that 2016 saw— with an emotional vocabulary as expansive as it is surreal— doesn’t mean he surrenders the perspective of a 22-year-old in 2016. Toledo is profound, but never pretentious. Momentous talent takes the form of a matter-of-fact shrug. Every guitar riff and instrumental break balances musical skill and precision, yet sustains the loose performative air of being at a college basement show. He appeals to rock snobs and belligerent youths and everything in between. Teens of Denial has an approachable take to emotional turmoil and music itself, but never jeopardizes the quality and poignance that spoke to so many this year.—AS
13. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Appeared on 18.11% of Ballots)
The year of our Lord, 2016, will go down in history as a bleak one for many reasons, the leading being the number of ghosts left in its wake. Of those now resting in power, there were a surprising number of premeditated album-as-eulogy releases meant to help us mourn the lost. From Leonard Cohen, though, we get You Want It Darker, a comparatively cynical challenge, released two weeks before its creators passing.
That the ultimate entry in Cohen’s body of work perfectly encapsulates the passion, humor, and sheer genius of his lifetime of creative output, while offering up a potent soundtrack to the cultural zeitgeist, is more than we deserve. Cohen incorporates layers of religious imagery which is nothing new (this is the guy who penned “Hallelujah,” after all) but lines like “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game / If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame,” just sit on your chest in a way that’s unprecedented. Even for Leonard Cohen.—Chris Lay
12. Anderson.Paak: Malibu (Appeared on 18.34% of Ballots)
Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals have spent this year proving themselves to be some of the best in show business. The evidence leaks through all of Malibu: the first magnum opus of two to drop from .Paak in 2016. It’s felt like years since we’ve engaged with such depth, dressed in a danceable package for everything from the cookout to the kickback to the nightcap. But there’s minimal subversion in the groove, .Paak swells and wails without sparing a detail of growing pains and childhood joys. It’s a visceral listen that makes you envision your first pair of J’s, your family off the liquor at the card table, the sunshine in your life even if it isn’t as bright as California. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing .Paak + the Free Nationals in three festival settings; every time, they’ve made their case for one of the best shows on earth. Malibu is quite the centerpiece to build that case.—MP
11. Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Appeared on 19.02% of Ballots)
His last album was a song cycle about taking hallucinogens, so it’s not necessarily surprising that Sturgill Simpson would write his fatherhood album as a tale about his sailor days. What was surprising is how Sturgill could take influences like Elvis’ TCB band and Waylon Jennings and Stax and turn in a beautiful, rousing—and at times, incendiary—country soul album like Sailor’s Guide, especially since it’s his major label debut. He’s still actively being shunned by Nashville, but thanks to this album, his profile everywhere else is rightfully exploding. He’ll never be the next crossover Chris Stapleton star, but he’ll carve a path for younger country stars to come through, which is probably more important anyway.—AW
10. Beyoncé: Lemonade (Appeared on 19.4% of Ballots)
10 of every 10 physicians agree that if the opening beat of “Formation” doesn’t accelerate your heart rate by >25%, you’re probably not a human being. When Lemonade dropped in April, Beyoncé shook the world in the way only Beyoncé could. Accompanied by a breath-taking hour-long film, Lemonade melded masterfully-produced visuals, music, and narrative spoken word into a complex, cohesive whole.
Defying and subverting the often one-dimensional portrayals of women in pop culture and music, Lemonade managed to speak to the complex nuances of both personal, internal agony and the racial and social unrest of society in 2016. At a certain point of continuously being shit on by an individual or system, any response becomes appropriate—yelling “suck on my balls,” getting in formation with people that share your identity, smiling as you smash the windows of a 1972 Oldsmobile, unwavering proclamations of freedom.
Beyoncé sonically illustrated the blurred space in between dynamic extremes—putrid betrayal and unquenchable longing, calculated logic and seething irrationality, the need to pull yourself together as everything’s falling apart—that so perfectly encapsulated 2016.—AS
9. Kanye West: The Life of Pablo (Appeared on 20.47% of Ballots)
I don’t know about you, but I’m done pretending like Kanye is some divisive artist: if you think his music is bad you’re wrong, and you should feel bad. The Life Of Pablo is his seventh absolutely essential LP, and ninth if you include Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer. To paraphrase what Neil Young said about Jimi Hendrix, there isn’t a single modern band, rapper or singer who is even in that guy’s building. He’s alone. He makes the best music, and this is not for debate.
