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Top 50 Albums of 2016

These are the titles we clung to in a year dominated by division, conflict, and loss

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    Going into 2016, we never could’ve known exactly how much pain we were in store for. No matter where you stand politically, culturally, or musically, the year was dominated by division, conflict, and loss. As it always does, music reacted to that reality, at times offering comfort and escape, while finding an outlet for rage and frustration at others. Though no one will be asking to go through all of that again, the powerful music produced over the last 12 months worked as a powerful consolation.

    (See: Top 50 Songs of 2016)

    And that kind of experience will produce an incredibly personal connection to art. Because of that experience, the discussions that led to the production of this list were perhaps more impassioned than any other year, each writer giving a rousing speech for just how each album helped them through a difficult time. Though we can never quantify or rank the feelings engendered by 2016 or the albums produced in its span, lists like these will allow us all to capture the world as we so intensely felt it.
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    Iggy Pop50. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

    When you make music that sounds like you’re giving an acid bath to the tainted world around you — burning the pain in your own life while the outside world burns — it suggests a victory not over relative contentment but vile depression. On Post-Pop Depression, Iggy Pop deliberately uses the strength of his sound to summon something more than temporary wrath … for one last time. Whether announced or not, every legendary artist will have a final album. We learned that tragic lesson in real-time with David Bowie’s , the master’s impending death revealing itself upon repeat listens. Pop announced that finality himself upon the release of Post-Pop Depression, both in the press and in the album itself. Though still full of the characteristic Pop intensity (“When your love of life is an empty beach, don’t cry,” he muses on “Chocolate Drops”), the former Stooges frontman and Josh Homme teamed up to rage at the dying of the light, funneling the power of its members’ pedigrees and boasting a high-volume homage to Pop’s past. “To really make a real album, you really have to put everything into it,” Pop told Beats 1. He scrapes up every last bit of his power, infusing songs like the bone-dry “American Valhalla” and bruised sunset “Paraguay” with a timeless snarl. In a year when we lost so many legends, it’s good to hear “the last of the one and onlys” (as Homme put it) choosing how to go out — and going out on top at that. –Lior Phillips

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    Weaves49. Weaves – Weaves

    There’s a humor at the heart of Weaves’ work that makes each song sound as if it’s smirking. But no matter how hard you search for it, that joke won’t reveal itself. On the Toronto outfit’s self-titled debut, they zip through 11 art-rock tracks, each more sporadic and jolting than the last. On “Candy” and “One More”, guitarist Morgan Waters and drummer Spencer Cole create a delightful cacophony akin to Deerhoof. They throw in slide guitar, skip downbeats, and zig zag around traditional rhythm structures, accenting the genius side of insanity, even when relatively in row on “Human”. At the front of it all is Jasmyn Burke, elongating words on “Birds & Bees” or “Coo Coo” to complement the plunging bass. The four-piece constantly sound like they’re on the verge of exploding, a dozen colors of confetti prepped to shoot from their cores in a way that even the most familiar listener won’t expect. Come the end of the record, you start to figure out what it is they, and their songs, are smiling about. It’s a shared sense of energy amid a lack of structure, a grin at the unknown, a smile before leaping off a cliff. Weaves are creating pop that distorts its own intentions — and they’re as surprised by the songs’ twists as you are. –Nina Corcoran

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    White Lung48. White Lung – Paradise

    “Punk,” as a label, can be liberating or paralyzing. As an example of the latter, White Lung frontperson Mish Barber-Way explained, “There’s this really stupid attitude that only punks have where it’s somehow uncool to become a better songwriter.” It’s that stubborn resistance to change that White Lung rail against on Paradise, pulling back some on the throttle and opening up on cuts like “Below”, “Hungry”, and “I Beg You” — power ballads that don’t require the band to sacrifice any of their scathing ferocity. But Paradise captures more than just a band expanding their sonic arsenal. Barber-Way’s vocals now soar to match her sneer, she steps outside herself to write from various perspectives, and she challenges modern conceptions of feminism, even her own. If evolving to create one of the best hard rock records of the year isn’t deemed “punk” enough, well, fuck punk. –Matt Melis

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    Japanese Breakfast47. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

