The Best Albums of 2016

The Best From the Worst.
By    December 12, 2016

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Every one of these selections is 100 percent scientifically accurate. We ran the findings through Bill Nye, so you know it’s real.    

50. Payroll Giovanni & Cardo Got Wings – Big Bossin, Vol. 1 [Bylug Ent] 

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Quiet as kept, the most versatile and arguably best rap producer of 2016 was Cardo (Got Wings). He’s been kicking around for a good minute and while he’s capable of making music that largely fits in with whatever the sound of the moment is (pays the bills), it’s clear that his first and true loves are ’80s R&B (as evidenced by his electronic cowbell obsession) and Bay Area/West Coast rap. Similarly, Detroit-bred rappers have been obsessed with the West Coast and Bay Area since MC Breed informed us there ain’t no future in frontin’. Payroll Giovanni is no exception and he wants to motivate your broke ass too.

Payroll Giovanni and Cardo’s Big Bossin, Vol. 1 is a breezy and loving throwback tribute to their shared influences and a welcome entry in the Detroit-Bay canon. They were even thorough enough to throw in some classic No Limit style and AZ interpolations, making Big Bossin, Vol.1 the funkiest music history course for anyone clever or lucky enough to have listened to this project in 2016. — MOBB DEEN

49. XL Middleton + Eddy Funkster – XL Middleton + Eddy Funkster [Mo Funk]

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XL Middleton and Eddy Funkster, who co-founded MoFunk Records, (L.A.’s premier modern funk label) team up on these celebratory seven tracks. They fuse electro and ’90s G-Funk into something sonically nostalgic (fat snares and glittery synths), bringing along a cast of MoFunk contemporaries. With robust catalogs, Middleton and Funkster aren’t merely vying for respect; they’re reminding you to show some. Self-titled doesn’t vastly diverge from the sound of their 2013 single, “The Night Time Is Coming.” It glides in the same direction, but the packaging has gotten sleeker, the song structure tighter. “The Boys Are Back” featuring Brian Ellis, Zackey Force Funk, and Diamond Ortiz refunktalizes Thin Lizzy’s brilliant refrain, but avoids coming off as hackey.

This celebrates modern funk in all its eccentricities. You can smell the grill, you can feel the sun’s heat. The final track is titled, “On Our Way To Funkmosphere,” where Funkster is a resident DJ. The song’s a simple reminder that sometimes, it’s best to just boost the beat and ride. — EVAN GABRIEL

48. Red Pill – Instinctive Drowning [Mello Music Group]

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Red Pill is in his This Rap Shit Ain’t So Glamorous Phase, but instead of being dour and becoming the next Talib Kweli of Twitter, he followed up his one-two-three combination of 2015 (the EPs Learning to Punch and Day Drunk plus the excellent Look What This World Did to Us LP) with Instinctive Drowning. It’s a heavy trip when you can’t afford the shots your fans are buying you after the show, but with pictorial beats from Ill Poetic that are equal parts Sixtoo and Kno, Red Pill opens up a bottle of Beefeater, opens up for bigger name artists on tour, then opens up about his family’s addiction problems.

The journey he’s been on, vivid as the neon bar signs slinging more booze he can’t stomach, is gutwrenching—he’s using the talents that provide him happiness to wonder why he’s not always happy, but like Don Draper said, ‘happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness.’ I don’t think the next Red Pill album will be as hard fought as this, but his unmistakable writing will always make him one to watch, no matter how dead drunk, dead broke, or dead honest he is. — ZILLA ROCCA

47. Zomby – Ultra [Hyperdub]

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To hear Zomby’s Ultra is to hear the hardcore continuum filtered by the patter of grey rain and the low whirr of night buses. Eski clicks, square synths, grainy drum ‘n’ bass, a pan flute Sinogrime homage, plinking ambient–all filtered by the London night in fits and spurts, edited and altered. Zomby’s music is an unspoken tribute to the febrile, creative atmosphere of dark raves and crackling pirate radio. He forever has one Air Max in the present, one Air Max in the past.

Compared with the anonymous producer’s previous album, With Love, which ventured too deeply into then-in-vogue trap, the scope of influences on Ultra is narrowly focused on London. The album is less a London narrative than a London reverie; the songs are bound by references to past ideas rather than a coherent plot. Ultra’s beginning is London, its end is London–what happens in between is an extension of sounds crafted in towering, symmetrical council estates and blank, brick row houses. It’s raw feeling. — TORII MACADAMS

46. Cam & China – Cam & China

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When Inglewood’s Cam & China performed in Pink Dollaz as Cammy and Cece, they called out broke, emotionally-stunted men or diagrammed proper form for cunnilingus and lap dancing.

Growing up has nothing to do with changing. It’s about refining the terms of what you’ve always wanted. On their self-titled EP, Cam & China still know what they want in bed. Guys who play games better hang back. But the twins learned to strike a balance between being tough and tender, sometimes even managing to make those tougher moments tender, and vice versa. “In My Feelings” summons men who can do the same. What kind of “thug in the streets” is afraid of affection or oral sex? If he can’t step up, he can show himself out.

This breed of femininity is uncompromising by nature. Cam & China never let shade slide, and now they’re throwing some of their own back. On “Playets,” the sisters vow to “play him for the fuck of it,” egging one another on between refrains. It’s all in the name of empowerment. They assemble femmes at the front of the crowd, where sisterhood translates to safety. — CORY LOMBERG

45. Anenon – Petrol {Friends of Friends]

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Petrol is an album for all weather. What happens then is that an album like Anenon’s latest overcomes all seasonal listening habits, changing sonic palettes with every new city, climate, and social environment you want it to work in. Petrol used to be humid and fuzzy—right now, it’s unbearably gray and rainy, and there’s nothing odd about it.

Petrol’s adjustable qualities seem fitting since the record’s guiding metaphor is not a mood or tempo, but a transitional symbol in itself: the highways, freewaysm and concrete walkways of his hometown LA. Brian Simon has taken his sax and electronics experiments out into the world and brought its rhythms back into his tracks. Take “Once,” and the way the hi-hats build into the abrupt stop and go of a car running over white road markings, flanked by a guttural, swelling synth sound that changes the dynamics completely, and you’re right back in the backseat of a car at night, on your way to something ill-advised and unhealthy. — JULIAN BRIMMERS

44. Gonjasufi / The Gaslamp Killer – Callus / Instrumentalapathy [Warp/Cuss]

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I have to admit I’m a little surprised that Callus even came out. If Gonjasufi’s masterful 2010 debut, A Sufi and a Killer, was an instant LA beat-scene classic—the esoteric yogi’s wizened voice and cryptic poetry guided along by dope beats from Mainframe, the Gaslamp Killer, and Flying Lotus—his full length follow-up is unrelentingly ugly, the musical equivalent of the screaming voices inside a homeless person’s head. But Callus’ menacing drone tones, screeching 8-bit textures, unhinged guitar lines, and busted beats do have resonance in a year paved with tragedies; when Sufi sings, “Don’t tell me what to believe in / ’Cause we don’t believe in you!” in “Afrikan Spaceship,” it’s easy to imagine the dissilusionment brought on by a system that allows police to go on killing innocent black men and a glaring monster like Donald Trump to be president.

This dark and delirious album matches well with the latest full-length from Gonjasufi’s longtime collaborator, William Bensussen—aka the San Diego-bred, LA-based Gaslamp Killer. Though he’s perhaps best known for his untameable DJ sets on festival stages across the globe, GLK has also proven himself an able arranger of soulful genres like Turkish funk and Ethiopian jazz, and his new album finds him in a particularly reflective state about consciousness and mortality. Some of the tracks were composed as he was recovering from his near-fatal scooter crash in 2013, and at times he seems to be mocking death outright, letting lose in furious displays of drum-break abandon (“Gammalaser Kill,” “The Butcher,” “Shred You To Bits”).

