You’ve already seen our year-end list for songs (and hopefully subscribed to one of our playlists). Here’s our choice list of the best albums from the past year. The list is organized by release date, though we may not have listened to them immediately when they came out.
Previously, we based our best of 2016 list on material released between Thanksgiving 2015 and Thanksgiving 2016. This year, however, we’re basing our list off of works eligible to be nominated for the 2018 Grammys (with no repeats from our previous list).
Note: We compiled this list before the 60th Grammy nominations were announced, so there is no real reflection of that impacting this list. Several of the nominees can be found here.
Late Nights & Heartbreak — Hannah Williams & The Affirmations (November 11, 2016)
Brandon — It may have taken JAY-Z and No I.D. to get me to hear this project, but I am extremely grateful that I did. I was even more surprised that it had come out just seven months before JAY’s most mature, personal project to date. Late Nights & Heartbreak is a stunning display of soul, jazz, and R&B. UK-based indie singer Hannah Williams brings a vocal magic to every piece, including the titular track where she masterfully hits some of the highest notes I’ve ever heard in contemporary music.
“Awaken, My Love!” — Childish Gambino (December 2, 2016)
Chris — When Donald Glover wants to take you on a journey, he isn’t going to half ass it. If it isn’t clear from anything he’s done over the past year, then you’ve blinded yourself from the truth. “Awaken, My Love!” is a clear musical shift for the Georgia-native multihyphenate, but he works magic and pours in emotion on each and every track, especially the ever-popular “Redbone”, which was everywhere after it dropped.
Brandon — I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Donald Glover had a phenomenal year, from being cast in Solo: A Star Wars Story to the success of his critically acclaimed TV series Atlanta on FX. “Awaken, My Love!” continued that trend. A breath of fresh air, Glover returned to his Gambino persona for a surprisingly fantastic funk lesson that arguably rivaled recent projects like Black MessiahandG I R L.
The Hamilton Mixtape — Various Artists (December 2, 2016)
Brandon — I had a strained relationship with Hamilton until about a year ago (that’s a discussion for another time). That being said, the Mixtape had some hits and some misses. Some of said misses were rooted in lackluster performances from artists like Ja Rule, Ashanti, and Alicia Keys while other production choices simply drowned out the magic of the original songs. Still, there is more good than bad, with some solid performances — especially from the rap tracks. “My Shot (Rise Up Remix),” “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done),” and “Wrote My Way Out” are all stand out tracks.
4 Your Eyez Only — J. Cole (December 9, 2016)
Brandon — “How long can I survive with this mentality?” Jermaine Cole laments on “Ville Mentality.” I’ll admit that, at first, I did not fully appreciate this project. I was a huge fan of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and this follow-up seemed underwhelming at best. But after repeat listens, the concept of the album made me truly understand what Cole was doing. 4 Your Eyez Only, in many ways, carried on the production quality of its predecessor. But where Forest Hills Drive may have been insular at times, 4 Your Eyez Only told a powerful story of someone trying to make it in America, and the lasting effects of losing a parent.
Culture — Migos (January 27, 2017)
Chris — If I told you to play me a song from this album, and you played “Bad and Boujee”, then I knew you didn’t listen. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, Migos is one of the year’s biggest comebacks and this album is both a victory lap and a reintroduction, after their Yung Rich Nation, landed with a thud. With hits like “Slippery” and “T-Shirt”, the wordplay and hubris on tracks like “Kelly Price” and “Brown Paper Bag”, all with the backing of producers like Zaytoven & Metro Boomin, Migos going platinum was destined.
American Teen — Khalid (March 3, 2017)
Brandon — Khalid snuck up on me like Solid Snake and Sam Fisher at the same damn time. I caught onto him later in the year, but couldn’t put down his album once I started listening to it. What’s more, his lead single was co-produced by Tunji Ige — one of my favorite up-and-coming producers. With songs like “Winter,” “Saved,” and “Therapy,” American Teen perfectly reflects its namesake, telling stories of today’s teenagers as they experience love and emotion in a digital age and more.
All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ — Joey Bada$$ (April 7, 2017)
Chris — Joey Bada$$ clearly isn’t down with the system at large and how the world around him looks. He’s a 22 year old black man from NYC, conscious of the world around him and how it views him. That’s always been clear, from his early work like 1999. He doesn’t quiet down his social or political conscious, actually he gets louder on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. He’s both impressive with his wordplay and his flow as he is with making inspirational points and seeking the answers for what ails society.
Brandon — Joey Bada$$ has been on my radar from the moment I first heard “Waves” and 1999 back in 2012. Five years later, All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ was the album I’d been waiting for from the Brooklyn MC. AABA has Joey in top form, mixing the social commentary and confident, slick rhyming that made him famous with contemporary melodies and production quality.
DAMN. — Kendrick Lamar (April 14, 2017)
Chris — Before we go any further, one thing — the Grammys are dumb and racist. If Kendrick doesn’t win, it just keeps that going. Somehow, the same man who gave us good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly, figured he could make a better album. You’d think that, as someone who’s been around since the early 2010s, he’d slow down, that his quality would drop a little, but Mr. Lamar isn’t like that. He consistently keeps working to make sure his sound is still big and his rhymes stay forever sharp, ready for any challengers that may come for the Compton-native’s head.
