Top 10 albums of 2016

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Willow Yang/Senior Staff

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  1. Beyonce — Lemonade

Who slays all day? Leading the 2017 Grammys with nine nominations including album, record and song of the year, Beyoncé triumphs with her critically acclaimed, socially conscious album Lemonade. The unconquerable queen delivers stunning visuals, mesmerizing vocals and an empowering exaltation to Black women in her sixth studio album. Lemonade can easily be ranked as one of the “wokest” albums of 2016. Jaw-dropping and transcendent, Beyoncé solidifies her icon status while inspiring devotees worldwide to get in “Formation.”

— Jordan Joyner

  1. Frank Ocean — Blonde

Godspeed to Frank Ocean. Even as he surfaced for the independent release of his second studio album Blonde, he stayed out of the spotlight as much as possible and let his art do the talking. Now he’s vanished again, but he left us the greatest gift he possibly could: the staggering, bone-crushing, revelatory Blonde. Frank rose above the noise of 2016 to strike the truest chords and croon the truest words. He “filled our bodies” with his glory, and all we can be is thankful.

— Justin Knight

  1. Bon Iver — 22, A Million

Perhaps the most striking element of 22, A Million is the way Justin Vernon makes up words, phrases, with about as much deference to convention as Shakespeare. They flow so well it’s hard to notice, but once you know they’re there, they have a mystical power, like the symbols scattered around the album art. The intersection of intense interiority with the cold, alienating qualities of technology, 22, A Million is a testament to Vernon’s ability to shape those emotions into art that is so resonant and so aesthetic at the same time.

— Imad Pasha

  1. Solange — A Seat at the Table

Set to aching strings and piano, minor-key horns and marching band percussion, A Seat at the Table is a clarion call to arms for Black women. Solange voices the experience of being Black and tired in America, the politics of microaggressions and the power of Black Girl Magic. Solange shares the mic with her luminaries: Tina and Matthew Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Master P, whose thematic interludes fill in the gaps of the album. Solange’s effervescent soprano flows with inimitable poise, and her words are increasingly essential. Wake up and rise, indeed; Solange is with you.

— Joshua Bote

  1. David Bowie — Blackstar

An album that haunts and delights in equal measure, Blackstar is an open eulogy from a master artist knowing that his time on this world is coming to a close. With an experimental sound combining neo-jazz and Bowie’s past, along with song titles referencing otherworldly phenomenon (“Blackstar”) and a bringing back from the dead (“Lazarus”), Blackstar is an album steeped in the exploration of mortality and legacy. With this final album, our Starman has finally ascended, waiting somewhere in the sky. Rest in peace Bowie.

— Levi Hill

  1. Rihanna — ANTI

ANTI, Rihanna’s eighth album, ups the ante. It’s RiRi as pure auteur, casually throwing up her most authentic, adventurous and autonomous work to date. She dips into skittering alt-R&B, moody Western noir and DJ Mustard’s oddest productions. It all sticks, in no small part because of her crisp, charismatic vocals. In ANTI, however, she matches that with a more nuanced emotional range. She no longer needs to split the difference between “ballad” and “bad bitch” RiRi — they exist within the span of single song.

— Joshua Bote

  1. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your service

A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years, We Got It From Here … was the political statement we needed. Look no further than the closing song, “The Donald” — surprisingly not about Trump at all — that stands as every member of ATCQ being able to send his love to Phife and his influence. When Phife throws out his bars one last time, it’s hard to not be overcome with emotions. It’s a bittersweet yet perfect conclusion.

— Levi Hill

  1. Mitski — Puberty 2

Mitski’s fourth album Puberty 2 is her best yet, a complex contemplation on the discontentment and near-impossible search for fleeting happiness that weighs on the shoulders of young adulthood. She balances moments of dream-pop balladry with fuzzy guitar-led punk wailing. Every song is wrapped up in sentiments of loneliness, love and even racial identity. Lead single “Your Best American Girl” asserts Mitski’s identity as an Asian American woman in a space topically dominated by white men. And ultimately, she transcends her indie rock peers entirely.

