ACRN’s Top 25 Albums of 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, so does another year in music. This year may not have treated all of us significantly well, however if anything is for certain, 2016’s albums will go down in history as one of the best. Our staff vigorously voted and the results are in! Here are ACRN’s top picks for 2016:

1. 22, A Million – Bon Iver

By Devon Hannan, Features Editor

Justin Vernon’s signature, mellowed out and ambient sound did a complete 180 on his first full length in over five years. 22, A Million has what all of his other albums don’t: risk, intensity, and diversification. Much like Sufjan Stevens’ 2010 release, 22, A Million is an over-the-top, masterfully crafted album packed with an eclectic variation of instrumentation and detail. Featuring samples from Fionn Regan, Sharon Van Etten, and Mahalia Jackson, Bon Iver’s album is nothing short of magical.

Bon Iver’s use of synths and voice distortion are what really make this album stand out in 2016. Vernon masterfully teamed booming percussion with an eruption of horns and synthesizer (“10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”) and delivered stomach churning falsetto combined with precise vocal distortion that only compliments absolutely beautiful songwriting (“29 #Strafford APTS”).  22, A Million is a staple of Justin Vernon’s career, marking him as not only a successful and sweet folk musician, but as an artist capable of grasping all four corners.

2. Puberty 2 – Mitski

By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director

Mitski is comparable to a lithium-infused shooting star. Once or twice a decade do we have the honor of being graced by a songwriter who can clearly articulate the angst and uncomfortableness of an entire generation with ease. The Japan-born, previous classical musician has been pumping out hauntingly true content since 2012, but Puberty 2 proves to be the magnum opus of Mitski.

Puberty 2 is a melancholy stick of dynamite. Juxtapositions of the beauty of existence and the inadequacy of modern youth, line every track of the record. Whether it be in the form of the raw “My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars,” or the more poppy, “Happy,” Mitski retains her honesty and creates a dynamic range of songs that blend together seamlessly. Under every sound lays another sound, under every word exists a latent meaning, and through it all, the self-identity search that Mitski’s discography maps out becomes a little more clear.

3. Blonde – Frank Ocean

By Jon Fuchs, Music Director

It was going to be hard for Frank Ocean to top his 2012 full-length album Channel Orange. His smooth, personal approach to R&B music was unlike anything being done at the time, thus becoming a major influencer in the approach to modern hip-hop and R&B. Especially with the extreme online hype and rumor spreading over Blonde (f.k.a. Boys Don’t Cry) throughout the past few years (and that annoying livestream on his site this summer, that ended up being his visual album, Endless), the idea of this album even coming out was filled with doubt and skepticism. But now that we have it, it couldn’t be better. This album demonstrates Ocean going fully experimental with songs all about his sexual identity, love life, drug addictions, and self-discovery. Every lyric cuts deep for anyone listening, as his journey is a story that everyone can relate to. Not only is Blonde one of the rawest albums of the year, but it’s one of the most important albums to be released this century.

4. Cardinal – Pinegrove

By Chuck Greenlee, Copy Editor

Seldom do albums that are able to clear your mind and make you enjoy the simplicity and insignificance of our lives come. Pinegrove’s Cardinal is able to do that within 30 minutes. The entire album makes you feel like you are sitting outside and alone on a breezy, cloudy day while simply enjoying how content you are. With songs about losing touch with friends and new beginnings, is able to hit home for anyone who is going through any sort of transition phase in their life. Even if you are in a stable part of your life, is able to make you appreciate that. Evan Stephens-Hall’s voice has the sort of southern twang to give this album a sort of country-indie-alt feel. Cardinal serves as a reminder to how insignificant everything is and let yourself be at peace.

