Illustration by John Garrison
What a great year 2016 was! Nothing bad happened at all and everyone was unanimously happy! It's hard to even think of a single event that caused anyone heartache or anxiety or anger. Thinking… thinking… nope, 100 percent good vibes this year! Yes siree, 2016 has been smooooth sailing for everyone, with nothing unpleasant to speak of, and we're sad to see it go. So, as we bid these golden 365 days adieu, let us look back at the Noisey staff's 100 favorite musical releases that came out during this not at all catastrophically atrocious shitstain of a year.
Last year, the entire world unanimously agreed that Future was better than Jay Z, Nas, and Biggie combined (this is scientific fact, don't look it up). At the start of 2016, the Atlanta rapper returned with Purple Reign, an initially divisive project that history will remember as one of his strongest. Tracks like "Inside the Mattress" and "Wicked" find our hero Nayvadius Cash in his finest form: an intoxicating blend of syrupy bass and lyrics that are raw, self-destructive, desperate, careless, sick, hopeless—unwilling to compromise reckless decision making or even recognize pain. Then there's "Run Up," which—fuck, who's ready to stand on some furniture? Purple Reign may be looked at as the final act in Future's villain era, a run of projects that continually outdid the previous installment with the ability to both turn up and self-loathe. Purple Reign's finest moment comes near the end with "Perkys Calling," a linchpin song in the quest for any card-carrying member of #FutureHive—an existence determined by the ability to not only listen to Future, but understand him. —Eric Sundermann
Abra, the pop defender of Atlanta's sort-of-hip-hop crew Awful Records, was born in New York, grew up in London, moved back stateside, and ditched college to write music. This year, the singer and producer hit us with PRINCESS, an atypically sparse pop and R&B record. Yet another Atlantan with the world at their feet, Abra takes her love of fantasy, rebellion, and 1980s motifs, and wields them to create soundscapes under brutally and cavalierly honest stories of sex, heartbreak, and self-love. For all its bravado, PRINCESS feels decidedly coming of age while also sounding way cooler than growing up should be allowed to sound. —Issy Beech
JANK, the pop punk band from Philadelphia, scored a hit with their first EP, Awkward Pop Songs, and quickly followed up with an equally good if not better second record, Versace Summer. With a combination of jazz and surf rock, JANK crafts tales of everything from losing a bicycle and hoping it's happy to the Grim Reefer, a nod to the paranoia involved with smoking weed. Like we wrote earlier this year, "If Awkward Pop Songs was JANK's joke-cracking icebreaker, then Versace Summer is your fourth time hanging out with them, the point where things start to get less funny and more serious." With it, they give listeners a sense of optimistic nihilism, creating sad songs about sad things in a way that allows fans to laugh a little at being sad. —Annalise Domenighini
"[Don't Step on Your] Shadow,"a track from Kaleidoscope's V.2 N.2: ZONE EXPLORERS, sounds like drifting in and out of heavy sedation while listening to doctors in the corridor outside discuss your brain surgery. Shiva, from New York's JJ Doll, continues his excellent and bizarre take on punk rock that blends elements of Dawn of Humans distortion, the psyched paranoia of Destruction Unit, and some Dead Head-type jams that he somehow manages to pull together through interesting melodic hooks. This is New York punk inspired more by Velvet Underground, Urban Waste, and Eric B and Rakim than any CBGB matinee hardcore stuff, and it sounds cool as hell. —Tim Scott
BJ Barham is known most popularly for fronting the rock 'n' roll band American Aquarium, but a forced quarantine in a Brussels hotel following the Bataclan attacks in November 2015 turned his attention home. Homesick but unable to leave the country, Barham wrote this entire record in the span of those two days, a mix of personal and fictional stories centered around his hometown of Reidsville, North Carolina. In Rockingham, Barham details the decline of the American Dream from the perspective of a World War II veteran forced to watch jobs promised to him and his fellow soldiers dry up and disappear due to mechanization or lack of positions. Though not written to be a political statement, the album becomes a haunting one in the Trump era of America, where thousands of members of the working class attempted to reconcile who they are with their lack of income in a violent and xenophobic way during the election. By recalling life in his small hometown, Barham tells the stories of these people stuck in dead end jobs in a rapidly decaying town, unhappy and unable to pay the bills, that feel applicable to the residents of America's more populous cities —Annalise Domenighini
Beach Impediment Records is fast becoming a standout hardcore label, and in 2016 it released records by Warthog, Blood Pressure, Strutter, and Montreal powerhouse Omegas. Power to Exist, the much anticipated follow-up to 2011's Blasts of Lunacy, has Omegas further exploring weird Die Kreuzen-type outsider Midwest punk and raging early New York City hardcore. Tracks like "Drug Zoo" and "Duster's Blues" come with some heavy "overturned office furniture" vibes, and by the time vocalist Ryan "Hoagie" Hogan gets to the unhinged "Lord and the Stud," it's about time for everyone to get outside and walk it off. —Tim Scott
Garbage has had a string of shit luck over the last 15 years. It all started with the unfortunately timed release date of their third album, Beautiful Garbage—three weeks after September 11, 2001. The album was lost in the chaos, and its shortcomings largely derailed the momentum Garbage had gained throughout the 90s that led them to become international superstars. Anyone who remembered the MTV-dominating glory days of Garbage—specifically, its badass cult-icon frontwoman Shirley Manson—was quietly pulling for them to make a triumphant return. The faithful were rewarded this year with Strange Little Birds, a return to form for Manson and company. Garbage makes no attempt at tacking on cheap modern gimmicks or compromising on their sound, and Manson's attitude is the same as it ever was —a glimmer of light peeking out of an abyss of darkness. Strange Little Birds is a refined and matured version of the Garbage that people fell in love with in the 90s, and after 15 years, it was worth the wait. —Dan Ozzi
Blood Bitch is an album about many things, including, but not limited to, vampires, menstrual blood, and capitalism. But beneath those heady themes lies a fundamental human question: Can art exist beyond the politics of power—and if so, what does that look like? In seeking the answers, and in the taboos Hval confronts along the way, Blood Bitch emerges as a remarkable piece of art unto itself that extends well beyond the sphere of music. Just as remarkable are the pop sensibilities Hval wields to allow an otherwise esoteric pursuit to get under your skin. Alongside collaborators like noise producer Lasse Marhaug, Hval's penchant for hooks, rhythm, and deconstructed pop amounts to a rich, cohesive listen that, for all of its conceptual and sonic complexities, makes it easy to leave on repeat. "Conceptual Romance" and "Female Vampire" are among its more conventional songs, guided by Hval's featherlight voice (never has talk of speculums, technological dread, and "soft dick rock" sounded so sweet), synth washes, and tribal rhythms. By the time you get to the sampling and dissonance of tracks like "The Plague," you'll be too deep into parsing her existential puzzle for it to phase you. Hval herself still may not know the answer, but that's perhaps the point. "Relax," she reminds us. "It's just blood." —Andrea Domanick
In the beginning, there was Torontopia: a romanticized 2000s Toronto where Broken Social Scene's runaway success with its infinite members reverberated as an idea of infinite possibility throughout a community of indie, rock, and punk bands—a notion that they too could access such heights. The end, happily ever after, right? Not so much. Hooded Fang shed any trace of their late Torontopia indie-pop origins on Venus on Edge for lo-fi post-punk dystopia, exposing the shortcomings of their so-called music city metropolis and others. Barbed, distorted guitar slashes tear down white privilege on "Shallow," commodification on "Dead Battery," condo culture on "Glass Shadows," and then some. With its synthesized death knell, album highlight, "A Final Hello," exemplifies that Hooded Fang's smallest lineup has produced their biggest sound, echoing melodic guitars, eruptions of distortion, and driving bass. —Jill Krajewski
Fatimah Warner's debut mixtape as Noname now looks like it'll be her last.That isn't shocking, though: Telefone took three years to see the light of day precisely because Warner is such a relentless perfectionist. As soon as she ventured into the limelight with a gut-wrenchingly candid verse on Chance the Rapper's Acid Rap cut "Lost," it was clear that she cared more about her poetic realization than the shiny baubles of critical acclaim. So, in part to emphasize her impermanence, Telefone opens with a brief manifesto, delivered over soft neo-soul in her semi-detached style: "And I know the money don't really make me whole / The magazine covers drenched in gold." For Warner, it's about "The little things I need to save my soul." Telefone's focus on mortality isn't a just comment on artistic retreat; young black Americans have to think about death in a way that young white Americans simply do not. So Warner considers death while surrounding herself with a group of prodigies, including Raury, The Mind, Xavier Omar. On closer "Shadow Man," she gathers a few of them to prepare their own eulogies. Saba: "Bury me in satin, tell the pastors say the sad shit." Smino: "Tell em play Metro Boomin' at my funeral." And as for Warner, she speaks to God in public: "My funeral a Disney fable / Cause the King about to take me home." —Alex Robert Ross
Carlotta Cosials's voice sounds like so much fun that it's practically demonic. The Hinds member is and always has been the devil inside the listener's head. She's not just telling you to cancel tomorrow morning's alarm, take another shot, and call in sick. She's telling you to throw your phone into oncoming traffic, sneak in a bottle of tequila, and quit your job. But Leave Me Alone hides anxieties beneath its wine-addled revelry and Bay Area guitars, with Phil Spector-esque harmonies carrying the same heartache and longing that his 60s girl groups once embodied. "And I Will Send Your Flowers Back," a pretty and ragged ballad, finds co-vocalist Ana Perrote drawling about lost love deferred, Cosials whispering and then wailing above her; first it's a "gap in my chest," then a "search for your soul," and then, finally, "What a fucked up mess." On "Easy," Perotte sings, "You said it was gonna be easy / Now you're driving away […] Now I'm all on my own." These moments of shattering vulnerability suggest that Hinds have plenty of places to go, and they'll be an essential pop band for as long as they damn well please. —Alex Robert Ross
Heartbreak is the central theme to Elise Davis's first full-length album, The Token. Though it's one of the pillars of country music, female singers are rarely allowed to write about it outside the context of being scorned and destroying their ex's property—see Miranda Lambert's "Gunpowder and Lead," Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats," or anything by Kelsea Ballerini or Taylor Swift (before she went full-on pop) if you need more proof that women are only really permitted to be angry or in love if they want to make it big in the industry. Instead, Davis writes songs about being in love, losing love, wanting and being wanted, and sometimes just wanting something casual. Elise Davis is able to sing about the highs and lows of it all in a way that's both reflective and forward-moving. She sings about the despondence of a break up and the nihilism that can come with feeling terminally single, of being at the lowest of the lows, while also celebrating the independence of not being attached on songs like "Penny" or "The Token." —Annalise Domenighini
There are only a handful of albums every year that can force a listener to pause, shut off their surroundings, and just listen. But solo guitarist Daniel Bachman releases such albums with a remarkable consistency. His work has always been, loosely, American primitive, tracing the veins of Jack Rose, Robbie Basho, and John Fahey. But the Virginia-based 27-year-old's self-titled album is slower and more meditative than anything that he's previously released. The acoustic drones that ground both "Brightleaf Blues I" and the 14-minute "Brightleaf Blues II" allow Bachman more space to breathe and consider his next slide or bend on the neck. Elsewhere, he has fun: the bright, swung rhythms of "Wine and Peanuts" ramble around, and "Watermelon Slices on a Blue Bordered Plate" winds around itself, the trills and slides sparking off but never deviating from the steady picked pace. Among the chaos of the year, Daniel Bachman was perfect, considered relief. —Alex Robert Ross
Their career may have been short-lived, but G.L.O.S.S. accomplished more in 20 months than most bands do in a lifetime. The Olympia hardcore group, whose name is an acronym for Girls Living Outside Society's Shit, delivered their first release in January 2015 and it was, in every respect, the most enraged collection of songs ever written for the marginalized and disenfranchised in the face of a violent world. That is until their second and final release, Trans Day of Revenge, which came out the day after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando—an attack that killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. To some, it functioned as an outlet at a time of acute hurt and hopelessness, but that's what G.L.O.S.S. were always for. They folded political and emotional complexities into blistering whirlwinds of rage, resistance, and possibility.
