2016 has been a year to forget, but if anything has been a bright spot in these 12 dismal months it has been the music. Being the group of qualified music critics we are, your 20 Watts staff has selected the albums we thought rose above the rest. Without further delay, here are our selections for Album of the Year.
Joe Bloss, web editor
AOTY: Cardinal by Pinegrove
Favorite track: Aphasia
I started listening to Pinegrove right around the time they came through Syracuse for a gig at the famed Scarier Dome (RIP). And then, very regrettably, I wasn’t able to make it out that night to see the show. So I tried to remedy my error by listening Pinegrove’s gem of a debut album Cardinal as often as possible. It’s just eight songs, but five of them are some of my favorite songs of 2016 — and the remaining three are certainly above average. Some label it as emo with an americana twinge, and I suppose that’s fair. Whatever it is, Cardinal essentially became the soundtrack of my summer. I saw Pinegrove three times and each time I left with more love for songs like “Aphasia” and “New Friends.” Frontman Evan Stephens Hall writes tunes that ooze relatability and sincerity, all the while retaining a catchiness that keeps them in your head for hours. For this reason, Cardinal is my choice for 2016’s AOTY.
Rachel Kline, photo editor
AOTY: 25 by Adele
Favorite Track: Water Under The Bridge
I believe this year’s Album of the Year” is a no-brainer with Adele’s release of 25. The third installation in the artist’s numbered albums reminds audiences that while Adele’s style and lyrics may have matured (it’s been at nine years since the release of 19) her vision and voice remains steadfast and unwavering. Every song is clearly composed and beautifully written, giving audiences an even deeper look at who the artist is and what she is capable of. While other strong artists like Beyonce work to keep their top status, Adele proves that well-written lyrics and powerhouse vocals is still what listeners want most.
Kyle Driscoll, front of book editor
AOTY: 22, A Million by Bon Iver
Favorite Track: “33” GOD
Shoutout to Mikey “Bagel Lord” Light for this one, as I probably never would’ve listened to this album if not for his glowing praise of it. Before 2016, I was more of a Justin-Vernon-Kanye-feature guy than a Bon Iver guy. But 22, A Million‘s ten bizarrely-titled tracks have converted me. This is undoubtedly the best collection of songs I have heard this year. Contrary to earlier folk guitar-heavy Bon Iver records, frontman Vernon’s voice is the instrument that brings this one to life. His melancholic melodies get muffled, deepened, run through a vocoder and overdubbed repeatedly until they create the most harmonic, sweet sound of the year. In a year full of craziness, the wonderful weirdness of 22, A Million made everything feel kind of sane.
Hannah Malach, assistant web editor
AOTY: Anti by Rihanna
Favorite track: Yeah, I Said It
Out of all the albums I’ve listened to this year, Anti is the one I keep finding myself coming back to. It’s got a little bit of everything, from solid pregame bops “Work” and “Pose” to RiRi’s first classic R&B-style ballad “Love on the Brain.” I also appreciated her rendition of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” since Currents was easily my favorite album of last year. Rihanna has truly come into her own with Anti, and I feel that it’s her first album with songs you can — and should — listen to outside of a frat party or your cousin’s bat-mitzvah.
Jackie Frere, features editor
AOTY: 25 by Adele
Favorite track: Send My Love (To Your New Lover)
I didn’t have too many favorite albums this year, or singles for that matter. There wasn’t even a song of the summer — what’s up with that? But anyways, Chance, Bon Iver and Adele all stood out to me because they wrote their albums themselves (or mostly themselves) and to me, that makes an album more meaningful to that artist and their fans. So my album of the year goes to Adele’s 25. “Hello” was clearly the standout hit and her comeback single, but gems like “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” and “When We Were Young” are classic Adele. She hits her high notes flawlessly, swings low occasionally and throws emotion into every word. She wrote 25 about her last ex (with one song about her son) and any gal or guy can probably relate to that, which is pretty cool in my opinion. To me a great album is more than about sounding good — it’s gotta mean something to someone. And this is a great album. Also, she sold out 107 shows in the U.S. alone. If that’s not impressive, then I don’t know what is.
