2016 was a remarkable year for the music world. While we lost many musical icons like David Bowie, Prince, and Sharon Jones (to name only a few), the world gained so much in terms of high quality and important new music. Some of the biggest artists in the world released critically acclaimed pieces of art in 2016, while some of the world’s best up-and-coming talents emerged with landmark records that rocked us to our core and changed our collective perspective.
With that in mind, and with 2016 finally coming to a close, our five core staff writers in 2016–Kendall Deflin, David Melamed, Chris Meyer, Andrew O’Brien, and Gideon Plotnicki–each turned in a list of their top 20 albums, in an attempt to celebrate all that was musically awesome over the past twelve months. In total, votes came in for 41 albums, but we’ve narrowed it down to a top 20 based on the top vote getters. The list is split up into tiers based on how many votes each album received. Otherwise, it’s not in any particular order.
Some notes before we get to the final results…
Hip Hop made a huge impact in 2016. A Tribe Called Quest, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Chance The Rapper, De La Soul, Kanye West, Childish Gambino, and J. Cole all released amazing albums that received votes from our staff, making up just under 25% of the entire list. It’s hard to deny Hip Hop’s massive renaissance in 2016, at least from our perspective. The albums each display a level of social consciousness that has been missing from mainstream Hip Hop in recent years, showing that divisive times do in fact lead to better art.
Major artists did not disappoint in 2016. Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyonce, Bob Weir, Phish, and Jim James each received votes for their respective 2016 releases. In a time when mainstream music is dominated by cookie-cutter pop stars, it’s been awesome to rely on some of our best and brightest talents to deliver excellent new music in 2016.
The improvisational music scene has grown in size and diversity. While heavy hitters like Umphrey’s McGee, STS9, and Greensky Bluegrass each received votes for their respective albums, The Claypool Lennon Delirium and Tedeschi Trucks Band both were voted into our top tier, while Vulfpeck, Marcus King Band, Big Gigantic, Con Brio, TAUK, and The Nth Power each received votes. The scene is strong and only getting stronger!
Now, without further ado, here are Live For Live Music’s top albums of 2016!
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
What a statement. What an album. A Tribe Called Quest’s comeback album, 18 years after breaking up in the late 1990s, also served as a “goodbye” album to the irreplaceable Phife Dawg, who passed away earlier this year after complications from diabetes. The record is remarkable, touching on social issues such as poverty and racial inequality, while also openly asking questions about how to deal with the death of one’s best friend. Q-Tip shines as a true Hip Hop superstar on this record, showcasing his unique flow and standout abilities as a wordsmith on each and every track. Guest spots from Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, and Andre 3000 round out this impressive release, which moved hip-hop to the forefront of the political conversation at a time when we needed it most.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium – Monolith of Phobos
Leave it to Les Claypool to figure out a way to be predictably unpredictable. The über-talented bass player teamed up with Sean Lennon, spawn of John Lennon, to create a record that essentially sounds like Primus ate the Beatles, and that ain’t a bad thing. It’s the record Claypool seemed destined to deliver his whole career, yet its sheer awesomeness still took us completely by surprise. It’s essentially a dark comedy of psychedelia, filled with drug references, Claypool’s unmistakable bass playing, Lennon’s on-point guitar playing, and a bevy of weirdness. Lennon delivers a swirling, melodic vocal performance that perfectly contrasts with Claypool’s old-timey, circus ringmaster vibe. It’s a truly weird record, and an example of what absolute creative freedom can lead to. We need more records like Monolith of Phobos, and we hope that the Delirium has a few more tricks up its sleeve in 2017.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By
We are lucky to live in the time of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. The music of Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and their 12-piece powerhouse is the gift that keeps on giving. Trucks’ slide guitar playing is otherworldly and Tedeschi’s vocals are an absolute dream. With the aid of their seemingly perfect band, they have turned themselves into one of the most in-demand acts on the planet. Let Me Get By is a polished example of their excellence. The entire album is well written and tight, showcasing the perfectionism that comes out of the hours upon hours of time that they spent in the studio at their home in Jacksonville, FL. The result is a mixture of soul, funk, rock ‘n’ roll, and pop that’s left us grooving all year long.
David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie’s Blackstar, released just two days before his untimely death, is the ultimate goodbye to one of the brightest musical stars to ever grace the planet earth. The record was examined and re-examined for codes and double meanings after his passing, but the reality is there in plain sight: Bowie was dying, and he needed to tell us all about it. A man who escaped the public eye by living as many different characters such as Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Blackstar finds Bowie sans character, delivering his pre-death anxieties with a sultry and paranoid avant-garde jazz-based feel. What does David Bowie’s death as an individual mean, compared to his immortality a revered musical icon? It’s an interesting question that doesn’t have a straightforward answer. Consider Blackstar the ultimate attempt to answer that question.
