We’re sure everyone can agree that 2016 was not kind to many of our musical legends. However, we hope that everyone can also agree that 2016 did in fact bring us some great music. Whether your thing is Hip-Hop, R&B, Pop, or something else, the music world delivered several albums that we found to be worth of being called the top albums of 2016, or as we like to call them, “97s.” We had a prolific sibling duo in the Knowleses, the return of long absent stars like Maxwell, Mýa and JoJo, and debut albums from a number of notable new talents, such as Jon Bellion and Dreezy. But, how did they all rank in our list?
Deliberated on by our team of writers, we’ve ranked the top albums of 2016 that we loved. If you’re familiar with the way we review songs/albums, then you know that “97” is our top score, and not because we’re featuring 90s bands in our list. We love every album on this list, ranked them according to how much, and weighed in with a few thoughts about each. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts, as well! We’d love to hear from you and engage in any discussion. Now, without any further ado…
EST 1997’s Top Albums of 2016: The 19 “97” Albums
19. VIEWS, Drake
There’s often a sense of contradiction when an artist’s biggest album is their weakest material wise, something that makes the era bittersweet in retrospect. That is the case with VIEWS, an album that could’ve been so much more if only Drake had bothered to trim it down a bit and maybe explore with new lyrical ideas and some new sounds. As it is, it’s a safe album that works fine as a collection of tracks that are meant to launch him as a superstar. There are more Pop-leaning songs than the usual but the ones that are not meant to be singles don’t really bring anything new to the table, except when they sample some throwback classics. Perhaps it works best as someone’s first introduction to Drake and his music. As a fan, unfortunately it hasn’t exactly been his best work to listen to. Still, there’s no denying its impact on music and pop culture in 2016. Highlights: “Controlla,” “Keep the Family Close,” “U With Me?” –Mario
18. Smoove Jones, Mýa
Since her last successful album, 2003’s Moodring, Mýa languished through the pangs of the music industry, grappling to find her place. Eventually, she did – via her own Independent label, like so many other artists. The positive side of being Independent is the creative freedom and control, but of course that comes with a lack of promotion and access to big-name producers. Smoove Jones indeed suffered from a lack of promotional awareness, but creatively it is a cohesive, solid body of work and a return to form for one of R&B’s brightest stars. Smoove Jones seemingly picks up where Moodring left off, with Mýa sliding through many different styles of R&B, throwing it back as suggested by the album’s old school radio themed storyline of sorts. Whether you want a sassy bop (“Spoil Me”), a love-making groove (“Afta Glow Show,” “Coolin’”) or a self-proclaimed “Ol’ Skoo’ Joint” (“One Man Woman,” “Circle of Life”), Smoove Jones radio host Mýa has you covered. Don’t hesitate; just tune in. Highlights: “Afta Glow Show,” “Elevator” –Vincent
17. “Awaken, My Love!,” Childish Gambino
Seriously, is there anything that Donald Glover, can’t do? With a starring role in the hit show FX Atlanta, an upcoming feature in the future Star Wars films, and this latest offering released under his alter ego, Childish Gambino, Glover is the epitome of the modern day renaissance man. Everything from his third studio offering, “Awaken, My Love!,” from the content of the album, the live instrumentation, to the cover art is simply mystifying. In Awaken!, we see Gambino take a complete departure from his earlier hip-hop work in lieu of a true funk record. Calling on the spirit of Prince, with clear derivatives from P-Funk pioneer George Clinton, Soul pioneers The Isley Brothers, and Earth Wind and Fire, and Rock god Jimi Hendrix, Awaken! was created for the eclectic listener with a nostalgic soul. Like Bruno Mars did with 24K Magic, Gambino managed to take influences from these aforementioned artists and create his own unique sound; all while managing to sound current. Highlights: “Redbone,” “California,” “Boogieman” –Jordan
16. No Hard Feelings, Dreezy
Dreezy did something most other artists this year could not: she compiled a consistent body of work with a plot. Her debut album No Hard Feelings showcases the dissolution of one relationship while another one begins to blossom. She does double duty throughout, striking an ideal balance of singing (without auto-tune, by the way), and spitting nothing short of straight fire. Whether she’s firing off warning shots on the menacing “Spazz”, lamenting an incomplete relationship on “Wasted” (“I’m only on yo mind when you wasted”) or declaring superiority on “Invincible” (“You can imitate it but no bitch you cannot replicate it”), Dreezy proves herself to be versatile, formidable, and powerful figure in hip-hop. Highlights: “Spazz”, “Wasted”, “Invincible” –Andrew
15. Milestone, Chrisette Michele
