From Kanye West, Beyoncé, and Frank Ocean, thrilling (and sometimes frustrating) novel ways to release albums that demand attention; from Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak, a blinding and infectious positivity so vital in uncertain times; from Anohni, Solange, and Blood Orange, beauty furnished from impassioned and candid protest, these and others are the albums that made 2016 a great year for music. Here is the list of our favorites.
60 The Follower by The Field
A moment of mystery, so beautiful and human, stuck in an infinite loop to be pondered, examined, and dwelled in.
59 Paradise by White Lung
58 I Love It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It by The 1975
When You Sleep covers a shitload of ground, and a tremendous amount of it reflects the unconcealed self-obsession and saccharine subject matter for which the group has come to be most known. But what really sticks about The 1975 this time around is the authenticity of their delivery. Shameless? Maybe, but this is big-box pop music that is also deeply personal to its authors.
57 Trans Day of Revenge by G.L.O.S.S.
Girls Living Outside Society's Shit, long for G.L.O.S.S., was a band whose entire discography went by quicker than an episode of The Big Bang Theory. In those 15 minutes—seven of them collected in Trans Day of Revenge—the band displayed an uncanny talent for visceral and effective communication. Nothing really gets a point across like a kick in the face.
56 Gore by Deftones
55 Roosevelt by Roosevelt
54 I Had a Dream That You Were Mine by Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam
I don’t think anybody expected this to be as good as it was. (Collaboration albums rarely are.) It’s easy to compare this one to a Walkmen record, thanks to Hamilton Leithauser’s arresting growl, and I Had a Dream would rank high on my list of favorite Walkmen LPs, but the kicker here is that Rostam, Vampire Weekend’s former polymath composer, has several new tricks up his sleeve.
53 Endless by Frank Ocean
We now know that Endless was really an elaborate middle-finger to his former record label, an audiovisual project to satisfy his nightmare record deal and to obfuscate Blonde from Def Jam’s radar. Turns out even Frank Ocean’s deliberate flops are vital.
52 Sept 5th by Dvsn
51 Singing Saw by Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, though an affinity for Dylan, Young, and Cohen hardly stands out among the swath of contemporary singer/songwriters. Old fashioned, great songwriting does. The songs of Singing Saw are warm and comforting, a welcome respite in 2016.
50 Tempo by Olga Bell
49 Joanne by Lady Gaga
Leave it to Lady Gaga to nail the meta-commentary on her new album on its first track: “I might not flawless, but you know I’ve got a diamond heart.” Joanne’s got nothing if not heart, one bedazzled by pieces of forgotten disco balls that seem to reflect Gwen Stefani and Elton John in equal measures.
48 Rojus (Designed to Dance) by Leon Vynehall
The elusive concept house album that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It manages to pull off the impressive juggling act of being genuinely danceable and maintaining a mood with varied rhythms and melodies over 50 minutes. Vynehall swings all this with aplomb and a sense of sticky, corporeal warmth.
47 Stranger to Stranger by Paul Simon
46 The Impossible Kid by Aesop Rock
Aes is a terrific rapper with an expressive flow and an unequaled love for language. That’s always been the case and it’s kept him from ever releasing an album that is anything less than good. With some of his most vivid imagery and sonic canvases that recall the best of RZA and El-P, The Impossible Kid is his most refined collection yet, his best since 2001’s Labor Days.
45 Love Streams by Tim Hecker
Like its stunning cover art implies, Love Streams, is an obscured but remarkably human liturgical journey rendered in cool tones.
44 Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
A father’s unfathomable grief twists and metamorphoses the Bad Seeds’ typically muscular arrangements into dissonant, ephemeral moments, almost too delicate to be tangible that you have to wonder how they land at all. 2016’s most demanding 40 minutes are also its rawest.
43 Blank Face LP by Schoolboy Q
Schoolboy Q emerges as Top Dawg’s second-best with this nocturnal West Coast epic.
42 RR7349 by Survive
Building on the darkness of their two-volume Stranger Things soundtrack, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s Survive erect elaborate, inverted structures on RR7349, a document that winks at their good fortune but ultimately sets its eyes on the band’s expanding ambition.
41 The Hope Six Demolition Project by PJ Harvey
A spiritual successor to one of 2011‘s better albums, Hope Six updates the politics and amps the fire. Polly Jean hasn’t sounded this menacing in over a decade.
40 Nonagon Infinity by King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard
39 Cardinal by Pinegrove
Certainly not the only noteworthy emo album of 2016, but perhaps the only one that convincingly incorporated a country twang. Flourishes of personality like that make Cardinal feel disarmingly intimate and true.
38 We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
This one’s got several expedient narratives going for it: it’s the successful comeback album from a beloved music group; it’s the heartfelt/genuine reunion of friends after a tragedy; it’s the first successful piece of protest art in the Trump-era. As usual, that’s mostly noise. We Got It From Here’s true feat is that it makes 60 minutes of very good music whizz by. All killer, no filler and all that.
37 Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future by Underworld
Want to hear one of the year’s biggest surprises? Underworld making magical music in 2016. The EMD festival crowd might not know what to do with A Shining Future—we are two decades removed from Karl Hyde and Rick Smith’s commercial heyday—but it’s nevertheless a big warm hug from one of the genre’s unsung pioneers.
36 Preoccupations by Preoccupations
35 Moth by Chairlift
Chairlift’s most dramatic deep-dive into pop yet resulting in their strangest and sexiest album.
34 Leave Me Alone by Hinds
Hinds have the whole casual-Spanish-girl-in-a-band thing down. They’re very good at telegraphing that they love having fun, getting drunk, and having fun when they’re drunk. Their Soundcloud uploads tend to be breezy, all off-kilter melodies and gnarly guitar riffs. Then out of nowhere, they’ve strung together enough songs for an LP and the thing is great. A 38-minute reminder that dumb, summer fun isn’t banal but evergreen.
33 Sirens by Nicolas Jaar
One of the year’s most beautiful renderings of youth in revolt; often universal, other times intimately specific.