They may be done, and their entire discography may clock in at around 16 minutes, but G.L.O.S.S. will be remembered as one of the most important hardcore bands of the decade. Trans Day of Revenge was needed on June 12, it's still needed now, and it'll be needed in the years to come. With that in mind, you would struggle to find a more fitting parting statement than: "Trans day of revenge / Not as weak as we seem." —Emma Garland
Last year, Iceland's black metal scene exploded onto the international stage, dominating the conversation to the point that a near-immediate backlash fomented in forums and snide Facebook comments. Undeterred, the Icelanders continued to assert their dominance, pumping out release after release of cold black fury—often via the Vánagandr tape label and distro. The duo behind Vánagandr also plays together in Naðra (as well as various other projects—Martröð, Misþyrming, Carpe Noctem, and so on), who are one of the scene's most unique entities. They unexpectedly dropped their full-length debut, Allir vegir til glötunar, following an album leak, but in spite of the release's inauspicious circumstances, the album had an immediate impact on fans and critics alike. More straightforward and melodic than many of their knottier peers, Naðra channels the grandiosity, savagery, and epic, folky inflections of 90s black metallers like Borknagar or Windir, intensifying the effect with their own lo-fi, fiercely DIY approach. Out of all the compelling new black metal projects that continue to sprout like magic mushrooms from the volcanic soil, Naðra most successfully captures the island's wild, untameable essence—and as their new EP, Form, shows, they're only getting better. —Kim Kelly
At this point, is it a surprise that we've got another promising young rapper coming up out of Chicago's Savemoney crew? Joey Purp—who's been kicking bars around with Chance the Rapper for years—is finally getting his due with iiiDrops, his excellent follow-up to 2012's promising but youthful The Purple Tape. At times, iiiDrops can feel like a quintessential party record, with Joey's boastful raps over smooth, laidback soul beats that feel like they fell out of an early Kanye West sample session ("Morning Sex," "Money & Bitches," "Cornerstone"). But at other moments, his lyrical content suggests a deeper and more complicated understanding of the world, and in particular, the city he's from ("Winner's Circle"). The most consistent part of the project is Joey's infectious charisma, which is always there, no matter if he's chasing a minimal dance beat with Chance the Rapper on "Girls @" or contemplating his existence on "When I'm Gone." Joey doesn't try to do anything more than work with what he's given, and that's why it works—he's just a kid from Chicago and isn't concerned with trying to prove much else. —Eric Sundermann
On Starboy, the Weeknd's Abel Tesfaye presents sharp hooks primed for singles ("Starboy," "True Colors") alongside a persona that's cocky and compelling. We're not so much getting a peek at the real Abel as much as we are of shades of the forces that drive him—and it's all compellingly listenable. "Secrets" meshes an interpolation of the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep" with a sample of Tears for Fears' "Pale Shelter," while "Die For You" pays homage to Prince while cribbing an interpolation of the R. Kelly classic "Feelin' On Yo Booty" in a strangely pure-hearted way. At 18 tracks, Starboy may be bloated, but Abel is clearly having fun breaking away from the succinct tracklists that were staples of his earlier works by putting together an album that is truly the sum of its influences. —Jabbari Weekes
Regardless of whether you want to call them Minneapolis Uranium Club Band, or just plain Uranium Club, these punks fuse the propulsive sounds of Wire, Dow Jones and the Industrials, and DEVO with weird fun times. This is the sound of the future if it was 1975 in a Saint Paul basement with Fran Tarkenton and Vikings posters on the walls and empty Bud cans on the floor. The frantic "Who Made the Man?" is the musical equivalent of that stiff-armed herky jerky robot dance move, and over the course of five minutes, it transforms from a wild garage rocker into some tense post-punk agitation. It needs to come with anti-anxiety tablets. With ambiguously disturbing lyrics, super tight musicianship, and an odd sense of humor, these guys are up there with Indiana's Coneheads as one of most interesting bands in punk right now. —Tim Scott
Skeleton Tree, the Bad Seeds' first record since the tragic death of Nick Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur, is less an act of carrying the torch than of self-immolation: a cruel inversion of the existential excavation that defined both his and Cohen's careers. "You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now," Cave sings on the album's opener "Jesus Alone." So goes the paradox that drives the album. As Cave grapples with the mundanity of life in the wake of loss, we see him at his most ruthless as a poet—and, on tracks like "Girl in Amber," his most broken and aged as a vocalist—stripped of his trademark romanticism to reveal something more vital, in the most literal sense of the word: The immediacy and tenuousness of life. It's a difficult record. It floats along in spite of its gravity, thanks to Warren Ellis and co., who usher Cave's ruminations with atmospheric elegance, a score to the catharsis of pain passing through. "When you're feeling like a lover / Nothing really matters anymore," Cave sings on "I Need You." Like so much of the album, the line is both specific and ambiguous, but its sentiment is immediately familiar. Cave offers a part of ourselves to behold. In the reckoning that is Skeleton Tree, the 59-year-old advances perhaps the greatest wisdom of his hero's legacy: That, in ceding to the paradox and futility of simply being alive, we find grace. —Andrea Domanick
Storm of Sedition is part of the same Victoria, BC black metal/crust circle that enfolds Iskra, Not A Cost, and Black Kronstadt, and as such, wear their politics on their sleeve. As their mission statement explains, they subscribe to an anti-political, green perspective that goes far beyond the fight against capitalist institutions and worker exploitation to decry and push back against the effects of civilization itself. It's a lot to digest if you're just in the market for some sweet black metal/crust, but Storm of Sedition nails that part, too; songs like "Mechanism of Defense" and "Death Culture" spotlight the band's deft coalescence of epic crust with lo-fi black metal blasts, staccato punk beats, paranoid riffs, and chugging death metal heft, while the likes of "Natural Chaos" reap the benefits of the band's grandiose, driving melodies and more somber pacing. The dual vocals add an interesting dynamic, and the overall apocalyptic atmosphere feels all too apt. Throw this on, and watch the world burn. —Kim Kelly
When a demo of songs left off of the most celebrated rap album in recent memory is arguably only second to that album, something is being done extremely right. untitled unmastered is an eight-song collection of jazzy and funky loosies that, like the bulk of his work, finds Kendrick Lamar standing square in the middle of the universe, circling around, looking for his purpose in it. At times here, he advocates for the therapeutic benefits of getting head and at others, he paints his home city as an apocalyptic scene in need of salvation. And in between revelling in the likeness of God and the secular world, K Dot still finds time to throw jabs at Jay Electronica and Aubrey Graham. Respect. —Lawrence Burney
Pity Sex's co-leader, vocalist, and guitarist Britty Drake announced she'd be leaving the Michigan alt-emo punk band in August, just a handful of months after the release of their ace sophomore album White Hot Moon. One of the things Pity Sex does well on the album is play between the differences of its male (Brennan Greaves) and female vocalists both in the sounds they produce and how they shape the story told in the song. On their excellent debut Feast of Love, Drake's quiet vocals pushed through fuzzed out guitars and emo tropes of heartache and longing. She often felt central to the song's story. On White Hot Moon, her vocals told a bit more of a defiant story, like on the track "Burden You." The demureness of her voice with gritty riffs is more triumphant but slightly, and smugly, a little on the apathetic side. White Hot Moon still bears the imprints of Feasts of Love's more feelings centric themes paired with sharp, sometimes booming riffs. What will be of the band after Drake's departure is unknown. But before she left, Drake left a sweet and bold mark on Pity Sex. —Sarah MacDonald
Small, former mining villages across the UK rarely get the credit they deserve for producing some of the country's finest artists. In this case, sentimental anarchists Martha, from a town in Durham that is literally called "Pity Me," write from a working class experience that often gets sidelined by London-centric politics. Whether it's falling in love with someone at the supermarket after seeing them "getting bollocked" by their supervisor, forging passion "under a four pound box of wine," or something as simple as name-dropping Countdown or saying "mam" instead of "mum," Martha's punk-laced pop singalongs are both playful and devastating depending on how long ago your last breakup was. It may be considered inherently political, coming from a collection of queer anarchist vegans, but the politics itself is incidental. At the heart of it, Martha are as lovesick as the rest of us. They just know how to express it in ways that make you want to drink some unfavorably cheap booze and have a dance. —Emma Garland
The Dirty Nil is a rock band, straight up. That's a rare thing these days, with everyone quick to pigeonhole acts into hyper-specific subgenres—shoegaze, emo, or whatever mutated indie rock happens to be in style that year. But The Dirty Nil is timeless and all-purpose—nothing fancy, nothing revolutionary, just solidly crafted, hard-hitting, loud-as-hell jams. For close to seven years, the band has skated by on only a handful of singles and EPs, before finally dropping their long-awaited debut LP this year, Higher Power. The album flexes the Canadian trio's worship of guitars, distortion, and walls of amplifiers—specifically the volume knobs turned all the way up. Higher Power celebrates a better time in rock 'n' roll history without sounding outdated or campy. The Dirty Nil is a rock band, alright. And a fucking good one at that. —Dan Ozzi
Vince Staples is the future. The whip-smart MC consistently finds himself in headlines pointing out the hypocrisy in a generation too busy to look away from a phone to examine itself. At age 23, he's already being called a prophet—and with good reason. Prima Donna, despite being an EP and nearly a quarter the length of his incredible 2015 debut, Summertime '06, is the project of his career that encapsulates that sentiment. His technical skills as a rapper are nearly unmatched by his peers, with songs like "War Ready" and "Prima Donna" showing how his lips move just as fast as his brain, unafraid to crack a joke immediately after discussing the institutional racism in America. Vince appeared on our list last year, as well, and he might as well get comfortable—because he's going to be talked about for a very long time. —Eric Sundermann
Electropop heaven is a Jessy Lanza record. Oh No is love at first arpeggiator, a world of new wave energy with contagious handclaps, drum machine beats, and synth hits that live up to the charm of pioneering Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra, Lanza's greatest source of influence on the album. Oh No fits right at home in the new wave revival of today, but rather than settle for being a Stranger Things-style cut-and-paste of 80s pop tropes, Lanza absorbs the best of the era into a style of electropop that's all her own, her soft, angelic falsetto like a silk ribbon to her incredible production gifts. Oh No evokes sound-to-color synesthesia, flashes of neon pink, blue, and yellow as bright as her music video for its bouncy title track. It's a record that brings to mind the power of girlhood, play and love. When Lanza sings "When you look into my eyes, boy / then it means I love you," you believe it, and can't help falling either. —Jill Krajewski
Charli XCX has always been a bit of a mystery. She kept popping up everywhere—raging on Icona Pop's "I Love It," as the Tai Fraiser to Iggy Azalea's Cher Horowitz on "Fancy," and singing the hook to Ty Dolla $ign's "Drop That Kitty"—without having a real identity of her own. Then she linked up with SOPHIE, the Vroom Vroom EP happened, she got her own Beats 1 show called The Candy Shop, which remains the greatest place on the internet to find Britney Spears, PC Music, and Justin Bieber's "Baby" on repeat, then dropped a track with Lil Yachty. So, it's safe to say that 2016 is the year in which Charli XCX has officially "arrived." The EP itself sounds like someone mashed up some popular techno with the sound of a box of tools falling down the stairs. It contains more outrage than The Daily Mail comments section and a level of sass usually reserved for RuPaul's Lip Sync For Your Life. It is, in short, everything you'd expect from a collaboration between the princess of modern bubblegum pop and a producer famous for making things that sound like two latex-gloved hands fondling a balloon. —Emma Garland
As we've mentioned before, Mare Cognitum has always stood a head and shoulders above the scrum, though, by sheer virtue of how goddamn good Jacob Buczarski is at imbuing even the bleakest, harshest chords with the grandeur of the cosmos. Luminiferous Aether harnesses that beauty and uncertainty with aplomb, conjuring up an overwhelming feeling of expansiveness. The album feels big in a way that few extreme metal albums muster, and swears allegiance to sci-fi instead of Satan. Two years after the band's last LP, Mare Cognitum's calling cards remain, twinkling out of the void—the cinematic feel, the understated vocal rasps, the lush melodies, the nimble riffs—and its creator revels in progressivism, flaunting a disregard for genre constraints even as Buczarski executes the traditional tremolo and chromatic scales with studied grace. This is night sky black metal, ripe for stargazing and contemplation—utterly cosmic black metal for an uncertain age. —Kim Kelly
White Lung fans were caught off guard by Paradise. It wasn't the same pissed-off punk band they remembered from 2014's crushing Deep Fantasy. Instead, the band experimented with a few new tricks this time around, namely, third-person storytelling, a poppier sound, and some full-on singing from frontwoman Mish Barber-Way, as opposed to the angry snarls she'd become known for. While White Lung's core DNA is still intact on Paradise, the record is a fun exploration of what they can do with it. And for a band testing ambitious new territories, they pulled off a surprisingly cohesive record that sees them pushing their limits with ease and confidence. It's impossible to say where White Lung will go from here, and that's the way they like it. —Dan Ozzi
When some bands come out of retirement, they gamble big on their legacy. A lackluster comeback album can forever tarnish the memory of a once great band. The formerly defunct Planes Mistaken for Stars, on the other hand, were sitting on a royal flush with Prey and bet the farm, because they had absolutely nothing to lose. In their run from 1997 to 2008, the band always had a hard time finding an audience. They weren't heavy enough to catch on with the hardcore crowd and weren't cool enough to garner critical acclaim—misfits among the misfits. They were the group of sweaty marauders who would roll up to a venue, howl on their guitars for anyone who would listen, and drink all the whiskey in sight. So suffice it to say, Prey was not a highly anticipated return. But for those who were smart enough to catch on to Planes' raspy style of filth-rock, and awaited the day they might rise again, Prey is their just reward. The album sees the band in their truest form, still penning songs about fighting and fucking, still wild as all hell. Maybe the world will finally catch up to them this time. —Dan Ozzi
