Year In Review: Our 20 Favorite Albums of 2016

When Benjamin Franklin uttered his famous line about death and taxes being the only sure things in life, he apparently forgot to consult 18th-century music journalists -- because they surely would've told him to add "year-end lists."

Yes, as each calendar year draws to a close, critics around the world look back at the albums said year bestowed upon us and pronounce (to the delight/anger of perhaps the most opinionated subset of internet commenter -- the music blog reader) that certain albums are just much, much better than other albums. In the year-end list, some albums get to be Prom Queen and King. (And no, it's not you: Prom comes earlier every year.)

At its worst, this exercise distills the smarmiest aspects of music criticism: it can be overly academic, pedantic, insistent on the false belief that that which is popular cannot also hold artistic value. But in a year like this past one, marked as it has been by global turmoil, violence, uncertainty, and very reasonable fear, I'd like to think such a list can also do something helpful. Specifically, remind us that not everything about 2016 was terrible.

On the contrary: while the music world lost what felt like an unprecedented number of greats this year (Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones, the list goes on), 2016 also gave us some flat-out breathtaking music. Frank Ocean and Rihanna both delivered -- and then some -- on long-anticipated records. A Tribe Called Quest returned just when we needed them the most. Oh, and the Knowles family had a pretty okay year.

With that in mind, I polled my colleagues here at KQED Arts on their favorite records of 2016. In the spirit of avoiding pedanticism, not all the contributors included here are professional music writers. Because critic's cap or no, at the end of the day, we're all just people, using music as all people do: for comfort; for release; to feel invigorated or challenged; to nurture the hope that no matter what the future brings, there are some things no one can take away from us. We'll always have music.

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In no particular order, here are KQED Arts' 20 favorite albums of the year.

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A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here…

By most predictions, the influential hip-hop group's first album in 18 years should have been a letdown. Either Tribe would surrender to their old-head legacy and give the people what they want by Xeroxing The Low End Theory with kick-snare beats and call-and-response rhymes, or they'd fumble in new territory. Instead, they excelled in new territory, and by new, I mean skittering production with pastiched samples and time changes. The album sounds nervous. But the world is nervous, too. It's not 1991 anymore. Phife is gone. Q-Tip, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad came through. -- Gabe Meline

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The Julie Ruin, Hit Reset

Kathleen Hanna's career is long and varied enough at this point that her phases should probably be written about the way we reference painters' "periods." While Bikini Kill and Le Tigre both (understandably) have more name-brand recognition, it's Hanna's work as The Julie Ruin -- a full-band incarnation of the intimate, lo-fi cult-favorite solo album she released in 1998 -- that feels most brutally, joyfully honest to me, and I'm so glad she returned to that phase in 2016. Something just tells me we're going to need her blend of humor and uncompromising feminism these next few years. Hit Reset is wry, energetic, dancey, uncompromising and weird in all the best ways: so, pretty much like the punk singer herself. -- Emma Silvers

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Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

When it comes to Chance the Rapper, I’m like that cousin who showed up late to the holiday dinner: Everyone’s singing the praises of the empty pan of mac and cheese, and all the younger cousins are whispering about some embarrassing incident you had to be there to appreciate. Needless to say, I'm now chasing the Chance bandwagon. When the track "No Problem" burrowed itself into my brain I decided I needed to know more. Coloring Book, which Chance self-released (as he continues to be something of a white whale for major labels), strikes the difficult balance of being both honest and jubilant. The enchanting spell cast by "Summer Friends," "Same Drugs" and "Mixtape" encourage me to turn my shower into a karaoke booth, while the gospel undetones throughout the album transport me back to being an itchy tights-wearing, patent leather shoe-clad, pigtail-sporting youth on Sunday morning. -- Jamedra Brown Fleischman

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Mitski, Puberty 2

It starts with “Your Best American Girl,” the obsession. The gloriously, ridiculously massive arena-rock chorus, the desire to be something else, the age-old Montague vs. Capulet, that bath of guitar. But the obsession soon blossoms to envelop the whole damn album. Mitski writes songs with unconventional chord changes and structure, ties the disparity together with blissful, perfect melodies, and slays your heart with lyrical turns. “Fireworks,” “Once More to See You,” “I Bet on Losing Dogs” — it's all just so good. -- GM

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Frank Ocean, Blonde

It's not quite right to call this album the most highly anticipated follow-up of the past few years -- but it certainly takes the cake for Most Cryptically Teased. From the heartbreaking poetics that appeared on his blog to the head-scratching, headline-making livestream, Ocean's persona -- the reclusive genius bent on making us wait -- threatened to overwhelm his music in 2016. Then Blonde dropped, full of church-going organ sounds and exaltations of loneliness and mirror-dancing and drugs and voicemails from his mama, and any concern about the art not living up to the constructed artiste vanished from sight. Ocean remains inscrutable, but as long I can play "Solo" on repeat, that's fine by me. -- ES