32 And the Anonymous Nobody by De La Soul
31 Puberty 2 by Mitski
25 year old Mitski flicks off needless comparisons to St. Vincent and Angel Olsen—no matter how flattering—with confessional songwriting and claustrophobic, abrasive bedroom compositions. None steal your breath and shatter your heart more completely than “Your Best American Girl”.
Sleep Cycles by Deakin
If Deakin is the George Harrison of Animal Collective, Sleep Cycle is his All Things Must Pass: a stark artistic statement that proves he’s just as singularly talented as any of his bandmates. The album’s infamously long stint in development hell pays off in every way imaginable, resulting in a release that’s short, sweet, and instantly memorable. “Golden Chords” and “Good House” are two of the best songs of the year, the former a relatively unambitious folk interlude that nevertheless provides some delicious melodies, and the latter an achingly gorgeous psychedelic love song. Everything in between those two fantastic bookends shines as well, with plenty of unconventionally catchy hooks and soundscapes so densely packed that even after countless listens, I still don’t feel like I’ve heard everything Sleep Cycle has to offer. It’s telling that in 2016, Deakin alone was able to put out a better record than the rest of his band could in his absence. Don’t overlook this one. — Luke Fowler
Cheetah by Aphex Twin
A release that was teased in now long deleted comments on a Soundcloud page. 2016, guys! The drums are sticky and aquatic and they sneak through the mix, the synth tone just washes over the rhythm, permeating each crack in the sound. A trip into the melancholy part of Richard’s brain. The part where 5am is our 2pm, after lunch, ready for a nap, but you have to stay awake and work. Cheetah is like showing up to work, but your desk drawer is full of pacific salt water and instead of pushing papers you look at magic eye puzzles all day. The problem with being as consistently dynamite as Richard James is people take you for granted. I call it the Spoon principle. Pay attention to Richard, please! Or he might go back into hiding again! Don’t do to him what we all did to the Sega Dreamcast! — Landon MacDonald
The Glowing Man by Swans
I’ve spent more time with The Glowing Man than I have with almost any other album this year, and the fact that it’s brilliant is only half of the reason why. Most albums this opaque confine themselves to a manageable length, but not this one: this thing is two hours long, and not a single minute can or should be taken for granted. It’s been immensely rewarding unpacking everything The Glowing Man has to offer, and as exhausting as it can be, I look forward to every new listen, because I always manage to hear something I hadn’t heard before, whether it’s a change in the backing vocals in “The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black” or another one of the over 60 instrumental tracks that show up in the title track. I still don’t know what’s next for Swans, but if they do end up being gone for good, what a note to leave us on, eh? — Luke Fowler
Light Upon the Lake by Whitney
As charming as it is immediate, and as familiar as it is wrenching, Light Upon the Lake smiles at you, then punches your heart in the face. Julien’s nasally voice somehow sounds cartoony and genuine at the same time. It hits the Bob Dylan vein of being so impossibly real that any imperfections become positives. With Max Kakacek’s ear for matching rhythm with playful guitar the duo have managed to make a record better than either of their original bands — Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns. With Neutral Milk Hotel horns and confidence drawn from Byrd’s records, the record consistently shows the instinct needed to stand out as an indie pop creation in 2016. Track after track this record wins, forget influences, forget the 60’s, this is pop, this is now, as we all search for those golden days. — Landon MacDonald
AIM by M.I.A.
This was coldly reviewed, and there are admittedly some hurdles to jump: lazy vocals going from “flat” to “obnoxious”; tossed-off “ay-ay” hooks; general filler (“Jump In”, “Foreign Friend”, “Survivor”, all the bonus tracks except Diplo’s “Bird Song” and the last minute of “Swords”). But there’s also some of the liveliest (and strangest) music of her career, which repeated listens bear out just like they do for literally all her albums. As with Matangi, critics acknowledged the awesomeness of the big single (“Bad Girls” previously, the extra-prescient “Borders” here) almost as an excuse to write off the rest, but there are bangin’ sounds aplenty: Skrillex/Blaqstarr’s slamming metallic squeaks in “Go Off” harmonizing with the echoey sing-song hook; weird old tropicália vibes in the eccentric and hella catchy “Bird Song”; vuvuzelas in “All My People”; the intensity of “Fly Pirate” before it gets redundant. “Freedun” features some of the corniest rhymes I’ve heard in a while (“Swagistan?” I’m still getting over “Swaghili”), but also a beautiful, spacious sonic bed that manipulates Zayn Malik’s voice into something gorgeously melodic over low-key shapeshifting synths that flicker among the stars even before Malik sings about them, with rumbling drums and throbbing bass pushing it onward. I’m partial to “Ali R U OK?”, with its tabla and slapped drums propelling a (sexy) commentary on the congested economic bustle for immigrants of late-stage capitalism. Combining pidgin English with worldbeat hip-hop is one of the best ideas anyone’s had this century, and Maya’s blurring and manipulation between the exotic and the synthetic — exploring the political contradictions of same by extension — remains fun as shit. Her casual shallowness ends up more profound than her supposedly hipper and more “consistent” competition. She’s a shot of whiskey worth trusting. — Nathan Wisnicki
Emotion: Side B by Carly Rae Jepsen
It’s been wonderful seeing Carly Rae Jepsen gracefully transition from one-hit wonder to poptimist icon over the past couple years. Not one to be deterred by the disappointing sales of 2015’s Emotion (a circumstance that was in no way her fault), she’s pulled off the impressive feat of appealing to both the holdover die-hards and her newfound niche admirers, keeping her upbeat sound while working with increasingly esoteric collaborators such as Skylar Spence and Danny L Harle. Billed as an extra gift to these fans, Emotion: Side B is a bite-sized bit of pop perfection that tastes every bit as good as the main course did. The opening one-two punch of “First Time” and “Higher” is loads of fun at every turn, while “Cry” finds her probing emotional depths that she’s only touched on before, topped off with an excellent vocal performance. “Call Me Maybe” might have been a fluke from a commercial standpoint, but artistically, she’s improved on herself with every new release. She’s absolutely earned the right to call herself “higher than the rest.” — Luke Fowler
Bottomless Pit by Death Grips
I think it’d be hilarious if future music historians end up remembering the first five Death Grips albums as an elaborate marketing campaign for the rest of their career. If they continue in the vein of Bottomless Pit, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. The bangers come fast and furious on this album to an extent that puts even The Money Store to shame, with the raw confidence of a band who’s been selling out stadiums for years. It’s their least experimental release, but in a way, that’s a testament to how far they’ve come since their not-so-humble beginnings. They experimented, and they got results. They found what worked and what didn’t, and put everything that worked into Bottomless Pit. Months removed from the album’s release, I still get a rush every time I hear the intro to “Hot Head”. I still dance to the best of my ability when the synths in “Spikes” do their little descending pattern. I still get a chill that I can’t quite account for when “Trash” goes into its chaotic breakdown. It’s incredibly rare that an artist can sustain this level of energy for a full album, but Death Grips push themselves to ridiculous extremes to make it happen. Ridiculousness seems to be a common theme here, really, from the over-the-top lyrics (“I’ll fuck you in half”, anyone?) to the dizzying instrumentals (and I mean that in the most literal sense). Meanwhile, I’m just happy to be along for the ride. Even if the only way to stay on is to hang on for dear life. — Luke Fowler