Songs For Our Mothers is a disturbingly brilliant album. On the one hand, it's an invitation to "dance to the beat of human hatred." On the other, as we found out when we spoke to frontman Lias Saudi, it's the collected work of a bunch of history fanatics. Thematically, the album is centered on a haunting narrative that revolves around Ike and Tina Turner, Harold Shipman, crumbling friendships, and the final hours of the Third Reich. Sonically though, it's all presented like a hyper-sexual yet lo-fi disco—the kind you might find on the battered outskirts of Berlin. Ultimately, Songs For Our Mothers is like a decomposing onion, with layer upon layer of ideas, that somehow reinterprets and builds on their debut release, Champagne Holocaust, in the way all good art should. It's a perfectly ominous album, a grand piece of deliriously unpleasant art to arrive in a desolate and dark year. —Ryan Bassil
Views was actually pretty good. No, really: Drake's fifth full-length may have been derided by some for its unfathomable largesse and repetition of themes previously and more capably explored in his catalog, but look deeper and… actually, don't. If Drake's previous albums suggested emotional depths and sky-high pettiness that contained multitudes, Views is all surface-level texture—a pristine, gigantic lake on an airless day, one that exists in its essence whether you pay any mind to it or not. What Drake lacks in rap versatility on Views—some of the verses here, admittedly, are the worst in Drake's career since "Last name ever, first name greatest," suggesting that he would've been better off with Quentin Miller back in the saddle—it makes up for in cannily crafting some of the finest faux-global pop since Bieber went trop-house. The plastic new-wave of "Feel No Ways," the admirably goofy sonic patois of "Controlla," the easy UK Funky-biting shake of "One Dance," and sweeping Olympic-stadium anthems like "Too Good" and "With You" all resonate on a purely sonic level, suggesting an artist at the top of his hit-making game. It's increasingly questionable whether Drake knows himself as well as he once claimed to—but he still knows how to make listeners happy, and if that's all we can ask of him for now, we may as well settle for it. —Larry Fitzmaurice
As far as comebacks go, Gucci Mane's 2016 could rival anyone's against-the-odds story in recent memory. For nearly half of this year, he was still incarcerated, but has already positioned himself into pop stardom with more visibility than any point in his career and an embracing of rap's new guard (Rae Sremmurd's "Black Beatles.") Within two months of coming home, Gucci released Everybody Looking, an impressively sharp album that, thanks in part to his new sober lifestyle, gives a smoothness to previously rattled vocals. "Out Do Ya" is a perfect showing of that refinery, with Gucci boosting his perseverance against the lot, backed by Zaytoven's flutes and pounding drums. He glides with Kanye over a Mike Will Made-it beat ("Pussy Print), enlists Drake for a hook ("Back On Road"), and snags one of his most successful prodigies, Young Thug, for "Guwop Home." On "All My Children," he reminds us that it's his mark on rap that has shaped much of the current landscape, and for that reason, Gucci wins with Everybody Looking. —Lawrence Burney
When Angel Olsen released the trailer for the video "Intern"—the first single from her forthcoming third record My Woman—something seemed delightfully amiss. Olsen, standing alone in a blacked out room, donned a tinsel-inspired silver wig and headset as looming, deep pulsing synth crept up around her. It's fair to say that Olsen was still riding the critical wave of her 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness when she was readying the release of My Woman. Her sophomore effort is a folk-rock record that is minimalist in feeling, but is far from being thematically or lyrically sparse. The sharply titled My Woman builds upon the heartache and hard lessons learned on Burn Your Fire For Witness but with a few instrumental change-ups that show Olsen's sonic evolution. She isn't limited on this album. There is a steady and palpable provocation on the first few songs, like "Shut Up Kiss Me," "Not Gonna Kill You" and "Give It Up." Olsen slides back into a familiar sound and mood on the gloriously lengthy "Woman" and the nearly eight-minute track "Sister." Rhythmically, Olsen repeats "all my life I thought I'd change" on "Sister," which, however lamenting and mournful, feels almost optimistic because that sentiment shows itself all over My Woman. —Sarah MacDonald
Whether you love them or hate them, you can probably agree that The 1975's expansive, glitzy sophomore bow doesn't deserve to be as good as it is. The UK pop-rockers' self-titled debut from 2013 was an overlong, somewhat monochrome exercise in jet-powered 2000s emo, its highlights ("Chocolate," "Sex") suggesting greater ambitions as yet unrealized. On I love it when you sleep..., Matt Healy and the boys go for broke by throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. And guess what? It works. A giddy traipse through clean-as-a-whistle 80s pop, throbbing moonlit R&B, collagist IDM, and John Hughes-ian slow-dance anthems, I love it when you sleep... is the smartest, most sonically sensual record of the year to feature lyrics about leaving your brain in a Tesco's and having an American girl stare at your fucked up teeth for too long. It's ridiculous, it's romantic, it's whip-smart, it's totally and utterly bone-headedly basic—and it's unlike nearly anything else happening in pop right now, too. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Jherek Bischoff composed his second album, a transcendent collection of modern classical movements, inside of a two-million-gallon cistern on a disused military base in Washington State. There was a 45-second reverb decay down there, enough for the California-born multi-instrumentalist to play a note, let it ring, and consider his next move. Cistern was eventually recorded in upstate New York with the Contemporaneous ensemble because fitting a dozen or so people into the cistern itself would have meant an endless echo of shuffled shoes. The process was as much of a change for Bischoff as the music itself. His first real solo album, Composed, was all off-kilter pop, a series of collaborations with luminaries like David Byrne and Nels Cline. His work with Amanda Palmer—most recently a couple of string tributes to Bowie and Prince—bare no real resemblance to Cistern either. The album is occasionally eerie, often hypnotic, and never less than utterly graceful. It sets out its path with the grand violins and quiet timpani of "Automatism," moving through "Closer to Closure"'s careful clarinets and quietly sinister melodies. "Headless" is the centrepiece, Bischoff's recurring bass riff floating on the high strings like oil on water. By the time it's reached the title track, a glacial loop, Cistern has become hypnotic. Few—if any—albums in 2016 can lay claim to such dissociative beauty. —Alex Robert Ross
Void Omnia's full-length debut, Dying Light, is everything that modern USBM should strive to be—a bold statement, yes, but after hearing the album in question, it's difficult to argue (unless you're looking for bestial, lo-fi filth; in that case, keep walkin'). The melodies are the most impressive component here, and the most powerful tool in this young (established circa 2013) project's arsenal. There's an unexpected uplifting quality to the harmonies, their undulating post-rock trills undercut by the combined harshness of the tortured vocals and propulsive percussion. However, the "atmospheric black metal" signifier doesn't quite fit, nor does straightforward "melodic black metal;" while the album is steeped in what we've come to accept as the hallmarks of modern USBM, reducing Dying Light to a cut-and-dried Bandcamp tag would do it a great disservice. Oakland may be best known for dismal sludge and snarling crust, but thanks to the strength of this debut, Void Omnia may well be ushering in a new age of Bay Area blackness. —Kim Kelly
Supergroups often look good on paper, but end up sounding like a fucking wreck. Too many egos, too many styles, too much chaos. But for Head Wound City, whose roster boasts members of bands like The Blood Brothers, The Locust, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, chaos is what they came for. So many familiar elements bleed through on A New Wave of Violence, the long-awaited debut LP from the on-again-off-again project, but it somehow manages to blend together without sounding like a shit smoothie. The other brilliant trick this record pulls off is that it's not a stale retread of anything the members have done in their previous respective projects. This chaos is ripe. Like they said right there in the title, it's a new wave of violence. —Dan Ozzi
Disclosure: A New Wave of Violence was released via Vice Records.
2016 continued to be a good year for Indiana punk with new releases from C.C.T.V., Liquids, and Bloomington's The Cowboys, who dropped their debut album. It's difficult to make punk rock sound interesting over a full-length, but these guys break up the fastballs with cool shouty 60s pop and whacked out weirdness that sounds like a cross between Buddy Holly and hometown heroes The Gizmos. The difference between The Cowboys and the legion of punk basement dwellers is that The Cowboys can write actual songs but still keep a strong "we recorded this on broken equipment" buzz. —Tim Scott
Few artists in the country tradition are able to straddle the intersection of gospel and Texas country as well as Paul Cauthen can. With his deep baritone and stubborn "my way or the highway" approach to life, Cauthen bucks the current idea that in order to make impactful music that attracts an audience, you have to sprinkle references to beer drinking and cut-off jeans throughout your songs. Cauthen's is the kind of music that comes from hitting absolute rock bottom and deciding that whether or not there is a God, as he told us in an interview this past October. Cauthen made his way back up ferociously, kicking and screaming all the way in opposition to Music Row in a way that would make anyone with half his talent look like they were mounting an attempt to ride the coattails of controversy. Cauthen refuses to do anything that might compromise his integrity, and makes music that reflects every facet of his existence, something that is confusingly ignored by mainstream radio DJs and music executives. —Annalise Domenighini
Red is passion. Red is anger. Red is hurt. For A Tribe Called Red, an indigenous DJ collective excelling at a time when sports teams still cling to racist names like Redskins, red symbolizes both their heritage and a rallying cry, a call to protest. On one level, We Are the Halluci Nation is their strongest album to date, a mix of hard-hitting, festival-ready EDM anthems such as "R.E.D." with traditions of native culture, including urgent throat-singing features by Tanya Tagaq. It magnifies their signature electric pow-wow production developed in the nightclubs of Ottawa. But Halluci Nation is far from just a Saturday night soundtrack—it's also A Tribe Called Red at their most political, overtly addressing reconciliation efforts needed to acknowledge horrors including residential schools, a corrupt system of white-washing native children that persisted in Canada as late as the 90s. With a diverse cast of narrators and collaborators including Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def), drum group Chippewa Travellers, Saul Williams, and Columbia-born Toronto singer Lido Pimienta, We Are the Halluci Nation is a vital education that native issues are our issues. Let their electric pow-wow beat compel not only dance, but action. —Jill Krajewski
"Who are you?" a voice asks theMIND early on in Summer Camp, prodding at his lack of faith. "No, for real," she continues, "who do you want to be? And don't say it doesn't matter because I know that it matters to you." In a year so fraught with trauma and demoralizing political narratives and massive pop culture events, it could feel difficult or even wrong to disengage and reflect on the personal, but those questions didn't go away. If anything, growth and revelation became more urgent: "Change, moreover, is what we all want," a more assured theMIND intones near the end of the project. Over the intervening tracks of cinematic, electronically fraying R&B, he offers a vision for achieving that change, a journey of self-discovery with detours through broken hearts, Parisian stoops, and jazzy speakeasies filled with Balenciaga and purple fox fur-clad women (the 30-second stretch that invokes the last two being one of the best pop songwriting moments of the year). It feels like a burst of inspiration, like stumbling across a hidden mountain vista—it's music, and a feeling, you've been waiting to discover. —Kyle Kramer
When Tyrannamen's Nic Imfeld, backed by a raucous and soulful punk band, pleads for you to leave some guy on "You Should Leave Him," the thought crosses your mind. By the time the rambunctious five-piece have kicked into full gear and Imfeld's screaming, "We could have it so great," you are ready to pack your bags. The Melbourne five-piece (which features members of The Stevens, Twerps, and Whipper) call to mind the ramshackle melody of the Undertones, Greg Cartwright's Reigning Sound, and the power pop moments of fellow Aussies Royal Headache. Led by the tuneful and raw vocals of Imfeld and others, the music pops like buttons from a ripped shirt. But between the rowdiness of "I Don't Want to Go to Jail" and "My Concrete," a song about construction sites, there are moments of soulful tenderness such as "Diamond Ring." They may seem and sound like ruffians, but deep down, Tyrannamen are true romantics. —Tim Scott
Recognizing a curator of music is an easy task when it comes to flagging figures like Rick Rubin, RZA, and Kanye West —people who masterminded the collective sound and ideologies of crews and labels that would eventually be etched in stone. Curators are typically thought of as people who conceptualize a tone for work that is not their own, but what else is there to call an artist like Travis Scott, whose arrangement of sounds is arguably more commendable than his vocal output? Is he a rapper? Most would object. Is he a producer? No one really knows. Hell, is he even himself? What last year's Rodeo and this year's Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight continue to confirm is that Scott, while not being particularly distinct in any one facet of his skillset, knows how to put together great-sounding music. For most moments in Birds, what he's saying plays second fiddle to the production and harmony (most notably in "sdp interlude," "sweet sweet," and "guidance") but those are carried out so well that, you forget what he was ever saying in the first place. —Lawrence Burney
He took one last look around, and right in the middle of a song about God and guidance, chose to skew our late capitalism: "As He died to make men holy / Let us die to make things cheap." That was almost Leonard Cohen's last statement, but he wanted to go out with something so utterly funereal—the string quartet reprisal of "Treaty"—that it's hard not to see him winking back at the camera. You Want It Darker is Cohen's final act, just as he said it would be. It is as bound up in rapture as any of his previous 15 studio albums, and often it's just as witty. It's a graceful final statement from a songwriter and poet who prepared for his own death through art, likely aware that none of us were willing or able to do the same while listening to him. You Want It Darker will, like the rest of Cohen's records, grow with time. There's no greater legacy than that. —Alex Robert Ross