But then there are moments where the weight of the world shows through—like the stunning, 11-minute final track “In the Dark (Part Two),” in which intricate grooves unfold like puzzle pieces, guitars are strummed with utmost delicacy, and shivers of orchestral strings go down the spine. Life can come to an end in an instant, it’s true; but the Gaslamp Killer has endured, and he will not stop. — PETER HOLSLIN

43. Vic Spencer –  St. Gregory / Who the Fuck is Chris Spencer?? [Perpetual Rebel]

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Vic Spencer and Chris Crack won’t be remembered as the best Chicagoans to release records in 2016. In a year filled with so much obvious evil, it must just have been too hard to pay attention to another pair of super villains. That’s how both Vic Spencer, the city’s under-appreciated elder, and Chris Crack, the prolific young understudy, have positioned themselves. Both are snarling, wisecracking rappers with a grasp on all the fundamentals. Their collaborative album, Who the Fuck Is Chris Spencer??, riffed on the idea of a titular character that combined the best of their ill-intentioned abilities. It’s the antithesis of uplifting, a refreshing recourse in the year of Pablo and Coloring Book, from the same city that spawned such gospel rap.

The halves that comprise the duo also released multiple other projects throughout the calendar year. Chris Crack’s Troll Til They Fold was another demonstration of effortless bah output, and Vic Spencer’s St. Gregory is among the artist’s best work to date. When Vic’s beef with Mick Jenkins went public via back-and-forth diss tracks last year, it felt inevitable that Vic would be on the losing side, at least commercially. Vic is old and hardened, primed for an eternity in the underground. Mick is the promising young upstart. Over a year later, and the judge’s scorecard is finally in: Mick’s boring debut studio LP The Healing Component should be prescribed as the cure for insomnia. Vic has dropped two albums worthy of making this list. — WILL HAGLE

42. Elucid – Save Yourself [Backwoodz Studioz]

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In a year in which toothless feel-goodery was far too often seen as an acceptable substitute for substance or genuine humanity, Elucid’s Save Yourself served as a middle finger to both the Chance the Rappers of the world as well as its Hillary Clintons. The East New York MC, who along with billy woods makes up the duo Armand Hammer, relies not on positivity or pop-culture populism but instead a darkness and density that suggests he’s interested in bringing a wholly different New York back than the one that most rappers talk about.

Save Yourself is psychedelic in the same way that the Velvet Underground were psychedelic. It’s post-punk in the way that all the good post-punk bands were post-punk, and hearkens back to an era in which hip-hop, punk, disco, noise, no wave, and the like were all offshoots of the avant-garde, their styles mixing freely and informing one another. Self-producing mostly by feel, Elucid is as precise a lyrical tactician as he is freewheeling behind the boards, using imagery largely borrowed from a childhood spent in the Pentecostal church to render a morally defunct world with apocalyptic urgency. — DREW MILLARD

41. Skepta –  Konnichiwa [Boy Better Know]

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It seemed for the last few years, Skepta was tapped to be UK grime’s next big thing in the states. American audiences have always been skeptical of the insular nature of grime—the beats, slang, and flows seeming too stilted and foreign to cross over. But when two of America’s most celebrated cultural tourists—Kanye and Drake—decide to buy beachfront property on your wave, you suddenly become charged with becoming the standard bearer of the whole genre to xenophobic audiences. Skepta needed to make an impression if he was going to be anything other than another British also-ran in the United States. Luckily for Skepta, his latest album, Konnichiwa, is well worth the hype.

Seamlessly blending traditional UK grime with more Americanized production and the occasional big name feature, Konnichiwa might be the most accessible grime album to American rap fans since the genre first came to our shores close to 15 years ago. “It Ain’t Safe” sounds like vintage Three 6 Mafia as interpreted by a crew of North London hoodlums while Pharrell emerges to deliver a vintage performance on “Numbers.” As a rapper, Skepta has a real passion for righteous shit talking and Konnichiwa is rife with all manners of slander. On the title track, Skepta kebobs long-time rival, Dizzee Rascal, for falsely waving the grime scene’s flag while getting rich off of sappy pop pablum. Meanwhile on the album’s best cut “Man,” Skepta blasts cynical hype beasts who want to exploit Skepta’s growing fame with “pics for the ‘Gram” over a track with piercing violin strings that is liable to cause an international incident if played too loudly on foreign soil. More than anything, Konnichiwa is a bellicose declaration demanding to be respected as one of grime’s most memorable albums to invade the states. — DOC ZEUS

40. Angel Olsen – My Woman [Jagjaguwar]

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No artistic anxiety is more universal than the fear of creating something corny. This thought tends to arise sometime between the making and the sharing. It can sprout as a moment of hesitation and curl into a paralyzing loop of double takes. One day, the blinking cursor will send me into epileptic shock.

Artists who seem to bypass concern for cliché and tredge headlong into hurt are the ones who succeed in making genuine work. Just look at Angel Olsen, who closed out her first EP, Strange Cacti, by shrugging, “Fuck you / fuck you and your lies” over four chords. She uses many of those same chords on her third full-length record, but there is not a shrug to be found on MY WOMAN. They’re replaced by not-so-subtle moments of force, like when the harmony becomes a howl on “Shut Up Kiss Me.” But Olsen has no use for subtlety while she’s building the momentum that pushes one side of the record to the next, peaking with riffs fit for an early Ty Segall album on A-side closer, “Not Gonna Kill You.” Critics who once pegged her music as ‘songs to cry to’ must be feeling the slow burn.

Want to make something real? Start by destroying what isn’t: genre and melodrama. And maybe get one of those tinsel wigs.CORY LOMBERG

39. Mitski – Puberty 2 [Dead Oceans]

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Success rarely yields joy. That elusive feeling is less tied to result than it is to process. And there isn’t an album released in 2016 that taps into this particular disconnect quite like Mitski’s Puberty 2. It’s an album of quiet desperation, somehow remarkably assured yet entirely vulnerable. It’s the crushing lows of 2016 pushed up against the light-by-comparison highs. Puberty 2 isn’t a bummer, it’s too explosive for such a sad term. But it falls somewhere within the elusive gap between joy and an invitation to cry; it’s a feat.

Puberty 2 is both anthemic and solemn, inward-gazing yet somehow a part the world. The album certainly has standouts, but it’s absurdly strong from beginning to end. Album opener “Happy” is a slick, lyrically brilliant description of the quiet dread of loneliness and how it can be all-enveloping. “Fireworks” is an honest take on the anthemic pop Lana Del Rey has tried so hard to sterilize. It’s an album of pain, but it sounds so uplifting because of the way Mitski surrounds her words with perfectly composed arrangements. A record of quiet yearning—for love, for hope, for happiness, for friendship—has never sounded so loud. — WILL SCHUBE

38. Westside Gunn – FLYGOD [Griselda Records]

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The greatest peril facing a rapper of Westside Gunn’s, er, caliber is that he’s susceptible of being pushed to extremes, so one of FLYGOD‘s manifold triumphs is its balance. Gunn’s imagery exists on a spectrum between cartoonish and dystopian, rife with fashion references but not so many as to be off-putting to those who shop off 5th, and unlike his brutalist contemporaries he’s not averse to dramatic flourish. An album less about crime than its spoils, Flygod’s noirish instrumentals are neither too glossy nor minimalist, with a staggering guest roster considering it’s essentially an independent debut. As ever, Gunn’s compelling not because his writing and technique are so good—although they are—but because he raps every verse like his fucking life depends on it. — PETE TOSIELLO

37. Beyonce – Lemonade [Beyonce Corp.]

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The most truly fascinating aspect of this album is Beyonce’s effortless turn into the skids. While other powerful female leaders of the free world have chosen to take the high road, Beyonce brilliantly harnessed the power of one million TMZ cameras and gave us the thing we all really wanted. “Lemonade” is a Warhol approved grotesque Rorschach test. It’s more than a run of the mill highly primped and processed power pop album because of the questions it demands of us. Is this catharsis? Confessional? A window into the marriage of the most powerful pop culture couple in the world? An elaborate rouse portrayed by said couple to harness our base rubberneck instincts and get even more exorbitantly rich off of our stupidity?

