The 50 Best Albums Of 2016 So Far

Veep, quite possibly the best show on TV right now, depicts a culture of Washington aides chained to their phones, sent scrambling to come up with an official response every time a new crisis erupts. They can’t sleep, their personal lives are in shambles, and they exist in a constant state of bickery infighting. For the past few months, that’s been us. The entire rock-critical establishment has been in a tetchy, freaked-out reactive state since shortly after 2016. The reason: There is so fucking much going on.

There’s always a lot going on in music, of course, but the first half of 2016 has been a goddamn gauntlet. Every few weeks — sometimes not even that — there’s been a huge new surprise album, a long-gestating masterwork from a huge star or a respected up-and-comer that demands some kind of reaction this very minute. Some of those albums have been absolute dogshit. (Hello, Views.) But many of them have been great. It’s exhausting for those of us who work in this business. But it’s also terribly exciting to show up to work everyday, knowing that we could be dealing with a new album from Beyoncé or Radiohead or Chance The Rapper or James Blake or Kanye West. Sometimes, we’ll get a few days of advance warning. Sometimes, we won’t even get that.

At the same time, the undergrounds keep churning. So while, say, a new Rihanna album demands a certain level of attention, it’s important not to let the great smaller albums slip through the cracks. And this year has been lousy with those, too. We’ve been celebrating the superstars, but we’ve also been celebrating Canadian pop-punk tantrum masters and twangy New Jersey emo belters and bloodthirsty extreme-metal auteurs and bedroom-pop outsiders and introverted rap motormouths.

On our list of the year’s 50 best albums thus far — the albums coming out before July, or, at least, the ones that we’ve already heard — you’ll find a whole lot of pop. You’ll also find jazz and house and metal and country and punk and experimental music, as well as indie-rock of all stripes. All the members of your Stereogum staff have voted, and we’ve had to make the ridiculous and absurd choices, like how to rank David Bowie’s uncompromising goodbye album against the gorgeous utopian soul LP that Anderson .Paak put out on the very same day. You will probably disagree with some of our choices here; that’s a given. But perhaps you’ll join us in marveling at the quantity and breadth of great music that 2016 has already given us. And maybe you’ll also find something amazing that you hadn’t heard before. —Tom

50 Parquet Courts – Human Performance (Rough Trade)

It’s hard to explain exactly why Parquet Courts are so great, because on paper, they don’t sound that exciting. So it’s a testament to their immense talent that they really are that exciting. On Human Performance, they take all the anxiety and ennui of modern existence, add in a healthy dose of personal heartbreak, and turn it into whip-smart, hugely satisfying rock songs. Some of the ramshackle punk energy of Sunbathing Animal is gone, but it’s replaced by a world-weariness and a tight musicianship that can’t be beat, plus some of the most immediately appealing songs of their career. —Peter
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

49 Open Mike Eagle – Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group)

The underground MMG has a roster as deep as the Golden State Warriors. Time and time again they come with artists that can spit their asses off and production that’s in the traditional vein of hip-hop, but fresh, updated, and inventive. Open Mike Eagle would be their MVP for the first half of the season. He perfectly named Hella Personal Film Festival because he comes with inward, intimate reflections. But he also has the wherewithal to remove himself from his limited personal perspective while creating a wildly entertaining experience where he can yell at the screen with sharp commentary along with the rest of us in the audience. —Collin
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

48 Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman (Republic)

And to think, this album was going to be called Moonlight. Instead we get the pleasure of hearing Grande attempt to shed her ingenue image, exploring her wilder side by adopting an edgy Sasha Fierce-style persona. It was a savvy move that yielded a slew of her finest singles yet. “Dangerous Woman,” “Be Alright,” and especially “Into You” are pantheon-level pop songs, proof that Grande is gunning for the A-list. And the fact that she got Macy Gray to guest on her big-budget pop album — in 2016! — is further evidence that besides being more dangerous than she gets credit for, Grande is also weird as hell. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

47 The Range – Potential (Domino)

Potential is part immaculately-produced electronic album, part sociological experiment. James Hinton scoured the depths of YouTube for samples on his second album as the Range, and approached his subjects with a respectful but academic rigor in order to interrogate the nature of what sampling means during an age when there’s an unlimited amount of sources to draw from. An endeavor that could have easily been a pretentious and voyeuristic vanity project is instead a work of uncompromising humanity that explores the breaks between our hopes, dreams, and the crushing weight of reality. —James
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

46 Fear Of Men – Fall Forever (Kanine)

Fall Forever is full of jaw-dropping lyrics, among them “Force my nerves to bend to feel what you feel,” “You tell me impossible things that break me,” and “Breathing deeper now, I am free from the crowd/ I’m as clean as the shame will allow.” But the relevant passage here is when Jessica Weiss dejectedly declares, “The change in me is never what you hoped it would be.” Where Fear Of Men are concerned, that could not be more false. This album is a quantum leap for the Brighton band, a dark indie-pop triumph that channels Weiss’ trauma into the space between Radiohead and Allo Darlin’ and finds beauty there. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

45 KING – We Are KING (King Creative)

We Are KING is pretty much a self-titled debut, but that simple title speaks volumes. KING came out of the gate with the cool, relaxed stride of a thoroughbred headed to the solitude of the winner’s circle. The trio is unabashedly confident in their identity and exquisitely crafted sound, balancing a gauzy aesthetic with a quiet, warm potency. Paris and Amber Strother are twins, which means they have a closeness inherent in their very DNA. But the musical chemistry Anita Bias shares with them registers just as intimately, and that makes their sound as unique as it is compelling. —Collin
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