Lil Big Pac is a poignant release. At 19, Kodak Black is not like typical teenage rappers who try to align themselves with rockstar personalities and pile up enough drugs and money to send a party into an infinite loop. The drugs and money mentioned in Lil Big Pac are instead used as tools for Kodak to liberate himself beyond the constant conflict that is living in Pompano Beach, Florida. Throughout the 13-track project, Kodak questions whether or not he's cursed, if he'll live long enough to be a father to his son, why he's lost so many friends to prison and death, and if he should run away from love. Many of these concerns have been reflected in black social media circles where the link between experiencing systematic racism, oppression, and PTSD has been increasingly discussed in detail. But what makes Lil Big Pac special is that as a teen, Kodak can enter that conversation and articulately identify where he falls within it, except with carefully crafted bars and harmonies. —Lawrence Burney
We weren't joking when we referred to King Dude as "our favorite whiskey-soaked Luciferian sex god" back in June, and his latest album hammers that point home even further—especially the "sex" part. The King (né TJ Cowgill) has issued his most dynamic, varied effort yet with Sex, a long, slow ride through his customary dark folk, post-punk, swaggering rock 'n' roll, and gloomy Type O Negative-styled gothica. He's all over the place here, redefining the King Dude sound whenever he feels like it, and circling back to more familiar, lovelorn territory on the wine-stained closing dirge "Shine Your Light," his shuddering baritone holding court throughout. The snarling devil country of "I Wanna Die at 69" slithers up against the clean majesty of "Holy Christos" and surrealist garagey racket of "Swedish Boys," changing gears with every song and oozing sensual energy even when Cowgill gets truly weird (see "The Girls," a full-blown psychedelic nightmare). Whether you're trying to fuck or feel like making love, Sex is the perfect soundtrack. —Kim Kelly
High Spirits has got to be the most joyful heavy metal band in existence. Chris Black's exuberant vocals and upbeat lyrics are a treasure in and of themselves (whether he's wailing away in his other project Dawnbringer or serving as a one-man army in High Spirits), and his latest album, Motivator, is chock full of unabashed positivity. Whether he's exhorting you to reach for the stars or noodling away at a high-flying Thin Lizzy-meets-NWOBHM riff, Black's enthusiasm is infectious, and his pure love for 80s heavy metal and 70s stadium rock is unsurpassed. Even on Motivator's more downbeat songs like "Haunted by Love," Black refuses to dial down the energy (or abandon his vise-like grip on his preferred tempo). High Spirits shines as a beacon of light in a scene that's all too often obsessed with darkness. The refrain to "Thank You" is metal's rousing, electrified answer to the Golden Girls theme, and it just feels so good to hear it (preferably at maximum volume). There are enough bad days coming—an album like this encourages us to look on the bright side, to keep our heads up, and, if all else fails, close our eyes and headbang. Thank you, High Spirits. —Kim Kelly
Given her proven talent for scorched-earth breakup anthems and the crossover pop appeal of 2014's Platinum, there was reason to assume that Miranda Lambert's post-divorce album would be a blockbuster event. Instead, it's a quiet, assured step into more traditional territory, an embrace of the grittier East Nashville scene that has of late become a breakout force in country. But what songs! As a breakup album, it sneaks up on the listener, charting the drunken pathos of heartbreak as well as the deep sadness. "Tin Man" and "Things That Break" feel like classic Willie Nelson country, gently tackling one simple, powerful metaphor. And whether in the raspy, broken lo-fi pop of "Pink Sunglasses" or the warm spark of excitement that propels the ballad "Pushin' Time," everything finds ways to stick. Plus, the lead single is called "Vice," which, as far as this publication is concerned, is extremely nice. —Kyle Kramer
With everything Anderson .Paak accomplished in 2016—from kicking off January with the electrifying album Malibu to putting on perhaps the most talked-about live show of the year to having standout moments on landmark albums from artists as varied as Kaytranada and A Tribe Called Quest—an album like Yes Lawd! could easily have been a footnote. Instead, this partnership with the producer Knxwledge is pure elation, breezily channeling the raunchy spirit of blaxploitation film soundtracks, half-forgotten 90s rap love songs, and tipsy neo soul. In Anderson .Paak's world, life is unhurried, old flings can be summoned up with a glass of brown liquor or the right notes of a song coming on at the end of the night, and all the beautiful women can cook the hell out of some grits. The thirsty networkers will be cured of their ills, the weed smoke will offer salvation, and the electric thrill of bodies touching will lift us up to heaven, amen and hallelujah. —Kyle Kramer
Against Me!'s 2014 album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, damn near killed frontwoman Laura Jane Grace. Written and recorded as she was beginning her gender transition and dealing with the struggles that came with it—taxing hormone treatment, invasive therapist sessions, and crumbling personal relationships—the album took a physical toll as she fought to maintain her sanity. The result was a primal scream of a record that will undoubtedly go down as one of the most important punk records of all time. Now, two years later, Grace is still trying to find her place as a woman in the world but is not the wound-up ball of anxiety and raging hormones she once was. Shape Shift With Me sees Grace starting a new life and discovering all the experiences that come with it—dating, friendships, and body image. And while there is still plenty of classic Grace-ian existential darkness here, there are also the occasional flashes of—gasp—excitement and optimism. Shape Shift With Me is the album where Laura Jane Grace got back on track, or, more accurately, found a new one. —Dan Ozzi
Though Radiohead have largely repelled becoming out-of-touch rockers even as their veteran status looms ever larger over them, they're still drawn to the retooled odds-and-ends collection, which is as rock 'n' roll of an album format as it gets. However, the band has spent years mastering this kind of release, and are the kings of imbuing older material with urgency and spirit. A Moon Shaped Pool walks a curious thematic tightrope as it seeks to conflate two different kinds of destruction: the impending death of our planet and the recent dissolution of frontman Thom Yorke's two-decade-long relationship. That it tries to achieve this with songs that date back to the mid-90s just feels like the band giving themselves a welcome challenge. Yorke is as inscrutably nervous as ever, but snatches of IRL pain that he lets slip on some songs dominate other ones. "Ful Stop" is an angry rant straitjacketed by claustrophobic motorik, while the unearthly "Glass Eyes" begins as an intimate phone call ("Hey, it's me") before delving into an impressionistic emotional landscape that's illustrated with nothing but piano and fluttering strings. A Moon Shaped Pool's purposefully muted arrangements are key to its uneasy grace, monochrome and fluid like its cover art. This is the sound of acceptance—in the contexts of both grief and of age—but the overall sensation is comfort, the same kind felt when drifting off into a peaceful slumber. If only all dreamers ever learned. —Phil Witmer
Luminous, richly melodic, and containing equal parts sweetness and swagger, Oakland rapper Kamaiyah's A Good Night in the Ghetto is one of the most striking and fully realized debuts of the year—a textbook example of what an artist can do when feeling fully confident in their own aesthetic. Switching between sing-song hooks, even-handed flows, and low-key crooning, Kamaiyah shows an impressive versatility over various shades of bouncy Bay Area production. The title says it all, mostly—this is music for night drives, barbecues, smoke sessions, and lazy afternoons with loved ones—which makes the closing track, "For My Dawg," such a striking curveball. An unfussy, conversational, and altogether heartbreaking meditation on loss, the track is a reminder that even the best times in your life can bear the real and lasting mark of pain under the surface. —Larry Fitzmaurice
Whitney's excellent debut Light Upon the Lake opens with a statement: "I left drinking on the city train." It's a simple sentiment, but one that sets a tone for a record that's full of bizarre fleeting nostalgia that we millennials love to chase. This is an album—from former members of Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra—made for wandering, with tracks like "No Woman" and "Golden Days" evoking that feeling of whimsical daydreaming in which you find yourself cruising down an open highway in a big truck below a bright blue sky lit by a bright yellow sun—yet the escapist sound is laced with melancholy. Light Upon the Lake is made for feeling something, man. It's a wistful album that's not trying to be anything except what it is: earnest indie folk rock. And you know what? That's OK. Sometimes the best beer is a Bud Light. —Eric Sundermann
As with most anything Nicolas Jaar touches, Sirens builds on allusions to be unpacked and reassembled—a puzzle whose solution is beside the point. But whereas his past outputs used references to create a forward-looking whole, Sirens is a work of deconstruction, a pastiche intended to highlight the cyclical nature of musical, political, and cultural history. "We already said no, but the yes is in everything," he sings in Spanish on "No," a play on a phrase favored by 1980s Chilean activists (a "no" to Pinochet was a "yes" to democracy), and the fulcrum around which the rest of the record orients itself: The nebulous divide between yes and no, past and present, the political flux of 80s Chile, where Jaar grew up, and his American home today. "You don't need to predict the future / To know what will happen," Jaar continues. Like the concepts that drive them, Jaar's compositions are based less on hooks, melodies, and rhythms than contrast and dichotomy. It's subtle, but visceral, a patient record that becomes increasingly immersive with each listen, veering from experimental electronic to post-punk to Chilean folk to the soul of closer "History Lesson." The latter culminates in a soaring gospel chorus as he delivers the record's ominous final lines: "Chapter one: We fucked up. / Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again. / Chapter three: We didn't say sorry…" and so on. It's glorious and crushing, high and low, a familiar paradox that there might not be a word for, but that feels all the more honest for it. —Andrea Domanick
Kevin Devine suffers from Nice Guy Syndrome. Over the last 20 years, his smiling face has been such a reliable staple in the indie rock scene that it's almost possible to take him and his music for granted. But over those two decades, the Brooklyn songwriter has quietly amassed a substantial catalog of solidly crafted albums. With his ninth solo effort, Instigator, it's clearer than ever that it's time to take a step back and appreciate just how talented this guy is. Instigator's first half alone includes no fewer than four absolutely perfect songs. And the album's relentless assault of catchy hooks makes its easy to overlook the fact that Devine is tackling timely and important topics like police murder and the hypocritical nature of political criticism. Devine is not asking for your respect as a songwriter here—he's demanding it. —Dan Ozzi
For some, Hero might be a perfect example of what makes the current slew of radio artists awful—singing about dripping in diamonds, Diddy, Mercedes—but that's where Morris is at her strongest. Popular female voices in country music are few and far between—there are currently only five female artists in the Billboard Country Top 50—and when they do manage to break into the charts, their presence is equated to finding tomatoes in a salad. Morris knows where she stands within the industry that still has a hard time believing women can use curse words, which is what gives her debut album Hero a much sharper edge. By using consistent references to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, going to church on Sunday, classic cars, her strong southern drawl and history of songwriting in Nashville, and banjo picking, Morris checks off each box of what's deemed necessary to qualify this as a country record, but by mixing that with references to modern references, pop music beats, and rhyming "shit" and "rich" in her song "Rich," Morris creates a sound necessary to get her onto the country charts and an image that's just sharp enough to make her an edgy, and therefore much talked about, favorite. It's with this sound that she forces the industry to look at itself from one of the higher seats of the country music charts. —Annalise Domenighini
Finding a good pop punk album in 2016 is like walking into a hat shop and miraculously discovering a beanie tucked between rows upon rows of fedoras. This year, and for the last five, Philadelphia's Modern Baseball has been one of the most refreshing and lovable surprises in a scene that—intentionally or not—can often feel stale in content and unwelcoming for anybody who isn't a white dude. Split into two halves led by members Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens respectively, Holy Ghost moves beyond their former themes of punk scene politics, fancying girls, and feeling awkward to deal primarily with personal struggles with death and depression. What sets them apart even further is the close relationship they have with their fans, from writing openly about difficult topics to consciously striving to make their live shows safe and accessible. Their remarkable ability to write nothing but Good Ass Tunes is what draws people in, but it's their lack of pretense, sense of humor, and consideration that holds them close. —Emma Garland
Sex is gross. A roiling mass of naked flesh, weird noises, various types of ooze, squelching—it's generally a sweaty, unflattering mess, and no amount of soft lighting or artful framing can change that. It's gnarly, but at least it's real. That's exactly the kind of visceral imagery that Baltimore newcomers Cemetery Piss welcome with open arms on their debut, Order of the Vulture, whether they're growling about bodily excretions, dissolved bones, or straight-up fucking (vocalist Adam Savage's porno 'stache doesn't exactly hurt their case, either). The band has been knocking around since 2011, but this year saw their profile rise sharply, bolstered by a spare of high-profile gigs and a mini-tour with Noisey faves Toxic Holocaust. Their compelling hybrid of black, thrash, and death metal plucks the juiciest elements of each, leaning heavily on ghoulish Second Wave black metal melodies and punctuated by a dirty DIY snarl. With Order of the Vulture, Cemetery Piss is out here making metal sexy again. Lord knows, we need it. —Kim Kelly
