Gradient’s Best 20 Albums Of 2016 | Gradient

Gradient’s Best 20 Albums of 2016

For all the squawking about how 2016 was the worst year in history — a designation that can be debated, but not easily refuted — there were, as ever, a few musicians who helped light the way for the rest of us. Music mattered more this year, if only because music has so often been the one thing that can’t be taken away from us. When things look dark and the world turns out to be a much more frightening place than you’d imagined, you need someone who can tell you when to “get / in / for / mat / ion”, that “music is all we got, so we might as well give it all we got” or, simply, that this is just a God dream.

There was a lot of great music this year. Here are our picks for the 20 best albums.

20. Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Simpson was in the news a lot this year for all the reasons a country music artist should: defending the legacy of his spiritual godfather Merle Haggard and calling out Nashville on its industry bullshit. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth sounds nothing like the country music complex, which is another way of saying it’s great country music. When Simpson reaches the end of the dusty road he’s traveling, he’ll be greeted by the Highwaymen up in Heaven, or wherever it is country’s greats go when they die.

19. Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

The extent to which you consider Kanye to be a genius largely depends on how much stupidity you’re willing to tolerate from a genius. By any measure, a man who released The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, and the Life of Pablo in a row is a genius. By any measure, a man who says the infuriating things Kanye does is not a genius. It’s a tension that’s kept us hooked for a decade now, and as long as it gives us music like “Ultralight Beam,” it’s one we’ll be interested in.

18. Schoolboy Q: Blank Face LP

In 2016, nobody better inhabited the tensions of gangster rap’s legacy with the current moment of being black in America than Schoolboy. For every braggadocios bit of bluster, there’s an honest assessment of injustice at the hands of an unfair system or the residual pain of an absent father. Gangster rap’s needed an update for a long time now, and Schoolboy is in the best position to deliver it.

17. Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman

At the beginning of 2016, the pop starlet hierarchy was pretty well laid out. You had the queen, Beyonce; the girl next door, Taylor; the rebel, Rihanna; and the class clown, Miley Cyrus. But with Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande established herself as a formidable new player on the board, exuding an unnerving amount of sensual confidence from the spike of her stiletto to the tip of her ponytail.

16. Bon Iver: 22, A Million

When Justin Vernon appeared on the folk scene at the tail end of the last decade, he and his contemporaries looked like the beginning of a new folk explosion, but it was actually the last gasp (for now) of a dying genre. Since For Emma, we’ve had to reckon with Spotify, Deadmau5, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the death of LCD Soundsystem and the birth of Kendrick. Of all those sad, whispy, bearded mountainfolk, Vernon alone has proved able to navigate the new music landscape. 22, A Million feels like a restless artist who could get by on re-interpretations of “Skinny Love” for the rest of his career, and knows it, but chooses instead of forge new paths.

15. Vince Staples: Prima Donna


In a perfect world, Vince Staples would be a household name. He’s one of rap’s most promising talents gifted with astonishing hustle. And, to his credit, he’s been largely content to let other emcees hog the spotlight while he works on his craft. Prima Donna proves that he’s not done evolving and, sooner or later, his songs will really crack through. Until then, we just get to enjoy the process.

14. Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love!


For the past few years, Donald Glover has flitted from project to project like a moth, sometimes seeming like he was at a bit of a loss for what to do with his vast talents. He’s a comedian, he’s an actor, he’s a writer, he’s a rapper, he’s …the most interesting man in the world? Not if you watch Atlanta, in which he consistently portrays himself as a relatively uninteresting true north for the rest of us to view the most interesting world in the world through. But his new album suggests that we haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of gifts — and possibly, he hasn’t either.

13. Rihanna: ANTI


How do you like your celebrities? Untouchable, like Jay? Cuddly, like Chance? That’s all well and good. But give me Rihanna, who’s always been a little more about aspirational celebrity than relatable celebrity. Here’s her leaving the club in a Saint Laurent fur and little else, copped wine glass in hand. Here’s her with diamond-encrusted noise canceling headphones. And here’s ANTI, which pulls back the curtain to reveal a vastly more talented artist than anyone had given her credit for. Do you think she cares that nobody can understand the chorus on “Work”? You think she cares that her moment in the spotlight was almost immediately eclipsed by Lemonade? Rihanna’s never been the calculating type. She’s just happy to be here. And we’re happy to observe her being here …from a very un-cool distance.

12. Blood Orange: Freetown Sound


“My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way … it’s a clapback,” Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, told Entertainment Weekly in a recent interview. He’s right, and thank God for it. The polarization of America has brought with it fear and outrage against those kids Hynes is dedicating his music to, and it has the transcendent power to be a wonderful salve for their wounds. It’s a terrible thing to feel alienated from society, but it’s where you find the best music. Freetown Sound is proof of that.