44 Tegan And Sara – Love You To Death (Vapor)

The first thing that’s so winning about Tegan And Sara’s transition to pure pop of the Cars/Lauper variety is that they’ve lost none of their detailed, diaristic approach to lyric writing, and that lovelorn melancholy fits well with a style of music that traditionally balances sadness with jubilation. The second thing is they do it really goddamn well. Love You To Death is an album of real emotional depth and maturity, but these songs are marvels of structure and technique, not just echoing some timeless influences but matching them. You don’t need to make out the words to hear the heartache in these songs — the melody conveys that to the body with an adrenaline quickness — but when those words make it to your brain, man, they’d knock you down if the beat weren’t there to keep you on your feet, moving. —Michael
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

43 Underworld – Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future (Astralwerks)

Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, the first album in six years from British electronic godheads Underworld, has gotten its share of praise, but thanks to so many blockbuster releases this year, it’s unlikely to register when people remember 2016 down the line. That’s a shame because this is a stunning work. The title is a quote from Rick Smith’s father toward the end of his life, a phrase rooted in mortality and looking toward something beyond. And that’s what the album sounds like. Opening trilogy “I Exhale,” “If Rah,” and “Low Burn” all feature Karl Hyde issuing sing-speak visions amidst mechanical churn. It’s music that captures the feeling of being lost in the modern world, but the shining future is just ahead: “Ova Nova” and “Nylon Strung” shoot off into the sky at the album’s conclusion, sounding like hope and peace and unnamed emotions. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

42 Julianna Barwick – Will (Dead Oceans)

Julianna Barwick makes devotional music for a secular age, turning the aesthetic experience into the sacred. Using little more than her voice, she constructs cavernous cathedrals of sound, clouds of echoed vocals that slowly ascend to the heavens. On Will, though, they sound more earthbound than ever before — the amniotic haze makes way for pianos and strings and synths, adding a tactile heft and an immediacy to these compositions. Where the album falls short of the divine, it more than makes up for in its intimate sense of humanity. —Peter
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

41 Wye Oak – Tween (Merge)

Like Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered., Tween is billed not an album or mixtape but an amorphous project built from worthy outtakes. So what’s it doing on a best albums list? Well, just as Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have managed to translate their swooning twilight indie-rock into many different sonic frameworks, so that no matter what instruments they use it still sounds like Wye Oak, apparently if you string enough of these songs together it will elicit that same epic melancholy sensation you get from one of their proper LPs. In other words, shut up Wye Oak this is an album, one that masterfully bridges Shriek‘s baroque synthpop with the smoldering guitar music of their youth. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

40 Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä (20 Buck Spin)

Psychedelic black metal traditionally references Floydian vastness and Zeppelin-esque bombast, but Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu adhere to no traditions, and their world-eating fourth LP, Värähtelijä, references a far broader (and weirder) world of influences: Krautrock, Afrobeat, free jazz, dub, ambient, noise. But Värähtelijä isn’t an antagonistic or esoteric work; it’s an inviting, immersive experience. Its songs build slowly, to be sure, yet they hook you quickly and reward your attentiveness with gigantic payoffs. The brutality here feels expansive and textural; the rhythmic elements give the music a rare beauty and mystery. It’s inner-space music, but it’s not just a trip, it’s a journey. —Michael
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

39 M83 – Junk (Mute)

When M83 released “Do It, Try It,” there was a common, resounding response: What the shit, M83? Movie soundtracks aside, this was the highly anticipated and long-awaited first proper single from from Anthony Gonzalez since his sprawling, neon masterpiece Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in 2011, and the announcement of an LP inspired by ’80s TV like Punky Brewster and Who’s The Boss made Junk seem like a bizarro freakout of a followup. Thing is, “Do It, Try It” and much of Junk are not nearly as much a departure as they’ve been made out to be. Sure, you have to sift through cheesy detritus like “Moon Crystal” and the overly saccharine “For The Kids,” but the stuff that lingers longer is the louche “Bibi The Dog,” the highly addictive one-two of “Laser Gun” and “Road Blaster,” or the late-night city cruise Beck feature “Time Wind.” M83’s wild maximalism had always flirted with tastelessness anyway, which only means the bleary Junk is an appropriate comedown from the highs of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming as well as the logical crash landing of Gonzalez’s nostalgia overdrive. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

38 School of Seven Bells – SVIIB (PLANCHA)

After Benjamin Curtis tragically lost his battle with lymphoma in 2013, SVIIB’s sole remaining member, frontwoman Alejandra Deheza, could’ve abandoned the music they had been recording before and during Curtis’ illness. Instead, she returned to this often-effervescent material and found a way to process her grief. In the soaring “Ablaze” or the meditative “A Thousand Times More,” she chose the path of celebration, chronicling the partnership (first romantic, then platonic, always musical) she shared with Curtis. Given its context, SVIIB is inevitably a heavy album, but against expectations it’s also an uplifting and defiant one. Nothing, not even death, can take away the years you do get with the people you love. For what is likely the last music that will be released under the SVIIB moniker, Deheza found the strength to share a piece of that with us, writing a beautiful epilogue for her and Curtis and all the people who cared about them, even if from a distance. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Spotify | <Apple Music

