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Top 50 Albums of 2016

on November 28, 2016, 12:00am
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Going into 2016, we never could’ve known exactly how much pain we were in store for. No matter where you stand politically, culturally, or musically, the year was dominated by division, conflict, and loss. As it always does, music reacted to that reality, at times offering comfort and escape, while finding an outlet for rage and frustration at others. Though no one will be asking to go through all of that again, the powerful music produced over the last 12 months worked as a powerful consolation.

(See: Top 50 Songs of 2016)

And that kind of experience will produce an incredibly personal connection to art. Because of that experience, the discussions that led to the production of this list were perhaps more impassioned than any other year, each writer giving a rousing speech for just how each album helped them through a difficult time. Though we can never quantify or rank the feelings engendered by 2016 or the albums produced in its span, lists like these will allow us all to capture the world as we so intensely felt it.

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Iggy Pop50. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

When you make music that sounds like you’re giving an acid bath to the tainted world around you — burning the pain in your own life while the outside world burns — it suggests a victory not over relative contentment but vile depression. On Post-Pop Depression, Iggy Pop deliberately uses the strength of his sound to summon something more than temporary wrath … for one last time. Whether announced or not, every legendary artist will have a final album. We learned that tragic lesson in real-time with David Bowie’s , the master’s impending death revealing itself upon repeat listens. Pop announced that finality himself upon the release of Post-Pop Depression, both in the press and in the album itself. Though still full of the characteristic Pop intensity (“When your love of life is an empty beach, don’t cry,” he muses on “Chocolate Drops”), the former Stooges frontman and Josh Homme teamed up to rage at the dying of the light, funneling the power of its members’ pedigrees and boasting a high-volume homage to Pop’s past. “To really make a real album, you really have to put everything into it,” Pop told Beats 1. He scrapes up every last bit of his power, infusing songs like the bone-dry “American Valhalla” and bruised sunset “Paraguay” with a timeless snarl. In a year when we lost so many legends, it’s good to hear “the last of the one and onlys” (as Homme put it) choosing how to go out — and going out on top at that. –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Weaves49. Weaves – Weaves

There’s a humor at the heart of Weaves’ work that makes each song sound as if it’s smirking. But no matter how hard you search for it, that joke won’t reveal itself. On the Toronto outfit’s self-titled debut, they zip through 11 art-rock tracks, each more sporadic and jolting than the last. On “Candy” and “One More”, guitarist Morgan Waters and drummer Spencer Cole create a delightful cacophony akin to Deerhoof. They throw in slide guitar, skip downbeats, and zig zag around traditional rhythm structures, accenting the genius side of insanity, even when relatively in row on “Human”. At the front of it all is Jasmyn Burke, elongating words on “Birds & Bees” or “Coo Coo” to complement the plunging bass. The four-piece constantly sound like they’re on the verge of exploding, a dozen colors of confetti prepped to shoot from their cores in a way that even the most familiar listener won’t expect. Come the end of the record, you start to figure out what it is they, and their songs, are smiling about. It’s a shared sense of energy amid a lack of structure, a grin at the unknown, a smile before leaping off a cliff. Weaves are creating pop that distorts its own intentions — and they’re as surprised by the songs’ twists as you are. –Nina Corcoran

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Kanine

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White Lung48. White Lung – Paradise

“Punk,” as a label, can be liberating or paralyzing. As an example of the latter, White Lung frontperson Mish Barber-Way explained, “There’s this really stupid attitude that only punks have where it’s somehow uncool to become a better songwriter.” It’s that stubborn resistance to change that White Lung rail against on Paradise, pulling back some on the throttle and opening up on cuts like “Below”, “Hungry”, and “I Beg You” — power ballads that don’t require the band to sacrifice any of their scathing ferocity. But Paradise captures more than just a band expanding their sonic arsenal. Barber-Way’s vocals now soar to match her sneer, she steps outside herself to write from various perspectives, and she challenges modern conceptions of feminism, even her own. If evolving to create one of the best hard rock records of the year isn’t deemed “punk” enough, well, fuck punk. –Matt Melis

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Japanese Breakfast47. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

When Michelle Zauner’s mother passed away after a brief and painful battle with cancer in 2014, the singer-songwriter found herself doing the thing she’s instinctively best at: arranging and rearranging songs, trying to make the pieces of her shattered life fit by way of music. And then, one day, she ended up with an album, which she named Psychopomp after the mythological angel who directs souls to the afterlife. The remarkable thing about Psychopomp is not its sadness or its acute sense of tragedy, but rather its defiant celebration of life as something worth holding onto, warts and all. Album standout “Everybody Wants to Love You” says it all in its title — love is fragile but plentiful, painful but omnipresent. Zauner pairs such reflections with understated melodies that may take some time to grow on you but hit you like a ton of bricks when they finally do. Life can only be lived one time through, but this is an album that bears (demands, even) repeat listening. –Collin Brennan

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Martha46. Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

Martha is a group of young, anarchist punks from northeast England that make music that’s as infectiously hooky as it is progressive in its politics. “I’m a person, you’re a person, nothing else is really certain,” Martha sings on “Precarious (Supermarket Song)”, and there’s really no better summation of their inclusive approach, which results in songs about social outcasts and Catholic school queers struggling with the same shit as everyone else: crushes, day jobs, anxiety. Blisters is also just a goddamn great guitar record — there’s the sloppy abandon of Superchunk, the Exploding Hearts’ razor-sharp snottiness, and please god don’t overlook the “More Than a Feeling” homage on “The Awkward Ones”. Blisters is undoubtedly all killer and no filler, but standout “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” might provide the best glimpse into the band’s promising future. A melancholy, solitary intro seems primed for melancholic reflection (“This year I’ll spend November in the house”) but soon blooms into a celebratory sing-along that can’t help but shine a light on the saddest of seasons. “When all of the band members join together and sing ‘Blisters in the pit of my heart!’” we wrote in our review, “it’s hard to tell whether to be devastated or elated.” I’m both, but the elation will win out in the end. It usually does. –Randall Colburn

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Young Thug Jeffery45. Young Thug – JEFFERY

Unpredictability has always been Young Thug’s best quality, whether that meant being unable to predict whether he’d yelp out an explosive ad lib or growl out a nonsense couplet, or if it meant being unable to pin him down. The superb JEFFERY doubles down on that uncompromising complexity while also somehow revealing more of who he is in the process. In an era in which too many rappers lack a unique flow, Thug shows off nine of them on a single tape — the throat-scraped bark of “Harambe” and sing-songy glottal pops of “Kanye West” stand miles apart — and yet these tracks are all so undeniably Thug. From the photo of himself in a dress on the cover, to the tracks named after figures he’s inspired by, to the through-lines of identity and love for his partner, JEFFERY is a thrilling and surprisingly rounded exploration of the complexity of modern life, challenging binaries and expectations at every corner. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

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Lambchop FLOTUS44. Lambchop – FLOTUS

