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Top 50 Albums of 2016

on November 28, 2016, 12:00am
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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

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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

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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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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

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon

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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

Listen: Spotify

Buy: Amazon
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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

Listen: Spotify

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