99.9% by Kaytranada
The young Haitian-Canadian born Louis Celestin has been a SoundCloud and remix-album staple for years, and his debut 99.9% is a triumphant coming-out party. It’s pure chop-flexing, but what chops. Look elsewhere for thematic depth or stirring emotional cues; 99.9% is about its own existence and Celestin’s ability to create it. One can imagine his delight in ordering Anderson .Paak over the phone or jamming out with dream drummers like Kariem Riggins. It’s inspirational hearing this gifted kid let loose with the clout and budget to do so. But what makes 99.9% great is how unifying it feels. Is it hip hop? House? Pop? R&B? Jazz fusion? Brainfeeder beat music? It’s all that and more, wrapped into an hour-long bundle even your mom might like. — Daniel Bromfield
My Woman by Angel Olsen
There’s a span of about 30 seconds on “Sister”, the high watermark on My Woman, where the guitar erupts into a rampant, erratic series of squalls. It’s not so much a solo as an exquisite emotional outburst: The perfect musical microcosm. My Woman occupies a controlled, tranquil space where the turmoil always within grasp — like watching a storm while underwater. The inquiry itself can induce turmoil or catharsis. Olsen asks massive questions on the nature of love, empathy, womanhood, and memory, to which there are multiple answers and certainly no perfect ones. Delightfully old-fashioned one-liners dappled the landscape, pulled with reverence from an era when jukeboxes were novelty. Olsen accomplished all of this without sacrificing an ounce of self-awareness. Wading through the weighty stuff may not yield concrete answers for her, but you may have left My Woman with some epiphanies of your own. — Brendan Frank
The Colour in Anything by James Blake
James Blake’s name holds an unconventional amount of weight, depending on where you choose to drop it. Prior to the Mercury Prize-winning Overgrown or his debut LP James Blake, he was a relatively successful DJ—one who can be at-least partially credited with the advent of UK dubstep as a respectable term. His live show format is loyal to his upbringing; about two-thirds of the way through each show, Blake drops ten minutes of liquid-hot bass music, and it’s not until you’ve left the venue that you realize how organic a house set just fit in the middle of a Brit singer/songwriter show.
Needless to say, the portfolio with which Blake comes to the table is an impressive one, and LP The Colour in Anything reveals that even synthesized melody can still have plenty of soul if you know what to do with it.
Colour is a beautifully layered, flawlessly looped sonic expose, but Blake’s hand never leaves the steering wheel. His attention to detail is second to none, and his voice has never sounded more confident. Album opener “Radio Silence”, “Timeless”, and the effervescent “Modern Soul” show off vocal range, stylishly slick production and steadily increasing musical range.
No track of 2016 captures the duality of human emotion and computer-aided precision like “I Need a Forest Fire”, one of the year’s best tracks. Blake’s voice pairs perfectly with Justin Vernon’s, and the two craft one of the more uniquely gorgeous tracks of the past five years. But if you’re looking for beautiful sonic moments, The Colour in Anything has plenty of them. — Austin Reed
Junk by M83
Every decade in pop has a defining double album. The 60’s had The White Album. The 70’s had The Wall. The 80’s had Sign O The Times. And of course Mellon Collie and Speakerboxx/The Love Below. And the decade we are living in — has M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. It was large and in charge and a lot of other adjectives that you probably would expect. So given that every one of these double albums (except the Beatles) had a poorly-received follow up, why were we so surprised with this meteor sandwich? The record is stellar by the way, and it’s the perfect candidate for re-assessment in 2026. My prediction — it will remembered more like Adore than The Final Cut and less like Lovesexy than Idlewild. Enjoy it for what it is — 15 slices of space pop from one of the finest songwriters of this generation. Some artists get brilliant when they are bored. — Landon MacDonald
Human Performance by Parquet Courts
Parquet Courts are the urbanite cynics we need. They are genuine and sarcastic, cerebral and unpretentious, complex but uncomplicated. Their unique lyrical takes are a pastiche of forces pulling against one another in eternal contradiction, a reflection of our fractured world. Human Performance spoke in the established languages of Elvis Costello and Pavement but adopted its own unique dialect; Brooklyn c. 2016 without the baggage. They can drop hometown references with off-the-cuff cleverness (“Skull-shakin’ cadence of the J train rolls/Rhythm of defeat/Beating like a pulse”), take flippant subjects and embed subtle truths (“Cellphone service is not that expensive/But it takes commitment and you just don’t have it”) or play the wistful romantics (“You lift the weight in the distance when my eloquence subsides/And I’ll always hold you close when you can’t be by my side”). It’s also a straight-up rock and fuckin’ roll album full of catchy and memorable hooks, and how often do we get one of those anymore? — Brendan Frank
Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown
When I first listened to “When It Rain” the day it dropped this summer, I knew I was hearing something truly special, something potentially game-changing. Maybe it was the precise guitar line in the verses, maybe it was the fact that the beat takes over a minute to properly drop—whatever it was, it was clear that Atrocity Exhibition wasn’t going to be a typical hip-hop album. And yet I don’t think anything could have prepared me for just how brilliantly atypical it was, from the much-discussed Joy Division reference in the title to the diverse set of beats (most of them courtesy of longtime collaborator Paul White, who I expect showing up in the credits of quite a few albums in the near future). Add all that to the deceptively crude lyrics (“Downward Spiral” might contain the most depressingly graphic description of a threesome in music history) and intelligent flows (the cadence of the verses in “Ain’t It Funny” and “Pneumonia” is off the chain in the best way possible) that Danny Brown made his trademark back on XXX, and you have a strong contender for 2016’s best hip-hop album. In the chorus of “When It Rain”, Danny tells us that “they don’t do it like this no more”, and he’s right, but did they ever? — Luke Fowler
Hopelessness by Anohni
On her debut album, Anohni offered a call to arms against the ecocides and sociopolitical injustices precipitated by our species. On its face, the moniker Hopelessness seems devastating in its accuracy. Humanity has infiltrated every habitable corner of the planet, often asking more of her than she can provide. Unthinkable abundance and astonishing scarcity coexist side by side, creating friction like a match against a striker. Instability grows, brought to bear by doctrinaire non-state actors and foreign policies that seem more hawkish and less accountable with each passing day.
