Jake and Michael’s Top 10 Albums of 2016

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With the year quickly coming to a close, we here at the Jet Fuel Review Blog have been hard at work crafting some year round-up lists for both your enjoyment and contemplation! Just in these past few weeks, Jake and I updated the Jukebox playlist with our least favorite and most favorite tracks of 2016, and fellow music blogger Dan Fiorio has recently written a two-part series on his 25 favorite albums of the past year (Part 1; Part 2). Now, it’s time for Jake and I to reveal to you our respective top ten album lists.

Jake2016…honestly, such a bad year in terms of, well, everything. Actually, music was probably the only redeeming factor in what was otherwise a bleak year. Especially as an avid fan of pop music, 2016 delivered some of the most consistent works in nearly a decade. When it came down to narrowing over 20 albums to just ten, it felt wrong — but here I am. And with nine of the ten albums being from female artists, it seems that women just got pop music right this year. Also, keep in mind that this list has changed about five times within the past week, so this is an ever-changing list. But for the purposes of this post, this is my definitive top ten albums of 2016…as of December 16.

Michael: Whether it’s groundbreaking and experimental, simply a lot of fun, a music legend’s harrowing farewell, or a new artist’s welcoming debut, there were dozens of albums I genuinely loved from this year. Many of the albums I adored this year came from either first-time artists or those I’d never heard of before, making 2016 an exciting year of musical discovery for me. I went back and forth on many of these albums, but I feel good about the list I’ve ended up with. Let’s celebrate the music of 2016, because let’s be honest, there wasn’t much else this year to be excited about. (Also, shout-out to Jake for making that awesome header image at the top of this post!)

Before we present you with our actual lists, we will begin with a quick list honoring the albums that were oh-so close to breaking into the top tens. The lists will be in order from number ten to number one, beginning with Jake’s number ten, then my number ten, then Jake’s number nine, and so on and so forth.

Honorable Mentions:

Jake’s Picks:

Michael’s Picks:

And so, let us begin with:

Jake’s #10 Album: Birdy – Beautiful Lies

Age is nothing but a number to Birdy, who turned 20 this year. On her third studio album, Beautiful Lies, the English musician grows more into her own on what is easily her most solid effort to date. Her vocals are raw, revealing the emotions found in the stories she sings. Beautiful Lies is a simple, yet effective coming-of-age album that allows Birdy to slowly show her vulnerability. This defenseless strength shines on the shimmery first single “Keeping Your Head Up,” as well as the opening track, “Growing Pains,” which tells the listener that she is a force to be reckoned with. If Beautiful Lies is a gauge of Birdy’s potential promise, then she will only be getting stronger in the future.

Michael’s #10 Album: American Wrestlers – Goodbye Terrible Youth

Distorted guitar leads and lo-fi sensibilities clash with the jangle pop of this infectious sophomore release from indie rock band American Wrestlers. Goodbye Terrible Youth lives up to its title, speaking to themes of youth — just not in the ways we’re expectant of in our nostalgia-heavy culture. The “Terrible Youth” of the album’s title is brought up throughout, as songwriter and American Wrestlers founder Gary McClure reflects on his regretful, younger self. With its wholly enjoyable nine tracks and brisk 31-minute runtime, Goodbye Terrible Youth has been an album I’ve regularly found myself listening through in its entirety only to restart it as soon as I’m done. Say goodbye to your terrible youth, and say hello to American Wrestlers.

Jake’s #9 Album: Tove Lo – Lady Wood

Honestly, Tove Lo’s latest, Lady Wood, is such a strange, yet liberating concept for an album (and especially album title). Lady Wood builds upon the sensuality the singer established with her 2015 single “Talking Body,” only this time things get more personal. What sets Tove Lo apart from her peers is that she finds her strength in her darkest and least-sober moments, as she sings in “Influence,” the album’s opening track. “You know I’m under the influence, so don’t trust any word I say.” It’s self-deprecating and vulnerable — everything that makes the Swedish singer great. As the album progresses, the confident and playful persona seen in the single “Cool Girl” transitions into a much more real, lingering version of the singer, seen in album highlight “Flashes.” While it may not pack as much of the punch her first record, Queen of the Clouds, did, Lady Wood still holds up as one of the year’s strongest records.