    When Michelle Zauner’s mother passed away after a brief and painful battle with cancer in 2014, the singer-songwriter found herself doing the thing she’s instinctively best at: arranging and rearranging songs, trying to make the pieces of her shattered life fit by way of music. And then, one day, she ended up with an album, which she named Psychopomp after the mythological angel who directs souls to the afterlife. The remarkable thing about Psychopomp is not its sadness or its acute sense of tragedy, but rather its defiant celebration of life as something worth holding onto, warts and all. Album standout “Everybody Wants to Love You” says it all in its title — love is fragile but plentiful, painful but omnipresent. Zauner pairs such reflections with understated melodies that may take some time to grow on you but hit you like a ton of bricks when they finally do. Life can only be lived one time through, but this is an album that bears (demands, even) repeat listening. –Collin Brennan

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    Martha46. Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

    Martha is a group of young, anarchist punks from northeast England that make music that’s as infectiously hooky as it is progressive in its politics. “I’m a person, you’re a person, nothing else is really certain,” Martha sings on “Precarious (Supermarket Song)”, and there’s really no better summation of their inclusive approach, which results in songs about social outcasts and Catholic school queers struggling with the same shit as everyone else: crushes, day jobs, anxiety. Blisters is also just a goddamn great guitar record — there’s the sloppy abandon of Superchunk, the Exploding Hearts’ razor-sharp snottiness, and please god don’t overlook the “More Than a Feeling” homage on “The Awkward Ones”. Blisters is undoubtedly all killer and no filler, but standout “Ice Cream and Sunscreen” might provide the best glimpse into the band’s promising future. A melancholy, solitary intro seems primed for melancholic reflection (“This year I’ll spend November in the house”) but soon blooms into a celebratory sing-along that can’t help but shine a light on the saddest of seasons. “When all of the band members join together and sing ‘Blisters in the pit of my heart!’” we wrote in our review, “it’s hard to tell whether to be devastated or elated.” I’m both, but the elation will win out in the end. It usually does. –Randall Colburn

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    Young Thug Jeffery45. Young Thug – JEFFERY

    Unpredictability has always been Young Thug’s best quality, whether that meant being unable to predict whether he’d yelp out an explosive ad lib or growl out a nonsense couplet, or if it meant being unable to pin him down. The superb JEFFERY doubles down on that uncompromising complexity while also somehow revealing more of who he is in the process. In an era in which too many rappers lack a unique flow, Thug shows off nine of them on a single tape — the throat-scraped bark of “Harambe” and sing-songy glottal pops of “Kanye West” stand miles apart — and yet these tracks are all so undeniably Thug. From the photo of himself in a dress on the cover, to the tracks named after figures he’s inspired by, to the through-lines of identity and love for his partner, JEFFERY is a thrilling and surprisingly rounded exploration of the complexity of modern life, challenging binaries and expectations at every corner. –Adam Kivel

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    Lambchop FLOTUS44. Lambchop – FLOTUS

    Today’s America isn’t the same place that birthed “Americana” as a genre. If anyone knows that, feels that in their bones, it’s Kurt Wagner, the always-evolving core of alt-country mainstays Lambchop. Throughout the act’s 30 years, he has consistently poked and prodded at the definitions of American music traditions, digging at the scabs to reveal the reality behind the facade. In 2016, that meant filtering the country through a vocoder and adding electronic elements for the sublime, haunting FLOTUS. The record unfolds like a drive down the highway, though now digital billboards stud the horizon, promising commercial cures for your blues. Wagner finds beauty even in the most desolate, corrupted moments, as when picking up trash in his backyard on the glittering “Harbor Country” or in the patchworked vocal samples of “Directions to the Can”. Lambchop always reveled in twisting traditions, but FLOTUS insists that they’ve also been honoring the twists along the way. –Lior Phillips

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    The Hotelier43. The Hotelier – Goodness