If that preamble seems dense and depressing, just listen. Anohni’s explorations of 21st century ills are deeply poetic and complimented wonderfully by the production talents of Hudson Mohawk and Oneohtrix Point Never. It’s a lush, worldly and ultramodern platform for her hegemonic takedowns. This is to say nothing about how the album carries itself. Sure as the exhaustion and exasperation, you can hear the calm, the dignity, the optimism. The Earth is slipping away, but we have it in us to hold on a bit tighter. — Brendan Frank
Anti by Rihanna
2016 was the year when all of our brightest young pop stars — Kanye, Beyonce, Frank — toyed with our expectations and then threw them right out the window. But the first person to do it, arguably the trendsetter, was Rihanna. Since the advent of Beyonce, many of pop’s leading lights have been trying to be full-album auteurs — Anti shows that Rihanna can craft a 40-minute-plus vision as good as any of them. The prevailing theme? Rihanna doing whatever the hell she wants. Whatever we were expecting from Rihanna’s long-gestating eighth album, Anti probably wasn’t it. Where previous Rihanna tracks and albums were polished, melodic, and dangerous in measured doses, Anti is brash, confounding, and messy — an LP-length kiss-off. It’s to her credit (and let’s be honest, her genius) that the album minted a handful of dynamite hit singles anyways — from the dancehall burner “Work” to the Harmony Korine-influenced “Needed Me” to the latest entry in the bonus track hall-of-fame, “Sex With Me”. Rihanna is all over the map on Anti – psychedelic pop covers, doo-wop throwbacks, alienating skronk-pop, and a healthy dose of heartrending balladry thrown in for good measure. It’s remarkably confusing and unfailingly compelling. Anti is an addled, scattershot journey through the mind of one of contemporary pop’s preeminent provocateurs. We may have no idea where she’s going next, but until we find out, we have Anti, a career-best record as chaotic as the pop star and the year that birthed it. — Zach Bernstein
Untitled Unmastered by Kendrick Lamar
Guesting on one of the best records of the year and making one of the best records of the year somehow makes 2016 slower than 2015 for Kendrick Lamar. His verse on Beyoncé’s masterpiece is on a track called “Freedom”, it doubles as not only a solid feature, but as a cry to be free from the expectations of making one of the most critically acclaimed records of the decade. It only takes two minutes and forty-five seconds into Untitled Unmastered for Kendrick to reference To Pimp A Butterfly, I guess he is thinking the same thing that we are — how do you follow up a record that critics, fans and Barrack Obama loved? You sidestep with a non follow up. He said he made butterfly for us, so who did he make this one for? This one is for him. Kendrick as archivist, cleaning out the hard drive, putting out the best stuff left as a move to give it all before he moves on to his next cocoon. Ultimately what we have here is more from Butterfly, not that anyone would complain. Is anything here as strong as the material from last year? That’s the wrong question, the right question is, is anyone else as creative and compelling a rapper as Kendrick Lamar in 2016, and the answer is no. — Landon MacDonald
A Seat at the Table by Solange
Since her first album, Solo Star, critics wrote Solange Knowles off as a blank canvas for forward-thinking producers, from Timbaland to Dev Hynes. A Seat at the Table is an extraordinary disavowal of this faulty notion. On this record, Solange emerges fully formed as a strong, intelligent, political, and profoundly necessary voice.
Solange has often resisted being typecast as “just” an R&B singer, and she backs up that resistance here with aplomb. Like To Pimp a Butterfly, A Seat at the Table pulls itself together from African-American culture across time, medium, and genre. This album maintains an even dialogue with Langston Hughes, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Master P throughout. With an assist from neo-soul wunderkind Raphael Saadiq, Solange fuses her multifarious influences (with a dash of indie rock a la David Longstreth and Rostam Batmanglij) into a contemporary album uniquely her own.
The result is a frank and powerful meditation on black female identity in the United States. Weary as Solange may be, she remains fierce and determined on tracks like “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.” She combines an unflinching look at the anger and unrest in her heart with the solace natural to her voice, yielding an essential call to push forward and thrive. — Colin Groundwater
Freetown Sound by Blood Orange
In a year of memorable team-ups, Dev Hynes offered an album that wasn’t just collaborative but also communal. A full-throated critique of institutional biases and a sendup of 80s production values in all their glossed-up glory, Freetown Sound is a sprawling, adventurous and inclusive work. The tracks bleed into one another, standing as a single, resolute statement. Hynes continues to demonstrate an immaculate sense of when to step forward and when to withdraw into the shadows, using his color wheel of guest stars to advance what is undeniably his vision.