The true brilliance of Lemonade is its acknowledgment of the audience. The implacable ice queen from Houston momentarily deigned to come off her cloud and take aim at the monolithic, raceless and genderless Becky with the good hair, and who amongst us hasn’t had one? We can question if Beyonce is happy; if Rachael Ray deserves confused hate mail besides those who can’t adjust her cupcake recipes for party size; or whether or not a concert in Cleveland the weekend before the election was the best track to appeal to the disaffected working class uneducated white male voter. But one thing we can’t question is Beyonce’s masterful channeling of her personal drama into a hall of mirrors, where the line between narrative and reality is indecipherable. —ABE BEAME

[Ed. Note: We’ve been Tidal’d]

36. David Bowie – Blackstar [Columbia]

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Confession: I haven’t been able to get through Blackstar in one sitting. That’s not to say I haven’t spent a considerable amount of time with the record—far from it, the record topped my personal albums of the year list—but some albums are too much to take in one sitting. Crass histrionics of bullshit content creators notwithstanding, David Bowie may very well have recorded Blackstar suspecting the album would be his last, and as a result the album is a beyond-heavy experience. Bowie’s pain is self-evident in his lilting baritone, which quivers and weaves throughout a bed of free jazz and darkwave—the album was reportedly inspired in part by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—and here, the words are less important than the mood, and the mood is often that of a man attending his own funeral.

You shouldn’t listen to this album out of some morbid fascination with whether David Bowie was telling us “goodbye” or whatever, for such a sentiment would have been just as powerful and grave if he had pulled through. Instead, you should listen to Blackstar for the same reasons you should listen to all of Bowie’s albums: because it’s brilliant, and David Bowie is the only person who could have made it. — DREW MILLARD

35. Frank Ocean – Blonde  [Boys Don’t Cry]

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The past four years found Frank Ocean fans full of speculation, desire, and ultimately, a healthy mix of exhaustion and apathy. But last summer, Frank was resurrected, and so were his loyal, albeit tossed around, groupies. His visual album Endless came and went, but we would invite Blonde to linger like a resurfacing ex we weren’t ready to let go of, like the sweet memories brought upon by his 2012 Channel Orange. We were so, so thrilled to slip back into his ease, to uncover what he’d been thinking about all this time. But Blonde sat somewhere outside of that—our expectations, our chatter. Blonde was special.

With Blonde, Frank chose to capture an essence—youth, innocence, experimentation, isolation, love, revelation—instead of fulfill an identity. Here, Frank brought us all back down to earth, putting his absurdly poignant stamp on what it means to be a human and reminding us that, no matter the praise, he is, after all, one too. — PALEY MARTIN

34. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [XL Recordings]

AMSP

During a year where surprise-issued albums are the standard, the band who regularly operated in that discipline back when it was an anomaly sprung their latest effort on us with little notice, and with a markedly quieter reception than they received in 2007. Truth be told, Radiohead have been so good for so long, it’s easy to take them for granted. They’ve yet to suffer the romantic flameout of a breakup, the tragedy of a member’s death, or the embarrassment of a spectacularly bad record. But A Moon Shaped Pool is a tremendous statement crouched in the corner of a small room, one of the biggest bands in the world making the space their music inhabits smaller and smaller.

The power of musicians as gifted as the members of Radiohead is in their ability to take songs which have been in various stages of development for years—in some cases decades—and build an album cohesive enough to feel like every song was written in the same session. It’s a collection of fluid, shimmering arrangements rendered more so by Thom Yorke’s singular lilt—often compared to a heartsick alien who somehow learned English. His voice articulates alienation, loneliness, the debris of the past, and the spaceships blocking out the sky. A Moon Shaped Poolmakes it very clear why Radiohead is basically Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite band. Just like his latter-day movies, this album—easily the band’s best in nearly a decade—is epic without put-on grandiosity, elegiac without being sappy or sentimental. It’s a grand, gorgeously rendered statement of humanity and all its setbacks. — DOUGLAS MARTIN

34. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool [XL Recordings]

AMSP

During a year where surprise-issued albums are the standard, the band who regularly operated in that discipline back when it was an anomaly sprung their latest effort on us with little notice, and with a markedly quieter reception than they received in 2007. Truth be told, Radiohead have been so good for so long, it’s easy to take them for granted. They’ve yet to suffer the romantic flameout of a breakup, the tragedy of a member’s death, or the embarrassment of a spectacularly bad record. But A Moon Shaped Pool is a tremendous statement crouched in the corner of a small room, one of the biggest bands in the world making the space their music inhabits smaller and smaller.

The power of musicians as gifted as the members of Radiohead is in their ability to take songs which have been in various stages of development for years—in some cases decades—and build an album cohesive enough to feel like every song was written in the same session. It’s a collection of fluid, shimmering arrangements rendered more so by Thom Yorke’s singular lilt—often compared to a heartsick alien who somehow learned English. His voice articulates alienation, loneliness, the debris of the past, and the spaceships blocking out the sky. A Moon Shaped Poolmakes it very clear why Radiohead is basically Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite band. Just like his latter-day movies, this album—easily the band’s best in nearly a decade—is epic without put-on grandiosity, elegiac without being sappy or sentimental. It’s a grand, gorgeously rendered statement of humanity and all its setbacks. — DOUGLAS MARTIN

33. Open Mike Eagle + Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival [Mello Music Group]

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Another year, another stellar entry by LA-by-way-of-Chicago spitter Open Mike Eagle. The purveyor of some of today’s most lyrical and insightful verses hopped the pond to team up with Brit beatsmith Paul White for Hella Personal Film Festival, and it could be the Marvel Team-Up of the year, with all due respect to Wolverine and Spider-man. While this shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with either’s body of work, the two fit stylistically like a hand in a single sequined glove. Eagle, a backpacker’s delight, goes simultaneously silly, serious and funky over the beats of the man responsible for some of Danny Brown’s finest (and you can’t sleep on such solo classics as Rapping with Paul White and Shaker Notes).

While there are any number of stand-alone singles here (for my money, “Check to Check” and “Smiling (Quirky Race Doc)” are among both artist’s finest), this is best heard in one, continuous sitting as Mike gives a detailed and thorough peak into his life, while Paul plays with everything from Oscar the Grouch admonishments to warbling whistles. — CHRIS DALY

32. Noname – Telefone

noname telefone

Despite high-profile turns on records by Chance the Rapper and Mick Jenkins—and despite the notoriety she earned in Chicago’s spoken word and rap scenes—Noname was reticent to drop her debut. As she confesses on tape, she got sidetracked: buying coffee, getting her nails done, looking after her sick aunt. Telefone didn’t show up on schedule, but when it finally arrived, it contained multitudes. It’s morose yet resilient, filled with the sort of writing that eludes those who lean on cliché. Noname is also an immensely talented rapper whose vocals can be blunt and delicate in the same verse; she easily sidesteps the convenient categories the press uses to corral Chicago rappers. If she keeps making things as happily unhinged as “Diddy Bop,” she’ll dodge pigeon holes for years to come. — NITISH PAHWA

31. Denzel Curry – Imperial  Loma Vista]

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Denzel Curry’s follow up to 2013’s Nostalgic 64, is a more calculated attempt at defining the artist as an entity separate from his abandoned Raider Klan affiliations. There are thinly veiled shots on songs like “Gook,” which contains the refrain “I don’t fuck with Purp, that’s the only reason Yams died.” In lieu of Lil Ugly Mane, JK the Reaper and Nell, the album features Rick Ross and Joey Bada$$. While the singles on which those features appear helped him reach more widespread recognition, Imperial is still a logical continuation of the darkly energetic sound Curry and his now-ULT peers have cultivated in Carol City. The best songs are the ones in which Curry goes in alone, narrating South Florida life in rapid rhythm patterns.

It almost feels cheap to discuss the album in the context of Curry’s past, though. He’s developed into such a singular artist, and Imperial offers the most cohesive presentation of his sound to date. The album was released twice this year, as a free download in March and as a cross-platform streamable LP in October. The streamable version swapped in two new tracks—“Good Night” (featuring, as if to refute my earlier point, Nell) & “Me Now”—to replace “Narcotics” (a great song) and “Pure Enough” (also great). If 2016 is the year ever-shifting track lists came into play, Imperial is the album that took steps towards perfecting the practice. — WILL HAGLE

30. ScHoolboy Q – Blank Face LP  [Interscope/TDE]

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The world of Quincy Hanley is colored by the green that colors both palm trees and money; the deep, almost burgundy red of a quart of blood; black ink on brown skin; and the blue flags hanging out of pockets below. His fourth album holds a world of detail in the wide terrain of city blocks, told from the valuable perspective of a self-described “gang banger, deadbeat father, and drug dealer.”

