Before 2015 ended, I was optimistic about what the new year would bring. For many reasons, 2016 was an incredible year I’ll never forget. For others, it’s eternally earmarked with loss and sadness. We lose legends every year, but 2016 felt especially cruel to the music world; David Bowie, Prince, Sharon Jones, George Michael, and more passed away in what felt like consecutive kicks to the gut.
During volatile times, we need what brings us the most comfort. I love doing this list every year because it reminds me of brilliance I forgot, makes me replay memories these records soundtracked, and gets me excited for another year of new music. Already, we’re set to hear new records from SiftThru favorites like HAIM, Lorde, Tori Amos, Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX, Goldfrapp, and many more.
Both writing and music center me, so here’s to finding balance before 2017 rolls in with more punches, and more music.
These are my 20 favorite albums of 2016.
20. Solange - A Seat At The Table: Solange’s vibrant, honest approach to her music first revealed itself on her flawless True EP. After taking time to explore her identity and grow as an artist, she emerged with A Seat At The Table. The album’s unapologetic and culturally rich songs feature Solange using her voice in new, expressive ways. On the soaring “Cranes In the Sky”, Solange wrestles with mental illness in a familiar, exquisite takedown amidst a choir of voices. Key Tracks: Cranes in the Sky, Don’t Touch My Hair, Where Do We Go
19. Garbage - Strange Little Birds: Garbage’s sound doesn’t just age like a fine wine; with their new album Strange Little Birds, the rock vets reveal bolder, deeper flavors. For 90s fans of Garbage and the decade itself, the crunching guitars that sound like they’re being put through a paper shredder are comforting. “Empty” could have been a Garbage single at the start of their career, while “Magnetized” positions their signature sound in today. Key Tracks: Empty, If I Lost You, Magnetized
18. Gwen Stefani - This Is What The Truth Feels Like: Gwen Stefani’s voice is one of the most instantly recognizable sounds on the planet. After scrapping an entire album of safe, hollow songs, Gwen returned to the rawness that made her No Doubt songs “Don’t Speak” and “Simple Kind of Life” so compelling. Both vulnerable and vicious, the frontwoman is at her best when she’s writing about her pain. This Is What The Truth Feels Like is half divorce album, half diary entries about new love. The contrasting perspectives match perfectly with Gwen’s versatile voice. Key Tracks: Make Me Like You, Truth, Used to Love You
17. Lissie - My Wild West: You can always count on Lissie to roar. The central illinois native tried out the major label landscape in Los Angeles, didn’t like how it fit, and replanted her roots back in the midwest. My Wild West, the singer-songwriter’s third album, chronicles her adventures in California with a more somber tone compared to previous records. The constant is Lissie’s larger-than-life voice, an instrument in itself that captivates with each level of the stratosphere it breaks. Key Tracks: Wild West, Don’t You Give Up On Me, Together or Apart
16. case/lang/veirs - case/lang/veirs: In the 70s and 80s, country legends Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt formed a supergroup called Trio. The artists celebrated their love of the genre all while incorporating their distinct styles. In that same tradition, Portland residents Neko Case, kd lang, and Laura Veirs collaborated on a soulful record focused on blending their sound and crafting elegant songs. The musicians rotate who takes lead on each song, with the others providing supporting harmonies. The result is a cohesive album of pure artistry and beauty - the perfect representation of all three women. Key Tracks: Atomic Number, Behind The Armory, Best Kept Secret
15. Mitski - Puberty 2: Some of the best 90s albums were from artists scratching away at their identities, hoping to reveal truths through song. Mitski’s Puberty 2 is an eccentric blend of genres anchored by the artist’s sharply cutting lyrics. As with 90s gems like Exile in Guyville and Tidal, Puberty 2 isn’t afraid to be contradictory, blunt, and ferocious. “Your Best American Girl” has one of the most anthemic choruses of the year. Key Tracks: Happy, Your Best American Girl, Thursday Girl
