10) Vince Staples — Summertime ‘06
Vince Staples seems to be on track to becoming one of the most well-respected MCs of his generation. His debut album, Summertime ’06, boasts diverse and complex production, ranging from hard-hitting 808s to distorted guitar riffs that are effectively complemented by Staples’ brutally honest verses about his childhood in Long Beach, California.
But the album isn’t nostalgic — it’s a sad lament on the collective experience of life in the gang-infused streets of Long Beach. Staples provides a glimpse of the suffocating violence of his hometown in his song “Birds & Bees,” in which he describes the cyclical nature of gang culture and the inevitable futility of trying to break free.
Staples’ poignant communications powerfully detail the rapper’s loss of innocence with an indulgently bleak atmosphere of somber instrumentals and work to lift the ambitious LP above many of its similarly themed peers.
— Josh Gu
9) Father John Misty — I Love You, Honeybear
If you took all of the cliched love-song tropes you know, then threw them in a blender with hard alcohol and hallucinogens, drank it all and woke up the next morning questioning what happened, you’ll get something close to the feeling I Love You, Honeybear creates. The second solo album by Father John Misty rivals, if not surpasses, his work as drummer for the neo-folk band Fleet Foxes.
Misty has a lot on his mind in I Love You, Honeybear, most of which stems from his own insecurities after marrying his “Honeybear.” This isn’t your typical love-filled record. Instead, Misty uses this well-worn genre for lush melodies and bitingly ironic lyrics exploring love, marriage, sex and his own questionable indulgences, all while taking time to comment on the broken social systems in America. Take “Bored in the USA,” for example. With a laugh track in the background, Misty sings “Save me, white Jesus / they gave me a useless education / and a subprime loan.”
Even with the unrelentingly sarcastic lyrics, Misty argues in I Love You, Honeybear that even the most despicable people can find true love. And while the message may be handled in a darkly comedic way, it’s universal in its simplicity.
— Levi Hill
8) Fetty Wap — Fetty Wap
When Fetty Wap’s sleeper hit “Trap Queen,” burst onto the Top 40, most casual listeners had no idea what “the trap” even was — he’s not literally cooking pies, you know. And this national cluelessness really attests to his songwriting genius and his left-field ability to push the limits of a genre on his debut album.
To be fair, Fetty Wap is not the first artist to introduce the chaotic trap sound to the masses — far from it. Yet, the New Jersey sing-rapper is the rare artist who has stayed true to the gritty realism of the trap narrative while expanding its emotional complexities. When he sings a line like “I cannot see myself without you” on “Again,” he sheds that tough-guy veneer and leaves himself vulnerable. As Fetty Wap croons about romance, friendship and a general optimism, he trades in trap’s tiring nihilism for a touching, refreshing sincerity.
After all, as he meditates on love with an endearing sappiness a la Nicholas Sparks, he makes a bold move by eschewing traditional notions of masculinity. Feminists such as MC Lyte have even argued that his radio hits demonstrate a rare respect for women. If every rapper could be more like Fetty, the world would be a kinder place.
— Jason Chen
7) Carly Rae Jepsen — Emotion
Each song on Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion is indelible, from the bouncy new-wave of “Let’s Get Lost” to the late-night thump of “Warm Blood.” But there’s a fantasy world to be found between the tight hooks and verses, one where the trials and joys of love can be found within the scope of a three-minute pop song. It’s not so much a place to swipe right or contemplate emojis in texts. Rather, it’s where cinematic romance exists: grand, baudy and easy. Heartbreak can be obliterated with a power ballad (“Your Type”), and the passe “let’s hang out” text is replaced with a simple, bold “I Really Like You” proclamation. In an ideal world, this is how modern romance would work.
But in an ideal world, Jepsen and Emotion would have also dominated the Billboard charts like labelmate and fellow Canadian import Justin Bieber. Highlight “Run Away With Me” would have the same ubiquity as “Call Me Maybe,” yet, for better or worse, she’s still the best-kept secret in the pop game. But Emotion still exists — instead of wishful thinking, all it takes to transport to this ideal world is to press play.
— Joshua Bote
6) Beach House — Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars
Much of Beach House’s musical output exists as placid still-life — the auditory equivalent of a snow globe, or a Norman Rockwell painting. And with this year’s release of both Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, the Baltimore-based duo delivers yet another set of tranquil opuses.
Yet there’s a palpable dissonance instilled throughout these two albums that was once nonexistent. Certainly, much of its edge is in the production — the band’s trademark, shoegaze-indebted riffs, once harmonious and pleasant, are recontextualized as metallic drone and eerie ambience on highlights such as “Sparks” and “Elegy to the Void.”