Michael’s #9 Album: Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

Musically, 2016 never stopped surprising me, and this latecomer to my list is perhaps the most perplexing addition of all. I had never really had a concrete opinion on Bruno Mars before 24K Magic, although I’ve previously enjoyed a number of his singles here and there and thought he had quite the phenomenal Super Bowl performance that one year. But still, I never could have imagined I would have fallen so in love with one of his albums. Yet here I am with Mars’ latest release, 24K Magic, sitting comfortably in my top ten albums of the year. From the initial moments on album opener “24K Magic,” to the finale crescendo of synths on closer “Too Good To Say Goodbye,” 24K Magic is an absolute spectacle and easily one of the most pleasurable listens of the past 365. Mars cherry-picks his favorite R&B sounds throughout the decades for 24K Magic, displaying a versatility I’d not expected from him. He transports us back to the 70s with the James Brown-influenced “Perm,” before sending us a couple decades forward with the made-for-love-making 90s contemporary R&B found on “Versace On The Floor.” Each track here is Top 40 gold — 24K gold, if you will.

Jake’s #8 Album: Sia – This Is Acting

On the surface, This Is Acting may not seem much different than Sia’s previous effort, 1000 Forms of Fear. However, her personal lyricism is instead opted out for imitation, or “acting.” The album is comprised of songs that she wrote for other artists and were later rejected. The concept is interesting on its own, but the execution is far more cohesive and better than imagined. This Is Acting adds to Sia’s enigmatic persona even more than a wig could, as she puts on different faces in each one of the tracks. Besides the obvious Adele co-write credit on first single “Alive,” songs such as the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Shakira! “Move Your Body,” or the Rihanna-inspired, inescapable smash “Cheap Thrills” (not the Sean Paul remix; I don’t know that song) show how well the Australian singer is able to emulate others. Though, while still being adaptable, Sia remains herself first and foremost — which is the best part about it all.

Michael’s #8 Album: Kaytranada – 99.9%

99.9% stands at an hour long over the course of 15 tracks, being a completely versatile debut LP from Canadian DJ/producer Kaytranada. Simply put, it’s incredible. Hosting a party over the holidays? Just throw 99.9% on repeat, cause every track is a funky, electro-hip-hop banger. Most people will be at a loss as to what/who they’re hearing, but they’ll no doubt love it. Kaytranada displays his vast skill set here, dishing out danceable, booming instrumental tracks like “Track Uno” and “Breakdance Lesson N.1” with ease. But the real highlights of the album come in the form of several collaborations with his various guest vocalists, including Little Dragon on the track “Bullets” and Anderson Paak on “Glowed Up.” You’ve been sleeping on Kaytranada. It’s time to wake up.

Jake’s #7 Album: Banks – The Altar

“I fuck with myself more than anybody else.” This is the chorus from The Altar‘s premiere single, “Fuck With Myself.” The lyrics make a statement so bold, and also so complex — that, in simpler terms, is The Altar. On Banks’ sophomore album, the singer-songwriter overcomes a toxic relationship, and instead of going down the typical breakup-record route, she chooses to find her true self buried deep within the pain. While “Gemini Feed” and “Trainwreck” give a brief glimpse into the hurt Banks is dealing with, tracks such as “Mother Nature” and “Weaker Girl” show the singer coming to terms with who she is. And the turmoil has a big payoff, as The Altar is easily the strongest work Jillian Banks has put out to date. The production is fresh, and every lyric lands the mark with precision. It’s clear that Banks has figured out her sound, allowing her to build upon her 2014 debut, Goddess. And if it’s because she fucks with herself more than anybody else, so be it.

