The 50 Best Albums of 2016

There’s been no shortage of pessimism about 2016—a year that was plagued with fear, hatred, and confusion. In music, that ugliness was often confronted head-on, whether it was Beyoncé calling for a formation against rising tides, or YG offering Democrats an alternate slogan against Donald Trump. There was plenty to mourn over within music itself, as we said farewell to David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, Sharon Jones, and too many others. But nevertheless, we found comfort in song: Solange’s meditations, Chance the Rapper’s spirituality, Bruno Mars’s throwback levity. Frank Ocean resurfaced, and the Avalanches finally returned. For the most part, music in 2016 remained good.

Here are our favorite albums of the year—the ones that helped us get through it all.

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

 50. Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth 

There’s no greater sense of awe and mortality in a man than witnessing the birth of his first child. The old conception of the self is obliterated from that very first cry, to make way for that new life. It’s a terrifying moment, to gaze into your child’s eyes and know in the root of your being Wordsworth’s adage: “The Child is the father of the Man.” That tumult of fear, mystery, and time lies at the heart of Sturgill Simpson’s adventurous third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Sure, the 38-year-old Kentuckian might have made his name by tripping out on the likes of Jesus, Buddha, and “reptile aliens made of light” on 2014’s cosmically infused Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, but becoming a parent brought a new level of sobriety to Simpson and his plainspoken songwriting. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth offers no-nonsense advice and down-home imagery, yet still takes more sonic chances than the entire bro-country contingency put together. Southern rock, Stax-styled soul, proggy synths, even a 25-year-old Nirvana song—they’re all woven into this ambitious but rooted song cycle. In Simpson’s callused hands, any pick-up truck could become a spaceship. — ANDY BETA
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

49. Moodymann
DJ-Kicks 

After simmering nicely during its first half, bobbing in and out of hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and whatever it is that Little Dragon makes, the first officially released DJ mix by legendary Detroit producer/DJ Moodymann hits a stunning transition. Andrés and Lady’s percolating, broken-beat “El Ritmo De Mi Gente” gives way to the full-on disco house of “Uptown Tricks (Rodney Hunter Remix)” by Fort Knox Five, featuring Mustafa Akbar. Night becomes day, the sea becomes the sky, sepia turns Technicolor. These are the moments that make mixes what they are, that remind you of the worth in human intellect and soul over the algorithms that assemble our playlists. In Moodymann’s brilliant, 30-track mix, groove trumps genre and sonic cohesion is more likely to be found in claps, cymbals, and hi-hats, than it is in booming four-on-the-floor (though there’s plenty of that in the latter half). His DJ-Kicks is both an extended journey and a feast for short-attention spans, timeless and wholly modern in its multiplicity. — RICH JUZWIAK
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

48. Pinegrove
Cardinal 

Cardinal is an easygoing, modest album littered with intimidating words: “solipsistic,” “aphasia,” “Caravaggio.” Such is the charm of songwriter Evan Hall that all of these instances feel like acts of generosity—he wrangles complex concepts and lets you know, “Hey, there’s a word for that.” His band’s proper debut works on a similar level—in the grand tradition of Oh, Inverted World or Fleet Foxes, Pinegrove are almost radically likable, soft-spoken in a year of grandiose statements, filling a void that only existed in retrospect. Verbose and unhinged enough to honor their emo roots, warm and shambling enough to be called “alt-country” without the authenticity hang-ups, devastating and casual at the same time—it’s a complicated set of qualities and no one could figure out exactly what to label the new sound of indie-rock centrism. Fortunately, there’s a word for that now: Cardinal. IAN COHEN
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

47. Maren Morris
Hero 

On one of Hero’s hit singles, Maren Morris sings, “I’m a ’90s baby / In my ‘80s Mercedes”—a quick clue that, despite the old-fashioned Southern revival feel of “My Church,” she’s very much a modern child. She kneels in prayer at the temple of FM, imagines herself rolling with Diddy, sings to cut-and-paste hip-hop rhythms—and, apart from offhand references to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on the ode to highway radio, not one of these signify as country, which Morris nominally is. Morris never pretends to be a honky-tonk angel—she’s not a throwback like neo-traditionalist Margo Price—but she seems unmistakably country on Hero. Her major-label debut is littered with songs about class and heartbreak, the vulgarity is intertwined with wit and, most of all, it acknowledges that many Southern ’90s babies spent as much time listening to pop and hip-hop as they did country. Hero doesn’t sound like any one genre, but that is why it feels thoroughly contemporary: It illustrates how the old cultural musical lines are being redrawn. — STEPHEN THOMAS ERLEWINE
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

