For the final day of our Year In Review, we kept it simple: #SimplyTheBest. After spending the week exploring the #FirstTake debut projects that were grand entrances, the #RestUp albums that were overlooked, how folks like Childish Gambino and Danny Brown managed to #CrossTheLine, and the unorthodox release strategies that defined #NoRules, we now examine the pound-for-pound best projects of 2016. Cue the drum roll...
Beyoncé, 'Lemonade' album cover
After months of anticipation (and the cruelty of being teased Beyoncee snatched the edges of men, women and children when she dropped her sixth studio album, ‘Lemonade.’ And in case you live under a rock, Bey didn’t just drop any ole regular degular album but she released her new music by way of a powerful, stylized short film that took the world by storm. The Queen Bey allowed you to feel every thought and emotion that she experienced throughout the past three years of her life as she lyrically painted vivid images for her fans to connect with. She had the Beyhive preparing to snatch up Becky with the good hair with a bat in hand, on one instance, and ready to fall in love while listening to the sweet sounds of “All Night,” on another. Oh, and let’s not forget the vitality of “Formation.” Not only did she end what is arguably the best album of the year with a song that slay’s but she slayed America with her unapologetically black performance at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime show. If you haven’t realized by now that ‘Lemonade’ is #SimplyTheBest album of the year then you’re just out here looking jealous and crazy — Amber Mackie
A Tribe Called Quest, 'We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service' cover
A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service
There’s a deep layer of nostalgia to We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, which makes it somewhat difficult to get through. Every song completed is just one less that you have to enjoy from the 18-track set, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any fun along the way. Songs such as “The Space Program,” “Whatever Will Be,” and “Kids,” play with the same soulful rhythms that the band’s music tends to evoke, while spots of darkness (“The Killing Season,” “Lost Somebody) demonstrate some of the rougher times that were had during the creation of this album. We Got It is a trip down memory lane and a goodbye to the fans. In a year chock full of stellar releases, the Tribe’s new album manages to stand apart for its solid production and essence of funk, to say the least. While the album serves as both their final album and a heartbreaking farewell to the Five Foot Assassin, the album recaptures why one would fall in love with Hip-Hop and the group in the first place. At its barest, it has united generations of people from the youth to the elderly and who knows that better than A Tribe Called Quest? Effortless and hypnotizing, there’s no better a way to close out an unblemished discography. On behalf of fans ‘round the world, all that there is left to say is, nah Tribe… thank you. — Rob Hansen
Chance the Rapper, 'Coloring Book' cover
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
What is there to say about Coloring Book that hasn’t been said? It was the antidote to the plague that was the year 2016. It was pure light. Sun shining through stained glass windows on Sunday morning light. Bouncing disco ball at the skating rink light. Hell, he even got the Recording Academy to lighten up.
With Coloring Book, Lil Chano shot past his Acid Rap days, bent the corner with the social experiment that was Surf, and went on an upward trajectory to the heavens. Part-testimony, part-poetry, Chance and his Coloring Book gave us something to believe in. “I speak of wondrous, unfamiliar lessons from childhood / make you remember how to smile good,” he told us. What more could you ask of an album? —Driadonna Roland
Solange, 'A Seat at the Table' cover
Solange, A Seat at the Table
Once burdened with the peoples’ belief that she was living in her big sister’s shadow, it should speak volumes that Solange’s A Seat at the Table effort is now going to head-to-head with Beyonce’s Lemonade for the “Best” title on more than just our list. So, what did it take to even the playing field? A deliberately outspoken album on black experience and identity, full-scope: from the community’s race-specific struggles and exclusive understandings to empowering affirmations and defiant retorts. Despite the subject matter though, Solo never raises her voice above her silky Minnie Riperton-like lilt. In fact, it’s her falsetto and jazzy modulations that weave the LP together over twinkly keys, strummed bass, and drum thumps. Cowbells, hi-hats, and horns make cameos too for an ultimately soulful—emphasis on the literal “soul” — album that not only gives nod to funk and psychedelia, but recalls history while still looking ahead. —Danielle Cheesman
Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
Travis Scott, Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight
Branching out from the Houston rodeo, Travis Scott rose like a phoenix to concoct his own dark and humid, trap-filled fantasy. In Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, the G.O.O.D. Music-bred curator ropes in a far-spread VIP guest list (André 3000, Young Thug, Kid Cudi) to create what we can (unarguably) deem is his best full-length creation to date. To paint a better picture, Birds is to Travis what Disney World is to Mickey Mouse. On the album, La Flame invites a slew of popular attendees to run wild in his own personal trappy underworld — leaving room for say a Kendrick Lamar to elicit “goosebumps” with mind-bending lyrical calisthenics and up-and-comer Nav to (finally) get some proper shine — all as he, like a line intoned on the last track on the album, creates “a vibe, what a wonderful time.” Forget "dreams" (word to Disney), for 2016, Birds is where all the proper vibes came true.— Ralph Bristout
J. Cole "4 Your Eyez Only"
J. Cole, 4 Your Eyez Only
J. Cole has some fervent haters. I mean, December 9’s release, 4 Your Eyez Only, showed me there are people who hate Cole World for sport. But why would they wait for his most adventurous work to come forth with all this slander? You said you were tired of hearing about student loans, cheating on your girl, etc., so he took it all the way left with a concept album that only few artists can pull off; greats like Nas and Jay Z among them. If 2014 Forest Hills was autobiography, Eyez is allegory. It is a focused, cautionary tale speaking from a perspective that isn’t even entirely his. And it belongs here for its risk-taking, narrative command, and continued production growth that saw Cole even add guitarist to his repertoire. —DR
Nick Jonas, 'Last Year Was Complicated'
Nick Jonas, Last Year Was Complicated
Hear me out: People keep saying R&B is on its deathbed. It’s not dead; y’all just keep looking in the wrong places. Justin Bieber offered way more R&B than pop on last year’s Purpose; former Disney teenybopper Nick Jonas did it for 2016. The release of his third solo album was the work of someone who is clearly a student of the genre. From his clever usage of the iconic Allen Iverson “Practice” speech, to his features with Big Sean and Ty Dolla $ign — not to mention the inescapable “Close” with Tove Lo — Jonas crafted some sturdy bops. Most important, lyrically, this introspective body of work wasn’t afraid to go all the way. —DR
Honorable Mention: The Weeknd, Starboy; Bruno Mars, 24K Magic; Drake, Views*