The RELEVANT Top 50

Our favorite pop culture releases of the year.

BY EDITORS CULTURE December 16, 2016

A lot happened this year in the world of pop culture. From breakout artists like Francis and the Lights to prestige podcasts like Revisionist History to new music from Radiohead. In fact, the volume of quality music, movies, books and podcasts can be a little overwhelming.

But we got your back.

This year we launched a new podcast exploring the best pop culture releases of 2016 and—doing what we at RELEVANT do best—ranking our favorite 50.

If you haven’t yet, you should give our six-episode miniseries a listen. We include clips from songs and shows, and bits from interviews the artists, actors and authors who shaped this year.

And—assuming you’ve already listened—here is our whole top 50 list in one place:

Go here to listen to Episode 1 (with discussions of items 50 – 43)

50. Phase (album)

The debut album from Jack Garratt was a genre-defying mix of pop, R&B and electronica, created by a true music virtuoso. But, even though each song on Phase is intricately arranged with an innovative instrumentation, the album isn’t just great because of the production values—Garratt’s biggest talent is as a songwriter, crafting catchy choruses and interesting melodies.

49. But What If We’re Wrong (book)

In his book, But What If We’re Wrong, author and journalist Chuck Klosterman conducts a profound thought experiment: What if everything we currently believe will one day be proven wrong by future generations? Just like we now look at the beliefs of societies from 200 years ago as fundamentally flawed (ranging from art and science to ethics and politics), can everything we hold to be true be debunked.

The implications don’t just provide for thought-proving questions about modern culture, but also about the nature of truth itself.

48. Chef’s Table (TV show)

The Netflix series Chef Tables is part travel show, part food documentary, part profile series focusing on some of the world’s most renowned chefs.

Even if you’re not interested in cooking, the show is an inspiring look at artisans, entrepreneurs and innovators who pushing the envelope by pursuing their passions.

47. Revisionist History (podcast)

There’s a reason why only one podcast made the list: Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History stood out as one of the most enlightening series in the iTunes catalog.

Like much of Gladwell’s writing, the podcast series took big ideas—in this case, the real stories behind some of history’s more well-known events—drew interesting (and entertaining) connections to even bigger issues.

46. Let It Echo (album)

Jesus Culture is one of the most influential outfits in the modern worship movement. On Let It Echo, the band creates powerful praise anthems, led by the soaring vocals of Chris Quilala and Kim Walker-Smith.

Recorded live, the album captures the energy and emotion of Jesus Culture service, led by the stand out tracks “Fierce” and “Miracles.”

45. 22, a Million (album)

Five years after Justin Vernon’s debut album with Bon Iver, he returned with 22, A Million, an experimental exploration of haunting soundscapes and Vernon’s unique vocals. The record isn’t overly concerned with traditional song structures or creating catchy choruses—it’s about reimagine what a song can even be.

44. 13th (film)
Ava DuVernay’s look at the criminal justice system, may be the most shock film of 2016. The documentary explores not only the current systematic problems that have led to mass incarceration (which disproportionately effects people of color), but also the America’s history of racial injustice—and how the two are related.

The film also looks at how for-profit prison incentivizes the imprisonment of Americans, and why everyone should be outraged by the result.

43: Last Week, Tonight (TV show)
Former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver HBO show isn’t a “fake news” like its satirical forerunner. No, Last Week, Tonight was the TV-version of an op-ed column. Oliver’s take down of issues often ignored by news outlets—like prescription drug addiction and pay day lending—exposed corruption and injustice with 30-minutes investigations that were as informative as they were funny.

Go here to listen to Episode 2 (with discussion of items 42 – 35)

42. The Narrative (album)

Sho Baraka’s fourth album “The Narrative,” just released last month, after a three year hiatus. Along with enveloping-pushing musical collaborations, the album features thoughtful lyrics that examines historic, racial injustice, faith and even love.

41. Baskets (TV show)
For many film goers, Zach Galifianakis is known for his roles in blockbuster comedies like the Hangover, Masterminds and The Campaign. But, in “Baskets”, he tries something totally unique: Dark, melodramatic prestige TV comedy. Produced by Louis CK, the show—about a sad rodeo clown—is weird, sharp, a little sad and really, really funny.

40. Almost Holy (film)
From filmmaker Steve Hoover and executive producer Terrence Malick, the documentary Almost Holy follows a vigilante pastor in the Ukraine nicknamed “Crocodile Gennadiy” who goes to extreme—at times controversial—measure to save orphaned, street children from drug addition and predators. Currently holding a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie controversial, jarring and completely gripping.

