The 50 Best Albums Of 2016

This has been such a bullshit year. We’ve seen gun massacres. We’ve seen wild political turmoil across the world. We’ve seen countless icons, musical and otherwise, leave this world for the next realm. We’ve seen a power-mad billionaire and an aging and delusional pro wrestler team up to shut down Gawker. We’ve seen a whole lot of bullshit summer-franchise movies. And then there’s the cherry on top of the bullshit sundae: We’ve seen a global revival of right-wing nativism, culminating in a reality-show con-man bigot being elected to the United States presidency even though he lost the popular vote. Everything sucked. Well, almost everything sucked.

One thing that did not suck in 2016 — maybe the one thing — has been music. Week after week, superstars and reclusive iconoclasts and up-and-coming young voices and people we had never heard of a week earlier came out with searing, brilliant, life-affirming pieces of music. For a while there, it felt like we were getting a long-awaited surprise album release every single week; it honestly got exhausting for those of us whose job it is to keep track of this stuff. But this is what you might call a good problem. There was too much good music.

Looking over our list of the year’s best albums, it’s hard to detect a through-line. Many of our favorite records were powered by radical, utopian self-love, for instance, while others absolutely dripped with chaotic rage — and some, like our #1 pick, managed to do both. Women and people of color — and, maybe especially, women of color — made much of our best music, but that’s not exactly a new thing. Perhaps as a by-product of the streaming wars, superstars were empowered to put strange, personal visions out into the world. Perhaps as a byproduct of continually improving affordable home-recording technology, unknowns were empowered to sound like superstars. And even some of our departed icons did some of their strongest work; David Bowie, Phife Dawg, and Leonard Cohen are all represented on our list.

Below, you will find splintered and insular R&B, expansively ambitious emo, proudly knuckleheaded street-rap, wrathful extreme metal, giddily propulsive pop-punk, and even some indie rock, as well as plenty of music that evades easily defined categories completely. All of it is great. And in the dark days ahead, all of it might come in handy. So please enjoy arguing over our picks and checking out the ones you haven’t heard, and cherish the one thing in 2016 that didn’t fail us. —Tom Breihan

Modern Baseball — Holy Ghost

50 Modern Baseball – Holy Ghost (Run For Cover)

Holy Ghost‘s dual songwriter structure lets Modern Baseball explore two sides of the same coin: Jake Ewald tackles loss, grief, and distance on the first six songs, while the back half details Brendan Lukens’ struggle with mental health and substance abuse. Both halves make a case for vibrancy and positivity in the face of depression, buzzing with tension and anxiety to create some of the most memorable and volatile hooks of the year. “Mass” and “Just Another Face,” the highlights from either side, demonstrate a band at the top of its game, one that’s promoting radical transformation through the power of community and friendship. Change comes from within, but you can’t do it all by yourself. —James Rettig
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Kvelertak — Nattesferd

49 Kvelertak – Nattesferd (Roadrunner)

Nattesferd is one of those weird crossover moments when extreme music also presents some of the biggest hooks of the year — in fact, the hooks in standouts like “1985” or “Nattesferd” are that much more gargantuan precisely because of Kvelertak’s overdriven roar. It’s a deafening fusion of joy and anger, of violence and beauty. In a year as disastrous as 2016, listening to an album like Nattesferd is a cleansing experience. —Ryan Leas
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TIm Hecker — Love Streams

48 Tim Hecker – Love Streams (4AD)

Tim Hecker’s music has always felt sublime in the old-school sense — beautiful and terrifying and sacred all at once, a humbling reminder of the power of the almighty. On Love Streams, he makes that spirituality explicit, folding liturgical music and the human voice into his glacial synthetic drift. Reworking 15th century choral arrangements with the help of Jóhann Jóhannson and the Icelandic Choir Ensemble, Hecker drags new age music into the world of high art, grasping at transcendence through the profoundly artificial. —Peter Helman
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Lydia Loveless - <em>Real</em>

47 Lydia Loveless – Real (Bloodshot)

Lydia Loveless has never been catchier, funnier, smarter, or more of an emotional powerhouse than on this album of hearty roots-rock songs that helped her decide to keep living. The dopey “Midwestern Guys” of her Columbus home base share headspace with a passionate romance in “Bilbao,” and “your shitty Indianapolis band” adds to mental noise both metaphysical (“Heaven,” where no one goes) and heartrendingly personal (“Longer,” on which Loveless grapples with a close friend’s death). And then there’s “Out On Love,” secretly the greatest ballad of the year and not so secretly the most radical stylistic departure of her career. Hopefully it proves to be a launchpad for many more. —Chris DeVille
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Touché Amoré -

46 Touché Amoré – Stage Four (Epitaph)

Touché Amoré frontman Jeremy Bolm lost his mother to cancer in 2014, and so Stage Four is a concept album about grief and guilt and coming to terms with the idea of loss. The sort of bruised, emotional post-hardcore that the Los Angeles band has always made — a sound it has always done exceptionally well — turns out to be remarkably well-suited to this sort of probing rawness. And the little images that Bolm leaves us with — beating himself over getting mad in the final months, trying to pull himself together enough to listen to her final voicemail to him — are the sorts of things that linger long after the album ends. —Tom
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Margaret Glaspy — Emotions & Math

