25. Phantogram - Three
Grief was a theme across a large minority of the albums on my list this year. Unlike the others exploring similar sentiments, Phantogram’s Three didn’t dig into the depths of grief but instead allowed the experience of frontwoman Barthel’s sister’s suicide to color and inform the productions of other songs. The result is an album of Phantogram’s reliable electro indie pop, with songs like the rap-inflected stomper “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”, the churning thump-rock of “You’re Mine” and the colossal guitar ride of “Same Old Blues” taking on an additional urgency and fury in light of the idea that life is short and minds are twisted. Only “Barking Dog”, told from the point of view of Barthel’s sister, directly addresses death, but each exquisitely-crafted track serves both as a well-made piece of pop music and a token of memory to someone who is clearly deeply missed.
Download: “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”, “Same Old Blues”, “Barking Dog”
24. Johanna Warren - Gemini I
Johanna Warren’s music exudes a gentleness very few singer-songwriters are capable of reaching, a sort of humane understanding that comes not from the shimmery acoustic guitars or prematurely-aged coo of the vocalist but exists in parallel to it. On this folk collection - part one of a pair - Warren navigates the contradictions and complexity of living with mental illness and with the mentally ill, of navigating the razor wire between showing love and taking care of one’s own boundaries. “Was the strain of my sadness too great?” she sighs to a family member on “Let Me Stay”, while on “There is a Light” she assures a loved one that she acknowledges the weight of their own struggle. Warren’s album shows that looking inwards doesn’t have to mean excluding others, and that kindness is incomplete when it isn’t employed in one’s own service as well.
Download: “Hungry Ghost”, “White Owl”, “Let Me Stay”
23. Lori McKenna - The Bird & the Rifle
The greatest responsibility of a country singer is to treat her subjects kindly. Even songs about burying some lead in your man have to create a convincing pathos of love gone sour or expectations thwarted. Lori McKenna doesn’t tell any dead men’s tales on this record, but she has that power to wring out a bewitching story in sparse Americana imagery through her lyrics. The details are what makes her gentle songs ache: getting dressed in the dark so you don’t wake up your boyfriend, the sadness of having to hitch a ride home without your lover making sure you got home safe, watching all your friends go to college while you nurse a baby, all doled out in spoonfuls of folk wisdom and sincerity.
Download: “The Bird & the Rifle”, “Wreck You”, “Old Men Young Women”
22. Emma Ruth Rundle - Marked for Death
Emma Ruth Rundle’s sophomore album is like a storm: heavy, volatile, atmospheric, oppressive. Over eight tracks Rundle navigates avalanches of guitars and drums reminiscent of being stoned to death with gothic, stoic power. Rundle rarely has to lift her voice to sound like she’s holding all the fury and power of a metal band in her throat, and the album punishes and guts with fatalism and murk. When the clouds finally clear for the simple and aching “Real Big Sky”, there’s no relief, but there is catharsis - even as another storm brews on the horizon.
Download: “Heaven”, “So Come”, “Real Big Sky”
21. Pity Sex - White Hot Moon
Pity Sex’s sophomore - and likely final - album treads similar ground to their excellent 2013 Feast of Love: strong melodies, fuzzed-out guitars, disaffected millennial lyrics that felt numb, mournful and peaceful all at once. “More of the same” is a good thing when you have a winning formula; Pity Sex stretched their legs a little, abstracted their lyrics more, had more duets, delved deeper into the emotions that they were previously muting with drugs and sex and leaned in to their ability to create and sustain momentum (listen to how Britty Drake explodes into the song at “baby…” on “What Might Soothe You”, or how natural the introduction to “Bonhomie” feels). In a strange way, White Hot Moon casts a light back on Feast of Love, as if the emotional thaw of this record makes heavier all the emotions they were escaping three years ago.
Download: “Plum”, “What Might Soothe You”, “Bonhomie”
20. Margo Price - Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter
Country music can be done pretty well by classicists. Margo Price’s debut album doesn’t break any new ground for the genre, but instead delivers on the heartache, barn-burning and storytelling that immortalizes it. Price, herself a bereaved mother, struggling artist and formerly incarcerated woman, wrings out all the woe those steel guitars can invoke with wry, cigarette-snuffing humor and earnestness. Tracks like “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” and “Since You Put Me Down” not only sound like they could have been recorded in the 1970’s, but also make you believe that they would have survived the test of time.