Indeed, Chrisette Michele’s Milestone comes at a monumental moment for her. She now heads her own Independent label, and is newly engaged. As a result, her sound is more refined, and more liberated, too. For years, Chrisette seemed to be boxed into the realm of adult-leaning contemporary R&B, but with Milestone, her sound is a bit more youthful. Lead single “Steady,” for example, is a complete and total bop; as is the celebratory “Black Girl Magic.” The ballads are still there, though. Look no further than “To the Moon,” an ode she wrote to her fiancé, after they became engaged. On Milestone, Chrisette came into her own, and that’s probably because she is now her own boss. One thing remains the same though: a phenomenal (and meticulously-trained) voice that makes her a diamond in the R&B crowd. Milestone, for sure. Highlights: “Steady,” “To the Moon,” “My Body” –Vincent
14. The Human Condition, Jon Bellion
If his ElectroPop sleeper hit “All Time Low,” (which could be the sole song to describe 2016) has yet become a staple for you, Jon Bellion and his music is soon to. Not only is his debut studio album, The Human Condition, extremely diverse, combining Hip Hop, Pop, ElectroPop and beyond, Bellion co-wrote and produced the entire album! Long Island, New York native Bellion utilizes his singing and rapping skills to create an album that sees him tell introspective stories about relatable life experiences us humans live daily. On The Human Condition Jon Bellion offers a taste of nearly everything; from throwback Hip-Hop (“New York Soul” Pt. II) head bopping-radio Pop tunes (“Overwhelming,” “All Time Low”) introspective, Gospel-infused, Alternative R&B (“Hand Of God” Outro) to soundtrack oriented Pop (“80’s Films,” “Fashion”). Mike Posner returned to the music scene this year, but it seems like Jon Bellion created the album he should have. Joining fellow breakout act Twenty One Pilots couldn’t have been a better pairing, their Emotional Roadshow World Tour seems like it’s going to be a great live show filled with tons of future hits we’ll hear throughout 2017. Highlights: “Overwhelming” “80’s Films” “All Time Low” –Keenan
13. The Altar, Banks
Banks proved that second time’s the charm with The Altar. While her first album Goddess was a great body of work, The Altar is concise in length. This abbreviated length finds her both more adventurous musically, while more focused lyrically. Don’t mistake though, she’s as dark and angsty as ever, especially on “Fuck With Myself”. One surprising highlight is the beautiful and unapologetic “Lovesick,” where she begs “please call me your baby, baby, baby”. If Banks’ The Altar was intended to evoke praise, then consider it a success. Highlights: “Gemini Feed,” “Lovesick,” “Fuck With Myself” –Andrew
12. Mind of Mine, ZAYN
Zayn Malik quit One Direction in 2015 to live the life of a normal 22-year old. Releasing Mind of Mind, his chart-topping debut R&B album, he has clearly achieved just that. The normal 22-year old life according to Zayn is one where he can freely belt about fucking, which, snark aside, can be truly liberating, indeed. Central to his desire to come off as “normal” is being able to serenade the lady(ies) of his affection – the same ones he previously sang to in chaste terms while in One Direction – in loving, lovely tones smothered in falsetto that evokes lust in all the right ways, as in the two-punch album stand-outs, the gorgeous midtempo slow jam, “She,” which beautifully flows into “Drunk,” an exquisite, 90s R&B-evoking ode to the joys of intoxication – never had a song about falling down from being so smashed sounded so uplifting. The lengthy track list evidences a mind that is not fully made up, but it’s still a stellar display of what lies ahead for the former One Directioner. Highlights: “Drunk,” ‘She,” “Rear View” –Patrick
11. Ology, Gallant
While we awaited the return of Maxwell (which ended up arriving this year as well), Gallant debuted a stellar body of work in Ology. His voice and vocal tendencies are pretty much where the Maxwell comparisons stop though. The album is dark, moody, and self-reflective, starting with the internalized “Talkin’ To Myself”. The album is urban rooted, but has a number of alt-pop and even electronic tendencies. Take “Weight In Gold”, where bluesy guitars fuse with EDM-esque drops to create one of the most memorable songs of the year from a debut album. Gallant’s ability to let his passionate vocals captivate and shake your soul is a unique way. Highlights: “Weight In Gold,” “Talkin To Myself,” “Chandra” –Andrew
10. Mad Love, JoJo
It has been ten long years since JoJo released an official album, but Mad Love. proved to be worth the wait. JoJo did a lot of growing in 10 years, in more ways than one, and that growth is ever-present throughout the album. From her vocals, to the lyrical content and the range of sounds, Mad Love. is a reintroduction to an artist that deserves, well, mad love. The opening track “Music.” is gut-wrenching, the singles “Fuck Apologies” and “FAB” are both sassy and commanding, the title-track and soaring ballad “I Am” are soulful vocal masterpieces, mid-tempos “Wreckless,” “Honest” and “Edibles” drip in sensuality and honesty and truly show how much she’s grown, while songs like “Clovers” and “Good Thing” showcase JoJo’s ability to move a dance floor. There’s a song for every mood and stage of life – fittingly so, considering it’s an album that’s been 10-years-in-the-making. Let’s hope the wait for the next one is a bit shorter. Highlights: “High Heels.,” “Music.,” “Honest.” –Vincent
