2016 was seemingly hardwired to self-destruct, as Metallica sang on their furious 10th album – and music stared down the chaos. It was a year of explicitly political R&B molotovs, (Beyoncé, Solange), hip-hop that heals (REMI, A Tribe Called Quest), fist-raised rock (Green Day, Violent Soho) and one especially striking Australian rap album (A.B. Original). Powerful and unique personalities like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen had the powerful and unique ability to say goodbye with album-length farewells. Anohni sang about the environmental apocalypse over a dance beat. But of course there was also no shortage of messy pop stars, indie rock diarists and proudly indulgent rappers happy to simply let their pens and personalities explode. Here’s the year’s best.
By Christopher R. Weingarten, Jon Dolan, Jon Freeman, Brittany Spanos, Joseph Hudak, Mosi Reeves, Kory Grow, Keith Harris, Richard Gehr, Maura Johnston, Patrick Doyle, Joe Levy, Andy Greene, Rob Sheffield, Rod Yates and Jonny Nail.
50. Melody Pool, ‘Deep Dark Savage Heart’
Pool’s second album confirmed her standing as one of Australia’s brightest talents – even if her album plummeted the deepest and darkest of emotions in songs such as “Black Dog”. As blunt lyrically as she is poetic, Pool’s alt-country-leaning songs and heavenly voice remain a thing of deep, dark beauty.
49. The Griswolds, ‘High Times For Low Lives’
At the beginning of the writing process for their second album, frontman Christopher Whitehall and guitarist Daniel Duque-Perez decided to throw the rulebook out the window. The result? An album that opened up the indie rock of their debut and incorporated Prince-style funk, R&B, Eighties synth-pop and whatever else took their fancy, all sculpted into shape by producer Andrew Dawson (Kanye West).
48. Deftones, ‘Gore’
Few bands reach their eighth album with as much verve, spirit and individuality as the Sacramento quintet. Indeed while many of their Nineties peers are stuck in a cycle of rehashed ideas, Deftones continue to push forward with a sound that is uniquely theirs, and an album that’s one of the best of their career.
47. Violent Soho, ‘WACO’
How do you follow up a career-resurrecting album like Hungry Ghost? By writing grunge-era anthems like “So Sentimental”, “Like Soda”, “Viceroy” and “How to Taste”, that’s how. Easy.
46. Norah Jones, ‘Day Breaks’
Titled after a bubbling track about deep loneliness, Jones’s sixth studio album feels like an ozone-charged pause before a virulent cloudburst. At 37, her voice has become more nuanced without losing an iota of cool, and her Americana excursions inform a splendid horn-driven cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied.”
45. Iggy Pop, ‘Post Pop Depression’
The sessions for Iggy Pop’s best album in many years were helmed by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who created the perfect dark, rangy sound for him to flex in front of.
44. The Monkees, ‘Good Times’
On the first studio album to contain all four Monkees since 1996’s Justus, the “prefab four” – now in their seventies or, in the case of Davy Jones, sadly passed – reassure baby boomers that simple guitar-pop pleasures can last a lifetime.
43. Michael Kiwanuka, ‘Love & Hate’
The British soul singer followed up his Mercury Prize nominated debut, Home Again, by teaming up with producer Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton and making what reviewer Michael Dwyer called “sparse, weighty, classic soul arrangements that manage to bypass homage to resonate more like prayers – the kind that could make Jesus weep”.
42. Drake, ‘Views’
Every release from Drake is a love letter to his hometown of Toronto, but Views rises above as a true ode to the city’s diversity and its lasting impact on the artist he is today.
41. Wilco, ‘Shmilco’
Shmilco is an album of subtle details to be cherished, from its lackadaisical guitar squiggles to its idiosyncratically loping beats to the sort of offhand sing-song melodies that have always been Jeff Tweedy’s greatest gift.
40. Ceres, ‘Drag It Down On You’
The second full-length from the Melbourne emo-punks is a scribbled journal of unfiltered honesty, strengthened by the side-by-side, head-butting contrast of heart-sleeved confessions, pub-punk revelry and explosive spurts of optimism.