Today’s America isn’t the same place that birthed “Americana” as a genre. If anyone knows that, feels that in their bones, it’s Kurt Wagner, the always-evolving core of alt-country mainstays Lambchop. Throughout the act’s 30 years, he has consistently poked and prodded at the definitions of American music traditions, digging at the scabs to reveal the reality behind the facade. In 2016, that meant filtering the country through a vocoder and adding electronic elements for the sublime, haunting FLOTUS. The record unfolds like a drive down the highway, though now digital billboards stud the horizon, promising commercial cures for your blues. Wagner finds beauty even in the most desolate, corrupted moments, as when picking up trash in his backyard on the glittering “Harbor Country” or in the patchworked vocal samples of “Directions to the Can”. Lambchop always reveled in twisting traditions, but FLOTUS insists that they’ve also been honoring the twists along the way. –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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The Hotelier43. The Hotelier – Goodness

The Hotelier’s breakthrough 2014 album, Home, Like Noplace Is There, may go down as the defining document of the emo revival. With its firecracker energy and relentless procession of anthems, the album idealized youth so fervently that it felt real and hollow all at once, as if it were madly chasing something it could never quite catch. For their third studio album, Goodness, the Massachusetts group took the inverse approach, turning their attention to the unknowns of the here-and-now and crafting a sprawling work of art that aims to capture life at its most mundane as well as its most thrilling. The result sounds like something that finally lives up to emo’s name because genuine emotion doesn’t always express itself at volumes dialed up to 11. Tracks like the gut-punching “Opening Mail for My Grandmother” take on the theme of death, and vocalist-bassist Christian Holden finds himself reflecting on what comes next with the same lyrical skill he once employed to look backwards in time. It may not be the band’s most rousing work to date, but it’s certainly their best and most engaging. –Collin Brennan

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Kevin Gates42. Kevin Gates – Islah

During the few years immediately preceding Islah, the ever-impassioned Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates was making his versatility known, filling his free mixtapes with songs that appealed to different audiences. Here, on his debut album, he proves how far he can take those same abilities. As hooky as the album is, Gates didn’t have to water down his sound to make it more accessible. Instead, songs like “2 Phones”, “Pride”, and “Time for That” are evidence that, well, he’s just a really, really good melody-writer and won’t let that talent go to waste. Elsewhere, “The Truth” — where Gates opens up about the incident in Florida last year when he kicked a female fan at a concert — is the exact antithesis of the lighter, melody-driven moments on the album. It’s an intensely honest rhyme spree that’s like one long hook itself. “These tats on my face don’t mean nothin’/ I was locked up, that don’t mean nothin’,” Gates starts on “Ain’t Too Hard”, merely one spot on the album where he refuses to be easily summed up. Really, the entire LP is a triumph of multidimensionality. –Michael Madden

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Mothers41. Mothers – When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired

The long title of Mothers’ debut, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired, is an appropriate fit; the album is a sprawling multi-instrumental landscape, shaped out of exhaustively experimental song structures. Each song follows its own erratic path, and even the most serene moments teeter on the edge of dissolution, about to give away to chaotic instrumental interludes. The album is therefore easy to disappear into, and lengthy, winding songs like “Nesting Behavior” and “Hold Your Own Hand” are the entryway. The submersing atmosphere is the work of the instrumentation, from the simple, frail sound of the plucked mandolin to the bigger orchestral arrangements. The release is an exploration of genre as well, pairing the deconstruction of math rock with the quiet moods of folk. The through-line of the album is Kristine Leschper’s voice, which trembles on the edge of breaking throughout. From this tension, the album draws vulnerability, and at the end of its emotional journey, it is a welcome weariness. –Mary Kate McGrath

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
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Deftones40. Deftones – Gore

Deftones ascended to nü metal sainthood by preaching a religion defined almost entirely by carnal contrasts: sex and death, intimacy and violence, new romanticism and primal aggression. Sixteen years after White Pony — their Sermon on the Mount — the band renew their profane vows to flesh and fury on Gore. It’s their most immersive, elegant record to date, texturally rich and yet, as highlight “Doomed User” so turbulently demonstrates, unflinchingly surly. Gore certainly runs the hard rock gamut, swiveling from “Acid Hologram”‘s paranoid shoegaze, to “Xenon”‘s creeping sludge, to the Jerry Cantrell-featuring stunner, “Phantom Bride”. However, for all its diversity, the album’s ultimately a triumph of firm devotion — and, of course, deathly beauty. –Zoe Camp

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Savages39. Savages – Adore Life

The gestation for the second album by British band Savages was long and complicated, involving multiple studios and a residency in New York that forced them to reassess the writing of several songs. While that could have been the recipe for overreach or work with all the passion squeezed out of it, Adore Life feels fuller and richer than their previous LP, Silence Yourself, even though nothing has been added to their unique formula. The songs are simply more dynamic than ever before. “T.I.W.Y.G.” and “Adore” build and recede like tidal shifts, pushing vocalist Jehnny Beth and guitarist Gemma Thompson to furious new realms. On the latter, especially, Beth sounds as if she’s trying to knock down an entire building with just the power of her voice. Savages take the title of this album very much to heart, as it urges listeners to appreciate every breath and every encounter with the world, no matter how seemingly insignificant. —Robert Ham

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Whitney38. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

Over the course of three Smith Westerns albums, the group matured from fuzzed-out buzz band to 70’s-sheen rockers. But with the emergence of Whitney, it’s apparent that it wasn’t frontman Cullen Omori that made the Smith Westies such an intriguing project. Instead, it’s guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich that have managed to repurpose the band’s best ideas and push things to unexpected places. Where the guitar work previously evoked Bowie and Harrison, Whitney introduces the most straightforward elements of Grateful Dead into the fold, resulting in a record, Light Upon the Lake, that pops with jukebox familiarity. Maybe it’s the guidance of fellow 70’s rock aficionado Jonathan Rado that translates the ideas of Whitney into such a fully-formed, unexpected debut, where a band from Chicago evokes the best moments of Bay Area jams and Laurel Canyon breeziness. It didn’t need Elton John’s cosign to get attention, but it wouldn’t be surprising if other classic rock dignitaries fell similarly in love. –Philip Cosores

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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The Range37. The Range – Potential

Potential is the sound of voices united, pieced together from across the globe. That’s not cheesy rhetoric; it’s just what happened. The Range, aka producer James Hinton, crafted the album from various obscure YouTube clips. Some of people singing covers, some of people rapping — basically anything that spoke to him on some level. The result is an uplifting work that bonds together people who might never meet with airy club beats. It captures the feeling of both a late night deep dive into the untouched troves of the internet as well as the loneliness that birthed the original videos. With Hinton’s executed vision, it becomes an amazingly hopeful record. The grunting synth-bass tones and swift piano lines on “Copper Wire” flourish beneath the vocal samples, which alternate between pitched up and pitched down. For an electronic artist, the human voice is Hinton’s greatest instrument. The lush arrangements feel built around each clip, not the other way around. In a year where it’s easy to feel divided or alone, Potential is a reminder of the power of our voices pulled together with the intent of making something beautiful.
–Dusty Henry