Download: “Hands of Time”, “This Town Gets Around”, “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”
19. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
There are a few moments in music where digitally editing music somehow makes it sound more authentic; Bon Iver manages to stuff about forty into a single record. Bon Iver distorts and corrupts vocals and instruments to expose the brokenness of their sentiments and take the indie white male acoustic genre to a new level of performative vulnerability, as if mocking himself and human limitations in conveying heartache, fear, anxiety. His abstract lyrics hover in hyper-intellectualism and obscure allusion until landing, like drone bombs, on emotional truths too plainspoken and simple to be denied. The result is a fascinating and gutting series of folk songs which push the boundaries of where music production could go next.
Download: “29 #Strafford APTS”, “22 (Over Soon)”, “33 GOD”
18. Solange - A Seat at the Table
Beyoncé’s Lemonade may be the album that defined this year (more on that later), but Solange’s was the album we needed. Solange’s record is a meditative, honest, multigenerational take on being a black woman in America, assaulted psychologically by racism and otherness and the weight of the tragedies the black community has to bear. It’s beautiful, gentle but not sugarcoated; Solange is deeply humane not only towards others but towards herself, acknowledging her efforts to save herself from hopelessness as if she were addressing an old friend, bringing in her family members to explain where she can’t in her own words. It’s a document of its time, but also one that musically will endure, with feather-light R&B production that is current without dating itself and snatches of melodies that fall onto the listener like fresh snow.
Download: “Cranes in the Sky”, “Don’t Touch My Hair”, “Don’t You Wait”
17. serpentwithfeet - blisters
serpentwithfeet’s EP is one of the most inventive and genre-defying releases of the year. Collaborating with Haxan Cloak (who also worked on Björk’s Vulnicura) to create dense, dramatic walls of atmosphere - thrums so heavy you can feel humidity on your skin, stirrings subtle enough to raise the hair on your neck - serpentwithfeet uses their gospel-tinged voice to pull the most intimate secrets of gender and depression into the light of faith. It’s raw, it’s inventive, it’s courageous, and it’s absolutely exquisitely created.
Download: “four ethers”, “penance”
16. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree is possibly the most devastatingly raw album I’ve ever listened to. Most of the songs were written before the death of Cave’s teenage son, but the recording was done afterwards, and the lyrics are littered with ad-libs that reflect the indescribable agony Cave’s undergoing. The songs are foreboding and ugly, mired in blood and syringes in cruel juxtaposition with lyrics about supermarkets and angels. “I Need You” sounds like a performance from a jam band made of ghosts and skeletons, wracked with enough pain that even to listen to it elicits a cringe. The album reckons with the most horrifying realization of grief: that the only thing that could cure that pain is never going to happen, and that the only thing that could even soothe the hurt, time, is entirely out of our control.
Download: “I Need You”, “Magneto”, “Girl in Amber”
15. Azealia Banks - Slay-Z
I hate to give Azealia Banks attention, but her talent is undeniable. Slay-Z is a mixtape of party jams and diss tracks, and Banks gleefully wrecks herself and the competition against huge Euro-style beats (reminiscent of Dance Dance Revolution and the good old days of 2002) and with sassy, dexterous flows. It’s the sound of Azealia having fun, and it’s infectious. If “Skylar Diggins” doesn’t make you want to throw down and “Used to Being Alone” doesn’t make you jump around, there’s nothing I can do for you.
Download: “Can’t Do It Like Me”, “Queen of Clubs”, “Used to Being Alone”
14. Gallant - Ology
Gallant’s debut album is an elegant and stately R&B record that draws on the best virtues of the genre with modern flair. With an impossible-ranged and smooth voice, Gallant treats his songs like playgrounds, easily molding his tone around slick melodies or staggering chants with pop sensibility. The impressionistic lyrics (“I’m a headless horseman on quilted sand dunes/with my neck wide open I pray for refuge” he sings on lead single “Bourbon”) and polished production lend this album both depth and glamor.
Download: “Bourbon”, “Episode”, “Bone + Tissue”
13. Carly Rae Jepsen - E.MO.TION Side B
In a year where pop music was mired in ambivalent, sluggish mid-tempo disillusionment, Carly Rae Jepsen’s collection of b-sides was a much-needed shot of adrenalin. Though cast-offs from Jepsen’s excellent E.MO.TION, any of the Side B tracks could have cozily nestled into that record of should-be hits. The pre-chorus of “Fever” is a huge defiant statement, “First Time” is a giddy sugar rush, and “Cry” is possibly the most polished indictment of emotional withholding ever put to record. Another solid collection of pop tracks.