The paramedics in front of Tam’s; the kind of emotionless expressions normally reserved for the protagonists of Hollywood thrillers and horror movies; mothers treating their children like siblings; freeloader friends; Crips beefing with Crips; home invasions; E-40 in hostile territory holding a box of Domino’s (you just know he always orders his pizzas with extra cheese); kids saying “cuz” with subtraction textbooks in their blue backpacks; and the increasingly common image of a black man sitting in his car, wondering if the police are going to pull him out of it to murder him in the street.

Over some of the most musically fascinating beats of his career, ScHoolboy Q delivers the most focused writing he’s ever committed to tape. There are only a handful of hip-hop artists working these days who render the thrills, the struggles, the bitterness, the frustration, or the potential permanency of poverty more poetically. — DOUGLAS MARTIN

29. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo [Def Jam]

TLOP

A lot of critics, somewhat lazily, mused that The Life of Pablo was Kanye West finally losing his sanity and coming to grips with years of depression and anxiety. A narrative that’s only been further solidified with the recent events of his charmless pro-Trump rants and hospitalization for an as of yet unspecified psychiatric episode.

The truth is that The Life of Pablo isn’t an album about going crazy, that’s too dismissive of black art. The Life of Pablo is actually an album about being 40 and realizing you still don’t have any of the answers.

1. “Sorry ain’t called you back same problem my father had”
2. “I been feeling all I’ve given, for my children, I will die for those I love”
3. “Please don’t pressure me with that bill shit, cause everybody got em that ain’t children”

Kanye on The Life of Pablo is now a father, a rapper that’s a product of the Bush years, soon to be raising his kids during the Trump years. The saddest part of Kanye’s journey is that the college dropout is now 40, still searching loudly for the answers as an entire country screams for him to stay quiet.

Get Better Soon Kanye. — DAN FROM THE INTERNET

28. J-Zone – Fish-n-Grits [Old Maid]

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J-Zone and the never failing glory of going down with dignity.

According to concordant reports, J-Zone has been privately preaching a crime wave of biblical proportions, flooding the streets of Brooklyn with torrents of anxiety that turns boutiques back into bodegas for many years. And yet here he is again, dating stuck up brats from Boerum Hill that have “the audacity to stay,” despite their 60 grand-a-year corporate jobs.

Fish-N-Grits entertains the only okay form of nostalgia—the kind that doesn’t leave you longing for a technicolor past that never existed in the first place, but the one that uses seasoned sounds and imagery to put things into perspective today. Listen to the seriously funky and touching ode to his Grampa’s Cadillac and you’ll understand.

Everything about this album is as comfortable as a wing chair. It’s slick, it doesn’t ask anything from you, it just wants to be fucking funny and occasionally point the finger. (And sure, have the instrumentals too, because he worked quite hard on them.) It’s the kind of music one makes after you quit music forever. When all romanticism is squeezed out of touring and SXSW. When you realize that bloglove is for knuckleheads and your empathy for mixtape hustlers has reached rock bottom. That’s when you go play drums on the ’68 green goblin kit in your basement, record a couple of funny voices, put that shit on Bandcamp and say fuck it. — JULIAN BRIMMERS

27. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid [Rhymesayers]

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“You’re talking to a guy who is scared of everything, always.” On a surface level, not a lot has changed in Aesop’s new, prescription-drug-free universe. The Impossible Kid, partly written and produced in self-induced isolation in a barn in Washington, is his first LP since 2012’s Skelethon. The album finds rap’s walking Thesaurus back in stealth-and-report mode. Whether he mourns lost friends and creative ambitions, quietly despises his shrink or the bro-ish waiter with the neck tat, the whole album is an expectedly lonesome affair.

What makes The Impossible Kid stand out from Aesop’s 15+ years catalog is the new found frankness and apparent ease with which he addresses personal issues and anecdotes. Instead of camouflaging his observations behind layers of obscurity and references, he offers highly relatable tales about his brothers, his clean yet shaken psyche, and being amazed/baffled by a new generation that’s supposed to buy your records.

That is not to say he doesn’t do the intricate rhyme patterns and multi-layered metaphors anymore. Aes just added a new weapon to his arsenal of expression, and an especially deadly one at that. — JULIAN BRIMMERS

26. Young Thug – JEFFERY [300]

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To illustrate the strength of Young Thug’s cultural currency, consider this: In 2016, the rapper known to his family as Jeffery Lamar Williams did more for the ailing career of Wyclef Jean than the 20th anniversary of Fugees’ The Score. In August the pair released “Elton,” (the track has, at times, been titled both “Pop Man” and “Kanye West”) as a precursor to Thug’s quasi-EP JEFFERY, which also opened up with a number titled “Wyclef Jean.” Together, the two songs erased Jean’s stunning string of recent indignities, the highlights of which include a bunch of crappy music, a regrettable guest role on Nashville, that picture of him in a Speedo, and his failed attempt to run for President of Haiti.

The point of Young Thug is that he’s never just one thing. He’s a street rapper; he’s a pop star; he’s Prince; he’s The Clash; he’s a laser-focused genius; he’s an erratic but talented loose cannon; he is hip-hop’s destroyer; he is hip-hop’s savior; he is the rapper who’s going to destroy hip-hop in order to save it. No matter what you think of Young Thug, he’s also the guy who wore a dress on the cover of his highest profile release during the same year North Carolina passed a law declaring you had to show a birth certificate in order to go into a bathroom. Thug’s gesture was by no means meant as a political statement or a reaction to such a controversy, but then again, inscrutability is his calling card—it’s Young Thug’s job to follow his muse and leave a trail of gleeful spontaneity in his path, and it’s our job to do what we can do about it. — DREW MILLARD

25. Dawn Richard – Redemption [Local Action]

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Redemption sounds like the last hour you spend at the club, after you’ve started to come down, when $4.50 for water sounds fine, when you’re not sober but are aware of precisely how you’re not sober, when it’s going to be at least $35 to take a cab over the bridge but you’re not going to crash with Alex again and mortgage half of tomorrow, when your jaw aches, when you start writing notes in your phone so the thoughts don’t drift into the halal stand across the street, when you’re honest with yourself about why you don’t really fuck with Alex anymore, when you can’t wear these shoes again, when Chris texts “Where are u,” when you try half-heartedly to rub the stamp off your hand, when you decide to go back inside. There’s even a song called “Lazarus.”

Dawn Richard’s third solo album in four years is an exercise in weaving dance and pop and paranoia together, picking yourself up and rubbing soot off your denim, smiling at the bouncer. — PAUL THOMPSON

24. Mumdance & Logos – Different Circles [Different Circles]

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UK Bass music had a scary year. Fabric shut down (and came back), Brexit hangs over DJs’ livelihoods and for some reason, really boring house music is still the default option for people who don’t pay attention to music, or pay just enough attention to go for what’s easy. In this light, Different Circles sounds like anti-club music, inverting the polarities while keeping all the good stuff. It’s not ambient—too many drums—but it doesn’t bang, either.

Instead, Mumdance & Logos’ weightless sound floats, alternating robotic pulses with truly demonic noise, grime’s videogame melodies to techno’s sound design. The results land closer to an album with over half the tracks involving the core duo and the rest coming from close family, and considering the label usually releases tracks on ultra-limited vinyl, it’ll go down as the definitive way to experience the Different Circles story so far. After all, when the clubs shut down and our evil overlords cosign us to house arrest, we’ll need a soundtrack — SON RAW

23. Preoccupations – Preoccupations [Flemish Eye/Jagjaguwar]

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Life is a never-ending series of changes—through acrimony, through grief, through mistakes. Spanning over the course of several years, different band names, different bands entirely, Preoccupations is a study in reinvention out of necessity. Theirs has been an incremental dial adjustment of genre: from howling avant-garage to brooding, art-damaged punk, delivered in standalone fragments, patchwork stitched together seamlessly, and fully fleshed-out bangers.

