20. Parquet Courts, Human Performance
So far, Parquet Courts has shown little interest in straight lines. Rather, having released four stylistically diverse full-length albums and two EPs between 2011-15, the Brooklyn band veers all over the place, as if they’re in a hurry to capture all of today’s ideas before a fresh burst of inspiration sends them scurrying off in a new direction tomorrow.
As such, Parquet Courts folds disparate impulses into 14 new songs (including one digital-only track) on Human Performance, an album that is impressively well balanced among hooks, smarts and sharp edges. There’s some of each on opener “Dust,” a hypnotic tune piling catchy unison guitars and droning keyboards over a propulsive rhythm that feels like it need never stop. “Outside” is as simple a song as they’ve written musically, yet singer Andrew Savage crams a lifetime’s worth of existential uncertainty into a minute and 46 seconds, and makes you want to hear it again. But for all their obvious musical ability, the band’s real skill here is blending so many unexpected elements into a coherent whole that is at once adventurous and accessible, even if—or maybe because—you have to hustle a little to keep up. —Eric R. Danton
19. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Following his 2014 breakthrough, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is more ambitious by an order of magnitude than anything the Kentucky-born singer has done before. It’s a country album at its core, but there’s a whole lot more happening here besides. Simpson dips into the sound of vintage soul with horns courtesy of the Dap-Kings. He often evokes the countrypolitan flipside to the outlaw movement with lush string charts and full-throated vocals that suggest there’s a “Rhinestone Cowboy” for every generation. And he indulges his moody inner teen with a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” that swells from spare and brooding to full on rhapsodic by the end. But as an album of songs that he mostly wrote for his son, Simpson captures the passion, joy, anguish and exhaustion that are part of first-time parenthood. It makes the album a powerful tribute to his son, while establishing Simpson as an artist who, despite his country heart, simply won’t be confined by notions of genre or, for that matter, anyone else’s expectations. —Eric R. Danton
18. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
It would be easy to paint Dev Hynes’ third album under the Blood Orange moniker as a reactionary response to the shifting political landscape, Black Lives Matter, or even the police violence against minorities that has marked the last few years. But while all these ideas get play (“Hands Up” in particular features a heartbreaking nod to Trayvon Martin) at the heart of Freetown Sound is a string of personal meditations. Strung between a glossy blend of funk, R&B, electro, pop, jazz, spoken word samples, Hynes doesn’t hesitate in asking the difficult questions as he attempts to make peace with his own sense of race, masculinity, and sexuality in a world that’s bent on judging him as both too much and not enough. It’s far from a dower affair. “Best of You” leans towards a tropical beat, and “Desirée” plays like a sun-drenched soul single. Meanwhile “Thank You” unspools with the grace of a Michael Jackson ballad (appropriate since with both hooks and stage presence Hynes might be the only musician working today positioned to take the “King of Pop” title). Throw in assists from Nelly Furtado and Deborah Harry and the result is a surprisingly smooth lullaby for uneasy times. —Laura Studarus
17. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
The nine new songs that make up You Want It Darker explore very similar territory as 1992’s The Future, but Leonard Cohen’s perspective appears to have shifted slightly since then. On that album, he predicted a future far worse than anything we could imagine, and sadly, events of the past two decades have shown him to be very prescient.
The suggestion running through all of the songs on the album is that everybody should be getting ready for whatever fate is waiting for them. In that respect, You Want It Darker could be viewed as a summing up or an accounting of how an individual has lived his life. However, another theme involves making peace with the world and oneself, as expressed in tracks like “Treaty,” “Leaving The Table,” “On The Level” and “Traveling Light” that each examine the duties and pitfalls of mortal life.
Leonard Cohen’s fans have been spoiled with a wealth of very good new material in the last decade, so it’s become easy to take his continued ability to produce a seemingly endless stream of songs for granted. For, as understated as they were, his last two albums, Old Ideas and Popular Problems, were very solid additions to his discography. Whatever they lacked in the way of musical innovation, they were still as good as many of Cohen’s recordings from the past. You Want It Darker is better than either of those records, and may contain the best music he has created since Various Positions came out in 1984. —Douglas Heselgrave
16. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
All thanks and praise to Anderson .Paak for releasing this warm, boozy album right at the start of a chilling year in both temperature and social climate. Malibu is a wonderfully generous cocktail of rap, R&B and soul. It’s intoxicating music, the kind of stuff that gets you up and moving without realizing it. Paak is more than just good vibes though; he’s conscious of the issues regarding his mixed race, and uses his pro-sex slow jams like “Room in Here” and “Without You” to encourage the world to toke up and leave the problems at the foot of the bed. Whether it’s the brass blasting funkdown of “Come Down,” the champagne-soaked “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance,” or joyous victory lap of “The Dreamer” .Paak is more than happy to welcome all for a good time “whatever the occasion/fuck your reservation.” —Reed Strength
15. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper’s third mixtape and his second project distributed via Apple, is deafeningly religious, brimming with testimonies, exaltations and blessings that are loud enough to rock a megachurch and its town-sized parking lot. Purged of the drug-addled skepticism of Acid Rap and pulsing with the free-wheeling spirit and zeal that bolstered Surf, Coloring Book is a breezy listen: direct and purposeful.