45 Margaret Glaspy – Emotions And Math (ATO)

The dichotomy in the title of Emotions And Math plays out time and time again over the course of Margaret Glaspy’s debut album: the struggle between hot-headed temperament and cool rationality. Glaspy is a student of singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith and Joni Mitchell, and her songs display the same level of complexity and maturity as those esteemed idols. Her gravelly voice contains multitudes, and the way she repackages classic rock ‘n’ roll grit and crunch feels vital and fresh, and only seemingly scratches the surface of this young musician’s immense talents. —James
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Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing

44 Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing (Bayonet)

As master of twee Greta Kline’s releases get more official and renowned, she hasn’t let go of her friendly, Bandcamp-dwelling roots. Next Thing, like debut studio album Zentropy and self-recorded works like Affirms Glinting and Donutes, still feels like a note passed back and forth between best friends, full of secrets and inside jokes. That’s not to say Next Thing is childish, but rather perfectly intimate and unpretentious. The album serves as a universal diary entry — something you could or would have crafted if only you had some talent. And on this release, Kline knows it: “Everybody understands me/ But I wish nobody understood me.” —Grace Birnstengel
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M83 — Junk

43 M83 – Junk (Mute)

In 2011, nostalgia-addict and visionary M83 mastermind Anthony Gonzalez released Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Suddenly, he had a generational statement on his hands, an album that captured what it felt like to come of age in the 21st century. Sometimes the answer to “How do you follow that?” is “You don’t,” and that’s where albums like Junk come in. While there’s still plenty of heightened emotion across Junk, the melodramatic John Hughes narratives of M83’s preceding two albums are often traded in for something loopier. Here, Gonzalez digs further back: Junk is the sound of youth’s forgotten detritus, filtered through the wrong drugs, playing out like a frantic-then-hazy Day-Glo plot twist to the neon romanticism of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. This might not be the sequel we expected, but it’s a rewarding one defined by its flickering effervescence. —Ryan
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James Blake — The Colour in Anything

42 James Blake – The Colour In Anything (Polydor)

James Blake’s knack for weaving together exquisite, R&B-tinged, electro textures that constantly shift with a gauzy agility is at a marvelous peak on The Colour In Anything. Though his vocal flourishes aren’t particularly melodic, they cascade over his intricately-laced soundscapes in a way that permeates the ears and sticks. Perhaps what registers most is that the album is just effortlessly pretty from beginning to end, using elements usually reserved for other genres with aims other than pure beauty in musical form. —Collin Robinson
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Crying - Beyond The Fleeting Gales

41 Crying – Beyond The Fleeting Gales (Run For Cover)

Crying take two deeply uncool genres of music — video game music and ’80s arena-rock — and play them both like they’re the coolest thing in the world. And they do it with enough conviction to convert even the most hardened cynic. There’s no trace of irony or pretension to be found on Beyond The Fleeting Gales, just an explosion of riffage lifted to the heavens by Elaiza Santos’ sugar-sweet vocal melodies. It’s like injecting 30 ccs of pure fun directly into your ear canals, a welcome beacon of optimism in a decidedly dark time. —Peter
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Kendrick Lamar — Untitled Unmastered

40 Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (TDE)

K Dot makes some baffling decisions outside of his albums: a soap-sniffing commercial with Shaq, Reebok Classic product placement on dancers who are portraying inmates, “Don’t Wanna Know.” That said, when the Compton MC does step into the booth, I dare you to not pay attention. Only the best are scrutinized as much as Cornrow Kenny, so when he turns in an “album” of more playful songs that came out of the same sessions as the heavy To Pimp A Butterfly, they still hit with an unparalleled potency. Whether he’s taking shots at Jay Electronica, worrying about how much of himself he has to give up to grow his legacy as an artist, or prescribing oral sex as a remedy to society’s ills, he does it unbelievably skillfully and rightfully demands that you take heed. —Collin
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The Hotelier — Goodness

39 The Hotelier – Goodness (Tiny Engines)

When the foundation of a genre is its emotional unrest, you might be skeptical when a band under the “emo revival” umbrella like the Hotelier arises from under its darkness. Goodness extends a peace offering to previous Hotelier projects of anguish like Home, Like Noplace Is There. On Goodness, you hear Christian Holden embark on a journey toward hope and serenity. The record revolves around brightness, with song titles like “Sun” and “You In This Light.” Through and through, you hear Holden fixate on the light with word choices like “golden,” “day glow,” “halos,” “rays,” and “glistening.” It’s clear this reroute was a conscious effort, and a successful one at that. —Grace
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Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch

38 Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones)

Yes, Blood Bitch is all about vampires and period blood, but it’s also an innovative piece of art that extends beyond the realm of music. Jenny Hval has always honored the taboo in her work by giving voice to topics not easily traversed in the mainstream, and she does it with unconventional pop sensibilities and hooks. “Conceptual Romance” might be one of the finest examples, but there are moments throughout that illustrate Hval as an artist who’s constantly thinking about what comes next — an avant-gardist in the truest sense. —Gabriela Tully Claymore
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Jamila Woods HEAVN Cover