Michael’s #7 Album: Mitski – Puberty 2

It’s hard to not be immediately struck by the compelling voice of Mitski Miyawaki. It’s a stunning voice that croons over 11 tracks, telling a young-adulthood coming-of-age story whose themes lie in depression, relationships, and even cocaine. Each of Puberty 2‘s tracks sound unique from one another, and yet fit so well together. If you were to swap sexes on album highlight “Your Best American Girl,” you’d have what sounds like the best song that 90s Weezer never wrote. Mitski does her best St. Vincent impression on the eerily beautiful “Crack Baby.” And “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” rages with its noisy, lo-fi barrier of sound. Puberty wasn’t a great time, but Puberty 2 definitely is.

Jake’s #6 Album: The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

The last thing I want to do is reiterate just why this album is so good, as I already have written about it twice (see: here and here). So, instead, I’m going to touch upon how great this album translates to live performance. After seeing them just a few weeks ago, I was left astonished how self-aware this band is. The 1975’s angle is clear and simple — they just love music. Songs such as “Paris” were able to be brought to another light, with lead singer Matty Healy’s vocals being serene and heartfelt. I like it when you sleep comfortably dances on the fine line that many acts try to walk between pop and alternative sounds. Not only does the band try to incorporate as many 80s-inspired synths and melodies as is possible, but also want to make sure you feel every word they sing. While the lyrics can be quite nonsensical and self-indulgent, I think both casual listeners and the fans that saw them live on November 13 can agree — we understand every word.

Michael’s #6 Album: Local Natives – Sunlit Youth

Local Natives have made quite a name for themselves in the indie scene since the turn of the decade, with strong output in both their 2010 debut album, Gorilla Manor, as well as their 2013 follow-up, Hummingbird. For their latest record, Sunlit Youth, the California indie pop-rock band follows the ongoing trend in indie music of adding synthesizers to everything. And hey, it has worked for so many of the band’s peers, and it similarly works here for Local Natives, too. Sunlit Youth is indie pop-rock at its finest; a record of 12 catchy pop tunes that refuse to leave your head. And with the quality of work found on Sunlit Youth, I don’t want them leaving anytime soon.

Jake’s #5 Album: Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman

In case you were wondering what I spent most of this past summer listening to, it was this album. Dangerous Woman is the perfect late-night record, as the songs are far more dark, powerful, and sensual than what one would expect from Ariana Grande. “I’m tired of being patient, so let’s pick up the pace,” Grande sings on album highlight “Touch It.” It’s exactly this urgency that charges Dangerous Woman into being one of the most exhilarating albums of 2016 from start to finish. The tracklist flows smoothly, starting with the doo-wop tinged “Moonlight,” and ending with the nostalgic “Thinking Bout You.” It’s the moments in between, however, that make the album — songs such as “Into You,” the Future-assisted “Everyday,” or the funky “Greedy” allow Grande to be just as risky as she wants to be. If being dangerous allowed her to make an album this great, one can hope she gets more adventurous in the future.

Michael’s #5 Album: NxWorries – Yes Lawd!

Yes Lawd! is a side project that feels like anything but, as R&B’s newest mogul Anderson Paak teams up with producer Knxwledge for a near-perfect piece of hip-hop-infused, 70s-inspired soul. This album was actually a disappointment for me upon first listen, but obviously, with it sitting halfway down my top ten list, I’ve had a change of heart. Much of my initial feelings came along with the fact that it was a 19-track album that only lasted 48 minutes (most cuts being only about two minutes in length). I had initially wished these songs lasted longer, but in retrospect, they all feel absolutely perfect the way they are. Knxwledge seamlessly transitions from one song to the next, with multiple stretches on the album comprised of 3-4 songs that feel like one long, soulful, and sensual R&B ballad. The instrumentals on this record are second-to-none, and Paak’s impeccably soothing vocals are to be expected at this point. Album standouts “Suede,” “Scared Money,” and “Livvin,” as well as the hilarious “H.A.N.,” lead the way on a record that is without flaw.