46. Bat for Lashes
The Bride 

“Through this veil they can’t see / The fog of death envelop me,” Natasha Khan sings on “In God’s House,” the emotional core of The Bride, her fourth album as Bat for Lashes. It’s a loose concept record about a bride-to-be whose fiancé dies in a car crash en route to the wedding, and all of the misery and healing that follows. Overcome by nightmarish images of the incident, our heroine decides to go on their honeymoon alone, slowly scaling the stages of grief in the process. It’s an achingly beautiful record about lost love, the ways we deal with trauma, learning to open up again, and chasing hope.

Rich with rolling keyboard chords and timely, jarring synth arrangements, the album’s songs hang together as stills and memory fragments, reminders of the departed; the Bride frames specific images and feelings—a ghostly encounter with her late partner, a premonition he had foreshadowing his untimely demise, the warmth of his bed, his car’s flaming wreckage. The plot rises and crashes on Khan’s pristine, often spectral voice, which navigates the ins and outs of heartache and tragedy with a disquieting serenity, as if she’s still waiting at the crash site in her wedding dress, long after her love has gone, embittered and alone. — SHELDON PEARCE
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

45. Oranssi Pazuzu
Värähtelijä 

On their fourth full-length, Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu consolidate their claim on the figurative space between atmospheric black metal’s thin air and blackgaze’s celestial strain. Theirs is the sound of crafts disintegrating in high orbit, dead stars crumbling into gravitational fields, and the hypoxia of cosmic irrelevance. Even more than 2013’s Valonielu, Värähtelijä jettisons the immediate anguish of blast beats and frantic howls for extended hypnotic passages: the combo of vibraphone and toms that girds “Lahja,” the crotchet organ that grants doomy closer “Valveavaruus” its escape velocity. The band’s unerring sense of inertia neatly balances these proggier touches with a steely compositional sense. Explosions taper into radio silence; distress-mode pedals are answered by unholy choirs; bodies both human and stellar are examined on a molecular level. Presumably they’ll keep exploring until they can’t return a signal. — BRAD SHOUP
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

44. Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke 

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke is a moving collaboration between a confirmed free-improv legend and a comparatively youthful polyglot with a wide variety of jazz, contemporary classical, and pop music bonafides. The two unlikely compatriots are actually old associates: 74-year-old Wadada Leo Smith, active since the late 1960s, allowed 45-year-old Vijay Iyer to play in a quartet with him. They are excellent foils for each other.

While Smith lingers on just a few crucial notes within each piece—rendering them either as murmurs or guttural attacks—Iyer relishes the boundless, genre-defying freedom of the duet format. He creates sweeping contrasts with creeper vines of bunched-up piano clusters, muted Rhodes splats, and electroacoustic tremors. The ECM label has traditionally specialized in gentle, tonal jazz with New Age and crossover-classical predilections: Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton. This album, like the label’s best music, resists settling into familiar modes or moods at every turn, lending itself to endless reinterpretation by the receptive, patient listener. It’s lively as often as it is plaintive and foreboding, recreating itself with each new tenuous chord. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

43. Marissa Nadler
Strangers 

Marissa Nadler’s gloomy sixth album, Strangers, is filled with a rare type of solitary songs, honing in on the nuanced relationship we can have with our past lives. “All the colors of the dark / Of all the colors of the heart / You had left your mark,” the Boston singer remembers on “All the Colors of the Dark,” with the piercing chill of a desolate New England winter. “Change, change, I got married on a Sunday afternoon,” she continues. Indeed, she did, and this record—which finds her reflecting on the ends of relationships as well as the end of the world—was written around the time of her wedding.

