The Top 30 Albums of 2016

Man, if you listen to some of these online critics, 2016 was the worst year for music EVAR.

Well, that tends to happen when your only outlet for new music is the wasteland known as radio.

Now, it’s true – the year’s most disappointing albums often came from the industry’s biggest stars. Some were grossly overrated. Some were poorly conceived or sloppily executed. Some crumbled under the weight of unnecessary hype. Some were just downright disasters.

But those albums were the exception, not the rule.

While big name stars floundered, new artists shined. Many veterans found inspiration in the country’s shifting political landscape, using their music to speak for those without a voice. And 2016 was also the year of the improbable comeback, with several long-lost faces picking up right where they left off.

By now you’ve probably read a bunch of Top Albums of the Year lists. Now it’s time to read one that isn’t hot garbage.

We’ve spent the past 12 months listening and reviewing every major (and most minor) release in the world of music. Below, you’ll find 30 of most memorable albums of 2016. And, for the first time, this list WILL include both mixtapes and EPs.

Chance fans, y’all can finally get out of my Twitter mentions.

2016 was filled with great music, if you knew where to look. Here are the albums that proved it.

Honorable mentions: Game, 1992; Anthony Hamilton, What I’m Feelin’; AZ Yet, She’s Magic; Kandice Springs, Soul Eyes; DVSN, Sept 5th

kairi-chanel30. Dave East, Kairi Chanel

Despite being a mixtape, Kairi Chanel feels like a fully-formed album, packed to the brim with no-nonsense raps and a dizzying array of guest stars. Strong production and even stronger concepts – the thought-provoking “Don’t Shoot” among them – make this a worthwhile listen.

 

 

 

_________________________________________________

dwtw29. Ab-Soul, DWTW

Soulo’s fourth studio album isn’t even a week old but it’s still worthy to be mentioned among the year’s best. Ab-Soul is often the odd man out of the TDE unit, and while he doesn’t have the critical acclaim of Kendrick Lamar, the radio success of Schoolboy Q or the street cred of Jay Rock, Soul remains the anchor by being their most thought-provoking lyricist.  DWTW is a densely layered effort that touches on everything from faith and addiction to sexuality and misogyny.  It takes several listens to unfold all of Ab-Soul’s mysteries, but it’s worth the journey.

 

_________________________________________________

dave-hollister-the-manuscript-album-cover28. Dave Hollister, The MANuscript

Dave is one of those artists who never seems to sleep. The guy consistently, yet quietly, drops a new album every couple of years, and they rarely fall short. His latest, The MANuscript, stays true to his pedigree – soulful harmonies and life lessons delivered with his unmistakable gospel-tinged vocals. The brief running time leaves little room for fluff, so we’re treated to a tight, concise project. Critics might turn their noses up at the gospel harmonies and preachy life lessons, but I’m here for it – I’m just glad Dave is sticking to the script.

 

_________________________________________________

for-all-we-know27. NAO, For All We Know

Alt-R&B is the new catch-all term to describe any young singer who doesn’t sound like Usher or Alicia Keys circa 2002. But here’s a newsflash – R&B always has been in a constant state of evolution, and NAO is simply helping to push the sound forward. The British singer’s sound is a cocktail of traditional soul, electronica and funk, which gives her debut album a unique yet subtlety familiar feel. Throw any label you want on her, just don’t miss this album.

 

 

_________________________________________________

dress to impress26. Keith Sweat, Dress to Impress

Read the review here

Thirty years in the game and King Keef still holds the crown. Dress to Impress often feels like the summation of Keith’s entire career, from the danceable cuts and trademark crooning to the ample duets and put-your-woman-first mentality. But the album works because he so effortlessly recaptures the magic that made him one of R&B’s biggest stars. Yeah, Dress to Impress is the same suit Keith’s been wearing for years but it’s tailor-made for him and never goes out of style. He’s a classic man.

 

_________________________________________________

eldorado25. Ro James, Eldorado

Read the review here

I attended a concert earlier this year where current R&B kingpin Maxwell christened Ro James as the future of R&B. This album lays credence to that claim. Thanks to the influence of James’ musical muses, and his willingness to expand his sound beyond conventional borders, Eldorado appeals to both conventional R&B fans and younger listeners. A mix of midtempo hip-hop and traditional R&B give this set a diverse sound that’s the perfect launching pad for his budding career.