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Noname36. Noname – Telefone

Noname is too modest to fling her debut mixtape into the major label arena, but her collaborators over the years, including Chance the Rapper to Saba, are more than happy to spread the word. It’s hard not to. Noname is the kind of rapper who appears as a magical figure, someone with remarkably ripe talent and polished work that seems too good to be true, too on the nose to be ignored, too well-crafted to be a debut. On Telefone, she slowly opens cupped hands to reveal soft words that she reeled out of darkness. The production cushions that, full of muted piano, finger snaps, and fluttering vocal harmonies. She talks about death and loss with the optimism of someone clinging to survival mode. She prays for friends to make it home safely in “Casket Pretty” but then swings into pure motivation on “Reality Check”. She does all of this and more, and yet there isn’t a single moment that can be pinpointed where she gets arrogant about it. Noname is the writer and illustrator of her own magic, a type of aching that clings to the sunny side of its soul. The louder her music is played, the brighter her cadence glows, giving her lyrics a type of 3D craft that makes Telefone a diary of lessons too relevant to keep to yourself.  –Nina Corcoran

Listen: Spotify

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Into It. Over It.35. Into It. Over It. – Standards

For any indie kid who came of age in the mid-aughts, the slow burn of Into It. Over It.’s Standards plays like a dog whistle, calling up memories of a simpler time. The influence of Ben Gibbard and Mike Kinsella on the work of Chicago-based artist Evan Thomas Weiss has always been undeniable (Weiss was even in a band with Kinsella for a time), but he’s so much more than just a mimic; on Standards, his band’s most accessible album yet, he proves himself to once again be a thoughtful and observant narrator of his own life and the lives of those around him, trucking in similes and gentle, reflective, reverb-heavy melodies that are evocative even without the O.C.-era context. Recorded in analog at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone Studio in San Francisco, there’s a warmth and lived-in quality to this record that can feel like a kind of homecoming.

Emo is a much-maligned genre, but Weiss and company make perhaps one of the strongest cases yet for its continued legitimacy. Standards is understated, lush, and carefully plotted; there are emotions, yes, but no hysterics. “They torch their twenties like it’s kerosene,” Weiss, who turned 30 this year, sings of his hometown friends. We’re all entering a new decade together, all of us mid-aughts indie kids, and thank god we have Weiss to show us the way. –Katherine Flynn

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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sioux falls34. Sioux Falls – Rot Forever

Though it’s not going to be regularly compared to Infinite Jest, there’s something to the connection between Rot Forever and the maximalist postmodern literature masterpiece. The band formerly known as Sioux Falls (the group took on the moniker Strange Ranger once they learned that the word Sioux was offensive to many Native American communities) share a dual aesthetic with the David Foster Wallace epic — their debut LP feels like they throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but it also feels carefully and intelligently curated. Simply put, even at 72 minutes, just about everything sticks. The then-trio wear classic indie rock influences (Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Pavement) on their sleeves, but make things their own through the post-modern twist of analyzing the sleeve itself. Guitarist/vocalist Isaac Eiger sounds as if he’s shredded his journal and his vocal cords in equal measure, but knows the former well enough by heart to deliver the rough-hewn self-analysis all over again and in doing so pushes the latter despite the wear and tear. His lines at once evoke incredibly personal details and rally around universal frustration. “I miss my dog and my sister,” he howls on the excellent “If You Let It”, as if those words verified the world’s decay. It’s hard to tell if nothing is alright or if everything’s getting tough, but Strange Ranger/Sioux Falls are there with you for the ride. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Gojira33. Gojira – Magma

“It’s bigger than me.” With those simple words spoken in an interview with Rolling Stone, Joe Duplantier, the frontman of French metal outfit Gojira, cut to the chase of the appeal of his band’s Magma. Joe and his brother Mario act as the core of the experimental outfit, and they lost their mother while demoing tracks for their massive new LP. While they once peddled death metal, the record became something so much more interested in connection, with each other in their grooves, with the listener in more approachable hooks, with something greater than all of us in its mystic appeal. Tragedy informed the album, and yet songs like the math-y, magnetic “Low Lands” or the acoustic, golden “Liberation” have an astral, heavenly quality, the music of the spheres ringing beautifully and incredibly loud, especially as the counterpoint to the gnash and churn of more peak experimental metal. –Adam Kivel

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Explosions in the Sky32. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness

After slumming it in Hollywood for nearly half a decade with Peter Berg and David Gordon Green, Explosions in the Sky finally returned this year with their long-awaited followup to 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. How they still find ways to make their brand of post-rock feel as fresh and angelic as it first did 16 years ago is one of the many alluring facets of The Wilderness. It’s another sprawling epic, yawning with fresh air and stretching impressive muscles previously unused by the Lone Star post-rockers. Digitized bleeps and bloops punctuate their amber swells (“Tangle Formations”) while Chris Hrasky’s rousing percussion (“Logic of a Dream”) turns self-respecting atheists into believers. Good thing, too, because heaven waits by the end with “Landing Cliffs”, quite possibly the group’s most tender, tranquil ballad to date — and that’s saying a lot. Producer John Congleton bottled up magic with this one, and we could use it right now. –Michael Roffman

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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babymetal metal resistance album new j pop Top 50 Albums of 201631. BABYMETAL – METAL RESISTANCE

Leave it to three upbeat J-pop idols to deliver one of the most eclectic metal records of the year. When BABYMETAL burst on the scene, their singers only had a passing familiarity with metal. Critics derided them as a manufactured pop outfit, but vocalists Su-metal, Yuimetal, and Moametal paid them no heed. This blank slate continued to favor the kawaii metal band with their latest release, METAL RESISTANCE. Backed by the uber-talented Kami Band, BABYMETAL smashed genre conventions on their sophomore LP. The record traversed the chasms among subgenres, from power metal (“Road of Resistance”, assisted by Dragonforce’s guitarists) to pummeling metalcore (“KARATE”) to synth-infused nu-metal (“Awadama Fever”). The band even incorporated some oddball flourishes (vaudeville piano on “Tales of the Destinies”, a shimmering, anthemic interlude on “Meta Taro”). As the vocalists’ saccharine harmonies bolster an even more accessible sound, BABYMETAL arrived full-force on US shores to solidify their cult status. –Killian Young

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
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Pinegrove30. Pinegrove – Cardinal

Each year, there’s that one “little rock album that could,” an unassuming guitar record that may often get drowned out by flashier fare but ultimately grows to be one of the albums we return to again and again. Pinegrove’s debut, Cardinal, holds that distinction in 2016. The record feels like one of those off-in-your-own-world walks — head down, hands buried in pockets, feet on auto-pilot — where you suddenly come to and have no idea how you got where you are. It’s a record that understands just how much time we spend wrestling in our own headspace, regretful, confused, and always searching for just the right words to explain ourselves. Musically, the songs step right into that feeling of being lost in one’s thoughts and problems, rallying around a good idea, wilting when doubt creeps in, vocals lagging behind a fickle mind that doesn’t bother to flash a turn signal. It’s self-reflection in the most uplifting way — a record that kicks the tires on the brain and heart, remaining hopeful that one day we’ll figure ourselves out. –Matt Melis

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Nicolas Jaar29. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