“It was an interesting dichotomy of going and picking out wedding flowers and going home and writing that the waves are gonna pull the city into the water,” Nadler told SPIN earlier this year. It helped her gain a level-headed perspective on her preferred themes of loneliness and longing. “People feel lonely when they’re in crowds of people or even when they’re in a happy relationship,” she said. “There are just certain things that don’t go away.” Strangers brims with gothic story songs over slow dissonant marches of strings, drums, and beds of buried synths. Within the wide depths of darkness there is a sense of purity, a specific strain of isolation, ruminating on the strangers who walk in and out of your life, and how maybe sometimes you’ve become one too. — LIZ PELLY
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

42. Bruno Mars
24K Magic

A recent Rolling Stone cover story on Bruno Mars did not find the singer enjoying the carefree life of a superstar. Though the front of the magazine depicted Mars lounging on a diving board with a pristine pool and grand mansion at his back, the story detailing the making of his third album, 24K Magic, was headlined “Bruno Mars: The Private Anxiety of a Pop Perfectionist.” It looked at the belabored process that was crafting his first album post-“Uptown Funk,” a song from someone else’s record that nonetheless became the one hit Mars will never be able to outrun.

Thankfully, you hear none of this creative angst in the finished product, a nine-song, 34-minute platter of slick homages. Michael Jackson will always loom heavy for Mars, but here he dives further into the R&B from his youth. Highlights like “That’s What I Like” and “Versace on the Floor” drip with the gloss of classic New Edition singles, while “Straight Up & Down”—a co-write with T-Pain—samples the 1993 hit “Baby I’m Yours” by the group Shai. Mars is able to transcend his influences by stuffing his songs with little quirks like funny lyrics or instrumental squiggles—such as the popping sound that punctuates “Finesse”—that both prove his attention to detail and let his personality permeate the performances. Most artists might get swallowed by the task, but this one did grow up impersonating Elvis, after all. — JORDAN SARGENT
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

41. Whitney
Light Upon the Lake 

Light Upon the Lake opens as gracefully as an iris-in shot, our narrator hopping a train equipped with nothing but a bottle of booze and, before the opening credits can even roll, blacking out and waking up in Los Angeles. Whitney, led by drummer Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek (ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns, between the two of them), earn their living in this dreamy, cinematic realm, where some of the year’s saddest, most deeply felt songs were masked by Ehrlich’s reptilian croak and Kakacek’s wispy guitar playing.

Whitney write songs that sound timeless and pristine from the first time you hear them, endowing them with a found-artifact feel, like you’re looking at a stranger’s Polaroids. This was the soundtrack to drinking too much, feeling too much, taking the long way home; made up of the intermittent regrets and revelations you have after the drunkenness gives way to sobriety, but before the hangover sinks in. These songs resonated via Whitney’s self-described “country-soul” sound, blending their themes beautifully and suggesting that heartbreak, disappointment, alienation, and yearning don’t resolve; they merely settle, like, well, light upon a lake. — MATTHEW RAMIREZ
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

40. Miranda Lambert
The Weight of These Wings 

Conventional wisdom dictates that any celebrity needs to fashion their first album after a divorce as an explicit confessional, a notion Miranda Lambert discards on The Weight Of These Wings, a double album whose central conceit is motion. The first of its 24 songs is called “Runnin’ Just In Case” and the last is called “I’ve Got Wheels,” and between those bookends, she celebrates covered wagons and getaway drivers, envisioning herself as a highway vagabond—anything that gets her away from reality, basically. What’s brilliant about Wings is how the country maverick buries her heartache in a murky, muddy production. Hidden in its 90 minutes is the occasional emotional outburst—”Things That Break” is tucked away on the start of the second disc—but Miranda largely diverts attention from her loss by surrounding it with wry come-ons and off-color jokes, songs that tap into her rebellious nature but can’t help but seem slightly sad due to the execution and context. Maybe she doesn’t dish about Blake, but the mess and melancholy of this record show how deeply the divorce cut her, even if she never says so outright. — STEPHEN THOMAS ERLEWINE
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

39. YG
Still Brazy 

Still Brazy, YG’s followup to his splashy 2014 debut album, suffers from a few typical sequel tropes: It’s bolder, louder, and wears its aspirations on its sleeve more obviously than its predecessor. The primary cast also went through a shakeup: Due to a brief personal beef, DJ Mustard, YG’s most frequent and notable compatriot, is nowhere to be found on the record. So instead of sparse, quick, black-and-white ratchet beats, we have booming, red-drenched, G-funk bops that take their time to unfurl like Broadway tunes. That extra room allows YG to stretch.