    The Hotelier’s breakthrough 2014 album, Home, Like Noplace Is There, may go down as the defining document of the emo revival. With its firecracker energy and relentless procession of anthems, the album idealized youth so fervently that it felt real and hollow all at once, as if it were madly chasing something it could never quite catch. For their third studio album, Goodness, the Massachusetts group took the inverse approach, turning their attention to the unknowns of the here-and-now and crafting a sprawling work of art that aims to capture life at its most mundane as well as its most thrilling. The result sounds like something that finally lives up to emo’s name because genuine emotion doesn’t always express itself at volumes dialed up to 11. Tracks like the gut-punching “Opening Mail for My Grandmother” take on the theme of death, and vocalist-bassist Christian Holden finds himself reflecting on what comes next with the same lyrical skill he once employed to look backwards in time. It may not be the band’s most rousing work to date, but it’s certainly their best and most engaging. –Collin Brennan

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    Kevin Gates42. Kevin Gates – Islah

    During the few years immediately preceding Islah, the ever-impassioned Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates was making his versatility known, filling his free mixtapes with songs that appealed to different audiences. Here, on his debut album, he proves how far he can take those same abilities. As hooky as the album is, Gates didn’t have to water down his sound to make it more accessible. Instead, songs like “2 Phones”, “Pride”, and “Time for That” are evidence that, well, he’s just a really, really good melody-writer and won’t let that talent go to waste. Elsewhere, “The Truth” — where Gates opens up about the incident in Florida last year when he kicked a female fan at a concert — is the exact antithesis of the lighter, melody-driven moments on the album. It’s an intensely honest rhyme spree that’s like one long hook itself. “These tats on my face don’t mean nothin’/ I was locked up, that don’t mean nothin’,” Gates starts on “Ain’t Too Hard”, merely one spot on the album where he refuses to be easily summed up. Really, the entire LP is a triumph of multidimensionality. –Michael Madden

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    Mothers41. Mothers – When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired

    The long title of Mothers’ debut, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired, is an appropriate fit; the album is a sprawling multi-instrumental landscape, shaped out of exhaustively experimental song structures. Each song follows its own erratic path, and even the most serene moments teeter on the edge of dissolution, about to give away to chaotic instrumental interludes. The album is therefore easy to disappear into, and lengthy, winding songs like “Nesting Behavior” and “Hold Your Own Hand” are the entryway. The submersing atmosphere is the work of the instrumentation, from the simple, frail sound of the plucked mandolin to the bigger orchestral arrangements. The release is an exploration of genre as well, pairing the deconstruction of math rock with the quiet moods of folk. The through-line of the album is Kristine Leschper’s voice, which trembles on the edge of breaking throughout. From this tension, the album draws vulnerability, and at the end of its emotional journey, it is a welcome weariness. –Mary Kate McGrath

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    Deftones40. Deftones – Gore

    Deftones ascended to nü metal sainthood by preaching a religion defined almost entirely by carnal contrasts: sex and death, intimacy and violence, new romanticism and primal aggression. Sixteen years after White Pony — their Sermon on the Mount — the band renew their profane vows to flesh and fury on Gore. It’s their most immersive, elegant record to date, texturally rich and yet, as highlight “Doomed User” so turbulently demonstrates, unflinchingly surly. Gore certainly runs the hard rock gamut, swiveling from “Acid Hologram”‘s paranoid shoegaze, to “Xenon”‘s creeping sludge, to the Jerry Cantrell-featuring stunner, “Phantom Bride”. However, for all its diversity, the album’s ultimately a triumph of firm devotion — and, of course, deathly beauty. –Zoe Camp

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    Savages39. Savages – Adore Life

    The gestation for the second album by British band Savages was long and complicated, involving multiple studios and a residency in New York that forced them to reassess the writing of several songs. While that could have been the recipe for overreach or work with all the passion squeezed out of it, Adore Life feels fuller and richer than their previous LP, Silence Yourself, even though nothing has been added to their unique formula. The songs are simply more dynamic than ever before. “T.I.W.Y.G.” and “Adore” build and recede like tidal shifts, pushing vocalist Jehnny Beth and guitarist Gemma Thompson to furious new realms. On the latter, especially, Beth sounds as if she’s trying to knock down an entire building with just the power of her voice. Savages take the title of this album very much to heart, as it urges listeners to appreciate every breath and every encounter with the world, no matter how seemingly insignificant. —Robert Ham