11. Solange: A Seat at the Table


Let’s start with the photo, because it’s a masterpiece. You know the one. She’s looking right at the camera — right as you — and she seems to be giving you something with her gaze. She looks defiant, like you just tried to argue your point and came up woefully short. She looks like she just heard a bad joke, and is past the point of caring enough to dignify it with a clapback. But she also looks peaceful and at ease, imbued with strength. She looks like her music sounds. Solange mastered her visuals long ago, communicating as much through the short films that accompanied her work as she did with the music itself. But on A Seat at the Table, the various threads of her gifts have finally spun into a fearsome, lovely whole. If you want to know what it sounds like, just look at the picture again.

10. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial


Is rock dead? It’s a fair question, although it’s one that has come up every year for at least the past half century. There always seems to be at least a handful of bands willing to carry rock’s torch until it experiences a full rebirth and this year, that band was Car Seat Headrest — which is all the more impressive since Car Seat Headrest is mostly just Will Toledo, who’s not yet of legal age to rent a car in most states. Those are some pretty slender shoulders to rest rock and roll on but, with Teens of Denial, he’s proved himself more than capable.

9. David Bowie: Blackstar


Look upon his works, ye mighty, and despair. Name another artist who managed to exit from this mortal coil with such devastating elegance, dropping an album that made people realize that Bowie was still in peak form just a few days before they realized we’d never hear from him again. Blackstar is a goodbye note, a love letter to a world that loved him back and a haunting testimony to a truly perfect artist.

8. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition


Danny Brown is a mad scientist, hunched over a computer screen, concocting beats, samples and bars that couldn’t possibly exist without the dexterity of his truly fascinating mind. You get the sense that he hears an impossible sound in his head and then gets to work recreating it in the studio — and if there’s no way to recreate it, then he sets to work finding one. This year, Schoolboy Q and Tribe Called Quest reminded us that there’s still plenty of great music to be made with oldschool hip-hop. Danny Brown reminded us that hip-hop is a long way from having finished its evolution.

7. Angel Olsen: MY WOMAN


When listening to MY WOMAN you could be forgiven for half expecting to look up and see Angel Olsen right there in the room with you, fiddling on her guitar, singing lyrics that feel so intensely personal you almost feel like you shouldn’t be there. MY WOMAN is as intimate and thrilling as a kiss, and further confirms our suspicions that Olsen is one of the great lyricists of her generation.

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


How? How did Tribe, one member down and the two remaining members in the throes of middle age, release one of this year’s most vital sounding pieces of art? This is no exercise in nostalgia, but an energetic collection of songs that feature Q-Tip, Jarobi and the since-departed Phife at the peak of their considerable talents. They sound effortless, but invigorated and inventive, informed by their past and deeply connected to their present. It was like they never left.

5. Mitski: Puberty 2


Mitski makes music the way some people get dressed in the morning, adding layer after layer of patterns and textures, many of which don’t look like they’d work as part of a complete outfit, but then they leave the house and, lo and behold, it looks fantastic. In Mitski’s case, it helps that this fantastic outfit is buttressed by some truly astonishing lyrical profundities. Puberty 2 is about fleeting happiness; all the ways we try to find it and all the ways it slips away. Sometimes, happiness is found in a clean load of laundry or regular exercise. Sometimes it’s found in a relationship with a boy, no matter how poorly defined the nature of that relationship is. But almost always, that happiness flits just out of touch, liable to slip away as soon as you realize it’s actually happening. Mitski understands that, but she seems more intrigued by it than in despair of it — even if her observations will make your eyes spark with tears. It makes for an odd album, but it feels like the best of 90s alt-rock married to the best of modern production. It feels like a masterpiece.

4. Anderson .Paak: Malibu


Malibu‘s charms unveil themselves slowly. The first listen reveals Anderson .Paak to be a rare talent with a mean flow. On second listen, you hear an inventive ear for melody and song structures that feel liberated without being shapeless. Anderson .Paak pulls off the difficult trick of creating effortless sounding-music that clearly took a very long time to create. It’s rich and meticulous without seeming fussy and bloated. There’s a palpable joy to the proceedings that rewards both casual listens and deep dives.

