The Best Albums of 2016, a Year of Constant Flux

Dear Julianne, Ann, and guests,

Well, hell, welcome to the 2016 Slate Music Club. This year-end critics’ roundtable has been running since 2002, so it’s seen some dark days, but in my own shorter tenure, I haven’t experienced a year when there was such a clear consensus, best expressed by Last Week Tonight With John Oliver: “Fuck you, 2016.”

I’m sure we’ll discuss the musical greats we lost this year, a byproduct mostly of boomer aging that’s only going to intensify. As the U.K. critic and producer Paul Morley put it in July, “Death is now the future of rock. Mourning will be a consistent thing for the next few years.” (We’ve been debating whether rock as a genre is “dead” for a long time; the metaphor is getting grimly literal.) But grief for fallen icons is a small weight to shoulder compared with the great spreading social and political Age of Dis-Enlightenment signaled by the twin shocks of the Brexit and Trump votes.

This makes 2016 in music a weird one to talk about, the major themes at once too obvious and too bewildering. Allow me to set the table with an opinionated recap, and then you folks can pull my chair out from under me and/or fill our plates with richer fare. I’ll also make a toast to my own favorite albums of 2016.

There was an unruly energy to the first third of the year, when we witnessed experiments in album form and content from Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar. Perpetual procrastinator Frank Ocean’s Endless/Blonde diptych came later but belongs in that company, as our sometime Music Club member Lindsay Zoladz discussed in her Ringer year-end piece. With album sales scraping ever-lower lows, including a plummet in digital downloads, it’s clear that streaming is now the emperor of all media—the new label wars are between Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play, YouTube, and Tidal, etc., with Bandcamp and SoundCloud as the scrappy indies. The ontological status of the album has been in flux for years, but in a streaming context it’s more abstract than ever, totally malleable to the user’s whims as well as the artist’s.


–partial article borrowed from The Slate for testing.