A mixed brew of Death Row tailgate parties and Aftermath theatricality, Still Brazy ends up less escapist than it seems, constantly grounded in reality. While "Twist My Fingaz" and "Why You Always Hatin" can ignite any club, more impressive is how these hits support strong storytelling in the gangsta rap tradition. "Who Shot Me" is personal and paranoid, ("All these maybe maybe maybe maybes / I'm about to say fuck it and start squeezing without aiming") but "Gimmie Got Shot" is a masterstroke, a fable about a hanger-on who "wanted a spot at the top but he ain't work for it." It speaks to the harsh nature of Still Brazy's Compton that YG's third-person narrator is ultimately the instrument of Gimmie's demise, revealing himself to be another participant in the kill-or-be-killed ecosystem. By deepening the funk and the hooks, the album proves that My Krazy Life wasn't jumping on the DJ Mustard-centered "ratchet" sound solely for commerce; this is now YG's lane alone. And once the jams and cautionary tales taper off, Still Brazy pulls out its "Trump" card: a concluding trio of socially-motivated rallying cries that are as vital as any other political music released in the Black Lives Matter era. "DT" might be entering the White House soon, but as long as that bassline and that chant continue to ring out, America will be putting an "F" before the name for a long time to come. —Phil Witmer
Indie rock is in crisis. There. We said it. When perking an ear to the records released this year, there were plenty of guitar-wielding indie acts with a pop lean that came out with a banger or three. But cohesive albums that felt impactful, where it was a tough call to skip even a single song? These were few and far between. The Growlers bucked this trend. A decade deep and five albums in, City Club is the SoCal band's debut effort for Cult Records and it's also the first album that welcomes outside influence in the form of label head, Strokes singer, Julian Casablancas working alongside Shawn Everett (Weezer) on production. The collaboration was clearly a harmonious one: The Growlers retain their scuzzy, spooky, surf-pop swoon ("When You Were Made," "World Unglued"), but their songwriting's more concise, sharply focused, and perfectly realized, with added flourishes including sexy sax and synth action, and some well-placed plinkety guitar lines (wassup INXS on the title track). They've opted for more pop while managing to retain their grit, and, like all the best rock 'n' roll records, listening to City Club makes you feel cool as fuck. —Kim Taylor Bennett
The internet became hostile territory once again this year, with Russian hackers and meme-shaped propaganda lurking around every corner. Luckily, Katie Dey still finds beauty in the deep nooks that technology provides. Listening to Flood Network's conjoined, hallucinatory songs is like going on a Wiki walk. The album is deeply, passionately digital in its sound design, with Dey processing everything—especially her voice—with fragments of pitch-shifting and distortion effects. She often sounds like she's singing through an optical cable that's been split open, filaments of herself splayed in every direction. Yet Flood Network has a warm human heart beating at its center, especially on songs like the stirring, Neutral Milk Hotel-gone-glitch opener "All" and the plaintive "Fleas." It's the next logical step from something like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, in which layers of surface ugliness must be peeled off before the powerful, focused songwriting reveals itself. Of course, Dey also makes the choice (the listener has the option, as well) to embrace the scuzz, to acknowledge that sometimes the strange, jutting corners are what make any artistic environment memorable. After a brief half hour that feels like a journey, the gorgeous guitar loops of "Debt" ease Flood Network into a reassuring epilogue, affirming that the odd pockets of the internet can inspire art that's wondrous and goddamn inspirational. —Phil Witmer
Hardcore albums have a reputation for being too one-dimensional, with emotional ranges stuck in the narrow window between anger and super-anger. The large chunk of them serve as cheap background noise for stagedives and haymakers to the face. But Touché Amoré's Stage Four is an album that is not afraid to show weakness and vulnerability, and, in doing so, it separates itself from the herd of redundant breakdown bands. The album centers around frontman Jeremy Bolm and his mother, who was claimed by cancer in 2014. Bolm goes through the emotional gamut of grief on this album—self-doubt, questioning of faith, and remorse. The result is truly beautiful and unique, with a level of introspection and depth seldom seen in the genre, and it is essential listening for anyone who has had to bear the pain of watching a loved one slip away. Stage Four is one of the most personal and intimate albums about loss ever written, hardcore or otherwise. —Dan Ozzi
The debut LP from this Melbourne trio opens with Schrodinger's sunbather—is that dude dead or sleeping? Frontwoman Georgia Maq probably should have checked, she knows, but she didn't, and that's enough for a re-examination of everything. Camp Cope takes these lyrical digressions, winds them tightly around bright suburban indie rock for as long as they will run, and then picks the threads until they're frayed out. Maq, who worked as a nurse while writing the album—"Walk around / check vital signs and pretend to be useful," she sings on "Flesh & Electricity"—has plenty to work through and rage at: anxiety, disdain, society's built-in misogyny. But after all of that, there's "Song For Charlie." After her mother's partner took his life in 2014, she wanted to write to his son, a kid she says she connected to through music. It's just Maq, alone, strumming a few major chords, her voice unwavering: "Charlie, you're gonna be okay / At least tomorrow if not today / Keep playing your songs every day / And when you're not okay / You can always call." Some of the pain becomes strength because, eventually, it has to. —Alex Robert Ross
In a year of objectively progressively shitty things happening, one positive has been the stunning debut of Durham, North Carolina's Loamlands. Sweet High Rise is Kym Register and Will Hackney's first album together, written as a love letter to their town and the LGBT community facing the state's increasingly oppressive discrimination laws. This is folk songwriting at its finest and most pure—songs meant to inspire and encourage those hurting the most to keep on going. Following in the footsteps of Stevie Nicks (whose music Register cites as a main inspiration) and Joan Baez, Loamlands provides reassuring guidance, reminding listeners to keep a stiff upper lip and maintain a healthy belief in love. At its core, Sweet High Rise captures the feeling of looking across the room, seeing the person you're in love with, and being over the moon that they're the person you love. Once the album establishes that love, it uses it to tackle issues like police violence and bigotry, intolerance to those different than you, and the hatred that people harbor towards those who are. —Annalise Domenighini
"I hate my yearbook photo / I hate my passport / I hate my last name / I hate everything it stands for." In 2004, Kevin Abstract's lyrics would have been signatures on web forums. His trip-hoppy alternative rock would have been ubiquitous on MTV in 1998. If history is kind to him, he'll be known as one of the first to peer through the walls that Frank Ocean broke down and claim the lands that lay beyond them. American Boyfriend's main trick—fusing post-Odd Future angst-rap with jangly, earnest indie rock—is such a logical connection that it's a wonder so few have managed to nail it previously. But Kevin is an effortless inhabitant of both these worlds, with the strummy folk-pop of "Yellow" sitting comfortably next to the sludgy confessional "Blink." Juxtaposed against the optimistic promise of the album's music, the teenage fairytale Kevin tells is of dead-ends. To hear him bluntly lay it out, "My best friend's racist / my mother's homophobic / I'm stuck in the closet / I'm so claustrophobic." Kevin's music is unstuck in time, but he himself is trapped in "Miserable America," a place that's unforgiving to a queer black man regardless of era. As he hypnotically admits in "Seventeen," though, he'd replay all the fumbled relationships, awkward pining, and uncomfortable self-examination over again if he could. His salvation lies in layering the memories of a suburban youth, of 12-speed bikes and identical homes, with the future that this one-of-a-kind album projects onto the drive-in theater screen. —Phil Witmer
Arriving two years after a serious bike accident that left Florist's Emily Sprague in a neck brace and unable to use her left arm, The Birds Outside Sang is comprised of 11 mini-masterpieces that find beauty in patience and a comforting fragility in weighty concepts. Her style of songwriting may belong to a long lineage of artists combining introspection and storytelling—early Bright Eyes among them—but Florist stand out like blood on snow. Beginning with Sprague singing over minimal keyboard loops (many of the songs were written with one hand before she could play guitar again), the album gradually incorporates more and more instrumentation, subtly emphasizing the same sense of growth implicit within each song. Chilly drones, warm guitars and hushed cymbals lend it a sensory intimacy, while the lyrics express abstract emotion in vivid imagery, whether it's of tree bark or getting your head stuck in a banister. It's as unique and accomplished as you could hope for from a debut full-length. —Emma Garland
Did anyone ever really think Chairlift would surpass "Bruises"? The song spot-lit the Brooklyn duo via an iPod nano commercial back in 2008, when those ads could take a band from obscurity to omnipresent in seven days. It could have been their albatross, but instead Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly cut the cutesy-coo and lo-fi canned beats, with each album surpassing the last in confidence and vision. Where 2012's Something swiped the feel-good sparkle of 80s radio, this third album welds the polished curves of 90s R&B with the duo's left field, Asiatic, weird pop tendencies. Here more than ever, Polachek's elastic vocals and inventive trills thrill. She's poured the blushing bloom of romantic love and intimacy—with all its vulnerability, dizzying highs, and tactile pleasures—into every song, from the flinty "Romeo" to the velvety center of "Crying in Public." Where the irrepressible pulse of "Show U Off" could come off smug in its buoyant expression of happiness, instead it beckons you into the backseat for a joyride. This is easily one of the brightest, boldest pop records of the year. —Kim Taylor Bennett
If XXX was a raucous party and Old was the hangover from the day after, then Danny Brown's fourth full-length is what happens when the party never stops—when days turn into nights, the drugs don't work but you take more of them anyway, and depression takes the form of empty hotel rooms and empty-headed hangers-on. Brown's lyrics have always contained multitudes, but Atrocity Exhibition features his strongest writing yet, touching on everything from smoke breaks to erectile dysfunction to the unceasing grind of life on the road with a deft mix of humor, sadness, and wizened reflection. All this is backed by the type of production from Paul White, the Alchemist, and Evian Christ that sounds languid, hyperactive, and utterly trippy—sometimes all at once. Atrocity Exhibition is the feel-good-then-feel-bad record of the year for anyone who lost the ability to feel after last call. —Larry Fitzmaurice
808INK are from Deptford, south London, and they're here to fuck up everything you know about British rap music. They don't make grime; nor do they make the sort of dry, crumbling hip-hop anemic stoners pontificate about as they roll damp looking spliffs in the shed behind their parents' house. 808INK's palette is a diverse one. There's this production, sweeter than dipping into a pot of honey—kind of like the Neptunes, but with murky, purple, almost swamp-like undertones. As these sounds collide with the vocals, they create an image of warped looking council estates at night, or the backseat of a Vauxhall Astra with the bass in the speakers turned up to the max. Hungry is a unique album and one of the most progressive British releases of the year. —Ryan Bassil
Poland's Cultes Des Ghoules has always been good, but the quartet's latest album, Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love, is genuinely next level (and releasing it on Halloween was a nice touch). Seriously, have you heard this thing? Heavily inspired by Master's Hammer's witchcraft-laced black metal operetta, The Jilemnice Occultist, Cultes Des Ghoules stripped any semblance of romance from the source material and focused entirely on death's cold embrace, plumbing the depths of black metal perversion until they struck sinister gold. Diabolical, dynamic, and strange, Coven... pays homage to the ancient evils of Mortuary Drape, Mayhem, and Necromantia, but it also makes clear its creators' own warped brilliance. Mischief, mischief, the devilry is at toil… —Kim Kelly
It was a given in these information-saturated times that someone would eventually make a song named after a certain deceased gorilla; it was an unforeseen blessing that that person would be Young Thug, who is so far off on his own planet that memes are merely the tiniest atoms in constructing the incomprehensibly vast, fractal-like structures of his songs. And so, naturally, "Harambe" is full of gravelly vocal contortions last heard from Louis Armstrong while the title character is never mentioned, utterly demolishing the idea anyone else could make a song about something so pointless as a joke. Elsewhere, "RiRi" interpolates the titular pop star's biggest hit of the year into dolphin sounds; "Webbie" finds our hero sitting on a plane admiring the way the sun makes his watch glow; "Wyclef Jean" gives us a nursery song about money longer than a NASCAR race. Young Thug is churning through ideas and flows at a dazzling rate—for most artists, simply making the most iconic album cover in years would wear them out. We're lucky to be be here for the amusement park thrill ride of a genius at play. —Kyle Kramer
David Nance's label refers to him as Omaha's best-kept secret, but he's possibly the best songwriter in the United States that nobody outside DIY tape collectors and his friends has heard. This may be dusty and emotive heartland rock 'n' roll, but it has more in common with the grimy lo-fi realism of Peter Laughner of Pere Ubu and Rocket From the Tombs than with any John Cougar/Jeff Tweedy sap. When Nance says that he's spent countless hours absorbing the Stones' Exile on Main Street and Jim Shepard's Picking Through The Wreckage With a Stick, it's easy to believe him. More Than Enough, his debut album with a full band, was recorded in Los Angeles, scrapped, then re-recorded after a move back to Omaha. It needs to be listened to the same way it was recorded, late at night with a bottle of brown liquor close by. Tracks like "Unamused" and "Pure Evil" come from a dark and skulking place. Delivered quickly and in secret, they retain pieces of home-recorded brilliance. —Tim Scott
Britain had something of a golden era in the 90s for celebrating British-Asian pop culture. Cornershop and Bally Sagoo were on the charts, Prince Naseem Hamed was the most absorbing sportsman on the planet, Goodness Gracious Me was on the telly and young British-Asian kids were conjuring up their own version of rave culture (see: Daytimers). It feels like a lost era in comparison to today, where immigration has become a dirty word rather than a hopeful one. In 2016, immigrants of varying generations have been made to feel at best unwelcome and at worst attacked by the political rhetoric that has infiltrated mainstream politics, which made Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys one of the most timely and affecting albums of the year. Here we had Riz Ahmed (a British-Pakistani rapper of Indian heritage) rapping alongside Heems (an American-Indian rapper of Pakistani heritage) spitting bars about identity, racism, ignorance, the South Asian diaspora, and also Zayn Malik. From the first sampled shrill of a traditional shenai in opening track "T5," it's a balls-out rap album garnished with thudding beats and gritty South Asian sounds. One of the most potent extinguishers of prejudice is a shifting perspective—when people are made to understand and sympathize with a viewpoint different from their own. That's why Cashmere should be posted through every letterbox in Britain and America. —Joe Zadeh