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    Whitney38. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

    Over the course of three Smith Westerns albums, the group matured from fuzzed-out buzz band to 70’s-sheen rockers. But with the emergence of Whitney, it’s apparent that it wasn’t frontman Cullen Omori that made the Smith Westies such an intriguing project. Instead, it’s guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich that have managed to repurpose the band’s best ideas and push things to unexpected places. Where the guitar work previously evoked Bowie and Harrison, Whitney introduces the most straightforward elements of Grateful Dead into the fold, resulting in a record, Light Upon the Lake, that pops with jukebox familiarity. Maybe it’s the guidance of fellow 70’s rock aficionado Jonathan Rado that translates the ideas of Whitney into such a fully-formed, unexpected debut, where a band from Chicago evokes the best moments of Bay Area jams and Laurel Canyon breeziness. It didn’t need Elton John’s cosign to get attention, but it wouldn’t be surprising if other classic rock dignitaries fell similarly in love. –Philip Cosores

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    The Range37. The Range – Potential

    Potential is the sound of voices united, pieced together from across the globe. That’s not cheesy rhetoric; it’s just what happened. The Range, aka producer James Hinton, crafted the album from various obscure YouTube clips. Some of people singing covers, some of people rapping — basically anything that spoke to him on some level. The result is an uplifting work that bonds together people who might never meet with airy club beats. It captures the feeling of both a late night deep dive into the untouched troves of the internet as well as the loneliness that birthed the original videos. With Hinton’s executed vision, it becomes an amazingly hopeful record. The grunting synth-bass tones and swift piano lines on “Copper Wire” flourish beneath the vocal samples, which alternate between pitched up and pitched down. For an electronic artist, the human voice is Hinton’s greatest instrument. The lush arrangements feel built around each clip, not the other way around. In a year where it’s easy to feel divided or alone, Potential is a reminder of the power of our voices pulled together with the intent of making something beautiful.
    –Dusty Henry

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    Noname36. Noname – Telefone

    Noname is too modest to fling her debut mixtape into the major label arena, but her collaborators over the years, including Chance the Rapper to Saba, are more than happy to spread the word. It’s hard not to. Noname is the kind of rapper who appears as a magical figure, someone with remarkably ripe talent and polished work that seems too good to be true, too on the nose to be ignored, too well-crafted to be a debut. On Telefone, she slowly opens cupped hands to reveal soft words that she reeled out of darkness. The production cushions that, full of muted piano, finger snaps, and fluttering vocal harmonies. She talks about death and loss with the optimism of someone clinging to survival mode. She prays for friends to make it home safely in “Casket Pretty” but then swings into pure motivation on “Reality Check”. She does all of this and more, and yet there isn’t a single moment that can be pinpointed where she gets arrogant about it. Noname is the writer and illustrator of her own magic, a type of aching that clings to the sunny side of its soul. The louder her music is played, the brighter her cadence glows, giving her lyrics a type of 3D craft that makes Telefone a diary of lessons too relevant to keep to yourself.  –Nina Corcoran

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    Into It. Over It.35. Into It. Over It. – Standards

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    For any indie kid who came of age in the mid-aughts, the slow burn of Into It. Over It.’s Standards plays like a dog whistle, calling up memories of a simpler time. The influence of Ben Gibbard and Mike Kinsella on the work of Chicago-based artist Evan Thomas Weiss has always been undeniable (Weiss was even in a band with Kinsella for a time), but he’s so much more than just a mimic; on Standards, his band’s most accessible album yet, he proves himself to once again be a thoughtful and observant narrator of his own life and the lives of those around him, trucking in similes and gentle, reflective, reverb-heavy melodies that are evocative even without the O.C.-era context. Recorded in analog at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone Studio in San Francisco, there’s a warmth and lived-in quality to this record that can feel like a kind of homecoming.