Nicolas Jaar tends to keep his sound palette wide open, with little off limits, and the producer’s latest stretches this principle to his words, too. Sirens, his second solo LP and first since his hugely successful collaboration project with Dave Harrington as Darkside, alternates between Spanish and English, allusions to the unrest of present-day America and that of 1970s Chile, his parents’ home country. The comparison isn’t complicated; Sirens ends with a song called “History Lesson”, a sock-hop waltz dipped in a chemically polluted swamp, which goes: “Chapter one: we fucked up … Chapter three: We didn’t say sorry … Chapter five: we lied. Chapter six: we’re done!” Call it his darkest side yet, but Jaar would rather sound some sirens than sit still. –Steven Arroyo

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Frankie Cosmos28. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing

If there’s one line on Frankie CosmosNext Thing that might perfectly encapsulate Greta Kline’s impeccable lyricism, it’s this gem from “Outside With the Cuties”: “You are bug bites on vacation/ You find the sad in everything.” Hauntingly innocent yet universally resonant, Kline has always had a knack for pinpointing the most particular feelings and articulating them in the simplest terms. On Next Thing, that talent is as clear as ever, but this time it’s more refined, owing its more polished sound to a professional studio recording and a couple years of artistic growth. As Kline navigates her burgeoning adulthood, her soft and poetic songs flit from acoustic vocal harmonies to ‘80s-style synth breakdowns. Whether it is the insecure friction of leaving adolescence on “I’m 20” or reflecting on a broken relationship on “O Dreaded C Town”, Kline approaches raw teenage emotion with the sage wisdom of someone far beyond it: just close enough to the feeling that she can accurately express it, just far enough away to start drawing the connections. Kline has made a home in this oft-illusive time window, and on Next Thing she’s nice enough to invite us over. –Amanda Freebairn

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Tegan and Sara27. Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death

It’s hard to tell whether Tegan and Sara leaned into the glossy pop side of their sound or if the world just caught up with the sisters’ meditative messages and the joy of their voices curling skyward. Sure, the Quins teamed up with Top 40 producer Greg Kurstin yet again for Love You to Death, but they didn’t start writing paint-by-numbers love songs. The two deliver songs that openly and honestly address the queer experience in a language that will resonate universally: “B/W/U” tackles marriage in a new era of equality with themes of commitment that ring true to any type of relationship; “Boyfriend” details a queer person dealing with a woman with a male partner, though the unrequited feelings will hit home regardless of gender.

These sounds hold together as a set because they offer different perspectives on perseverance. Webbing together ideas with life lessons and influences distilled into each moment, Tegan and Sara force you not to think about what you’ve heard in the past or what you may be hearing now. Suddenly, you understand the changes less than the music’s overarching depth and embrace. Tegan and Sara’s pop songwriting continues to refine, displaying a wisdom and maturity unlike so much of radio pop — and yet these thoughtful songs are also so naturally engaging that they latch easily into your brain and don’t let go. An exquisite, personal kinship/bond. –Lior Phillips

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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Jamila Woods26. Jamila Woods – HEAVN

A lush mix of sonic innovations, Jamila Woods’ debut album is profoundly impressive and endlessly necessary. Heavn depicts Woods’ experiences as a young black woman, as well as the power she derives from them. The album reads like a love letter to Chicago, with collaborators like Chance the Rapper, Noname, Saba, and Kweku Collins adding their inimitable touches. But it’s Woods who consistently steals the show. Songs include mesmerizing beats, an innovative lyrical syntax, and surprises like revamped nursery rhymes and voicemail snippets sharing Woods’ personal stories. It’s standout, “Blk Girl Soldier”, is an assertive ode to societal ills and harnessing her black girl magic. It’s an album that juxtaposes a sugary surface with the punch of protest language that speaks out against widespread racism and violence. In 2016, no album that tackles these issues in a more head-on and beautiful way. –Sarah Brooks

Listen: Soundcloud

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Danny Brown25. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

Rather than lean on one big-picture theme as he did on XXX and Old, Danny Brown delivers exactly what the title of Atrocity Exhibition promises: a public display of his own eccentricity. Museum-goers are free to ogle at the playful musical allusions (“Today” pulls lyrics directly from Outkast’s “B.O.B.”), marvel at the heavy-hitting guest verses, and frantically try and unpack words that touch on everything from filthy-ass sex to the economic and criminal downturn of Detroit. But multiple listens reveal that their is somewhat of a through-line in Brown’s deliberate withholding of catharsis. Whether it’s the ’70s-horror bells of “Really Doe” or the drunken stand-up bass of opener “Downward Spiral” (there’s another ’90s musical reference for you), every track stays embedded in perpetual crescendo. There’s rarely a narratively satisfying explosion. That’s probably because Brown knows better than to believe in that sort of thing, especially when rapping about one’s own life. His personality isn’t multifaceted because he’s some kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde monster; it’s multifaceted because he’s a human being. And sometimes, humans only know how to build and build and build, praying for the best while secretly expecting the worst. –Dan Caffrey

Listen: Spotify
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Buy: Amazon

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James Blake24. James Blake – The Colour in Anything

“I hope my life is no sign of the times,” James Blake croons over a driving 4X4 beat towards the middle of The Colour in Anything, a Hail Mary of a prayer that the trials and tribulations that inspired much of the album aren’t universal — knowing full well that they are. Using sparse electronics to plumb the messy depths of emotion, the record is rife with warm, subtle arrangements that place as much emphasis on the space between the meticulously placed notes and intermittent sub-bass throbs. The disarmingly personal effort finds the singer exposing the depths he’s willing to plumb in search of the ever-elusive mystery of love and whatever it takes to make it stay. Working with kindred spirits, including Frank Ocean and Justin Vernon, Blake finds his emotional center on “I Need a Forest Fire”, where he and Vernon argue for burning it all down and starting anew, in love as in life. –Scott T. Sterling

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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The Body23. The Body – No One Deserves Happiness

With love inevitably comes loss, and with loss inevitably comes pain. Pop albums have been written about this kind of pain for generations, but few have tread into the deeply frightening and immensely harsh territory where Portland’s experimental duo The Body now reign. Promoted as “the grossest pop album of all time”, No One Deserves Happiness wears the title well thanks to its penchant for sludgy riffs that are often undercut with an 808 drum machine and powerful vocals that recall the most jarring moments of Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky”.

Adorned with ear-splitting harsh noise and Chip King’s shrieks, the album strips away any trace of romance or companionship from the concept of love in order to present a foundation built on vulnerability and isolation. And while the experience of listening to No One Deserves Happiness is all very bleak, you’ll still find yourself tapping your foot. –Sean Barry

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Kaytranada22. Kaytranada – 99.9%

It’s fitting that Kaytranada rose to prominence on Soundcloud — his thrilling Polaris-winning debut LP, 99.9%, mirrors the seemingly endless web of world-spanning, genre-jumping productions found on the music-hosting site. However, thanks to the superb curatorial powers of the young Haitian-Canadian producer, the major inconsistencies in quality are replaced with a unifying glow, a beaming personality core that ties together house, R&B, hip-hop, and funk, as well as guest appearances from big, unique personalities from Syd (on the transcendent “You’re the One”) to Craig David (on the sultry “Got It Good”). The apex is the deliriously smooth Anderson .Paak feature “Glowed Up”, two of the most exciting voices in dance-friendly hip-hop uniting in one woozy jam. Kaytranada offers a little bit of everything, but is certainly no dilettante — he makes anything and everything sound powered by a magical force. –Adam Kivel