39. Dustin Tebbutt, ‘First Light’
Covering the complete spectrum of emotions associated with a long distance relationship — from frustrations to fevered anticipation — the New South Wales songwriter’s fresh spin on the folk-pop mould somehow manages to be both emotionally complex and universally inviting.
38. Tove Lo, ‘Lady Wood’
On her second album, this Swedish pop singer-songwriter is just as sexed up and drugged up as ever, crafting the sort of messy but consistent three-dimensional character that’s in short supply in contemporary pop.
37. Modern Baseball, ‘Holy Ghost’
Haunted by the spectre of loss and depression, Philadelphia’s Modern Baseball crafted one of the year’s best indie/alternative rock albums, with two-minute long songs whizzing past in a blur of raw emotion and earworm melodies. Short and sharp, but no less powerful because of it.
36. Metallica, ‘Hardwired… to Self-Destruct’
Echoes of their landmark Black Album and Master of Puppets resound throughout Hardwired…, as do formative influences like Black Sabbath’s groove, Mercyful Fate’s orchestration and Iron Maiden’s theatrical flair, making their 10th album the best representation of the Metallica experience in years.
35. Anohni, ‘Hopelessness’
As America focused its attention on the tangled election morass, New York chamber-pop genius Anohni was clawing at a bigger picture, dancing with tears in her eyes. On the year’s most despondent and apocalyptic dance record, Anohni warbles and floats about climate erosion, the surveillance state, the endless death in the Middle East and the basic culpability of humanity itself: “How did I become a virus?” she croons in the title track.
34. Angel Olsen, ‘My Woman’
Expanding on the the folk-grunge template of 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire For No Witness, on My Woman Angel Olsen cautiously glides through shimmering girl-group pop arrangements, wailing psych-rock freakouts and woozy, Mazzy Star-style balladry. These elements all come together for the gorgeous, seven-minute epic “Sister,” which swells and crashes with cinematic grandeur.
33. Montaigne, ‘Glorious Heights’
The long-awaited debut LP from left-field pop protege Jess Cerro doesn’t disappoint, partnering the versatile young artist’s strutting confidence and souring melodies with equally anthemic production, as striking with stark, near-acapella balladry (“Consolation Prize”) as the prominent quirky pop and eighties-excess glam.
32. Alicia Keys, ‘Here’
On her most political album to date, Alicia Keys sings from the perspective of a black everywoman with undiminished optimism. Her true victory, however, is identifying and empathising with others, and finding hope that the world, despite all its problems, is changing for the better.
31. White Lung, ‘Paradise’
In the two years since Vancouver punkers White Lung released their caustic breakthrough, Deep Fantasy, they’ve grown up just enough to write sharper songs but still maintain an edge, with Paradise emerging as both more coherent and more disturbing. Post-punk without the postmodern baggage.
30. A Tribe Called Quest, ‘We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’
A Tribe Called Quest’s final album is a wistful mix of nostalgia for their golden-age past, and an inspired protest at a difficult present and future.
29. Letlive, ‘If I’m The Devil’
In a year of Black Lives Matter, growing social inequality and fear mongering in the media, no other rock band summed up the mood of disillusionment and anger as eloquently or passionately as Californian four-piece letlive. They may have toned down the schizophrenic brutality of their post-hardcore, but their message hit harder than any riff or drum pattern ever could.
28. Blood Orange, ‘Freetown Sound’
On Freetown Sound, Avant-R&B trailblazer and indie-rock expat Blood Orange explores identity from multiple angles, from his parents’ relocation from West Africa to London (“St. Augustine”) to the experiences of a friend and trans woman in Los Angeles (“Desirée”), all above a percolating stew of experimental jazz, synth-pop and Eighties hip-hop.
27. Camp Cope, ‘Camp Cope’
Equally broodingly cathartic and mosh-pit chaotic, the Melbourne melodic punk trio snuggly wrap biting social commentary with introspective self-analysis on their stunning from-nowhere debut.