Jake’s #4 Album: Carly Rae Jepsen – EMOTION Side B

Yeah, it’s only eight tracks long (and actually comprised of tracks that were cut from her previous release), but that doesn’t stop Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION Side B from being one of the best releases of the year. Side B delves even deeper into the 80s aesthetic that Jepsen established with her excellent previous release, my #1 album of 2015, EMOTION. On Side B, Jepsen is more confident and honest than ever before, as seen on the Whitney Houston-esque opening number “First Time,” or the anger-driven “Cry.” As she continues to learn more about herself as an artist, she only gets stronger. Tracks such as “Roses” show that Jepsen is in control of her life, and is ready to put herself as the top priority. Let’s hope she can keep this up, cause we’re all waiting for that disco record.

Michael’s #4 Album: Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

When I previously wrote about Whitney’s debut album, Light Upon The Lake, at the end of June in our mid-year list, I declared it the “perfect album for summertime listening.” I still wholeheartedly stand by that statement, as I went on to listen to Light Upon The Lake almost daily throughout the remainder of the season. “I wanna drive around/With you with the windows down/And we can run all night” exclaims Whitney lead singer Julien Ehrlich on album highlight “No Matter Where We Go,” and if that ain’t summer, then I don’t know what is. Having had the opportunity to catch them live twice since July, too, has given me an even better appreciation of the band and this album. Whitney’s fun, airy folk-pop sound makes for one of the best debut albums to come along in quite a while, and I can’t wait to see where Whitney goes from here.

Jake’s #3 Album: Gwen Stefani – This Is What the Truth Feels Like

Gwen Stefani never expected to make another solo record. In fact, after the release of 2006’s The Sweet Escape, she even swore against it. A decade later, Stefani clearly had a change of heart, presenting us with This Is What the Truth Feels Like. The album is both the most personal and upbeat endeavor that Stefani’s solo career has seen yet, and is exactly where the singer should be in 2016. The record kicks off with the breezy “Misery,” which establishes the bittersweet romance Stefani discusses throughout. On songs “Red Flag” and “Me Without You,” the listener is able to understand firsthand the anger she felt following her divorce from Gavin Rossdale. On the other side of the spectrum, the title track as well as “Rare” provide a glimpse of hope for the singer, this time in the form of country superstar Blake Shelton. It ultimately doesn’t matter what man did Gwen right or wrong, as Truth best displays that she’s in charge — and she makes sure we all know it.

Michael’s #3 Album: Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Teens of Denial is the best rock album since Queens of the Stone Age’s 2013 release, …Like Clockwork. That should be enough to get you at least somewhat interested in Will Toledo’s latest effort. And honestly, I don’t need to write any explanation as to why I think this album is so incredible. I should simply allow for the album’s brilliant opening track, “Fill In The Blank,” found below, to speak for           .

Jake’s #2 Album: Rihanna – ANTI

“By continuing to follow her own instincts, her work strives to make an impact by doing the very antithesis of what the public expects,” Rihanna stated in a post explaining the title for her latest release, ANTI. Preceding the release of her eighth studio album, many people never truly thought of Rihanna as much of a credible musician. Instead, when the focus wasn’t on her current hit single, it was on her personal life. For ANTI, the Barbadian singer made a conscious effort to put both of these aspects to the backburner, which allowed her to make her most solid body of work to date. Where ANTI excels is in its simplicity, which allows Rihanna (the person, not the pop superstar) to finally be center stage.