37 Jamila Woods – HEAVN (Closed Sessions)

Jamila Woods dropped HEAVN the week after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police within 36 hours of each other. Black America felt a thick, looming cloud of despair, reeling from two more reminders of how easily a hooked trigger finger could snatch a black life — and add to the seemingly unending list of martyrs and hashtags — in the name of the law. The full gamut of emotions followed after such devastating events, and Woods managed to encompass them beautifully on her debut. HEAVN captures it all, from the healing and soothing of “Lonely Lonely” and “Emerald St.” to the righteous anger of “blk girl soldier,” through a far-flung variety of genres and styles that coalesce into a beautifully melded body of work. It’s an ambitious offering that expresses the ambivalence in the love and pride she has for her plagued city and a troubled nation, while championing the people that are trying desperately to heal them — a much-needed expression of black love, self-care, empathy, anger, and passion in the face of crippling despondency. —Collin
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Kaytranada — 99.9%

36 Kaytranada – 99.9% (XL)

On his debut album, Kaytranada treats house music the same way J Dilla once treated hip-hop: As something to get beautifully, messily, gloriously wrong. In his gooey and organic thump, Kaytranada finds room for pieces of disco, funk, soul, jazz, and rap, often blending all of them together into one vast, seamless whole. And he makes guests like backpack-rap veteran Phonte, UK garage originator Craig David, and Swedish pop cosmopolitans Little Dragon sound as good as they’ve ever sounded. Best of all, with “Glowed Up,” he and Anderson .Paak have given us an incandescent roller-rink anthem for the ages. —Tom
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Mannequin Pussy -

35 Mannequin Pussy – Romantic (Tiny Engines)

There’s not an album in recent memory that occupies a singular headspace with such clarity and potency. Mannequin Pussy’s Romantic is 18 minutes of savage emotional whiplash, expressing the rapid-fire push and pull between external affection and internal anxiety through powerful ripcord hooks and a masterful blend of punk, pop, and hardcore that threatens to fall apart at every turn. The Philadelphia band has crafted the perfect album to put on when the voices in your head get to be overwhelming, one to turn to when those fleeting, intense moments of despair and uncertainty feel like they may never go away. —James
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Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker

34 Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Columbia)

As with Bowie and Blackstar, it’s now impossible to consider You Want It Darker on its own terms as an album. Now we know it’s the final transmission from a legend at the end of his life. Yet even before Cohen’s death, this was another beautiful chapter in his late-career resurgence: an album cultivating his recurring focus on mortality for music steeped in finality, his apocalyptic prophet-growl murmuring ghostly hymns. Anchored by its stunning lead/title track and the meditations on time’s passage in “Steer Your Way,” You Want It Darker is full of reckoning with grand themes as much as snapshots from a man who lived a lot of life in his 82 years. And he chose to share that with us one more time, giving us a conclusion that can stand alongside some of his best work. —Ryan
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33 IAN SWEET – Shapeshifter (Hardly Art)

“I have a way of loving too many things to take on just one shape,” Jilian Medford sings on the haunting title track and centerpiece of IAN SWEET’s debut album, Shapeshifter. It’s a living, breathing, constantly evolving document of a particularly unfulfilling and emotionally one-sided romantic relationship, one that sees Medford constantly questioning her own standing and self-worth. But in Shapeshifter‘s sonic ingenuity and squalls, the band gradually claws an escape path out from the darkness, ending on a note of empowerment and light. —James
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YG - Still Brazy

32 YG – Still Brazy (Def Jam)

“Thought I was making songs just to ride to,” YG confesses on the remix to his more-relevant-than-we-wish anthem “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump).” He’s right. That’s exactly what he was doing, and he was great at it. Right now, nobody is better at making rock-solid hammerhead G-rap, and that’s mostly what YG does on his second proper album. There’s a paranoid bent to it, YG wondering aloud about who shot him in a studio last year, but he mostly sticks to his lane, riding efficiently squelchy West Coast beats. Toward the end, though, YG unexpectedly turns into maybe our greatest political rapper, venting about police brutality, demanding black/Latino unity, and calling out the man who ended up being our president-elect by name. All of this turned out to be exactly what we needed. —Tom
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Cass McCombs - Mangy Love

31 Cass McCombs – Mangy Love (Anti-)

On paper, Mangy Love should not work. It’s an album where Cass McCombs fuses various facets of his personality, melding Muzak yacht-rock and soul affectations with frayed roots-rock, batshit goofs with weathered gravity. (Consider the premise of “Rancid Girl,” climaxing with the mid-song refrain “I think I’ll go to Louisiana just to hang myself.”) Somehow, it all coheres into a haggard, nocturnal Americana with room for the floating pulse of “Low Flying Bird” alongside the bleary-eyed, serpentine “In A Chinese Alley.” In a year full of loud releases, McCombs quietly put out one of his finest records, its convoluted, enigmatic atmosphere promising there’s still more to uncover the longer we live with it. —Ryan
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Abi Reimold — Wriggling

30 Abi Reimold – Wriggling (Sad Cactus)

Abi Reimold is rough around the edges and proud of it. Her latest offering, Wriggling, is a stomach-churning rock n’ roll odyssey and one of the best debuts we heard this year. Reimold’s tightly wound, inventive songs chronicle the daily catastrophes that color everyone’s coming of age. Her voice is capacious; it flits from grating to saccharine in a moment. It’s exciting to listen to this work and wonder where she’ll go from here. —Gabriela
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Mal Devisa — Kiid