37 Mutual Benefit – Skip A Sinking Stone (Mom+Pop)

Mutual Benefit’s Skip A Sinking Stone is an album in two parts. Side A is a travel diary of sorts, a series of meditations about life on the road, while Side B finds Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee living a more-or-less settled life in Brooklyn. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story, a series of spindly folk songs that enmesh the pastoral freedom of a vagabondish lifestyle with the harsh realities of urban living. Skip A Sinking Stone picks up where 2013’s Love’s Crushing Diamond left off — seeking stability in the uncertain, finding faith in the little things in life that keep you grounded. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

36 Guerilla Toss – Eraser Stargazer (DFA)

Where Guerilla Toss’s previous records were all-out explosions, Eraser Stargazer is a controlled detonation. Continuing the progression from last year’s Flood Dosed EP for DFA Records, Eraser Stargazer finds the circus-punks focusing and harnessing their anarchic free-for-all energy in service of actual danceable grooves. It’s the closest they’ve come to translating the experience of their by-all-accounts legendary live show to the studio, a tightening up of their carnival dance-party antics without losing what made them special in the first place. —Peter
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

35 Margaret Glaspy – Emotions And Math (ATO)

Margaret Glaspy’s debut album flits between two sides of her personality: the logical, uncompromising left hemisphere of the brain, and the emotional right. All of the songs on Emotions And Math are a tug-of-war between the two, Glaspy prodding at her subconscious as if it were a specimen splayed out, awaiting dissection. But she narrates the trials and tribulations of modern living through blues-inflected, traditional rock and roll, and her voice carries the weight of an old soul left out in the sun too long, wry and playful and all-knowing at the same time. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Apple Music

34 Saul Williams – Martyr.Loser.King (FADER)

Saul Williams exudes the impression that he somehow forced an otherworldly pneuma into a human body and that body is struggling to contain the wealth of knowledge, fiery conviction, and revolutionist spirit within. On Martyr.Loser.King he didn’t bother to contain a damn thing. It’s unrelenting, barely controlled chaos with crunchy guitars, hardcore sensibilities, hip-hop cadences, tribal leanings, fierce activism, world music, classical flourishes, spoken word, and a dozen other things firing off and colliding into each other to form something cohesive and bonded like atoms. Those sonic elements whizzing around disorient and unsettle just as Williams intended, and the dynamic impetus of his award-winning words makes sure you’ll stay uncomfortable. No other body of work thus far will so wonderfully rile and challenge you. —Collin
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

33 Big Ups – Before A Million Universes (Exploding In Sound)

This New York punk band took the title of its second album from a Walt Whitman quote, but they are not exactly the type of band who will leave you poring over their lyric sheet with a Hi-Liter, picking out the literary allusions. This band makes physical music, recalling the clangorous post-hardcore of the mid-’90s and evoking fond memories in those of us who, unlike the members of the band, are old enough to remember breathing the same air as Fugazi. The world has largely moved on from that kind of music, but Big Ups prove that there is still plenty of satisfaction to be had in an erratic, seesawing punk rock freakout. — Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

32 The Hotelier – Goodness (Tiny Engines)

The Hotelier’s defining characteristic may not be Christian Holden’s complicated anarchist ideas or the singular Sunny Day Real Estate-meets-R.E.M. aesthetic they’ve carved out, but rather the devotion they inspire among fans. That communal passion is so legendary that even if you only catch glimpses of brilliance in Goodness at first, it’s hard not to hear these anthems through the ears of the converted, to imagine their rapture and recognition when Christian Holden screams, “Make me feel alive! Make me believe that all my selves align!” and to be thrilled by proxy. And, anecdotally, if you soldier past that album cover and Holden’s spoken-word intro and give this album’s emotional friction a few chances to spark in you, it might yet light your soul aflame, too. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

31 Astronoid – Air (Blood Music)

Astronoid are a five-piece from Boston who basically arrived without warning to deliver a total revelation of a debut LP: a work of seemingly endless melody, power, and precision. Air is rooted in climactic major-key post/black metal — think Deafheaven or Woods Of Desolation — filled with blast beats and blazing solos. But where nearly all other bands of that ilk approach singing only in the form of screams, hisses, whispers, and roars, Astronoid deal in clean, textured, multi-layered vocals. They write soaring, aching, gigantic melodies that recall My Bloody Valentine, Mew, Slowdive, and Sigur Rós. The combination of those attacks — the shredding, thrilling instrumentation and the powerful, beautiful singing — isn’t entirely new, but I’m confident saying you’ve never heard it done like this before. Air feels like an album I’ve been waiting years to hear, an album I didn’t even know I was waiting for. And now that it’s arrived, I’m absolutely blown away. —Michael
STREAM IT: Apple Music

30 Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing (Bayonet)

The steady trickle of releases that made Greta Kline a treasured and prolific singer-songwriter sensation has dried up since 2014’s Zentropy in favor of the fuller statement piece. Last year’s synth-based and insular Fit Me In EP and this year’s full-length Next Thing are her most fully-realized efforts yet, containing the sharpest and most accomplished tracks of her already-storied career. Next Thing distills the Frankie Cosmos ethos down to its purest form: Questions of “Do I belong?” and acute anxieties haunt Kline, but she turns those demons into songs you can sing along to with your friends, or at least ones that become friends when your real ones aren’t there for you. —James
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