5. Lemonade – Beyoncé

By Eli Schoop, Copy Editor

The black woman is the most important figure in American history. No one has been more denigrated or shamed than those who have led the iconic movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and the Underground Railroad. Beyoncé knows these facts. She specifically created art this year to mark that fact, from the aggressive pop styling of “Hold Up” to the instant classic “Formation,” that idealizes black women as the mythical figures they deserve to be. Not only a reaction towards the infidelity Mr. Carter forged against her, the roots of her ancestors ran deep through tracks like “Daddy Lessons” and “Freedom” as a tribute to the injustice and oppression faced by black women over centuries. Lemonade is a master-class of imagery, galvanizing those too long having held back emotions, from those cheated on to those marginalized. Her cult of personality stems from not just her steadfast discography and legendary performances, but because she empowers fans to exalt themselves and each other. In this regard, no one had more impact than her throughout 2016.

6. We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

By Jon Fuchs, Music Director

With the recent passing of Phife Dawg and the constant change of the sounds and perspectives of rap, an A Tribe Called Quest record in 2016 sounded absolutely ludicrous. But with the extra care that Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White put all over We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, Tribe’s first record in 18 years couldn’t have been better. The record acts as a tribute to the late Phife Dawg by keeping recorded verses of him from early recording sessions of the record, making listening to his verses all the more emotional. Featuring amazing features from classic contributors like Busta Rhymes and Consequence, to new features like Jack White, André 3000 and, Anderson .Paak, We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is the perfect way for a group of legends to say goodbye.

7. My Woman – Angel Olsen

By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director

Angel Olsen is the artist we never knew we needed but thank our lucky stars for every evening. With the wit of Joni Mitchell and the bellowing voice of Tim Buckley, she is the angel (pun intended) of heartbreak the world has been waiting for. Since her initial release in 2010, Olsen has grown not only as a songwriter, but as a poet. Every syllable has weight behind it and every line is a story in its own right. My Woman is the clear, darkly alluring next step for the folk singer, turning her into an all-around artist.

A staple in Olsen’s work is her sly mixing of sounds which stir into a storm over time. Like mantras, she repeats lines over and over, on top of already circling and bare instrumentals.  The old strings only approach is replaced by long, drawn-out synth chords and reverb. From start to finish, My Woman takes the listener to a world of its own, swirling and swirling into a desperate, dissipated climax, making it hard to find a stopping place anywhere on the album. Even the few tracks that escape Olsen’s trademark hollow voice and have a more pop feel, still manage to have a twinge of sadness and style that ties it back into the web of the album.

8. Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown

By Eli Schoop, Copy Editor

A study in madness. Case subject: Danny Brown. Location: the slums of Detroit. Symptoms: drug-induced paranoia, manic depression, psychosis, you name it. Proper diagnosis? Absolute tunes such as “Lost,” “Really Doe,” “Ain’t It Funny,” “Dance in the Water,” and other proper treatments through chronic power. Aided by frequent collaborators, Kendrick Lamar, Kelela, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, Atrocity Exhibition rips psyche in primal ways amidst mind-bending production techniques. This album features Brown showing that it’s pointless to abide by the normal ways of rap craftwork. Prior influences range from Joy Division, to George Clinton, to Muslimgauze, making him impossible to pin down and cure. These integrate throughout seamlessly, paralleling Brown’s unconventional rise in the music industry and bizarre referentialism through an uncanny life; A manifesto of the times that stems from doubt, unease, fear, regret, and lots of drugs. Side effects may include dizziness, nausea, headbanging, aggression, testosterone, and copious drug induction.

9. Bottomless Pit – Death Grips

By Eli Shively, General Manager

Death Grips followed up their most ambitious, inaccessible release yet (the two-part behemoth, The Powers That B) with a record that instantly hits the ears as, well, kind of nice-sounding. The electro-industrial freakouts and downright insane lyrical themes are still in place, but the overarching structure that holds it all together is more dance and pop-laden than ever before. It may not be the step many fans expected the group to take, but it was definitely the right one — sneakily, almost retroactively defying expectations like never before while at the same time creating their most consistent work to date.

