2016 saw the most albums I’ve ever listened to, bought, seen tweeted about, heard talked about, it was an absolutely ludicrous year for music that, for anyone outside of a career in music, was nearly impossible to keep up with. I can’t think of a year where I had less full listens of albums as I struggled to stay on top of things, but rest assured, these were all the albums I thought worthy of mention in 2016, and here’s the definitive ranking of every album I purchased in 2016. For formatting, I decided to group albums together and talk about every few in turn, and I’ll singularly review every album in the top 10. May God have mercy on us all, as we use 2017 to catch up for this year.
The Worst of the Best.
55. Dawes—We’re All Gonna Die
54. The Hotelier—Goodness
53. Terrace Martin—Velvet Portraits
52. American Football—LP2
51. Joyce Manor—Cody
50. Pity Sex—White Hot Moon
The emo revival has been big in the last couple of years, but much like the emo era itself, making a great album in that genre is pretty difficult. While this group featured a few of the “standouts” from this revival, none of them did a whole lot for me. Terrace Martin—a frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator—is interesting because while I rated his album so low, it’s an album I’ll likely still listen to for years to come, as it makes very fine background music.
49. Vince Staples—Prima Donna EP
48. Weyes Blood—Front Row Seat to Earth
47. The Amazing—Ambulance
46. Daughter—Not to Disappear
45. For Everest—We Are at Home in the Body
44. Kings of Leon—Walls
43. Beach Slang—A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
42. Damien Jurado—Visions of Us on the Land
With the exception of the Weyes Blood album, which is an ode to the Carpenters and almost too sad to be enjoyed with any regularity, the rest of the albums on this list are all efforts from artists that have previously featured in my top 20 and didn’t quite put it together. Vince Staples has a questionable ear for beats at the best of times and doesn’t hit with these 5 tracks, The Amazing and Daughter got a little too shoegaze-y for me, and Kings of Leon, well…they’ve been bad forever.
Great Songs, Pretty Good Albums.
41. Blood Orange—Freetown Sound
40. Crying—Beyond the Fleeting Gales
39. Tokyo Police Club—Mellon Collie and the Infinite Radness Pts. 1 & 2
38. The Weeknd—Starboy
37. Carly Rae Jepsen—Emotion Side B
In each case, these albums have great songs—“Best To You” is a top-10 track on the year, for instance—and in each case, the rest of the albums didn’t quite deliver to the hype. This was the year we learned that Carly Rae Jepsen has more hits than she knows what to do with, The Weeknd should write every song with Daft Punk(or maybe it’s just every band should write every song with Daft Punk), and Crying somehow made “video game revival punk” sound pretty cool.
Consistency is King.
35. James Blake—The Colour in Anything
34. Plants and Animals—Waltzed in From the Rumbling
I think Deftones are incapable of releasing a bad album, and following closely on their heels are James Blake and Plants and Animals. Blake’s album was another overlong collection of glitchy mood pieces that once again proved that he’s never going to release anything bad(though he may also never release anything great either). And Plants and Animals are a very typical Canadian band—always solid, always there, rarely truly remarkable, though the 3-song suite that opens this album is as good as the band has ever been.
The Hip-Hop Run.
32. D.R.A.M.—Big Baby D.R.A.M.
31. Danny Brown—Atrocity Exhibition
30. Kendrick Lamar—untitled unmastered.
29. NxWorries—Yes Lawd!
As someone who came to hip-hop later in life, it’s never been or going to be my favorite genre(though my top 10 may have you disagreeing). I typically really enjoy the best hip-hop albums in any given year, and after that, I don’t care much. That said, this was a watershed year for hip-hop and all 5 of these albums are quite good.
Punk is Alive and Canadian.
28. PUP—The Dream is Over
27. White Lung—Paradise
Two phenomenal punk albums and both by Canadian artists. It’s likely both groups’ ability to make their punk songs sound a little bit more like pop songs that make them stand out in a crowded genre, but these albums both slayed me this year.
One of These Things…
25. A Tribe Called Red—We Are the Halluci Nation
24. Bruno Mars—24k Magic
If any grouping on this list most accurately represents my eclectic taste in music, it’s these 4, with the genre-defying Kaytranada, the electronic/hip-hop/native sounds-inspired ATCR, Bruno Mars’ return to pop stardom, and a mellow AM-radio hit from three very accomplished female vocalists. All these albums would’ve made a case for top 20 in other years that weren’t this one.
