The Top 51 Albums of 2016

2 Jan


Don’t usually write about music, but thought I’d still make a few year end posts.

Rules: EPs included. Soundtracks/scores not. I’ll be making a separate list for those, but just know that the “La La Land” soundtrack would easily be in the top 10 if it was included here. Also, keep in mind that being low on this list is still indicative of a good album; after all, there’s a behemoth of an honorable mentions/others considered section down there, and lots of those are great as well. Test: if you recognize at least 15-20 of these 51, you’re on my list of favorite people already.

51. Kanye West, “The Life of Pablo”- And just barely making it into the top 51 (possibly due to me adding a spot) is one of 2016’s biggest releases. Though it doesn’t feel all that cohesive and is far from peak Kanye, it’s still a good album. When it’s good, it’s very, very good: case in point, the incredible opener “Ultralight Beam”. It’s most definitely not the best hip hop had to offer in 2016, though.

50. Rihanna, “ANTI”

49. Emma Pollock, “In Search of Harperfield”


48. Lady Gaga, “Joanne” – I’m ambivalent about Gaga’s discography as a whole, but I do appreciate her willingness to experiment. Instead of churning out an easy #1–but forgettable–album, she made “Joanne”, an enjoyable blend of upbeat dance songs and powerful ballads, all influenced by multiple styles of music (there’s especially a large country-rock influence in there).

47. Lake Street Dive, “Side Pony”

46. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” – Gambino changes up styles here, his singing (which is great) becoming the main driving force. The album overall isn’t as good as the two lead singles, but it’s a solid funk album. Also, damn, those two singles.

45. Sia, “This Is Acting”

44. Marissa Nadler, “Bury Your Name”/”Strangers”

43. Joyce Manor, “Cody”

42. Tegan and Sara, “Love You to Death” – Sure, they’ve become more “poppy” over the years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.


41. ANOHNI, “Hopelessness” – These are some of the most on-the-nose lyrics you’ll ever see, and it’s not difficult to pick up on ANOHNI’s political angle with titles like “Drone Bomb Me” and “Obama”. Depending on the song, this is both a positive and negative aspect of the album, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Her voice is incredibly unique, and the production of the album is impeccable.

40. Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker” – Brooding and poetic. Great way to end a career.

39. Deakin, “Sleep Cycle” – Animal Collective just got upstaged by one of its members.

38. (Iron and Wine) Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop, “Love Letter For Fire”

37.  A Tribe Called Quest, “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service”

36. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, “Nonagon Infinity” – Don’t usually listen to this type of music, but my goodness, this is fun. What’s impressive is that the structure of the album itself–a sort of loop in which each song flows into each other–doesn’t take away from the individual songs at all. The first three songs in particular go harder than anything I’ve heard this year (give or take a Run the Jewels).

35. Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”


34. Beyonce, “Lemonade” – Not the monumental work of art everyone was claiming it to be when it was released, but it’s still a very good album. Also, “Freedom” is the best, not “Formation”.

33. case/lang/veirs, “case/lang/veirs”

32. Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound”

31. The Hotelier, “Goodness”

30. Conor Oberst, “Ruminations” – His live show in LA was called “An Intimate Solo Performance with Conor Oberst”. “Intimate” is 100% correct. A piano, a guitar, and a harmonica.

29. Solange, “A Seat at the Table” – Comparing this to “Lemonade” diminishes both records as singular accomplishments with their own voices. This was better than “Lemonade”.


28. Eluvium, “False Readings On” – Post-rock is a genre that needs more attention. I’ve always loved Explosions In the Sky, but this year is Eluvium’s. The first two songs on the album are absolutely gorgeous.

27. Regina Spektor, “Remember Us to Life”

26. Vince Staples, “Prima Donna” – Vince could slap a “Vince Staples” sticker on a 2 Chainz album and I’d still rank it high on my best of list. Had the pleasure of seeing him live, and he sure put on a show.

25. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, “I Had A Dream That You Were Mine”

24. Jon Bellion, “The Human Condition” – Excellent production, catchy songs, and a killer ending track that brings it all together.

23. Kyle Morton, “What Will Destroy You” – A beautiful little album about death and love, anchored by beautiful lyricism filled to the brim with raw emotion.

22. Eric Bachmann, “Eric Bachmann”

21. Japanese Breakfast, “Psychopomp”


20. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book” – Quite possibly the most uplifting project of the year from one of hip hop’s youngest stars. A 14-song celebration of life driven by gospel influences.

19. Keaton Henson, “Kindly Now”

18. Weezer, “White Album” – A catchy, breezy summer album, and a return to form for the band.


17. Carly Rae Jepsen, “EMOTION Side B” – One of the best pop artists alive delivers yet again.

16. Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exhibition” – His delivery might be off-putting at first, but once you get used to it, you realize the incredible craft behind the work. His most recent album is fresh and witty, but also relentlessly dark.