29 Mal Devisa – Kiid (Self-Released)

Everyone needs to be paying attention to Deja Carr, the musician behind the Northampton-based project Mal Devisa. Her first true full-length, Kiid, is a dexterous genre mash-up that showcases Carr’s ambition in the most visceral way. Her vision is singular, and her voice is incomparable; it’s sweet and soulful and raging minute to minute, whether she’s rapping or singing. Nothing about Kiid is over-produced, and Carr had the foresight to keep things simple. In doing so, she proves how much she’s capable of achieving with very little. Give her the world, and who can even say what she’ll accomplish. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Bandcamp

Noname - Telefone

28 Noname – Telefone (Self-Released)

Noname reminds me of something my mom used to tell when I was growing up: “You should probably be more scared of a woman when she’s quiet than when she’s screaming at the top of her lungs.” The Chicago MC isn’t the type to come with theatrics in her delivery or even vary her vocal range all that much, but there is a potency and urgency in her complicated, spoken word-esque cadences and subdued delivery that escapes many of her more animated peers. The devastation of a line like “too many babies in suits” on “Casket Pretty” doesn’t need much force to pierce through your rib cage on the way to your heart. Plus, she either bests or goes bar for bar with every other rapper on the project while seemingly uninterested in doing so, further illuminating her quiet confidence. There are bigger things at stake on Telefone, and although Noname’s not going to get a soapbox to address them, it’s guaranteed to resonate like she did. —Collin
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Japanese Breakfast — Psychopomp

27 Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp (Yellow K)

Grief hangs over Psychopomp like a dark cloud, but as the year goes on, what stands out on Michelle Zauner’s debut full-length as Japanese Breakfast are the intense moments of euphoric happiness that play out on the sidelines: the joyous high of “Everybody Wants To Love You,” “Heft”‘s glorious fuck-you to the encroaching darkness, the resolute power in the album’s closing lines, “But in the night, I am someone else.” More than a depiction of loss, Psychopomp stands as a testament to finding your strongest self in situations of monumental sadness, taking comfort in the unpredictable and unknown. —James
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Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor's Guide To Earth

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

When Sturgill Simpson broke through with 2014’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, he was already clearly an outsider: a dude steeped in outlaw country tradition, singing about hallucinogenic trips and covering When In Rome. While Simpson could’ve doubled down and plausibly ascended to the top of the of-the-moment revival of old-school country, he instead proved exactly how idiosyncratic a musician he is with A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. This time there are soul-tinged tracks with Dap-Kings horn parts, Southern rock, a Nirvana cover. Somehow it all works as a cohesive whole, laced together as a traveling man’s chronicle, grounded by Simpson framing it as a statement to his newborn son. That’s what’s evocative and moving about Simpson’s weird outsider status: He’ll tell you stories of his adventures all day, but in the end it’s about going back home. —Ryan
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Cobalt — Slow Forever

25 Cobalt – Slow Forever (Profound Lore)

The underground metal landscape has become dotted with tiny subgenres and pocket-scenes, each with its own conventions and mores. But Slow Forever, the gargantuan album from Colorado duo Cobalt, exists outside of all that. It transcends metal’s self-imposed internal boundaries simply by existing as a white-hot, purifying blast of righteous, primitive wrath. In minute moments, it sounds like doom metal or black metal or crusty hardcore. Taken as a whole, it feels like something grander and more powerful than any of those things can be. It feels like the warm, comforting embrace of directionless, all-consuming anger. —Tom
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Pinegrove — Cardinal

24 Pinegrove – Cardinal (Run For Cover)

In the months following its release, Cardinal became a word-of-mouth instant classic, an album that inspired fierce loyalty and reverent admiration among an ever wider listener base. Pinegrove’s self-reflective roots-rock eludes easy definition, just as Evan Stephens Hall’s social alienation stories defy simple resolution, but the appeal is easy enough to explain: Here’s a thoughtful young songwriter filtering his anxieties into anthems, backed by a team of musicians who know how to lift his subtle drawl to glorious heights. May they endure to chronicle other life stages as powerfully as they render quarter-life disaffection. —Chris
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Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree

23 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)

Though some of the music on Skeleton Tree predates the tragic death of Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son last year, that event inevitably hangs over and defines the album. Over eight songs, Cave crafts a harrowing, raw portrait of the span and directions of that kind of grief: There is the gaping dread of “Jesus Alone” and “Anthrocene,” there are somber meditations in “I Need You” and “Skeleton Tree,” occasionally gesturing at the possibility of hope. To call the album “haunting” almost minimizes it. There’s a gravity here beyond your average piece of pop music; even in a year as full of death as 2016, you can’t slot this into a narrative. Skeleton Tree is an intimate glimpse at an unimaginable chapter in a person’s life, made all the more powerful for its depiction of how they are trying to process it and continue living after the fact. —Ryan
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PUP — The Dream Is Over