14. Tegan and Sara - Love You to Death: With their 2013 release Heartthrob, power twins Tegan and Sara made a full court press for pop. Many long time fans were confused by the shift, but the sisters sounded perfectly at home with the driving melodies and punchy beats of the album. Rather than retreating to rock, Tegan and Sara made another pure pop record. Love You To Death builds on the sound of Heartthrob, but its songs feel more personal than anything the duo has done. “100x” addresses the strife between the sisters, while lead single “Boyfriend” tackles a woman’s first fling with another woman. If they keep churning out records like this, pop would be an excellent permanent place for them. Key Tracks: Boyfriend, Stop Desire, 100x
13. Rihanna - ANTI: After running on an album per year streak, Rihanna left us hanging in 2015. Although she released a few one-off singles, the hitmaker waited until the beginning of 2016 to release her masterpiece. ANTI is easily Rihanna’s best album, and the most obvious sonic representation of her persona. While there’s still elements of her radio readiness, ANTI is a darker record with a commanding, sexual atmosphere. Vocally, Rihanna unhinges and lays perfection aside for revelation. It will likely mark a sea change in her sound and style going forward. Key Tracks: Kiss It Better, Needed Me, Love On The Brain
12. Britney Spears - Glory: It feels so satisfying including a Britney Spears record on the top albums of 2016, and arguably Britney’s best since 2005’s Blackout. With the appropriately-titled Glory, Britney hones in on what makes her brand of pop distinct. Even throughout the deluxe tracks, Glory olds steady in quality by delivering some of the best melodies Britney’s sang (and yes, she actually sings them on this one!) in over a decade.The biggest surprise is how engaged and alive Britney sounds on these songs; “Do You Wanna Come Over” is classic Brit, with a throbbing baseline, breathy vocals, and winking sexuality. It’s good to have her back. Key Tracks: Do You Wanna Come Over, Man On The Moon, Hard to Forget Ya
11. Margo Price - Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: In the tradition of of her defiant country idols like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Margo Price’s solo debut Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a confessional, richly-rooted album spotlighting the Illinois-born, Tennessee native’s many talents. She laser-focuses on solid songwriting with a pure delivery. The autobiographical “Hands of Time” has a classic melody that unfolds with its tragic telling of Margo’s own tale. Margo is unafraid to go toe-to-toe with more controversial subject matter, making her and her album a welcome change to the country scene. She’s already hard at work on a follow-up, which she says will partly focus on the current political climate. Key Tracks: Hands of Time, Tennessee Song, Hands of Time
10. Lapsley - Long Way Home: The youngest artist on the list this year has a sound that defies age, and genres. Lapsley’s rich rasp is drenched with wisdom, underscoring a distinct sadness throughout her debut, Long Way Home. “Station” sounds like stripped down stadium rock. “Love Is Blind” is a massive pop power ballad worthy of Adele. In the middle of the set, Lapsley puts on her disco pumps for “Operator (He Doesn’t Call me), an upbeat reprise from the wintery sadness of the album as a whole. Her songs become stories with different sides represented by pitched vocals and instruments that dance in and out of the song. Key Tracks: Operator (He Doesn’t Call Me), Station, Love Is Blind
09. Miranda Lambert - The Weight of These Wings: If your ex husband flaunts his new relationship across all forms of media, you can get mad, and/or get even. With her double album The Weight Of These Wings, Miranda Lambert found a third option: make the best album of your career and let it speak for itself. Divided into two halves, 'The Nerve' and 'The Heart', Miranda crafts her story with the familiar wit and charm from her previous records, but newly present is a sophistication and palpable wisdom. Although it’s an intimidating listen, repeated listens reveal new highlights. As it matures, this set could go down as a country classic. Key Tracks: Runnin’ Just In Case, Vice, Pushin’ Time, Keeper Of The Flame
08. Shura - Nothing's Real: Shura’s hushed brand of indie pop is for the introverted and introspective sides of your personality. Within her songs, she’s both the soft-spoken girl tugging at her acid wash jacket, as well as the bombastic romantic scribbling your name in her notebook. Nothing’s Real is a meticulously crafted soundscape to get lost in, with dreamy production that delicately coats sugary toplines. Opening with the storming title track, the record sounds like an artist slowly climbing back into her shell but ultimately being satisfied with the world she’s created. On the way there, the sing-in-your-hairbrush pop of “What’s It Gonna Be?” and “What Happened To Us” make you want to live there, too. Key Tracks: What’s It Gonna Be, What Happened To Us, Make It Up
