What a crazy year for music.
We’ve lost innumerable high-profile musicians and songwriters, witnessed heated battles between artists and streaming services, and even seen the hospitalization of one of the music world’s biggest icons.
If this year’s happenings have taught us anything it’s this: Even when the light at the end of the tunnel feels like it’s slowly fading, great artwork will always prevail. And in that spirit, despite major challenges in the music industry and the world at large, 2016 was one of the best years for new music we’ve seen in a long time.
Each week this year, we’ve have had the distinct pleasure of listening to as much new music as possible, hoping not only to help ease the stresses of the world around us, but also the stresses of choice that can be a burden for the modern listener. We’ve listened to all of of the most-hyped (and many of the lesser-known) records and assembled our favorites into this ranked list of 50. Here, you will find newcomers and long-established artists alike, a living, breathing portrait of some of the most exciting sounds being made today.
Here are our top 50 albums of the year, for your listening pleasure. Want to explore in more depth? Check out our full Spotify playlist.
1. David Bowie — Blackstar
David Bowie’s final album is a dense and melodic look straight into the eyes of the end of his days, offered to the world by one of its greatest-ever songwriters. Every one of Blackstar’s 41 minutes feels vitally important to this tombstone work, a maze of jazz-influenced sounds that will keep many pondering life’s true meaning for years to come.
2. Frank Ocean — Blonde
In a musical universe that feeds on hype, the four-year wait for Frank Ocean’s second studio album felt like it bolstered impossibly high critical expectations. But even so, Blonde is all that we hoped it could be and more. Within are 17 tracks of experimental R&B with soulful interludes and introverted musical explorations — including some of the downright hippest chord structures we’ve ever heard from a major release. There’s almost no drums on Blonde, an album which instead relies on the singer’s own beautifully melodic musings to drive it from start to finish.
3. Beyoncé — Lemonade
The immense sense of empowerment felt by women — and particularly women of color — at the hands of Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is unparalleled in the world of pop. Searingly honest and staggeringly diverse in form and structure, the musical queen uses intimate personal pains and superimposes them on the downtrodden at large, grabbing listeners by the scruff of the neck for a journey of self-acknowledgement, actualization, and improvement.
4. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen’s final work is a gritty canvas of darkness painted with sandpaper-like vocals and tempered by church choir vocals, piano, and organ. You Want It Darker is a musical work that showcases the ideological battles that humanity faces at life’s end, a weighty tome in which the recently deceased songwriter fights a losing battle — hand to hand, lyric to lyric — with death itself.
5. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Anderson .Paak burst onto the music scene early this year, following a signing to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint and several high-profile collaborations with the LA hip-hop mogul. Despite his high-profile sideman work, it’s his own record which revolutionized the sounds of 2016. A bright batch of upbeat singles that puts a bow on Southern California’s recent jazz-influenced hip-hop renaissance, Malibu is a release without a single dull moment that will have you dancing from first song to last.
6. Bon Iver — 22, A Million
Through the plentiful layers of cryptic visual and musical symbolism that appear on 22, A Million, there is a deep sense of honesty to Wisconsinite Justin Vernon’s most recent release as Bon Iver. This is a record that makes its own room in your universe. Instead of layering disparate ideas offhandedly on top of one another, Vernon assembles his inner voices in compelling musical piles, blending auto-tuned lyrics, drum machines, and woodwind orchestras to create a collage of sounds that demands deep, focused attention—and many repeat plays.
7. Porches — Pool
Don’t let the nostalgic tones that lay the foundation on New York-based outfit Porches’ latest canvas fool you: This is not just a synth-pop record. On Pool, classic hook-based production meets dark and introverted lyrics, manifesting as an album that feels old and new at the same time. This is dystopia en audio, the perfect match for the powerful emotions of 2016.
8. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
Die hards may always cling to the classics, but with its staggeringly desolate, melodic, and highly cinematic compositions, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped crowds the upper echelon of the British rock band’s recorded works to date. Given their pedigree many would say they aren’t surprised, but that’s a shame, because even in a world that already has In Rainbows, Kid A, and OK Computer, this particular rabbit hole stands up.
9. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book
If the average album were a single meal, Coloring Book would be a full-on Vegas buffet. Disparate and exploratory, Chicago’s newest hip-hop king explores all sides of his sonic personality, shouting choruses with Lil Wayne in trap-laden glory on No Problem one minute, singing church-laden praises on Blessings the next. It’s not the smoothest listening experience from track to track, but it is a deep demonstration of all hip-hop’s stratified layers, in which each track serves as an example of a sub-genre’s highest peaks.
10. Big Thief — Masterpiece
Beyond its beautiful tones and soaring guitar solos, Big Thief’s Masterpiece is one of melancholy — a window into the soul of songwriter Adrianne Lenker, with a title crafted with tongue firmly in cheek. Even at its boldest and most overdriven, the debut from this Brooklyn-based, four-piece group is hauntingly pretty, rife with dark and honest memories that float throughout its 12 tracks. This is the sort of thing you put on while chilling with a steaming cup of tea in the midnight air, just after you finally quit that job you hated, or left that significant other who didn’t treat you right.
11. Car Seat Headrest — Teens Of Denial
After six years and 12 self-published albums, songwriter Will Toledo nabbed a deal with Matador records and went slightly higher-fidelity for his two most recent releases, late-2015’s Teens Of Style and this year’s Teens Of Denial. The latter is an obvious evolution from his days tracking vocals in the backseat of his car (and naming his band after it). Teens Of Denial is an easy-listening — and deeply witty — rock album that transforms real-life experiences into musical poetry of the highest order, and absolutely defies comparison in the record store.
12. KAYTRANADA — 99.9%
KAYTRANADA’s Polaris-prize winning 99.9% percent may actually be the best business card ever made. A pop album on which the Canadian producer divides his time between hip-hop, house, trap, and various other groove-driven forms, the release serves as an amazing showcase of his full musical range. It’s a tour de force with tracks that can be plucked for virtually every dance genre’s year-end “best tracks” list.
13. A Tribe Called Quest — We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
After the passing of legendary rapper Phife Dawg earlier this year, it feels appropriate that iconic rap group A Tribe Called Quest would fly out of 2016 having released one of their heaviest-hitting records of their illustrious career. Daring and political as ever, the Tribe welcomes the efforts of numerous famed collaborators on what the group says will be their final record, a throwback set that offers several verses from Phife that were recorded before his passing.
14. Júníus Meyvant — Floating Harmonies
The lush arrangements that abound on Icelandic songwriter Júníus Mayvant’s Floating Harmonies feel like they could only emerge from the soul of someone who has the constant opportunity to gaze at nature’s overwhelming beauty. Waves of horns and percussive instruments shake their way through your vision at various distances in this audio portrait, a massive landscape work that shows off layered musical ideas in constant motion, like shimmering waves of grass.
15. Pinegrove — Cardinal
A likable songwriter’s smorgasbord, Pinegrove’s debut album Cardinal centers on sometimes dictionary-demanding lyrical explorations of friendship and loss. The album borrows from alt-country and proto-indie influences, but still stands steadfastly on its own two feet. Odd-metered breaks and purposely rambling rhythmic placements make these compositions fit like a glove that only this New Jersey band can wear, demonstrating a distinct musical personality that the majority of artists seek, but very few actually achieve.
16. Whitney — Light Upon the Lake
The sounds of this year’s summer came via Chicago indie veterans Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich. Their post-Smith Westerns outfit Whitney modernized their city’s rich (Wilco-laden) history of carefree pop jams, via this spectacular debut album. Light Upon the Lake boasts clean, timeless songs that glimmer in the sunlight, with various strings and horns that give them immense potential for continuous repeat spins.
17. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo
The slow, genre-defying evolution of Kanye West’s music is at the forefront of The Life of Pablo. Here, the producer-turned-musical-icon breaks his influences and collaborators apart humpty-dumpty style before reassembling them into a modern work of musical genius. As usual, West pushes boundaries in lyrics and beat choices, eschewing his formerly smooth-flowing album style for a more shocking, honest, and dystopian sonic playground.