9. Joanne, Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga ditched the costumes and the dancefloor to bring us into the world of Stefani Germanotta pre-fame. The world of a Pop singer/songwriter with a passion for acoustic songs and Rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what Joanne is all about: showcasing the real, honest Gaga. Dedicated to her prematurely deceased aunt, the album is a collection of songs that retain most of Gaga’s writing sensibilities and taste for metaphors, while pairing them with organic productions and live instruments. With influences spanning from 70s soft rock, to Country, doo-wop and early 80s R&B, Gaga as an artist has created an album that allows her to finally shine bright without being suffocated by the heavy beats and the attention seeking costumes. Highlights: “Million Reasons,” “Diamond Heart,” “Dancin’ in Circles” —Mario
8. ANTI, Rihanna
When you’re an artist who, year after year, releases gems like “Umbrella,” “Rude Boy” or “Diamonds,” releasing an album with a Tame Impala remake, a 1-minute ode to smoking weed, a couple of FKA Twigs-sounding sex jams, and with only the vaguest notion of what you want your album to sound like, it unnerves people who expect another Sia chart-topping pop ballad. But ANTI seems built to overcome its initially alienating-inducing sound, with tracks like “Work” that sounds about as much like any popular song today. ANTI’s second single, “Kiss It Better,” brings out Rihanna’s greatest instincts for flawed singing: Belting lines where her rasp complements rather than hinders the song.
This can’t be said of the album’s other ballads that capitalize on her charming lack of control as in “Love on the Brain” or “Higher.” Those songs are probably calculated to sound exactly the way they do – imperfect. Even those fiercely opposed to lazy guitars-and-vocals, though, will be charmed by ‘Never Ending’, and find solace in its tenderness in an album that seems to repel it. Like most of the production on ANTI, Rihanna’s attempt at being a serious artiste seems unfinished. It’s not an album that you’d embrace at first listen; with ANTI, she serves up this album that is by turns unpredictable and sultry, infuriating and mesmerizing. Highlights: “Kiss It Better,” “Never Ending,” “Same Ol’ Mistakes” —Patrick
7. 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole
J. Cole followed up 2014 Forest Hills Drive with yet another unexpected album release, again with no singles or features. Well, sort of. 4 Your Eyez was prefaced by two singles that were not on the album, but he certainly got people talking. 4 Your Eyez Only continues the storytelling motif of Forest Hills Drive, in that the album takes the listener on a journey. This time, the story is not his own, with the exception of the pair of “She’s Mine” Parts 1 and 2 – the latter on which he revealed he is now a father of a baby girl. Ultimately, though, 4 Your Eyez Only is a story for a different young lady: the daughter of his friend who was killed at the age of 22. The friend’s story runs parallel in comparison to Cole’s own story.
The album is yet another session of heavy, thought-provoking lyrical content. By now, however, it has been pretty much established that Cole is a skilled lyricist. What is new and notable about 4 Your Eyez is that he is the sole composer of all of the album’s 10 tracks — and there are no musical samples, either. Cole built these tracks from the ground up, which isn’t something that can be said for most his peers. Y’all need to stop underrating this man! Please throw all the GRAMMY’s at him in 2018. Highlights: “Neighbors,” “4 Your Eyez Only,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” –Vincent
6. Starboy, The Weeknd
The Weeknd was back with one of the best albums of this year, if only for the production work. With impeccably crafted Pop smashes, Starboy feels like the natural evolution of the transformation Abel started with his last album, Beauty Behind the Madness. The level of success he’s obtained has prompted him to further explore his newfound mainstream sensibilities and mesh them with the moody R&B sound he debuted with, working with producers such as Daft Punk and Max Martin without ever feeling forced. The results are exquisite experiments in throwback, but progressive Pop numbers that are sure to capture the public. The Weeknd has now completely transitioned into a Pop star, but he’s definitely earned it for his work first and foremost. Highlights: “Secrets,” “Sidewalks,” “Die For You” —Mario
5. blackSUMMERS’night, Maxwell
“In the age of immediacy, the idea waiting seems hopelessly outdated. But that said, there’s something to be said about anticipation…” – Maxwell.
