2016 was one of the best years for great music in a long time. The variety of music and the genre-crossing movements made for a diverse and eclectic list of artists this year. Below is the list of my favorite albums of the year. I ranked these albums based on their holistic perspective. There were a number of great artists and songs in 2016 that may not have passed the ear test as a holistic album (or just released singles like my favorite song of the year “Wilderlove” by John Mark McMillan). So without further ado, here are Joel’s top albums of 2016.
Before getting into the top 10 it is worth noting the albums that did not make the top 10. In prior years, this list of honorable mentions would easily be my top 10 list. Macklemore is not everyone’s cup of tea but this album follows The Heist as a both light-hearted and deep record with a good beat. That is a very tough combination to find. St Paul and the Broken Bones’ Sea of Noise is a great album along the lines of Alabama Shakes and is one of the most soulful albums of the year. And what can you say about Radiohead? The never disappoint and while this album did not crack my top 10, it was still a fantastic album.
You’ll see a number of other great albums in this list from another solid Lacrae album to the unique R&B of Gallant.
- Macklemore: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
- St Paul and the Broken Bones: Sea of Noise
- Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
- Lacrae: Church Clothes v. 3
- Young the Giant: Home of the Strange
- Bastille: Wild World
- ScHoolboy Q: Blank Face LP
- Drake: Views
- Francis and the Lights: Farewell, Starlite!
- Gallant: Ology
- Anderson .Paak: Malibu
Joel’s Top 10
- Adam Young: The Score
This is actually a series of album by Adam Young more commonly known as Owl City. Young has released an album every month since February under various titles and themes. Each album is aptly named and is largely instrumental. While the music sounds more like the soundtrack to action or sci-fi movies, it does a wonderful job of combining orchestral sequences, piano and the occasional guitar. The output is fantastic music to listen to while relaxing in the sun or background music while trying at work. Apollo 11 (his first in the series) is probably my favorite but these have been on repeat in the background at work for months.
- Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book vol 3
This is a fantastic album and has topped many annual lists this season and rightfully so. Chance the Rapper has created a poignant album that is unique and powerful. Tackling difficult topics (Same Drugs) right alongside gospel songs (How Great) he adds piano, rock beats and a hip hop undertone with a combination of R&B and Hip Hop that is unique in the market. He breaks the typical approach of artists like Drake and even Kanye West to create an altogether new album that feels like nothing else. Partnering with others like Francis & the Lights (Summer Friends) and Future (Smoke Break) creates a different feel while keeping a common flow to the album. The reason I couldn’t put this album in my top 8 was while I appreciate and love many of the songs individually, Chance’s interest in foregoing the typical melodic approach to the album as a whole makes it less easy to listen to the album all in one seating. With that said, this album needs to be heard and what he is doing the industry sorely needed.
- Gungor: One Wild Life: Spirit
I have been a backer of Gungor for years. A band that started in the Christian worship industry but has gone through a number of twists and turns of deconstruction over the years and has now settled into a unique spiritual journey. They have released three albums over the last year under the title One Wild Life. The first album Soul from last year was one of my favorite albums of 2016. This year both Body and Spirit have been on rotation but Spirit with its more lively songs (Anthem) or the light hearted songs (Magic) they have created a consumable yet powerful album. Michael and Lisa Gungor address some difficult conversations (Let Bad Religion Die) and difficult times (Huricane) all while maintaining beautiful vocals. The mixture of stripped back songs that quickly turn to sonic walls of music make for a great album start to finish.
- Needtobreathe: HARDLOVE
Unquestionably my favorite album by Needtobreathe, this is a band I have followed for over a decade. I saw them at a festival back in 2006 when they were a relatively unknown southern rock Christian band. The depth and diversity to their music over the last several years is why they hit #2 on Billboard top albums this year. Their mainstream success is due to the wonderful lyrics and powerful vocals by Bear Rinehart along with his brother Bo. I have seen them now three times in concert over the last few years and they have never disappointed. They have wonderful energy on stage and can highlight the range on their album. From the eerily beginning to the album (Mountain, Pt. 1) to the pop inspired (Happiness) and the poignant love ballad (Clear), they have all of their bases covered. On this list, this is one album that I really skip or stop.
- A Tribe Called Quest: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
This could have gone horribly wrong. A band reunites for an album after 20 years and one the key members of the band dies. Those who have loved Hip Hop for a long time have held this group up to another level. What came out was a fantastic album that is at the same time a throwback to their earlier years and something completely new. It feels unique and certainly 2016. I dare anyone to listen to this album and not end up bobbing their head. When Phife Dawg passed in March (complications from diabetes), A Tribe Called Quest still released the album in August that included Phife’s talents. When a hip hop band can address large issues around democracy and race relations in the United States while adding in snippets from Willy Wonka, they deserve credit. This album is one that I can listen straight through and catch more and more of the fantastic raps and underlying beats.