07. Lady Gaga - Joanne: This isn’t Lady Gaga going country. This isn’t Lady Gaga dropping the schtick. This is Lady Gaga, as she’s been since she danced on to the scene in a leotard with a disco stick. Joanne is simply Lady Gaga’s latest expression of herself. Named after an aunt who passed away before Lady Gaga was born, Joanne is a tried-and-true pop record with career-best vocals. Best of all, shades of Lady Gaga incarnations past join the party; “John Wayne” is the barn-burning counterpart to ARTPOP’s “Mary Jane Holland.” “Dancin’ In Circles” is the sun-soaked sister of The Fame Monster’s “Alejandro.” Even if you can appreciate the nods to old work, or a conscious step toward Americana, it’s worth celebrating the record for being a snapshot of an artist who’s already lived a thousand lifetimes since arriving almost a decade ago. If anything, Joanne proves nobody can compete with Lady Gaga’s pop sensibilities. Key Tracks: Diamond Heart, John Wayne, Come to Mama
06. NAO - For All We Know: NAO’s otherworldly voice is so alien it may fool listeners as a production effect. Her debut, For All we Know, is unlike anything you’ll hear this year, or ever. Throughout the record, NAO paints gorgeous, soulful strokes with layered harmonies, dance beats, and smooth grooves. Chilled out guitars, reverberated effects, and diva theatrics make the record sound simultaneously DIY and power-produced. Melodically, NAO draws influence from artists like Janet Jackson, Brandy, and Chaka Kahn. For All We Know is a uniquely-crafted album that will appeal to listeners of all types of genres. Key Tracks: Get To Know Ya, Bad Blood, We Don’t Give A
05. JoJo - Mad Love.: JoJo’s third album is absolutely worth the decade-long wait. While it would have been nice to have an official LP released sooner, the wait brought wisdom, love, and loss that all coat this confident, empowering album. JoJo’s been out-singing her peers since before she could drive, but Mad Love. takes her craft to a new level. On songs like “FAB” and “I Can Only”, JoJo is assured and all attitude. She was smart to scrap an initial batch of songs that were less R&B-focused, a genre in which JoJo sounds most at home. Take “Honest”, a transparent takedown of double standards in a relationship. The song has a smoky atmosphere with just enough vocal acrobatics to add drama to the stillness. The flipside of the record is raw, with JoJo singing out her heart in ways almost too painful to listen. Opening track “Music” is a love letter to her passion, complete with autobiographical lyrics about the loss of her father. JoJo is fearless in all areas of her music, and this feels like the strong beginnings of an artist with much to say. Key Tracks: Music, Mad Love, Honest
04. Beyonce - Lemonade: How do you follow up a visual album? Why, with another one of course! The difference between Beyonce’s surprise self-titled album and Lemonade is the latter’s visuals tell a story. However, it’s not as black and white as a divorce story, or even a reconciliation story. Beyonce pulls the focus away from her marriage defining her, and instead explores how she exists within the relationship, and outside of it. If the focus of her self-titled album was feminism, Lemonade is an unapologetic love letter to black women. Beyonce addresses the victories, the losses, and the contradictions in a world which celebrates her fierce performances, then admonishes her for making important statements about race relations in America. Thankfully, Beyonce recognizes her position and platform. Lemonade as a political statement would be impressive enough, but the music makes the album tower above her previous efforts. Throughout its twelve tracks, Lemonade explores hip-hop, R&B, rock, pop, and even Beyonce’s first country tune in the form of “Daddy Lessons.” Then of course there’s “Freedom”, the album’s battle cry. With an assist from Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce channels her anger towards being wronged by a relationship and society into an explosive rejection of oppression. The now iconic “Formation” closes the record, setting the course for organized action in a continually volatile era of our nation’s history. Key Tracks: Sorry, Freedom, Formation