These songs are meditations on various states of consciousness and duress, following the beats of their titles: “Anxiety,” “Monotony,” “Degraded,” “Stimulation,” “Fever.” There is a watchful eye on our failures as well as our predecessors, the collapse of structures both tangible and not, and the relief of encroaching darkness, which always looks impenetrable from a distance. Preoccupations is centered around the distractions which consume our thoughts while the world is happening—evolving, reinventing itself—around us, not just offering a template for their latest incarnation, but also a soundtrack for our own. — DOUGLAS MARTIN

22. Delroy Edwards – Hangin’ at the Beach [LA Club Resource]

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Delroy Edwards’ Hangin’ At The Beach is lo-fi, outsider music. Or, rather, it’s lo-fi, outsider musics, plural. The musics Edwards explores–almost always briefly–sound little like the grainy, dark house of his early career or the slurring, Southern rap loops of his Slowed Down Funk mixtapes. Noise, humming ambient, pastel shoegaze, and fucked up electro-pop co-mingle with bits that seem VHS ripped from a Troma action sequence.

H.A.T.B. rewards patient listeners. It can be inward, anxious, even grating, but in the cracks of its combative façade are playfulness and warmth. “Moscow Girls” is four driving minutes of chunky bass and addled neon synthesizers. The tender, delicate “I Love Sloane” (likely named for his girlfriend, Francesca Sloane) feels plucked from a teenage bedroom. “Horsing Around” sounds like a washed out, doped up instrumental remix of Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses.” (Perhaps I am the one horsing around, and this similarity is a figment of my imagination.) H.A.T.B. is an album like Los Angeles, the city that inspired it: charming beneath the disjointedness and sleaze. The magic is in immersion. — TORII MACADAMS

21. 21 Savage & Metro Boomin – Savage Mode

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Despite rap’s current obsession with style and sonics, it was always inevitable that the pendulum would swing the other way or at least leave room for an unvarnished, nihilistic gangsta rapper. 21 Savage is the latest entrant in the longstanding tradition of goon rap that either died after the Kanye vs. 50 Cent PR stunt beef or with Tim Dog, depending on how you feel about mainstream rap and scamming respectively.

With the aid of Metro Boomin’s most skeletal set of beats to date, 21 Savage firmly plants goon rap’s flag near the top of Atlanta’s trap-rap scene with a muted and matter of fact celebration of violence and hedonism that doesn’t leave much room to doubt his bonafides. So much so that more famous rappers from opposite ends of the rap credibility scale couldn’t resist getting in on the ground floor. Somewhere, DJ Premier and Group Home are nodding along to Savage Mode approvingly. — MOBB DEEN

20. Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus    [Brownswood]

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Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Wiliams blend jazz, funk, boogie, afrobeat, and hip-hop into a concoction slicker than a throwback Chevy with suede seats. The two South Londoners’ sonic mixture is as vivid as candy paint, as timeless as rum and coke. Forging their sound in the concrete-cast, culturally diverse district of Camberwell—where I’m typing this right now—Yussef Kamaal gloriously distill the tower block territory’s plurality. Block Focus is a collection of dapper vibes and cosmic wig outs. Its snappy-as-hell drums, rubber basslines and wandering keys sound as indebted to Madlib as the Blue Note Jazz that fill his crates. “Lowrider” swerves left and right on a road made of Teflon. “Strings of Light” takes you to the calmest corner of a far away galaxy. The whole record is total bliss—a pushback to some of the bullshit going on in post-Brexit Britain. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN

19. Kaytranada –  99.9%  [XL Recordings]

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Was there a more soothing spectacle of cover art this year than Kaytranada as mummer-in-chief? Amidst all the dismal stretches during 2016, the record became our hour-long glissade over the avalanche below. It’s poetic that we united peoples on either side of the Atlantic required a Québécois by way of Port-au-Prince producer to point out the slippery cliff of certitude. Could more than .1% of us unfortunate millions have seen this mess coming last year? Though his rhythms summoned words from Syd, Phonte, and, .Paak, maybe the instrumentalist’s own verbal admission that his album title referenced his dissatisfaction and indecisiveness with his music, proved once more the limits of language to reflect reality.

In an era where decision fatigue is the biggest enemy of the electronic record producer—as it is in arenas of modern life with so many ingredients from which to choose—any incongruities, inconsistencies, and imperfections should be applauded rather than fustigated. We’ve seen enough isotropic versions of the soul we’re sure of on record. If it was indecisiveness that birthed these legato lullabies, then long live doubt. Wittgenstein, who’s On Certainty did for post-Cartesian philosophy what 99.9% did for post-molly beat music, elsewhere wrote, “In art it is hard to say anything as good as saying nothing.” Let’s hope albums like this usher in a more laconic 2017, where we harvest the bounty in uncertainty, listen more, talk less, and boogie most. — ALEX DWYER

18. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens [Other People]

nico jaar

“Chapter one/We fucked up.” Not a bad thesis for Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens, or any piece of art anticipating the immediate future. Jaar’s Sirens is more aggressively political than any of his prior work—the end of a trio Jaar groups with Nymphs and Pomegranates. The aforementioned line comes from the last track of Sirens, “History Lesson.” It’s a warped take on doo-wop, the sort of concept muffled and shattered in the hands of lesser musicians. Jaar sings in an arresting falsetto, a reminder that he can do more than you ever thought.

He’ll put on the best DJ set you’ll ever see, but you’ll never hear the songs he plays again. It’s the same sort of fleeting ecstasy music was attached to before the recorded format came into existence. He takes this ethos and applies it to much of Sirens. The album is layered in subtle references to revolutions near and far—and to the music that accompanies the hope attached to potential change. Jaar adds post-punk ideals to his toolbelt, with “The Governor” and “Three Sides of Nazareth” charging forward in a way Jaar has never asked his music to do before.

Opener “Killing Time” lulls and rocks the same way the first track on the Darkside record, “Golden Arrow,” does. It’s a set-up of rhythm and patience, and the payoff is less about the track itself than what it introduces. Sirens is an aggressive album, and, as always with Jaar, it’s a re-imagining of the perceived outer bounds of dance music. The concept of politicized dance music is hard to put into words. Luckily, Jaar puts it into music—a far more interesting medium. — WILL SCHUBE

17. Kevin Gates – Islah    [Atlantic]

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There’s a lot to be said for the unpredictability and staggering pace of the mixtape game, but sometimes you just need an A&R. While Kevin Gates has had no trouble establishing Third Coast ubiquity on the heels of a killer run of releases, any individual project has always come up just short of a breakthrough—a self-indulgent interlude here, a throwaway beat or feature there. With Islah, his shape-shifting voice and penchant for anthemic melodies finally gets the polished, load-bearing production that it deserves from start to finish. DJ drops and repetitious hooks are gone, replaced by multi-layered choruses and beats varied enough to make you forget that you’ve been listening to Gates, and Gates alone, for fifteen tracks.

The album bets big on two clear stabs at radio relevancy, “2 Phones” and “Really Really,” and comes through twice, both commercially (each went double platinum) and in adhering to Gates’ established identity. Islah is the ultimate studio debut of the really, really, real, delivering fully on the potential of what’s come before while sacrificing nothing for the future. — CORRIGAN BLANCHFIELD

16. BadBadNotGood – IV  [Innovative Leisure]

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BADBADNOTGOOD’s IV takes place some forty to fifty years ago as the soundtrack to an aloof, chain-smoking ex-cop roving the perpetual autumn of a rotten city. Or it follows the spectral existence of a gambler chasing mislaid virtues. Or it chronicles an alcoholic boxer. Or maybe the moody trenchcoat antiheroes are imagined and IV was made by a quartet of Canadian twenty-somethings in 2016 fresh off their album with Ghostface Killah. All are equally likely from the sound of IV which distinguishes itself from earlier BBNG volumes with a maturity developed over five albums.

The novelty of jazz covers of rap songs and the occasional video game theme gives way to original compositions with the same heft as their buttery Stax antecedents. BBNG play on the axis of jazz and soul with anachronistic flourishes like Kaytranada’s synths and Mick Jenkins’ careening post-Def Jux flow, but all elements serve a sumptuous and smokey celebration of the genres of yore. It’s a history lesson without the browbeating lecture from dad. – Evan Nabavian

15. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits   [Ropeadope]

terrace martin

In the jammed block party that is LA rap, Terrace Martin is a key man behind the music. He’s been at the top of Snoop’s speed dial for over a decade, helped turned Kendrick into a virtuoso jazzman, and gifted YG some of that g-funk bounce. On Velvet Portraits, the producer and multi-instrumentalist’s Cali credentials are laid out in a 360 depiction of Los Angeles that captures a half-century of the city’s sun-drenched grooves. You’ll probably find it in your local record store’s jazz section, but that’s only part of the story.

