What These Top Music Lists for 2016 Have in Common

January 1st 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

Political stakes were high in 2016 — including a contentious political election, an outcome that shocked many, protests of police brutality and gun violence, and a conversation about identity politics. The political was acutely personal and it was clearly reflected in some of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums.

There is a common thread in many of the 2016 picks for "top music": albums and songs that address racial inequality and social justice.  

The staff of Pitchfork, an online music magazine, wrote that "in 2016, everything felt more intense. The most visible pop music was also some of the most political."

The publication picked Solange's  "A Seat at the Table" for the top spot on their "The 50 Best Albums of 2016" list.

Pitchfork wrote the Solange's album mixed social commentary with smooth R&B. "In it, Solange often speaks to the universal experiences of youth (new love, confusion, heartbreak), but does not shy away from her own journey; the specificities of black life are proudly inextricable from her accounts," wrote the Pitchfork staff.

This was a good year for the Knowles sisters, with both of them making top lists — and albums that addressed the experiences of black women in America.

Billboard.com conducted a poll for its readers' favorite album of 2016; Beyoncé​'s "Lemonade" overwhelmingly won, beating Kanye West's "Life of Pablo" and Chance the Rapper's "Coloring Book." The album also made other 2016 lists from various media outlets, including Stereogum's number one pick in "The Best Albums of 2016."

The visual album received both praise and strong backlash for its pro-black lyrics and anti-police brutality imagery.

British Daily Mail columnist Piers Morgan, who is white, criticized Beyoncé in April for the album's politics calling her a "born-again black woman" and lamenting that he missed the "old Beyoncé​."

"The one who didn’t play the race card so deliberately and to my mind, unnecessarily," he wrote in his column. "The one who wanted to be judged on her stupendous talent not her skin color, and wanted us all to do the same."

Rolling Stone also put both the sisters in its "20 Best R&B Albums of 2016" with "Lemonade" at number one and "A Seat at the Table" at number three, calling the latter album "a manifesto for modern black womanhood."

Rolling Stone's list also included Blood Orange's very political "Freetown Sound" at number four. Rolling Stone's Will Hermes called the album "inescapable politics," with songs like "Hands Up," an ode to Black Lives Matter. 

Along with including tracks from Beyoncé, Solange, and Blood Orange, Pitchfork's "Best 100 Songs of 2016," a list picked by the staff, featured other songs with a strong political message.

Ranked at 98 is the song "Deadbeat Protest" from the album "Fetish Bones" by Moor Mother. The song's lyrics reference income inequality and systemic injustice. The album "Fetish Bones" features a whispered opening that Pitchfork's Kevin Lazano described as "chilling." 

“Four out of five every day a slaying

Two black girls hanging

Three black men choking

Gun to your face when you praying

Or get lynch in ya cell for changing lanes.” 

Kevin Morby's song "I Have Been to the Mountain" was ranked 45. Beyond referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the song was written about Eric Garner, who died after being put in a choke hold by a NYPD officer. Lyrics include:

"That man lived in this town

Til that pig took him down

And have you heard the sound

Of a man stop breathing, pleading?"

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