Now that the origin story is out of the way, the Compton rapper’s more concerned with the wherefore of being shot in the studio (“Who Shot Me?”), dealing with hangers-on (“Gimmie Got Shot”), and living a street life as a famous rapper (“Twist My Fingaz”)—then he gets down and dirty by ending the album with a trio of political songs promoting solidarity, condemning police violence, and proclaiming “Fuck Donald Trump.” There are some scattered ideas, ill-conceived song concepts (the regrettable “She Wish She Was”), and, due to a wider pool of producers and collaborators, fewer of the aesthetic restrictions that made My Krazy Life so potent. But don’t get it twisted: YG is serious about crafting AOR (Album-Oriented Rap), and he’s done it for two records in a row. This is a sequel worthy of the original. — MATTHEW RAMIREZ
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

38. Maxwell
black SUMMERS’ night 

A piano run here and a hi-hat there are all Maxwell needs to evoke desire, both ungratified and achieved. On his first album since 2009, the neo-soul avatar proves himself master of a terse R&B that has finally caught up to ambitions that his first couple of albums couldn’t support melodically. Shimmering pleas like “Gods” and “Lake by the Ocean” limn their title metaphors with precision and punch. Yet with Maxwell there’s a sense in which the beloved matters less than the valentines he writes: “You are the object I get lost in,” he coos on “Hostage,” admitting that concentration has made him moony. Celebrating his own prowess while pledging his troth on one knee, he’s a classic love man after all. — ALFRED SOTO
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

37. White Lung
Paradise 

Blood, milk, sewage, liquid gold: So forms the basis of White Lung’s grotesque alchemy on Paradise, a masterwork in paradox. Clocking in at 10 tracks and 28 minutes of martial bass-drum taps, sawtoothed bass lines, and snarling guitar leads, the LP’s as ephemeral and aggressive as any hardcore-punk album. And yet, between HEALTH board-whiz Lars Stalfors’s seamless production and the relentless onslaught of contagious choruses, it’s hard to deny the pop appeal of Mish Barber-Way & Co. White Lung’s sharp melodic instincts lead them to circle-pit bliss on Paradise, but it’s their illustrations of true love’s carnal, dirty reality—rich girls having babies with trailer trash on “Kiss Me When I Bleed,” newlyweds copulating like animals in the middle of the wilderness on the title track—that provides the greatest rush of all. — ZOE CAMP
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

36. The Avalanches
Wildflower

One of this year’s coolest uses of digital media was an illustrated New York article about a single piece of equipment at one NYC subway station and the ponderous pace of change at the MTA. If that article had a soundtrack, it might be the Avalanches’ “Subways,” a song about the sound of the ground moving beneath you, of gears turning and circuits firing. It’s fitting subject matter for a crew of collagists in nonstop motion, spinning a retro-futurist swirl of soul samples and psychedelic curiosities. The long-awaited Wildflower is full of moments of surprise and discovery—the off-kilter calypso stomp of “Frankie Sinatra,” an advertisement for “ethereal cereal” on “The Noisy Eater”—capable of making a mundane underground commute feel like an elaborate, sunbathed experiment. (The group even shot the charming video for “Because I’m Me” in New York’s subway system.) At just over an hour, Wildflower is a cross-town trip, but after a 16-year delay, we’re lucky to have it at all. — ANNA GACA
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

35. Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial 

Will Toledo isn’t as tortured as he sounds. A 24-year-old who doesn’t look like he’s of drinking age (the McLovin vibes are strong), he’s simply racing through his emotions, trying to figure shit out along the way. At least that’s how he sounds on Teens of Denial, his 13th(!!) album as Car Seat Headrest, and first in a real studio since signing to Matador Records. For his latest far-reaching indie-rock set, Toledo eschewed the DIY bedroom ethos of his previous material, going pro and recording Denial with a full band.