 

_________________________________________________

dranking-drivng24. Z-Ro, Drankin’ & Drivin’

It’s crazy: Z-Ro has spent more than two decades dropping quality albums nearly every 12 months, yet he’s still a relative unknown to mainstream listeners outside of Houston. Y’all need to catch up. Drankin’ & Drivin’ is the Z-Ro we’ve known and loved since the 90s – soulful crooning that envelops gut crushing punchlines and hilarious storytelling. Whether he’s yelling about how much he despises his baby’s mother or shedding tears for fallen friends, Z-Ro never bites his tongue – and I doubt he sobers up anytime soon.

 

_________________________________________________

vol-123. H.E.R., Vol. 1

Read the review here

A weird thing happened the morning of Sept. 11 this year – a mysterious EP from an equally mysterious artist going by “H.E.R.” appeared on iTunes and rocketed up the charts (thanks to a few high-profile artists helping to generate buzz on Twitter). Yeah, it was just a big publicity stunt, but when the music is this good, I don’t really mind. Like her contemporaries, H.E.R. (who judging by that Noob Saibot-like shadow is obviously rising star Gabi Wilson) uses dark, heavy soundscapes as a backdrop for her music. But instead of the mumbling pseudo-rap lyrics her lesser peers employ, H.E.R.’s fully formed vocals steal the show.

_________________________________________________

charlene22. Tweet, Charlene

Read the review here

It took nearly 10 years, but Tweet finally delivered her third album, and it was certainly worth the wait. Her patented soulful sound is a breath of fresh air in a genre currently experiencing an identity crisis. It’s one of the most cohesive listens of the year, even surpassing her 2006 sophomore album.

 

 

_________________________________________________

blond21. Frank Ocean, Blonde

Read the review here

After four years of false starts and unfulfilled promises, we finally received the follow-up to Frank Ocean’s lauded Channel Orange – and it wasn’t quite what some fans expected. Blonde was a drastic departure from that soulful set. While that previous album focused on Ocean’s attempts at acceptance, Blonde is a depiction of his frustration with a world that struggles to understand him. That story is told through an array of sonic stylings. It’s a journey that many listeners can relate to, no matter how bumpy the ride.

 

_________________________________________________

the-altar20. Banks, The Altar

Read the review here

Banks is back, and she’s as miserable as ever. Much like her debut, the elusive singer uses a cocktail of R&B, pop, electronic and hip-hop, infused with cryptic yet brilliant songwriting and murky production. The Altar is another soul-bearing experience, filled with raw emotion and lyrics that drip with sarcasm. In an era where seemingly every other act pumps out disposable “atmospheric” music, Banks’ sorrow actually has substance.

 

_________________________________________________

common-black-america-again-album-cover-art19. Common, Black America Again

Read the review here

Music has always been a reflection of the times, and with social justice being one of the hottest topics of 2016, it’s no shock that artists would turn their attention to politics. And it’s definitely no surprise that Common, one of hip-hop’s most outspoken voices, would join the conversation. Black America Again is dedicated to the African-American experience, with Common sharing his inner dialogue with listeners while also using personal narratives as a frame of reference for an ailing community. Yes, we’ve heard these themes before, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Besides, as long as black lives continue to be devalued, they’re worth hearing again. _________________________________________________

begin18. Lion Babe, Begin

These days, my wife is so disillusioned with mediocrity in R&B that she mainly listens to old Faith Evans and Sade albums. So it’s very telling that the duo Lion Babe has caught her ear. Singer Jillian Hervey and producer Lucas Goodman have concocted an eclectic blend of neo-soul, disco and house, with a slight dash of hip-hop.  It’s hard to call this “alternative” R&B — it’s more like a return to the genre’s diverse roots. Maybe that’s why the wifey likes it so much. It’s worth your time as well.

 

 

_________________________________________________

3001 a laced odyssey17. Flatbush Zombies, 3001: A Laced Odyssey

I can’t front — the Flatbush Zombies have flown under my radar for years. I’m certainly familiar with their offbeat sound but always wrote them off as A$AP Mob clones. How wrong I was. 3001: A Laced Odyssey is more accurately described as a throwback to the Boot Camp Clik — smart wordplay mixed with dashes of humor and air-tight production. The gruff Meechy Darko specifically is a star in the making. I slept on them before but never again.