Download: “Cry”, “Roses”
12. Rihanna - ANTI
During Rihanna’s long hiatus, she made an album. She didn’t make a collection of banger singles, but an album. And thank God for that, because it is pretty excellent, distilling Rihanna’s personality into magic. ANTI captures her “don’t give a fuck” high queen persona, her drugged-out moodiness, her aching vulnerability, and crafts it into a story of a woman who can never cut out enough of her emotions to be fully hollowed. The melodies aren’t bangers, but instead slip into your subconscious and simmer there. Her voice drapes each syllable with potency. If this is the track Rihanna takes from now on, the world of pop will be a little bit darker and a whole lot smarter.
Download: “Higher”, “Desperado”, “Needed Me”
11. Japanese Breakfast - Psychopomp
“Do you believe in heaven like you believed in me?” Michelle Zauner cries on the opening to Psychopomp, “In Heaven”. It’s a pretty gutting sentiment to open an album addressing her mother’s death from cancer - but despite how deftly Zauner handles that topic, she doesn’t linger on it, only revisiting occasionally between forays into sexuality and body image. Guitars sparkle and flitter around her like wild birds, her voice careens like it’s about to go off the rails, and songs like “Everybody Wants to Love You” turn the lo-fi production into a panorama of giddiness. Every emotion Zauner feels is not extreme, but pure, and she harnesses her instruments and lyrics in the perfect way to convey them.
Download: “Everybody Wants to Love You”, “In Heaven”, “Triple 7”
10. White Lung - Paradise
White Lung’s newest record is a killing machine, churning through songs and shredding them with wild guitars, Mish Way’s howling Hole-like vocals, and machine gun drums - but unlike their earlier record, Deep Fantasy, this one’s polished. The guitars lacerate, but they also glitter; Way screams, but she also sticks to discernible melodies. And in a way, White Lung finds a strange feminine elegance in their rage, striking a chord that resonated with me earlier in the year and consumed me by the end. It’s good to shout your lungs out sometimes.
Download: “I Beg You”, “Hungry”, “Below”
9. Vince Staples - Prima Donna
There was no song this year quite as despairing and dark as Vince Staples’ version of “Let It Shine”, which ends rather suddenly in a gunshot. There were few albums as hopeless as the Prima Donna EP. Vince Staples didn’t waste his time on platitudes or falsities; instead, he delivered a honed weapon of an EP, turning race relations in America into an accusation to wield against all of America. The beats are rock-influenced, flickering with guitars and glimmers, while Staples delivers lyrics loaded with incisive, grim racial commentary. This isn’t rap for easy listening. This is rap for those who want to understand what could lead a “good kid” to gang violence or suicide, or both.
Download: “Loco (feat. Kilo Kish)”, “War Ready”
8. Tanya Tagaq - Retribution
I will admit: I don’t listen to this record often. When I do, I feel as if I have to psychologically steel myself against the onslaught of brutal, animalistic accusations against the human race. Tanya Tagaq channels the spirit of the earth in her diatribe against environmental degradation, focusing her throat-singing talents into harrowing indie rock tribulations. She sounds, often, as if she is conjuring all of Gaia through her throat, less a singer than a conduit for all of the wrath of nature. According to anthropologists, Inuit women used throat singing to try and invoke the power of animal spirits to give their tribes survival. If that’s the case, Tagaq uses her voice in similar tradition: in naked protest, she pleads for mercy towards her culture.
Download: “Retribution”, “Cold”, “Rape Me”
7. ANOHNI - HOPELESSNESS
People wanted Anohni to make an album about transgender issues, but while those issues are certainly vital to modern discourse, she chose to make a record about global policy - and thank goodness she did. Anohni’s voice, amplified over pristine electronics, stands as an oracle for modern crises: our global policy, our blind eye towards climate change, our endorsement of the death penalty. She holds us complicit, both on the micro level (“I Don’t Love You Anymore”) and then world-shaking level (“4 Degrees”), demanding an explanation for our transgressions in melodic, beautiful, arching songs. And the weight of having no answers is one that we have the moral obligation to bear.
Download: “4 Degrees”, “Watch Me”, “Drone Bomb Me”
6. PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
This is hard art. PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project is that most difficult kind of art that never provides catharsis and closure, only interrogates the listener with questions where there is no satisfactory answer. She forces us to turn an eye to global poverty, to violence and war and the systemic destruction of other cultures in the name of the first world, and we squirm as she questions “is there something we can offer?”. We want to attack her, delegitimize her as a messenger, because the truths she relays - anecdotes in carefully-crafted, stately gothic folk tracks - are so uncomfortable to bear. Harvey’s album was probably the one I ruminated most on this year, and was the one that made me want to crawl out of my own skin at the weight of global tragedy. She’s lent her keening voice and prestige and immaculate musical sensibilities to the suffering of others and her own complacency with it, and it’s a brave, vital, and challenging thing for an artist to do. May she do it from now on.
