That’s because apart from the seemingly never-ending onslaught of legends that have passed in the first six months of 2016, there has been a lot of seriously excellent music, too. Consider this a mid-year wake up call — a guide which will help you catch some of these acts while they are still on the road in support of their latest releases, and before you might have to snag a more expensive ticket to see them following others’ year-end listicles.
Without further ado, here are our top 10 albums of the year so far:
A sonically-stunning visual album which has inspired and empowered legions of listeners worldwide, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is more than just the biggest smash of the first half of 2016: It’s a thought-provoking work of art. Beyoncé publicly explores issues of femininity and faithfulness, curating a visually and sonically stunning account of a modern day woman. Throughout myriad beat breaks and vocal runs, it’s this higher sense of purpose which propels Lemonade to the critics circle this year — a genre and thought-busting record of the highest order.
In many ways, the January release of Blackstar, David Bowie’s dark and creative final album, has set the tone for the entire year of music. Because amidst surprising and high-profile deaths, the music world has been producing some of its most starkly creative works in years. Bowie’s 26th release, which will likely go down as one of his best ever, is no exception. The famed British pop star blends work from jazz musicians like drummer Mark Giuliana and saxophonist Donny McCaslin with the classic sounds of producer Tony Visconti, resulting in a swan song which is as groovy, complex, and as odd as the man himself.
Following the release of Malibu, a spectacular amalgamation of hip-hop and R&B which feels perfectly suited for a post-Kendrick Lamar world, Anderson .Paak may be the brightest rising star in the music world. Malibu is groovy and heavily laden with talented musical efforts from all involved, but is perhaps most marvelous for the way in which its creator is able to showcase his varied talents. Whether he is banging out drum beats, singing hooks, or enthralling with quick-paced speech-song, .Paak proves himself to be a thoroughly enticing multi-instrumentalist, a 21st century Stevie Wonder whose musical mind seems dead set on making history.
For a band like Radiohead, whose legendary musical explorations have made them both beloved musical icons the world over, and some of the most heavily-scrutinized creators on the planet, it’s tough to exceed expectations. But A Moon Shaped Pool, the spiritual sequel to 2005’s now-classic In Rainbows, did just that. A powerful and cohesive work, the album managed to touch on the band’s sonic past while recontextualizing their ideas based on the decade they had between them.
Ok, nitpickers, technically this one is a mixtape. But with high-priced production, and collaborations with many of the biggest names in music, the only thing that really makes Chance The Rapper’s third release Coloring Book not “technically” an album is the fact that it didn’t come out on a major label. And given the attention he brings to unsigned acts everywhere, that’s probably just more reason to praise him. As far as the music is concerned, Coloring Book is a smorgasbord of contemporary hip-hop sounds, ranging from smooth and soulful to heavy and Southern. But though it may feel at times like a patchwork quilt of singles, the release is stitched together with endearing soulfulness, the same Chicago-born hope which brought idealists like Barack Obama and (pre-Yeezus) Kanye to the fore.
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 which was named with tongue firmly in cheek. Even at it’s 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 chillaxing with a steaming cup of tea in the midnight air, just after you finally quit that job you hate, or leave that significant other who doesn’t treat you right.
From the moment the first notes of opening track No Woman hit your ears, Whitney’s Light Upon The Lake feels like it is going to be perfect, and by the time the tenth cut rolls around, you’re still waiting for the first musical mistake. Clean, well-orchestrated summer rock with strings, horns, and spectacularly layered melodies, the Chicago band’s debut is a masterpiece of modern indie rock. At times groovy, at times slow and dreamy, the album is warm and thoughtful — Chicago’s best post-Wilco effort, and one which casually flaunts its midwestern alt-country influence, perhaps most successful for harnessing Wilco’s impossible-t0-hate aesthetic.
Hatian-Canadian producer Louis Kevin Celestin (AKA Kaytranada) first made a name for himself as a SoundCloud-based beatsmith, so it’s not surprising that his debut album 99.9% showcases a wide variety of influences. An up-and-coming artist whose collaborators read like a who’s-who of modern pop music — Anderson .Paak, Syd, Rihanna, etc — the musician’s first formal amalgamation of songs feels casual in its diversity. It’s almost as though each track, from four-on-the-floor EDM-style jams to DJ-Shadow-esq beat breaks, is an audition for a series of celebrity collaborations. Thing is, there’s very few producers who can pull off music with such a wide variety of sounds and influences, and even fewer still who could arrange that material into a cohesive album. For beat-lovers and hip-hop nerds alike, this is one worth copping.
Andy Shauf mixes personal experience with fantasy on The Party, a concept album which centers around various parties and the differing perspectives of their attendees. Tiny one-song vignettes which come accompanied by strings, percussion, and Shauf himself on virtually every instrument — right down to a meandering clarinet — the album is full of astute interpersonal observations and a wallflower’s social anxieties. It’s one for lyric-lovers and readers of short stories, a record whose fairytales expose breakups, friendship, and self-doubt, all via a beautiful and nostalgic pop lens. It’s like Brian Wilson was less crazy and more astute, or Paul McCartney spent more time unnoticed.
For someone who has put out two albums in the past 9 months, songwriter and recent Matador Records signee Will Toledo never seems short of the right words. “I get to know myself every weekend/And I’m weak,” he croons on a song called (Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem). It’s this sort of introverted self-criticism which serves as a never-ending wellspring for Toledo, whose band culled its name from the fact that he used to record lyrics in the back of his car for privacy. A prolific musician who released over 10 records on Bandcamp before his eventual label took notice, Toledo is among the most interesting rising voices in music of late, a self-made man whose work is deep, odd, and interesting.
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