15. David Bowie, “Blackstar” – The only reason I have for this being this low relative to other lists is the fact that I liked 14 albums better (same for Radiohead, but 13 in that case). It’s still a great album, lively at one moment and hauntingly serene at the next. RIP to a legend.

14. Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool” – Not Radiohead’s best, but still pretty damn good. The instrumentals are beautiful, the lyrics are personal, and the album as a whole is both sweeping and intimate.


13. Car Seat Headrest, “Teens of Denial” – A lot of the discussion about the album is about whether or not people can relate to the teenage angst driving it. Relatability is not a priority for me here; I just enjoy Will Toledo’s songwriting and the way he builds up these powerful anthems about identity, image, and finding yourself. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” is an epic if I’ve ever heard one.

12. James Blake, “The Colour in Anything” – I’d usually go for soulful ballads over electronic, but Blake is ideal because he does both. One of the most versatile producers in the game with one of the most beautiful voices. If you like Frank Ocean, the new Bon Iver album, or Kanye, I’m sure you’ll like James Blake (he was featured in Lemonade as well). He’s also incredible live. Those synths.

11. Glass Animals, “How To Be A Human Being” – One of my last listens of 2016 is also one of my favorites. This band has such a unique sound, and it’s a lot of fun.

10. Mitski, “Puberty 2” – Would be one of my favorites of the year based on the strength of that breathtaking single alone, but the rest of the album is stellar as well. It captures pain and heartbreak, and there’s this sense of existential brooding that’s so compelling to me.

9. Angel Olsen, “MY WOMAN” – A vulnerable and visceral expression of womanhood with two masterful songs in “Sister” and “Woman”. Olsen has a guttural and emotive voice, and it serves her songs well.


8. Whitney, “Light Upon the Lake” – I mentioned that Weezer’s album was a summer album. Whitney’s summer album makes Weezer’s look like trash (though I still love it, that’s why it’s at #18). It’s so comforting, so easy to listen to without feeling empty, and “Golden Days” is in the running for SOTY. They really need to return to their roots and play live in Chicago again while I’m still here.

7. Pinegrove, “Cardinal” – I should call my parents when I think of them / Should tell my friends when I love them. This album delivers on such a deep, poignant level, but the beauty of it all is that this depth is delivered in what I’d describe as a casual style. I imagine Evan Stephens Hall sitting on a stool somewhere with his guitar, speaking to you in a down-to-earth manner through his music. And expressing just how lovely connection is, especially in this day and age.

6. Big Thief, “Masterpiece” – The most slept-on album of the year. It’s filled with both energy and melancholy, and lead singer Adrianne Lenker’s voice is gorgeous. Another album that takes a simple approach to reveal hidden depths. I’m going to their Troubadour set in March, and tickets are super cheap (as in, 19 bucks with service fees); give them a listen and come with.


5. Bon Iver, “22, A Million” – Justin Vernon might just be my favorite musician, and “For Emma, Forever Ago” is still a flawless album. His newest is jarring at first, but if you really listen, it’s a logical progression from his earlier stuff; this is Justin experimenting while maintaining that foundation of intimate folk vocals. Yeah, the song titles are pretentious, but the album itself is complex, layered, and mesmerizing.

4. Run the Jewels, “Run the Jewels 3” – Thank god for the surprise Christmas release so I can drop this on my 2016 list. El-P’s production is once again off the charts brilliant, and Killer Mike is goddamn Killer Mike. Like I said above, these guys go hard. I maintain to this day that RTJ are the best hip hop artists in the game right now.

3. Frank Ocean, “Blond” – What an ethereal, beautiful album. No album this year has hit the highs that this one does: for instance, the second half of “Self Control” or “White Ferrari”. It’s difficult to live up to the hype, but “Blond” absolutely does. Fluid, confident, and transcendental at times.

2. Anderson .Paak, “Malibu” – .Paak. What a guy. Yeah, this album is a bit long, but like Frank’s, it commands your attention throughout the entire runtime. It’s at the intersection of rap, r&b, funk, and soul, and it’s difficult to pin down exactly what genre it is. That’s what makes it so impressive, not to mention the fact that it’s just such a smooth album. The last four songs make up the best ending run of any album this year, except for maybe…


1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Skeleton Tree” – This is not an easy listen. I don’t think it’s very accessible, and I would recommend many albums on this list before I recommend this one. However, it’s a work of unparalleled beauty, and the fact that it’s being left off so many year-end lists is a disgrace. A stunning portrait of loss and grief, and the last three songs hit like a ton of bricks. The best album of the year.