If there’s anything that can be said about Maxwell, it’s that he will definitely make you wait for an album. Similar to the seven year gap between 2001’s Now, and 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, Maxwell held on to the second installment of his “blacksummers’night” trilogy for six years, and while the musical climate of R&B has changed drastically in that time, Maxwell proved that he was worth the wait. As always, Maxwell’s work reflects his endless pursuit of love, and his need to relate to his audience through that journey. With songs that showcase the varied stages of relationships, such as infatuation (“1990X”), trepidation (“Fingers Crossed”) harmony, (“Lake By The Ocean”), anger, (“Gods”), and finally cessation (“Lost”), Maxwell includes us in the story, and makes us look forward to the next chapter. Highlights: “Gods,” “Lost,” “Lake By the Ocean” –Jordan
4. 24K Magic, Bruno Mars
Of all the albums on the list, this is the one that you’ll party to the most. On Magic, Mars takes his cues from some of the pioneers of the modern R&B sound. Whether it comes from Teddy Riley-esque New Jack Swing, (“Finesse”), James Brown tinged funk, (“Perm”) or hip-hop reminiscent of Jermaine Dupri’s prime, (“That’s What I Like”), 24K Magic will make you sweat, sway, and swoon. On Magic, Mars never takes himself seriously, almost to a fault. Lyrically, the album is far from innovative, however, the innovation lies in Mars’ ability to take nostalgic sounds and create material that sounds current. In a time where tensions are globally high, 24K Magic serves to be a fun, albeit brief, distraction from the madness. Highlights: “Chunky,” “Calling All My Lovelies,” “Finesse” —Jordan
3. Glory, Britney Spears
It had seemed that, since 2007, Britney Spears’ creative direction was more or less on autopilot. Her music, despite the quality track (and hit) here and there seemed impersonal and vapid. Her vocals were heavily filtered and computerized. It was all very calculated. The once Princess of Pop seemed to had lost her “pop.” However, Glory changed all that, reintroducing the world to an bubbling Britney filled with personality, depth, emotion and enthusiasm, representing the most consistent and organized body of work from Britney Spears since at least Femme Fatale, if not Blackout. The set begins with an “Invitation,” welcoming the listener back in the musical world of a very present and vibrant Britney Spears. This Britney didn’t even rely on her constant go-to hit makers (Max Martin and Dr. Luke), but sought a more subtle approach. She felt hungry for more once again.
Britney Spears: The Pop Icon
Jumping genre-inspirations but never leaving the realm of Pop, Glory reminds us why Britney Spears is a Pop Icon. It’s well-produced with light, digestible lyrics, and that signature Britney voice. No matter how produced they are, for once she delivers worthy vocals that don’t make you wonder why anyone gave her a singing contract in the first place. Songs like “Man On The Moon” and the surprising all-French “Coupure Électrique” showcase a chill side of Spears, while the majority of the album is upbeat and club-ready. “Slumber Party” is the standout, but the erratic “Clumsy,” classic-Spears “Do You Want To Come Over” and church-revival-esque “What You Need” all bring out the best in Britney. The album works because it is what her die-hard fans wanted from her: some Dance, some Pop, and some Urban Pop. If her beloved In The Zone (2004) and Blackout (2007) had a child, Glory would be it! Yes, Britney’s still got it, and glory, we should rejoice. Highlights: “Change Your Mind (No Seas Cortes),” “Just Like Me,” “Better,” “Moodring” –Vincent, Andrew, & Keenan
2. A Seat at the Table, Solange
It’s been three months since A Seat At The Table dropped, and Solange STILL has us shook. It seems as though the element of surprise is one that the Knowles sisters are fond of. The only other common element between the sisters’ albums (aside from being R&B) is that they celebrate Blackness. A Seat at the Table is a masterclass in conversing about race relations in 2016. To summarize our in-depth review, Solange pervaded the inner most thoughts of today’s modern day Black woman, and offered up soul, sass, and self care. Literally.