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Jenny Hval21. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

Blood. A lot of the world is uncomfortable with blood — and even more with menstrual blood. Though about half the world understands the flow of the viscous life force on an intimate basis, and while menstruation has been the focus of countless works of art, it still remains somewhat of a sensitive subject in the world at large, and even in the relatively progressive art world. On her sixth studio album, Jenny Hval puts a close focus on “blood that is shed naturally … the purest and most powerful, yet most trivial, and most terrifying blood.” Moreover, the wondrous Norwegian avant-garde artist places that analysis in a concept album that pairs menstruation with vampire tropes. Like a soundtrack to some unproduced horror movie (complete with pained breathing, scratching sounds, eerie cave-like dripping), Hval exposes the absurdity of the fear and discomfort that menstruation breeds, from the meta-analysis of the album in progress on “The Great Undressing” to “Conceptual Romance”, which addresses eternity and production of life. On Blood Bitch, Hval dissects menstruation, mortality, vitality, and even the act of making art itself, all in a compelling burst equal parts art and pop. It’s bloody perfect. –Lior Phillips

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20. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things (Volume 1 & 2)

stranger things volume twoWhen Netflix dropped the first season of Stranger Things way, way back in July, most viewers wondered, “Where can I get the score?” Almost overnight, analog synth gurus Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein became the two hottest electronic musicians in the nation, turning their Austin-based outfit S U R V I V E into a household name of sorts. The demand was extraordinary; after all, when was the last time anyone who couldn’t quote Escape From New York or The Thing would want to listen to moody, ambient synth music? Nevertheless, two addicting volumes of music were released, comforting the die-hard fans who yearned to be whisked away to Hawkins, Indiana. But you know what? The score stands apart from the series and goes much further than being a faithful homage to Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, Brad Fiedel, or Brian Eno. There are so many emotions within these two records — nostalgia (“Kids”), wistfulness (“First Kiss”), alarm (“Fresh Blood”), calm (“This Isn’t You”), melancholy (“Eleven”), et al. — that, after awhile, you start to forget all about Barb. And boy is that a fucking relief. –Michael Roffman

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Solange19. Solange – A Seat at the Table

Depending on who you talk to, racism has either been an undercurrent or a monsoon these past few years. Hate crimes happen more frequently because of increased awareness (thanks, social media), but also because our nation continues to divide itself over something that seems so obvious: equality. And yet people of color, in particular those who are black, continue to suffer the consequences for actions they never took nor provoked. That includes Solange and her family who were struck with trash when attending a Kraftwerk concert. In turn, she wrote an essay and then an album that fight back, wielding pride as a weapon.

A Seat at the Table preens on behalf of a whole group of people who were, and continue to be, wrongly condemned, routinely chastised, and talked over. Solange’s voice, glossy and full of air, delivers lines of justice with moving beauty on “Weary”, “Don’t Touch My Hair”, and “Mad”. Interludes about reverse racism and expectations create tension in an album of instrumentally soothing tones. But for all of its blended stratification (from indie superstar contributions to deeply rooted history references), A Seat at the Table earns its canonization not just because of its role in black artistry, but because, like the shrill note that closes “Cranes in the Sky”, it illustrates the ever-present climb of those who refuse to give up. —Nina Corcoran

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Car Seat Headrest18. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

2016 was a down year for indie rock and perhaps the start of a larger trend in which guitar music slouches meekly towards the graveyard. After all, we’re not far from the day when Pavement’s squiggly guitar leads squiggle their way onto classic rock radio, and one could argue that the cultural heft of a distorted tube amplifier may be stuck permanently in the pre-digital (that is, prehistoric) past. But for those who still can’t resist the siren song of a straight-up rock band, it didn’t get much better than Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial in 2016.

Teens of Denial followed hot on the heels of Car Seat Headrest’s Matador debut, the similarly titled Teens of Style, but the two were never meant to be sibling albums. Whereas Style functioned as a clearinghouse for Will Toledo’s fruitful Bandcamp career, Denial marks his entrance into a different class of songwriter. Its lead single, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, stretches on for just over six minutes and may go down as the indie rock song of the decade. Elsewhere, the album is filled with rousing choruses, superfluous alter egos, and other tropes that unabashed rock fans will take comfort in. The genre is in need of a standard bearer these days, and Toledo is more than up for the task. –Collin Brennan

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Tim Hecker17. Tim Hecker – Love Streams

Even the most bitter people ache with genuine tenderness; you just need to catch them at the right moment. Electronic musician and sound artist Tim Hecker breaks out of his shell to place his heart on his sleeve for this year’s Love Streams. Over the course of 11 songs, Hecker blends melodies and, in turn, moods. But no matter which song he’s caught up in, a warmth pools at its core. “Up Red Bull Creek” feels remarkably emotional, especially compared to past releases, as does a song like “Castrati Stack”, even with its sharp glitching and static trips.

It all comes back to Hecker’s use of voices, a change-up in his usual musicmaking that he worked hard to integrate. Medieval choral music is translated to digital sighs. New choral parts appear with help from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. It’s most viscerally felt during both parts of “Violent Monumental”, particularly on the second. Hecker turns inward towards what sounds to be oboe, looping notes until they begin to feel like an extension of the self, particularly an extension of thought via rumination in the style Philip Glass made famous. Electronica, even drone, has a stereotype of being cold. Love Streams is Hecker’s chance to correct that, offering a numbing sensation that gives life instead of stripping it. —Nina Corcoran

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Wilco16. Wilco – Schmilco

“I don’t think I’ve been afraid to show emotion,” Jeff Tweedy explained in our Wilco cover story this past summer. “But there are certain things I feel are just so silly and cliché to share as a singer-songwriter. And on this record, I think I just went, ‘Fuck it.’” No kidding. Despite playing the game for over two decades, the 49-year-old singer-songwriter has hardly ever sounded so intimate as he does on Schmilco, grappling with the never-ending angst of knowing that you never really can escape yourself. On album standout “If I Ever Was a Child”, he vividly paints this feeling, singing: “I slump behind my brain/ A haunted stain never fades/ I hunt for the kind of pain I can take.” The Chicago rockers add some color to each of the album’s 12 tracks by stripping things down to its core essentials, peppering the proceedings with lush tapestries that speak to the hearty wisdom of each member. It’s the sister album to last year’s Star Wars, but the older and wiser sister, the one who cleans up the dishes after a raucous pizza party and spends the rest of the night wondering if life will always be like this. It’s a beauty. –Michael Roffman

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Schoolboy Q15. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP

What’s an artist to do when he’s equal parts raw talent and goofy commercialism? Instead of straddling the line between dark humor and the realism of gangsta rap once more, ScHoolboy Q dipped a hand in each this year and found he delivers some of his best songs to date in doing so. Blank Face entertains thanks to that balance.