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Was there a more eclectic release in 2016? Probably not. Anderson .Paak certainly elevated himself with his exciting album Malibu, which doubles as a fun look at Los Angeles’ unique and ever-changing music scene. You can find elements of r&b, soul, hip-hop, funk, punk rock and more on Malibu, as .Paak takes the listener on a journey through his psyche. With socially conscious, introspective lyrics, live instrumentation, and an undeniable energy, it’s clear why Malibu has set itself apart from the pack (.Paak?) in 2016.
Various Artists – Day Of The Dead
The long-awaited tribute to the Grateful Dead from Aaron & Bryce Dessner of The National was finally released this year and there may be no 2016 release more impressive than Day of the Dead. Compiled over a grueling two-year period, the Day of the Dead features several standout performances from a variety of artists from across the musical spectrum. Featuring 59 songs in total, this epic re-invention of the Dead is a testament to the band’s diversity. The War On Drugs, Charles Bradley, Mumford & Sons, Wilco, and The Flaming Lips are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to special guests featured on the album. Each guest brings its own feel and vibe to the record, matching longtime Grateful Dead enthusiast Bill Walton‘s idea that the Dead “have a song for every emotion.” This album truly runs the gamut and we are thankful for the work that the Dessner brothers put in, resulting in the perfect tribute to one of the best bands of all time.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead has once again defied expectations with its 2016 release A Moon Shaped Pool. The album was recorded during frontman Thom Yorke‘s breakup from his longtime partner, Rachel Owen, who has subsequently passed away after a battle with cancer, and thus the album heavily focuses on that theme. However, instead of making a “break-up record”, Radiohead has delivered an album that begs the question: is it possible to look back at the past while time inevitably pushes forward? The band eschewed the heavy electronic elements that perhaps peaked with their previous album, the loop-heavy The King Of Limbs, returning to the beauty of stripped-down, acoustic instrumentation for the majority of AMSP. What electronic elements do exist are used to minimalist effect, as the band uses a string section (courtesy of guitarist/arranger Jonny Greenwood) to heighten the tension on several tracks, specifically on the political messaging of “Burn The Witch”, the reflective longing of “Daydreaming”, and a remorse-filled focus on climate change in “The Numbers”. A Moon Shaped Pool wasn’t the record we were expecting from Radiohead, but it turned out to be the record that we deserve.
Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
Pimp, Pimp…Hooray! Following 2015’s landmark album To Pimp A Butterfly, no one was expecting another full-length Kendrick record in 2016, yet that’s exactly what we got with untitled unmastered. Although the album is made up of b-sides from the years-long Butterfly recording sessions, the album is bursting with energy. The eight-song album is short but to the point, as Kendrick continues his exploration of the full spectrum of African American music. Combining jazz, funk, and hip-hop (and possibly a dash of emo), the album continues Lamar’s domination of the mainstream. All hail King Kendrick!
Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway
The Chili Peppers switched things up for this record, leaving longtime producer Rick Rubin behind in favor of groove-master Danger Mouse. The result is their best work since Californication, with perfect harmonies, swirling strings and keyboard sections, and impressive playing from new-ish guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who shook the cobwebs off and made the record his own after a so-so showing on 2011’s I’m With You. Of course, Flea, Anthony Keidis and Chad Smith are their usual awesome selves, bringing their trademark punk/funk vibe to every track. After 25+ years in the game, we wouldn’t expect anything less.
2016’s breakout stars Vulfpeck have turned in another funky classic with this year’s The Beautiful Game. Vulfpeck has a unique mixture of soul, funk, and pop music that’s perhaps been perfected on TBG. The songs are fun, poppy, and short, and that’s just how they like it! Bassist Joe Dart shines as the band’s musical standout, absolutely demolishing his Fender Jazz bass on tracks like “Dean Town”, “Conscious Club” and “Daddy, he got a Tesla”. Go-to vocal guest Antwaun Stanley returns for “1-for-1, DiMaggio” while guest musician Cory Wong leaves his mark all over the record. With this album, it’s clear that Vulfpeck is definitely not a jam band. Got a problem with that? Deal with it.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Chance the Rapper refuses to play by the rules of the music business. Good. With his “mixtape” Coloring Book, Chance has shown himself to be one of the best musical minds of his generation, and he doesn’t need a record label to drive that point home. Infusing gospel and jazz with hip-hop, Chance discusses his relationship with God, the racially charged issues in his hometown of Chicago, and his industry-outsider status on Coloring Book. Album, record, mixtape, whatever, this is one of the best collections of music released in 2016.
Snarky Puppy – Culcha Vulcha
Snarky Puppy can do no wrong. This stable of modern jazz-fusion experts constantly delivers the goods, and Culcha Vulcha is another example of this band’s genius. Filled with catchy riffs, tightly composed sections, and a deep appreciation for the funk, Snarky Puppy bounces between several genres on this record, continuing their push as one of the most diverse bands on the planet.