10. A Seat at the Table – Solange

By Justin Cudahy, Contributor

Solange Knowle’s first full-length project in over eight years is more than just an album. In a country where racism is still an issue, A Seat at the Table is a response to it. Each one of the 21 tracks confront a different aspect of what it is like to be black in America today. This includes the idea of preserving culture (“Don’t Touch My Hair”), gentrification (“Where Do We Go”), and self-empowerment (“Weary”). In between several of these songs are short, yet powerful, interludes in which her parents provide commentary on their experiences growing up. A Seat at the Table is the kind of album that many have been seeking for a while now. There is no doubt that its boldness and importance will continue to serve as a symbol for people in the years to come.

11. The Life of Pablo – Kanye West

By Eli Schoop, Copy Editor

This has probably been Kanye’s worst year ever. Following the release of his album, he’s said multiple mindboggling things, cancelled tour dates, had his wife get kidnapped, and was committed to a psychiatric ward. Clearly, 2016 has been a rollercoaster of emotions for the world’s most famous 2020 presidential candidate. And yet his music is something that time and squalor cannot take from him or from us. It’s a testament to what he can contribute to the culture at large, a marvelous statement on life, death, love, “turbothots,” and everything in between. Regardless of what you think about Kanye West, his work transcends barriers, creates connections, and is hope towards a future trending as hopeless. For our sake, let us hope 2017 is more of Kanye’s year, because we need him.

12. Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director

Chicago-raised Chance the Rapper had the weight of the world on his shoulders after his 2013 breakthrough mixtape, Acid Rap. Overnight crowds of fans were craving more of Chance’s yelps, gospel samples and bars about his grandmother. For some artists, the pressure of standing out in such a popular genre at such a young age would be enough to crack them, but if Chance has shown us anything, it’s that he is not like other rappers.

In an age of nihilistic artists like 21 Savage and Danny Brown, Coloring Book brought a much needed shine into hip-hop. The mixtape is extremely colorful, utilizing not only Chance’s upbeat selection of backing tracks and skipping cadence, but also bringing in help from a huge cast of characters: Kanye West, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Future, Saba, Justin Bieber, T-Pain, Anderson .Paak, and many more. Coloring Book feels less like an album and more like an inviting Chicago street session featuring the best artists in the game.

13. The Birds Outside Sang – Florist

By Devon Hannan, Features Editor

What may be the saddest album of 2016, Florist’s The Birds Outside Sang takes listeners on a journey from love and desperation to death and desolation. Emily Sprague’s tales hit emotional heartstrings with a delicate force, each lined with frail details about personal experiences. While this album is packed with bona fide ingenuity, if you can sit through it without wiping away a tear, you’re either not being honest with yourself, or not really listening.

Tracks such as “1914,” “I Was,” and “Only A Prayer Nothing More,” are key elements to this album that demonstrate the bands excessive push and pull. The vagueness of “1914,” leaves the listener with a sense of absolute nothingness while “I Was” lifts spirits with a sense of hope and change, without losing density.

14. Blackstar – David Bowie

By Justin Cudahy, Contributor

David Bowie’s sudden death in the beginning of 2016 completely shook the world and nearly a year later, it is still hard to accept. Two days before his passing, Blackstar, his 25th studio album was released, which serves as his “swan song” for listeners. The album incorporates several different genres, including jazz, folk-pop, and experimental rock, which all come together to create a unique and relaxing vibe that maintains throughout. Tracks such as “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” are some of Bowie’s best songs in recent years, proving to us that nearly 50 years later, The Thin White Duke never lost his touch.

The legacy that David Bowie has left behind is almost impossible to fit into a few sentences. His influence in this world is insurmountable. From his music all the way to his numerous iconic personas, Ziggy Stardust is certainly going to be missed.

15. Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

By Tanner Bidish, Contributor

Teens of Denial showcases Car Seat Headrest at their most polished. The album marks the first time the project’s progenitor, Will Toledo, takes on a full band and records in-studio. Stepping out of the realm of bedroom DIY, and into the world of fleshed-out rock arrangements, suits Toledo’s songwriting perfectly. The album follows a semi-fictional alter ego, “Joe,” through teenage turmoil as simple as one too many beers and as complicated as clinical depression. Articulated by Toledo’s witty and prolific lyricism, no song feels dulls or overplayed. This is without a doubt the most sonically impressive record in the vastness of Car Seat Headrest’s discography, making it a must listen for 2016.

16. Next Thing – Frankie Cosmos

By Alexander Sherry, Contributor

Frankie Cosmos’ Next Thing further improved on the poetic lyric-centric style of songwriting we have grown accustomed to from Greta Kline. Next Thing is extremely relatable as it highlights the imperfections and anxieties we face on a daily basis. Every track on this record is worth listening to. Each one features a different emotion, making it hard to find a more genuine album released this year. The simplistic nature of the instrumentals is the perfect complement to the mood Kline creates with her lyrics and vocals. For lonely introspective nights, look no further than Frankie Cosmos’ Next Thing.

17. untitled unmastered. – Kendrick Lamar

By Justin Cudahy, Contributor

In March of this year, Kendrick Lamar surprised everyone with the release of untitled unmastered., a compilation album consisting of eight unreleased demos from as early as 2013. It is here that we see what may be Lamar at his most creative. Different genres are fused together, including soul, free jazz, and funk as well as various demo takes from artists such as CeeLo Green and SZA to bring several different themes to light. Such topics include modern day discrimination, war, education, and self-identity, making this album more than just a collection of songs that were dug-up. Each track is vastly unique from one another, whether it’s simply two minutes of feeble whispers and guitar, (“untitled 04 | 08.14.2014.”) or an eight-minute piece that includes a four-minute stretch of nothing but hiss and dialogue from a studio session, (“untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016”), untitled unmastered. is nothing short of a great album.

18. The Dream Is Over – PUP

By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director

There’s a certain charm about a punk band that has mastered the art of “oohing” and “aahing,” while managing to still make you want to smash a 40 on your head. Toronto-based PUP has yet to release a song that doesn’t seem to impress the hell out of anyone in the industry. And The Dream Is Over is an extension of an already impressive track record.

Instrumentally and lyrically, there are few differences between the band’s self-titled debut and The Dream Is Over, but therein lies the charm. PUP has figured out the equation that bands within the genre have been searching for the last five years: genuine, basement fun and anguish. The bright riffs and Stefan Babcock’s whiny vocals on top of the punchy, garage- drum tones provide the perfect sound to raise a light beer to.

19. Return to Love – LVL UP

By Tanner Bidish, Contributor

LVL UP has moved from Dave Benton and Mike Caridi’s basement to releasing their first record on a major label. The Sub-Pop debut is a return to lo-fi blitzing guitars, but the song writing on Return to Love drifts a bit more existential than before. “But I still think of god in the same way / As the moment in my dreams when I’m fading away,” insinuates explorative pondering in the opening track, “Hidden Driver”. Wistful yet pointed, LVL UP manages to get their ideas of god, love, and pain across in a tight record that hits major emotional cords. It’s a step up in maturity for them and strong follow up to the acclaimed Hoodwink’d.

20. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

By Carly Preston, Staff Writer

Blood Orange’s third studio album, marked a smooth, yet resilient sound in the middle of 2016. The U. K. singer, Dev Hynes, has been performing under the name Blood Orange since 2009. This project experiments with mainly R&B and electronica when compared to his earlier punk-rock project, Lightspeed Champion.

Freetown Sound is what Hynes is feeling in regards to himself, his sex, gender, and race. The album uses personal narrative to juxtapose institutional problems. It is an ode to black culture and adversity in 2016. Throughout, Hynes uses spoken word, vocal clips, and narrative to show this.