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David Bowie, Blackstar

Leave it to David Bowie to turn his own death into performance art. As waves of grief surrounding the Thin White Duke's passing swelled and subsided, it became clear that he'd left behind clues -- if ballads about death can even be called something so subtle. It helps, to be sure, that those songs all together formed one of the musical chameleon's best records in decades: Blackstar is shot through with jazz elements, historical and literary drama, but it's Bowie's signature brand of somehow comforting nihilism that makes this record shine -- and in so doing, helps ensure his immortality. -- ES

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Rihanna, ANTI

I don't like being wrong, but I'm so glad I was about Rihanna's ANTI. After three buzz singles that went nowhere, the album became somewhat of a joke. It'll never come out, we said. She's lost her touch, we whined. But we all shut right on up when Rihanna finally did drop ANTI. The music was less accessible than the easy earworms that made her a household name. Songs like "Love on the Brain" and "Higher" were shocking in their rawness and in their expectation that the listener do some work too. And speaking of "Work," that single was, is, and will continue to be everywhere. So next time we find ourselves second-guessing Rihanna, we can rest assured she will let us know how very misguided we are, in her own time. -- Emmanuel Hapsis

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Demdike Stare, Wonderland

British duo Demdike Stare have referenced a wide swath of sounds since their first record dropped in 2009: spooky Eastern ambience, annular Krautrock, cavernous dub, digital dancehall and more. In the recent past, their Testpressing 12" series (neatly collected as a bonus anthology, on a second disc, for those who purchase Wonderland on CD) saw them edging closer and closer to the dancefloor, reanimating the ghosts of '90s rave and jungle in a distinctly malignant cast. Wonderland, released mere weeks ago, feels like the complete synthesis of everything they produced before it: a deep, dark, and dirty record that brings breakbeats, ominous drones, unintelligible vocal snippets, and precisely syncopated rhythms all together for one of the finest "techno" records of 2016. -- Chris Zaldua

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Beyoncé, Lemonade

Many a pop culture scholar came forth to pay respect to Beyoncé this year, to lay academic analysis of Black feminism and cultural intersectionality at her feet. This is not one of those blurbs: In 2016 Beyoncé reminded me of what it feels like to see pieces of myself elevated and appreciated at the highest level -- from her unapologetic braids, the integration of African and African American imagery throughout her groundbreaking visual album, to the raunch of her reason for patronizing Red Lobster. In a year where #BlackLivesMatter was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, Beyoncé raised her hand -- or, more appropriately, her fist -- and made a clear statement for those who may have been mistaken: “I am Black.” She made this statement while opening up about issues plaguing her marriage and expressing her vulnerability as a woman and as a wife. Vulnerability is not a given for Black women; many of us are taught to be tirelessly strong and unbreakable. Which is why the exploration of justified anger, mixed with self-questioning, reconciliation, and celebration, makes for such a refreshingly sweet drink. -- JBF

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Kevin Gates, Islah

Strip away Kevin Gates' charges, controversies and incessant stoned Instagramming, and what's left is a dizzying talent for storytelling coupled with ridiculously skilled rapping that sounds effortless (it's not). After “Two Phones,” a perfect single if ever there was one, the media story of Gates centered on his supposedly improbable leap from the mixtape circuit to a bona fide smash hit. But when you look at the path his talent has charted — “4:30am,” Luca Brasi 2, that BET cypher — it's not so improbable. Islah is the natural outcome, a heartfelt statement of determination and an album that can be enjoyed front-to-back, over and over. To paraphrase a certain Louisianan, it don't get tired. -- GM

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Angel Olsen, My Woman

What if your loud inner world of chaotic thoughts and all those secrets you never tell were unleashed in melodic form? Well, it would sound something like Angel Olsen's third album, My Woman, which again dissolves the myth created by some critics that she's just some "country-folk sad-sack lost in a forest." Sure, she is sometimes sad, but she's also pissed off, joyful, reckless, confident, hopeful, skeptical, and confused, just like the rest of us. -- EH

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Sleeping Beauties, Self-Titled

Sleeping Beauties sprung from the ashes of two game-changing Portland garage-punk bands -- Eat Skull and the Hunches -- and their debut LP on In The Red combines all the best aspects of '77-New York-bred punk: poppy-but-rough guitar riffs, staccato synths and a voice that harkens back to the Iggy Pop of yore. But it's not all breakneck speeds and screaming; on tracks like "Wheeler" and "Potter's Daughter," you can hear the soft-loud dynamics that the Hunches used so well on their three must-own albums. This record is a must for those who want to rock. -- Kevin Jones

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Anderson .Paak, Malibu

Soul as it pertains to yesteryear had big stories in 2016 — the legendary Sharon Jones died, Childish Gambino essentially replicated P-Funk — and then there was this, a soul album bringing in hip-hop and church choirs that feels decidedly now. Across 16 tracks, singer and multi-instrumentalist .Paak guides listeners on a smooth-sounding journey through an oft-tumultuous life in Southern California, with all its highs and lows. (Comparisons to Kendrick and D'Angelo aren't off the mark; .Paak brings in some of their same collaborators, like Robert Glasper and Pino Palladino). Overall, Malibu seems to say: this is an urgent time, but be sure to take care of yourself. That's good advice right now. -- GM