29 Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits (Rodeadope Select)

We know all the names of the many ingenious minds behind To Pimp A Butterfly. But as those names become more than just names, stepping out of that album’s humongous shadow as artists in their own right, we can distinctly hear exactly what they contributed. Velvet Portraits is an indication that Terrace Martin was the most integral to Kendrick Lamar’s opus. In the same way TPAB was so overwhelmingly and audaciously black in lyrics and sonics, Martin manages to be just as powerful solely through sound. Every genre of black music is present in the fabric of the many portraits — elegantly arranged and blended. No other artist has shown such a deft command of decades of black music. —Collin
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

28 Abi Reimold – Wriggling (Sad Cactus)

“How can you be my refuge when we’re both full of refuse?” Abi Reimold asks on her masterful debut. And while the Philadelphia musician consistently illuminates her own flaws throughout the scathingly self-critical Wriggling, she’s definitely not full of shit. No, Reimold is the real deal, and Wriggling is the result of boundless creativity, passion and pain. She confronts imbalanced relationship dynamics, mental health, and a loss of control with the right amount of sourness and objectivity to beget healing. Reimold learns to move on by embracing the darkest parts of herself, even if it means combing over every feeling and memory with barbed wire. —James
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

27 Maria Usbeck – Amparo (Cascine)

By returning to her native tongue, Ecuadorian singer-songwriter Maria Usbeck seems to have settled into an otherworldly comfort zone. The Selebrities leader’s solo debut was written and recorded in almost a dozen locales around the globe, which may be one reason this music seems to exist in so many places at once: the beach, the big city, the space between waking and dreams. Amparo boasts an airy, effervescent quality shared by labelmates Yumi Zouma as well as co-producer Caroline Polachek’s band Chairlift, that sense that every deep yearning can occasionally give way to bliss. Rarely has such percussive music landed with such a gentle touch. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

26 Tim Hecker – Love Streams (4AD)

Tim Hecker’s oeuvre rests on the duality of beauty and violence. Appreciating his work can be like crushing your eardrums until a diamond forms, tracing lovely, fleeting shapes out of the overwhelming digital noise. In discussing Love Streams, Hecker casually drops phrases like “liturgical aesthetics after Yeezus” and “transcendental voice in the age of Auto-Tune,” and the songs here pit his distorted synths against reworked 15th century choral arrangements from Jóhann Jóhannsson and the Icelandic Choir Ensemble. The result is at once the warmest thing he’s ever created and a deconstruction of that warmth in real time, a corroded, distinctly modern take on sacred music. —Peter
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

25 The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (Polydor)

The 1975 are divisive. People write them off as a boy band, they find frontman Matt Healy obnoxious and preening, and the title of their sophomore LP is objectively preposterous. But it’s a fitting one, because the album itself is preposterous, too: a pop LP full of infectious ’80s-indebted singles next to ambient interludes and stylistic detours, stretching well past the hour mark. It’s excessive, but excitingly so — the sound of a young, hubristic band trying too many things and succeeding more often than not. They are flawed, yet mesmerizing in those flaws, with flashes of pop genius like “The Sound” and “Love Me” proving that the 1975’s magnetism isn’t an empty one. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

24 Kamaiyah – A Good Night In The Ghetto (Self-Released)

Kamaiyah isn’t some larger-than-life figure. On her first mixtape, she raps about wondering what it’s like to be rich, about mourning dead friends, and about enjoying no-strings sex. And she does it all in a breezy, conversational voice that goes beautifully with her springy, funky old-school Bay Area production. But she’s so good at cranking out effortless no-look hooks and radiating take-no-shit charm that her everywoman act starts to feel heroic. And A Good Night is such graceful, fun summer-barbecue music that she already seems destined for bigger things. A few months after its release, she was on a song with Drake. From there, who knows? — Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

23 Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost (Run For Cover)

Modern Baseball are worlds away from OutKast, but Holy Ghost is their Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Dual frontmen Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens split the album straight down the middle, with the first six songs penned by the former and the remaining five by the latter. Though both halves are riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, Ewald’s side emerges as a hooky, introspective meditation on faith, while Lukens’ is urgent and noisy, a spasmodic snapshot of a mind in pain. On “Note To Self,” Ewald sings, “I want to make something good/ I want to make something better/ Something that cannot leave the ground/ Unless we lift it up together.” With Holy Ghost, they’ve done just that: lifted each other up, and in turn, lifted us up. —Peter
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

22 Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL)

Dance music need not be mechanistic. On his debut album, the Haitian-born, Montreal-raised producer found room for jazz and soul and disco. He opened things up wide enough that there was place for an early-’00s UK garage heartthrob, a veteran backpack-rap everyman, a Swedish soul-pop group, and a Kanye West protege. More importantly, he figured out ways to make his brand of house music warm and organic and human. The textures on 99.9% are alive in ways that we’ve learned not to expect from a 2016 dance album. Drums hit at weird times, while dazed Fender Rhodes sounds stumble in and spill vibes everywhere. There’s so much sweat in the record, even when you can’t hear a flesh-and-blood singer or studio musician at work. It breathes. — Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

21 Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth (Atlantic)