26. Sturgill Simpson, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’
On his third album, the outspoken country artist veers into late-Elvis balladry, brassy Sixties soul, Disney-inspired orchestral arrangements and one rumbling Nirvana cover.
25. Rihanna, ‘Anti’
Pop’s top singles artist shows she’s awesome with albums too, exploring psych-funk on her own cloud-blowing terms.
24. Hellions, ‘Opera Oblivia’
The Sydney hardcore act’s third LP unleashes colossal choruses, preposterous riffs and sonic plot twists galore.
23. Mitski, ‘Puberty 2’
The Brooklyn indie rocker’s fourth LP feels at once artful, unhinged and revelatory. A weird, rewarding listen.
22. Bon Iver, ’22, a Million’
Alt-folk star Justin Vernon sets down his guitar and leaps into the future for an album of lush, ethereal android-R&B.
21. Gawurra, ‘Ratja Yaliyali’
Few albums in 2016 were as beautiful as the debut from this Yolngu songman. The arrival of an important new voice.
20. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Skeleton Tree’
Goth-punk icon responds to the tragic loss of his son with agonised ballads that plunge into the heart of darkness.
19. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, ‘Nonagon Infinity’
King Gizzard’s eighth studio album may be the only record that plays on an infinite loop to ever win an ARIA.
18. REMI, ‘Divas & Demons’
Remi Kolawole and Sensible J. school us in serious issues – racism, depression – while throwing 2016’s best party.
17. Parquet Courts, ‘Human Performance’
These guitar-bending adventurers have never sounded so freewheeling, with a New York malaise added to the perfect Bob Dylan/Lou Reed ambience.
16. Julia Jacklin, ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’
Alt-country twentysomething bard spills vulnerability into nostalgic premature evaluation on stunning debut.
15. LVL UP, ‘Return to Love’
These Brooklynites’ neo-Nineties guitar moves aren’t just sharper than everyone else’s – the songs are packed with a spiritual hunger that doesn’t let up even when it seems like life might crush them.
14. Green Day, ‘Revolution Radio’
Green Day’s most explosive set since 1994’s Dookie is a punk-rock rager steeped in decades of emotional and musical experience – from the ringing call for clarity “Somewhere Now” to the Who-huge “Forever Now”.
13. Olympia, ‘Self Talk’
As assured a debut as you’re ever likely to hear, Self Talk is the rich realisation of Melbourne multi-instrumentalist Olivia Bartley’s left-field vision. It’s pop, sure, but sonically Bartley goes much deeper.
12. Paul Simon, ‘Stranger to Stranger’
Simon’s 13th LP is packed with genre-bending sonics, blues snap and deep anxieties. The lyrics touch on mass shootings and income inequality. But there is consolation in the music itself – swaying, popping, weird and lovely.
11. Solange, ‘A Seat at the Table’
A neo-soul statement as graceful as it is unsettling. After years of trying different genres, Beyoncé’s sis landed on a smooth-flowing minimal R&B that comes with hard-hitting lyrics about pain, power and modern black womanhood.
10. A.B. Original, ‘Reclaim Australia’
Accompanied by trunk-rattling West Coast beats, sparring partners Briggs and Trials tear up the Aussie hip-hop rulebook with a debut that dissects modern indigenous issues with a unique blend of unfiltered dissent and devilish wit.
9. Leonard Cohen, ‘You Want It Darker’
Like Bowie’s Blackstar, this powerful statement came just before the artist left us. At 82, Cohen offered a stark, haunting meditation on love and death. “I’m ready, my Lord,” he sings, his voice rumbling into the eternal.
8. Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’
“Guernica”-size sprawl to make Picasso’s head spin. Peaks like “Ultralight Beam” and “30 Hours” are West at his summit, adding up to a fractured statement of his life as the “38-year-old eight-year-old”.
7. The Rolling Stones, ‘Blue & Lonesome’
The Stones returned to their deepest roots with a raw set of Chicago blues covers. It sounds like 1963, but it’s the wisdom of age that helps them connect with these classics.
6. Radiohead, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’
Radiohead’s first album in five years is among their most ravishingly beautiful, awash in piano, violin and acoustic-guitar frills. Yet somehow it’s never soothing – as Thom Yorke warns here, the truth will mess you up.