    Emo is a much-maligned genre, but Weiss and company make perhaps one of the strongest cases yet for its continued legitimacy. Standards is understated, lush, and carefully plotted; there are emotions, yes, but no hysterics. “They torch their twenties like it’s kerosene,” Weiss, who turned 30 this year, sings of his hometown friends. We’re all entering a new decade together, all of us mid-aughts indie kids, and thank god we have Weiss to show us the way. –Katherine Flynn

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    sioux falls34. Sioux Falls – Rot Forever

    Though it’s not going to be regularly compared to Infinite Jest, there’s something to the connection between Rot Forever and the maximalist postmodern literature masterpiece. The band formerly known as Sioux Falls (the group took on the moniker Strange Ranger once they learned that the word Sioux was offensive to many Native American communities) share a dual aesthetic with the David Foster Wallace epic — their debut LP feels like they throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, but it also feels carefully and intelligently curated. Simply put, even at 72 minutes, just about everything sticks. The then-trio wear classic indie rock influences (Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Pavement) on their sleeves, but make things their own through the post-modern twist of analyzing the sleeve itself. Guitarist/vocalist Isaac Eiger sounds as if he’s shredded his journal and his vocal cords in equal measure, but knows the former well enough by heart to deliver the rough-hewn self-analysis all over again and in doing so pushes the latter despite the wear and tear. His lines at once evoke incredibly personal details and rally around universal frustration. “I miss my dog and my sister,” he howls on the excellent “If You Let It”, as if those words verified the world’s decay. It’s hard to tell if nothing is alright or if everything’s getting tough, but Strange Ranger/Sioux Falls are there with you for the ride. –Adam Kivel

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    Gojira33. Gojira – Magma

    “It’s bigger than me.” With those simple words spoken in an interview with Rolling Stone, Joe Duplantier, the frontman of French metal outfit Gojira, cut to the chase of the appeal of his band’s Magma. Joe and his brother Mario act as the core of the experimental outfit, and they lost their mother while demoing tracks for their massive new LP. While they once peddled death metal, the record became something so much more interested in connection, with each other in their grooves, with the listener in more approachable hooks, with something greater than all of us in its mystic appeal. Tragedy informed the album, and yet songs like the math-y, magnetic “Low Lands” or the acoustic, golden “Liberation” have an astral, heavenly quality, the music of the spheres ringing beautifully and incredibly loud, especially as the counterpoint to the gnash and churn of more peak experimental metal. –Adam Kivel

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    Explosions in the Sky32. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness

    After slumming it in Hollywood for nearly half a decade with Peter Berg and David Gordon Green, Explosions in the Sky finally returned this year with their long-awaited followup to 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. How they still find ways to make their brand of post-rock feel as fresh and angelic as it first did 16 years ago is one of the many alluring facets of The Wilderness. It’s another sprawling epic, yawning with fresh air and stretching impressive muscles previously unused by the Lone Star post-rockers. Digitized bleeps and bloops punctuate their amber swells (“Tangle Formations”) while Chris Hrasky’s rousing percussion (“Logic of a Dream”) turns self-respecting atheists into believers. Good thing, too, because heaven waits by the end with “Landing Cliffs”, quite possibly the group’s most tender, tranquil ballad to date — and that’s saying a lot. Producer John Congleton bottled up magic with this one, and we could use it right now. –Michael Roffman

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    babymetal metal resistance album new j pop Top 50 Albums of 201631. BABYMETAL – METAL RESISTANCE

    Leave it to three upbeat J-pop idols to deliver one of the most eclectic metal records of the year. When BABYMETAL burst on the scene, their singers only had a passing familiarity with metal. Critics derided them as a manufactured pop outfit, but vocalists Su-metal, Yuimetal, and Moametal paid them no heed. This blank slate continued to favor the kawaii metal band with their latest release, METAL RESISTANCE. Backed by the uber-talented Kami Band, BABYMETAL smashed genre conventions on their sophomore LP. The record traversed the chasms among subgenres, from power metal (“Road of Resistance”, assisted by Dragonforce’s guitarists) to pummeling metalcore (“KARATE”) to synth-infused nu-metal (“Awadama Fever”). The band even incorporated some oddball flourishes (vaudeville piano on “Tales of the Destinies”, a shimmering, anthemic interlude on “Meta Taro”). As the vocalists’ saccharine harmonies bolster an even more accessible sound, BABYMETAL arrived full-force on US shores to solidify their cult status. –Killian Young

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