Sturgill Simpson could’ve played it safe, and he would’ve been fine. Two years ago, on his Metamodern Sounds album, he sounded like Waylon Jennings even when he was singing about dropping acid and hallucinating alien reptiles. He had a place waiting for him in country’s resurgent traditionalist wing. Instead, he went way left. He stopped working with Nashville producer-of-the-moment Dave Cobb, taking on the production job himself. He played around with soul and Southern rock in deep, committed ways. He covered a Nirvana classic as a countrypolitan waltz, and he sang about getting high and playing GoldenEye. And he also went sincere, structuring his whole stunning LP as a letter to his young son. Sometimes, following your instincts pays off. —Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

20 Diarrhea Planet – Turn To Gold (Infinity Cat)

Get past the name. Embrace it if you can, or re-contextualize it, or ignore it — whatever it takes. Because Diarrhea Planet are one of the best rock bands in the world today, and Turn To Gold is fucking essential for everyone who ever liked the Replacements or Springsteen or Jawbreaker or Japandroids or whatever kinda ragged, rallying-cry anthems you turn to when you need escape, when you need choruses, when you need to be lifted by the miraculous, timeless combination of guitars, melodies, and pure, passionate abandon. These are punk songs weaponized by prog and post-rock dynamics, classic-vintage metal rippers with a proto-indie edge and a Golden Era-emo heart. So forget the name. The name is nothing. The name just forces them to work harder, keeps them honest. And Turn To Gold is as hard and honest as it gets. —Michael
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

19 ANOHNI – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)

“Let me be the one/ The one that you choose from above,” ANOHNI sings on Hopelessness‘ opening track, in character as the victim of an American drone strike. That line of “Drone Bomb Me” might be the most jarring of many to be found throughout the course of the album, because it reads like a love song. On Hopelessness, ANOHNI dons the devil’s wardrobe. She writes a love song to bodiless killing machines, welcomes apocalyptic ecocide, and makes a hard-hitting hook out of the stirring line: “Execution/ It’s an American Dream.” In making this political album, ANOHNI drapes listeners in the same evil we ignore and perpetuate everyday, and accompanied by Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, she transforms horrors wrought by 21st century politics into the subject of a confrontational dance album, which makes its subject matter even more disturbing. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

18 Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (TDE)

The list of artists with archives of music that we want to hear every single sound from is pretty small. The list of rappers we want to hear every sound from is even smaller. Kendrick Lamar may be the only name on that list of the most relevant rappers right now. No one wants to hear Views leftovers (probably because they’re already on the album). If Future even has remnants from three #1 albums, that’s amazing, but pass. Kanye just reheats his leftovers until they’re mush and we don’t care as much. K Dot’s every move commands attention because the songs are just that good. The quality of these eight tracks, combined with a couple doses of much needed sense of lighthearted, celebratory relief from To Pimp A Butterfly‘s messianic angst, is more than enough to hold us in anticipation for his next proper release. —Collin
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

17 Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp (Yellow K)

Grief never really goes away. It’s a perpetual ghost, destined to creep in at the most inopportune moments, but it’s up to you to decide what kind of power to give it. Psychopomp, Japanese Breakfast’s studio debut, is about a singular grief (the death of Michelle Zauner’s mother), but it serves as a stand-in for our communal grief, building songs around loss and longing that eschew any specific time or place. It’s the manifestation of “the same dark coming,” as she elucidates on “Heft,” but the takeaway is one of hope. So what if it is the same dark coming for us? “Fuck it all” is Zauner’s response. Psychopomp is a rejection of the notion that grief is something that cannot be overcome, or at least co-opted into something that is powerful and everlasting — which Psychopomp certainly is. —James
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

16 Kvelertak – Nattesferd (Roadrunner)

For a whole generation, metal was temporarily ruined by nu-metal. Scarred by that bastardization of the genre, we kept it at arms length for years. That’s where bands like Kvelertak come in. Skeptical of black metal? That’s cool: Kvelertak’s Nattesferd plays like classic rock dialed up to some insane berserker level. “1985” is essentially a Van Halen song, and yeah, there’s that “Edge Of Seventeen” riff in “Svartmesse.” The whole thing is vicious and heavy, but also joyous. Diehard metalheads might balk at its inherent catchiness, but for the rest of us, it’s an exhilarating invitation to a whole other world. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

15 James Blake – The Colour In Anything (Polydor)

The rules of sad, delicate beauty have changed. I’d like to imagine that, if Nick Drake were alive and young and making music now, he wouldn’t touch an acoustic guitar. Instead, he’d sound something like James Blake, who uses sequencers and pianos and sequencers that sound like pianos. The Colour In Anything, which fell out of the sky one Thursday this spring, is exactly the sort of album that you might imagine James Blake would make a couple of years after Overgrown. It’s dour and monochromatic and altogether too long. It’s also heartwrenchigly gorgeous. Blake sings every song in an airy, not-of-this-earth falsetto that continually spirals upward toward other realms, and he sculpts each track like he wants it to hang in a museum lobby. Noted geniuses Rick Rubin, Justin Vernon, and Frank Ocean stop by to help, but this is about as personal as a surprise album from an A-list festival-friendly electro-pop star can possibly be. You can’t do this with an acoustic guitar. — Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