22. Slow Mass—Treasure Pains EP
21. You Blew It!—Abendrot
20. Car Seat Headrest—Teens of Denial
19. Local Natives—Sunlit Youth
18. Nothing—Tired of Tomorrow
17. Hannah Epperson—Upsweep
With the exception of Car Seat Headrest, which was very, uhh, rated, the other 4 albums didn’t see much love from reviewers this year. It could be due to a drastic shift in sound(You Blew It!), being more independent artists to begin with(Nothing, Epperson), or being seen as a little too “the same” compared with their other releases(Local Natives). In any case, the turn of the top 20 starts to see albums that can reasonably be considered very strong from top to bottom, led by Epperson’s “Upsweep”, which is almost like a more accessible Joanna Newsom, blending looped strings with excellent vocal work.
The Critical Darlings.
16. Solange—A Seat at the Table
15. Radiohead—A Moon-Shaped Pool
14. Bon Iver—22, A Million
Almost the opposite of the previous 5 selections, these are three albums from heavy-hitters we knew we’d find on our year-end lists the second they were announced. And each are radically different—Solange’s all-encompassing statement on being a black woman in America was also delicately produced and an absolute stand-out in the genre. Radiohead got back to basics with this release, making something that felt very at home for the band, and Bon Iver decided to make an album that sounds something like deconstructing a computer piece by piece. In any case, all three made memorable music the world needed in 2016.
Different Kinds of Rock.
13. Arkells—Morning Report
12. Tiny Moving Parts—Celebrate
11. Wye Oak—Tween EP
With indie rock now fully entrenched in the mainstream, it becomes tougher and tougher to decipher exactly what “rock” is, though it’s still my preferred genre to listen to. These 3 albums all do something different: since Constantines retired, Arkells have become the most quintessentially “Canadian” band to me, making hard-working, radio-friendly rock; Tiny Moving Parts fall in that mathy, pop-punk space that hasn’t been done well in years; and Wye Oak are probably my favorite band and show that an EP of B-sides featuring soundscapes of guitar and synth can be as good as anything a band releases as their main effort.
The Top 10
10. Flock of Dimes—If You See Me, Say Yes
Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak is quite possibly my favorite vocalist in the world, on that “could sing a recipe and I would still love it” level. When she had earlier toyed with her solo project, Flock of Dimes, it never seemed like she was too serious about crafting actual songs with it. A movie soundtrack here, an AV Club Undercover there, but that’s about it. She did Dungeonesse, a regrettable dance side project, and I was beginning to wonder if she would ever pursue a solo album. I’m glad she did, because this record slays. A perfect blend of guitar and synth work, it stands out from her work in Wye Oak by being a bit more delicate and less driving, and certainly more beautiful. One of my favorite albums to listen to in headphones this year, and a hell of a live show to boot.
9. Balance and Composure—Light We Made
I don’t think really anyone is listening to this record, and I’m not even sure you should. However, I can’t in good conscience put a record I listened to so much any lower on my list. This was likely close to my most-played album of the year, simply because the combination of songwriting, tight grooves, and the alt-grunge-indie rock combo was irresistible to my ear. No one liked it outside of screamo/alt 90s kids like me, and you probably won’t either. But if you’re one of those kids and somehow hasn’t heard it…hear it.
8. Yellow Days—Harmless Melodies EP
Every year I feel like my constant digging for new music pays off with something that a lot of people wouldn’t have heard, and this EP from UK 17 year-old George van de Broek squarely falls into that category. He has only 530 Twitter followers, which is a shame because this EP is as good as it gets. The kid has an extremely soulful voice, and knows how to make the most of it, crafting it around airy instrumentals and letting it croak out. For my money, “Gap in the Clouds” was one of the best tracks of the year, and while his lyrics read a little bit like high school journal entries….uhh, he’s in high school.