Brandon — Listen, y’all: If you really thought I’d write a glowing review of this album and leave it off the list, you played yourself. Kendrick Lamar managed to balance the hard-hitting rhymes of Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city with the production style and melodies of To Pimp A Butterfly, all while adding in new elements to his repertoire. Like both of its predecessors, DAMN. is a likely contender for Album of the Year. And with both Drake and Taylor Swift out of the running, Kung-Fu Kenny has a very good shot.
Ctrl — SZA (June 9, 2017)
Chris — The singer-songwriter is going to be around for a long time, with a debut like Ctrl. She’s self-reflective on tracks like “Drew Barrymore”, contemplating her self worth and insecurities. On “20 Something”, the soulful singer reflects on her 20s and where she is in her life. Through the entire album, Sza takes you on a journey of self discovery, on multiple planes, not just of love for another but how to love yourself, as well.
Brandon — SZA blew my mind with this album. She shines from start (“Supermodel”) to finish (“20 Something”), with stunning vocal performances and down-to-earth lyrics on love, sex, relationships and all the areas in between. She explores herself through break-ups and flings with her exes. Songs like “Love Galore,” “Drew Barrymore,” and “Pretty Little Birds” show off her vocal range while “Doves in the Wind” made a serious case for her as singer-rapper hybrid. The TDE production complements her skills extremely well. Shame those concert tickets sold out when she was in town, but she’ll hopefully be around for years to come.
Big Fish Theory — Vince Staples (June 23,2017)
Chris — Vince Staples is way ahead of his peers. Not because he is “woke” or just wildly intelligent, but because he’s way more honest than the average rapper. And he’s not average at all. All throughout Big Fish Theory, Staples has made a conscious decision to be dark and menacing. In accord, he fully explores a variety of emotions and takes you on a journey through the album, from start to finish.
4:44 — JAY-Z (June 30, 2017)
Brandon — No I.D. made JAY-Z get personal, forcing his confession to Beyoncé; that’s a feat in and of itself. But 4:44 is more than just Hov’s admission to infidelity. He’s discussing family, fatherhood, Black economic independence, and much more socially conscious material than he has in years. He celebrated his mother coming out as lesbian (“Smile”). He apologized for cheating on his wife (“4:44”), then featured her on the very next track of the album (“Family Feud”). What’s more, No I.D. laced the entire album with vocal samples of some of the most powerful female voices of all time, from Nina Simone (“The Story of O.J.”) to Lauryn Hill (“Moonlight”) to Sister Nancy (“Bam”). Is JAY joining the ranks of Nas and making a case for adult contemporary hip-hop? Maybe. As long as he remembers his own advice: “Nobody wins when the family feuds.”
Chris — Listen, JAY-Z is 47. He’s a father of 3, a husband whose wife publicly outed their normally private life, and a known business man, as well as a business, man. However, here we are again and Shawn Carter has brought forth another album. This time, it’s less about getting rich, since he already is. This time he’s focused on his own place in the world, as a black man, a father, and what it all means. It’s weird that after a couple decades in the game, Carter has chosen to let us in, giving us an idea of his family dynamics and world view, but here we are bouncing our heads to “The Story of O.J.”. I’m not mad at it — just really happy the shit is good.
Funky Wav Bounces Vol. 1 — Calvin Harris (June 30, 2017)
Brandon — If you told me a year ago that I’d soon be jamming out to Calvin Harris as if he were the next DJ Khaled, you would’ve gotten some mad side eye. Then, “Slide” came out, putting Frank Ocean on the same track as Quavo and Offset of the Migos and peaking my interest. “Heatstroke” nearly sealed the deal, and when the album finally came out I had to listen. With guest appearances from Kehlani, Khalid, Katy Perry, and more, Funky Wav Bounces is one of the most fun albums I’ve listened to in years. It was the perfect summer album for me.
Chris — It’s weird that this isn’t trash. Sure, Calvin Harris has good music in his discography — the Scottish DJ has worked with Kelis, so there’s definitely quality in his catalog. At the same time, he’s not the pace setter in EDM or even pop music. That’s what makes Funky Wav Bounces Vol. 1 different from his previous work — it’s way more relaxed of an album than what he’s made before, combining a summer flavor all-over from tracks like “Slide” and “Rollin”, while working with the who’s who of everyone on the radio these days. It’s fun, upbeat, and makes you constantly want to dance, without hating yourself.
Tell Me You Love Me — Demi Lovato (September 29, 2017)
Chris — I’m not a Demi Lovato fan. Never really loved or liked her previous work, mainly because it all sounded the same. This project is different. There’s an honesty and bravado that she really works through, throughout the entire album. Lovato finds a swagger, which I honestly never knew the former Disney pop princess had. It’s refreshing that she keeps trying to reinvent herself over these years, not to keep up like some people, but to actually find herself.