Honorable Mentions: “Cleopatra” (The Lumineers), “untitled unmastered.” (Kendrick Lamar), “Are You Serious” (Andrew Bird),”No Burden” (Lucy Dacus), “Warm On A Cold Night” (HONNE), “Holy Ghost” (Modern Baseball), “Dangerous Woman” (Ariana Grande), “Wild World” (Bastille), “Yes Lawd!” (NxWorries), “Telefone” (Noname), “We Move” (James Vincent McMorrow), “Love & Hate” (Michael Kiwanuka), “WORRY.” (Jeff Rosenstock), “FLOTUS” (Lambchop), “The Wilderness” (Explosions in the Sky), “The Dream Is Over” (PUP), “Sirens” (Nicolas Jaar), “Emotions and Math” (Margaret Glaspy), “Wildflower” (The Avalanches), “The Altar” (Banks), “Human Performance” (Parquet Courts), “A Man Alive” (Thao & The Get Down Stay Down), The Hamilton Mixtape, “Beyond the Fleeting Gales” (Crying), “Painting With” (Animal Collective), “Imperial” (Denzel Curry), “Probable Depths” (Half Waif)

Others Considered: “24K Magic” (Bruno Mars), “The Divine Feminine” (Mac Miller), “This Unruly Mess I’ve Made” (Macklemore and Ryan Lewis), “The Weight of These Wings” (Miranda Lambert), “Blank Face LP” (Schoolboy Q), “Junk” (M83), “Gameshow” (Two Door Cinema Club), “ArrangingTime” (Pete Yorn), “The Ship” (Brian Eno),  “Why Are You OK” (Band of Horses), “PersonA” (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros), “Big Baby D.R.A.M.” (D.R.A.M.), “Ouroboros” (Ray LaMontagne), “Black America Again” (Common), “Big Mess” (Grouplove), “SremmLife 2” (Rae Sremmurd), “4 Your Eyez Only” (J. Cole), “Blood Bitch” (Jenny Hval), “EARS” (Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith), “blackSUMMERS’night” (Maxwell), “This Is Where I Live” (William Bell), “Schmilco” (Wilco), “American Band” (Drive-By Truckers), “Adore Life” (Savages), “Changes” (Charles Bradley), “Blue & Lonesome” (The Rolling Stones), “The Impossible Kid” (Aesop Rock), “The Glowing Man” (Swans), “Away” (Okkervil River), “Post Pop Depression” (Iggy Pop), “Farewell, Starlite!” (Francis and the Lights), “and the Anonymous Nobody…” (De La Soul), “DARKNESS AND LIGHT” (John Legend), “Visions of Us on the Land” (Damien Jurado), “Wrong Crowd” (Tom Odell), “Still Brazy” (YG), “Between Waves” (The Album Leaf), “Glendale” (Tim Heidecker), “Next Thing” (Frankie Cosmos), “Atomic” (Mogwai), “Winter Wheat” (John K. Samson), “Kinda” (Lany), “Heart Like a Levee” (Hiss Golden Messenger), “Cloud Nine” (Kygo), “A/B” (Kaleo), “Oh No” (Jessy Lanza), “99.9%” (KAYTRANADA), “When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired” (Mothers), “Long Way Home” (Lapsley), “My Best Human Face” (Moonface and Siinai), “Skin” (Flume), “The Party” (Andy Shauf), “Jet Plane and Oxbow” (Shearwater), “Sunlit Youth” (Local Natives), “Is the Is Are” (DIIV), “Beautiful Lies” (Birdy), “Tween” (Wye Oak), “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it” (The 1975)

6 Responses to “The Top 51 Albums of 2016”

  1. MovieManJackson January 2, 2017 at 10:45 am #

    Diverse list! RTJ3 is amazing. Going to see them live in a few weeks and I’m so geeked.
    Working on my last post that covers 2016 Music in Movies. La La Land will be on it and so will Nocturnal Animals.

    • polarbears16 January 3, 2017 at 4:32 pm #

      Lucky you! I’m seeing them in February. I’ve heard they put on a hell of a show.

  2. Jay January 2, 2017 at 7:58 pm #

    Kinda stoked to see Childish Gambino make the cut!

    • polarbears16 January 3, 2017 at 4:29 pm #

      Yeah! Thought the album fell a little flat at times, but the highs it hit were incredible and made it worthy of being in the top 50.

  3. Matthew Thompson January 6, 2017 at 10:04 pm #

    Wow. This is awesome. I don’t think I could rank fifty of anything. I fret over the rankings too much… haha. That alone impresses me. My tastes have narrowed a bit as I’ve gotten older, so I don’t listen to rap and hip/hop as much as I used to. Still I loved a lot of these albums and there are a few that seem in my wheelhouse that I haven’t tried (like Eluvium), so I will check them out on Spotify.

    • polarbears16 January 7, 2017 at 9:43 am #

      Ha yeah, I probably spent way too much time on this, but whatever. Still second guessing my rankings.

      And glad to hear you loved a lot of these albums! Hopefully you like Eluvium.

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