18. Ryley Walker — Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Golden Sings That Have Been Sung is a swinging set of ashy recordings from singer-songwriter Riley Walker that would easily be at home in any jazz club, but that are actually best enjoyed in a dive bar. A meandering, working-man’s epic, Walker’s virtuosic acoustic guitar and soul searching vocals perfectly accompany late-night scenes from America’s most prolific gamblers, smokers, and drinkers.
19. Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN
Angel Olson’s third release, MY WOMAN, increased her enigmatic presence in the music world, trashing all criticisms that the Missouri-born songwriter was only capable of writing haunting ballads. Rock anthems like Shut Up Kiss Me feel well worthy of high school bedroom dance-offs, and the distinctly 1970s-influenced Not Gonna Kill You feels like it would easily fit on a classic Neil Young record.
20. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered.
Even without a major studio release this year, Kendrick Lamar — widely considered the most talented wordsmith in the business — was able to leave an indelible mark on our eardrums. On untitled unmastered. the Compton-based rapper explores even more esoteric forms than last year’s To Pimp A Butterfly. His immense talent helps these eight pieces of musical clay seem more fully formed than many other musicians’ kiln-fired offerings.
21. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
A modern take on outlaw country with lyrics that wax poetic about hallucinogens like DMT in between bouts of haunting string work, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth breathes new wind in the sails of an increasingly stale genre. This is a country star with a unique personality. He covers Nirvana, doesn’t have (or brag about) an alcohol problem, and doesn’t sop up the place with flabby singles about long lost love.
22. Alexis Taylor — Piano
Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor has the kind of distinct and poetic voice that very few harness into greatness. On his third solo album, Piano, he showcases his gruff pipes in the most intimate of settings, tearing off the layers he dawns in his famed synth-pop outfit in favor of soft and gentle ballads.
23. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like A Levee
Classic songwriter tropes rarely come together as well as they do on Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like A Levee. Clean acoustic and slide guitars join a voice that feels expressly designed for the purpose of inspiring the downtrodden to gaze at the sunset. In a world of blasé coffee-shop music and computer programmers dressed like lumberjacks, it can be hard to see through the insincere pop-songwriter filler. This one’s the real deal.
24. Margaret Glaspy — Emotions And Math
In a year of terrific debut records, singer Margaret Glaspy’s Emotions And Math stands out for its dynamic and unpretentious song structures. Witty and warm, but with a tendency to lean on gritty guitar tones and hard-headed emotions, Glaspy emerges as a unique songwriter, peddling her wares in a package that feels authentic, simple, and pure.
25. J Dilla — The Diary
Modern hip-hop’s lord and savior blessed the world with a fantastic posthumous release this year, a long-lost vocal album which featured long verses from the man himself. J Dilla, who passed away from a rare disease in 2006, once again proves his status as the king of beatsmiths, while simultaneously edging his way up the list of all-time-great emcees.
26. Parquet Courts — Human Performance
A near-perfect blend of art-rock and modern political sentiments, Parquet Courts’ Human Performance cements the band as among the most important of the decade so far. Everything that appears in this musical mist feels like a gorgeous homage to what rock and roll used to be: There’s a bit of Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, and even a hint of Pere Ubu to chomp on, among other flavors.
27. Andy Shauf — The Party
Canadian songwriter Andy Shauf’s latest album is a whirling batch of party-themed vignettes with perfectly-woven stories of friendship, jealousy, nervousness, and loss. This is a concept album with instrumentation and melody executed on Brian Wilson-esque levels. The Party walks casually across a conceptual high wire, delivering a set of beautifully arranged melodies that can be enjoyed even without embracing its heady subjects.
28. Common — Black America Again
The long-reigning king of conscious rap returned late this year, offering a milestone for his eleventh studio album that perfectly encapsulates the politically charged discourse in 2016. Black America Again is a protest album of the highest order. It reinvigorates the career of an always-terrific rapper by embracing more modern production techniques and forms, retaining just enough soul-rap brush strokes to feel like a logical extension of his catalog.