7. Frank Ocean—Blond
This is such a difficult album to rank, because on the one hand: it’s fucking Frank Ocean. But on the other hand, it’s just kinda…Frank Ocean. Which is to say, it’s a beautiful record, but how often will we be revisiting it years from now? It’s tough to imagine an album that almost demands you play it front-to-back after the sun has gone down is going to be one that sticks long in the memory. But damn if it didn’t sound amazing the first 10 times you played it after all the waiting.
6. A Tribe Called Quest—We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
This is topping most year-end lists, and with good reason. It’s an album that has almost no business being this good, this relevant, and this meaningful in 2017. It has good to great verses from nearly everyone who hasn’t been good in years, the production is all Q-Tippian and lovely, and it sounds so tight for a 16-track epic. I can’t really think of a relevant reason why this didn’t top my list other than the fact that so many albums could’ve topped it this year.
What a difference a year makes. From a star-making turn on Dr. Dre’s return “Compton” to putting out two wildly-acclaimed albums in 2016, it’s been a good year to be Anderson.Paak. Which sort of makes it sound like his success is a fluke, though he’s an extremely talented man whose album gains more than most in a live setting, and that’s especially true when you factor in the banality of most hip-hop shows. While I worry he’s fallen into a bit of a “sound” already—as the NxWorries and this release sounded eerily similar despite being different projects—it was hard not to enjoy this one, and its lasting power on my stereo from January to December proves it was no fluke.
4. Chance the Rapper—Colouring Book
This album, like many hip-hop albums before it, suffers from some inconsistencies, but there was no other album this year that put a smile on my face like this one did. From the soulful “All We Got”, where Chance flexes on Kanye by giving him one line to yell in the chorus, to the slinky “Juke Jam” featuring Justin Bieber’s finest guest appearance of the year, to the late-night perfection of “Blessings”, this album had hits for days. It was what I had in my mind would be my #1 album for a good portion of the year, and with very good reason. Chance is possibly the most exciting artist on the planet right now and it feels like the sky is the limit.
3. Aidan Knight—Each Other
Victoria boy made good, Aidan Knight’s third effort is easily his most complete. While there were bright spots on his debut Versicolour, Small Reveal was a much weaker follow-up, and I wasn’t sure exactly where this album would head. Thankfully, and while it’s a cliché, this does feel like the culmination of life’s work, as Knight marries all of his most successful concepts to each other here. Memorable melodies, brilliant soundscapes, creative music videos—it’s all here. And it’s all very, very good. Some may tend to shy away from artists they view as “local”, but they shouldn’t.
2. Kanye West—The Life of Pablo
You won’t find a larger Kanye West apologist than myself, but even I began to question the man this year, and that was before the hospitalization. This album didn’t go down easy on the first few listens, he was constantly tearing it down, editing it, and putting it back up, and it felt somewhat unfinished. Now that we have what is a mostly finished version, it’s pretty clear to me just how great this album is. Some have complained it’s overlong, and perhaps that’s true, but the closing track, “Saint Pablo”, is some of Kanye and producer Sampha’s best work. It’s a true Kanye album in every sense—it has bombast(“Ultralight Beam”), it has quiet moments(“Wolves”), it has insane claims and lines(“Famous”), it made a star(Desiigner), and it gathers nearly every rapper and R&B star of note to make guest appearances, many for only 10-30 seconds. His genius continues to be unquestionable even in the face of everything else that’s happened and I think that at the end of it all, this album will rank among his best.
I like my songwriters wordy, and there’s no one who does it better this side of Isaac Brock than Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall. On “Old Friends”, he charges the seeing of (presumably) and ex-girlfriend’s new love with the setting, somehow perfectly capturing the awkwardness of the moment: “I saw your boyfriend at the Port Authority/sort of fucked up place/well so I averted my stride on a quick one/he’s coming back from going over to your place, huh?” He perfectly incapsulates how weird it is to see your ex’s new love, and also that you could see them in any place(like a port authority) and how that somehow makes it weirder.
The musicianship is there to back the wonderful vocal work too, a sort of grunge-esque indie rock that borrows some country elements to bring it all together in a rough and rambling package. I came to this album a little late in the year(it was released in February), and it blew everything else out of the water for me. The lyrics seemed to speak to me directly and the music was right up my alley. While I may not have spent as much time with this album as others this year, there’s no doubt this is the album from 2016 I’ll revisit the most in years to come.