14 Anderson .Paak – Malibu (Empire/OBE/Steel Wool/Art Club)

Anderson .Paak has many clips of legendary surfer Miki Dora spread across 2014’s Venice and Malibu. Those soundbites reflect the cool, breezy nature of his music, but further removed from its release at the top of the year, it serves as a reminder that Paak is still riding an incredible wave from Dr. Dre’s Compton. Surfing is fucking difficult, but Paak is right when he says on “Come Down,” “Don’t I make it look easy?/ Don’t I make it look good?” He manages to make the same funk, jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and gospel of To Pimp A Butterfly jovial and alluring without diluting it, artfully dancing on that line without shuckin’ and jivin’. Throw his unique, dexterous rasp on top of that skill and Malibu quickly reveals itself as a record no other artist could make. —Collin
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

13 Cobalt – Slow Forever (Profound Lore)

In 2009, the Colorado-based duo Cobalt released their third LP, Gin — one of the 10 best metal albums of the last decade, as far as I’m concerned, and maybe the best. The band spent the better part of the next seven years falling apart, rebuilding, and eventually returning with Slow Forever (the title a reference to Cobalt’s glacially paced writing and recording process). Slow Forever is very much an extension of Gin, an expansion of bandleader Erik Wunder’s evolving vision. But the new LP isn’t just a worthy follow-up to its immortal predecessor; it’s pretty close to a masterpiece in its own right, fusing blackened death metal with noise, doom, crust punk, and post-metal. Cobalt never fit into any existing category, but with Slow Forever, they move further away from any previously settled terrain, further into their own sovereign territory. —Michael
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

12 Mal Devisa – Kiid (Self-Released)

Deja Carr is a force to be reckoned with. Over the course of Kiid‘s 10 tracks, she shifts seamlessly from a tender croon to a fire-breathing roar, from hushed soul to smoldering rock to defiant rap, pulling it all off with the unapologetic confidence of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. Even more impressively, it all sounds cohesive, held together by the surplus of personality at its center. To put it plainly, this is one of the best debuts in recent memory, a stunningly assured statement of intent that delivers great things and promises more to come. —Peter
STREAM IT: Bandcamp

11 David Bowie – ? (ISO)

How do you even contextualize Blackstar on a list like this one? How do you even situate it in a year? There was an immense gravity to Blackstar even before Bowie’s death, before the revelations about how he planned so much of this as a final transmission even while he hoped to work on more music. Here was one of our icons, elusive in old age, returning with The Next Day in 2013, an album that explicitly retread ground as a means of parsing his past, and then following that three years later with Blackstar, an album confronting the confines and limits of human life head-on but also looking into faraway places and times. For a few days, we were left to wonder where Bowie would go next; you could imagine a whole final act of Bowie as ancient alien, lost in the stars searching for new music none of us could conceive of. Instead, the otherworldly, jazz-inflected odyssey of Blackstar is the epilogue to a legendary career, closing the final chapter Bowie began with The Next Day. It leaves so much mystery in its wake, so much to untangle. You can’t situate Blackstar in 2016 because it is more than that. Like Bowie himself, it goes way beyond any limits and definitions we could place on it. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

10 Pinegrove – Cardinal (Run For Cover)

What happens when a New Jersey emo band goes country? Rather than a garish cross-genre monstrosity, Pinegrove gave us something singular yet familiar, an album that breathes — or, more accurately, sighs — as if it’s the most natural progression in the world. On Cardinal, Evan Stephens Hall applies basement DIY’s detail-oriented logorrhea to melancholy roots rock, artfully dissecting his quarter-life neuroses against a backdrop of banjo, pedal steel, and shimmering waves of electric guitar. The music expertly surges and soars in service of Hall’s every word, lending powerful emotional weight to his reflections on the value of personal connection. His complicated turns of phrase work surprisingly well as barroom sing-alongs, but moments of simple profundity like “I should call my parents when I think of them/ I should tell my friends when I love them” are what continually send tingles down the spine. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

9 Rihanna – ANTI (Westbury Road Entertainment)

There will come a day when we listen to ANTI divorced of its context, when we will have forgotten its seemingly endless rollout “campaign” mired by missteps and false alarms. That day will be a beautiful one, because even if it’s not her best work, ANTI is Rihanna’s most cohesive artistic statement to date. She’s been revered as a mysterious god among us for so long that hearing her sing slow-burning ballads about disappointment and alienation feels humbling. This isn’t a hit parade, but it is a front-to-back devastating pop album, a reminder that even the mighty fall. But when they’re mighty like Rihanna, they pick themselves back up and turn that pain into something powerful. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

8 Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)

How’s this for a generational statement: Will Toledo is a depressed, directionless fuck-up with nothing to show for himself besides his good taste and incisive wit, both of which he liberally applies to the mountainous terrain that is guitar-driven indie-rock history until he’s chiseled his own dour visage into the landscape, Mount Rushmore style. Even though Car Seat Headrest’s Bandcamp page is more than a dozen releases deep, the momentous Teens Of Denial feels like a coming-out party for slacker music’s latest poet laureate. Just when his genre seemed to have fizzled out, Toledo has grabbed the torch from his heroes and set it ablaze again. —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

7 White Lung – Paradise (Domino)

White Lung used to be a hardcore band. They made brash, unapologetic punk music that confronted its listeners by drowning them in assertive, nofucksgiven attitude. But on Paradise, White Lung prove themselves to be capable of so much more than that. This is an album that transcends anything the band released before; the hooks are heavier, the production is cleaner, and Mish Barber-Way’s vocal range is bigger. “Every new record should be the best work you’ve ever done,” she told us in our cover story. On Paradise, that offhanded comment doesn’t sound boastful or empty. It’s a statement of fact. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