Forgoing a narrative of redemption, repentance or struggle, Chance spends the bulk of the album insisting that he’s already found salvation. But while the volume of Chance’s piety may feel like evangelism, Coloring Book is far from gospel rap. Chance The Rapper feels that he has been blessed with family, friends, talent and opportunity, and few things give him more joy than extolling those blessings. This isn’t the music of someone who’s been born again. It’s the music of someone who is constantly thrilled to still be living. —Stephen F. Kearse
14. Pinegrove, Cardinal
We’re always told to remember where we came from, but sometimes, we don’t really want to. Montclair, N.J. is pretty unremarkable to anyone who didn’t grow up there or go to high school with Stephen Colbert’s kids. The suburban town means a lot to Pinegrove though, and its eight-track album, Cardinal, is all about the geographical fetters that never leave us. Evan Stephens Hall is part of the quarter-life intelligentsia who sneak words like “solipsistic” and “labyrinthian” into a song, but he’s probably the only one who’s doing it well. It’s hard to imagine anything besides his rubbery falsetto so effectively conveying the little fuck-ups along the scaffold of near-adulthood. After all, it’s the little things that kill you the most in retrospect, like forgetting to tell your friends that you love them or seeing your ex-girlfriend’s new fling at the Port Authority. Pinegrove are the cartographers of our innermost anxieties and heartbreak—forcing us to orient ourselves with the latitude and longitude of our early lives in those moments when we feel completely lost. —Mady Thuyein
13. Solange, A Seat At The Table
While sister Beyoncé seems to get all the credit for depicting black womanhood in 2016, the younger Knowles sister offers her own stunning portrayal on A Seat At The Table. Solange’s third LP is rooted in R&B, funk, and electronica. In particular, singles “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” are all about subtlety—whispery vocal runs, slowly drifting synthesizers and stable drum patterns. —Monica Hunter-Hart
12. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Back in September of 2015, Third Man Records gave a teaser of the forthcoming Margo Price project. A few months later with the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, there are songs that tug at your heartstrings, and there are songs that encompass the emotions that run the gamut of the human experience from love, loss, confusion, anger, resilience and fear. Price’s voice is equally as engaging as her writing, going from mournful to exclamatory, oftentimes in the same song. There have been comparisons to Loretta Lynn, which must be flattering to the up-and-coming singer. To write, sing and relate to your listeners as she does is a rare trio of traits. While Price has faced a number of setbacks to get where she is today, her talent beams golden bright on this album. —Eric Luecking
11. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
“Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” Kanye West requests on “Feedback,” a hypnotic, erratic highlight from his seventh LP (eighth if you count his Watch the Throne collaboration with Jay Z), The Life of Pablo. The line reads like a throwaway for a lyricist of Kanye’s caliber, but it resonates in the album’s real-life context, as the rapper-producer’s bizarre Twitter rants and obsessive tracklist fiddling have prompted some spectators (including former collaborator Rhymefest) to question his mental stability. “I been out of my mind a long time,” Kanye raps over droning synth tones. “I been saying how I feel at the wrong time.”
Where previous Kanye albums were rolled out with red-carpet hype, Pablo felt like a purposeful clusterfuck. Not only did he unveil the tracklist on a piece of fucking notebook paper, he scrapped it multiple times. The album’s various title shifts—damn, I really miss Swish—dominated headlines for months. He hadn’t even arrived at a definitive product after unveiling the songs at a high-dollar Madison Square Garden fashion event. The final album drop, hyped on an uneven SNL performance, was protracted and filled with technical glitches. (Adrift in Pablo’s turbulent waters, you get the sense the songs still aren’t finished. And they might not be: Kanye recently tweeted he was going to “fix ‘Wolves,’” failing to explain what that might entail.)
One thing’s clear: Kanye is searching for answers. Weeks before its release, he defined Pablo as “a Gospel album”—the equivalent of constructing a steeple on a Walmart and calling it a church. This isn’t a gospel album, despite its occasional, vivid bursts of feel-the-spirit belting (that’s Kirk Franklin on opener “Ultralight Beam”) and Christian references. In fact, Kanye’s never focused so hard on carnal pleasures, often aggressively so.
The Life of Pablo is a fucking mess—the scattered, contradictory work of an icon straining to keep up with his own brilliant pace. “But I’mma have the last laugh in the end,” Kanye promises. Pablo is just powerful enough to keep the faith. —Ryan Reed