#10: David Bowie – Blackstar
2016 sucked. Thank god it produced some of the best music in recent history almost from the get go. In fact, just 8 days after the ball dropped in Times Square, a true rock ‘n’ roll immortal released one of the first major albums of the year, only to pass away two days later.
It’s probably a fair assumption that after years battling cancer, one of the greatest and most deliberate artists planned his final record around his own demise — one final send off — and David Bowie’s Blackstar is truly incredible. The ability to harness the kind of pain and anguish that comes along with cancer and put it into a therapeutic and honest swan song confirms just what an amazing artist Bowie was.
Not only that, but Bowie explores a sonic territory on Blackstar that would have been new for any artist in 2016, never mind one in his late-60s struggling with health and mortality, though those are the themes on the album: death, mortality, pain, exploration, loneliness, and solace. The LP is a dark and at times uncomfortable listen, especially given the context of its release.
Bowie had one of the best careers music will ever see, and Blackstar leaves us in the wake of genius. Thank you, David Bowie. – Gerry Doot
#9: Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Even as far back as the “one man in a cabin” debut album from Bon Iver, there were signs that Justin Vernon may be looking to expand well beyond strumming his acoustic guitar for the rest of his career. His project’s self-titled follow-up served as a stepping stone towards 22, A Million, an album on which Vernon experiments with song structure and sound to the extent that he worked with hardware invented with his producer for the purpose of this record.
Other than perhaps Radiohead, it is hard to think of another act that can combine such an exploratory nature with the ability to sell out arenas, but this is the unique space Bon Iver has carved out in the public consciousness. And it would mean nothing if the album wasn’t so strong and so alive with possibilities. Vernon remains a distinctly emotive core, creating music that is often lovely in spite of itself. 22, A Million is nothing less than an attempt to create an entirely new musical language, and it’s one of the year’s most remarkable surprises. – Jay Chirinos
Listen: “8 (circle)”
#8: Angel Olsen – My Woman
This. This album. Oh, this is the album I was craving. It came out of nowhere for me, and I’ve never been so happy to have an artist grab me by the shoulders and shake me out of my musical funk. The combination of genres, the way that Angel Olsen’s lyrics and folk sensibilities translate so easily to music featuring synths, garage rock instrumentation, and 1950s and ‘60s style crooning…
The stand-out track might be “Shut Up Kiss Me” (and rightly so!), but the entire album is a kaleidoscope of American music, almost taking the listener through the whole history of rock and folk as Olsen exposes her own soul at the same time, intrinsically linking the musician with history. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the last song, “Pops,” a simple old piano track with heart-wrenching lyrics and the haunting, croonish growls of Angel saying, “I’m not playing anymore.” – Melissa Karlin
Listen: “Shut Up and Kiss Me”
#7: Sia – This Is Acting
Sia’s This is Acting speaks of fierce independence and strength, themes projected often on her other albums but with much more fervor than even before on this, her seventh full-length. Perhaps that’s because the tracks compiled on this dynamic album were written for powerful A-list musicians such as Rhianna, Adele, and Katy Perry — and then rejected by them. This undercurrent of rejection and Sia’s deliberate push to keep moving forward with each track crashes through these songs, empowering listeners to take an introspective dive into their own strength reserves.
“Bird Set Free” sets a powerful tone, casting images of struggle and freedom. Tracks like “Reaper” (co-written by Kanye West) and “Move Your Body” provide the more pop-centric Sia sound we all love, but to shrug off this album as simply a fun and airy record is to miss the point. Sia proves through this album, yet again, that deeper messages can be buried even in the most enjoyable and digestible tracks. Hard to imagine anyone but her singing them. – Christine Perez
#6: Anderson .Paak – Malibu
If anyone had a breakout year in 2016, it would definitely have to be Anderson .Paak. After years of toiling in LA’s underground scene, the Oxnard-based singer/rapper/musician released the best album of his career in January with Malibu, riding the wave of a show-stealing string of appearances on Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated Compton the year before.
Malibu definitely reflects the smooth and serene vibe associated with its namesake, with songs like “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance” and “Am I Wrong” providing some crucial Cali soundtrack material thanks to a blend of hazy samples and deftly-placed live instrumentation. But like the mindset of most surfers, the album also contains plenty of gazing-at-the-stars and deeper personal reflections, captured in moments like “The Bird,” “Celebrate,” and “Lite Weight.”
With an unmistakeable rasp of a voice and a songwriting style that pays homage to the classics of yesteryear while remaining firmly planted in what’s current, it’s not difficult to understand why .Paak has taken off the way he has. The only question on anyone’s mind is what greater heights will he be able to achieve now that he’s even closer to the top? – Sean Kramer
Listen: “Come Down”
#5: Beyonce – Lemonade
Beyonce did not need to make Lemonade. Coming into 2016, she was arguably the world’s biggest pop star, one half of a musical royal marriage, and essentially queen of her own empire. What else for the woman who seems to have everything?