Ditching Blood Orange’s previously relaxed persona for a sharper political conscience, Hynes’ dazzlingly realized sound is a backdrop for serious conversations. Matters of faith and family co-mingle with the frustration and fatigue that permeate discussions on race relations, which are as poor as they’ve been in a while. But for all these broad, overwhelming topics, Freetown Sound is also surprisingly introspective. Across 17 tracks, Hynes looks in the mirror more than he looks out the window. It’s the sound of a man trying to make sense of himself in a world that makes no sense at all. — Brendan Frank
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson
Ever since Sturgill Simpson set foot in front of a more widely populated public eye, he’s been compared to other people. Most often, it’s a testament to his vocal styling, which is to say: He sounds like the glory-days country music Nashville has been quick to forget. Simpson’s finger is on a completely different pulse, and it manifests itself as a reminder of what once was, and why.
Even still, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson’s masterful third LP, seems tailor-built to shake the comparison to something that has existed once already. Because even if those comparisons are purely complimentary—you don’t relate an artist to Waylon Jennings with intent to insult—Sturgill Simpson is simply a different artist than anyone else. He’s seen other things, and he’s fought other battles. Sailor’s Guide travels far and wide to expose the breadth of Simpson’s talent, and it succeeds marvelously.
Album slugger “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”, is a top-heavy alt-country shuffle with grit to spare, delivering well-crafted melody and lyrics en masse. On the other end of the spectrum, “Breakers Roar”, exposes a much more tender and emotional fabric, one that has coursed through the veins of Sturgill Simpson’s records since his first forays into the industry. Then there’s his jarring rendition of Nirvana’s “In Bloom”. Simpson’s precision is surgical; he peels back the gritty layers of the original and buffs the surface to feel softer and more refined. And truthfully, what Simpson does to “In Bloom” is a picture-perfect snapshot of the album’s mission. The foundation may have been set by someone else, but Sailor’s Guide goes above and beyond to assert that the only person to which anyone should compare Sturgill Simpson is Sturgill Simpson. — Austin Reed
Jeffery by Young Thug
Noise, glorious noise! The gender-fluid woman-loving alien’s dreamiest and most casually delightful release yet flows less like a great trap record than a great dub record, with grooves leaking strange and cushy sounds that’d make Perry or Pablo proud. Starting with warm brassy swells and coming down with gorgeous late-night lounge piano as Wyclef delivers his catchiest verse in years, aside from “Harambe” there ain’t a truly generic beat to be found.
Trap albums have a hard time reaching classic status for the same reasons as dub and punk: the rhythmic and/or sonic base that defines them takes an extra-brilliant sense of invention to diversify and consistently engage. Here, every track has a signature that’s odd without being self-conscious about it: wispy siren bending harmony under Gunna in “Floyd Mayweather”; beautiful wavy synth and surprise acoustic guitar in “Webbie”; Wheezy’s pale blissful underwatery wooze in “Swizz Beatz”, and rippling treble in “RiRi”.
When Thug tries to go full Future with a discount “New Slaves” bass, you can tell he’s not quite at home, and Quavo’s increasingly tiresome hashtag rapping almost rubs off on Jeff. But it’s a pleasure listening to how he rolls these vowels with such a gift for offhand melody-making, yipping like a dog and howling ‘Iiii know’ in “RiRi”, creaking the hook of “Webbie” into something catchy, playing with the word ‘love’ in “Swizz Beatz” like a cat with a ball of yarn. Impulsive surrealism is rarely so funny or sublime. — Nathan Wisnicki
Wildflower by The Avalanches
Dense, playful and proudly psych, Wildflower aims for hippie transcendence as openly as anyone since Brian Wilson, maybe more explicitly than any indie touchstone since The Soft Bulletin. But it’s aware how stupid a lot of that we-are-one sentiment sounds in 2016. On one hand, it brings in realists like Father John Misty and Danny Brown (who talks about drugs in the polar-opposite way of most of the bands we love from the ‘60s) to dump the occasional bucket of fish guts on the love parade. On the other hand it plays up its own idiocy with stretches of music that pine so floridly for the heavens it’s hard to say whether you should laugh or surrender yourself to its acid-spangled vision. Leading this train is Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, now something like the band’s frontman, whose sheepish vocals nail that Brian Wilson sweet spot between happy and sad.
Wildflower is ideologically confusing, ridiculous often at the same time as being beautiful, and one of the best psych-pop albums in ages — a more solid listen than Since I Left You, if more meticulous and less freewheeling, ultimately a classic worth the wait. — Daniel Bromfield
22, A Million by Bon Iver
At least from a musical standpoint, 2016 has brought forth an overwhelming amount of conclusiveness. This is a welcome development, for me at least; not until this year did I realize how cloudy my definition of “good,” can sometimes be as it relates to music. But as the lines in the sand became more and more pronounced, I was able to give up using douchey phrases like, “I can’t really explain it,” and “It’s good from an ethereal level.”
Bon Iver’s third LP 22, A Million is probably the clearest-cut example I have, here. Ever since the advent of debut LP For Emma, Forever Ago in 2008, Justin Vernon’s appeal has been as hard to describe as an acid trip. Recognizing his genius was easy, but qualifying the individual pieces of it was difficult because, at least early on, Bon Iver’s music was naturally fragmented. As a result, every description seemed accidentally misappropriated and unformed.
So then Vernon dropped Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and for a minute, I postulated that Vernon was more a transgressor than anything. He actively zagged to mine melody. He constantly broke rules to achieve an authentic sound. He used saxophones. But songs like “Perth”, “Towers”, and “Beth/Rest” were so insatiably pretty that it became easier and easier to just take Bon Iver, Bon Iver at face value. Which, of course, was a fragmented approach to further understanding Bon Iver, the artist. I loved what I heard, but I was no closer to understanding why.