6 Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo (GOOD Music)

I’m aware this doesn’t exactly jibe with the consensus, but I, for one, prefer the new Kanye. The Life Of Pablo‘s audacious, chaotic premiere at Madison Square Garden was the single most exciting musical event of 2016, and the album continues to feel every bit as riveting, celebratory, and unpredictable today as it did on that frigid February afternoon. Throughout TLOP, Kanye’s own bars offer endless insight into the fears, dreams, idiosyncrasies, and realities of a self-contradicting, multitude-containing man, capturing a complex, flawed, seemingly unfiltered psyche from dozens of angles. In that way, it’s similar to the style of painting called cubism — invented in the early 20th century by one Pablo Picasso — which “depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.”

But while Kanye’s verses on TLOP are unmistakably human, his compositions, arrangements, and production techniques are nothing short of divine; he brings together disparate voices and sounds, melodies and rhythms, with a confidence and vision justifying the “genius” label (again). TLOP is pure magic on headphones, an almost gluttonously pleasurable listening experience, offering a bottomless diversity of elements and textures that provide jolts and surprises even after God-knows-how-many spins. It’s not a coincidence that there’s no song on Coloring Book as good as “Ultralight Beam,” no moment on ANTI when Rihanna sounds as good as she does on “Famous.” Every track on TLOP has multiple sections that leave me lightheaded as a nitrous hit; every time I come back to the album, I find more to love. There’s so much there that it feels almost like an act of dizzying generosity — although maybe, to skeptics, it feels distracted or disorganized? I predict the skeptics will come around, though. I also predict that someday soon, some savvy opportunist will hear “Wolves” and build an entire career out of rewriting that one song over and over again, the way Coldplay built an entire career out of rewriting “High And Dry” over and over again. In five years’ time, that artist will be headlining festivals. Kanye, meanwhile, will have moved someplace else entirely. I don’t know where he’ll be, but I do know this: I’ll be there with him. —Michael
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

5 Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

Just when we were starting to doubt Radiohead, the revered rock gods came thundering back with A Moon Shaped Pool on Mother’s Day. The twist: That thunder signaled not a triumphant reemergence, but perhaps their most wounded album to date. Last year, Thom Yorke split up with his partner of 23 years, and that hangs over A Moon Shaped Pool, from the listless retrace-your-life steps of “Daydreaming” to the spectral chorus of “Identikit” (“Broken hearts make it rain!”) to, yes, of course, Radiohead finally placing “True Love Waits” on an album as A Moon Shaped Pool‘s closer.

Radiohead have always fixated on anxieties about the outside world, tracing the fault lines between the human and technological in the 21st century. But there’s a particular quality in the precise shambles of “The Numbers,” or Johnny Greenwood’s various orchestral exorcisms, or any number of elements in these songs. This is Radiohead at their most human, leaning on more organic sounds once more in order to trace path of blurred memories and loss. What other band could release an album this fraught and have it be such a mainstream concern? Somehow, it was worth the yawning five-year wait since The King Of Limbs. They surprised us once again, offering up an album that’s the exact left turn they had to make, something that brings them down to earth at the same time that all of its most relatable moments feel so strange and unreachable. It’s good to have them back. —Ryan
STREAM IT: Apple Music

4 PUP – The Dream Is Over (SideOneDummy)

“I’ve been blessed with shit luck/ There are some things that’ll never change,” Stefan Babcock shouts in his trademark full-blooded howl on “Can’t Win,” one of 10 (out of 10) barnburners on The Dream Is Over. That defeatist attitude is the crux of PUP’s formidable sophomore album, but the Canadian band turns self-doubt into brash defiance, self-loathing into something worth celebrating. It’s a record plagued by hyper-aggressive machismo and a selfishly egotistical streak — see the noxious “Old Wounds” or “DVP”‘s dizzying tailspin — and the only reason it works as magnificently as it does is because you can tell Babcock doesn’t believe in any of his own bullshit. He’s already given up on himself as much, if not more so, than everyone else has given up on him, and The Dream Is Over is the sound of him pummeling himself into submission. But throughout all the sadsack writhing, PUP never lose their sense of humor or fun. As a result, they’ve made the summer soundtrack to sweat-filled days, beer-soaked nights, and the regretful, wheezing feeling you get the morning after chain-smoking too many cigarettes. The Dream Is Over pulls off a thrilling balancing act between rising from the ashes and falling apart, and that makes it one of the best, most incisive punk records in a long while. —James
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

3 Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)

Puberty is a motherfucker. It’s a time when your body’s doing weird stuff, your hormones are running wild, and every little problem seems like the end of the world. But things gets easier. Your emotions don’t go away or even get smaller, necessarily — you just learn to deal with them, to manage them, to live your life anyway. That’s what growing up is, and Puberty 2 is the sound of Mitski growing up.