Sprawling and agitated, the record is built on typical sad-boy narratives—full of distressed self-loathing, alcohol-drenched rants, and slow-rising panic attacks. In years past, Toledo would’ve hidden his voice beneath layers of reverb, but here, the singer openly outlines his hysteria. Whether he’s lamenting his lost backpack or pondering that next glass of beer, Toledo makes the mundane sound brainy and cool. You wonder if he’s gonna make it to the next week (or, hell, even the next day), and just what type of shape he’ll be in if he does. A 70-minute epic, this record’s a beautiful mess from which you can’t look away, because the drama never really lets up. “I’m so sick of … fill in the blank,” Toledo declares at the top of Denial. Okay, maybe he is a little tortured. — MARCUS J. MOORE
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

34. dvsn
Sept. 5th 

This slow-jam renaissance that finds line blurring—between rapping and singing, between the avant and commercial, between tempos even (depending on how you count)—seems almost totally lost on OVO R&B duo dvsn. Their particular stamp on the form comes via minor eccentricities—a gospel choir here, an Elliott Smith interpolation there—that require close attention to properly appreciate. Producer Nineteen85’s approach is modern, but the focused sonic palette and unwavering devotion to making music to make babies to is classicist. Lest you find vocalist Daniel Daley’s perpetually lovesick ways old-fashioned, he has a knack for purely contemporary bluntness: “I can’t shake the feeling that I could make it better,” he sings of the state of his relationship on the title track, “if I could have sex with you.” His message is pragmatic, their sex music is utilitarian: R&B at its most efficient. — RICH JUZWIAK
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

33. Kamaiyah
A Good Night in the Ghetto 

On her debut mixtape, Kamaiyah is part scrappy comic relief—she falls asleep all wasted at the wheel like Layne from River’s Edge and fucks like Elaine from Seinfeld—and part rugged individual MC—she bemoans cancer like Young Thug, and obliquely speaks up for the 99 percent like Boots Riley. “How does it feel to be rich?” she wonders more than once, offering herself up as a proud heroine of the regular-ass. And this is all while handling the curves of counterfeit Cash Money 808 skitters like she’s B.G. and jumping up and down around “Axel F”-ish sounds like she’s Crazy Frog.

The 24-year-old boutique nostalgist also pines for the era of hip-hop that thrived when she was just a kid (like we all do), courting the cold characteristic throb of the West Coast in all its permutations, from Egyptian Lover on through to, say, Iamsu!, and then provides plainspoken feminism in response when it’s needed, which is often. See: “Niggas,” a tribute and corrective to Too $hort’s “Freaky Tales” that’s as unabashedly pro-fucking and funny as the original but also unravels rap’s slut-shaming double standards. Dogging the whole thing is closer “For My Dawg,” a quick dose of too-real talk about friends eaten up by disease and shot dead and all the little things that sit with you when somebody’s six feet under too soon. And it’s always too soon, isn’t it? — BRANDON SODERBERG
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

32. Parquet Courts
Human Performance 

With Parquet Courts, much like the HBO series High Maintenance, it’s less about what’s in the joints than why people spark them. Human Performance takes the late-night rooftop philosophy and emotional subtext of Andrew Savage and Austin Brown’s songwriting and brings it to the fore in all its tangled and self-reflexive glory. In maintaining a firm command of their sawdust post-punk vibe, the band charts a careful path through the warrens of love, homicide, and loneliness while living in the uncaring and very stupid borough of Brooklyn. (It’s almost like it’s a character in the movie!) Savage repeats the line, “I still remain: One man solitary and no city” as a bitter indictment on their way to figuring out what it means to be a human in 2016. — JEREMY D. LARSON
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

31. The Hotelier
Goodness 

Many of us are used to thinking of emo as a reactionary art form sourced from teenage heartbreak and ill-contained spite: Boy meets girl; girl breaks boy’s heart; boy gets back at girl by scribbling down an über-referential account of the relationship atop twinkling guitars. Painting a damaging portrait of one’s ex by way of screams and sniffles may hit the cathartic sweet spot—but glancing at all those burned bridges several years down the line, was the revenge really worth it?

