It’s hard to believe that 2016 is already half over, yet the calendar stubbornly remains where it is. It’s almost an understatement to say that this has been a challenging year so far, and as ever in the midst of darkness, music remains one of the only things I can reliably return to as a source of comfort. Amid all the chaos of the election season, attacks of terrorism on our LGBT community, horrific reduction of abortion rights and other legislation that seeks to limit the behavior of women in this country, we can seek rejoinder in music that is remarkably radical, inventive, and life-giving. Music is not necessarily a solution, but it is sure as hell a balm for the ways the world wounds us as we go about our daily lives. Here are the albums that have burned the brightest and most hopeful in a troubling year.
25. Jessy Lanza — Oh No
On Oh No Jessy Lanza is injecting some much-needed softness into the electronic music scene. With her cooing voice and glittering production, Lanza pitches curveballs like “I Talk BB” to an audience who are eager to hear from a voice that speaks their language, she does fearless vocal twirls, employing vocal fry like a little girl pirouetting in front of a mirror. Oh No is the Canadian singer/producer’s second album, and cements her as a necessary fixture in the electronic music world. These songs float by on wonderful, dark melodies stippled with her ever-present starlit voice.
24. Brothers Osborne — Pawn Shop
Yes, they are really brothers, and perhaps that kinship is part of what fuels the incredible synergy between John and TJ Osborne on their clever country debut album Pawn Shop. The album tips its hat to the small town, working class people who still make up the bulk of this country. The sweet rocking groove of “Rum” and head-over-heels strummer “Stay A Little Longer” won them attention from the radio circuit, but deep cuts like the redemptive “Loving Me Back” will floor longtime fans and first time listeners alike.
23. James Blake — The Colour In Anything
In a year already tarnished with pain, James Blake did the world a solid and turned his heart inside out so we can all crawl inside his heartache for some respite from our own. On his third full-length album Blake’s ghost-pop balladry is more explicitly about rejection than ever, he mourns romantic loss (“Noise Above Our Heads,” “The Colour In Anything) and tussles with the digital layer of intimacy (“Radio Silence,” “Put That Away And Talk To Me”). Two of the albums highest points are Blake’s vivid collaborations with Bon Iver–“I Need Forest Fire” and “Meet You In The Maze”–each a searing, vocal effect-laden song of hope that dreams a relationship’s future will appear somehow in a blaze of redemption. Yet, neither of these can surpass the album’s true zenith, “Love Me In Whatever Way,” a murky, twisted bleat that makes wallowing in the shallowest puddle of love sound like a beautiful act. Only Blake could make crumbs from your lover’s table seem a feast, and The Colour In Anything is enough to sustain even the hungriest heart.
22. Julianna Barwick — Will
Julianna Barwick makes songs like watercolors. The songs on Will, her fourth album, are mesmerizing impressions filled with as much negative space as clear, solid lines. These smudged, looping melodies well up, bloom, and wilt in impossible bursts, like flowers sped up in time-lapsed photography. Barwick has managed to create an album that feels like part of the natural world itself full of songs that are as unknowable as the blue sky and as unpredictable as a passing storm. Wordless, winding and elegant, Will stretches out like a beach, it unfurls like a flag, it ripples like a pond. This is saltwater chamber pop on an angel’s turntable, let it lead you inward toward your own eternity.
21. Kaytranada — 99.9%
Electronic music has a long, rich history, but as it begins to finally enter the mainstream consciousness and fuse with pop music, some of the genre’s stars have been (often rightly) maligned. EDM as a blanket term can also be limiting–that is not at all what Kaytranada does. Instead, the Haitian-born, Montreal-based producer incorporates influences and rhythms from his island origins, along with funk, R&B, soul, footwork and beats. The result is an album that is rubbery and golden, packed with itchy house beats and plenty of collaborators from the hip-hop and pop world. Soon, it seems there will only by 0.01% of pop music that isn’t influenced by Kaytranada’s all-encompassing electronic style.
20. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
There is no one who shifted the conversation around country music more in the last couple years than Sturgill Simpson. For non-believers, he revealed a genre at its best, and for those of us who already love the stuff, he exemplified a particular strain of rebellion that is part of what makes country music so beloved. Trouble is, that same rebellion led Simpson to buck the mantle of savior that critics would bestow on him, so the follow-up to his lightning rod of an album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music included unlikely tracks like a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and a spectacularly earnest (if years-old) ode to his wife, “Oh Sarah.” The album is a concept record of sorts that Simpson dedicated to his son, and it’s laced with brass and funk flourishes sidled right up next to country melodies. Nothing about this record is “cool,” and that’s exactly why it’s fucking awesome.
19. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Sometimes I find myself thinking that an artist as talented, expansive and soulful as Anderson .Paak comes along ever so rarely, but others, I worry about how many other gems like .Paak remain woefully undiscovered by the masses. After several releases under another name, eventually Anderson got a toehold in the industry with several tracks on Dr. Dre’s Compton. He turned that toehold into his own sprawling mansion on the hillside–Malibu is a feat of soul, R&B, rap, gospel and funk that will probably remain unparalleled for years to come. His influences and precursors are clear, Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar come to mind the quickest, but Paak’s taken both the twisted-up voices and gleeful funk sampling in his own direction–down toward the water. Let us drink.
18. Kamaiyah — A Good Night In The Ghetto
A Good Night In The Ghetto is one of the most exciting mixtapes to come out in 2016, if not the most exciting. Kamaiyah is a 20-year-old rapper out of Oakland who nods to ’90s R&B/rap legends like Missy Elliott and draws heavily on west coast funk, but nothing about A Good Night In The Ghetto feels throwback or recycled. Instead, she pushes these influences toward their logical ends, melding her self-righteous braggadocio with modern beats and guests like YG–her most logical peer. While New York lags behind in the rap game, it looks like California is not going to let the sounds of Atlanta completely dominate this thing anymore.
17. The Hotelier — Goodness
Styles of music come in and out of fashion, and while the term “emo” and its supposed, subsequent or current revival has been beaten to death, the clamor that The Hotelier’s new album Goodness has met with seems like a further clue that the wonderful whine of New England’s punky strain of rock is back with a vengeance. Goodness is a warm blaze of guitar rock sing-a-longs, uplifting without a hint of saccharine, angry without the distraction of malice. “Soft Animal” is a standout–when Christian Holden shout-screams “Make me feel alive!” I can feel my own heart leap in response. By yearning after a reason to exist, he’s also given us one. What could possibly be more emo(tional) than that?
16. YG — Still Brazy
After teasing a follow up to his excellent major label debut My Krazy Life with the G-funk summer anthem “Twist My Fingaz” last year, YG has finally made good on a new album, and Still Brazy was well worth the wait. YG–who first had a hit with “Toot It And Boot It” back in 2010– has been through the ringer over the course of his career. He served jail time before Still Krazy was released, and then last summer was shot and hospitalized. All these experiences inform the paranoid funk, anger, and introspection of Still Brazy, plus it ends with the chilling mic drop “Police Get Away wit Murder,” a song that confronts the targeted violence against black men that routinely occurs in America.
15. Charles Kelley — The Driver
Lady Antebellum have been a reigning force in the country world for nearly a decade now, so no one could begrudge Charles Kelley for taking a bit of time to himself for a solo record. Though it is Kelley’s project, The Driver is by no means lacking in guests–Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay show up by the time the second track rolls around, Miranda Lambert and even Stevie Nicks (!) make appearances here. The duet that features Lambert, “I Wish You Were Here,” is the album’s standout track; a longing and lingering road song about missing a beloved bed and body at home, it lilts and hums silvery with absence. But The Driver is only nine songs long, and every song feels essential, necessary even. “Lonely Girl” is a soundtrack that functions as a stand-in, soothing while it serenades a solitary girl over a jumpy guitar line, “Dancing Around It” nudges sexual tension onto the dancefloor, resting easy on a backbeat and the inevitability of a drunken hookup. Kelley’s finest moment comes at the album’s end on “Leaving Nashville,” an ode to a city that makes or breaks songwriters with blind luck. In Kelley’s case, luck has little to do with it–this album would’ve turned heads even if he was an unknown.
14. David Bowie — Blackstar
There is very little that words can do to alleviate our collective grief over the loss of a man who impacted music so deeply. He never sold us any bunk or bullshit, he always offered his spirit and soul with unflinching honesty and empathy. It seems there are few people left like that in the world, let alone world class musicians. But Bowie was an instrument of desire, and his dying wish was to leave us with one last collection of songs. Blackstar carries the weight of this wish with grace, veering into experimental jazz, unpolished funk and the odd electronic flourishes that helped define his signature sound. The album’s eerie, nearly ten minute title track alone catapults this album to upper echelons of music released in 2016.
13. Wye Oak — Tween
Only a band like Wye Oak could gather together their odds and ends over the last couple of years and still gives us one of the best albums of the year. Cutely titled Tween the Baltimore duo’s fifth album is a collection of songs that were just that, in between albums or left on cutting room floors between 2011’s Civilian and 2014’s Shriek. Yet, listening to the eight songs presented here, it’s easy to understand why the band wanted to release them; they’re urgent and shimmering and muscular, post-rock aimless dream pop that’s bursting with potential. “No Dreaming” might be my favorite song of the year so far, it’s got slow grooving verses that shift up into hyperspeed without any warning on the cosmic, wobbly chorus. It is the prickly feeling of a chill down your spine in song form, a track that effortlessly captures the through-the-looking-glass feeling between childhood and adulthood.
12. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
Once you’ve achieved the kind of fame and canonical impact that Radiohead has, there’s usually a long downward tailspin that ends in embarrassing, washed up collaborations or greatest hits flops. But Thom Yorke and co. had no interest in becoming the butt of anyone’s joke–except, perhaps their now abandoned battle against Spotify in the streaming wars–and A Moon Shaped Pool is one of the best albums the band has ever released. To be putting out music that is on par with the finest entries in your discography is all that a band of this caliber could wish for, and the inclusion of long-beloved fan favorite “True Love Waits” was the cherry on top.
11. Pup — The Dream Is Over
Oh man, you’ve gotta love a rock album that opens with a tongue-in-cheek band-mate-related death threat. “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” is the perfect introduction to the Toronto four piece’s particular brand of pop punk. PUP’s The Dream Is Over is full of this unrelenting fatalism and , balanced out by hooky and happy melodies, scream-sung choruses and drums kept so high up in the mix that the percussion practically become a second frontman. Which is all to say, it sounds like that dream is alive kicking after all.
10. Eddi Front — Marina
There are very few artists in my life that I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard them. Eddi Front is one. In the fall of 2012 I’d lived in Brooklyn for just over a year, and finally landed a job as a music writer; I was beginning to piece my life together here. The reason I moved to New York was largely spurred by a rupture in my brother’s life–he was getting divorced from his high school sweetheart and I wanted to be around to help support him through that. The loss of that relationship was felt deeply by my entire family, and listening to the lyrics on one of her very first songs “Gigantic”–“This divorce is gigantic / and I’ve always been slow / to get off of some drugs / to let go of some loves”–let loose a torrent of grief that I’d been keeping tightly coiled in my chest. That’s only one story that encapsulates the evocative power of Ivana Carrescia’s songwriting,and most people who have spent any time with her long-awaited album Marina can pinpoint a similar moment. Carrescia writes about pain with an unflinching power, pouring her heart into spare, barren lyrics that pierce without poisoning. She self-released Marina, so at this point these songs are fairly old to the songwriter herself. Now, she’s moved past Eddi Front and begun working on a new project called Gioia, but don’t let her prolific nature stop you from spending time with the songs of her past. They’re beyond worth it, blacklit glamour-folk from a tough and tender singer.
9. Open Mike Eagle — Hella Personal Film Festival
Open Mike Eagle has been grinding away in the rap game for years now, but Hella Personal Film Festival is so excellent that I predict he’s about to be a household name. The record is a collaboration with producer Paul White, and it addresses everything from racism to technology addiction to the broke lifestyle with finesse and humor. There is no one who raps with the ease and conversational style that Mike has perfected, injecting every annoyance and frustration of modern life with a wry wisdom and self-deprecation.
8. Brandy Clark — Big Day In A Small Town
Brandy Clark was a Nashville tried and true songwriter before she finally bit the bullet and began a solo career of her own. One of the few openly out lesbians in a section of the country that’s not exactly known for its tolerance of the LGBT community, Clark fearlessly strode into the very limited space country music already makes for women and busted the scene right open. Her 2013 debut 12 Stories was far and away one of the best albums of the year, and Big Day In A Small Town is somehow even better. The vignettes contained here, “Soap Opera,” “Girl Next Door,” “Three Kids No Husband” portray the plight and pleasures of working class women in America with more empathy and canny detail than these characters are ever given. Clark is a masterful songwriter who renders even the pain of her subjects with such a loving hand that her compassion eclipses their tragedy, drawing the essential, universal stories of love, loss, and resolution out of every song. If there’s any justice in the world, tese small town tales will do big things for Clark’s career–she’s one of the most talented artists currently working in Music City.
7. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial
I can’t even remember the last time I cared this much about what a white dude had to say, let alone felt so fully connected to the once magnificent lineage of indie rock. Will Toledo came up about as independently as a musician can these days, releasing his own bedroom recorded albums straight to Bandcamp and quietly building a devoted fanbase way before Matador Records or established music critics took notice. Surely that self-sufficiency has fueled the undeniable success of his official major label offering Teens Of Denial, a collection of bellowed and tenderly whispered angsty rock songs that wail against the emptiness and existentialism we all learn to live with. Toledo has no interest in learning that kind of complacency, and in his rebellion, we’ve all found a rekindling of our inner unrelenting teen. It sure doesn’t hurt that these glimmering, multi-layered tracks expertly condense and weave the history of the last three decades into one concise, fluid rock ethos. Turns out that rock doesn’t have to be boring, it’s just most of the people making it lately are. Will Toledo is anything but, and odds are he only keeps speeding up from here. Get onboard before the moment passes you by.