 

_________________________________________________

the-healing-component16. Mick Jenkins, The Healing Component

Read the review here

Mick Jenkins has been holding down the independent scene for a few years now, with his The Water[s] mixtape and Waves[s] EP showcasing classic wordplay and more experimental sounds, respectively. The Healing Component marries those two styles to create a project that’s dense with lyricism yet shrouded in moody soundscapes. As the name implies, the albums serves as an exploration of that heart – love, spirituality and resolve. While it’s too drugged out to be a gospel album and too uplifting to be called trap, The Healing Component is a brilliant contradiction of black pride and pain. This is the album hip-hop needs more of right now.

_________________________________________________

coloring-book15. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

I know, I know, I’ve been notoriously lukewarm on Chance the Rapper’s rise to prominence over the years. While his talent was undeniable and I enjoyed a handful of his songs, his off-kilter delivery and stream-of-consciousness flow felt too gimmicky for my liking. It was hipster rap for the sake of being hipster. But Chance’s Coloring Book mixtape is what finally made me a believer. Using gospel stylings as a backdrop, Chance’s candid takes on life and society were extremely refreshing. The same goes for his lyricism, which has really sharpened over the past year. I can’t deny it any longer – Chance is a star on the rise.

 

_________________________________________________

eric-benet14. Eric Benet, Eric Benet

Read the review here

Eric Benét has spent two decades as one of R&B’s premier yet underrated vocalists, churning out albums that rightfully have received acclaim (1999’s A Day in the Life, for example) and many that deserved more props that they got (2008’s Love & Life among them). His self-titled latest entry might be the pinnacle of that journey, a diverse collection of musical styles delivered with the confidence of a music vet. Don’t worry about Eric regressing into “trap&B” songs or duct-taping flavor-of-the-month rappers to his tracks to generate buzz. He doesn’t need gimmicks to justify his art. Benét’s confident enough in his abilities to create an album on his terms – mature, soulful and true to his core sound.

_________________________________________________

untitled-unmastered13. Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered

Only Kendrick Lamar could gather up scraps of unreleased recordings, package them up and wind up with one of the best albums of 2016. This collection of outtakes shows that even K Dot’s leftovers are stronger than most of his peers’ entire catalog. Kendrick’s patented social commentary is intact here, giving the set substance. This isn’t just a quick cash-in, it’s yet more proof that Kendrick is still at the top of his game.

 

 

_________________________________________________

51194-ology12. Gallant, Ology

Christopher Gallant has to be a student of the game. His debut album Ology is like a musical history lesson – tracks pivot from ’80s pop, ’90s slow jams and 00-era neo soul on a dime. The arrangements are definitely a draw but Gallant’s soothing vocals are the real star. His poetic lyrics are delivered with aching passion – you feel every single note Gallant delivers. If you love R&B, you’ll love this project.

 

 

_________________________________________________

a-seat-at-the-table11. Solange, A Seat at the Table

In 2016’s exhausting coverage of social justice issues – and the mounting barriers that arise as soon as previous roadblocks are removed – the voices of black men have resounded strongly. But thanks to Solange’s stunning A Seat at the Table, black women found the platform they too deserve. Solange’s airy vocals ache with weariness but also resound with strength, making songs like “Cranes in the Sky,” “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” modern-day anthems for women whose voices have been silenced far too long.

 

_________________________________________________

layers10. Royce 5’9, Layers

Read the review here

How long have we been calling Royce “underrated?” I’m sure Royce is sick of hearing it — that’s why he spits with such a chip on his shoulder on Layers, one of his finest albums yet. Wicked wordplay and mind-bending metaphors are on tap for every track as Royce posits about life, faith, social justice and the fateful night that birthed both his son and career. Royce raps with his heart on his sleeve, and that’s why he’s so much more than “underrated.”

 

_________________________________________________

theeasytruth9. Apollo Brown and Skyzoo, The Easy Truth

When lyricism comes as easy as it does to an artist like Skyzoo, all he needs is the perfect production to accent his storytelling. Apollo Brown comes through on The Easy Truth, crafting some of the best beats I’ve heard in the past 12 months. If you’re looking for turn-up tracks, keep moving – The Easy Truth is a realm of hi-hats, lush instrumentals and boom bap that perfectly suits Sky’s laid-back lyricism. If you’ve been turned off by this year’s glut of Mumble Rap, this is the album for you.

 

_________________________________________________

tigallerro8. Eric Roberson and Phonte, Tigallerro

Read the review here

Sometimes, two creative energies blend so seamlessly that it’s nearly impossible to separate one act from the other. And by the sound Phontigallo and Erro’s union on Tigallerro, we might be witnessing the genesis of R&B’s next great superpower. Roberson and Phonte are no strangers to each other, with both being cornerstones of both indie R&B and rap, respectively. Together, they meshed their sounds into breezy, soothing R&B that’s as perfect for summer cookouts as it is for evening rendezvous. Tigallerro became one of the greatest joys of the summer of 2016 and proof that two great artists are better than one.