I’ll skip ahead: Even before 22, A Million dropped, Bon Iver had already reshaped the way we hear and comprehend sound, especially as it relates to ancillary sounds. He contorts production and rhythm like it’s being run through a Play-Doh Fun Factory, and he isn’t afraid to mix colors—even the ones that don’t go well together at first glance—because he knows that at the end of the day, it’s just fucking Play-Doh. His unwillingness to take himself too seriously materializes as a beautiful sonic edifice climbing endlessly upward and outward, well beyond our sight lines. But on 22, A Million, he uses elements of past albums to shorten the distance between themes. A cappella-sort-of ballad “715 (Creeks),” bears a striking resemblance to minimal low-fi stunner “Woods”. On tracks like “666 (Upsidedowncross)”, and “45”, the texture is almost palpable, conveying earnest not via lyrics, but via unbridled melody. And album pinnacles “33 ‘God’”, and “8 (Circle)”, are among the most truly iconic Bon Iver tracks to date, pitching musical fragmentation this time as less a fractured concept and more a mosaic-style compilation of sound and emotion. Vernon may be the irreverent auteur we’ve all labeled him to be, but he’s on to something much bigger than just a genre-breaking album. — Austin Reed
Teens of Denial by Car Seat Headrest
Led by Virginia’s Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest was surely one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. After undeservedly languishing in anonymity for the better half of a decade, the uber-prolific group broke through in a big way with their tenth studio LP Teens of Denial. So it’s entirely fitting that the songs on here feel earned. They overflow with the type of heart, humor and honesty that can only come from trial and error, self-reflection, and maybe a bad trip or two.
Throughout Teens of Denial, Toledo proves endlessly capable of negotiating and reconciling the coming-of-age ennui with profound or laugh-out-loud moments. Even when numb existentialism begins to creep into his voice, he remains fiercely articulate. He’ll touch a nerve you’d forgotten could be jangled, or invoke a memory that will make you feel like you could have been there. Indie rock’s legacy runs through the songwriting, but as you take in the overwhelming expanses of epics like “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, and “Vincent”, it’s clear that Toledo is both a revisionist and a futurist. He’s carving a path to somewhere unknown. He may pause to tip his cap to the landmarks he encounters along the way, but he’s always barreling onward. — Brendan Frank
Malibu by Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak’s kaleidoscopic sophomore record Malibu shares much in common with Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book — the sunny, surf-bound yin to Chance’s concrete-jungle yang. Though Paak may most easily classify as “hip-hop/R&B”, one of his most impressive qualities is how easily and fluidly he can embody so many different sounds and styles in a single track. He’s clearly a devoted student of popular music; he can drum, sing, rap, compose — a modern-day superfly. Over the course of sixteen tight tracks and not a single wasted minute, Paak paints a glimmering portrait of California skies and evening block parties. The standout singles are absolute fire — the modern disco party-starter “Am I Wrong”, the dangerously funky James Brown séance “Come Down”, the booze-soaked “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance”.
But what really makes Malibu such an instant classic is its overall cohesion and consistency — the effortlessly cultivated no-worries mood and seamless transition from one track to another. It seems like there’s nothing that Paak can’t handle — he excels at old-school, sample-driven hip-hop (“Without You”, “Room in Here”), D’Angelo-indebted neo-soul (“The Waters”, “The Bird”), and sensuous, pleading bedroom jams (“Silicon Valley”, “Water Fall”). It’s all complemented by his free-flowing, raspy yelp — sweet and sour in equal measures. Beneath his musical omnivorousness, Paak’s optimism and energy is hard-won and well-deserved, having transformed himself from homeless to hit singles in just a few years. That narrative adds an extra poignancy to sentiments like “I believe, we all want the best in life, so let’s celebrate while we still can” (“Celebrate”) and a more profound joy to victory laps like closer “The Dreamer”. By the time Paak, Talib Kweli, and a full choir have finished their final chant of “don’t stop now, keep dreaming,” you feel the love and warmth that produced this magnificent record. — Zach Bernstein
Blackstar by David Bowie
Blackstar will forever be in a quantum state. There is, of course, the version that we all prefer: A twilight renaissance, one of the freakiest left turns in a career defined by reinvention, the best album in decades from one of the most storied and fascinating artists in the history of modern pop music. Then there’s the version that came into existence in the late hours of January 10: An album that’s engineered to be posthumous, but isn’t. Blackstar immediately took on an entirely new guise, the literalism in the lyrics and music videos coming into focus in painful ways.
This shroud will never retreat from Blackstar. It’s as entrenched in the narrative as Major Tom, The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke are on their respective albums. But to define it in these terms is a disservice to what is a richly felt and innovative work. With the help of Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre and Mark Guiliana , David Robert Jones said farewell with an experimental jazz album that has more in common with Death Grips or Floating Points than with anything else in his catalogue. That he had more gas left in the tank all along is something to celebrate.
Blackstar deserves to be heard free of association, but it will always have its ghosts — Bowie among them. His voice is rasped, frail and restless, most evident in the plaintive resignation of “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days”, the feral ire of “Girl Loves Me” and the twitchy rhythms and drones of the title track. There wasn’t another album this year with a better idea of what it wanted to be. Permeated by death and disease, Blackstar still brims with creativity, style and gratitude. It’s hard to think of a more suitable parting gift. It’s hard to imagine a more graceful exit. — Brendan Frank
A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
Ever since Hail to the Thief, Radiohead’s process for making albums has become the most reliable thing about them. It consists of some permutation of songwriting, workshopping, implementing a democratic, single-minded vision, and trawling their unreleased catalogue for potential fits. The latter practice has become more prominent in recent years. Never mind their nine LPs; you could probably release three quality Radiohead records made of nothing but discards and works-in-progress. If The King of Limbs deviated from this script slightly (I’ve always been of the mind that it resembles two sister EPs), A Moon Shaped Pool is a full-force course correction.
A Moon Shaped Pool is unified not just in sound but also in spirit. At its best, it’s breathtaking. Held together loosely by fragments of psych-folk, chamber piano and intrepid string arrangements from Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead hollow out grooves that are deeper and harbor far more sonic detail. Each track is endowed with its own flavor. There are the nightmarish flutters that weave in and out of the guitar thicket on “Ful Stop”, the lucid, liquid effects on “Daydreaming”, and the Latin tinge of “Present Tense”. In hindsight, The King of Limbs is a mere palette cleanser.