Raven Berzal, marketing director
AOTY: Views by Drake
Favorite Track: Child’s Play
Say what you want, but Views is the best album of the year and Drake absolutely killed it. The build up to his fourth studio album was real and its release did not disappoint. In my opinion, a great album is an artistic masterpiece that is to be consumed sequentially and as a whole. Singles are released to be radio hits and to generate the real profit. Albums are for artistry and expression. For this reason, not every song on an album has to be (nor should be) a banger. Views encompasses this concept more than any other 2016 album release I can think of. From your more classic Drake raps like “Views” and “Weston Road Flows” to hip-hop bangers like “Grammys” and “Hype” to your experimental reggaeton-inspired mega-hits like “Too Good” and “One Dance,” Views does it all, does it in that unfathomably dope way that makes Drake Drake, and does it the best. Don’t sleep on Views just because it’s Views, ladies and gents.
Jeddy Johnson, assistant features editor
AOTY: The Divine Feminine by Mac Miller
Favorite track: Dang! (feat. Anderson .Paak)
The Divine Feminine is unlike any album Mac Miller has previously released. Straying away from his frat rapper persona, Miller fully embraces his sobriety as well as his love with Ariana Grande. Miller raps about love throughout the album while remaining true to him himself. Miller received lots of backlash from listeners because he was not rapping about drugs or being high like he usually does, but if you sit back and choose to listen and fully embrace the album, you will realize that the album is authentically Mac Miller, just a Miller who happens to be in love. His lyrics show new levels of maturity, but also reveal the “old Mac” his fans know and love. Lyrically, Miller was not his word-playing and metaphorical self, but the musical production makes up for it. Miller’s jazz-infused instrumentals create a feel-good vibe present throughout the entire album. His vocals take a backseat to the melodies of the piano keys, violins, drums, electric guitars, trumpets and saxophones that create a funkadelic groove. From start to finish, Miller’s album remained consistent in theme, yet every song has a sense of individuality. Each song features a main instrument and it drives the mood of the song. It’s obvious that Miller wants his audience to be set in a place and time; he wants them to feel and embrace the beauty of love and he does a good job in doing that. To me, a good album is one that is cohesive, thematic, and doesn’t make me want to press skip. And this year, The Divine Feminine lived up to that definition.
Carolyn Saxton, managing editor
AOTY: Light We Made by Balance and Composure
Favorite Track: For A Walk
I listened to a lot of new music this year, 2016 releases and not, but the one album I found myself returning to over and over again was Light We Made. Balance and Composure’s third studio album is a departure from their previous releases, to put it lightly, and for that reason Light We Made has received some pretty harsh criticism from fans. While I totally understand that side of the coin — Balance and Composure using drum kits?! — I think the band took a brave creative leap and stuck the landing beautifully. It’s apparent from the first second of opening track “Midnight Zone” that this album is unlike 2011’s Separation and 2013’s The Things We Think We’re Missing with artificial instrumentation present from the get-go. Drum-kits, synths, and various electronic sounds populate the album and make it what it is — whether you like it or not (I happen to dig it). The emo post-hardcore sound that Balance and Composure is known and loved for is not lost. Despite experimenting with new forms of instrumentation and considerably less yelling vocals from frontman Jon Simmons, the album is moody and dusky. Tracks like “Spinning” and the closer “Loam” are more reminiscent of past works, accenting the exciting new direction the band has taken with album highlights like “Postcard.” Whether you agree with my deep love for Light We Made or not, you have to hand it to the guys in Balance and Composure for staying true to their creative needs and diving into a different realm of possibility for their music.
Mikey Light, editor in chief
AOTY: 22, A Million by Bon Iver
Favorite track: 8 (circle)
I have to say that I go back to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million more than any other album of this year, so that would make it my album of the year. In a year that gave us some pretty great music, Justin Vernon’s most recent work stands head and shoulders above everything else. I first heard a live version of “8 (circle)” on Soundcloud about three weeks before the album came out, and was immediately hooked. For weeks on end I listened to that low-quality bootleg on repeat, and when the project finally dropped it seemed like my entire life revolved around it for weeks. 22, A Million is the Yeezus of Bon Iver. It’s experimental, weird and at times abrasive in just the right ways. But it’s not for everyone. It is by nature esoteric, much more so than any of Vernon’s prior works, and will likely be eclipsed by Bon Iver and For Emma, Forever Ago in the annals of music history. That, however, doesn’t make it any less special to me.