To the Hotelier, the answer is no; and so, guided by the sonic playbook of angsty forebears like the Promise Ring and American Football, the Massachusetts band channels the turbulent spirit of their genre, that rejection-fueled rage—only to turn their backs on the bitterness and propose a world where breakups need not mark love’s end, but rather the beginning of a different phase in lifelong partnership, devoid of sex but no less lacking in concern or respect. Just like the nudists on the Goodness cover, the #posivibes mentality inherent in standouts like “Piano Player” and “You In This Light” implies an innocence as alien as it is unattainable, but in the Hotelier’s hands, infinite love—and uplifting emo—go from mythic concepts to vivid realities. — ZOE CAMP
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

30. Jenny Hval
Blood Bitch 

“We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge,” the documentarian Adam Curtis said in a 2014 interview about propaganda. “Because they can’t counter it with a coherent narrative of their own.” Jenny Hval excerpts that clip as the intro to her song “Untamed Region,” and while it’s jarring to hear a male voice interrupt her menstruation-themed album, no actual lyric sums up 2016 quite as neatly.

In the context of the track—which eventually returns to Hval’s bloody fantasies—Curtis’s speech feels like an oblique reference to the way patriarchy gaslights women. But its inclusion is ambiguous enough to illuminate all of the Norwegian avant-artist’s sixth album, Blood Bitch, situating our obsession with our own imperiled bodies within a wider world that’s going to shit. The anxiety that Hval taps into is a side effect of the terror and confusion of living with a dominant narrative that erases your experience. In two-and-a-half minutes that consists of pretty much nothing but heavy breathing, “In the Red” dares us to wonder whether we’re overhearing sex or violence. Writing about the disarmingly sweet, vulnerable single “Conceptual Romance,” Hval noted that “the strength of a song is its fragility.” Like the year we just survived, Blood Bitch is about female fear as much as female power. — JUDY BERMAN
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

29. Cymbals Eat Guitars
Pretty Years 

Four albums in, Cymbals Eat Guitars whittled their knotty guitar theatrics into straightforward beer rock, giving millennials raised on Springsteen something to fist pump along with. Jersey boy Joe D’Agostino always cited Titus Andronicus’s Patrick Stickles as an inspiration, and he similarly weaves sweeping mythology out of the minutiae of his life—getting snowed in during the blizzard of 2016, hanging out with indie-rock boy wonder Alex G. But Pretty Years isn’t just the working artist’s lament. These songs are suffused with cosmic beauty, the wild nothing of D’Agostino’s emotive guitar tone spiriting the band toward a higher plane. You hear it in the twinkling twilight of “Have a Heart,” the corrugated soloing on “Wish,” grandiosity revealed within the quotidian. “If this is infinite,” he sings, “the center is everything.” Jersey never sounded so close, and yet so far away. — JEREMY GORDON
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

28. Kaytranada
99.9% 

The gestation of new artists is such that it’s no longer remarkable for a debut album to arrive fully formed—after years of EPs and live sets and SoundCloud previews, why shouldn’t it? What is noteworthy is a debut, like Kaytranada’s 99.9%, that already sounds familiar. At times it might be too familiar; the sole flaw here—the 0.1%, as the Montreal producer would put it—is that 99.9% slips a bit too cleanly into the interzone of hip-hop, house, and R&B. But it’s never obvious. For every buzzy act you’d expect (like Anderson .Paak or Syd tha Kyd), or beloved comeback beneficiary (like Craig David), there’s a comparative newcomer like Phonte (on the Pharrell-ish “One Too Many”) or Shay Lia (on the late-night cut “Leave Me Alone”).

The outro of “Weight Off” is about one chord change away from bedroom-production cliché—in this case, an “Aquatic Ambience” remix—but doesn’t get there until after unfurling a couple of minutes of limber jazz, a showcase for BADBADNOTGOOD‘s drummers. The album’s as suited to clubs as solo listens, and either will reveal little moments: a sprawling synth-guitar solo following an already standout Vic Mensa track, the interlude in “Vivid Dreams” suspended beneath one high house synth. And unlike lesser producers’ LPs, the guests don’t steal it. The feature-less joints—the raucous “Breakdance Lesson N. 1” and jam-like “Lite Spots”—are among the highlights. That there’s room for growth here shouldn’t surprise; what’s impressive is that, judging by 99.9%‘s variety, that growth could potentially come from anywhere. — KATHERINE ST. ASAPH
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

27. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
Skeleton Tree 

“I spun on my wheel like a laboratory rat,” Nick Cave sings early into Skeleton Tree, the apocalyptic 16th studio album with his longtime band, the Bad Seeds. If the record’s sound and mood are any indication, it was slow going. Aside from Cave’s familiar voice, the music is sparse, barely there. The only time the tempo quickens past a crawl, on the fitful “Anthrocene,” you wonder whether it’s being played for ironic effect: a looped, sprightly clave pattern is filtered to sound like it’s coming from an old radio, then quickly fades out, replaced by wandering drumming.