A Moon Shaped Pool had been in incubation for over 20 years. Radiohead’s anxieties — climate change, groupthink, alien abductions — really haven’t changed in the time since. But they’re no longer angry and angsty. Instead they sound world-weary, wizened and more emotionally open than ever; and the music matches the mood. It’s safe to say A Moon Shaped Pool is the beneficiary of experience. It’s truly is a career-spanning effort, bookended by songs that have existed in some form since the 1990s. If you want an example of how forward thinking they really are, look how aptly “Burn the Witch”, written during the Kid A era, was able to describe the state of populist politics in 2016. It’s the one Radiohead always had in them. And, like everything they do, it’s executed with obsessive perfectionism. — Brendan Frank
Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper is the hero we need right now — youthful, lyrically and musically gifted, and fundamentally an optimist. In a year with so much disappointment and uncertainty, I, and so many other listeners, returned to Coloring Book time and time again for a much needed infusion of positivity and old-time religion. Fulfilling on the block-party promise of last year’s Surf, the long-awaited Coloring Book (“Chance 3”) is the gorgeous realization of Chancellor Bennett’s journey into stardom. A true work of “hip-hop gospel,” Coloring Book is an exuberant ode to the wonders of childhood, the growing pains of adulthood, and the breathless joy of simply being alive — I dare you to find any other songs in 2016 that synthesize those sentiments more affectingly than album centerpiece “Same Drugs”. The highlights of Coloring Book, and underlying guest appearances, are too numerous to count — the hilarious verses turned by 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne on standout “No Problem”, Jamila Woods’ beautiful vocal hook on “Blessings”, star turns from D.R.A.M. and Francis and the Lights, Kirk Franklin’s closing valediction on “Finish Line/Drown”, the list goes on and on. And while Chance managed to bring a quorum of 2016’s most influential Black musicians into his project, the vision remains uniquely his.
It helps that Chance has one of the most endlessly listenable voices in pop music right now — alternating between dexterous, boisterous hip-hop flow, delightfully amateurish singing, and inscrutable yelps that reveal him struggling to contain his own bubbling energy. His lyrics remain clever, relatable, and insightful as ever, from recalling roller rink excursions in “Juke Jam” to his life-affirming, semi-protest jam on gun violence, “Angels”. Like the rich blue and pink hues of the album cover, as well as its evocative title, the record paints Chance’s world in bright, bold swathes of color. And to think that he gave the damn thing away for free. “I used to pass out music, I still pass out music,” he bashfully crows on the album’s closing reprise of “Blessings”. Let us hope that his generosity never stops flowing — Chance’s music is a blessing to all of us. — Zach Bernstein
Blonde by Frank Ocean
I fell hard for Blonde in the early-going for its melodic nuances and unprecedented vocal magnitude, and had I only listened to the record one or two times, Blonde would’ve still qualified as a top album based entirely on its superior musicianship and production. But Frank Ocean loyalists aren’t Frank Ocean loyalists because of his predilection for catchy albums. They’re there because he’s a young, black, bisexual modern man who suffers the exact same discrimination and hate at the root of Philando Castile’s death. Or, to hear Frank tell it, of Trayvon Martin’s. What Ocean exhibits on Blonde goes beyond tactical self-evaluation. It’s emotional awareness at its rawest and most relatable, almost like he’s plucking that one golden chord an entire generation hear. His vantage point and anecdotal evidence might be a little more vivid, but his message is nearly universal, and Blonde wins beyond its instrumentation for how luridly Ocean illustrates chipped pride, irreconcilable division, hopeful love and human connection.
He approaches that message from a handful of equally considerable angles. On pre-drop “Nikes”, Ocean scowls at materialism’s adverse effects on humanity’s emotional range. Warped waltz “Pink and White” juxtaposes que sera, sera with absolute control. “Nights” goes deep as a pop-centric Jekyll/Hyde, morphing from an upbeat lament on the working class into a guttural saunter evoking the pure distress of poverty. “Close to You” is like a gorgeous sonic interpretation of “I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed.” And album/2016 high-water mark “White Ferrari” is a striking examination of Frank Ocean mid-daydream. It’s a memory mixed with a hallucination mixed with an imaginative mental self-portrait, and the result sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard. As does Blonde, Frank Ocean’s deeply profound, alarmingly transformative, uniquely triumphant third LP. Come for the sound, but stay for the story. You’ll never be the same. — Austin Reed
The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
Taking Pablo as a Whole is futile — it’s too loopy, not just unfocused but shamelessly unfocused, and on first listen the album felt obnoxiously puerile, like Kanye finally played into the hands of his harshest critics. Yeezus was grotesque, but its ugliness was hyper-realized into something tight and visceral and nightmarish, whereas Pablo is disturbing in a different way: it seems settled with its ugly imperfections, breaking no new musical ground for Kanye beyond the occasional weird attempts at these hyperactive prog-hop things that generally don’t come off. All that’s left to grab are the sounds. And at their best, the sounds — this being Kanye — are syntheses of mad genius more colorful and lively and fucking stirring than those of anyone else in contemporary pop.