“Groovy Tony”, a song driven by eerie backing vocalists and mischievous bass, tells a comic book-style revenge story — complete with the pew-pew of a raygun — that bears truths when not cranking on the cheese. That’s what ScHoolboy Q does best. Whereas other rappers get caught in the tangled web of their scarring backstories, Q gets busy coloring noir tales, bringing characters to life on “Overtime” and “Dope Dealer”. His delivery steps up from past lows — at times, Oxymoron’s delivery could be faulted by rote mirroring radio — to bear a ruthless sneer. With a reliable crew on board (Kanye West’s backwards yell on “THat Part” echos in your head for days), it upholds the structure of any good storybook without losing the grit of his early days. Forget about the bucket hat days. This is Schoolboy Q’s dark, twisted fantasy and, boy, is it a beauty. —Nina Corcoran

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Blood Orange14. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

Some blame album-equivalent units for the year’s glut of albums that burst at the seams with music. It may be what sank Drake’s Views from critical esteem and found some listeners losing patience with offerings from the likes of Frank Ocean, James Blake, and The Weeknd. The difference between an opus and a ploy for chart position feels slimmer than ever.

Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound is just as guilty as any for walking that tightrope, but it never feels bloated or buried under its own weight. Dev Hynes took years preparing the record, trying out material live and working the collection into a coherent presentation. The songs flow into each other fluidly, at times representing more sonic collages than distinct tracks. Every moment on the record holds weight, be it appearances from the likes of Empress Of, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Nelly Furtado, a spoken word poetry sample of Ashlee Haze reciting “For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)”, or interview clips from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Vince Staples. In the hands of Hynes, sprawling is the only way to paint a portrait dedicated to those told they were “not black enough, too black, Too queer, not queer the right way.” Freetown Sound is the music of inclusion, and that’s a message that shouldn’t be truncated. –Philip Cosores

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Radiohead13. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Radiohead has made a career out of tension, often reveling in the mismatch between Thom Yorke’s gorgeous voice and and the skittering anxiety of the music. A Moon Shaped Pool is unique among Radiohead’s nine albums because the tension has been released, and a band long-capable of making beautiful music has finally succumbed to loveliness. Jonny Greenwood’s experience as an orchestrator has allowed the band to play with a new palate of sounds, and the luscious strings of the London Symphony Orchestra mesh perfectly with the sparse pianos and electronic clicks that have long been a part of Radiohead’s repertoire. Not that the album is without drama: “Burn the Witch” is a scathing takedown of nationalism and xenophobia, and tracks like “True Love Waits” and “Ful Stop” have some of the band’s bitterest lyrics. But it’s the bitterness of strong dark chocolate, the kind that goes down sweet and leaves a smile on the lips.  –Wren Graves

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A Tribe Called Quest12. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

If A Tribe Called Quest had left things where they did after the release of 1998’s The Love Movement, the legendary hip-hop crew’s trailblazing credentials would have been set in stone. Knowing that, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service doesn’t expand upon anything we didn’t already know, but it does reaffirm just how great Tribe was and still are. The Queens group’s latest is a dense, 16-track collection that’s still grounded by the jazzy, afrocentric sounds of its predecessors, but the formula has been upgraded for 2016. That applies not only to the group’s music, which today is packed with more samples, loops, and studio tricks than ever, but also the group’s mindset. Tribe have always operated with a deliberate social conscience, but tracks like “We the People” and album closer “Dis Generation” are as pointed and direct as anything the group has done. In a world sorely in need of healing, the return of one of the smartest, most forward-thinking acts in hip-hop couldn’t be more welcome. –Ryan Bray

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mitski puberty new album Top 50 Albums of 201611. Mitski – Puberty 2

Between the jokes about how 30 is the new 20 and “young adults” living at their parents’ houses for longer and longer, there are real trials and tribulations that come along with the altered timeline of adulthood in the modern era. On Puberty 2, Mitski takes on that anxiety and stress and explores what it means to truly grow up and try to find your own slice of happiness. Songs ache as though memoirs about how the crushing struggles of this life will sublimate into redemption when all the pain has collapsed. To illustrate that, Mitski Miyawaki produced “Happy”, a song that at once illustrates the heartbreak of a failed romance with a character named Happy and unveils her failed attempts to capture the feeling itself.

Mitski’s status as outsider to love and happiness aside, the singer-songwriter is also culturally other. Born in Japan and then having lived in countries from China to Turkey, she’s unlike any other artist — ironically displayed in the pitch-perfect indie rock epic “Your Best American Girl”. Throughout Puberty 2, Mitski looks at the extremes of happiness and sadness, of heaviness and dynamics that take textural and thematic chances, and attempts to split the difference based on the expectations of a modern American woman. She finds nothing quite sitting right. But in that struggle, Mitski discovers the ceiling of her symbolic voice and dares to dissect it, producing incredibly introspective, powerful art that digs at the struggle we all face trying to be the best adults we can.  –Lior Phillips

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leonard cohen Top 50 Albums of 201610. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

The pall that Leonard Cohen’s death cast upon You Want It Darker may linger for some time, just as it’s nearly impossible to separate from David Bowie’s passing. For many, it’ll stand as the surrogate last words of a man we never knew but so often, through his poetry, seemed to know us. Last month, Cohen told The New Yorker, “I am ready to die.” In July, he wrote a letter to one of his muses, Marianne, who was on her deathbed, suspecting that he wasn’t long for this world either. And yet, shortly after Cohen’s passing, we learned that he had two music projects and a book of poetry in the works. It speaks to a compelling duality that we’ve witnessed several times throughout this grave year. The man felt and accepted his mortality; the artist had work left to do. And that’s what we undeniably hear as Cohen gruffly leads us down You Want It Darker’s shadowy corridors, where the familiar beacons – love, faith, and truth – have all burned out. Never once do we sense an artist stepping away from life; we hear one who’s still in the thick of it. –Matt Melis

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Bon Iver09. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

After nabbing Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album Grammys in 2012, Justin Vernon chose to blow up Bon Iver. Not that he ended the band, instead locking it in a box tucked underneath other projects. But when he finally lit the fuse again, it was only to explode expectations of his work. It’s that kind of gutsy confidence that often leads to the most peerless art, and it’s what allowed him to deliver 22, A Million.

Although the album risks polarizing fans with its technological reliance, that’s a fallacy of demanding that artists fence themselves in while also ignoring the obvious progressions. “00000 Million” and “29 #Strafford APTS” are some of the most assured “folk” numbers Vernon has ever written while the horns of Bon Iver, Bon Iver simply find themselves Messina-ized as they cross over. “715 – CR∑∑KS” is “Woods” filtered through some 2016 Prismizer software, coming out once more as a startlingly gorgeous piece of contemporary a cappella.

Even as his lyrics remain as abstruse as ever and he’s further obscured behind the instrumentation, Vernon has boldly advanced his sound — which is what he’s always done. He creates with a daring that sets him apart from his fellows, as it does with 22, A Million and the rest of 2016’s best efforts. –Ben Kaye

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Anderson .Paak

08. Anderson .Paak – Malibu

No artist more thoroughly dominated 2016 from start to finish than singer, rapper, lyricist, and multi-instrumentalist Anderson .Paak, who released his stunning sophomore album, Malibu, in January and spent the rest of the year touring relentlessly to bring it to the masses. Eleven months after its release, Malibu remains at the forefront of the pop musical conversation, its lyrical and musical limbs stretching to encompass the same breadth as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly but resulting in an entirely different — and perhaps even more personal — hip-hop masterpiece.