22 PUP – The Dream Is Over (SideOneDummy)

Why sing it when you can yell it? That’s the question that PUP pose on The Dream Is Over, and they answer it with a hearty gang-shout and, like, 12 guitar solos. Stefan Babcock has a lot of things to yell about — torn-up vocal cords, failed relationships, the parade of indignities that is the life of a touring musician — but mostly, he turns his excoriating gaze inward, spewing sarcasm and self-loathing like his life depends upon it. But even at its most miserablist, The Dream Is Over never loses its spirit of fun, packing five albums’ worth of melody and energy into its modest 30-minute runtime. “I never felt so miserable” has never sounded so much like a life-affirming battle cry. —Peter
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The 1975 — I like it when you sleep

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

The title tells you almost everything you need to know. The 1975’s sprawling second album is ambitious and absurd, romantic and repulsive, convinced of its own genius and mostly correct. Over 78 minutes and 18 tracks, four bright young British blowhards dabble in everything from grandiose emotive post-rock out of early aughts Iceland to ’80s art-funk as tight and shiny as a fresh pair of leather pants. Synthpop, gospel, new wave, acoustic balladry, starry-eyed serenades: This album truly contains multitudes, all of it narrated by a preening pinup whose lack of self-awareness does not diminish the cleverness of his couplets. —Chris
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Rihanna — Anti

20 Rihanna – ANTI (Westbury Road Entertainment)

Rihanna doesn’t give a fuck. That’s long been a major part of her public persona, but ANTI is the first time it’s carried over to her actual music. There aren’t any world-conquering anthems on this thing. Instead of singles, there’s an album. Instead of bangers, there’s atmosphere. Instead of fireworks, she’s given us the dull ember of a big-ass blunt, and when the smoke clears, what’s left is that attitude, that voice, and Rihanna herself, a woman carrying a profound sense of loneliness and disappointment. Maybe she does give a fuck after all. —Peter
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Anohni — Hopelessness

19 ANOHNI – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian)

ANOHNI’s Hopelessness is an album about problems — great, big, towering, existential, practically unsolvable international problems. Alongside Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, she created a work of pop criticism that doesn’t inspire solutions so much as it poses more questions. It’s not always an easy album to listen to, but it’s one that feels especially urgent in 2016, a work that stands firmly grounded in its place in time. Hopelessness is an album well worth returning to at the end of a long, challenging year in American history. We’ve got work to do. —Gabriela
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

Katie Dey -

18 Katie Dey – Flood Network (Joy Void)

In tech jargon, a “flood network” is a system of nodes that handle data overflow. Similarly, Katie Dey’s Flood Network is a system of songs that handle emotional spillover. Dey’s uncomparable production teems with life, and her lyrics — when you’re able to make sense of them — are small, life-affirming bits of prose that you can carry with you into the next day when simply existing feels impossibly hard. Flood Network sounds like nothing that was released this year; it’s glitchy, weirdo pop music for introverts, the work of someone who rejects convention and lets true ingenuity guide her process. —Gabriela
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White Lung — Paradise

17 White Lung – Paradise (Domino)

Musicians are always trying to reinvent the wheel, but White Lung threw away the wheel and invented a whole new way to get around. Clocking in at just under half an hour, Paradise is a thrill ride from start to finish, with its brash, pristine production and guitarist Kenny Williams’ relentless riffs. Vocalist Mish Barber-Way uses body imagery as a vessel for telling stories — maybe one of the most punk things I’ve ever heard. The album opens with: “A pound of flesh lays between my legs and eyes/ Secure the sutures, he’ll grow beneath the ties.” She expands the notion of what it means to live in a gendered female body as the world tries to put those bodies into smaller and smaller boxes, suffocated by respectability politics. —Grace
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Kamaiyah — A Good Night in the Ghetto

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

Kamaiyah started out 2016 scoring a local Bay Area hit with a song wondering what it’s like to be rich — pondering it like a philosophical question, not like a goal to be attained. By the time the year was over, she’d co-starred in a YG video with both Drake and a helicopter. And she got to that point making songs like that existential-query one: warm, breezy, deeply funky backyard-barbecue party songs, effortless celebrations of small-scale euphoria. On her debut mixtape, the Oakland rapper is horny and hedonistic and powered by friendship and, occasionally, she’s very, very sad. But whatever the mood, the sunniness of these ancestral Bay Area funk sounds never falters. —Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Bon Iver -

15 Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)

Scoff at the electronics and numerology and witch house syntax if you must, but had Justin Vernon merely repeated himself we’d all have accused him of creative cowardice. Instead of a stale sequel, Vernon nailed his most difficult maneuver yet, pushing Bon Iver to new extremes of synthetic oddity without losing the warm beating heart and scratchy stubble that have caused this project to endure. 22, A Million snuck up on me as much as a non-surprise album can, progressing over the course of months from “This is weird” to “This is pleasant” to “This is another profoundly beautiful work of art from one our generation’s peerless talents.” But that’s where I’m at now, and it’s as cozy as a Wisconsin winter cabin (or, sure, the Ace Hotel). —Chris
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP

14 ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP (TDE/Interscope)

In which Schoolboy Q figures out a way to get out of the massive shadow cast by his friend and stablemate Kendrick Lamar — that he can go dark wherever Kendrick goes light. Blank Face, Q’s fourth and best album, is a symphony of despair. Q rasps like a demon and roars like an MMA fighter heading into a final round, and the music surrounding him pulses like a cold, distant dwarf star. There’s funk to Blank Face, but it’s funk of the heavy, angry Funkadelic deep-cut variety, the type of funk that sounds as though it would like nothing more than to snap your neck. —Tom
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

Readiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

13 Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

Imagine you’re Thom Yorke. Your decades of paranoia about climate change, political corruption, and technology’s destructive social impact are coming true before your eyes. Your nuclear family, once a respite from the horrors of modern life, has fallen apart. Your massively influential rock band hasn’t released anything in years, and that last album was, frankly, subpar. But the band is one thing you can control, so rather than wither in despair, you rally the troops. You dig up some of your most promising castoffs and write some exquisite new songs. You let your bandmates work their magic on the lot of them. You slave away endlessly in the studio. And you end up with a wondrous collection of music that, although it will not stop your world from crashing down, wrings incomparable beauty from such bleak resignation — again. —Chris
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Anderson. Paak — Malibu

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

No one else had a 2016 like Anderson .Paak. The California croon-rapper went from being that guy all over Compton to an undeniable force with a voice that instantly exults whatever it graces. There’s a reason why Malibu could come out just a week after David Bowie’s farewell opus Blackstar, and not get vacuumed by the blackhole it created in music. Paak’s unique, soulful rasp slides effortlessly on the spectrum of singing and rapping over infectious flourishes that incorporate multiple decades of soulful black music. It’s a combination no other artist could pull off, and there is no shortage of funk or soul in this resurgent period. Paak is probably the closest reincarnation of James Brown we’ll get in this generation. —Collin
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Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial

11 Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial (Matador)

Will Toledo knows music. He listens to the Cars and Pavement and Dido. And he’s distilled the past three decades of indie-rock into one ambitious sprawl of an album, a restless epic that can’t be contained by a little thing like conventional song structure. His wordy narratives play like a mind in overdrive, racing from thought to thought, bursting with references and allusions and ragged guitar riffs, and he uses them to chronicle that directionless time in your 20s when all you can seem to do is keep fucking up. Toledo may posture as an underachiever, but with Teens Of Denial, he’s achieved something great, transcending his Bandcamp origins to create a work that rivals its lofty influences. —Peter
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Danny Brown - <em>Atrocity Exhibition</em>

10 Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)

On Old, Danny Brown masked a deep isolation under the hedonistic excess of his hard-partying lifestyle. On Atrocity Exhibition, he isn’t even bothering to hide it anymore. This is Brown following his darkest, most insular impulses straight into a rabbit hole of despair, a paranoid, depressive opus that finds all sense of joy drained from his manic hyena-yelp. In short, it’s some dark, dark, shit — and it sounds like it, too. The music creeps and clatters like something out of a Stephen King novel, while Brown stares you straight in the eye, spills his guts, and practically dares you to look away. —Peter
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Kanye West — The Life of Pablo

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

What a year it’s been for Kanye West. It’s increasingly challenging to separate the man from the art as the chaos found in his music starts to mirror his presence in the public sphere. After a lengthy and pompous rollout, I was ready to entirely write off The Life Of Pablo, but as he tends to do, Kanye won me over. The album is a glimpse into the series of wheels and pulleys that operate in West’s frenzied, mad-scientist mind. While Pablo isn’t filled with as much of the political and social critique found on Yeezus or the daring grandiosity of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it conquers new, uncharted territory. West experiments with gospel fusion, and he raps for the first time about the little family he’s built with Kim Kardashian, trying to find his place in her already existing empire. Pablo is messy and at times sounds like West tripping over himself, his mind working faster than his feet, but this convulsion is overwhelming in a way that makes me come back for more. —Grace
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Mitski — Puberty 2

8 Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)

The tornado of mixed, contradictory emotions you feel in your 20s doesn’t have a classification. It’s not growing pains, not quite a mid-life crisis. It’s more of a second adolescence, which Mitski so brilliantly coined on Puberty 2. Inside the album’s walls you find the numbness of depression, Mitski not trusting her own happiness, and a yearning to start anew. Puberty 2 sees her playing humorously with the weight of otherness in the United States on one of the year’s best singles, “Your Best American Girl.” She already turned heads with meticulous songcraft on her breakout album Bury Me At Makeout Creek, but on Puberty 2, she got even better at poetically expressing her discomforts and observations through layers of complex and unique instrumentation — some of which might take you a dozen listens to notice and fully appreciate. —Grace
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Angel Olsen - My Woman

7 Angel Olsen – My Woman (Jagjaguwar)

Sometimes an artist gives you exactly what you expected, and sometimes they give you exactly what you expected and then some. Such is the case with My Woman, an album so dexterous and unlike Angel Olsen’s previous work that it showcases the songwriter in a league of her own. Olsen has always championed songs driven by pathos and humor alike, written with straightforward, pure intention. But with the release of My Woman, she’s brimming with new confidence, and the album itself overflows with it. This is a work that takes as much from ’60s psychedelia as it does from sassy girl groups of a bygone era, an album with obvious points of reference that still sounds new and contemporary.