NOTE: Explicit Lyrics
- Jack Garratt: Phase
Man, what a debut! Jack Garratt from the UK released his first album this past February entitled Phase. While many of the singles were released in 2015, the album is a fantastic genre-defying experience. His smooth vocals on top of a strong beat and the occasional explosion of sound make for an album you can just as easily run to as work. This is an album that is better served listening to with a great pair of headphones. The crisp layered sound underneath his vocals differentiates him from others in the genre. The rock elements to the album are what draw me to Garratt compared to similar artists like Anderson .Paak and Gallant. While some albums, no matter how good, can wear on you, this one has yet to disappoint months later. Listening yet again for this list, I ended up listening through the entire album with my foot tapping. Fantastic debut and can’t wait for what Garratt brings next.
- Bon Iver: 22, A Million
I like experimental. I like different. And for some Bon Iver is too much of both. But for me, his continuation of his experimental sound in this year’s 22, A Million strike a chord. This is another album that takes multiple listens to truly appreciate the layers of sonic goodness that Bon Iver brings. His tenor vocals are often looped and layered creating a unique sound in the industry. The last song off his album prior to 22, A Million entitled Beth/Rest has been my favorite of his songs since its release in 2011. This album is ultimately a full album in that vein. If I am looking for an introspective voice to sooth my soul, I can’t find any better that Bon Iver.
- Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
With sadness, this may be Leonard Cohen’s last album. When he passed this November, I was profoundly moved. I was a late follower of Cohen after hearing his inclusion in the Natural Born Killers soundtrack in 1994 and I was hooked. Along with Bob Dylan, Cohen has been a go-to for poignant lyrics. Very few can write songs like Dylan and Cohen. Add his deep vocals with simplified piano and guitar and you have created a sound that may never be matched. His latest album is unquestionably my favorite. While the album lays bare Cohen’s spiritual turmoil in a world he finds so dark that he’s ready to give up, there is hope laced with the cynicism to create a perspective we can all relate to. We cannot ignore the despair of this world so how do we live within that? Mr. Cohen, I will miss your contribution to music and thank you for leaving us with a fantastic album start to finish to honor your legacy.
- Sho Baraka: The Narrative
Sho Baraka’s album the Narrative is a commentary on the plight of the African American experience through the eyes of a fictional character named Louis Portier. He uses the sounds and experiences of black Americans through the years to tell his story. From the story of slaves to the civil rights movement to a perspective on what Kanye’s rants add to the discussion. So how does this album rank so high on the list compared to other Hip Hop artists like Chance the Rapper? No other albums take the narrative concept (no pun intended) to a whole new level. Integrating soul and hip hop beats seamlessly to create a sound that is unique yet approachable. Add lyrics that address issues that are challenging to all Americans, and it becomes an album I couldn’t stop listening to all year. Smooth is the best way to describe the sound. That makes The Narrative an experience that you can listen to over and over and find new beats and meaning each time.
- Clout Cult: The Seeker
I’m late the Cloud Cult bandwagon and for that I apologize. I get it. The experience that is Cloud Cult is more than a music thing. It is more than a live show thing. Cloud Cult knows who their followers are and what they crave. With that passion in mind, they create a community of listeners. The Seeker is quite possibly my favorite album in the last decade. It is a concept album that is intended to tell a story about those of us that are seeking. We’re not always sure what we are seeking but know that we are not satisfied just going through the motions of life. Craig Minowa and the collection of beautiful artists he has surrounded himself with create an indie rock sound that is difficult to categorize. Their combination of beautiful vocals and eerie sounds combined with some of the most beautiful orchestral moments ebb and flow throughout the album. Most of all though, is Minowa’s ability to capture life lessons in a way that is rich, deep and complicated but also simple to understand and grasp. This is the album I listen to when I am on a walk and want to experience God. Even if you don’t believe in a pure definition of God, it is difficult to listen to this album and not feel a calling to something greater than yourself. I’ll let this album speak for itself but if you choose to listen, plan to sit and breathe in this album. It is not one that lends itself to easy driving music or background music. As the first song proclaims “Oh, my love. Oh, my hope, the Great Mystery cannot be solved. There will be joy and grief, but live it all in awe.”
And that’s it folks. So what did I miss? Right albums but wrong order? Feel free to leave your comments below.