On that song, Cave seems to be mourning the gradual loss of Earth itself; its title comes from a proposed name for our current geological epoch, characterized by the deteriorative effect of human life and industry on global ecology. Elsewhere, it’s hard not to hear the reverberations from the loss of Cave’s son Arthur, who fell from a cliff and died at age 15 during early Skeleton Tree sessions. For Cave, it must have felt something like the end of the world. At times, as on “Rings of Saturn,” he is a fountain of vivid and beautiful imagery: “Her eyes that look at me through her rainy hair / Two round holes where the air buckles and rushes in.” On “I Need You,” he’s the lab rat on the wheel, cycling through a set of fixed fragments: a red dress, a supermarket aisle, the cold realization that “nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.” — ANDY CUSH
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

26. ScHoolboy Q
Blank Face LP

The 72-minute Blank Face LP is woven with the same dense, blues-coated fabric that distinguished To Pimp a Butterfly. But ScHoolboy Q doesn’t concern himself with matching Kendrick Lamar’s historical scope. Blank Faces strength lies in how it fuses its ambitions to compelling gangland narratives, proving once again that Q is one of hip-hop’s most underrated griots. 

Blank Face highlights a charismatic street survivor and boasts production that’s easily among the year’s best—the doomsday brass on the Vince Staples-assisted “Ride Out” and the stardusted catharsis of “Black THougHts,” for starters. Q’s signature mix of everyman black comedy and felt trauma is delivered with the acidity that was missing from his radio-chasing third effort, 2014’s Oxymoron. The pew-pew’ing character sketch of “Groovy Tony / Eddie Kang” balances maudlin taunts (“Young Groovy turn your hood into a movie”) with an undeniable swagger. “JoHn Muir” is soul music fit for breaking jaws. These multiplicities are given proper context in the album-closing “Tookie Knows II,” a bleak look at the hood-to-prison pipeline that’s marked Q’s existence. “We might die for this shit,” the Top Dawg soldier claims in his nasally growl. It’s a reminder that Blank Face’s fatalism is based off of real stakes. — BRIAN JOSEPHS
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The 50 Best Albums of 2016

25. Nicolas Jaar
Sirens 

Nicolas Jaar has been the reluctant young king of American electronic music ever since his 2011 debut elevated him from Wolf+Lamb loft parties to festival stages. Rather than follow it up directly, he went off the grid, beatwise. There was the noir-rock of his Darkside duo with guitarist Dave Harrington, the amorphous Nymphs singles, an imaginary soundtrack for the 1969 Soviet film Pomegranates, and a real soundtrack for Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or-winning 2015 film, Dheepan.

But for every new direction he struck out on, his sound matured. His long-awaited second solo album, Sirens, found him focusing his vision while also taking every detour available. So there’s eerie ambience, doo-wop, Alice Coltrane’s constant elevation, Suicide’s monolithic throb, bits of childhood dialogues with his father, and even a slinking reggaeton beat. Yet Jaar makes it all coherent. Part of Sirens’ blare is the history of protest, both in the Chile of his childhood, under the shadow of the junta, and in the present moment in his adopted home of America. Facing a similarly totalitarian future, Sirens has become eerily more prescient. — ANDY BETA
LISTEN: Spotify | Apple Music

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

24. Anderson .Paak
Malibu

For many, Dr. Dre’s Compton served as a passing introduction to promising singer-songwriter, producer, and rapper Anderson .Paak. Weaving through Dre’s verses on “All in a Day’s Work” and offering potent hooks on “Animals,” .Paak brought apt, no-bullshit responses to the rampant police brutality and violence in southern California. He doesn’t shy away from these topics on his uplifting sophomore LP, but backed by silvery synths, plinking piano chords, and glassy group vocals, his lyrics are far more personal.