There is no wallowing on My Woman; rather, it’s a definitive statement about how Olsen wants to be heard and perceived going forward. This album is full of biting one-liners, small moments that demonstrate her refusal to be classified as your favorite sad-girl-folk-singer any longer. She’s her own woman, and she’ll end anyone who can’t respect that. “Was it me you were thinking of?/ All the time when you thought of me,” she asks coyly on “Heart Shaped Face.” But those cheeky assertions of self-possession still give way to the romanticism that even the heartbreakers of this world succumb to sometimes. “Show me the future/ Tell me you’ll be there,” she luxuriates on the epic, eight-minute-long “Sister.” There are lines on this album you’ll never forget once they stick in your mind at a specific point in time. My Woman is a testament to her acerbic personality and the incomparable talent that drives it. —Gabriela
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Solange  - <em>A Seat At The Table</em>

6 Solange – A Seat At The Table (Saint/Columbia)

Solange came into her own in a major way on multiple levels on A Seat At The Table. While many expected a fierce tongue-lashing consistent with her online persona, she came with a lesson in empathy, understanding, and healing over R&B with eclectic nuances that neither asked nor demanded her seat.

Though it’s a disservice to constantly compare the Knowles sisters — each has become inimitable in her own right — it’s hard to ignore the vast shadow Beyoncé casts on her younger sibling. Solange came out from under that shadow on A Seat At The Table. This is an album that Beyoncé couldn’t have made. There’s a subtlety to the forcefulness and confidence Solange displays that her sister would have to raise to transcendent heights, rendering it less effective. Solange also lets other voices like Master P, Tina Knowles, and Mathew Knowles take the reins to frame her songs — using their anger, frustration, inspiration, and insight to perfectly contextualize her own sentiments. Bey couldn’t drive from the backseat the way Solange does, and knowing when to apply or ease up on force is a large part of what makes this album incredible.

Solange also balanced her seemingly incongruous sensibilities very well. Who would have thought Master P would narrate an album that featured contributions from Dave Longstreth and Rostam Batmanglij? Her love of Kraftwerk and indie acts mingles with her deep R&B roots for one-of-a-kind tracks. Then there’s the pride she takes in writing and recording her own voice, while also giving way for Sampha, The-Dream, Q-Tip, and Lil Wayne, among others. All of the instrumental and vocal guests cover an impressive breadth of genres, but still bend to her will.

Judging from how nervous she was for her performance on SNL, it seems Solange didn’t expect to have anyone actually pull up a chair for her to sit with the elite. Whether she’s ready for it or not, this album certainly earned her that spot. Hopefully there won’t be another four-year wait before we hear from her again, but when she does figure out what to do with her place at the table, she should undoubtedly have the floor. —Collin
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David Bowie — Blackstar

5 David Bowie – (ISO)

Blackstar was startling, even before Bowie’s death only days following its release. After years out of the spotlight and the career-summation of 2013’s The Next Day, it was plausible to think that was it; Bowie had finished telling his story. Then Blackstar came along. Yet even before we knew it as what it was — Bowie’s complex epilogue, soul-searching while also staring out into the expansive void of the cosmos — Blackstar did have an air of finality to it, littered with allusions to mortality and a life’s achievements and what could ever come next. In hindsight, there were the clues, the building blocks of Bowie’s final piece of performance art.

As the self-aware and carefully-plotted finale to the career of one of our biggest icons, Blackstar will always feel monumental. Bowie’s death only increases its magnetic pull, only deepens its impact. But it shouldn’t be reduced to that, either: This was, and remains, a brilliant album outside of that context. This is a work by someone who knew the end could be approaching, and as much as it grapples with that, it also captures a spectrum of human experience within its seven songs. Whatever the hell it’s actually about, there is one last act of self-mythologizing in the title track (“I’m the great I am,” and Bowie rechristening himself once more as the Blackstar), one more bizarre character sketch in “‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore.” There’s the poignance of “Dollar Days,” in which he wonders whether he’ll ever see the English evergreens again; that’s where the naked humanity comes in, hearing from a person at a point in their life as they realize they may have done many things for the very last time. There is the perfect conclusion of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” — one more song that sounds like a pop hit from another dimension, one more sly grin from Bowie marked by just a few tears.

He did it all on this album, one more time. It sounded barely like anything else he’d ever done, and it sounded like nothing anyone else was doing this year, either. It is, of course, tempting to wonder where he could have gone from here. But he’d already gone so many places in his life, both literal and imagined. On Blackstar, Bowie brought all of that with him while still suggesting other, newer places we didn’t know about yet. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful or appropriate final act. —Ryan
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A Tribe Called Quest - We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service

4 A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)

Has there ever been a better-executed comeback after nearly two decades away? ATCQ did the damn thing on this one. They honored Phife Dawg by making the album largely about him while still capturing the nostalgia of old and pushing it forward. To hear Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Phife, and Consequence effortlessly glide through baton passes is pure poetry over beats. A more vocal Jarobi White is a welcome addition to the mix and makes you wonder why he hadn’t rhymed on their other albums. Each member steps up their bars, switching flows and cadences to step outside of the Tribe we’ve known.

Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s innovation on beats is still alive and kicking. It’s clear both of them kept their ears to ground and were ready to strengthen their already conscious writing with more forceful, direct, and timely addresses removed from the abstract cloud of Afrocentrism and jazz characteristic of their most heralded works. We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service encompasses the old school, new school, politics, fun, and lyricism of the entire rap landscape, all rolled into one magnificent album. —Collin
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Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

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

Chance The Rapper scored his first-ever real radio hit with a song about sending goons to your record-label office, but he’s not fooling anyone. Chance is not a tough guy, and he knows it. And one of the many, many remarkable things about Coloring Book is how explosively, euphorically non-tough it is. Instead, this is music that harnesses joy in many forms — in gooily nostalgic slow-jams, in rippling house bangers, in gospel lamentations, even in smoking a quick bowl with your significant other when you’re too tired to have sex. It’s an album made in the rosy glow of new parenthood, and it’s one that celebrates the virtuosity of both its maker and its guests. And while it acknowledges the tragedies and hardships that a young black man must face in the world, it also celebrates the strength that can come out of those tragedies and hardships — a strength that you could even call toughness. —Tom
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Frank Ocean - Blonde

2 Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)

With Blonde and Endless, Frank Ocean has successfully repositioned himself not as an emergent pop star — a role he could have easily occupied on the back of Channel Orange — but as a temperamental, reclusive creative visionary in the vein of Fiona Apple and Lauryn Hill. In the only interview he’s given since the album’s release, Ocean said: “How we experience memory sometimes, it’s not linear. We’re not telling the stories to ourselves, we know the story, we’re just seeing it in flashes overlaid.” And though he may remain an intentional cipher, Blonde is warm and inviting, poetic white space imbued with sensuality and pain. It captures passions and pangs and tracks how they morph across time, space, and distance. It’s an album about the mutability of identity — present in the dropped-E Blond, the way Ocean twists and transmutes his own glorious voice, the uncredited big-name talent that works itself into his tapestry.

It says as much in silence as it does in words. It tells queer love stories that feel both hyper-modern and tied to no specific time — “You text nothing like you look,” “I thought I was dreaming when you said you loved me” — and constructs mythologies for them out of white Ferraris and empty Colorado hotel rooms, phoenixes rising from the ashes and bulls and matadors dueling in the sky. Blonde frames Ocean as a hopeless romantic, an impressionable soul who sees our true selves reflected and immortalized in those we love and those who love us. He sees power in the potency of a feeling — not in the length of a relationship, but in the strength of the strands of loneliness and isolation that tie us all together. Blonde is a towering accomplishment of the digital generation, made by a figure who shies away from the spotlight, knowing full well what the effects of constant connectivity can have on the human heart. —James
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Beyonce — Lemonade

1 Beyoncé – Lemonade (Columbia)

How do you follow up a landmark LP that fell out of the sky complete with an indelible music video for each impeccable track — one that earned the best reviews of your career, spawned a handful of #flawless singles, perfected the art of the music video as a farm for GIFs and memes, ignited the surprise album trend, and cemented your position as the most important pop star of your generation? If you’re Beyoncé, you do it all over again, but this time you make it hang together as a story, and you make sure that story resonates far beyond its implications for your own juicy tabloid romance, and you premiere that story on HBO in primetime without revealing a shred of information ahead of time.

Lemonade is brilliant on so many levels it’s hard to keep track. Separately, the songs are excellent, each one assembling a different subcommittee of experts and bending them to the will of one visionary talent. Together they are a monument to diversity within unity: swaggering rock ‘n’ roll, sleek dance-pop, gospel piano balladry, deconstructed dancehall, foot-stomping country, futurist R&B, all of it somehow of a piece. On top of that, Lemonade works magnificently as a narrative, boasting a contagious forward momentum and satisfying resolution that most concept albums can only grasp at. It’s such a richly rewarding collection of music that rather than wear out its welcome, repeat listens have only amplified its appeal.

The project was a conversation-changer for more reasons than just its inspired composition. In an unparalleled example of seizing the narrative, Lemonade allowed Beyoncé to dramatically exorcise the demons from her marriage to Jay Z without ever publicly commenting on his alleged adultery. But it functioned as much more than just a peek through the limousine window into a celebrity’s private crisis. The album and especially its full-length companion video framed Beyoncé’s life story in the wider context of life as black woman in America, 2016, shedding light on heartbreaking systemic problems about which much of her audience might’ve otherwise been oblivious. Throughout an increasingly insane year, that perspective seemed ever more essential.

Even the rollout was a genius game of winks, nods, and subversions. Early reports suggested the mysterious HBO premiere would be not an album film but a “docu-style special.” The ecstatic “Formation,” first experienced as a standalone single (and high-fashion music video) preaching Beyoncé’s possessive adoration for her spouse, was suddenly reframed as the epilogue to a devastating tale of infidelity. And let’s not forget that at first Lemonade was only available on Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal, in which Beyoncé is also a minority owner, compounding their ability to cash in on the perceived marital discord that had been swirling since even before Solange beat up Jay in an elevator.

Don’t get lost in the metatext, though. First and foremost, Lemonade is a staggering work of art. Performing much of the album at the VMAs this year, on what was supposed to be Rihanna’s big night, Beyoncé effectively crushed her peers under six-inch heels. She was a force of nature, so many echelons above the rest of the performers that the difference was astounding. Lemonade itself had that effect on the rest of the music landscape this year. It wasn’t just the best pop album or the best Event Album in a year overflowing with them. It was the best album, period, and maybe the best movie too. If you expected anything less, who the fuck did you think she was? —Chris

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