Sure, TLOP is bloated in parts, and sure, having Post Malone on this makes everyone cringe, and sure, Kanye doing Chris Brown the solid of giving him “Waves” makes everyone cringe harder, and sure, he’s responsible for foisting Desiigner on an unsuspecting public, and sure, this has the dumbest cover, and sure, Kanye shouldn’t be allowed to Tweet, and sure, it got annoying that he kept reworking the album. But when I remember what it was like to be alive in 2016, I’m gonna think of this album, the same way I remember myself from 2013, 2010, 2008 and 2007, 2005, and 2003 through his old music. Kanye is our Beatles: He’s making the music we’ll use to remember ourselves.—AW
8. Glass Animals: How to Be a Human Being (Appeared on 26.32% of Ballots)
Glass Animals’ claim to fame came from playing their first shows in the same Oxford bar that Radiohead started in. It’s a fact that doesn’t mean much—lots of bands have played their first shows there that we’ll never hear about— but after this release this year, it’s something to stick in your back pocket. In a world in which indie rock has largely abandoned itself over the last few years, Glass Animals are a bright spot. And it’s refreshing to have someone again who could be famous someday without losing what made them great along the way. This album was our proof we could trust loving them, and we can’t wait to see what they do next.—TB
7. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book (Appeared on 26.59% of Ballots)
Coloring Book is a radical reclamation of spirituality wrapped in an ode to the Chicago summertime, choosing to revel in the optimistic no matter how dark the memories behind us or the future ahead. Our beloved Chance the Rapper has grown up fast enough to provide for his daughter, tour worldwide and sell out the baseball stadium of his adolescence, but he’s still very much a kid in search of the juke in your basement. It’s a piece that shines a brighter beacon on Chance’s reach while bringing the best out of his idols. He got Weezy and 2 Chainz back on the radio this year, he found Jay Electronica and made him rap, and he got T-Pain and Noname singing the same gospel. Even Yeezus himself sang backup with the kids. For all the starpower, nothing detracts from a focused Chance that prioritizes perfecting his otherness in the spotlight rather than falling into the allure of copying everyone else. His raspiness is a bit more soothing at times, he raps a little less without losing potency, and his reflectiveness gives glory where it’s due. Chano’s not the only nigga that still care about a mixtape, but his seven Grammy nominations off this one makes for a much different argument.—MP
6. Frank Ocean: Blonde/Endless (Appeared on 28.05% of Ballots)
After a college career’s worth of time, calling out for Frank like a lost family friend, he resurfaced with two pieces that elevated his elusive reputation with the proof we’ve pined for. Channeling the perils of youth and queer romance, uncertainty of self, and plenty more with a still-unrivaled autobiographical flair, we have two distinct vibes accomplishing the same goal: to tell the hell out of a story no matter what. Endless runs more like the mixtape of the two: darker, more spastic, short bursts of a truth-in-progress. Blonde is the album form we’re accustomed to: warm, cinematic, pulling splices of life while containing the chaos into pop. And Frank? He can still rap his ass off when he pleases, he sounds more comfortable in his skin even when it doesn’t feel good to wear, and he finessed his way out of a label contract to pull the whole thing off. Woodshop was involved somewhere in the process as well. Either way, the thirst is beyond quenched by these new sets of guideposts for a confusing life.—MP
5. Kendrick Lamar: Untitled Unmastered (Appeared on 29.95% of Ballots)
The first time I heard this album, we dimmed the living room lights and sat in silence to drown in the sketches of one of our generation’s best. I soon forgot I was listening to the loose scraps, before being reminded that Kendrick Lamar is that damn good. untitled, unmastered is an extended peek into the identity formation of To Pimp a Butterfly, its framework presenting a firm merger of the doomsday trap and jazz-hop blueprint that birthed the King Kunta we adore. He’s unafraid to flex, he’s sick and tired of the world, but he’s hell-bent on being the one to save us from damnation. (Do we even want that? Are we grateful?) It’s an engrossing observation of a genius-in-process, leaving the fat on the bone on purpose. When would we get the chance to hear an extended acoustic freestyle of K.Dot imagining himself in front of the masses, placing his nonexistent backup singers and joking about trying to entice a cougar? It’s a testament to how Kendrick’s hard work took the former out of the hypothetical; the evidence is all there.—MP
4. Bon Iver: 22, A Million (Appeared on 33.26% of Ballots)
The first time the world heard this album was when Bon Iver played the entire thing in order at the Eaux Claires festival in the city in which he and I grew up. In that moment, it was evident Justin Vernon’s sound had evolved into a carefully crafted storm, taking with it the raw wounds and beauty from which it had grown in the first place.