The 30-year-old Oxnard, California native is a dextrous protagonist, nimbly painting scenes from his troublesome past with surprisingly warm colors. His upbringing wasn’t easy—both parents spent time in prison and his father was abusive—but he chooses optimism over bitterness, adopting bright musicality over moody blues. Across Malibu‘s landscape, he bounces between pillowy jazz flourishes, gospel-choir harmonies, and contemporary, club-ready rhythms. Dre’s inexhaustible protege can summon the spirit of classic soul and R&B—see the lush, swooshing tones of “Put Me Thru”—but he speaks to modern romance as well, lamenting trivial social media anxiety on “Without You.” Malibu offers Anderson .Paak the sort of spotlight he really deserves—it’s his proper introduction. — TESS DUNCAN
LISTEN: Spotify | Apple Music

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

23. Joyce Manor
Cody

Joyce Manor found a map triangulating teenage angst and quarter-life crises, then followed it to the X under the smokers’ huddle outside the local dive. Their “Fake I.D.” tells you everything you need to know about these scrappy sad-sacks: There’s a sarcastic introduction to a main character; a Kanye West joke worthy of its own cultural analysis; the strangely evocative appeal of the phrase “breaking my heart going window shopping”; a quick pivot to honor a dead friend. As for the rest of Cody, the riffs are tight but not brittle, and the production’s just grubby enough—almost every track kicks off with pent-up “in case of emergency, break glass” energy. It’s an emotional boilermaker served with a shot of bleak-as-hell: Even these California boys’ funniest lines (“I’m 26 and I still live with my parents / Oh, I can’t do laundry / Christ, I can’t do dishes”) are born from all-consuming self-deprecation and existential terror. And in a year when a lot of the best albums were too long, Joyce Manor tear it all down in 24 minutes to boot. — ANNA GACA
LISTEN: Spotify | Apple Music

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

22. Kevin Gates
Islah 

Kevin Gates‘s Islah was a long time coming, from an artist who first bubbled up from Baton Rouge in the late ‘00s. A prison stay sidelined his career briefly, and upon release he signed to Atlantic Records and began a long, steady process of building up a national following with a series of cross-country tours, and a traditional industry dose of artist development. The result: Islah is a platinum-selling rap album in an era when you can count those on one hand. Of course, this process-oriented explanation understates the artistic reasons he connected with so many fans.

Songs like “2 Phones,” “Really Really,” and “Time For That” were massive victories of songwriting craftsmanship. On cuts like “Jam” and “Pride,” as he has throughout his career, Gates showed an interest in speaking to his female fans without condescending, a rare approach for male artists in any genre. His willingness to bare his soul suggests a blues lineage, but an ear for poetic turns of phrase balances that raw expressiveness with an artful unpredictability. He’s an undeniably divisive personality, one whose flaws are scattered across TMZ headlines and in his music alike—but thus far it appears to only draw his expanding fanbase further in. His willingness to go out on a ledge—the country sound and unexpected chorus found on “Hard For” are most notable—proves that despite the mainstreaming process, Islah was built on the foundation of Kevin Gates’s genius. — DAVID DRAKE
LISTEN: Spotify | Apple Music

The 50 Best Albums of 2016

21. KING
We Are KING 

For those who remembered (for five years) to wait with bated breath, this year’s We are KING was everything fans of the R&B trio’s 2011 EP had hoped it might be. Its songs are anchored by detailed, shimmering future-funk grooves—logical, considering that the Los Angeles-based Strother twins were reared in Minneapolis, born in the era of their future mentor and cheerleader, Prince. Every number is odd, but inevitably magnetic; forget those stale “bedroom” identifiers, KING prefer “LSD R&B.” The group, rounded out by third member Anita Bias, layers their disparate reference points on top of one another: They dial in serrated synths that sound more suited to the Knife than Sade, and their tricky chording feels repurposed from old jazz-fusion charts, pivoting gracefully away from easy resolution.

Breathy vocal harmonies in every refrain crescendo like waves cresting slowly near the shore, paired with satisfying platitudes: “We plan our escape,” “Close to mine,” “Till I have your heart,” and so on. This is corporeally effective, hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck type of stuff: stylish but deeply rooted in full-bodied soul music. Most importantly—and without drawing too much attention to the fact—it is truly singular. Like their fallen idol Ali, to whom they pay tribute on “The Greatest,” KING made a bold play for consideration among the best and most innovative in their genre this year, crafting a formidable debut album that is worthy of their name. — WINSTON COOK-WILSON
LISTEN: Spotify |