3. Radiohead: A Moon-Shaped Pool


“Don’t leave!” Thom Yorke wails in the last line on A Moon Shaped-Pool. The song is called “True Love Waits”, and while it’s never been on an album before, it’s been around so long that even casual Radiohead fans are probably familiar with it. But then, there are no casual Radiohead fans. At some point in the early ’00s, Radiohead transcended the level of “band” and became shorthand for everything that was interesting and exciting in the world of rock. Their fans talked about Radiohead albums like they were Egyptian runes, crafting labyrinthine conspiracy theories about time signatures, song orders and lyrical anagrams. It all would have been a little Manson-esque if the band themselves didn’t seem to deserve just such a level of scrutiny. There are a lot of smart Radiohead fans in the world, but none of them are smarter than Radiohead. Is A Moon-Shaped Pool their final album? It all depends on how you read “Don’t leave!” But if it is, they’re going out in top form.

2. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book


“I don’t make songs for free, I make them for freedom.” And let the people of the Lord say “Amen.” Almost everyone agrees that 2016 has been a world class shitty year, but don’t tell Chance the Rapper, whose brilliant exuberance was one of the year’s saving graces. He’s a cheerful guy, but don’t mistake cheerfulness for naivety. He has a wary eye on the present, while his other eye is cast inward, and from there he draws seemingly boundless strength. Whether he’s singing about his daughter and her mother, Chicago, his grandmother or God, Chance’s joy is deeply felt and addictively proclaimed. All that could make for a rather saccharine listening experience, but Chance barbs even his gooiest bars. His flow is jaw-dropping, astonishing. His brazen fearlessness is thrilling to behold. Who could spit “Any petty Peter Pettigrew could get the pesticide” and “hit Jericho with a buzzer beater to end a quarter watch brick and mortar fall like dripping water” without getting hopelessly tongue-tied? Who would just drop the entirety of a suburban mega church staple “How Great Is Out God” and lace it with some of the album’s sharpest flows? Chance the Rapper, that’s who, dancing around with tailored overalls and that hat, toothy grin belying an amazing gift.

Beyonce: Lemonade


Was there any doubt? Was there any real question about who would end up at the top of this list? Any year-end list that does otherwise is aiming for hot takes but just ends up looking cold, because look here: Lemonade is the album of the year, period. It has the best rock song of the year. It has the best country song of the year. It has one of the best rap songs of the year. All things being equal, it has at least three of the year’s best songs, and probably more. It has “Formation” for crying out loud. Remember the Super Bowl Halftime Show when Beyonce appeared and everything else — Bruno, Coldplay, the game itself — just immediately vanished behind the hype of a song that had been released a scant 2 days prior? That song is on this album.

It sounds like 2016. The tension, the terror, the rage, the tenderness, the defiance, and the hope. It’s where we are and it’s where we want to be. It’s a merciful embrace, a middle finger in the air, a rallying cry, a baseball bat to the face and a holy baptism. It pissed off all the right people, justified what seemed to be unjustifiable hype and will be every bit as crucial to listen to in 2060 as it was in 2016. Bow down, bitches.

Editor Lists: 

Josh Babyar

1. Beyonce: Lemonade
2. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
3. David Bowie: Blackstar
4. Rihanna: Anti
5. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…
6. Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
7. Alicia Keys: Here
8. Margo Price: Midwest farmers Daughter
9. Solange: A Seat At The Table
10. Car Set Headrest: Teens of Denial
11. Childish Gambino: Awaken My Love
12. Drive By Truckers: American Band
13. Kanye West: Life of Pablo
14. Dawes: We’re All Gonna Die
15. BJ The Chicago Kid: In My Mind
16. Drake: Views
17. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
18. D.R.A.M.: Big Baby D.R.A.M
19. Savages: Adore Life
20. Kendrick Lamar: Untitled Unmastered

Michael Romero
1. Beyonce: Lemonade
2. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
3. Tribe Called Quest: We Got it From here….
4. Kanye West: Life of Pablo
5. Rihanna: Anti
6. Solange: A Seat at The Table
7. John Legend: Darkness and Light
8. Frank Ocean: Blonde
9. Drake: Views
10. Bon Iver: 22, a Million
11. Blood Orange: Freetown Sound
12. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
13. David Bowie: Blackstar
14. Anderson .Paak: Malibu
15. Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman
16. Vince Staples: Prima Donna
17. Kendrick Lamar: Untitled, Unmastered
18. Travis Scott: Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
19. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
20. Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love

Tyler Huckabee
1. Beyonce: Lemonade
2. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
3. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
4. Solange: A Seat at the Table
5. Anderson .Paak: Malibu
6. Mitski: Puberty 2
7. PUP: The Dream Is Over
8. Angel Olsen: MY WOMAN
9. David Bowie: Black Star
10. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
11. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
12. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
13. Walter Martin, Jr.: Arts + Leisure
14. Saba: Bucket List Project
15. Jeff Rosenstock: WORRY.
16. Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
17. Bon Iver: 22, A Million
18. Schoolboy Q: Blank Face LP
19. Rihanna: ANTI
20. Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love!