best music of 2016, best of 2016, car seat headrest, beyoncé, david bowie, a tribe called quest, drive-by truckers, cowtown, cait brennan, kevin abstract, wild beasts, bon iver

BEST OF 2016: Our 10 Favorite Albums of This Year, Ranked

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1. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial

Will Toledo, the 24-year-old leader of Car Seat Headrest, is both fully his age and wise beyond his years. His second Matador release is his 10th overall, and a far cry from when he worked alone and furiously (recording his vocals in the back seat of a car; hence the name). He’s as confused as any millennial, though honest about it, and the gay content that’s here just is. No big deal, except for the heartbreak and guilt, like everybody else. His wisdom, however, is in the music—long, multi-part tracks that grow in stature with repeated listening and pay homage to a past he was too young to witness firsthand, but that he commands with an offhand mastery that’s nearly prodigious. Listen to: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” (above), “Vincent,” “Fill in the Blank

 

2. Beyoncé, Lemonade

Sneak released—as is her way now—during the last year of the Obama presidency, Ms. Knowles-Carter takes an accounting (with accompanying high-quality video/movie) and she doesn’t like what she sees. Unfaithful men, police brutality, “Becky with the good hair,” the ongoing struggle of racism that even a superstar can’t keep at bay (see what I did there?)—she tackles it all. At 35, she’s a stronger artist than ever, and in the face of the ugliest pendulum swing in our electoral history, her underlying message of empowerment isn’t just Oprah-level aphorisms. It’s goddamned necessary. Listen to: Formation,” “Sorry” (above)

 

3. David Bowie, Blackstar

The man who wrote the rule book on how to be a proper rock star by throwing the book away teaches everyone a lesson on how to die. Right, no one knew that when this fantastic late-career record was released in January, but two days later, it was evident that he knew. And though it might have been painful to immerse within these seven tracks after the fact, it was more often bracing. Bowie was, first and foremost, a shape-shifting artist, and these jazz-inflected workouts challenged us, beckoned us, and—in the end—comforted us. Nearly 12 months since its release and the mysteries of Blackstar are still unfolding. Listen to: “Lazarus” (above), “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)

 

4. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

Innovators who became inspirations (right, Kendrick?), these Queens legends pulled off a posthumous coup in a league with Bowie’s above. Though they started this reunion while member Phife Dawg was still alive, they soldiered on after his death in March and the results aren’t just up there with their best; it may be their best. They’re such visionaries, in fact, that Phife’s cautionary tales of the political future—back when Trump was still considered an impossibility—are now prophecy. Listen to: “We the People…” (above), “The Donald

 

5. Drive-By Truckers, American Band

In case there was any confusion what kind of band these Southerners are—or have become—it’s there in the title. And though they themselves were not GOP supporters—far from it—they’ve never strayed too far from understanding the working-class poor that liberals tend to stereotype, ignore and marginalize. It’s in their DNA. But so is the questioning of the status quo—from the NRA to Black Lives Matter to the unbearable uptick in school shootings—that I wish their Southern brethren would emulate. Listen to: Ramon Casiano,” “What It Means” (above)

6. Cowtown, Paranormal Romance

All I know about this trio is they’re from Leeds and they’ve been touring and releasing music since 2007. Yet like every year before this, some unknown punk-ish release takes hold of my brain and won’t let up, and in 2016 it was these guys and gal. At 23 minutes, this would be an EP by anyone else, but at 12 songs their breakneck pace and passion make it an album-length statement. As is the punk way, that mostly means griping about modern inconveniences such as security, caffeine, emojis. Important stuff like that. Listen to: Closed Circuit,” “Tweak,” “Emojicore

 

7. Cait Brennan, Debutante

Cait Brennan’s first album is a perfect slab of power pop—but even if it weren’t, her story is amazing. Cait started performing as a teenager in the late ‘80s, around the same time that she started transitioning. After multiple violent incidents, she stopped performing music publicly until 2010. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, she was able to record her debut album with acclaimed producer Fernando Perdomo. She recently recorded material for her next album at the famed Ardent Studios, home of the legendary power pop band Big Star. Listen to: “Underworld,” “I Want You Back” (full album above) —Matt Keeley

 

8. Kevin Abstract, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story

Let’s thank Frank Ocean for his courage; without him, we might not have Kevin Abstract. This young R&B/hip-hop singer’s same-sex song cycle is a striking step forward—kind of an aural companion piece to the film Moonlight, at least from a thematic perspective. And though it’s heresy to say it, I prefer Abstract’s latest to Ocean’s, though I’m grateful the world is a big enough place to include both. Listen to: “Empty” (above), “Miserable America

 

9. Wild Beasts, Boy King

The best electro of 2016 is its most carnal. I mean, these artsy U.K. blokes have always been freaks, only now they’re priapic freaks. And where before they had sex on the brain, now they finally sound like they have it in their hips. Listen to: Get My Bang,” “Ponytail” (above)

 

10. Bon Iver, 22, A Million

The most abstract release of his not exactly cohesive career is also Justin Vernon’s most beautiful. Between the bleeps and glitches and samples and digital erosion are his indelible melodies, that freakishly expressive voice and words that—while they don’t always or often make literal sense—signify his pristine dissociative quest for transcendence, which he achieves over the course of 35 minutes. Listen to: “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” (above), “29 #Strafford APTS