Best Albums of 2016: This Year's New Classics

David Bowie Blackstar album cover

By A.D. AMOROSI

It has been a hard year for music with so many beloved icons passing away: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Alphonse Mouzon, Merle Haggard, Prince, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell and George Michael are among the greats we've lost. Despite such sadness, 2016 was a year of brilliant and inventive recordings, two of which came from Bowie and Cohen, who died after releasing wise, world-weary work as last wills and testaments to their genius. They top our list of 2016's best albums: read on for my baker's dozen of this year's new classics.

For David Bowie with Blackstar and Leonard Cohen with You Want It Darker, both men ended their careers on innovative high notes. Bowie’s 25th studio album was a textural work that touched on art rock, noise and jazz, with lyrics evoking images of mortality and eternity. Like all great art, Blackstar blossoms anew with each listen. For Cohen, the doom folk poet’s last missive goes deeper into his usual looks at death and loss with an album as funny and romantic as anything in his canon.

Though penned before his pal Bowie’s passing, Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression looked back sonically, lyrically and longingly at the Berlin period the twosome shared throughout the 70s, and forward to life’s impermanence with soul-searching sadness. The accidental death of Nick Cave's 15-year-old son, Arthur, provided the mournful tone to his Skeleton Tree recorded in tandem with his Bad Seeds. The pain of losing a child brought a spare, poetic directness to Cave’s storytelling abilities.

ANOHNI’s HOPELESSNESS found the singer and pianist (formerly known as Antony) sharing songs of renewal, war, drones and death over a backdrop of scorched earth electronica. Dev Hynes' third album as Blood Orange - Freetown Sound - tackled politics, broad and personal, with an edgy, ire-filled rock-jazz-hop vibe that would make Kendrick Lamar proud. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool was a shimmery treat for fans of the quieter side of Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood’s compositional largesse tinged with notions of loss.

Not every best album this year was mournful. Some were angry, like BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade. Beyond the hype of its so-called feud with husband Jay Z and Becky with the good hair, Lemonade is a tour de force of ferocious musicality, aggressive rhythms and defiant lyrics. A Seat at the Table came from Bey’s sister Solange, whose disgust was more lyrically abstract, and moved beyond her past in avant-funk to create a dreamy, atmospheric R&B album that sounds like nothing else.

Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! had a unique mix of psychedelic R&B and electronica at its base, and we got to hear him croon instead of rap as he had on previous outings. Gambino (aka Donald Glover) was already having a great year with his caustic comedy Atlanta (FX Network) and the announcement of his role in an upcoming Star Wars spinoff.

On Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp, Philadelphia singer, lyricist and electronic artist Michelle Zauner explored the life of immigrant existence with a poetic personal edge and soft, spiraling melodies. On Private Energy, Helado Negro (aka Roberto Carlos Lange) draws inspiration from his second-generation Ecuadorean-American experience for a remarkably joyous cassette (yes, cassette) about life in the present day.

Finally, hip hop’s friendliest face, Chance the Rapper, gave us Coloring Book and continued to overwhelm fans with an old school musicality, a new school pop approach, and rap’s most slippery, cheeriest delivery.

Posted on Saturday, December 31, 2016