— Madeline Wells

  1. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound

It’s those who have passed on to the next life who linger on in the collective memory of Freetown Sound. The ghosts of Trayvon Martin, the voguers and queer folks, and the saints and divine entities that imbued his upbringing are all honored in the album. It resonates most profoundly in “Augustine,” where Dev Hynes turns his family’s stories into prayers, his spare keys and rich harmonies into hymnals, and his selfhood into religion. In this moment, Hynes is transcendent.

— Joshua Bote

  1. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo

Pablo Picasso, Pablo Escobar and most importantly Pablo the Apostle. What needs to be said of Kanye West’s daring and mature Warhol factory-style collaborative album The Life of Pablo? Weaving together all of Ye’s greatest inspirations and artistic inclinations from the course of his visionary career, TLOP is the mastermind’s masterpiece, a story of schisms and crossroads. Kanye West looks backward and forward, witnessing all at once the death of his mother, the birth of his children and the metamorphosing nature of his career. TLOP is a story of life and death told on biblical scale, and still Ye manages to spit lines about asshole bleach.

Justin Knight

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Leonard Cohen — You Want it Darker

Not one for saccharine nostalgia or weepy goodbyes, Cohen, in his deathbed edition You Want it Darker, let his work speak posthumously in his stead — a last will and testament to his life and to his art. Forty-nine years after the first release of Songs of Leonard Cohen, his throaty voice sounds like death, or God or maybe some profoundly more divine whisperer. As the curtain closed, Cohen made no idle claims about his willingness for quietus. “I’m ready my lord.” Meanwhile, the rest of us, weeping, could never have been ready. So it goes.

— Justin Knight

Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN

Emotional release hurts hard. Missouri-born, Nashville-based Angel Olsen reminds us, time and again, just how profoundly soul-crushing rock music really can be. The ultimate ode to self-defeating behavior, MY WOMAN is about as emotionally satisfying as a gut punch. Olsen, the indie alt-girl that she is, evoked Nashville and its history in WOMAN more than ever before, tapping into the iconic musical roots of the city to gouge away indie affect and get at what’s real. Do not look to Olsen for empowerment in love’s follies.

— Justin Knight

Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

This year, dismal as it was, Coloring Book made joy feel real again. In a year of music celebrating Black self-care, Chance The Rapper’s self-love swelled like a balloon, filling out this year of death and bigotry with boundless “Blessings.” Maybe it’s his faith. Maybe it’s his devotion to his family. But Chance has a secret to happiness that he wants to share. The crackle of his voice, the frothy bubble of his flow and the exaltant gospel production are imbued with such love that you can’t help but be filled with it. If you listen closely, you can hear Chance and his features telling you they love you. It’s in every beat and every line.

— Justin Knight

Young Thug — JEFFERY

It’s difficult to decipher whether Young Thug is ever being totally serious or not. In JEFFERY, not much has changed on that front. From the iconic queer aesthetic of his outfit on JEFFERY’s album artwork to the tracks nonsensically named after his contemporaries (Harambe included) and even to the confounding drama Thugger stirred up about his album title before the release, Young Thug doesn’t feel inclined to make sense to anybody but himself. We’re not really complaining. Thug’s bars are as absurd as they are brilliant, and his production is still unparalleled.

— Justin Knight

James Blake — The Colour In Anything

James Blake’s third studio album epitomizes everything melancholy. Blake sings about lost love and self-care in a mix of sweet falsetto vocals and echoey autotune. Underlying these raw, if sometimes overly pronounced, sentiments is a quiet emotive experimentalism — gloomy piano chords fade in and out of small synth beats, never overcoming his pining, soulful voice. It’s an album that’s indulgently sad, a lethargic 76-minute experience of similarly sombre tones that’s surprisingly calming despite its dissonance.

— Olivia Jerram

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