’s Top Six Best Albums of 2016

The music core is small but passionate, which means rather than issuing a bloated Top 50 Records of 2016, we’ve gotten it down to a simple six. There were other good, very good, even great albums that came out last year, but these are the half-dozen that meant the most to us, that we kept coming back to throughout the year, even when said albums didn’t arrive until relatively late in the game. If there’s a theme here, it’s veteran musicians returning to the fold in new, exciting, inventive ways that validated our initial love for a diverse range of old albums. Maybe that means we’re all past our prime, looking to past favorites for comfort. But I don’t think anyone could listen to these six albums and come away thinking that any of these artists are relying on past glories. 2016 is over; let it live on in these albums (and perhaps no other ways).

The Top Six Best Albums of 2016

6. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest

It’s a strange conundrum of artistry that the approach of death is often reinvigorating to the artist. This was sadly a regular case in 2016, which saw the passing of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen just when they seemed to be hitting new creative peaks. For fans of A Tribe Called Quest, the death of Phife Dawg in March was a particularly painful tragedy as it seemed to mean the long-awaited sixth album, which had been rumored to be forthcoming for eighteen years, would never be recorded, let alone released. So what a delightful surprise Thank You 4 Your Service turned out to be. And even better than its mere miraculous existence is how muscular it is. A reunion record is always a tricky proposition even when all the participating members are alive and well. Nor has the rap genre always been kind to its older practitioners. But Dawg, Q-Tip, and Jarobi seem like men newly possessed, spitting their trademark hyper-literate rhymes over samples as varied as Willy Wonka, Elton John, and Jack White without it ever feeling forced or emptily nostalgic. The lyrics are both of-the-moment and timeless, referencing gentrification, Trump, and the deeply ingrained racism in America without being preachy or rancorous; early standout “We the People” has a silky sung chorus that could double as the president-elect’s unironic slogan (“All you poor folks/You must go/Muslims and gays/Boy we hate your ways”). Great guest turns by Andre 3000, Kendrick Lamar, and Busta Rhymes pepper the record but it’s at its best when the three members are working their magic together. It’s as joyous, generous, and vital a farewell party as this legendary group could throw. We got invited just in time. – Sara

5. Blackstar by David Bowie

The first time I listened to Blackstar, I had no idea I would be woken up in the middle the night later that weekend to news of David Bowie’s death. With song titles like “Lazarus” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” it might seem obvious in hindsight that Bowie was composing an album about his imminent passing. At first listen, though, Blackstar struck me as a prime example of the best of late period, post-Tin Machine Bowie. The driving rhythm of songs like “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” remind me of his drum+bass-obsessed work on Earthling, while the resignation and uncertainty throughout Blackstar wouldn’t be out of place on the criminally underrated Heathen. This isn’t some simple retread, though. While I try to separate the music from Bowie’s passing, it’s impossible. While he had no control when liver cancer took him, Blackstar let him go out on his terms. Bowie does this all in a suite of very long songs with lots of saxophone, reminding you one last time that he is a master. Was a master. Is a master. – Rob

4. Wildflower by The Avalanches

After sixteen years, why even care about a new Avalanches album? In some ways, Girl Talk’s reductio ad absurdum approach to mash ups had taken sample-based music to its logical conclusion. Time seems to have passed them by. But that was always their allure, wasn’t it? Their first record, Since I Left You, was never about the gimmick of making records from other records. It was about the feeling it gave you. The highest compliment I could give Wildflower is that it’s more of the same: a hazy pop record that misremembers summers growing up as better than they were. As soon as lead track “Because I’m Me” comes on, you are just back there. Here the Avalanches up the level of difficulty by adding raw-voiced guest vocalists like Danny Brown and Biz Markie, and the fact that they blend in seamlessly is a testament to the band’s craft. It’s something worth waiting sixteen years for. – Rob

3. Weezer by Weezer

When your resident Weezer apologist is surprised to put a new =W= record on his best-of list, you know something has gone wonderfully, surprisingly right. I’ll defend the Green Album, Maladroit, and any number of post-2002 Weezer songs (especially if that number is ten), but their fourth self-titled record still threw me off, because it can very much stand alongside their early-00s output, and even has moments that recall the highs of that most famous self-titled Weezer record. Though this one is their White Album, it’s not at all in the vein of the more famous White one; the Beatles-style experimentation and songwriting-splitting was more of a Red thing for Weezer, and it turned out mostly bad. It’s more like “Back in the USSR” – riffing on California culture with the playfulness that sometimes comes with age. Frontman Rivers Cuomo has never been afraid to sound a bit arrested, and it’s not like he’s banished lines that make him sound about fifteen from his repertoire, but the ten songs of Weezer’s White Album manage to get it right, not an embarrassment among them (some might point to “Thank God for Girls,” but it has a tongue-in-cheek specificity and eccentricity that makes it sound better with every listen). Quite to the contrary: “Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori” is a swell story song, “L.A. Girlz” could almost pass for 1994, and “California Kids” is exuberant power pop. They all cohere into the most album-y album the band has made since its initial comeback run. I needed a record like this in my life in 2016, twenty years after Pinkerton moreso than I even understood back when it first came out. – Jesse

2. A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

Musical acts, especially rock bands, generally follow a typical life cycle: They burst onto the scene full of blistering energy and raw nerves. They hit a stride and put out some of their best work, and experience makes up for the lack of that initial youthfulness. Then they get successful and become happy, and the music mellows out.

After 20 years, Radiohead did not get happy and mellow out. If anything, time has only managed to put them more in touch with their disaffection. In “Identikit,” Thom Yorke repeats the line “broken hearts make it rain” so much that it transcends the notion of a breakup song and becomes the unofficial theme of the album.

What’s amazing is how pretty it all sounds in the end. “Burn the Witch,” a song that could easily be set to searing guitar riffs, actually starts with strings. It’s no wonder that “True Love Waits,” a song that’s been kicking around in bootleg form for decades as a lo-fi guitar strummer, finally emerges in a studio version for this record, sounding as delicate as a sugar sculpture. It’s as if the song just laid low, surviving on its own lollipops and crisps, until Radiohead was in the right frame of mind to do it justice. – Marisa

Just like in 2014, we’re going to fake you out and make you wait a little longer for our post on the Best Album of 2016, so we can pay proper tribute to the fullness of its accomplishment. We promise it’ll be worth it.