Well, firstly, an album so wrought with pain, anger, sadness, vulnerability, and eventually love and acceptance that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that nobody is immune from betrayal, no matter how successful. Any presumption that this would be a “woe is me” document was completely upended by a stunning feature length video that celebrated Blackness, specifically female Blackness.
Then there were the songs: the anthemic defiance of “Freedom,” the wonderfully subtle mid-song mood switch of “Sorry,” and the unfettered rage of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” were all highlights. The real shocker was that those songs served a longer narrative arc that meant Lemonade demanded to be listened to in its entirety. The result was the definitive artistic statement of Beyonce’s career and her greatest triumph to date. – Jay Chirinos
#4: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
In the more than five years that I’ve been writing for LA Music Blog, I’ve never before come across a record so confounding that describing it in simple terms is just impossible. It invites so many questions and doesn’t give a fuck that the majority remain unanswered after the final track ends.
Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo demands context (as any great art piece should). That context started with Kanye stoking fan hunger with multiple album name changes and an overblown fashion show and movie premiere until the level of anticipation matched that of his previous record, Yeezus. It ended with the album’s atypical release, with Kanye literally changing the tracklist and updating mixes after the record had officially dropped. However, the most amazing thing about The Life Of Pablo is that it throws all notions of art out of the window. It doesn’t ask to be considered art — it asks the listener to redefine what they think art is.
With The Life of Pablo, Kanye West has killed the “album” as we know it. This LP exists solely for itself — a self-indulgent tug-of-war between new and old era Kanye both musically and structurally, and it’s the kind of mess that really shouldn’t work. But it does, because Kanye himself is all over the place. It’s a musical meta masterpiece, a document of an artist reflecting himself in his art like a mirror to the point that context becomes subtext. Thirty-second-long vocal skit “I Love Kanye” is Kanye at his finest, and it perfectly sums up a record that defies just about everything. – David Fisch
#3: Frank Ocean – Blond
After a near-interminable-feeling three years, Frank Ocean came back with a surprisingly understated release that is equally good for what it does do as for what it doesn’t. For all the amazing R&B goodness and minimalist leanings, Frank Ocean’s larger-than-life talent manages to be both front and center and quietly shunning the limelight at various points throughout Blonde.
It doesn’t make much sense, I know, but it’s really tough to describe just how remarkable a release Blonde is. The closest I can say is that while that record is awesome, it’s also a clever subversion of expectations that hints at a wealth of potential to come. The things I would do for a full-on gospel rendition of “Godspeed”… – Lex Voight
#2: Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead returned to full form in 2016, pushing the boundaries of their style and the rock genre as an entirety. A Moon Shaped Pool is a homecoming, in a way, featuring songs that have been in the works for ages (one of them, nearly 20 years), but this album is more than just a band finally figuring out how they want to present their work. It is a full conversation with the world in which Radiohead looks at the future, the confusion, the terror, and the beauty in the breakdown.
And yet, a sense of hope can be found in A Moon Shaped Pool. From the frenzy of “Burn the Witch” to the immediate echoing orchestration of “Daydream,” there is a kind of polarity to the album, strung together by the use of electronic, experimental, jazz, and classical techniques. This isn’t simply a hauntingly beautiful, complex album for the 21st century lonely heart. It’s a piece of art that’s destined to endure. – Melissa Karlin
Listen: “Burn the Witch”
#1: Mitski – Puberty 2
Though it was released early in the summer of 2016, talking about Mitski’s Puberty 2 now without putting it into the context of post-election America is difficult (believe me, I tried). The album title itself references a time of emotional turmoil and change, and like our country itself, the talented artist behind the work is a melting pot of cultural influences, born in Japan and living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malaysia, China, and Turkey before crossing the Atlantic to land in New York City.
Then there’s the music. The album kicks off with “Happy,” an ominous-sounding track that’s accompanied by a music video depicting a U.S. military vet and his immigrant bride living the American dream (with a decidedly macabre twist). Almost directly at the midpoint of the album is its standout track, “Your Best American Girl,” a slow burner that builds to a chaotic climax while exploring Mitski’s feeling “half Japanese, half American but not fully either.”
This idea of duality, whether it be between two cultures, two emotions, or two musical styles, runs throughout the album. A jangly guitar-driven track (“My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”) may lead into a ballad lifted by synths and ethereal vocals (“Thursday Girl”), but each song on Puberty 2 fits with those around it. This collection of chaotic, disparate parts comes together to create a whole far greater and more powerful than any other album we heard in 2016, and if we ever needed a reminder that diversity is a good thing, it was this year . – Kristin Houser
Listen: “Your Best American Girl”