These are songs melded together from horn-heavy R&B belters, 45rpm soul nuggets, and the spirit of Zapp. Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, and Keyon Harrold are among those to bring the late night jazz session flavor, while Martin taps a series of little known vocalists who may or may not have been shuttled in from the ‘70s. “Think Of You” is a utopian basement nightclub jam made real; “Turkey Taco” gets nasty with its heavy bassline, talkbox vocals, and funky guitar licks. In this wide-spanning mesh, Martin’s breezy sax lines and freewheeling keys tie everything together. Forget digital filters, this is pure vintage gold. — DEAN VAN NGUYEN

14. G Perico – Shit Don’t Stop

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G Perico is dripping with charisma. And curl activator. Gangster rap hasn’t had a Jheri Curl this iconic since DJ Quik’s coiffure soiled the neckline of his grey and burgundy sweatsuit; South Central hasn’t had a rap album as great as Shit Don’t Stop since WC and the Maad Circle’s Curb Servin’.

For the second year in a row, the crime rate has increased in Los Angeles. Though the number of crimes per capita is paltry compared to a terrifying and dehumanizing period in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, there’s clearly a sense of growing unrest in the city. Gangster rap is an outlet for expressing this exhaustion, anger, and unease. G Perico, a Broadway Gangster Crip, succinctly summarizes the present, circumscribed reality of South Central on “Shit Don’t Stop”: “Shit back wild, everybody dumb hot.”

He, too, has been a victim. In what’s become a seminal moment in the G Perico hagiography, the Broadway Gangster Crip was shot in the hip while leaving his South Central studio. Undeterred by an hour at the hospital and a still-weeping bullet wound, he performed at The Roxy the same evening. Though this preposterous incident is better suited to a CB4 outtake than a living, breathing human, it seems to fall in line with Perico’s approach to rap: he’s much too cool to let a little blood fuck up his vibe. — Torii MacAdams

13. Vince Staples – Prima Donna   [Def Jam]

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Vince Staples, despite painting with some deep, blacker-than-obsidian pigments, created something of a template for hope in 2016 on his too-brief Prima Donna EP. When the on-off/win-lose/life-death binary decisions snap in the wrong direction you can draw solace from the spaces in between. A little breathing room opens up situational ambiguity. Hopelessness becomes “sometimes I feel like giving up”—just sometimes, not all the time. Getting war ready doesn’t mean getting strapped up with a Glock; expression is a stronger weapon. For as many references to guns and death and violence and hanging, Staples alludes to all the ways art and literature can sometimes attenuate the bulk of human suffering: he harkens to James Joyce, The Great Gatsby, Edgar Allen Poe, Van Gogh, and Da Vinci.

Prima Donna’s power comes from the tension between action and expression, which is the hazy region of the artist. You can see this in his interview on POTW, where Staples’ cavalier attitude to the recent election’s outcome (“sometimes the good guy wins, sometimes the bad guy wins”) is counterbalanced by a deep empathy for the voiceless. Prima Donna is dark, like a wholly-earned temper tantrum. Ironically, it’s one bright spot in 2016—Vince Staples’ psychic freak-out is a work of art in which we can all share. — B. MICHAEL PAYNE

12. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai     [Iron Works]

honor killed the samurai

Shaolin was built as an escape. Growing up is equal parts boring and scary, so the RZA built an elaborate escape for him and his eight milli brothers. It was a chopsocky jidaigeki fantasy world, lo-fi but lovingly crafted and intricate. And it was fun: the crew swiped from the Lone Wolf and Cub series, but their world was less the tortured solitude of Ogami Itto and more the madcap antics of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai.

A quarter century later, Shaolin is in ruins, by turns neglected and pilfered by its architects for increasingly lame revivals: the statues have been nicked from the temples, the shine is gone from the armor. Even the katanas have grown dull.

Honor Killed the Samurai reads like the diary of the last man in Shaolin. Ka patrols the streets in holey jika-tabi, mumbling to himself about his days of menace. There is nobody to crack jokes with, nobody to interrupt his self-excoriating internal monologue. All he has is his memories of botched robberies and bodies left in the foundations of row houses, set to eerie sample loops and drums turned low so they won’t wake the dead.

What Ka has to say is brutal enough on its own, but Honor’s most unsettling revelation may lie in its post-Wu sonics: real life is bad enough, but Ka turned the fantasy world into a nightmare. — JORDAN PEDERSEN

11. Trim – 1-800-Dinosaur

1800 dinosaur

This shouldn’t have worked. Sensitive soul James Blake roping in affiliated producers to create beats around unadorned Trim vocals sounds like a recipe for disaster on paper. Instead, in a year where grime cashed in on commercial opportunity, the result was a defiantly underground classic, wild in its risk taking and punching way above its weight. First, there’s Trim. Grime’s answer to MF DOOM is equal parts clever, emotional, furious, and creative—bending words and flows to suit his needs and abandoning all pre-fab patterns. A perpetual outsider, he thrives playing by his own rules, dismissing the competition’s approach outright.

Then, there’s the production squad. Boothroyd aside, none had grime credentials, but all approached the sound as particularly astute fans that knew exactly the kind of lo-fi sounds that could complement the vocals. The results are a balm for fans that prefer their music come from the shadows, and who take no pleasure in big, shiny, commercial mix downs or institutional approval. This wasn’t the grime record your mom heard about from catching an Apple Music ad, but it’s the one we’ll still be talking about 15 years from now. — SON RAW

10. Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor    [Fat Possum/Fresh Selects]

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“Perfect” is a word that should be used sparingly, but should be used nonetheless. Like, for instance, in the case of Los Angeles singer Kadhja Bonet and her voice as the two journeyed gleefully together on The Visitor, a fairytale-esque LP lined with whimsy and soft, deeply soulful hues. Call it perfect or “the real shit—” as once deemed by fellow California artist Anderson .Paak—Bonet’s music attests to her authentically artful approach. Having produced the album and played half of the instruments on it, you’d think she would be eager to boast. But the Bay Area-bred singer and multi-instrumentalist (viola, violin, guitar, and flute, to name a few) was as intentionally minimal with press as she was in sound.

This year, she let The Visitor speak on her behalf, entrancing with elegant, swift strings, tempered harps, sedated flutes and, of course, the pure, honey-coated vocals that make the album one of this year’s best. Bonet’s vocals are not the packaged kind of pristine we’re used to adulating, but the warm and cozy sort that hug you like a scarf amid a winter breeze. In an era where imitation is applauded and facade is normalized, The Visitor stands liberated in its own elevated sphere of jazz-soul. Although The Visitor has been keeping a low profile this year, its presence makes an impression on those it greets. — PALEY MARTIN

9. Dam-Funk – DJ Kicks   [IK7]

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If he never released an album, Dam-Funk would still be more than a DJ. He is a funk historian, endlessly fascinated with the genre’s past and forever reshaping our perception of it. For those who haven’t had the privilege of attending Funkmosphere, the Pasadena native’s weekly funk/boogie/modern funk seminars at the Virgil, a quick Google search nets you the countless digital mixes (e.g. The Future of Modern Funk, Beautiful Music for Beautiful People (Vol. 1 and 2), Funk’s Revenge, his Prince mixes) he’s released since his first Stones Throw singles. His installment of the vaunted DJ Kicks series is deserved and long overdue.