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Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, A Man Alive

Thao Nguyen has plenty of star power on her own -- a versatile set of pipes, an ability to wrangle vulernability and ferociousness in the same lyric, a feel for what makes an indie-pop song anthemic and urgent and necessary. But it was her pairing with tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus that made this record, the band's fourth studio effort, really grab hold of the listener's gut and refuse to let go: the drum loops, booming bass and devil-may-care attitude toward keeping things pretty -- paired with some of Nguyen's most personal songwriting, on an album mostly concerned with her absent father -- may turn out to be the best pivot the San Francisco songwriter's ever made. -- ES 

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Solange, A Seat At the Table

It’s been quite a long time since I’ve listened to an album in its entirety and nonstop for days on end. Quite frankly, in the age of music streaming, the occasion of reaching deep into my e-wallet to cough up hard-earned money for an album is rare; however, I purchased Solange's A Seat at the Table in my mind before the actual album was released and I’ve listed at least twice per week since download. My most obvious favorite is "Cranes in the Sky." However, I also find quiet joy in "Don’t Wish Me Well," which I interpret as the classiest of mellow shad; "Mad," despite my complex relationship with Lil Wayne; and "Borderline (An Ode to Self-Care)," something we could all use a bit more of these days. And let us not forget the unexpected perfection of her well-woven interludes (who knew Master P was such a philosopher?). This quiet, powerful work dropped right at the tail end of 2016 -- just when we needed it the most. -- JBF

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Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth

The "alt-country" label always feels a little unfair -- like it's either an overstatement about a straight-ahead college rock outfit raised on Uncle Tupelo, or a massive understatement about something much wilder. Sturgill Simpson, especially on his latest release, represents that latter instance: this is wily, psychedelic adventure of record from a person who could've coasted for much longer on the brooding persona he built with his 2014 effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. That Simpson apparently wasn't content to do so means he might lose some mainstream country fans. But you get the sense that -- as with all the best musicians who won't be boxed in -- if you're not interested in getting a little weird, Sturgill Simpson ain't interested in you either. -- ES

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Zig Zags, Running Out of Red

Why does it sometimes feel like thrash died when Grunge broke and Metallica cut their hair? It didn't; there are still plenty of dudes out there rockin’ jean vests and long hair, huffing paint, and playing the fastest riffs possible. These days LA’s Zig Zags are proudly waving the thrash flag, and their second album, Running Out of Red, has the sound of a band marking territory hard-won through battle. Warning: if you listen to this 12-track LP while driving, do so at your own risk: you'll want to headbang throughout the entire album. You are forewarned! -- KJ

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Maren Morris, Hero

Nobody does big dumb pop music better than big dumb Nashville, which stopped trying to be small and smart two decades ago. Morris is a 26-year-old rising country-music star who may one day get chewed up and spat out by the celebrity cycle, but for now, there's this album, a truly enjoyable exercise in massive hooks, lyrical repetition, simple themes and gratuitous swearing. “Rich” is the same 1-4-5 thing you've heard forever. “Drunk Girls Don't Cry” is the 12,765th variation on Pachelbel's Canon in recorded history. Morris' style carries it, though, and it feels freeing to just shut up and give in. -- GM

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Dorisburg, Irrbloss

Sweden's Alexander Berg, aka Dorisburg — who also moonlights as one half of duo Genius of Time — is having a banner year. He has been quietly honing his craft since 2010, producing understated dancefloor cuts that elegantly skirt the line between house and techno — in fact, Dorisburg's music is simply more elegant than it has any right to be. He's got a real knack for writing unabashedly emotional melodies, which he then tones down just enough that they don't feel overt, silly, or over-the-top. On Irrbloss, released earlier this year on John Talabot's Hivern Discs label, Berg is in top form, composing eight beautiful, cerebral tracks that sound wonderful in the club but work just as well for at-home zone-out headphone sessions. -- CZ

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Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial

Since this record dropped in April, I've heard a lot of people call Will Toledo, the Seattle-based 24-year-old songwriter at the helm of Car Seat Headrest, something like the heir to Matador labelmate Stephen Malkmus' throne. Which is silly -- for one, Malkmus is still here, and occupying more of a dad-rock, basketball-watching La-Z-Boy these days than a throne. But besides: isn't it time we developed a vocabulary for imaginative indie rock that doesn't insist on bands from a quarter-century ago as the standard bearers? If we have any hope of crafting said language, Toledo should probably be at the planning meetings. With song titles like "(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't a Problem)" and a knack for neatly self-aware tunes that sneak up on you with how much they rock, it's no wonder he's being hailed as the hope of the genre's next generation. But hey: no pressure or anything. -- ES

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