Malibu plays like the spontaneous outpouring of pent-up energy, hopping from Hov-style zingers (“Volume One was too heavy for you frail niggas”) to horn blasts with the gleeful charisma of one who knows he’s on top of his game and can’t wait to show it to the world. .Paak’s talents come across here as larger than life, but the scope of his story is refreshingly intimate. On album highlight “The Season / Carry Me”, he relates an embarrassing story from his childhood, while on “Silicon Valley” he focuses on the insecurities hidden beneath physical beauty. It’s all a way of showing that, hey, we’re all silly people with our dumb, fucked-up contradictions, but sometimes we can be magical. Malibu, for lack of a more accurate word, is magical. –Collin Brennan

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Angel Olsen

07. Angel Olsen – My Woman

There’s nothing braver, or scarier, than outgrowing sadness. Angel Olsen flirted with melancholy on Burn Your Fire for No Witness and seemed to suffer from it on Strange Cacti. On first listen, My Woman seems to flip off her trademark frown, chasing sunny guitars and ‘70s jams instead of isolated folk ballads, but listen closer and there’s still a tremble within. Sadness moves to the background, quite literally in “Intern” where Olsen harmonizes with herself, and in its place is happiness as it grapples with fear: fear of choosing to be happy and fear of finding out that choice was naive. She manages to both feign insanity and demand validation on “Shut Up Kiss Me”. She articulates the sprawling stress of now with the trite optimism of the ‘60s on “Sister”. She downshifts her voice to be used as an instrument first and a vessel of poetry second on “Those Were the Days”. There’s a sturdy confidence within her that launches her songwriting to the next level, full of well-produced solos and goosebump-inducing howls, and it all stems from the conscious choice to strive for a better feeling. Angel Olsen has always been an artist of hidden complexities. My Woman is just the album that makes that visible to the public. —Nina Corcoran

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds06. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

The pain that Nick Cave endured during the creation of Skeleton Tree, when his 15-year-old son, Arthur, died falling from a cliff, is not something that most of us can relate to. And thank god for that. It’s a similar pain that’s fueled a couple of the year’s finest films, Manchester by the Sea and Arrival, but with Cave we know it isn’t just actors on a screen reading lines from a page. The pain in Cave’s voice is the embodiment of grief, even though the songs don’t necessarily dwell on the real-life events. It’s stark and purposeful in the album’s opening line: “You fell from the sky/ Crash landed in a field/ Near the river Adur.” It’s otherworldly and eternal over the millennial whoop of “Rings of Saturn”. It quivers and spits the dust of a broken heart on “I Need You”. “I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever,” Cave mourns, “because nothing really matters.” It’s been a year where we’ve been stuck in our own grief, be it for our favorite artists, for young men killed by police officers, or for our ideal American way of life that feels so threatened by the changing government. Cave’s grief is real, and hearing him put the pieces back together is shadowed in hope. If Cave can survive, why can’t we all? –Philip Cosores

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ANOHNI05. ANOHNI – Hopelessness

For protest music to be truly impactful, it needs to make the listener uncomfortable, urging them to action. On Hopelessness, ANOHNI, the auteur formerly of Antony and the Johnsons, uses her powerful, operatic voice to construct a harsh vision of our society, issuing a dire warning for the future. ANOHNI barrels forward on a righteous path of destruction, taking on climate change, drone warfare, the hostile reaction to globalism, and the surveillance state. Everyone is held accountable, from herself to President Obama. Reinforcing ANOHNI’s urgency is the heightened melodrama of the production, the result of the maximalism of Hudson Mohawke clashing with the hyperkinetic experimentation of Oneohtrix Point Never. Between psychosexual voyeurism to feminist theory about our connection to the Earth, ANOHNI issued a scathing indictment of how we got here. Utilizing extremism, ANOHNI dares to imagine a world where self-reflection causes citizens to unite against cycles of violence and the destruction of our ecosystem. An album that grows more prescient by the day, Hopelessness is the sound of the realization that it might be too late. –David Sackllah

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Frank Ocean04. Frank Ocean – Blonde

It just seems patently unfair that the metric Blonde might never escape is whether it was worth the wait. The underlying assumptions are insulting: Frank Ocean as entertainer instead of human being, four years as protracted delay instead of artistic gestation period, music as obligation instead of gift. The world hungered for Ocean’s talent and voice, an appetite that turned into entitlement. It’s just as well then that Ocean gave us an album that meanders as if oblivious to expectations. On Blonde, there are few stable drumbeats, some indulgent interludes (“Facebook Story” is the album’s biggest misstep), oddly paced tracks, and unpredictable guest appearances (head nods to a masterful André 3000 and Beyoncé, in the background but in her element). But Blonde is nothing if not beautiful. Ocean’s voice — ”That’s a pretty fuckin’ fast year flew by,” “You see me like a UFO” — cuts through the haze with enthralling suddenness and clarity. Blonde is an album to luxuriate in, one that gives up little secrets when you thought you’d worn it out. Frank Ocean made Blonde to last. –Karen Gwee

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David Bowie

03. David Bowie –

He was ready. In a year of immense darkness, we needed an album like , a record that reminds us that death is not the all-encompassing conclusion that it may seem. Upon its release, felt like a bold new statement, a jazz and electronic-addled labyrinth. David Bowie’s meticulously coordinated commotion, somehow crushing and atmospheric, a cocoon of life. We had all our information logged and saved for quite sometime; Bowie was sick and suddenly befriending mortality in a way that made you feel alive. But his death two days after the album’s release unearthed new layers of meaning within that maze — layers avowing both the depth of darkness that his disease entailed and the transcendence that only an artist like Bowie can summon. We thought we were ready.

By and large, these songs glow from the core, built with an underlying, unabashed sense of accession. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings on “Lazarus”. “I’m dying to, I’m trying to,” he yearns on “Dollar Days”. “I know something is very wrong,” he adds on “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. The songs feel mortality around the corner and reject it, embrace it, and ignore it at turns, as Bowie leads the way through concentric circles of meaning. To achieve that, he returns to his most iconic instrument: his voice, which soars, sours, cracks, and burns to convey the entirety of his circuitous career in one voyage. And much like Bowie himself, the complex riffs and rhythms yet carry many idiosyncratic twists waiting to be discovered. Meant as a mournful requiem and an anthem of acceptance, positioning death as a rueful reminder that we all still have a chance to live. –Lior Phillips

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Chance the Rapper

02. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

There have been plenty of theories discussing Chance the Rapper’s album covers — from 10 Day to Acid Rap to Coloring Book, telling a story from his skyward intentions, his head-on assessment of the world, and his look back at the ground now that he’s risen to the stars. More to the point, in an interview with The Fader, artist Brandon Breaux revealed that he captured that loving look on Chance’s face by having him hold his baby daughter.

Coloring Book beams with pride, love, joy, passion. As much gospel as rap, the mixtape rightfully spawned a Magnificent Coloring World Tour, a Magnificent Coloring Day festival, and the immersive Magnificent Coloring World event. The latter was a listening party experience in which Chance invited listeners into a magical listening party full of candy, coloring, dancing, carnival games — and, more importantly, the power and beauty of African-American culture even in the face of a dark environment like Chance’s violence-riddled Chicago, or, hell, the oppressive, racist state of the country today. Even in the face of all this darkness, Chance finds salvation in love, in God, in music, in friends, in family. And it’s infectious: He’s the kind of guy that can threaten to give Satan a swirlie in a rap track and call for smiles rather than eye-rolls.