From “Weary,” to “Mad,” to “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and “F.U.B.U.,” Solange tackles topics that very much needed to be brought to the table. Woven together by interludes featuring Master P., Tina Knowles-Lawson, and Matthew Knowles, the album is flawless and holds the potential to be (and probably already is) the springboard to an array of think-pieces or, hell, a course in Black women’s rhetoric. Inspired largely by the poetry of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Solange creatively and concisely addresses issues most are afraid to. Fearless is something she has always been, and with A Seat at the Table it has finally paid off, earning her a #1 album and widespread critical acclaim. There isn’t anything left to say about it, other than constant expression of gratitude for such an amazing body of work. Let’s hope Solange is slept on no longer. Highlights: “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U.,” “Mad” –Jordan & Vincent
1. LEMONADE, Beyoncé
Where do you even start with LEMONADE? Beyoncé began 2016 in her newfound, truly trolling fashion — by teasing the hell out of the Beyhive with random moments and elusive unconfirmed rumors. She dropped a single that pissed off White America (“Formation”), proceeded to perform it at their Almighty Superbowl, hid the song on YouTube and Tidal … and disappeared. Nobody knew what the hell was going on and then April 23rd came around and Beyoncé decided to debut a visual album on HBO, because why not? LEMONADE was inescapable, dominating the music world and pop culture. It’s filled with bites that can be hashtagged, thrown on shirts, and even used in daily conversation. It’s the perfect album for a social media-driven market.
What makes LEMONADE interesting is surely the visual component of the project, but it’s definitely also its nature as a true concept album; an epic. Opening with “Pray You Catch Me” and its Greek chorus-like chants, the album starts as a tragedy: the tragedy of betrayal. The suspicion starts to make its way into the mind of the woman who finds her husband is cheating. From then, the songs are a chronicle of the relationship going south, reaching the lowest point only to resurface until its happy ending. The suspicion turns into a warning (“Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself”), it grows into nonchalance with “Sorry,” then becomes a celebration of female independence and work ethics (“6 Inch”). The woman starts then a process of self-reflection and self-doubt, exploring the roots of her distrust towards men (“Daddy Lessons”) and questioning her own role in the relationship (“Love Drought”).
The latter part of the album is occupied by a gradual, growing sentiment of forgiveness, culminating in the reconciliation of the beautiful “All Night.” Amid the story of lost and regained love, Beyoncé also took the time to make a couple of social statements with “Freedom” and “Formation,” positioning them at crucial points in the album and tying them with the main theme by also making the film a social statement. It also comes as a tremendous surprise that there’s still some joy to be had from listening to songs like “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Freedom” and “Formation.”
We’ve never truly seen a genre-less Beyoncé… until now. On LEMONADE, she collaborated with musicians whose artistry she appropriated for her own nefarious purposes – to show every living human that she truly is a grown woman who can do whatever she wants. If 2016 showed us one thing, it’s that Beyoncé is comfortable tackling any genre out there, similar to her idol, Michael Jackson. Like the King of Pop, King Bey slayed in varied, new musical waters, infusing genres from country to rock into her native R&B and pop. If she wanted to, she could become a legitimate Rock star or a Country crooner, too. Through it all, she tells a story that, whether true or false, runs its course throughout the album with an unexpected, yet happy ending; she weaves a fantastical yarn of betrayal, hurt, anger, then forgiveness.
Though she unleashed a flood of speculation about her marriage thanks to said storyline, LEMONADE is not only the story of Beyoncé and her marriage, but the story of women in general (specifically, Black women) their psychology, their feelings and their often troubled universe. Beyoncé, as a role model for many, captured the essence of being a Black woman in 2016 and that’s how she was able to make THE album of the year. Nothing has come close to this level of depth and power, even in her own discography.
You wouldn’t think anyone would ever be capable of putting Beyoncé in an emotional state where she is made to feel like someone’s inferior, but in this tight piece of work, she succeeds in letting us think she can be. Of course, in true Beyoncé fashion, nobody knows what the truth is. Indeed, it is her secrecy that makes her so captivating. LEMONADE was a seeming unveiling of her private life, thwarted by the fact that she refuses to comment on it. Beyoncé’s control over her personal narrative is of equal parallel to her control of the music industry. Beyoncé holds the reigns, and we’re all just waiting on her to quench our thirst with her next concoction.
Until then, we’ll be sipping LEMONADE. –Staff