39. Georgica Pond (album)

The duo Johnnyswim combines Americana songwriting style and folk sensibilities, with smart, pop-friendly chorus, and soulful vocals. On their latest album, Georgica Pond, the married couple crafts big singalongs, intimate ballads and even a bit of southern-inspired alt country.

38. The Very Good Gospel (book)

In her new book The Very Good Gospel author, speaker and activist Lisa Sharon Harper does more than look at why the pursuit of justice is a moral imperative. She dissects Biblical text to understand the deeper messages of scripture, finding that not only reconciliation and fighting racial injustice part of every Christian’s calling—it’s part of the design of God’s creation.

37. Doctor Strange (film)
The latest edition of Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is doing big box office numbers after taking a different approach to the superhero epic. Directed by filmmaker Scott Derekinson, the movie isn’t simply about super powers; it’s about faith, spirituality and uses magic and mystic concepts as metaphors for a kind of power not typically a seen in the Avengers universe.

36. The Late Late Show with James Corden (TV show)

In 2016, James Corden not only took over late-night TV. He took over YouTube. His viral clips of Late Show segments like Carpool Karaoke, showed why he’s a different kind of talk show host. Instead of interviewing guests, he has conversations with them. His self-deprecating intimacy constantly helped to humanize some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

35. Heads Up (album)

War Paint’s Heads Up flirted with experimentation while still remaining rooted in catchy indie-pop riffs and memorable chorus. Anchored by the earworm “New Song,” the album is layered, progressive and always interesting.

Go here to listen to Episode 3 (with discussion of items 34 – 27)

34. One Wild Life: Body (album)

The third installment in the One Wild trilogy Body is Gungor at their most experimental at one moment, and their most accessible the next. The album, which is an exploration of bigs ideas like birth, death, beauty and even body shaming, and is full of worshipful ballads, indie pop anthems and constantly surprising arrangements.

33. Sing Street (movie)

One of 2016’s most surprising breakout films-i0t currently holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes—is Irish coming of age comedy Sing Street inspired by New Wave music, the raise of the music video and teenage romance.

Taking cues from films like School of Rock and Rushmore, the film is about young misfits trying to find themselves through music in the midst of difficult home lives, bullies and heartbreak.

32. Executing Grace (book)

In his latest book, Executing Grace, author and activist Shane Claiborne further makes the case that being against the death penalty is an essential part of a holistic pro-life ethic.

Not only does the book look at systemic problems with how the death penalty is carried out in America, he also examines the spiritual implications of advocating for killing people made in God’s image.

31. Long Way Home (album)

At just 20 years old, British singer Lapsley (Holly Lapsley Fletcher)) is already making her mark on the world of pop music. A songwriter, producer and a singer, she first came to the attention of fans after posting songs she’d recorded in her bedroom, eventually garnering hundreds of thousands of plays online.

Her breakout debut album Long Way Home dropped in March, quickly establishing her as one of the most unique voices of 2016.

30. Queen of Katwe (movie)

Based on a true story first told in an ESPN magazine feature, Queen of Katwe tells the story of a Christian missionary (played by David Oyelowo), who teaches Uganda children living in slums to play chess.

After meeting a young women named Phiona (played by Lupita Nyong’o), both of their lives change forever, as she becomes an internationally recognized champion.

The critically acclaimed movie is about faith, perseverance, poverty, and ultimately, believing in yourself.

29. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TV show)

Daily Show alum Samantha Bee stormed the late night scene in 2016 with some of the most biting and unflinching satire and social commentary on TV. Her show is edgy, funny and presents news-focused comedy that has more punch than even more established political satire outlets.

28. Stranger Things (TV show)

The Netflix series Stranger Things was one of 2016’s true pop-culture breakouts. The addictive sci-fi series combines Steve Spielberg-style storytelling with a Stephen King-style story. The result is one of the most binge-friendly mysteries of the year.

27: Majid Jordan (album)

Part of the Drake’s influential OVO label, Toronto duo Majid Jordan create one of 2016;s best R&B albums with their with self-titled debut.

Laced with nods to ‘80s synth pop and big ballads that show off their vocal range, the album is a standout, even on a label known for showcasing groundbreaking artists.

Go here to listen to Episode 4 (with discussion of items 26 – 19)

26. Tell Me If You Like To (album)

Last summer, Manchester’s Spring King became the first band ever played on Beats 1. And when you hear their debut “Tell Me If You Like To,” it’s easy to see what all of the buzz about. The band’s raw, punk rock energy fuels catchy songs recorded with gritty production creating a signature song.

25. Divorce (TV show)

HBO’s new show starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church is taking a different approach to the marriage sitcom. Instead of focusing on two people’s relationship growing, Divorce shows it falling apart.

Along with its stellar cast—which also includes Molly Shannon and Jemaine Clement—the show is smartly written, with a tone that constantly straddles humor and heartbreak.