6. Kanye West — The Life Of Pablo
No matter how off-the-wall or distracted by his fashion line Kanye West gets, he remains one of the most talented producers of our era. He can mastermind a twisted gospel fantasy out of what sometimes feels like thin air, dropping the lullaby posse track “Ultralight Beam” in our laps with a celebrity-stuffed arena sendoff, then keeping the thing off the radio by releasing The Life Of Pablo exclusively to Tidal. He continues to tinker with this mythic never-finished album, changing the way we think about what an album release really means in a time when most people have laptops, and half of them have Ableton on them, too. From the shimmer of “Waves” to the Arthur Russell-indebted “30 Hours,” Pablo continues to unfold the longer it is out in the world–and that “Famous” clinker about fucking Taylor Swift hangs heavy while we wait for the other shoe to drop. If there’s one thing that girl can match Ye on, it’s her ability to respond publicly via music. This might be the greatest pop star feud we’ll ever see, and when you really think about it, that’s just something else Kanye blundered/masterminded into existence.
5. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
The ode to joy that is Coloring Book, Chance The Rapper’s latest major statement as a solo artist, seems to grow louder with every subsequent play. Here is Chancelor Bennett squawking and stomping and reminiscing about his childhood, speculating about his daughter, giving thanks that he kicked a drug habit, and crowing about getting to work with his idol. Here is Chance The Rapper incorporating a gospel song he grew up on right alongside a track that features two of the most left-of-center rappers in the game right now–not to mention yet another that features a legend like Lil Wayne and an oddball genius like 2 Chainz. And here he is, scribbling his hopeful, defiant ethos not just outside the lines, but all over the world. If you can’t pick up a crayon, then at least get out of the way. There is no room for hate in Chance’s bigger picture.
4. Rihanna — Anti
So much good music has already come out in 2016 that sometimes I almost forget we got a new Rihanna album this year–finally! Only the sheer number of releases could make me forget Anti for even one second, as it is a lush and expansive collection of Rihanna’s best impulses. Fiery, self-assured and smokier than ever, all the distracting pop trappings have been stripped away so her throaty, emotive voice can take the spotlight, drunk-dialing like a ’20s film noir star on “Higher,” delivering timeless romantic balladry on “Love On The Brain,” and turning a song into a sext on “Yeah, I Said It.” She co-wrote every number here, still teasing us with her ability to eclipse everyone else by turning Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes” into a straight-up spiritual experience and praising her own sexual prowess instead of a partner’s on “Sex With Me.” Anti feels like the closest we’ll ever get to the real Rihanna, and still she eludes us. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, and neither would she.
3. Maren Morris — Hero
Every once in a while and artist comes along who feels like they have the potential to shake up an entire genre. If there is a genre that needs shaking it is country music, and if there is a woman equipped to pull some walls down, it’s Maren Morris. Women in country have been facing a wall of sexism when it comes to radioplay over the last ten years, and in country, radioplay is the difference between putting out a record or not. So the success of Morris’ ode to driving with the windows down and country radio blasting, “My Church,” was another battle won in a war that felt unwinnable. That’s part of why her debut album’s title Hero seems so fitting, every song here is fearless and feminine, from the heady love-rush of “Sugar” to the phoenix-from-the-ashes triumph of “Second Wind.” There is some talent so undeniable that it renders old statistics and barriers irrelevant–that’s Maren Morris.
2. Beyonce — Lemonade
The way this album centers the experience black women, one of the most disenfranchised groups in America, makes Lemonade one of the most necessary releases in 2016. It would have been easy for Beyonce to put together a stellar pop album that skimmed across the surface of American culture–instead, she dove right into the sticky, tangled issues of black political identity (“Formation”) infidelity (“Pray You Catch Me”), heartbreak, anger (“Sorry”) grief, forgiveness and restoration. If most pop stars tried this kind of concept album, they’d end up embarrassing both themselves and their family. Instead, Beyonce sparked a worldwide backlash against her husband Jay Z–even if the album is completely fictional–a feat of celebrity genius that future generations will probably study in textbooks. Like on her 2013 self-titled album, Beyonce assembled a team of some of the best and brightest musical minds to create a work that is still deeply personal, forever putting to rest the idea that a song need have only one author or player to be a brilliant work of art. And let’s face it–whole armies working together still couldn’t achieve this kind of beautifully stunning, powerful pop music if Bey herself wasn’t involved. There’s no point in getting into formation without the general.
1. Mitski — Puberty 2