Much of ANTI‘s tracklist, like the smooth “James Joint” or even the smash hit single “Work,” keep the production to a minimum. Another amazing thing ANTI does is show just how underrated of a vocalist Rihanna is. On “Love on the Brain,” listeners hear the singer belt like never before — all to the tune of a 50s inspired track. “Close To You” shows genuine sincerity and longing from Rihanna, something that truly is the antithesis of what one has come to expect from the singer. Whether it makes you want to “work work work work work work,” or brings you to tears, there’s one thing in common across the entire album, and that’s in just how damn good it all is.

Michael’s #2 Album: Beyoncé – Lemonade

Similar to my second favorite album of last year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Beyoncé’s Lemonade will be looked upon for years to come as one of the decade’s most important and best albums. Lemonade is emotional as hell throughout its 12 tracks, displaying the world’s most prominent and famous female figure as affected and disenfranchised and hurt. Beyoncé guides us through a personal account of her lover’s betrayal thematically on tracks dealing with denial, anger (so much anger), regret, and ultimately, forgiveness. It’s an utterly beautiful record that deserves all of its praise.

Jake’s #1 Album: Beyoncé – Lemonade

This should come as a surprise to no one. At this point, I don’t even know if just a paragraph can do it justice. So, I’ll just get to the point: Lemonade is easily the best album of the year. Lemonade is diverse — the type of record where every song differs from the next — but that is its strongest point. Only Beyoncé could include a hard rock song (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”), a Country number (“Daddy Lessons”) and the African American-celebratory “Formation” on the same album AND make it all work flawlessly.

The album, from start to finish, tells a story of fidelity, revenge, acceptance, and celebration — and all in under an hour. I could go on and on, and I actually have in a full-length review. But, I’ll end with this: Beyoncé was able to release an album that explored many genres, and by doing so, was able to find herself. If you can do that and also produce your best album to date, you’ve won. And that is why, readers, Lemonade is easily the best album of the year.

Michael’s #1 Album: Anderson Paak – Malibu

2016 really was the year of Anderson Paak. The man was everywhere, starting with the release of his sophomore album Malibu in early January. His smooth voice landed him guest appearances on Mac Miller’s unbelievably catchy single “Dang!,” as well as Kaytranada’s “Glowed Up” and Domo Genesis’ “Dapper.” He provided vocals for multiple tracks on ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP and even showed up on A Tribe Called Quest’s farewell record, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service. And if you didn’t skip right to the end of my list in order to see my number one pick, then you’d have seen that Anderson Paak was also co-responsible for my fifth favorite album of 2016, NxWorries’ stunning debut full-length release, Yes Lawd!

And the best part about all this? Paak is just getting started. With such prolific output, it’s surprising just how awesome each and every one of these projects is; you’d think he’d stumble at some point, but he’s yet to. The several paragraphs below I wrote at the mid-year point, and they hold up as well now as they did then.

Paak’s latest, Malibu, is near-perfect. It’s 16 cuts brimming with R&B, soul, funk, jazz, and hip-hop sounds all delicately blended together in order to mold a diverse, yet entirely cohesive album. Malibu is rooted in the sounds of the 60s and 70s, but feels just as fresh as any album I’ve listened to this year.

Paak takes inspiration from all sorts of eras and genres for Malibu. Favorites like “Celebrate” and “Come Down” take a page from upbeat 70s soul, while album opener “The Bird” is a troubled R&B anthem, and “Am I Wrong” is a funky detour halfway through the LP. And the album isn’t even entirely a trip into the past, as “Your Prime” perfectly emulates Kendrick Lamar’s patented style, where Paak’s already similar voice becomes eerily indistinguishable with K-dot’s.

Pulling from so many genres could have easily result in a muddled mess, but that simply isn’t the case here. From Paak’s warm melodies and inspired lyricism, to the gorgeous instrumentals and exceptional production found throughout, the album truly is a pleasure to listen to. From my first listen to my 100th, Malibu has no doubt been my favorite album to come out this year.

— Jake Johnson, Music Blogger
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor

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