It's quite hard to quantize Skepta's Konnichiwa as just an album. To anyone outside of Britain, it probably just looks like a decent grime record with four or five great tracks, then some good ones, then some just fine ones, and then a Pharrell feature. But to those who have been following Skepta and the grime scene since "Not Your Average Joe" and beyond, Konnichiwa represented something far more spiritual and poetic. It was the redemption story of an artist whose career has had more success, failure, opulence, and drama than a damn Shakespearean tragedy. But it was also the redemption story of the genre itself—an underappreciated, exploited, and often demonized section of UK culture —finally bursting the dam and getting the recognition it truly deserves, on its own terms. Konnichiwa was essentially grime's version of when Bender raises his fist at the end of The Breakfast Club. —Joe Zadeh
Dev Hynes wrote much of Freetown Sound in New York City's Washington Square Park, once a gift to free slaves from Dutch settlers in the 17th century. It was a manipulative deal to solely benefit the Dutch, creating a buffer zone of black bodies from natives outside of the park area, all while twisting free slaves into giving up their children's right to freedom. Hynes's act of reclaiming space there, coincidence or not, is symbolic of Freetown Sound's purpose: a self-described clap back against people trying to tear down black, queer, and unsung identities. Freetown Sound is deeply personal, an R&B-new wave mixtape named after the birthplace of Hynes's father that samples POC reference points including Paris Is Burning amidst Hynes's multi-instrumental genius (two words: synth guitar). Rather than dominate the conversation on inclusion, Hynes often recedes into his own background of 80s drum machinery to give women space, featuring everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen to Blondie's Debbie Harry. Freetown Sound stands as a beautiful argument for nostalgia, visions of a happier future borne through reconnecting with the past. —Jill Krajewski
If one were to write a list of what makes Sturgill Simpson an authentic country artist—the type the country music industry tends to applaud from a very long distance for fear of ruffling feathers—the list would fill at least one composition notebook. On his third album (and first with a major label), inspired by a letter his grandfather, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, wrote to his family in case he didn't make it home, Simpson provides for his son a guide on learning to live life while his father is away, touring and pursuing his career. There is tenderness, happiness, and tears shed for both his losses and his gains throughout the 38-minute, nine-song record, Simpson's longest to date. There are horn sections, strings sections, soft melodies, and raucous choruses, not to mention a killer cover of "In Bloom." But at the core of A Sailor's Guide to Earth is Simpson's reckoning with his own mortality, "Brace for Impact (Live a Little)," a slinking, slow-burning reminder of the inevitable decay that goes hand in hand with life. If country music—that is, good country music—is, as Ander Monson puts it, "nothing if not mourning," then Simpson leads his own funeral procession on A Sailor's Guide..., mourning the death he experiences while separated from his family, anticipating the one that becomes us all. —Annalise Domenighini
If November 8 sounded the death knell for irony, Anohni delivered some preemptive blows with Hopelessness, an album unapologetically and often uncomfortably on the nose in its fiercely political message. Never pedantic, the record asks more questions than offers answers, underscoring its songwriting with traditions of dissent embedded in the presence of dance and electronic music. The result is a collection of protest anthems that sound indigenous to its era, rather play into tired stylistic tropes rooted in past movements. Whether belting sweetly about getting drone-bombed as a seven-year-old girl on "Drone Bomb Me" or leading orchestral hooks about global warming and existential fragility on "4 Degrees," Anohni uses her music to galvanize us about the difficult truths we tend to normalize or grow numb to amidst media oversaturation. It's lush and visceral and will get stuck in your head, and that's precisely the point. At a time when it's easier than ever to feel overwhelmed and disconnected, Anohni and collaborators Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never found a way to make it all personal. Hopelessness is at once triumphant and crushing, embracing the paradox of being alive in 2016 rather be paralyzed by it. In doing so, it offers us a way forward. —Andrea Domanick
Cass! When did you get so smoooooth? Well, perhaps he's always had it in him—there was, of course, the sax-filled, Leonard Cohen-esque "The Burning of the Temple, 2012." But with his eighth album, the prolific Bay Area-born troubadour churns out countless buttery grooves ("Bum Bum Bum" and "Opposite House," featuring Angel Olsen), which recall the plush warmth of 70s FM radio. Check the flirty flute on "Laughter Is the Best Medicine" for further evidence. His alt-country angles still make an appearance, but alongside these drive time swerves lie other surprising detours, like feminist hip-swiveler "Run Sister Run" and "In a Chinese Alley," which could almost be Crowded House. It's an incongruous and unexpected smoosh of styles, but Cass holds it all together with ease because, well, he's Cass. He sings "I'm a shoe / And so are you" with such forlorn sincerity it feels like a confessional we're honored to be privy to. Perfect for lazy Sundays. Spooning optional, but always advised. —Kim Taylor Bennett
Giggs has made it very clear that nothing will stop him from cementing his legacy as UK rap greatness—not the police, who have made playing shows in London harder than a ninja assault course, not award shows, which have selective memories when it comes to creativity, and not a music scene which (before Giggs) was more acclimatized to grime acts than British gangster rap. His fourth album, Landlord, continues his great tradition of perseverance and pushing shit forward, and it is full of all the dark, brutal beats and sinister (occasionally funny) wordplay that he's built his name on. There's the hollow, stomach-shaking coldness of "The Blow Back," delivered with bars from Stormzy and Dubz; there's the grinding rhythms of "Whippin' Excursion," which you've probably heard blasting out of smoked up, rolled down windows in Peckham; and there's the slow, downbeat melodies of "Of Course," which is probably the closest we're ever going to get to a Giggs love song. Honestly though, this album is a testament to what hella obstacles can do to an artist's self-reliance and resolve and creativity. Listen to this album, kids, and remember: If life smacks you hard, smack it back harder. —Daisy Jones
It's easy to label any particularly impressive album a "game-changer"—hyperbole and music writing go ham-hand in hand, after all. But the release of Rheia triggered a genuine seismic shift in the fortunes of this Belgian collective, especially in North America. Oathbreaker have been operating since 2008, but their third album made them undeniably one of 2016's breakout bands. Rheia harnesses the individual powers of post-hardcore, crust, black metal, spellbinding vocal harmonies, and raw emotional catharsis and spins them into an incredibly cohesive, compelling whole. Vocalist Caro Tanghe adds a whole new range of colors to the band's already far-from-monochromic sonic palette, and it's a goddamn revelation seeing the band let loose live. Few bands achieve the heights Oathbreaker have soared to on this release, one that's as beautiful as it is abrasive. —Kim Kelly
Hot new bands live and die by the sophomore slump, and Toronto's PUP looked like they were destined for one. Their 2014 self-titled debut was a hard showing to top—an utterly perfect, critically acclaimed pop punk record full of lightning riffs, stop-on-a-dime change-ups, and sing-along gang vocals. Plus, the relentless, worldwide touring they did in support of it, over which they quickly earned a large and rabid fanbase, seemed like a surefire method of running themselves into the ground. But, amazingly, when the four-piece remerged this year with The Dream Is Over, they were more energized than ever. It was like they took what people loved about them and turned things up to 11. Everything was faster, louder, and sharper. PUP wear their battle scars on their sleeves as a point of pride on this album, openly showing off songs about being run down by the road and how it sometimes makes them want to literally kill one another. Even the title is an homage to the doctor who told lead singer Stefan Babcock to quit music or risk permanent damage to his voice. The Dream Is Over is an album that takes all of the shit life has thrown at the band over the last two years, looks it right in the face, and says, "What else ya got?" —Dan Ozzi
The three decades' worth of rock influence on Teens of Denial are clear—fans of Leonard Cohen, early Weezer, and Talking Heads will appreciate this record in equal measure—but the album, and frontman Will Toledo, have more in common with Frank Ocean than any of Toledo's forebearers. Like Frank Ocean's Blonde, Denial is an album that, musically and lyrically, inhabits gray areas, from its referential use of sampling and paraphrase to its sexual ambiguity to the existential freefall that defines it. It's a record rooted not in time but in identity, examining the relationship between our self-conceptions and how we exist in the minds of others—be that friends, lovers, family, or society—and how we re-calibrate the world around us accordingly. It's also a whole lot of fun, as likely to have you banging your head as it is reading the lyrics without the songs playing. Toledo is one of those rare talents whose precision as a songwriter is matched by his gift for arrangement: Songs tend to sprawl, but rarely repeat, and never drag, and are deceptively layered and complex—a hidden slide guitar line, distorted harmony, or third meaning in some wordplay is likely to reveal itself well after you've memorized the lyrics. However you parse it, Denial is a thoughtful stream-of-consciousness ode to fucking up and figuring it out, a concept album about life after ego death by a rising new voice whose vision transcends the genre that got him here. —Andrea Domanick
He gives it away right there on the final song: "the days have no numbers," a comforting incantation from a distant voice. Of course, so far there have been numbers everywhere, "22 (OVER S∞∞n)," "8 (circle)"—literally all the songs, and they have some sort of numerological meaning about life and death and spirituality. You begin digging, noticing more clues: that tape glitch, the circular ten seconds of quiet piano mulling at the beginning of the track, what are maybe live bongos played in a garage drum pattern but they only play for two measures so it's hard to say? There's a part that samples Stevie Nicks singing in a semi-legendary rehearsal video that lives on YouTube. And the lyrics offer so much, too—conversations in stairwells, the super screwed down part saying "I'm so sorry for cheating," the whole song that maybe matches up perfectly to the plot of the Great Gatsby. These are things you can excavate and hold onto or let pleasantly drift by, the way everything else in life is enjoyed. Maybe there's meaning in the numerology, in warped human voices fluttering in and out; maybe it's all part of some cosmic mystery too vast to be explained. Wouldn't both be perfect? —Kyle Kramer
No artist figured greater in rap's intergenerational culture wars this year than Lil Yachty: When he wasn't busy trolling hip-hop's old heads by admitting he'd never listened to Biggie, he was confusing the hell out of them with childlike raps over beats that sounded like ambient versions of cartoon theme songs (and in some cases literally were). But that conversation always overlooked the fundamental premises of Lil Yachty, which are that you can be deadly serious about being playful, that finding a beautiful sound can be as impactful as any lyrical message, and that positivity is an inalienable virtue. Drifting through Auto-Tuned falsetto and floating through dreamy landscapes of noise, Yachty understands that texture and atmosphere have become some of rap's most important tools and takes these ideas one step further, relishing the prettiness of a modulated "hellooooooo" or a voice melting into a synth. And somehow, songs like "1 Night" and "Wanna Be Us" also bang. "Minnesota" might be an era-defining posse cut. Get on the boat; it's lifting anchor soon, and it's about to be a long voyage to the future. —Kyle Kramer
Blackstar, the final album David Bowie released—his 25th, for the record—arrived three days before he died. The final song on his final album was called "I Can't Give Everything Away," a song about how—after a lifetime of creativity—he struggled to express himself in ways he felt the world deserved. That's the kind of perfectly told story that, when written, feels like a cliché. But here we are, and that's how David Bowie exited this world. He was a cliché because he invented the clichés. Bowie inspired multiple generations to look nowhere except inwards when thinking about the kind of human being they wanted to be. What's more (and arguably more important, given this list!) is that, despite Blackstar providing a storybook ending to his career, it's a really fucking good record, one that's arguably on par with any other classic Bowie album. True to his form, Bowie worked within his own constraints—mainly, his wearying voice—to provide a lovely piece of art that serves his legacy right. Bowie didn't die in 2016. He ascended. —Eric Sundermann
"I sit alone in my four-cornered room, staring at candles." That's Scarface's unforgettable intro to Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," and it's a vivid piece of imagery that comes to mind while listening to Atlanta rapper 21 Savage's excellent project with Metro Boomin, Savage Mode. A solitary, reflective streak runs throughout here—which is maybe a weird observation to make about a record that features the boast, "Wet your mama house / Wet your grandma house/ Keep shootin' 'til somebody die." But it's 21 Savage's slack, largely unconcerned mode of delivery that cements the alluring aura of Savage Mode; even in his braggiest boasts, he rarely sounds like he's doing anything more than talking to his shoes, and when he does raise his voice, there's an audible strain. Paired with weightless and hollow production, Savage Mode sometimes sounds as if you're listening to it by accident—like you've stumbled upon someone in mid-conversation with themselves, unconcerned as to whether you're listening or if you're even there at all. It's a singular achievement, one he might never pull off again—and honestly, would you want him to? —Larry Fitzmaurice
More than 20 years ago, A Tribe Called Quest brought jazz to rap, the only true American artform speaking to the other true American artform. Along the way, the group became bound up in hip-hop's DNA—everyone in America knows the answer to "Can I kick it?" Now, to listen to Tribe is to feel rhyme and rhythm unfold naturally, a conversation with friends in which, on any given day, a familiar line might appear as if for the very first time.