Freetown Sound easily qualifies as not only one of the best R&B records of 2016, but strongest records of the decade. It has solidified Blood Orange as both a voice in popular music and in the political sphere. Freetown Sound speaks to what 2016 was, for not only Dev Hynes, but many other marginalized people.

21. Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino

By Jon Fuchs, Music Director

Childish Gambino has always been a pretty divisive rapper. The Hollywood everyman, Donald Glover, has gained a huge fan base for his music, but critics have been pretty mixed towards his past two records Camp and Because the Internet, which have been considered messy and lyrically underwhelming by many. On Awaken, My Love!, Glover completely ditches his rap flows for an alternative R&B and psychedelic soul sound, going for a different approach from his other material. The overall atmosphere of the record is truly unique from the rest of Gambino’s discography and anything put out this year, with Glover’s vocals being completely unrecognizable, and its delicate, beautiful sampling covering the record. Awaken, My Love! is Childish Gambino’s most ambitious project yet, hopefully hinting at more of this sound from him in the future.

22. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

By Alexander Sherry, Contributor

Radiohead is nothing short of prolific. Their newest release, A Moon Shaped Pool, further cements their legacy as one of the greatest indie artists of all time. Radiohead is a trend setter. Every album they release define the indie music scene while inspiring new and existing artists to follow in their footsteps. A Moon Shaped Pool is this year’s defining album. Every Radiohead release feels momentous and this one is no different. The dark, cinematic, and serious tone of the album shines through in each track, allowing the listener to space out and escape into this masterfully crafted world. A Moon Shaped Pool will be talked about for decades to come showing the importance and impact this release had on the indie scene.

23. Telefone – Noname

By Jon Fuchs, Music Director

Telefone, the debut mixtape from poet and rapper Noname, stands out from any other record released this year. The production of the record aims for a sound very similar to the styles of classic Chicago hip-hop, but somehow feels comforting and familiar to anyone, especially with its very bright and colorful sound. That, mixed with Noname’s rich voice and strong word choice and detail, make Telefone addicting. The way she tackles controversial subject matter all over the record, from personifying abortion on “Bye Bye Baby,” to showing the beauty of grief on tracks like “Casket Pretty” and “Shadow Man,” feels like something never done before. Telefone is without a doubt one of the most underrated albums of the year, yet hopefully it shows the world that Noname is one of the best poets of our time.

24. Holo Pleasures / California Dreamin’ – Elvis Depressedly

By Sam Tornow, Editorial Director

Our society is laughably nostalgic over times we weren’t around for: old-colorful commercials, imagined chivalry of the ‘20s, and San Francisco in the ‘60s. It’s no wonder why lo-fi recording techniques have become so popular. Ironically, the lo-fi emo movement, which gained its popularity from a feeling of authenticity, has become wildly oversaturated, poorly executed and inauthentic. Luckily for us, we have Elvis Depressedly to help push back the scourge of shallow, money-grubbing lo-fi.

Holo Pleasures / California’ Dreamin’ combines previous releases, Holo Pleasures and California Dreamin’ into one fuzzy album. Blending guitar chords and muffled snares build a gentle wall of sound that surrounds the perimeter of the entire album. The moany, oddly optimistic vocals are nothing to write home about, but they present the sincerity similar to your best friend playing some shitty new song for you in his bedroom after school. Undeniably, there’s a comfort in the fog of poor production, and Holo Pleasures/California Dreamin’ is a freshly beaten mattress.

25. Beyond The Fleeting Gales – Crying

By Tanner Bidish, Contributor

“It’s like upgrading from the Gameboy Color to the 3DS,” a friend told me whilst describing the reworking of Crying’s sound on Beyond the Fleeting Gales. The chip-tune punk band has polished itself out for a refined synth-rock sheen. Stellar guitar work keeps this record overflowing with energy. The colorful freshness that Crying brings to the table is atypical of their label, Run For Cover, and that only adds to how fun it is. Crying’s new sound is mature and lays an exciting foundation for later work.

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