24. Present Over Perfect (book)

Shauna Nee-quist is known for her relatable writings about life, food and faith, but in 2016’s Present Over Perfect, Niequist tackles a new kind of spiritual problem: Perfectionism.

In a world where efficiency is viewed as an almost moral value and filtered snapshots of our friends’ live play out daily on Instagram, the book a reminder about the importance of being present for the moments that matter the most.

23. American Prodigal (album)

2016’s “American Prodigal” represents new chapter for David Crowder. Long known for his soulful worship ballads, Crowder’s latest album finds the singer grappling with honest spiritual struggles, while further experimenting with big anthems and Southern rock-inspired songwriting, with hints of gospel, Americana and even blues.

22. We Move (album)

Irish singer/songer James Vincent McMorrow’s latest album “We Move” isn’t easy to define. Its hybrid of R&B, soul and experimental electronica at times recalls vocalist like Bon Iver, songwriters like James Blunt and beats that are both danceable and soulful. But despite its eclectic influences, We Move maintains a haunting sound that’s all it’s own.

21. Atlanta (TV show)

Best known for his stand-up comedy, hip-hop albums under the name Childish Gambino and his role in the sitcom Community, in 2016 Donald Glover released his most personal project to date: A dramatic comedy about Atlanta hip-hop culture.

The show combines talk about big social issues like race, poverty and violence, with deeply personal themes like failure, indentity and chasing your dreams, becoming one of the year’s most acclaimed new shows.

20. Let Hope Rise (movie)

Hillsong United has sold 10s of millions of albums, and regularly packs out stadium tours around the world, and in Let Hope Rise, documentarian Michael John Warren—the man behind films about artists including Drake, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj—turn his lens on the worship band from Australia to see what’s behind the global phenomena.

The resulting movie is a look at the rise of the Hillsong movement, the people behind the songs and why they continue to have such a massive impact.

19: Lemonade (album)

Ever since she debuted the song “Formation” the day before performing it at the Super Bowl halftime show, Beyonce’s Lemonade has been one of the most talked about releases of the year.

The “visual” album was accompanied by the cinematically stunning HBO film, and features guest appearances by a range of artists including Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake Weekend, while it’s themes grapple with the aftermath of infidelity, in ways that honest and raw. The record is a major departure for the pop superstar, but one that shows the complexity of one music’s biggest names.

Go here to listen to Episode 5 (with discussion of items 18 – 11)

18. Farewell, Starlite! (album)

The first full album from experimental artist Francis Farewell Starlite, is one of the year’s most unique releases, combining pop-friendly chorus and melodies with computer-driven tech-inspired compositions.

His fresh take on production, has drawn some very high-profile attention: The album notably features a collaboration with Bon Iver and Kanye West.

17.Blackish (film)

ABC’s sitcom, Blackish, is more than just a family sitcom. It’s a smart take on modern social issues. Season two of the show found the Johnson family discussing everything from racial injustice, the tension that they feel and even the black lives matter movement.

It’s a funny show that isn’t just a different take on the traditional family sitcom, but it also has something important to say.

16. Love and War (album)

Even if you haven’t Fleurie’s latest album in its entirety, there’s a good chance it already sounds familiar. With it’s haunting vocals and soaring arrangements, in 2016, her music was regularly featured in TV shows and movies.

Described as a “cinematic album,” Love and War embraces Fleurie’s penchant for dramatic songwriting, creating emotional soundscapes with big builds and powerful anthems.

15. Making Sense of God (book)

Redeemer Presbyterian Church founder Tim Keller has a reputation as one of Christianity’s most influential teachers, and his new book, Making Sense of God, it’s easy to see why.

The book takes on skepticism head-on, not just of God or religion, but of Christianity’s relevance to current cultural issues. Taking on themes like justice, meaning and freedom, the book is deep examination of the modern application of timeless truths.

14. Loving (movie)

From rising filmmaker Jeff Nichols, Loving tells the moving real-life story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the interracial couple who’s romance led to the landmark Supreme Court decision which made it illegal to prevent marriages on the basis on race.

The film, which stars Ruth Negga and Joel Egerton, has already become one of the year’s biggest critical breakouts, earning four Critics Choice Awards nominations and recognition at the Cannes Film Festival.

13. Something to Believe In (Aaron rock alum)

Since their debut in 2010, Young the Giant has created catchy indie rock that’s both accessible and radio-friendly, but also intricate and smart. And, on 2016’s Home of the Strange, the band gets both personal and socially-conscious, exploring the immigrant experience in modern American. It’s territory they know well: Each of the of members is either a first generation immigrant, or the children of immigrant parents.

The result is a thoughtful, driving album of some of the year’s best indie rock songs.