And if that sense of the music's inextricability is true of hearing the "Bonita Applebum" sample all the time, it is especially true when the sample returns within the dreamlike logic of We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, Tribe's parting album. Here, just as they do in your memory, the group's voices drift up out of the background: Q-Tip, Jarobi, Consequence, Busta Rhymes, even André 3000 and Talib Kweli and Anderson .Paak and Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West and Jack White's guitar. They come in snippets: "the ramen noodle" or "green and the white, we serving Nigeria" or "How I'm 'posed to know how home feels? / I ain't even on my home field." It's Tribe's jazz instincts brought full circle—each voice, each reverbed one-string burst of guitar, each flickering synth pattern welling up like a solo out of the groove. This may be, among other things, one of the great synthesizer nerd albums of all time, word to "Conrad Tokyo."
Yet among those soloists, there's one that stands out, of course: Phife Dawg, the Trini gladiator so skeptical of these new rappers he's hearing, watching Donald Trump on SNL with mounting dread. When Phife passed away earlier this year, it felt as though that long-running conversation Tribe had always hosted had been cut off, that a friend was gone. So what comfort to have him arrive here, in all his sharp-tongued glory? That Donald line will live on in tough times, naturally, a reassurance from Phife, even now, that he's got our back. But, the guys argue, " The Donald"—Donald Juice, the five-foot-three funky diabetic—is more eternal. After all, his words are life, in all its dimensions.
And so, at one point, Tip imagines Phife's voice from the afterlife, ranging far and wide: He's roasting dudes about their shoes and cracking jokes about being short, but he also rhymes with "cremated molecules." There's a promise to "rip every stage with grace look right in they face / live the Tribe principle of having impeccable taste." Lastly, there's a request: "You still got the work to do / I expect the best from you / I'm watching from my heaven view / don't disappoint me / make sure that they anoint me." With this parting statement, what other outcome could there be? —Kyle Kramer
Look at that cover art. When the mutant robot overlords peel back the history books, the image of a solitary and vacant piece of technology looking over the rapidly changing face of the capital is one that will stand out. The album itself, primarily a Dean Blunt project but with work from the likes of Arca and Michachu, is as political as one could expect from such an image. Opening with a five-minute loop of a man stating "This makes me proud to be British," the record's focus is on the different interpretations of identity. Presumably that one loop is taken from the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony or some other affair, setting up the record's poignant journey through a British identity that often isn't represented at such events. As FACT mag said at the start of the year, Babyfather is the sound of modern protest music, challenging, yet rewarding with each listen. And in a time where British music is finding its feet again, top marks also go to bars like "Real and good, true and proper," a poetic encapsulation of what it means to make music that could only come from London. —Ryan Bassil
Jeff Rosenstock called it. He knew the nightmare that fate had in store for us all in 2016, and predicted it right in the first verse on his new album when he sang, "This decade's gonna be fucked." And so far, he's been right. Just this year, we've seen numerous deaths of beloved musical icons, a disastrously contentious Presidential election, and regular news stories about the ongoing strife between civilians and the police. And to amplify all of that, everyone and their uncle wants to do some ALL-CAPS RANTING about it on Facebook. It's that non-stop bombardment of opinions—the "loudness of social media" as Rosenstock calls it—that fueled the writing of this appropriately titled panic attack of an album. In his second solo effort since disbanding his beloved punk scrappers Bomb the Music Industry!, Rosenstock has assembled his most cohesive work yet with WORRY., seamlessly blending a little of everything, from lightning fast ska to acoustic slow jamming. The record doesn't offer any solutions to the world's problems, though. Instead, it's a jam-packed half-hour that offers the listener the opportunity to think about everything going to shit, bury their face in a pillow, and scream until it doesn't feel so overwhelming. And in a year like 2016, that's something everyone in America could use. —Dan Ozzi
Culture Abuse's debut album, Peach, kicks off with a proclamation: "Let there be peace on earth. Let love reign supreme." Those two sentences, which are also written in giant letters across the record's insert booklet, serve as the album's mantra, a theme that runs through every one of its ten songs. That sort of flowery cheerleading might come off like naïve hippie bullcrap from most bands, but not the way Culture Abuse sings it. The band's outlook on life is instead one of optimistic nihilism—seeing the shit the world routinely dishes out and smiling through it all. Because what the fuck else can you do?
Frontman David Kelling is no stranger to life's shit sandwich. In his time writing Peach, he watched a couple of friends pass away, tended to his mother in the hospital, and got pushed out of San Francisco by the area's gentrification, living out of the band's 15-by-15 practice space with four other people. Not to mention he has cerebral palsy. But rather than complain and wallow in misery, Kelling flips it on its head and embraces it.
Peach's opening track, "Chinatown," kicks off Culture Abuse's blinding "whatever, dude" positivity, as Kelling is nearly brought to tears by local police brutality but then snarls defiantly, "Gotta gotta gotta live the way you wanna / Gotta gotta gotta be the way you're gonna." And later, when considering the futility of living in a city where rents skyrocket with seemingly no limit, Kelling opines: "There's no future, but I don't mind." He applies this attitude on a global scale on "Peace on Earth" with the lines, "I never thought about the government or the president, I wouldn't listen to them anyway / So, there might be a war, well I don't care / I just want to get by if that's alright." Truly, he is the living embodiment of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Even though Peach's thematic slogan reads like something that'd be on a bumper sticker tacked to a Volkswagen Bug at Woodstock '69, Kelling is no Jerry Garcia, and Culture Abuse is no Grateful Dead. When they take the stage, Kelling grabs a microphone or two and growls pure catharsis into them as the rest of the band soundtracks his exorcisms with a thick blanket of deep-toned guitars. The band's live act is heavy enough to go toe to toe with any punk or hardcore band in America today. The difference is that when the mics pull away from Kelling's face and you get a glimpse of his expression, he's not mean-mugging or scowling. He's grinning ear to ear like a damned fool because, like he sings on "Jealous," "At the end of the day, I'm just happy to be here."
2016 was such a heinously bad year that it took most people off guard. Its events were so bafflingly disastrous and without precedent that no one knew whether to react with grief, anger, or despair. But Culture Abuse offers a reminder that sometimes it's okay not to have any response at all—instead you can throw up your middle fingers, smile, and say "fuck it all." —Dan Ozzi
Some of the best albums associate themselves with a specific place. There's Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city, which is firmly centered in Compton's avenues, side streets, and housing projects. There's Nas and his 1994 classic album Illmatic, which details the "NY State of Mind." And then there's Kano's Made in the Manor. Unlike those iconic releases from Lamar and Nas, which propelled both artists toward early success, Made in the Manor arrived as Kano's career entered its second decade. He's been known in Britain ever since his debut track "Ps & Qs" became an underground hit in 2004, and international music fans may have heard him on Gorillaz's Plastic Beach or seen him in the TV show Top Boy—which is so good Drake is reportedly funding a new season. But it's Kano's fifth album, Made in the Manor, that is his defining record. Arguably, it's also one that couldn't have been released without the long career leading up to it.
In terms of place, Made in the Manor is a reflection on bygone days in Kano's home of East London. References are packed together like cigarettes in a newly purchased box: from the smell of A-road junction exits, to barber shops in Canning Town, to the face of the queen sticking in the backseat of a jean pocket. For those looking to get an illustrative look at the area that surround London's DLR line, this is your album. But there's more to Made in the Manor than its association with place. Before its release, Kano said "This is the most honest I've ever been on an album. It's not that I wasn't being honest before, it's just that I wasn't speaking about things this personal before."
Of course, the idea of an artist being "honest" is a cliché that's been here ever since record sales began. But in the case of Made in the Manor's most heartfelt tracks—such as "Little Sis," a track Kano dedicated to a sister he's only met once, or "Strangers," about close friends who grew apart—it rings true. Elsewhere, there's one of the best tracks of the year in "3 Wheel Ups"—a collaboration with Giggs and Wiley that goes harder than a steam-train as it careens down a hill, having lost control of its brakes. Or the bonus track "GarageSkankFREESTYLE," the ideal beginning or concluding track to any night out on the town.
Ultimately, Kano's Made in the Manor ticks all the boxes. It's sentimental, it's raw, it's colorful and detailed, but it can also be listened to when you're drunk and need the shubz to enter a new echelon. Kano may have been relatively quiet in the early stages of last year's grime renaissance, but his time spent working on this record has paid off. A lot of people have said there hasn't been a British album like this since Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner. All of them are right, obviously. Wheel this album up again, and again, and again—it's not hard to believe it will stand the test of time. —Ryan Bassil
Movement defines Kaytranada. With his debut album, the Montreal producer went backwards to push dance music forward, drawing inspiration from that golden era when 70s disco rhythms gave way to early 80s hip-hop beats. Kaytranada's signature sound is an assertive, seductive low end so deep in bass that it becomes a pulse beating in time with yours. It's a kind of propulsion that mirrors Kaytranada's career itself, as he went from bedroom producer to Soundcloud favorite, Artbeat Montreal staple to internationally-touring and acclaimed DJ, and Disclosure fan to Disclosure contemporary—all by the age of 24.
99.9% may be Kaytranada's debut album, but it's hardly a novice effort, as he reaches the type of heights that some veterans have had trouble attaining. It's a cohesive yet genre-bending record where each song can stand on its own, from the ebb and flow of "Track Uno" to Aluna Francis and GoldLink's back-and-forth on "Together." Kaytranada establishes himself as a master of sonic and emotional arcs from the get-go, pushing the music on 99.9% further as he goes.
Born in Haiti as Louis Kevin Celestin, Kaytranada immigrated to Montreal with his family as a baby, growing up between cultures and later parents when his parents divorced at 14. In a candid FADER profile, Kaytranada also opened up about another divide in his life: his sexuality, and his challenges passing as straight while knowing he was gay and being bullied for not conforming to his Montreal neighborhood's idea of masculinity. So 99.9% demands that we challenge our assumptions of what an electronic album by a queer, black, Haitian-born artist in Canada can sound like, and by breaking down those labels, it becomes a statement that's both universal and essential. —Jill Krajewski
When Kanye West eventually released The Life of Pablo after much stopping and stalling, Noisey published 41 reviews of it, swearing you'd never have to read anything else about the damn thing ever again. However, that was ten months ago, and much has changed since. Firstly, there were the changes made to the album itself, which West has referred to as a "living breathing changing creative expression" —reworked lyrics, additional vocals, an updated mix of the entire album followed by an additional track. Then there were the personal and cultural changes around it, which started off with some customary messiness—that Taylor Swift lyric, the resulting phone call scandal, and a plethora of problematic tweets ranging from his musings on the word "bitch" to asking Mark Zuckerberg for funding—before taking a dark turn. Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris, Kanye began to use the rant segment of his live shows to announce his support for Donald Trump, tour dates were cancelled and he was hospitalized shortly after.
There are albums that exist in their own creative vacuum, albums that are anchored ostensibly in a sociopolitical time and place, and then there is The Life of Pablo—a body of work so deeply connected to its own mercurial creator that it requires constant re-evaluation. While the first elements that stood out may have been things like Chance the Rapper's soul nourishing verse on "Ultralight Beam," the genius of Rihanna and Nina Simone tag-teaming "What You Gonna Do," or having fresh batches of peak Kanye lyrics like "I'm too black, I'm too vocal, I'm too flagrant" to feast on, it's now difficult to listen to Pablo without honing in on its darker corners. Spiritual, confident and conflicted, The Life of Pablo is a poignant reflection of where Kanye West seems to be right now both as a producer and as a person. For every line of face-with-rolling-eyes misogyny, there is a nod to his own insecurity. For every shamelessly graphic tale about staining his t-shirt with a model's asshole bleach, there is a tender homage to his wife and children. A proud and beautiful track portraying Kim and Kanye as rap game Mary and Joseph sits next to a Lexapro-referencing expression of their marital problems and a Nike diss track with a verse about furniture.
Public opinion on Kanye West has been historically unforgiving, and fans are well aware that the Kanye who goes off script during a live TV fundraiser to say "George Bush doesn't care about black people" exists largely in the past. Whether it's his output or his worldview, West is and always has been in a constant state of evolution. The former tends to move in impressive, groundbreaking, and exciting directions—the latter, not always so much. For better or worse, Kanye West is nothing if not wildly unpredictable, and The Life of Pablo is an album that forces us to look it—at him—from more than one angle, which is a consideration he truly deserves but rarely gets. Of all the unusual releases 2016 has produced, The Life of Pablo keeps rising further and further to the top. —Emma Garland
Zeal & Ardor's Devil is Fine brings together genres that rarely come close to one another, venturing far beyond the realms of metal. In an interview earlier this year, Manuel Gagneux explained that the album originated from a challenge on imageboard 4chan where he'd asked for ideas to make new music and received requests to create "black metal" and "nigger music" in return. The black music that Gagneux ended up drawing from was the hypnotic chants of negro spirituals and chain gang music. Except, unlike the singers he's drawing from who often looked to the sky for their salvation, he replaces the man upstairs with Lucifer. The album's title track, which has vocals that sound like samples from Jim Crow-era prison blues, features Gagneaux coarsely crooning, "Little one better heed my warning / He come in early morning / He go by many names / We gonna go home to the flames."