For every “oh God, why?” there’s a “but wow, listen to that!” right around the corner so vivid you keep coming back. “Ultralight Beam” suffers by comparison to its Chance-associated influence “Miracle”…but the burbling, woogling Auto-Tune licks and humid synth breathing in and out, eyes glowing open in the morning, is Kanye’s warmest production since Late Registration. “Father Stretch My Hands” has that “bleached asshole” bit, a doozy of a face-palmer in a storied career of same…but the rough clip of the warbling soul sample poignantly emphasizes “real” and “fake” sounds clashing and blending. “Famous” has crap lyrics and leans heavily on nostalgia (“Jesus Walks”, “Good Morning”, Taylor Swift)…but its steady blazed-out vibe, Rihanna’s beautiful Nina Simone interpolation, and that glorious party-ready sample flip in the last minute-and-a-half with hi-hat peeking in and out to keep the groove active, is a fuck-it-all celebration of the highest order. “Feedback” signifies nothing beyond bad-assery…but Ye’s delivery is locked-in (“drivin’ in the same car that they killed Pac in…”) and the synth noises are savage, snarling like feral mutated digital wolves, rats and wyverns separated by an airy hum of a dying animal in a well. “Waves” develops nothing beyond one blissed-out loop, and Chris Brown’s there (seriously, why?)…but Kanye layers the vocal tracks into new colors for a great “wistful summer evening beach party” song that sounds like its title. “FML” continues Ye’s use of obnoxious or banal performers (Bon Iver, Rick Ross, Chris Brown)…but he applies the Weeknd’s whine creatively, offsetting him with wobbly synth-string chords that evoke a resigned, fading battlefield, and the last minute — Kanye singing “they don’t wanna see me love you” over and over again through heavy Auto-Tune, knowing he can’t hit the notes but trying anyway while an evil voice urges its lab rat to “forget all your cares” — is a deeply unsettling section of music. “Wolves” had masterpiece potential and failed, with the rapping not even trying to accent the unearthly, haunted quality of the sophisticated sonic bed…but the horn-call-in-the-forest outro and the spare vocal loop itself once again evoke the title. “30 Hours” features Ye’s increasingly worrisome sex-shaming…but it’s touching in a casual way, with some of the uglier lines rattling around in the mix (and Kanye’s head) to let the reflective pain linger, and the lo-fi underwater blurriness of the Arthur Russell sample allows stream-of-consciousness to take hold as it becomes a humming, pulsing freestyle/shout-out track. (“You wasn’t mine though/But I still drove thirty hours” is my favorite line on the album.) “No More Parties in LA” is overlong…but it delivers on a long-rumored collaboration by tempering Madlib’s stoner distractions while emphasizing his stoner texturing, plus it’s sadistically thrilling to hear Kanye demolish Kendrick. Even “Highlights”, a mess of several brief sections of wildly varying mood and quality shoved together, features Young Thug’s lovely melody-making.
Kanye isn’t even trying to hide the fact that he’s as much a rock artist as a rap artist, leveraging Pablo’s release as a Creative Event in a pretty groundbreaking way that might become standard. But more to the point is that for him to remain in touch with these types of feelings, consistent or not, while taking so many chances with his image with so little regard for musical convention…well, it helps justify pop music as an art form at a time when pop — and we — badly need its jolt. As settled as it may be, Kanye’s well aware of how dire the circumstances are, and re-listening to the thrumming tension between dread and beauty at the end of “Wolves”, wherein an ambient-house synth tries to buoy precious life up to a terrifying and indifferent sky, I’d like to report that 2016 marks something of a demarcation point, wherein things just have to change because they couldn’t get any bleaker. Unless they just, y’know, do. — Nathan Wisnicki
Lemonade by Beyoncé
How do you follow an album as formally and logistically groundbreaking as Beyoncé? Had Beyoncé Knowles-Carter delivered little more than another collection of top-notch songs and videos, wouldn’t she have seemed stuck on repeat? Wouldn’t we have accused her of simply treading water, thus halting the meteoric creative trajectory that began with 2011’s breakthrough 4?
If you’re an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber, why not instead mine the marital tumult of your personal life, knowing full well you’re unleashing a media heyday, the picking apart of your lyrics for endless click-bait fodder?
And what about the disgusting, institutionalized destruction of innocent black bodies (to borrow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ linguistic construction), a national shame since before our country’s founding, which has recently boiled to the surface and birthed the Black Lives Matter movement? Why not risk your status as America’s Sweetheart to dive headfirst into the culture wars, particularly during a toxic election season, knowing full well critics, on both sides, will shout allegations of crass opportunism?
And if you’re going to do it, to go all in, shouldn’t it first happen at the Super Bowl, the grandest and most American platform imaginable? Who still remembers that Coldplay officially headlined the 2016 halftime show? Chris Martin and his bandmates, maybe?
So, when the final result of these decisions, however calculated, is the magnificent Lemonade, an album, yes, but also the groundwork for correspondingly inspired endeavors – a film that ranks among the year’s best, an incredible stadium tour, a handful of jaw-dropping televised performances – shouldn’t we, the audience, the recipients of such bravura artistry respond in kind? Shouldn’t we match such a startling leap with equal enthusiasm, the naysayers on social media be damned?
More to the point: When can you safely call a new pop album a masterpiece, a work worthy of the kind of serious consideration usually reserved for more “respectable” genres? Can it happen instantly, without the seeming certainty of time’s delayed consensus?
Can a single dazzling visual sequence tip the scales and distinguish the immortal from the merely fantastic? Can we point to the footage of Prince as he hits a glorious falsetto coda onstage at the First Avenue nightclub, during Purple Rain’s title track? Can we point to the footage of Madonna as she dances in front of burning crosses, during Like a Prayer’s title track? Can we point to the footage of Michael Jackson as he menaces his helpless date, during Thriller’s title track?
If the answer is yes, can’t we also point to the footage of Beyoncé, as she strides down a city block, wreaking havoc with a baseball bat during “Hold Up”, the latest example of pop and art fusing, the product of both being marked as timeless? Don’t our wide eyes mirror those of that joyous bystander, who’s left awestruck as Queen Bey bashes her first car window?
Is it unfair to consider visuals when evaluating a sonic artwork? Maybe so, but isn’t it just as unfair to drop context and ignore extraordinary instances when sound meets motion and generates something finer still? Though Lemonade, at its purest, remains a feminist triumph and a seamless concept album of betrayal and redemption, twelve perfect songs about being torn apart and slowly patched back together – wasn’t it also the springboard for 2016’s greatest live performances? How can we forget the phenomenal suite of Lemonade tracks that handily upstaged Rihanna’s big night at the VMAs? Or the fabulous Dixie Chicks collaboration of “Daddy Lessons” that brought down the house at the CMAs? Or the explosive catharsis of “Freedom” that electrified the BET awards stage?
Is Beyoncé even “just” a pop star any longer? What does it mean when the Grammys nominate her blockbuster LP across multiple categories, not only pop, but rap, R&B, and rock at once? What does it mean when country nods, too, were taken into real consideration (and, wrongfully, rejected)?
How long have we heard that the album, as a format, is dead and buried? If Lemonade hasn’t put to rest that ridiculous claim, can you imagine the bigger, bolder, and broader work that does so at long last? — Peter Tabakis