Albums are the most accurate way of interpreting where an artist or act is currently at creatively. Through an extended body of work, we’re able to experience the darker corners of an artist’s mind in addition to the sounds we already love and expect based off of previous records. In 2016, scores of artists from a multitude of genres opened up their worlds through the album format, and the 10 LPs below were the most successful in doing so.
Read on and listen in to the 10 best albums of the year, as voted on collectively by the NEST HQ staff.
NEST HQ’s Best of 2016: Albums
*10 albums listed in alphabetical order by artist
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service [Epic / SME]
The sixth and “final” studio album of one of hip-hop’s greatest jazz rap bands, A Tribe Called Quest, dropped soon after it was announced in October of this year. The band set their differences aside after news of the Paris bombing and decided to work on what would be their final record. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is also Phife Dawg’s last record, whose untimely passing from diabetes did not interfere with his presence on the record. Critics across the board recognize WGIFH as an undeniable continuation of the sound and style that gave the band legendary status from the very start. It is their second album to reach the top of the Billboard 200, and a thorough listen will quickly indicate what makes ATCQ one of the greatest bands in hip-hop history. — NB
Baauer – Aa [LuckyMe]
Baauer’s Aa serves as a template for unconventional electronic musicians who inhabit a style of their own. There are reflections from all sectors of electronic music in his mix of sounds, taking on grime with “Day Ones” featuring Novelist and Leikeli47 and accessing the French touch on “Pinku”. Baauer shows the mainstream that he’s capable of far beyond his Internet-breaking “Harlem Shake”, revisiting its vocal chops with new breadth on Pusha T & Future-featuring “Kung Fu”. The album’s other features are equally sensational, including TT The Artist, M.I.A. & G-Dragon, and Rustie. Sure, Aa can give it to you heavy – just look to the uncompromising lunacy of “GoGo!” or how the bass on “Sow” scatters even as it converges on itself – but Baauer also demonstrates a lighter touch on the sensual “Body” or in the melodic twang of Tirzah-featuring “Way From Me”. Fear not, though: this is the same Baauer you know and love, and his odd taste for sample selection has never been more pronounced. — NR
Bon Iver – 22, A Million [Jagjaguwar]
Bon Iver, the musical project of Justin Vernon, earned a place in the hearts of indie-lovers with their last two albums, likely stored in the musical region somewhere near Arcade Fire and Band of Horses. Their latest album 22, A Million takes them a step even further into the emotionality and dramatic, haunting melodies that lit up the music blogs scene back in 2007 with their breakout song “Skinny Love”. It also represents a departure from the acoustic sounds Bon Iver’s traditionally relied on and a move towards becoming more electronic.
The presentation of the new music is either compelling or off-putting depending on who you ask. The record opens with a moody overture of choir-esque vocals, a warm electric guitar and a wailing sax on “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”. Those asking themselves what that song title means are missing the point, Bon Iver always manage to successfully straddle the line between hipster and genius. Ballads like “8 (circle)” and “715 – CRΣΣKS” are legitimate tear-jerkers, sad lyrics sung through a vocoder contrasted with warm instrumentation that bring us back to Bon Iver’s roots. On “33 ‘God’” there’s a venture into what almost sounds like a breakbeat which Vernon played drums on, according to Consequence of Sound. Throughout the record, we’re hit with the lyric “it might be over soon”, hopefully this doesn’t speak to the future of the Bon Iver project, but in case it does, this album would be solid enough to stand as a final full length offering. — MH
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book [self-released]
All I can hear is the Third! Chance The Rapper’s tertiary mixtape, Coloring Book, has shaken up the music industry in an unprecedented way this year. The 14-track LP played a large part in the RIAA’s announcement to incorporate streaming numbers for certification and, most importantly, proved that independent artists – with the right teams, talent, and determination – can sell records, reach millions of fans, and receive Grammy nominations (7!) just like those with major label contracts. Musically, Coloring Book saw the sharp-witted Chicago lyricist firmly establish himself not only as an elite rapper but also one of the world’s most talented and endearing musicians, notably evident in Chance’s live TV performances on Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, and GMA. His fearless convergence of gospel with hip hop in 3 is a groundbreaking triumph; one so all-encompassing that it landed equally well with President Obama and The White House as it did with collaborators Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber. Hands down, Coloring Book was the best record of 2016. – JB