The pairing of those vocals with Zeal and Ardor's off-kilter instrumentation provides an exhilarating experience. On the purgative "Children's Summon," he opens with delicate xylophone chords that crash into pounding drums as he conducts demonic Latin chants; "What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?" sounds like it takes place in a jazz club under warm lighting—that is, if the place was cool with songs about coaching someone through a murder. In the revved-up negro spiritual "Blood In The River," he sings, "A good lord is a dark one / A good lord is the one that brings the fire."
Zeal & Ardor's ascension in the metal world this year couldn't have been more unexpected, or timely. The genre is typically a predominantly white male-dominated field—so here's Gagneux, a Swiss biracial man creating a mashup of music deeply rooted in American slavery and metal, at a time when racial tensions in the US are boiling at a rate not seen since the Civil Rights era. That concoction has also forced members of the black metal community to grapple with realities that they might have previously ignored, and the discomfort that Devil is Fine has already created implies that it could be revolutionary for metal. —Lawrence Burney
When it was announced Beyoncé would appear at this year's Super Bowl Halftime show, the discerning Beyoncé fan knew that it was going to be far from a one-off performance. Sure enough, she used the performance as an opportunity to announce her forthcoming Formation world tour, which would support the later released visual album Lemonade. It was a powerful pro-black performance at arguably one of America's whitest professional sporting events, in which Bey donned Black Panther-esque fatigues, which in turn led some to believe her lead single, "Formation," and its accompanying video off Lemonade exhibited anti-police sentiments.
The conservative outcry against Lemonade was immediate and fearful, with everyone from The Drudge Report to Sean Hannity decrying Beyoncé as a bad role model, pointing specifically to her car-smashing escapade in the video for "Hold Up." It was a reminder of the power Queen Bey wields, that by thriving—hell, by merely existing—she poses a threat to white America.
Lemonade is a provocative and political record—a mediation on her blackness in the current pop cultural climate that sonically traces black history in America via pop, rock, country, and blues. But Beyoncé's sixth solo studio album is also deeply personal, often thought to be predominantly about cheating allegations against her husband Jay Z. It's a reminder of how much she's evolved not just as an artist but as a person. Over her nearly 20-year career, we've seen her grow up, from being a young performer to a married woman negotiating her sexual power to wholly assuming the roles of mother and wife. As listeners, we're privy to the very real and hard growing pains that occur in long-term relationships; on "Formation" she sings "I'm so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces" to "I ain't thinking about you" on "Sorry," after bragging "You ain't married to no average bitch, boy" on "Don't Hurt Yourself." It's a reminder that personal openness can be political, too. —Sarah MacDonald
Consider this: within the first ten minutes of Rihanna's ANTI, we're treated to four songs (technically, three and an interlude) that could each be the centerpiece on any other album.
There's the sinister drums of "Consideration," the spacey textured keys of "James Joint," the pop zenith that is "Kiss It Better," and "Work," the single that launched a thousand riddims. It's objectively the best multiple song run of any album this year, and therein lies one of the album's strengths: it confidently shows its hand from the get-go. There were a lot of albums-as-narratives this year, every song delicately placed for structure. The charm of ANTI, then, is how it deals with love, hurt, and relationships; it all feels sonically messy, leaving us with songs that don't naturally ebb and flow from the next.
Several months prior to the album's release during the unveiling of its cover, famed designer Roy Nachum wrote regarding Rihanna and the title's meaning, "By continuing to follow her own instincts, her work strives to make an impact by doing the very antithesis of what the public expects." To Nachum's point, that's exactly what we expect from Rihanna, and why she's so beloved. Her casual disregard for the egos of the opposite sex are cause for celebration; her eclectic and constant image revisions result in her being treated like a semi-deity online, but her fortitude to veer towards whatever direction she fits makes her a hero.
Over the course of the album, though, she's comfortable playing the role of the very opposite—an antagonist, an agitator, and an aggressor who pushes to the center while everything else shrinks in her wake. "Woo" and "Needed Me" best capture this spirit; over the former's atonal guitar riffs and unstable bassline, she sings, " Bet she could never made you cry/ Cause the scars on your heart are still mine." Yet when she repeats, "I don't mean to really love ya," her conviction just barely masks words that sound like a heart that's suffered. While the latter colors her cold and callous remarking, "You was just another nigga on the hit list." The final quarter then slows to a crawl and follows a tug and pull of id and ego, hubris and humility as Rihanna wrestles through regret ("Same Ol Mistakes") heartache ("Love On The Brain"), desperation ("Higher," which features a hoarse yet rich vocal performance and her best to date), and surrender ("Close to You").
Most criticisms of ANTI have addressed its seemingly jarring pacing and unclear direction, referring to it as a front-loaded effort that hops betweens themes and convoluted emotions. But ANTI is meant to be free-wheeling and aimless, emotions typically aren't neat and almost never stable, anyways. There's no linear arc that can be traced, other than bouts of bygone memories and the feelings that still remain present. It's supposed to sound uneven. It's supposed to sound spotty. It's supposed to sound human. —Jabbari Weekes
2016 was Chance the Rapper's year. Before Kanye West's The Life of Pablo came out, Chancellor Bennett was a talented rapper with a keen ear for the sounds of gospel and Common, inching towards stardom; he had two mixtapes under his belt—one raw, one compelling—and a bunch of bright guest verses. He was a hero in Chicago, but not yet an American icon. That changed when he walked out on SNL to hold his foot on the devil's neck with his verse on The Life of Pablo's "Ultralight Beam," which showcased a new level to his artistry—more certain of himself, soulful where he used to be nasal, resolute where he used to be paranoid. He saw his moment and asked for quiet: "This is my part, nobody else speak."
Like "Ultralight Beam," Coloring Book is transcendent: it rises out of chaos and pain, sings through the darkness, and reaches for resolution. The resolution is God, of course, though Chance isn't fearful—they're "mutual fans"—and he isn't pious either. He knows there's contradictions, so, he sings ecstatically that "My life is perfect, I could merch it" before rapping through "Summer Friends," remembering young death in his Chatham childhood. He can pitch a Peter Pan ending on "Same Drugs" ("Don't forget the happy thoughts, all you need is happy thoughts") after singing through addiction and fading memories; on "Smoke Break," he sings about parenthood and its strain on his relationship, sharing the track with (who else?) Future. His life isn't perfect, and on "Blessings," he comes even closer to expressing his truth: "I'm at war with my wrongs / I'm writing four different songs."
Sometimes, it sounds like Chance has put four very different ideas into one song, as the sheer diversity of sound on Coloring Book is a marvel—from Francis and the Lights' pretty electro to D.R.A.M.'s acid trip lullaby "Special." There are more radical departures, too: the trap beat and Auto-Tune of the Young Thug and Lil Yachty-featuring "Mixtape," "All Night"'s tipsy bass and taxi-home singalong chorus. But Chance can jump back into the album's harmonic roots whenever he wants without it coming across as jarring, as "All Night" fades out into three rich minutes of "How Great"'s gospel choir.
While all this is a soundtrack to Chance trying to break free from his demons, he knows he's already found independence as an artist, and "No Problem"'s label-baiting is clear about that. Bennett has become a superstar without a record deal, as Coloring Book hit the Billboard top ten on Apple Music streams alone. To underscore that, he brings his Chicago with him on Coloring Book, sharing tracks with Saba, Towkio, Jeremih, and Noname. Then, he doubles down and invites his favorite iconoclasts to share the mic: Jay Electronica raps about God, Young Thug gets to changing the culture.
But, almost inevitably, it's Kanye West—everyone's favorite heretic—who gets the best line, right at the start. "Music is all we got" isn't an escapist phrase; it's an articulation of a history that reaches deep into gospel and the blues, a statement on everything that Chance's praise-through-pain aesthetic on Coloring Book is searching for. So yeah, "we might as well give it all we got." —Alex Robert Ross
This past year's critical go-to move is to stamp work from black artists as "unapologetically black"—as if that represents their peak aim. It insinuates that part of the art's value is its ability to function properly, in spite of whiteness or any other existing force. That crowning can be endearing but with theories of us being in a new Civil Rights era, music from black artists that is resolute in its call for pride, love, and understanding is likely to increase. So we're going to need a few more creative qualifiers. Being unapologetically black is to just be. It's not something that can be accomplished—it just is. Continuing to exist in a world that tells you that your presence is a threat and generally unwanted is the epitome of audacity—of being unapologetic—and that's what gives value to Solange's A Seat at the Table. On the record, blackness is not being flaunted; instead, it functions as an insider's message purely for black people. These sentiments are echoed throughout the album: on Master P's "For Us By Us" interlude, he closes by saying "If you don't understand my record, you don't understand me, so this is not for you," and "F.U.B.U." extends a comforting hand to those made to feel small because of their color.
Solange is especially effective with pulling the listener in with plainspoken confessionals stating that your journey isn't a lonely one. On "Cranes in the Sky," she tries self-medication, retail therapy, and travel to distract herself from unresolved inner conflicts; on "Mad," she embraces her anger and accepts that holding it in will only prevent progress, while pointing to the fact that anger expressed by a black woman is often amplified into categorization and punctuating the song with: "But I'm not really allowed to be mad." A Seat at the Table effectively walks the line of self-reflection and political criticism, as Solange snags her mother Tina Lawson to challenge the concept of black pride being anti-white, her father Matthew Knowles to revisit what life as a child was like in the segregated south, and Master P to stress the importance of self-worth and black ownership for a string of interludes.
The varied sound on the album is a result of Solange's decision to blend elements of soul and indie rock. An all-star lineup of co-producers and collaborators including Q-Tip, Sampha, Raphael Saadiq, TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, and Dirty Projectors' David Longstreth help craft a sound that elevates Solange as one of the best in her field. There are moments to dance ("Don't You Wait"), reflect ("Cranes in the Sky"), and to demand respect ("Don't Touch My Hair"). The most refreshing gift the album gives is centralizing the black American experience in a timeless manner; there are songs that were written almost a decade ago, stories of the Civil Rights Era to daily-received microaggressions of today. All of these stories, while told by different people describing various parts of their lives, still apply to what black life is like in its full complexity. Equally cleansing in its pride in black womanhood and meticulous selection of production, A Seat at the Table stands as one the year's strongest musical statements. —Lawrence Burney
With Blonde, Frank Ocean presented something calm in a tumultuous world, and forced us to do one thing: pause. The narrative of the release felt like more than an album, which is a bit odd, really, to think about how something held up with such anticipation could be the antithesis of what caused its hype. But here we are, and that's what Blonde is.
In a year where it felt like nothing was real, Frank made an album about the concept of reality. On a sonic level, the record offers something complex while still remaining warm and inviting, feeling a bit abrasive at times but steadfast in its commitment to being balanced. Through its ups and downs, Blonde just sounds weird—a stitched together collection of half thoughts and phrases thrown through different forms of vocal manipulation. He doesn't concern himself with making dramatic points or catchy phrases, and instead patches together the dissonance he feels, offering this bizarre portrait of how the human mind works—and in particular, the millennial mind. "Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought / That could think of the dreamer that thought / That could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God," he quips on "Seigfried." He continues: "I be dreaming a dream in a thought / That could dream about a thought / That could think about dreaming a dream."
Although this is a sprawling project that seems to touch on every cultural cornerstone of what it's like to be alive in 2016, it still somehow feels and acts focused, confident in its ability to answer questions while still posing even more. There's no doubt Frank did his share of psychedelics while putting Blonde together. This is a record that screams for those moments in which you find yourself standing on the edge of the universe, yelling at the top of your lungs into the unimaginable distance, terrified of the answers you might find but wanting nothing more than to know the questions you asked to get there.
Critics may call Blonde's relentless commitment to introspection boring. But that's a shortsighted approach to a record that demands your time. There is no one specific moment on the album that stands out—no single that demands radio play, no track that goes off in the club—but instead, Frank has presented a project that relishes the moments between the music as much as the songs themselves. The vocal beauty of tracks like "Ivy," "Solo," and "Self Control" play against the raw conviction of others like "Good Guy," "White Ferrari," and "Seigfried." This is an album that wants you to think about why you listen to it as much as it wants you to listen to it, and how those two ideas play into each other.
Blonde is somber. It's the kind of album that seems to be wandering with purpose, like walking aimlessly through a city on a Saturday night only to find the perfect bar for the perfect drink with the perfect someone. "The whole time I felt as though I was in the presence of a $16m McLaren F1," Frank wrote in a letter to fans on its release, "armed with a disposable camera." Despite the immense amount of pressure that was placed upon putting this piece of art into the world, Frank somehow gave the world a project that felt free of any sort of expectation. It was just… Frank, really. That's all. —Eric Sundermann