As 2016 winds down, it might be tempting to think of this year as “that year everyone died.” We did lose some legends. But let’s not forget that it’s also been an incredible year for new music.
It’s true that three of this year’s best albums were inspired by death. David Bowie released his meditation on mortality, Blackstar, two days before passing away. If you’re a fan, try to get through “I Can’t Give Everything Away” without crying. The great Leonard Cohen released You Want It Darker shortly before passing away, as well. It’s a bleak masterpiece. Perhaps most heartbreaking is Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s Skeleton Tree, which was inspired by the death of his son.
But when people look back at the music of 2016 years from now, they will remember it for more than just the artists we lost. There have been mind-blowing rap and soul albums from every subgenre—new records by A Tribe Called Quest, Beyonce, D.R.A.M., Blood Orange, Noname, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Anderson Paak have all been excellent.
Less obviously, 2016 has also been an amazing year for left-of-center punk rock. Pup, and Parquet Courts both released brilliant new albums that deserve some recognition. Other genres had great albums, too—Sturgill Simpson, anyone?—but 2016 is going to be remembered as a new beginning for rap and punk.
The three best rap albums of 2016 are all completely different, and illustrate the diversity and ingenuity in hip-hop right now:
Chance the Rapper, ‘Colouring Book’: If you haven’t already watched the footage of Chance performing on Jimmy Fallon, do so. It illustrates exactly why he’s a genius. Accompanied by a gospel choir, a trumpet player and live instruments, he gets choked up as he spits verses. It’s the most gospel hip-hop has gotten, with lyrics that are uplifting, emotional and uncompromisingly artistic. (“Jesus’ black life ain’t matter/I know I talked to his daddy/Said ‘you the man of the house now/Look out for your family’”)
Danny Brown, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’: On the other end of the spectrum is Danny Brown and his dark rabbit hole of an album, Atrocity Exhibition. Rap music has created more space for artists to get personal, and analyze their internal framework. Brown jumped in with both feet, and left no uncomfortable stone unturned lyrically—everything that used to be fun is destroying his life. Musically, it’s on par with innovative free jazz albums. The beats are strange, but allow the words to flourish.
Swet Shop Boys, ‘Cashmere’: In 2010, wisecracking stream-of-conscious rappers Das Racist released two brilliant mixtapes: Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man. Some of it was hilarious, but the word play and social commentary was undeniable. Kool A.D. went on to have a prolific and impressive career. Heems, on the other hand, had been flailing, that is until he teamed up with MC Riz (Rizwan Ahmed from HBO’s The Night Of). This may be the timeliest, most politically poignant album of the year, as the rappers unleash about their experiences as Muslims in the U.S. and U.K. in today’s environment of global paranoia.
The three best punk albums of 2016 are all from artists you wouldn’t expect:
AJJ, ‘The Bible 2’: This is a tight, dark record that jumps past the band’s folk-punk roots (when they were known as Andrew Jackson Jihad), and beyond sounding like a full band doing renditions of folk-punk songs, like some of the group’s later work. A highlight is “Small Red Boy,” which tells the story of a little devil growing out of the narrator’s stomach.
Jeff Rosenstock, ‘Worry’: The former head honcho of Bomb the Music Industry, Rosenstock has released his best album to date. It’s a tense, emotional and sometimes political record. The album is punk in the loosest sense, which is precisely why I’ve always loved Rosenstock and BtMI. Worry is a masterpiece in the BtMI-style, a scatterbrained, heart-on-the-sleeve, weirdo rock ’n’ roll explosion. The second half off the record is a series of short, but linked songs, like a punk rock Abbey Road.
Diners, ‘three’: The lesser-known, but no-less interesting Diners released an amazing album to virtually no fanfare. The group plays lounge-y, AM-radio-inspired pop songs, but with a true punk rock spirit. I expect more from this band in the future.