03. Maren Morris - Hero: Some voices grind you to a halt. Maren Morris has the powerful pipes to sing stadium anthems, as well as the torchy touch to quiet a room. When she exploded on to the scene last year with “My Church”, Maren clearly contrasted the bro vibes of mainstream country, and had a sound completely her own. Like previous hits from Shania Twain and Faith Hill, the songs from Maren Morris’ major label debut Hero are both pop and country radio ready. “80s Mercedes” may have country twang, but it’s instant chorus casts it as a star on any format. “I Could Use a Love Song” is destined to be the “Need You Now” of 2017, only this time the saccharine is replaced by smarter songwriting. Maren’s found favor with music critics and fans of all genres, making Hero a promising start to a career with endless potential. Key Tracks: My Church, I Could Use a Love Song, 80s Mercedes
02. Ariana Grande - Dangerous Woman: Ariana Grande’s potential has been obvious since her debut, Yours Truly, dropped in 2013. Immediately, her voice transcended her peers as an invincible instrument that continues to reach new heights. Her follow-up, My Everything, felt like a conscious bid to position Ariana as the next big pop star with its head hitmakers. With Dangerous Woman, we begin to hear who the woman is behind the voice. While the image and overall message may be disjointed, listening to Dangerous Woman illuminates Ariana Grande as confident, romantic, and bold. If My Everything was a catchy yet confused record, Dangerous Woman is undeniably hook-laden and assured of its strengths. We begin to hear a signature sound from Ariana: hard beats, dreamy production elements, and maximum melisma. Sure, you could trace that blueprint to predecessors like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, but in Ariana's capable hands, the songs on Dangerous Woman capture a millennial mindset that makes her an icon to the young women and men who follow her. Further down the tracklist, “Knew Better / Forever Boy” captures the aforementioned signature sound to recap a failed relationship and celebrate a new one.For a pop album on the longer side, the quality rarely dips. Much like some of the best pop records of the last 20 years, Dangerous Woman sounds like a collection of singles. The actual singles from the record soundtracked 2016, with the clear standout being the massive “Into You.” The Max Martin-produced banger is hook after hook, building into a showstopping bridge that erupts with its final minutes. Album closer “Thinking Of You” brings it all home. Ariana is an outspoken fan of Imogen Heap, and this song captures the twinkling serenity Imogen does well. In its last moments, the song soars into the heavens and shatters itself into stars. If she’s capable of delivering an album like Dangerous Woman this early into her career, more masterpieces certainly await. Key Tracks: Into You, Knew Better / Forever Boy, Thinking Bout You
01. Carly Rae Jepsen - EMOTION Side B: When your b-sides make year end lists, you’re onto something. After winning over critics and fans alike with the immaculate EMOTION, Carly Rae Jepsen celebrated the rollercoaster year she had with a surprise release of eight songs that weren’t ready in time for Side A. That explains why some of these songs are better than the songs that were ready. Clocking in just under 30 minutes, Side B dials up everything we loved about Side A and injects us with a concentrated dosage. For that reason, it stands on its own in addition to being a companion piece. Although EMOTION was often compared to the greats of 80s pop, like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Opener “First Time” is the closest Carly has come to capturing the neon pastiche of Madonna hits like “Lucky Star” and “Borderline” with its fizzy synths and colorful chorus. On “Higher”, the only track from both sides that Carly didn’t co-write, she takes what would be a serviceable song by anyone else and cranks up the euphoria until the song levitates. It’s proof that Carly Rae Jepsen understands pop at its purist, primal level, giving her widespread appeal. She’s dethroned Robyn as pop darling of the indie scene, and songs like the heart-wrenching “Fever” and brilliant storytelling of “Store” will keep her ruling. The best of the set is clearly “Cry,” a moody, darker song with tight songwriting With Carly beginning work on her fourth album, she’s provided two sets of pitch-perfect pop that will forever soundtrack our most memorable moments while we wait for its release in 2017. Key Tracks: Higher, Fever, Cry