Amid all the turmoil, hysteria, chaos and grief the past 12 months brought to bear on our collective psyche, it was comfort I most expected to find in assembling a list of my favorite albums from 2016.
While there are certainly soothing moments here and there, the common thread among these 10 efforts was surprise — something rarely in short supply during this roller coaster of a year.
It is fitting that the records here consistently provided wake-up calls for ears benumbed by much of what they heard — the grinding blandness of the mainstream, each highly hyped release more homogenous than the next — and offer a glimmer of hope, however slight, that the coming year, for all of its portents of doom, might contain yet more unexpected delights.
1. Beyonce, Lemonade
The shock of this record’s appearance in April was tempered somewhat, thanks to a mysterious trailer that made the rounds prior to Lemonade’s unveiling as an hourlong music video on HBO. Still, the scale and ambition of Beyonce’s vision is astonishing — the sheer number of non-disclosure agreements required to pull this off is mind-boggling — particularly when considering just how compulsively listenable the whole thing is. Ricocheting between excoriating a wayward lover and celebrating the durability of battle-tested matrimony (among many other subjects), Lemonade is a vivid document of a pop superstar near the height of her powers, the whole world riveted to her every move.
2. Lake Street Dive, Side Pony
Second only to the top pick, this is the record I far and away returned to most often in 2016. Given its near-constant rotation, it’s mildly embarrassing to admit Lake Street Dive — a Boston-based quartet anchored by the stunning vocals of Rachael Price — was an unknown quantity to me when I pressed play on the band’s fifth studio album. By the time Side Pony draws to a close, having taken you from the rambunctious heights of Godawful Things to the vulnerable depths of Mistakes, you’ll likely be left as I was: a rabid fan of this gifted band, and desperate to hear what comes next.
3. Maren Morris, Hero
On one hand, Hero was the first album from Maren Morris in five years, following her 2011 self-released LP, Live Wire. On the other hand, Hero was the album that broke everything open: A major-label record deal; four Grammy nominations; a slot performing on Saturday Night Live; touring the globe; and so much more. The world is now aware of the 26-year-old Arlington native’s fearsome talents — Morris is the epitome of a decadelong overnight success, having honed her chops in countless bars and clubs across North Texas — and for all the polished, poised Hero provided Morris, there is the thrilling sense that the best is yet to come.
4. Frank Ocean, Endless
The hype surrounding Frank Ocean approached a fever pitch in the waning days of summer, and the release of his first new music in four years — the monochromatic visual album Endless — was met with consternation from those expecting more glossy, emotionally fraught alt-R&B of the kind found on 2012’s Channel Orange. The day after Endless materialized on Apple Music, Ocean dropped another full LP, Blonde, which promptly consumed all the digital oxygen. Both are compelling and worth exploring, but Endless lingers, rewarding repeated listens with ever-greater depths of aching beauty.
5. David Bowie, Blackstar
A requiem in hindsight — “Look up here/I’m in heaven,” goes one knowing line in the track Lazarus — David Bowie’s final studio album, released just 48 hours before he died of liver cancer, finds the master pressing forward, unbowed as ever by the unknown. A restless fusion of art-rock, jazz and folk-pop, Blackstar is a bracing reminder of the value of artistic skill, particularly in service of finding a fresh way to bid farewell to an art form that has been so thoroughly reshaped by your own work. Far too many bright lights went out in 2016; it seems fitting that one of the brightest was the first to be snuffed.
6. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Utterly disinterested in being bound by any conventions — Nashville’s or anywhere else’s — maverick musician Sturgill Simpson forged his own path on this dazzling, affecting concept album, written in the wake of the birth of his first child. Over nine tracks (eight originals and a smoldering cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom), Simpson smashes boundaries between dreamy, psychedelic folk, electrifying Stax homages and rip-snorting, bar brawl-instigating country. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth provides a map to a destination few artists are confident enough to visit.
7. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service
Nearly two decades after its last studio album, and a full decade after first reuniting, the influential hip-hop foursome A Tribe Called Quest unleashed its hotly anticipated comeback LP, which doubled as a tribute to one of its founding members, Phife Dawg, who died as a result of complications from diabetes eight months before Service’s release. The quartet betrays no rust, and the visceral message stitched into the evocative quilts of sound — “The fog and the smog of news media that logs/False narratives of gods that came up against the odds” kicks particularly hard in an era of post-Trump fake news — is arguably more timely than ever.
8. The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome
Expectations were, frankly, nonexistent when I pressed play on the Stones’ first studio album in more than a decade. Four songs later, I was in awe of how vital this veteran band of rock superstars seemed, hammering out lesser-known blues sides in single takes, drawing power from one another as they ripped through one sizzling track after another live. Much has been made of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards finding renewed (if repetitive) inspiration in the blues now as they did in the long-ago 1960s, but Blue & Lonesome never sounds for a second like anything other than a well-oiled machine working at full tilt.
9. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Another of the music industry’s profound losses this year, Cohen, much as Bowie did, delivered a final studio album allowing him to depart on his own terms. That singular, sepulchral rumble wraps itself around haunting lines that grew only more resonant in the wake of Cohen’s death: “I’m ready, my lord,” he croons on the title track. Working with producer Patrick Leonard, who helped realize Cohen’s late-career resurgence, these nine tracks are a final gift for the journey ahead, a poignant embrace of the twilight.
10. Lissie, My Wild West
There is a gentle irony to the fact that singer-songwriter Lissie Maurus was only able to write about California once she’d escaped back to the Midwest of her youth. Nevertheless, My Wild West is a striking, confident collection from one of the more underrated musicians currently working. Breathtakingly raw — “Oh, Hollywood/You break my will like they said you would,” Maurus intones early on — and rich with sharply observed melodies, West is a high watermark for the talented Maurus, and one of the year’s criminally overlooked efforts.