5. Frank Ocean, ‘Blonde’
It took four years to construct this quietly audacious follow-up to Ocean’s breakout R&B game-changer, Channel Orange. That care came through in the music. Blonde is a tripped-out marvel of smouldering, elusive digital-age psychedelia. Dreamlike and hushed, as influenced by Brian Eno as by Beyoncé, these songs are drowned in memories that keep threatening to slip away: childhood, love, that time you took acid and got your Jagger on. Chasing a freedom that’s always temporary – musical, emotional, sexual – was the idea, as on “White Ferrari”, where Ocean rewrites the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” to recapture a teenage joyride, or “Pink + White”, a fleeting, string-bathed vision of late-summer bliss. Nothing on Blonde is easy to pin down. Tracks slip from outer space to church, from thoughts of Trayvon Martin to blunt lover-man brags, from his mind to your desires – opening room for every listener to slip inside.
4. Car Seat Headrest, ‘Teens of Denial’
Here is the year’s most surefire guitar alchemy, full of riffs that revolve like strobe lights and lyrics that flash insights, slogans and jokes so quickly they erase any difference between them. After years of low-fi solo records, Will Toledo put together a band that helped take his writing to the next level. “Friends are better with drugs…. Drugs are better with friends,” he sings in the one about taking mushrooms and not transcending – his songs are full of girls who offered empathy instead of sex, and medicine cabinets where you could choose a new personality. Yet the sound is anything but depressed. Like Nirvana building from quiet to explosive, Car Seat Headrest know how to be intimate and epic at the same time.
3. D.D Dumbo, ‘Utopia Defeated’
If there was ever proof that isolation acts as fuel for the imagination – or even a catalyst for a type of dizzying creative madness – then Oliver Perry’s debut album as D.D Dumbo, Utopia Defeated, is it. Conceived and recorded by Perry in rural Castlemaine, Victoria, Utopia Defeated is a wonderfully unhinged alien world unto itself; a place where sitars make way for tight funk and clarinets cameo behind lyrics about seeing UFOs in Mexico… and that’s just one track (“Satan”). There are also moments of quiet beauty (“In the Water”) and psychedelic world music (“Alihukwe”), the thread throughout being Perry’s stirring voice and a thrilling sense that we’ve only been given a small peek into his limitless private universe.
2. David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’
There’s never been a musical farewell anything like Blackstar – the Cracked Actor saved his bravest and boldest performance for the final curtain. Bowie showed up on his 69th birthday to drop a surprise masterpiece, let an astonished world puzzle over the music for a couple of days and then slipped off into the sky. Nearly a year later, Blackstar still gives up fresh mysteries with every listen. This came on as one of the Starman’s most dizzyingly adventurous albums, stretching out in jazzy space ballads like “Lazarus”, or the 10-minute title epic. (Producer Tony Visconti revealed Bowie was soaking up inspiration from artists like Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo.) But it took Bowie’s death to reveal Blackstar as his rumination on mortality – anguished, bittersweet, mournful, refusing to give in to self-pity even as he sings his passionate final word, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, a song every bit as moving as “Heroes”.
1. Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’
Beyoncé shut everyone else down this year with a soul-on-fire masterpiece, testifying about love, rage and betrayal that felt all too true in the America of 2016. The queen delivered a confessional, genre-devouring suite that’s larger than life yet still heartbreakingly intimate, because it doubles as her portrait of a nation in flames. She dropped Lemonade as a Saturday-night surprise after her HBO special, moving in on every strain of American music from country (“Daddy Lessons”) to blues metal (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) to post-punk-gone-Vegas dancehall (“Hold Up”) to feminist hip-hop windshield-smashing (“Sorry”). Even with “All Night” as an ambiguous resolution, it’s a whole album of hurt, which is why it especially hit home after the election. Beyoncé explores what it’s like to get sold out by a lover – or a nation – that fooled you into feeling safe. The question of whether she’s singing about Jay Z is moot because – unfortunately – it turned out to be about all of us.