Download: “The Orange Monkey”, “The Ministry of Defence”, “Dollar, Dollar”
5. Slothrust - Everyone Else
Sometimes, a good old-fashioned rock album salves any wound. Slothrust’s Everyone Else is a solid collection of strong, sometimes transcendent songs in the vein of punk and blues rock bands, laying heavy on the guitar and throbbing drums. The tracks are alternatingly buoyant and gutsy, each verse stuffed with conviction and idiosyncratic turns of phrase. Slothrust’s got a sense of humor, too, both in lyrics and music; the Transylvanian shuffle in “Mud” is darkly comical, and we can all guess what happens to the titular horse in “The Last Time I Saw My Horse”. Their 2016 release is a versatile, hook-filled, energetic and underrated collection, deserving of a listen from anyone who cares about modern rock music.
Download: “Horseshoe Crab”, “The Last Time I Saw My Horse”, “Pseudo Culture”
4. Beyoncé - Lemonade
I’m not going to write about what Lemonade means from a cultural perspective - many other much more qualified people have mined that fertile ground already. But I am going to talk about it as a piece of music: Lemonade is a damn good pop album. Beyoncé flexes her leadership, creativity, singing and genre skills across songs that all sound indispensable, current and entirely distinct from each other, and she does so in a way that tells a story lush in character and emotion. The lynchpin of the record is “Daddy Lessons”, a song which brings together all the conflict and history that comes with loving in spite of betrayal and forgiving for the sake of family, but any one song off Lemonade is a vital part of the arc of the record. I was not part of the Beyhive before, but now I’m a believer.
Download: “Daddy Lessons”, “6 Inch”, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”
3. Run the Jewels - RTJ3
“We’re the gladiators that oppose all caesars.” RTJ3, recorded during the lead up to the election and released on Christmas Day, is the action battle rap I needed for the coming administration. Killer Mike and El-P take no prisoners, delivering curb-stomp disses and indignant smackdowns to everyone who would exert power against the oppressed. The beats are sicker than ever, a fantasia of sci-fi whirrs and thumps and beeps that make me feel like I really am tagging along with the heroes of a dystopia film. And right now, I’m happy to feel like there are heroes, and they’re cool, and I’m being challenged to be one too.
Download: “Panther Like a Panther (Miracle Mix)”, “Talk to Me”, “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters”
2. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen never had the answers and never professed to. His humility and self-awareness of his own limitations were two of the many factors that made him such an incredible personality and poet, and they were in full fore on Cohen’s final album, a testament to how age brings wisdom but doesn’t necessarily bring closure. Over some of the most modern production he’s had, Cohen trades on his comely rhyme structures, biblical allusions, subterranean grunting voice, wry humor and knack for suggesting a melody even if he can’t quite to sing it to create a fitting portrait of a lively mind tilling the same old soil and finding new growth every time.
By the end of the record - a swooning string reprise of “Treaty” with a final, nearly spoken word verse - Cohen has not created some grand, comforting statement about what to expect from death or humanity or religion. Instead, he merely pleads for the rules of engagement one final time. His sentence ends without punctuation. And in the tradition of all the best artists, he leaves it open for the next generation to continue their search too.
Download: “You Want It Darker”, “Treaty”, “Steer Your Way”
1. Mitski - Puberty 2
Mitski’s album opener, “Happy”, lays out a thesis statement: even the purest emotion is complicated. Puberty 2, head and shoulders the most powerful artistic statement of the year, is a rock-tinged bildungsroman about figuring yourself out as an adult.
It helps that Mitski is an incredible musician and songwriter, mining the ore vein of 90’s alternative rock. She breathes fresh, novel life into old drug use metaphors over ominous bass throbs that threaten to swallow her whole. She calls on “Disarm”-style bells to tease a catharsis she withholds from us and from herself on “Fireworks”. She thrashes and yelps her way through a song about panic attacks. She repurposes the sounds Weezer used to convey their fetish for half-Japanese girls and weaponizes it for her own message, a devastating love song not just about social divides but also about self-acceptance and cultural pride. The final track, simple and stripped back and not dissimilar from Joni Mitchell, finds Mitski taking accountability for her own shit and stepping back from asking others to fix it for her.
It’s an album about depression, an album about race and culture and gender, an album about sex and breakups and love, an album that addresses all these different themes and yet ties it together into one masterful creation. Growing up is rough, unpredictable, unscripted, and entirely worth it.
Download: “Your Best American Girl”, “A Burning Hill”, “I Bet on Losing Dogs”