In every aspect—its sounds, titles, visuals—22, A Million is comprised codes, symbols, many meticulous pieces that alone seem insignificant, but together build meaning. Bon Iver diverged from For Emma and Bon Iver, Bon Iver in a move from soft folk sounds to grandiose obscurities, but never lost intimacy. After a five-year hiatus, Justin Vernon harnessed the production skill he’d had been diligently finessing to mould and materialize their original sound into 2016 artistic relevance.—AS
3. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (Appeared on 42.52% of Ballots)
When Phife Dawg died earlier this year, it seemed like A Tribe Called Quest’s recording career was frozen in ember, like the mosquito that launched Jurassic Park, cemented to the albums they made together in the ‘90s. But then came the announcement that they had been working on an album, and that Phife had contributed to it. And then that album came out, and it turned out to be the only rap album in 2016 that old heads and rap scenester kids could agree on. It’s a nod to boom bap without being overly nostalgic, and it’s forward looking and boundary pushing in a way that you never thought a 50-year-old version of Tribe had in them. The saddest part is that Phife wasn’t here to see Tribe dominate again. In a year of deaths and comebacks, this was one of 2016’s best stories.—AW
2. David Bowie: Blackstar (Appeared on 44.41% of Ballots)
It’s virtually impossible now, but it’s crazy to remember that David Bowie’s Blackstar was not necessarily shrouded in death the day it was released. In fact, a lot of early reviews mostly just talked about it being Bowie’s best album since Scary Monsters, and how he seemed reinvigorated. But then he died less than three days after it was released, and the narrative pieces of Blackstar were impossible to overlook: death was looming from the edges of every song, a Grim Reaper reminding the narrator of these songs that life is temporary and you need to make art when you can. And then came the stories from Bowie’s camp that he started making the album after getting diagnosed with terminal cancer, knowing full well that this would be his last album. It became a monument to Bowie’s endurance, his will to create, his ability to be the most boundary pushing artist we’ve ever had.
2016 was a bum year for our heroes; too many of them died to do them justice here. In a way, Bowie was showing us the way as far back as January: remember your artistic heroes, kids, because their art is what they live for, and they might not be around much longer.—AW
1. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool (Appeared on 46.55% of Ballots)
There’s no way in hell that a year ago I would have thought I’d be sitting here writing about a new Radiohead record topping our year end poll, but here I am. Radiohead are a band whose catalog has been arranged in almost every imaginable order in terms of best to worst ever since they’ve had enough albums to justify it, and that will never end. The only things most Radiohead fans seem to agree on are that Pablo Honey was a Bad Record and King of Limbs was a Not Very Good Record. Past that, it’s anyone’s guess. Living as a superfan in the post-KoL world, though, I had resigned myself that the formal end of the band, if it ever came, would be a whimper of b-sides and strange studio things via BitTorrent or a record Yorke mailed via post under a pseudonym to like 11 fans. As it turns out, I was completely wrong. Instead, the (likely) formal end of the band came in the form of one of their top 3 or 4 records ever, depending on who you ask, which firmly cemented an already obvious truth in our minds that they are one of those special, transcendently talented groups of which each generation has a handful. 2016 was indeed a very strange year, not the least of which reasons being that the Boys from Oxford found a way to crawl to the top of this pile without any meaningful forewarning.—TB