29. Kevin Morby — Singing Saw
Lush vintage production and Leonard Cohen-influenced speech-song abound on Kevin Morby’s latest opus, Singing Saw, but the album never gets too heady for its own good. Instead, we get an imminently listenable record that feels casually assembled even though it isn’t, a well of secrets that gives more and more with each repeat listen.
30. Weaves — Weaves
In terms of sheer disruptive quirk, very few albums compete with the fractured, playful melodies of Toronto-based rock band Weaves’ self-titled debut. It shrieks and moans, it wags its head back and forth, it walks into your life and throws a big bucket of ink on it. It’s real rock and roll, and it demands your attention for good reason.
31. Sandy’s — Prom
Beach-guitar melodies and silky-smooth vocals meander throughout California-based songwriter Alexi Glickman’s latest work, a buttery batch of five songs that should come packaged with a sunset and a beading glass of iced tea. Prom is so gentle and personal it can be difficult to share, the kind of music that feels like it bubbles your deepest, most personal thoughts to the surface for the whole world to see.
32. The Avalanches — Wildflower
A modern, sample-laden classic — and the first formal effort from famed Australian DJ collective The Avalanches in 16 years — Wildflower is an all-around joy to listen to. Nostalgic soul grooves join with guest verses from historic underground rap kings like Camp Lo and modern soothsayers like Danny Brown in a set of songs that’s enough to tide you over for the next 16 years.
33. Steve Gunn — Eyes On The Lines
The best album for driving that we heard in 2016, Steve Gunn’s Eyes On The Lines encourages listeners to keep chugging and enjoy life to the fullest as it unfolds in front of them. Heavily layered arrangements are manipulated gracefully in the ways of old. The result is a deep listening experience akin to classic records from The Band, but with the good ‘ol boy sentimentality replaced by profound and revelatory lyrics.
34. Doug Tuttle — It Calls On Me
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that Doug Tuttle’s It Calls On Me came out in the late ’60s. It’s brimming with classic Beatles-era tones, but opts for driving ride-cymbal melodies, an amalgamation that sounds like The Fab Four and The War On Drugs had a lovely, groove-heavy stepchild.
35. Margo Price — Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
A strummy Southern gem, Margo Price uses Midwest Farmer’s Daughter to prove that classic country is, in fact, alive and well — if you know where to look. Recorded at Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios, Price echoes the sentiments of many of her outlaw country forefathers, sharing dark and compelling stories that equal classics from The Man In Black’s golden era.
36. Maxwell — BlackSUMMERS’night
For all its integration in modern hip-hop releases, the neo-soul genre has been feeling somewhat tired as a standalone concept of late. Enter Maxwell, whose sexually-charged opus BlackSUMMERS’night is as fit for critical alone time as it is critical listening. Regardless of the setting in which you enjoy it, don’t skip a single track: Be it id or ego, some part of you will regret it.
37. Night Moves — Pennied Days
Midwestern pop ensemble Night Moves’ Pennied Days snatches your attention right from the outset, taking you on a journey that sounds a bit like all of the catchiest Fleetwood Mac songs were reworked by Tame Impala. In doing so, the band offers listeners the best of both worlds: An album that can be easily savored on expensive speakers in a perfectly-tuned room, or on a boombox at the job site.
38. Day Wave — Hard To Read
As a craftsman of bite-sized pop morsels, there are few in the music world who match the talent of buzzed-about Oakland songwriter Jackson Phillips. His solo project, Day Wave, offers syncopated hooky singles that are absolutely slathered in special sauce. On Hard To Read, choppy drums and cool synth tones sit atop punchy bass lines, with spacious reverbed vocals floating through the cut like a chilly San Francisco mist.
39. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
A collaborative album from Ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij and The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine pulls the best from both bands, giving listeners a record that is simultaneously high-minded and jean jacket ready. Songs like A 1000 Times feel like the sort of thing Iggy Pop might drunkenly bellow in the corner of a late-night bar room, while In A Black Out borrows the classic, orchestral guitar trick from Leonard Cohen to form a single that could easily warm the masses at Carnegie Hall.
40. Okkervil River — Away
On Away, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff opens up the grit of his midlife crisis, sharing tales of tumult and loss over slowly growing pop arrangements like lead single Okkervil River R.I.P. The melancholy is palpable throughout, but this album also feels extremely cathartic, like a songwriter’s big grey elephant has been finally set loose to roam the plains.
41. Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing
It’s hard to put your finger on what makes an album with production as simple as Frankie Cosmos’ Next Thing so fantastic. Somewhere in a field of dry drum tones, pitch-perfect vocal harmonies, and poetic lyricism, Next Thing teaches a lesson to songwriters everywhere: If the music itself is well-written, you really don’t need all that fancy gear.
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42. Psychic Ills — Inner Journey Out
New York-based Phsychic Ills’ chilled-out rock with a blurry summer edge is the perfect companion to a calm walk down a busy sidewalk, or a gentle cruise up a California highway. On Inner Journey Out, lead singer Tres Warren explores the hectic nature of life’s constant motion, employing pedal steel guitar and church choir backgrounds to set himself — and his listeners — at ease.
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43. Bill Ryder-Jones — West Kirby County Primary
In many ways, Bill Ryder-Jones’ West Kirby County Primary feels like a group of long-lost Elliott Smith singles. Sparse guitars and simple rhythms underly world-class songwriting, culminating in an emotional musical experience that ranks among the year’s most compelling.
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44. KING — We Are KING
An R&B fan’s delight, Prince-approved trio KING’s harmony-laden debut has been traded like a secret among fans of the genre since it first landed on shelves in February. This thick and vibrant blend of sounds rolls slowly into your eardrums, requiring intense attention to get back out again.
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45. Fruit Bats — Absolute Loser
Five years after their last release — and three years after they officially broke up — Fruit Bats offer audiences a triumphant return in Absolute Loser. Blending folk rock with shimmering synths and great vocal harmonies, Fruit Bats assemble a greatest hits of past sonic exploration in an album that feels as comfortable as your favorite pair of jeans.
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46. Carl Broemel — 4th of July
The third solo release from My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel feels like it didn’t get a fair shake in the cutthroat world of music criticism. Considered one of the finest living guitar players, Broemel got sideways thumbs from most taste-making blogs, ribbed for curating a record that is decidedly more guitar-bland than the one they desired from his ten shredding fingers. But when those kinds of expectations are put aside, 4th of July‘s eight tracks transform into a post-trip back massage of an album: Extremely well-produced, extremely easy to listen to, and oozing with alt-country grace.
47. Cass McCombs — Mangy Love
The steady-on work ethic of songwriters like Cass McCombs, whose eighth studio album once again ranks him among the finest creators of the year, should be an inspiration to us all. The casual, lived-in aesthetic that meanders throughout Mangy Love feels like it can only come from a songsmith with so many notches in his belt, showcasing skills that can only be acquired from years of hard work.
48. Hovvdy — Taster
Low-fi Austin band Hovvdy’s Taster employs their DIY aesthetic as a form of intimate engagement, with slow-rolling singles that may as well be bleeding through your speakers from the apartment across the hall.
49. Michael Kiwanuka — Love & Hate
Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate blends the history of black music — from field-recorded blues to modern African guitar — into something profound, defiant, and innovative. This is an album that could be described as R&B, Soul, Blues, or Afro-beat, but is best taken on its own terms. Oh, and you’d best be prepared to dance.
50. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree
The black void that surrounds Nick Cave’s soul is as present as ever on Skeleton Tree, a record which could just as easily be labeled beat poetry as music. Emotionally charged and full of loss — Cave’s 15-year-old son fell from a cliff and died in July of 2015 — Skeleton Tree is dense and heavy, but not overly so, maintaining a spacious balance between thoughtful lyrics, background synths, and washed-out drums.
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