7. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
A Moon Shaped Pool almost feels like a companion piece to the cold, alien Kid A, an album that remained musically near-impenetrable in spite of its deeply human themes and ideas. The coldness of Kid A’s wholly synthetic production—conjuring the image of an android desperately trying to connect to its flesh-and-blood contemporaries—directly contrasts the natural orchestrations of A Moon Shaped Pool; “Burn the Witch,” the album’s lead single, is dark in its lyrical content (“Red crosses on wooden doors / If you float you burn”), offset by the fiery string section employed in the background. “True Love Waits,” a Radiohead concert staple since 1995 that never received a proper studio version till now, finds the right sound for its brand of heartbreak. Frontman Thom Yorke initially intended for the track to appear on Kid A or Amnesiac, but ultimately decided to wait over two decades until the right sound came along; listening to it, it’s hard to imagine “True Love Waits” on any other Radiohead album. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead demonstrates even further versatility in how they tackle themes of loneliness and emotional decay.
6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Justin Vernon can coat his vaporous falsetto in cold echoes and chrome autotune all he wants: 22, A Million still remains as essential to Bon Iver’s expression as any of the Wisconsin folk band’s other projects. In some ways, the move to artificiality holds precedent; “Beth/Rest,” the closing track on the band’s 2011 album Bon Iver, Bon Iver, employs ‘80s synthesizers and a shimmering vocoder effect on Vernon’s voice. In other ways, Bon Iver is trying something completely new here, applying to folktronica the same principles upheld by collaborator James Blake: that the space in between notes is just as important as the notes themselves.
5. Beyoncé – Lemonade
If anyone doubted prior to Lemonade that Beyoncé was an absolute superstar, the Michael Jackson or George Michael or Whitney Houston of our times, let the Houston-born R&B sensation prove them wrong. Even calling her an “R&B” sensation in a post-Lemonade world might be a bit of a misnomer. Beyoncé inhabits a wide variety of genres on Lemonade, and it never feels like she’s merely dipping her toes into their waters or providing shallow interpretations; she gets the rage out on the heavy-hitting “Don’t Hurt Yourself” with Jack White, reflects on her father’s influence in the New Orleans country portmanteau “Daddy Lessons,” and gives one of the best vocal performances of her studio career in the soaring piano ballad “Sandcastles.” For as much as older generations want to disregard the merits of modern pop music, Beyoncé makes it nearly impossible.
4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
There’s immutable tragedy at the core of Skeleton Tree that becomes impossible to avoid during intimate discussion of the album. As an emotional arc detailing the substantial grief Nick Cave shouldered following the death of his fifteen-year-old son Arthur in 2015, Skeleton Tree is masterful. But let it be clear: this is not an album that is good because of its subject matter. Nick Cave has always played with dark themes and ideas, some of them seemingly personal, others notably fantastical. What Skeleton Tree offers is Nick Cave’s full tapestry of creative idiosyncrasies—his penchant for strange pseudo-religious metaphors as well as his emotive voice that inexplicably bellows even as it whispers—along with some of Warren Ellis’s most subdued and emotionally raw instrumentation. It is not an album I’ve found myself revisiting often, but as far as the “best” work of 2016, Skeleton Tree stands in contention for the top spot.
3. Anderson Paak – Malibu
Soulful and smooth, heartfelt and sexy, it seems like Anderson Paak can write just about any song for any occasion. Compared to Paak’s disjointed debut Venice, Malibu focuses almost entirely on neo-soul, augmenting its full-bodied sound with hip-hop and R&B flavors through a lineup of guest features that includes BJ the Chicago Kid, Schoolboy Q, Rapsody, and The Game, as well as producers Madlib, 9th Wonder, and Kaytranada. Malibu feels emphatically more genuine than Venice; ironic, then, that Malibu would ultimately put Paak on the map while Venice, a clear attempt at mainstream marketability, did little for Paak’s career. Whether it’s over the retro synths of “Lite Weight” or the old-school R&B pianos and guitars of “The Bird,” Anderson Paak comes through with the boldest and most confident breakout album of 2016.
2. David Bowie – Blackstar
No one knew how truly self-aware Blackstar was until David Bowie’s death two days after its release. In the year since, the album has taken on a new life, not unlike the Lazarus of Bethany referenced in the album’s third track “Lazarus.” Blackstar is layered, mysterious, and eclectic. In the title track, Bowie likens himself to a black star, a celestial body that gives off energy even after death. In “Lazarus” (which follows the same character David Bowie portrayed in Nicolas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth), Bowie exclaims, “Oh, I’ll be free / Just like that bluebird.” And “I Can’t Give Everything Away” feels like a departing message from Bowie as he finally succumbs to his illness, or, in the context of the album, departs from Earth into the outer space he so loved to envision in his past work. Blackstar also recontextualizes much of Bowie’s past sounds into a memorial of his legacy, like “Dollar Days,” which very much echoes the acoustic oddity of “Starman” (from Bowie’s opus, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars). Still, it’s not a cheap throwback record; so many acts of late, from Slayer to De La Soul to Megadeth, fail to incorporate progressive musical elements developed in the years since their heydays. Rather than simply re-hash tired material, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti made a point of adapting to changing trends; Visconti, in an interview with Rolling Stone, cited Kendrick Lamar as an inspiration, explaining that he and Bowie “loved the fact that Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record […] The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.” The end result—a jazzy, ethereal piece of art rock that only lightly brushes old-school genres while simultaneously embracing the future of music—makes for one of Bowie’s five greatest albums.