Flume – Skin [Future Classic]
The sophomore offering of Australian DJ and producer, Flume, the musical project of Harley Streten, has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year following his monumental self-titled debut LP in 2012. With four years between releases, he’s carefully perfected his craft and assembled an all-star team to present the best work of his career thus far. A departure from his debut LP, Skin is an exploration in much grungier territories, with colossal raspy bass waves and the most elegant synth-work we’ve heard from Streten; it blurs the lines between electronic and a modern masterpiece, just as easily delectable for the mainstream. Streten describes his intention for Skin “was to create sounds that sound like the fabric of the universe tearing.” A bold move, perhaps what landed the LP a multitude of recent Grammy nominations, including best Dance/Electronic album. All-in-all, Skin illustrates the transition of Flume into the extraordinary, where his work stands in any realm. — CS
Frank Ocean – Blonde [Boys Don’t Cry]
The album the world thought it’d never hear finally dropped in August of this year. The follow up to his 2012 record Agent Orange and the visual album Endless, Blonde (stylized visually as Blond) is inarguably one of the best albums of the decade. From start to finish, the emotional tearjerker, love note, and empowerment thesis lived up to the nearly year-long hype. Each person I’ve asked had a different favorite track, further confirming the cohesive quality and legitimacy of Blonde as a whole. Between the vocal quality and production value, Blonde is certifiably legendary and offers a sigh of relief to fans across the world. It’s also the first album in a long time that I actually sat in bed and listened to from start to finish, attention paid in full. I highly recommend doing the same. — NB
James Blake – The Colour In Anything [Polydor Ltd.]
Upon first listen, The Colour In Anything left me quite speechless. Initially, I thought it might have been caused by Blake’s bravery in experimentation, but after several more listens, I realized I was mesmerized by the depth of emotion captured in such a minimalistic fabric. The record also saw an uncharacteristic amount of collaboration through its completion. Hints of legendary producers like Bon Iver, Rick Rubin, Frank Ocean, and Connan Mockasin, appear rambling throughout the album. Still, the album moves like James. It dances between the intense nudity of his voice against a piano and egregiously auto-tuned vocals against wholly electronic textures. Every song is sedulously focused, scientifically crafted, and welcomely not too far of a departure from his first two albums. — DN
Kaytranada – 99.9% [XL]
Haitian-born, Montreal-based producer, Kaytranada, emerged as one of the best producers in the world this year, and his debut album, 99.9%, is proof of that recognition. Known over the past few years for his soulful, funky brand of dance music, Kaytranada broke free from the constructs of the ‘dance music’ classification with 99.9%, finding himself step fully into the overarching ‘pop’ realm thanks in part to vocal features from the likes of Craig David, AlunaGeorge, Vic Mensa, and Anderson .Paak. Filling in the gaps between the mainstream accessibility of those records were instrumentals like “Bus Ride” and the BADBADNOTGOOD collaboration, “Weight Off”, which showed off Kaytra’s background in quality beat production, while more uptempo productions like “Lite Spots” and “Breakdance Lesson N.1” provided classic dancefloor potential. — JB
RÜFÜS – Bloom [Sweat It Out!]
The Australian indietronic trio RÜFÜS, or RÜFÜS DU SOUL as they’re also known in the US, dropped their second full length album Bloom this year packed full of dance-influenced pop tunes. The lead single “You Were Right” made its way into countless DJ sets around the world in 2016 and turned on everyone who wasn’t already woke to RÜFÜS. Each track progresses swimmingly, most coming in at around 120BPM, creating a sunny house mood throughout the record. “Innerbloom” made it onto our Best of 2016 Originals list for being the most personal RÜFÜS song to date, and their second single “Like An Animal” is infectiously catchy, but the record is a totally cohesive piece of work best enjoyed in full. — MH
Tycho – Epoch [Ghostly International]
Epoch is the culmination of orchestration and phenomena, presenting eleven cohesive and inspiring pieces that focus entirely on compositional sensibility. Tycho’s acquired wisdom over 14 years of releases shines through on this LP — long form instrumentals move past the typical randomness of jam sessions and instead breathe like living organisms. Last week, Epoch was nominated for “Best Dance/Electronic Album” at the 2017 Grammy Awards, and as a fully instrumental album, the nomination serves as validation for its production quality and musical capacity. — DN
Come back tomorrow for the 10 Best Producers of 2016 and Who To Watch in 2017.