While each track of Dam’s DJ Kicks mix merits discrete listening, they become inextricable in his hands. The songs don’t coexist—they speak to one another. Synths from the ‘80s bleed seamlessly into contemporary basslines; keytar solos refract the light of previous generations and project it into the future. You forget where you are on the funk continuum. It’s more than BPM. Dam knows your rhythm. When you want things to speed up, they do. When you want Egyptian Lover, you get “Dial-A-Freak.” That the mix also contains music from Dam himself (“Believer” and Nite Funk’s “Can U Read Me?”), that it happens to be the best modern funk in this galaxy, reminds you how much more he can do. — MAX BELL

8. Anderson .Paak / NxWorries – Malibu / Yes Lawd!  [Steel Wool/Stones Throw]

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Anderson .Paak always sounds like he’s crying out from the pulpit. Even when he’s narrating urban decay on Schoolboy Q’s “Blank Face,” he can’t help but include a note of hope. This year, .Paak was by turns the sincere indie darling who made it big on talent alone and the technicolor Superfly surrogate with an album on Stones Throw. He lent his singular voice to A Tribe Called Quest and Macklemore, but also to Like from Pac Div, Kaytranada, Domo Genesis, TOKiMONSTA, and GoldLink. Yes Lawd! swirls Willie Hutch and Madlib—the same concoction that caught Dr. Dre’s ear—and .Paak provides an oddly human depiction of the anxieties of a pimp. A song about giving up his mistress (“Sidepiece”) has more heart than the entirety of The Weeknd’s major label career because of the candor in .Paak’s performance and writing.

Malibu renders with painful personal detail a working class upbringing in Oxnard, California and a musician’s plodding crawl toward success. Character actor finally meets preacher on “H.A.N.” with scant effect on the spacetime continuum. They pray together to redeem the “ho ass niggas” in the room and .Paak sews together universes with his myriad talents. Ebullience charges his music and it’s easy to love him for it in whichever manifestation. — EVAN NABAVIAN

7. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.  [TDE/Interscope]

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The Passion of the Weiss collective consensus on To Pimp a Butterfly still stands. Kendrick didn’t buckle under the pressure, but he didn’t write Compton’s Ulysses, either. TPAB was admirable, not the best album of 2015. In short, ambition doesn’t denote success, the political isn’t synonymous with profundity, and all that’s jazz does not swing. For more, read Zeus’s contentious review. If you want to save time, you can admit that you don’t listen to TPAB half as much as you listen to untitled unmastered.

Sample clearances and deadlines may have kept the eight songs on untitled unmastered. from TPAB, but their inclusion would’ve been a mistake.These songs betoken a cohesiveness lacking on their sprawling, discursive kin. TPAB’s sonic maximalism, which often forced Kendrick to fight against the beat rather than work within it, is gone. In its place, a looser, sparser instrumentation. Thundercat bass lines go unburied. Sax and trumpet do not dominate, they accentuate.

The aural laxity mirrors Kendrick’s delivery. His cadences are parallel, not perpendicular. On “untitled 02,” he shifts effortlessly from lip quivering croon to string of calm, calculated barbs, to a throat searing coda. It’s the kind of organic build made possible by the space between beats. Even on richer suites, like the melancholically funky “untitled 08,” Kendrick’s rhythm reminds us he doesn’t listen exclusively to Eminem’s “Rap God.” Here and elsewhere, Kendrick’s lyrics display a warmth and directness lost to the cerebral cold of belabored metaphors on TPAB (“Hey, Lucy, do you have any yams?”).

Ultimately, untitled unmastered. is the epilogue to a cautionary tale. It reminds us that rap is most impactful at its most immediate. When faced with impossible expectations, minimalism is the biggest artistic statement. — MAX BELL

6. Rihanna – ANTI    [Westbury Road/Roc Nation[

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Despite a decade’s worth of cultural omnipotence, it’s easy to forget how much of a chameleon Rihanna has been throughout her career. While the pop supernova is probably best known for glittering dance track anthems like the Guetta-fied “We Found Love,” Rihanna’s music always harbored a secret, serrated edge that has made the sum total of her discography truly standout.

Rihanna might have gotten her break doing light pop interpretations of dancehall jams that were all the rage in 2005, but it’s important to remember that she didn’t truly enter the most elite stratum of pop stardom until “Umbrella”—a song that you might remember had harder fucking drums than any rap song in 2007. For most of her career, Rihanna never strayed too far from the fruitful conventions of power dance pop but you should never forget that Rihanna was keeping a buck 50 under the tongue, either. It’s that killer instinct that made ANTI, the hardest and best album of her decade-long career.

ANTI is a record that plays to her most dangerous and exploratory instincts. It eschews much of the traditional dance pop that has defined the biggest hits of her career for sounds that swim easily through a cascade of opposing genres. At one moment, Rihanna is conducting the dancehall minimalism of “Work,” before floating through the ether to cover the woozy, psychedelic synthpop of Tame Impala. The songwriting is personal and adventurous—sifting through her well-established, coolest girl in the room veneer to explore both her growing sense of isolation and disillusionment with the world and the empowerment that comes from overcoming those disappointments. Rihanna’s sense of self on ANTI is more palpable than it has ever been, which helps serve to make the album easily the most rewarding pop package of the year. — DOC ZEUS

5. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition  [Warp]

danny brown

Danny Brown used to do drugs. He still does, but he used to, too. When he released his star-making XXX, Adderall was the Pied Piper which led the Detroit rapper into a more fruitful creative space than he’d ever previously occupied. The back half of 2013’s Old was riddled with MDMA-influenced party rap, which, while arguably inferior to the album’s more introspective Side A, allowed Brown to sustain himself as a bellwether of festival stages throughout the world and build up the financial capital he needed to take his music in darker, stranger, and more progressive directions. In this sense, Atrocity Exhibition is the last in a trio of albums that followed the dialectic model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: On XXX, drugs build Danny Brown; on Old, they sustain him, and on Atrocity Exhibition, they mark his downfall. “Everybody say, you got a lot to be proud of,” he raps on album opener “Downward Spiral,” but he’s “been high this whole time, don’t realize what I done.” In the first verse he raps about being so strung out he can’t sustain an erection; in the second, he envisions himself falling victim to the same demons that swallowed up his ideological ally A$AP Yams.

Brown’s on the relative straight-and-narrow, tweeting in January that he hasn’t touched codeine since 2014 and more recently condemning those who glorify drug use without having experienced its consequences first hand. While the Joy Division song from which it draws its title asks listeners to step into an abyss of horror they can’t possibly understand, Atrocity Exhibition is Brown’s report from the other side. If the album has an argument to make, it’s that when a broke, fucked-up person gets rich they don’t become magically healed—they indulge in their worst tendencies and end up even worse off than before. “Got to the point [I] ain’t gotta buy drugs/N––as just give ‘em to me, they think they showin’ love,” he marvels on “Golddust,” only to double back on the sentiment, finishing the thought with, “…kinda fucked up.”

Like one of his heroes David Bowie, Brown’s tastes are voracious and wide-ranging, in matters both chemical and sexual, but especially musical. Produced almost in full by the British musician Paul White—with contributions from Black Milk, The Alchemist, Evian Christ, and Petite Noir, who also performs the hook on “Rolling Stone”—the record draws influence from the worlds of house, juke, noise, post-punk, krautrock, early Detroit techno, Wax Trax!-style industrial, and in the case of “Golddust,” demonic Oompa Loompa music. Part of what makes the album so brutally effective is the glee with which Brown tackles these instrumentals, which seem loaded with obstacles designed to trip up lesser rappers.

“Danny Brown, man. I mean, fuck,” the hip-hop legend B-Real told me in an interview from earlier this year. “Hearing his shit, it just sparks me.” That’s high praise from a high man, and it encapsulates the wonder that is Danny Brown. — DREW MILLARD

4. Equiknoxx – Bird Sound Power   [DDS]

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Dancehall had a fantastic 2016, with creative riddims abounding and top shelf vocals by stars young and old, but I don’t think anyone expected Equiknoxx’s Bird Sound Power. That’s our bad: Equiknoxx has been operating as part of Jamaica’s music industry for years, cranking out lefter-than-left rhythmic concoctions for a rotating family of vocalists, but few outside the dancehall massive’s core following have been paying attention, until now. Bird Sound Power is an outreach to the wider world. The instrumental format is perfect for conventional dance music fans, but it never feels cynical or watered down. Instead, the LP doubles down on weirdness, throwing more curveballs per track than most producers pack in an album. DMZ wubs, beat scene bluntedness, double time drums and earworm melodies collide across its 12 tracks, none of which really sound like another. Not to be outdone, Bird Sound Power never sounds obtuse or difficult. It’s the kind of wormhole that will have you hunting down their entire musical universe until you realize, shocked, that this instrumental thing isn’t even what they really do.