_________________________________________________

lead-poison7. Elzhi, Lead Poison

Read the review here

In recent years, Elzhi has quietly become one of hip-hop’s premier lyricists. But thanks to Lead Poison, the game’s best-kept secret is finally getting a chance to roar. Nearly every track here is vivid portrayal of expert storytelling, taking well-worn topics like career struggles and relationship woes into new directions. Lead Poison is a master’s class in the art of MC’ing.

 

_________________________________________________

lemonade6. Beyonce, Lemonade

Read the review here

Yeah, I’m guessing you’ve heard of this album. And while it’s been needlessly overhyped, don’t overlook this fact — Lemonade is Beyonce at her creative peak. This isn’t simply a “Jay Z breakup album” or whatever they’re mumbling over on Twitter today, it’s a journey into the psyche of a black woman who is wrestling with infidelity and, yes, forgiveness. The visual portion of this package alone is probably worth the No. 1 spot, but even the audio portion (which determines this ranking) makes it among 2016’s most compelling offerings.

_________________________________________________

malibu5. Anderson .Paak, Malibu

Read the review here

It’s hard to categorize this album as R&B or hip-hop. Instead, it’s a masterful amalgamation of both genres and serves as a coming-of-age story of one of the game’s most promising young talents. After turning heads on projects from Dr. Dre and The Game in 2015, Paak took the reins in 2o16, delivering an album so raw and heartfelt that it would feel right at home among the greats of Stax Records in the ’70s. Malibu shows that Paak is blessed with an old soul and wisdom beyond his years. This album is just his beginning.

_________________________________________________

we-got-it-from-here4. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

Read the review here

Of all the improbable returns we saw in 2016, none were more shocking than the reunion of one of rap’s greatest trailblazers. Serving as their final swan song – and a tribute to fallen member Phife Dawg – A Tribe Called Quest re-entered the rap arena without a hint of ring rust. While it’s brimming with nostalgia, this is no mere rehash. Tribe deftly targets hot-button political issues, posits on the current state of hip-hop and, of course, honors the legacy of Phife. Easily one of the most satisfying releases of the year.

_________________________________________________

blacksummersnight3. Maxwell, blackSUMMERS’night

Read the review here

Before 2016, the last time Maxwell blessed us with a solo LP it was a world without Instagram. Snapchat and those weird dog-faced filters y’all love were years away from cluttering up timelines. President-elects weren’t just lame reality TV stars. Although Maxwell’s watch was permanently stuck on CP time, blackSUMMERS’night, the second album in Maxwell’s running trilogy, proved to be worth the wait. Instead of rehashing old sounds, Maxwell found a new path by incorporating vibrant, live instrumentation. The production’s live feel and intricate grooves often tell a better story than the actual lyrics. Every song is like an individual jam session – one that you never want to end.

_________________________________________________

we are king2. KING, We are KING

Read the review here

KING has spent the past five years as almost an urban legend, a group that came out of nowhere, dropped a couple of head-turning tracks, then disappeared. But when they finally returned this year, they came strong — stronger than anyone expected. Their harmonies blend seamlessly with the lush production, making every single song instantly infectious. With a diverse set of soundscapes and nearly flawless vocal performances, KING is no longer a myth, they’re R&B royalty.

 

_________________________________________________

24k-magic1. Bruno Mars, 24K Magic

Read the review here

The greatest story of 2016 is that a pop artist did what your favorite R&B artist couldn’t – bring the fun back to R&B.  On 24K Magic, Bruno’s third album, he takes his infatuation with all things ’80s even further, crafting album that branches out from his usual ’80s pop stylings and cabbage patches right into early ’90s New Jack Swing. In an era where moody R&B with sour lyrics and dour production rule the charts, the game was in dire need of some levity. Thank Bruno for reminding us why we love music in the first place. 24K Magic is absolutely spellbinding – if there’s a better album in 2016, we haven’t heard it.

What were your favorite albums of the year? Let us know below.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

3 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Album Review: The LOX, Filthy America … It’s Beautiful | Soul In Stereo
  2. The Top 100 R&B Songs of 2016, presented by Soul In Stereo and YouKnowIGotSoul.com | Soul In Stereo
  3. Flashback Friday: Styles P and Solange | Soul In Stereo

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*