The fuzzed-out indie-rock that’s become her signature is supplemented by drum machines, synths, even a saxophone, blossoming from the soft/loud dichotomy of Bury Me At Makeout Creek to a more nuanced spectrum of sound. Lyrically, Mitski is focused on what basically amounts to Newton’s third law of emotion: for every feeling, there is an equal and opposite un-feeling. On opener “Happy,” that endless and inevitable cycle is cause for hopelessness and exhaustion. But by the closing track, you get the sense that she’s figured out the secret to living, which is that that there isn’t really a secret to living — you kinda just have to do it. Or, as she sighs in the album’s closing lines: “So today I will wear my white button-down/ I can at least be neat/ Walk out and be seen as clean/ And I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep/ And all of the littler things.” Puberty 2 might be a huge achievement, but it’s the sound of all the littler things that get you through the big things. It matters. —Peter
STREAM IT: Spotify(NEED) | Apple Music

2 Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book (Self-Released)

Joy can be a tough emotion to transmit through music. It verges too easily into boilerplate cliche, or into grating look-at-me musical-theater gestures. It can come off insincere, as if someone is trying to sell you something, or as if someone is trying to convince herself of something she doesn’t really feel. Chance The Rapper does not have these problems. He’s a classically brilliant rapper, incisive and charismatic and rhythmically inventive. He acknowledges hard times and heartbreak, and he talks some beautiful shit when the moment calls for it. But on Coloring Book, he is, more often than not, a being of pure Technicolor happiness. Some of that comes from religion, but you don’t have to believe to find solace in his gospel swells. Some of it comes from dancing, but you don’t have to be a club regular to find excitement in his footwork skitters. Some of it comes from his guests, and you don’t have to love those guests, be they Justin Bieber or Jay Electronica, to hear that all of them improve every song on Coloring Book. And ultimately, the sources don’t matter. What matters is that Coloring Book is the sort of album that makes the world feel like a gentler, lovelier, warmer place, simply because this is a world that nurtured an album like this one. — Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

1 Beyoncé – Lemonade (Columbia)

Lemonade reminded us what a truly visionary pop album should do: It should make you want to dance, but it should also force a conversation. Beyoncé’s latest offering is her most personal work to date. It might even be her best. Lemonade is about infidelity and bottomless heartbreak, yes, but it’s also a major pop album that grapples with race, family, motherhood, the silencing effect of celebrity, and so much more. These themes accompany Beyoncé’s storytelling to make this album bigger than her relationship to Jay Z, bigger than her first-name-only personhood. It’s a singular vision, but it’s also a boundless one, an album that pulls from disparate genres and themes while still maintaining impeccable order. Sometimes the discourse surrounding a release is more interesting than the music itself, but that’s not the case at all here. Lemonade was initially presented to us in the form of a striking visual album, and it’s rare that something so high-concept aptly reflects the songs it’s selling. But Lemonade sounds just as good, better even, on its own.

If we’re to follow its established narrative, this is an album scaffolded in three parts. We open with an arid, breathy statement — “You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your breath” — and from there, we descend into saucy, angry, tracks. There’s the reggae-indebted Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound-off “Hold Up,” the Jack White co-write “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the meme-able kiss-off song “Sorry.” That rage is curtailed later on by ballads that mourn lost love and reflect on what once was. And finally, we arrive at the reconciliatory moment of “All That.” Lemonade isn’t a breakup album; it’s not a prelude to Bey and Jay Z’s divorce. This is an album about how hard it is to stay together, and at present, we don’t really know if it’s an apt reflection of Beyoncé’s heavily-guarded world. Maybe the infidelity narrative is performative, a suspicion that unearths the exhausting claim that a pop album can’t be about real, raw feelings when well over 50 people worked on it. That making music for the masses renders any real emotions nebulous by default.

Lemonade proves that to be a false claim. It’s a work of art worthy of the iceberg theory, because below the surface-level problems Beyoncé sings about are the ones that speak to a larger cultural context. This is a dexterous album, and that’s made most obvious on songs like “Formation,” which at the tail-end of Lemonade sounds like a declaration of devotion. I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces. But the day after that single came out, months before Lemonade dropped and we began speculating about the true identity of Becky With The Good Hair, Beyoncé performed it at the Super Bowl alongside an army of black women dressed in berets that recalled the Black Panther Party. Beyoncé sang a brand new song about black femininity to the biggest televised audience in the United States. Forget Coldplay, forget Bruno Mars, forget whoever the hell was even playing football that day. Beyoncé shut down the Super Bowl. She proved her dominance more so than when there was a literal blackout at the Superdome in New Orleans when she performed in 2013. People feared this quote-unquote politicized version of Beyoncé. Cops across the country called for people to boycott her tour. Then, Lemonade dropped, and Beyoncé showed us all that just because she’s been painted as silent and complacent doesn’t mean she doesn’t have anything to say. Whether or not this album is about something real doesn’t matter; the reactions it inspired certainly are.

There is no other contemporary artist on this earth who could release an album with a country song, a Mike Will-produced Rae Sremmurd co-write, a James Blake feature, and a song partially inspired by something Ezra Koenig tweeted back in 2011, and still convince us that it’s a cohesive work. Lemonade is an album that will be canonized alongside American classics, not only because it pays respect to our musical traditions — take, for example, the inclusion of a New Orleans Big Band interlude on “Daddy Lessons” — but because its producers grabbed at random bits and pieces of stylistic flotsam from the past and found a common space for them to coexist in the present. This is not just an album for 2016; it’s one for the ages. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: TIDAL

    more from Album List

    Hi. It looks like you're using an ad blocker.

    As an independent website, we rely on our measly advertising income to keep the lights on. Our ads are not too obtrusive, promise. Would you please disable adblock?