Above all else, it offers the kind of ‘what the fuck’ moment that’s become all too rare in music, the same kind we collectively experienced when we first heard King Tubby or Scratch and had our musical possibilities blown open by Jamaican innovation. After hearing this, it’s hard to get excited about the same old trap beats. — SON RAW

3 Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade [TDE]

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The Sun’s Tirade opens with a fed-up phone call, a friend near the end of his rope. Where the fuck is the album? Then Isaiah Rashad comes with the mission statement: If I can pay my bills, I’m good.

Those eight words seem to set the tone, but they’re actually a bit of misdirection. Yes, “4r Da Squaw” is slow, long, languid. The whole front half of The Sun’s Tirade is. Yes, most of what’s supposed to be a breakthrough record feels like an aimless, unworried creep through Chattanooga. And yet the whole time, Isaiah’s circling something—and when he finds it, he goes for the jugular.

That turn comes on “A lot,” which sounds like your first time trying anything harder than weed. The more-or-less idyllic summers melt away, making room for something meaner. “AA” is a villain’s theme; “Dressed Like Rappers” takes the A-side’s meandering and gives it an existential weight. “Real life—what does it feel like?” And with the album’s unlikely climax, a dance cut called “Don’t Matter,” which seems designed to play at rain-delayed festival dates, he snaps fully upright. It’s a full, 180-degree turn from the record’s beginning. And it’s entirely earned.

The Sun’s Tirade’s genius isn’t cordoned off in that homestretch. “Free Lunch” is drenched in fryer grease and hears Rashad lapse into Pimp C interpolations; “Tity and Dolla” fulfills the promise of Playaz Circle by caking Ferraris in dust and shrugging off the bill for detailing. The whole record argues for Rashad’s place among rap’s premier writers. His work is impressionistic, thick with humidity, and well worth the time it takes to tease out. — Paul Thompson

2. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank you 4 Your Service [Epic]

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How much is friendship worth? Would you take $500,000 to cut off your closest friends? How about $1 million? Would you keep them around if there were no obligations to make you have to spend time with them? Would you slowly drift away if tension got thick? Would you address it publicly? Would you passive aggressively stick around out of duty and loyalty but say nothing?

These are the questions Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Jarobi, Ali Shaeed Muhammed, Consequence, and Busta Rhymes have asked themselves since the championship run of the Blessed Trilogy of Tribe’s first wave of LP’s. Being in a group with your best friends is HARD, especially when that group is signed to a six album deal to Jive Records and worth millions of dollars and you’re all under 30.

Jarobi bounced and became a chef after People’s Instinctive Travels. Busta’s own group Leaders of the New School would meltdown publicly on Yo! MTV Raps right after the release of Midnight Marauders. Consequence appeared to push Phife out on Beats, Rhymes & Life, and had public spats with Q-Tip, Kanye, Joe Budden, and Pusha T. Q-Tip and Phife showed how decades of history and resentment looked backstage in Michael Rappaport’s heartbreakingly necessary documentary in 2011.

The music barely suffered—even The Love Movement, their disappointing and hyped up “break up album” album, had jams. Their debut hit the same year as MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and “The Humpty Dance.” By the time they disbanded eight years later, they were competing with DMX, Jay-Z, and Master P. “Find a Way” was their last big single, and it sounds just as breezy and fun as “Bonita Applebaum.” But everyone hated each other. The youthful friendship that led to “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” in 1990 was a joyless industry obligation on “1nce Again” in 1996. By 1998, Tribe decided it was better to kill the group and the obligations that came with it rather than strain their friendships any further. As we saw in the documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life, things didn’t work out that way. It’s only because of their genius talents that they were able to fake it on two full length albums.

So here we are, 18 years later, where five guys in their forties, with a whole lot on their plates (mortgages, college tuitions) decided to hang out again. The fact that the result is We Got it From Here..Thank You For Your Service is a bonus. Like Ishmael Butler told me on this very site, the vibe is the map, and Tribe historically has won people over with vibes: sports, jazz, crushes, pre-Giuliani New York, buggin’ out, music past midnight, kickin’ routines on Linden Blvd. It’s always been a feeling. Beats, Rhymes & Life, a solid 4 mic album, and Love Movement, a cool 3.5 mic album, lacked THAT FEELING. “Space Program,” “We the People,” “The Donald,” “Solid Wall of Sound,” “Conrad Tokyo,” and “Mobius” FEEL LIKE TRIBE. They feel like the best version of Tribe, led by unquestionably the best rapper/producer of all time; a chef who became a charismatic rapper 25 years after he left; a Trinidadian warrior who sacrificed his life to finish the album; and Busta, who is still better than Eminem.

The only way to know that this album was made in the past year is through the current political themes behind “Space Program,” “We the People,” and “The Donald.” But there are no trap hi hats, no autotune, and actual basslines played on a guitar. “Space Program” could be a leftover beat from The Love Movement. “Ego” could be an updated demo from Low End Theory. “Black Spasmodic” feels like a vinyl-only b-side released during Midnight Marauders. The album debuted at #1 while sounding like nothing made in the past 10 years.

What it does sound like, namely on “Solid Wall of Sound,” is a bunch of guys who could not WAIT to rap together—the in-and-out bar sequence, the patois, the unchained flows, the Beastie Boys distorted vocals over an AM radio jam from Elton John. How much is that feeling worth to a group of guys who have decades of love, hate, big money, and unrivaled greatness between them? This album wasn’t crowdsourced or auctioned off to a sociopath for millions—it was created in secret and in person to get the vibes right. There were no guarantees it would come out or be any good—I don’t think anyone expected much when it was announced a week before release. But it’s the best Tribe album since 1993 because it took them all twenty three years to realize that you rap with your best friends because it’s fun. — ZILLA ROCCA

1. YG – Still Brazy [Def Jam]

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You don’t react to a battering ram with a bouquet. So it makes sense that the best album of this migraine year would be a fuck you in rap form, a paranoid artillery purge in every direction, evidence that the only sane response to madness is more madness.

James Brown told us a long time ago that karate is less effective than crazy. Ice Cube agreed. YG embodies that ethos. Martial arts are worthless when cold blooded killers know your studio access code, and attempt to turn you to hamburger next to the In-N-N-Out on Cahuenga. Complicated political treatises sound obsolete when the president-elect calls Mexicans rapists, cozies up with the Klan, and makes Mr. Burns look like Mr. Nanny (starring our new Director of Homeland Security.)

“Fuck Donald Trump” was as brutally effective and blood simple as “Fuck the Police,” and for the last six months, it’s boomed out of more car systems than anything I’ve heard since “California Love.” Most of the criticism surrounding Still Brazy hailed its role in resuscitating G-Funk, but that’s only half true. The synthesizers might inspire talkbox seances with Roger Troutman, but the drums and bass lines reflect a holistic sweep of the last quarter century of popular West Coast rap music from hyphy to ratchet, G-Funk to jerkin.’ It’s what you’d imagine it would sound like projected 25 years from the publication of City of Quartz.

YG made an album to incinerate subwoofers, to supply the levitating menace still lurking behind the neighborhoods that sell $9 coffees. It’s as eternally LA as Roscoe’s or al pastor tacos, palm trees or paranoia, the sunshine and glock nine dialectic that courses through classic gangsta rap, Laurel Canyon cocaine freakouts, and film noir.

As the surveillance state gets dismantled and re-molded into its next insidious mask, Still Brazy reminds you that there’s always been someone creeping through the window, tapping your phones, scheming on your bank account, significant other, or sense of freedom. It is as straightforward and political as a clenched fist, a garbage can through a glass storefront, or an act of arson. It’s rebellion not through online petition but through active assault. He balances calls for racial unity with acid in the eyes of the body politic, blood walk odes to gangbanging with grave reminders of the consequences. Or maybe you’d prefer the simpler interpretation: it bangs, it slaps, it goes hard, that shit brazy, etc.

The first words are a lament from his father wishing the family left when they still had the chance. The last words are a litany of names of those that the police got away with murdering. In between, YG considers how close he came to joining the ranks of those that stopped breathing. He takes a few breaks to celebrate the fact that we’re still here, but more often, offers a powerful reminder that we’re still broken. — Jeff Weiss

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