From the gleefully independent “No Problems” to the Chicago-tastic “Angels” to the spiritual “Blessings”, from twisty wordplay to pure musical elation, Coloring Book feels like having Chance’s beneficial smile beam right into your heart. As the many tragedies, pains, deaths, frustrations, atrocities, and insanities of 2016 have unfolded, nothing has been as comforting, inspiring, and life-affirming as Coloring Book. Happily, Chance the Rapper backs that all up with charitable work, putting good into the world. But if the mixtape stood entirely on its own, it would be a strong enough contribution to the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being of the world to look to Chance for years to come as an inspiration and friend. –Adam Kivel

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Beyonce

01. Beyoncé – Lemonade

On a November night so cold I could see my breath, I looked up at the looming Trump Tower in Manhattan and wondered if the pain would ever go away. A small, disorganized group of protesters milled about around me, signs half raised, chants a little muffled. Some seemed confused as to what to do next while others looked too tired from having marched and shouted all day. In that moment, I have to admit it all felt a little uninspiring. As I began to make my way out of the crowd, an old, black woman pushed past me. She had an eagerness about her I hadn’t yet come across that evening.

Seeing her enthusiasm, two younger women who were supplying materials for signs approached her and asked if she wanted to make one herself. She didn’t hesitate, and I watched as she hurriedly scribbled “Donald Trump is a Pussy Grabber!” on a piece of construction paper while telling those nearby, “He ain’t grabbing my pussy! He ain’t grabbing my pussy!” She laughed, and we smiled, amused but also sincerely delighted by her passion. It’s like she’d been waiting forever for this moment and knew exactly what she wanted to say.

For the next 45 minutes, I stood beside this woman. She was thin, likely in her early sixties, and looked a bit fragile. But when it came time to hoist up her sign and yell, she seemed invincible. Even as others’ words were drowned out by New York’s noise, hers rang out clearly. When multiple chants were being orchestrated from various sections of the crowd, she joined in them all. “Not my president! My choice, my body! Black lives matter!”

I got the sense that she was really fighting for something and that her sign, which now was nearly torn down the middle from excitement, represented so much more than the phrase written across it. Sometimes her timing would be off and she’d end up yelling all by herself, but she didn’t mind it one bit. It appeared she was familiar with the burden of having to speak out against forces that encourage submission. She seemed to know what it was like to have to resist a broken system; to heal and will oneself strength after being wronged; to carry on with a cause till its last breath. Despite a tepid group of protesters, she still looked so happy to have found some form of solidarity, grateful for the opportunity to have her voice heard. This one woman single-handedly changed the energy around us — things finally felt alive and purposeful.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade was made for people like the woman I encountered that night. Though hers is a narrative about heartache — supposedly at the hands of her adulterous husband, Jay Z — she speaks a universal language of tremendous human struggle. In particular the strife of black women, “the most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X (who was sampled on Lemonade) once famously said. Beyoncé’s betrayal, healing, and rebirth are theirs, too, and it’s a story as old as time.

Like her “Formation” music video, the visual accompaniment of Lemonade immediately highlights Beyoncé’s ancestry. There are scenes featuring Louisiana plantations, West African religious rituals, and people covered in Yoruba paint. It’s a prideful showing of her blackness, but also bittersweet given the exploitation she and generations of her family have suffered. The music itself also quickly illustrates this mistreatment. On the Yeah Yeah Yeahs-sampling “Hold Up”, she sings, “To ever feel this worthless/ How did it come down to this?” She’s calling out the philandering father of her child as well as those who’ve chosen to question the value and place of the black woman. It’s hardly an issue from the days of slavery; if you’ll recall, Trump and his surrogates have cut the pop singer down countless times this year. Also, her recent, now-controversial Country Music Awards performance brought out some of the vilest, most hateful bigots. To say that seeing Beyoncé simply destroy shit with a baseball bat in the song’s visual component is cathartic would be a massive understatement. A million cars couldn’t stand the weight of her pain.

It’s not unheard of for disenfranchised people to blame themselves, believing that the fault is somehow with them, but Beyoncé isn’t falling for that evil, psychological trick. On the next couple of tracks, her wounds seep anger and retaliation as she reasserts her worth. “I ain’t sorry,” she says on “Sorry”, in a tone that’s the equivalent of a cold shrug. “I don’t give a fuck, chucking my deuces up.” Later on the Jack White-assisted blues rocker “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, she’s got nothing but rage coursing through her veins: “Who the fuck do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.”

At the end of the day, Beyoncé advocates for the protection and respect of black lives. The last third or so of Lemonade suggests the key to accomplishing that can be found through healing, rebirth, and solidarity. “True love breathes salvation back into me, with every tear came redemption/ And my torturer became my remedy,” she sings during the euphoric exhale of “All Night”. Penultimate song “Freedom” is a powerful anthem in which Beyoncé deals with her oppression by staring it in the face and resisting. She’s born anew, stronger and more convicted than ever. “I break chains all by myself,” she boasts with a voice like fire, not unlike the flames that lit up her blazing BET Awards performance). Accompanying her on the track is none other than the mighty King Kendrick Lamar, whose masterful To Pimp a Butterfly dealt with similar topics on blackness in America.

While “Formation” was the only single to preface Lemonade, its placement as the final song is perfect. As a closing note, Beyoncé issues a call to arms and asks that black women stand together, own their blackness, and defy the forces that seek to abuse and enslave them. “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana/ You mix that negro with that Creole, make a Texas bama,” she touts, later directing, “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation!” It’s no coincidence she sported Black Panther-style garb during her performance of the song at this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show or repeatedly showed her support for the Black Lives Matter movement — Beyoncé is ready to make sure the invisible are seen and heard, ready to reclaim her humanity and body, much like that woman outside of Trump Tower who refused to be silenced. –Michelle Geslani

Buy: Amazon
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01. Beyonce – Lemonade
02. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
03. David Bowie –
04. Frank Ocean – Blonde
05. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
06. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
07. Angel Olsen – My Woman
08. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
09. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
10. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
11. Mitski – Puberty 2
12. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
13. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
14. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
15. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP
16. Wilco – Schmilco
17. Tim Hecker – Love Streams
18. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
19. Solange – A Seat at the Table
20. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things (Volume 1 & 2)
21. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
22. Kaytranada – 99.9%
23. The Body and Full of Hell – One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache
24. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
25. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
26. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
27. Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death
28. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
29. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
30. Pinegrove – Cardinal
31. Babymetal – Metal Resistance
32. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness
33. Gojira – Magma
34. Sioux Falls – Rot Forever
35. Into It. Over It. – Standards
36. Noname – Telefone
37. The Range – Potential
38. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
39. Savages – Adore Life
40. Deftones – Gore
41. Mothers – When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired
42. Kevin Gates – Islah
43. The Hotelier – Goodness
44. Lambchop – FLOTUS
45. Young Thug – JEFFERY
46. Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
47. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
48. White Lung – Paradise
49. Weaves – Weaves
50. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

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