12. Better Call Saul (TV show)

The second season of Better Call Saul shouldered big expectations. Not only was it a spin-off of one of the best-loved shows of all time (Breaking Bad), but was also coming off a widely praised debut season.

But, in it’s second season, creator Vince Gilligian did what he does best: Explored slippery slope of moral compromises through the eyes of emotionally rich characters who want to see if they are capable of changing their lives.

11. We Got It From Here, Thank You for Your Service (album)

Ever since she debuted the song “Formation” the day before performing it at the Super Bowl halftime show, Beyonce’s Lemonade has been one of the most talked about releases of the year.

The “visual” album was accompanied by the cinematically stunning HBO film, and features guest appearances by a range of artists including Jack White, Kendrick Lamar, James Blake Weekend, while it’s themes grapple with the aftermath of infidelity, in ways that honest and raw. The record is a major departure for the pop superstar, but one that shows the complexity of one music’s biggest names.

Go here to listen to Episode 6 (with discussion of items 10 – 1)

10. Sunlit Youth (album)

Hailing from California, Local Natives capture a sunny, atmospheric sound throughout their 2016 release “Sunlit Youth.”

On the surface, the album is bright, catchy indie-pop, but on a deeper level, Sunlit Youth is doing some untraditional: It’s building songs from fresh, new sounds, pushing creative boundaries in an album that sounds like nothing else in 2016.

9. Silicon Valley (TV show)

Mike Judge’s comedy Silicon Valley takes on the often self-serious world of big tech business, start-up culture and moonshot thinking with gleeful irreverence and sharp parody.

Along with it’s commentary about the actual Silicon Valley, the series features some of culture’s most subversive and innovative comics and and improv actors including TJ Miller, Martin Starr, and Kumail Nanjiani.

8. A Moon Shaped Pool (album)

Following a years long-hiatus, Radiohead finally returned in 2016 with a new album that show why they are one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Moon-shaped Pool finds Thom Yorke and company doing with they do best: Creating forboding, guitar driven rock that explores modern social anxieties while pushing new limits of their ever-evolving sound.

7. The White Helmets (film)

The White Helmets is the film photojournalist Kha-leed Kha-teeb literally risked his life to make. The 21-year-old, captured the real-life heroism of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated group known for their white rescue helmets, as they dig out survivors from bombings in Syria’s on-going civil war.

The film shows the brutality and devastation of the war, but also the humanity and hope embodied by the volunteers who’ve dedicated their lives to saving their neighbors.

6. Malibu (album)

Malibu is Brandon Paak Anderson’s second album under the Anderson Paak moniker, but it’s where he finds his musical identity as a soulful genre-defying, artist.

Jazz, hip-hop, R&B, funk and pop all converge on Anderson Paak’s Malibu, an exploration of big musical ideas, catchy grooves and ever-evolving styles.

5. This Is Us (TV show)

In a year when dry comedy and dark dramas dominated much of the critical discussion, This Is Us did something new: It told real, sentimental stories of humanity, love, parenthood and purpose.

Examining inter-weaving stories of individual people each dealing with their own life milestone, the show manages to weave dramatic character development with fast-paced storytelling and interesting twists.

4. The Underground Railroad (book)

Colson Whitehead “The Underground Railroad” is built on an interesting concept: What if the famed Underground Railroad that helped free slaves throughout the American South, was actual locomotive, secretly criss-crossing nation.

Through the eyes of a young escaped slave, the novel explores race, injustice and brutal reality of America’s dark past. The groundbreaking book drew universal acclaim, even claiming the 2016 National Book Award.

3. Ology (album)

Even though he first garnered buzz with a 2014 EP, the debut album from Gallant was one of 2016’s biggest music surprising. Ology is an ambitious, 16-tracked album, filled with big pop anthems and smooth ballads.

Known for his energetic love shows have created fans around the country, and his unique voice has made him a favorite of tastemakers and respected artists including Zane Lowe, Sufjan Stevens, Elton John and Moby.

2. Hacksaw Ridge (film)

In his first directorial effort in a decade, Mel Gibson depicted both the violence of war and the devotion of faith. Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved 75 men during a battle in WWII, never firing a shot.

The film marks a transition for actor Andrew Garfield, from blockbuster superhero, to critical darling, in a starring role that is already being called one of the year’s most powerful.

1. Coloring Book (album)

2016 was the year Chance the Rapper helped to change music. The Chicago rapper’s Coloring Book independently released Mixtape became the first digital-only album to be nominated for a Grammy—in this case six, including Best Rap Album.

Though out the collection of songs, Chance openly discusses life and justice, and even covers a version of Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God,” and contains collaborations with the likes of Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Francis and the Lights, Future and others.

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