De La Soul – and the Anonymous Nobody…
The people wanted new De La Soul so much that they paid in advance to make it happen. Following a remarkable Kickstarter campaign, De La was able to hit the studio and make the record they actually wanted to make, a rarity in this business. The result is another creative take on hip-hop, with psychedelic funk influences abound. Snoop Dogg, David Byrne, Damon Albarn, and Little Dragon all make appearances on the record, showing De La Soul’s eclectic influence.
GRiZ – Good Will Prevail
GRiZ is one of the dominant forces of the Electronic/Funk genre, and he continues his mastery of the scene with Good Will Prevail. Bass-heavy breakdowns are surrounded by beautiful melodies and soaring saxophone parts that deliver an interesting contrast. Eric Krasno, Tash Neal of The London Souls, Big Gigantic, and Brasstracks are just a few of the special guests that add to GRiZ’s sound. Good Will Prevail is as fun as it gets.
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
I know, I know. Kanye. Very controversial, but also an amazing musical mind. If you can get past West’s undeniable ego on tracks like “I Love Kanye”, there are some true gems on this record. “Wolves”, “Famous”, and “Waves” are all standouts, but “Ultralight Beam” is the true winner on the record. Chance The Rapper’s verse alone is worth the price of admission.
The Marcus King Band – The Marcus King Band
Having been anointed by Warren Haynes as the next big thing in the soul and blues scenes (Haynes was so enamored that he produced this record), Marcus King and his band turned in a bluesy, soulful masterpiece with their 2016 self-titled record. Haynes and fellow former Allman Brother Derek Trucks both make guest appearances on this album, perhaps the ultimate compliment to King’s own status as a rising star. This young player made a name for himself in 2016 and if this record tells us anything, it’s that King is currently one of the best young talents in the scene.
Phish – Big Boat
You can read all about our full thoughts on Big Boat from our roundtable discussion on the album here. If you remove some of the poppy fluff that producer Bob Ezrin forced on Phish fans, there are still a number of great songs on this album. “Home”, “More”, and “Miss You” all fit perfectly in Phish’s catalog, and “I Always Wanted It This Way” is the synth-freakout many people never thought they’d hear Phish play. Fan favorites “Blaze On” and “No Men In No Man’s Land” both shine on Big Boat, turning this uneven release into a win for the Phish from Vermont.
Robert Glasper (and Miles Davis) – Everything’s Beautiful
Modern Jazz great Robert Glasper has outdone himself with this “collaboration” with Miles Davis. Glasper took some of the best material from the Miles Davis catalog and revamped it into something new, contemporary, and fresh. Fusing hip-hop and r&b with the incomparable improvisational jazz vibes of Davis, Glasper creates music that Davis would surely be proud of on Everything’s Beautiful. Guest spots from longtime Glasper cohorts Erykah Badu, Bilal, and Ledisi work perfectly alongside surprise appearances by Stevie Wonder, John Scofield, and Hiatus Kaiyote.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
If you haven’t jumped on the Sturgill Simpson train yet, now’s your chance. Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is a touching mix of soul, funk, southern rock, and psychedelia, all delivered through the unmistakable prism of Country music. This mix of genres reflects Simpson’s wide variety of influences, which is fitting, as the album is his “hello” record dedicated to his newborn son. “Alt-Country” takes on new meaning with Simpson’s spot-on cover of “In Bloom” by Nirvana, as well as with the synth-heavy romp of “Brace For Impact (Live A Little)”. As a result of this album’s excellence, Simpson is now preparing for mega-stardom after his nomination for Album of the Year at The Grammy’s.
Bob Weir – Blue Mountain
Bob Weir’s first solo record in decades is an unabashed tribute to cowboy music, and his love of americana is front and center on this album. Weir is, of course, the frontman of Dead & Company, but on Blue Mountain, he trades in his role in the jam band world and shows off his chops as a singer-songwriter. Weir has always been the ultimate storyteller and now he has a solo album to match, with plenty of tales from his time as a young runaway working on a ranch in the early 60’s.
Best of the Rest
All of these albums received votes from our staff but didn’t quite make the cut for our final list. They’re all incredible albums, and we encourage you to listen to all of them!
Aaron Neville – Apache
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Big Gigantic – Brighter Future
Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love
Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Any Way You Live, We Know How You Feel
Con Brio – Paradise
Dean Ween Group – The Deaner Album
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Electric Beethoven – Beathoven
Eric Krasno – Blood From A Stone
Fruition – Labor Of Love
Greensky Bluegrass – Shouted, Written Down & Quoted
J Dilla – The Diary
J Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only
Jerry Joseph – By The Time Your Rocket Gets To Mars
Jim James – Eternally Even
Kaytranada – 99.9%
The Motet – Totem
The Nth Power – To Be Free
Sia – This Is Acting
Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds
STS9 – The Universe Inside
TAUK – Sir Nebula
Umphrey’s – Zonkey
Various Artists – The Hamilton Mixtape
WOLF! – 1-800-WOLF!