But where previous offerings launched into an stratospheric abyss, Beach House’s one-two punch feels wholly grounded. Reality, with all its anxieties, woes and injustices, has fully sunk in. But with the harsh light of reality, Beach House has a newfound urgency. The technical intricacies of the duo’s sound are now weighted with sentiment that is profound, pressing and political, all without losing the scenic imagery that has cemented the duo as the premier craftsfolk of ambient mini-worlds. In Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars, the band no longer finds itself stranded in the static void of still-life.
— Joshua Bote
5) Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment — Surf
Nothing in life is free and experiments usually go awry, but Chance the Rapper’s collaborative project proved otherwise on Surf, the first-ever free album to drop on iTunes. The initial disappointment of Surf not being Chance’s own mixtape quickly dissipated as fans grew to love the jazzy ensembles put together by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment alongside a slew of artists such as Janelle Monae, J. Cole and Erykah Badu.
Each song is uniquely brilliant but still holds a cohesive essence through the Social Experiment’s creative use of instrumentation. Even though Surf is most popular for its song “Sunday Candy,” “Slip Slide” and “Wanna Be Cool” are equally noteworthy, emphasizing the importance of individualism and independence. The band’s pure love for its fans shines through each song and if the album is not on repeat already, it should be. With its positive message and a song for every emotion, Surf will get you through every rough day and enhance every positive one.
— Ilaf Esuf
4) Jamie xx — In Colour
In Colour is the starkly minimal debut from Jamie Smith, better known as Jamie xx. The work is unfailingly entrancing, with track after track of driving melodies and gorgeously layered production. Smith adds nuanced touches — fluctuating dynamics, unexpected samples and syncopated rhythms — to give In Colour life. Cameos abound, ranging from xx bandmate Romy Madley-Croft on “Loud Places” to rapper Young Thug on “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times).”
Through every carefully placed note, In Colour envelops listeners in Smith’s ethereal soundscape, imbuing unfiltered emotion into an electronic genre often criticized for its cold, sometimes mechanical, execution. By incorporating sparse vocals and untraditional instruments throughout, Smith infuses his works with passion and feeling. In Colour is Jamie xx’s first solo album — after its dazzling success, there can only be brighter things from him to come.
— Eda Yu
3) Sufjan Stevens — Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is an artistic venture of impalpable intimacy. The indie-folk darling ditches his conventions of lavish, multi-instrumental interludes and historical fiction for stark, twinkling sounds and poetic lyricism. Stevens uses the album as a consideration of his biological mother’s tragic death, and the grief fuels his passionate declarations of both remorse and hope.
Sonically, Carrie & Lowell has a tangible distance; the vocals, percussion and guitar all seem to be coming from some far-off field. This allows for intense crescendos within tracks such as “Blue Bucket of Gold,” as the ambience of the vocals and softness of the piano are brought to the forefront of the soundscape. The feelings that this album evokes are varied, oftentimes alternating between a comforting warmth and a despairing chill, as Sufjan ponders the beauty of life and the abruptness of death. With Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens adds another varied, profound and euphonious record to his discography.
— Sam Gunn
2) Grimes — Art Angels
“You’re so far behind me,” sings Grimes on “World Princess part II,” a song off her maximalist yet concise album — the breathtaking Art Angels. With her first album in three years, Grimes takes charge with controlled and vibrant experimental production. Art Angels looks to plenty of influences such as K-pop and ‘90s guitar work as much as it does to the future; the album stands alone with no peers in sight. Grimes astonishes with title track “Artangels” with how many ecstatic noises and voices she manages to fit in four minutes. Her talents as a producer and musician radiate equally on “Realiti.” “Realiti” is emblematic of the record as a whole, exposing Grimes’ meticulous ear for carefully crafted, transcendent pop music.
But it’s not just her expansive production — unlike her previous album, Visions, we can finally hear Grimes’ vocals and affirming lyrics. For an outspoken critic on sexism in the music industry, lines such as “Everything I love becomes everything I do” and “I’m the sweetest damn thing you ever saw” suddenly become celebratory and feminist.Art Angels isn’t just Grimes’ finest work — it’s one of the most challenging, deliciously danceable albums of the year.
— Ariana Vargas
1) Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly
From the Black Lives Matter movement co-opting “Alright” as its de facto anthem to “King Kunta” serving as a spiritual sequel to N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” for the aughts, To Pimp a Butterfly permeated everywhere. A sonic firebrand that did double-time as a soundtrack for house parties and a condemnation against the hegemony, the album mirrored, if not captured, the tenuous racial politics of the year.
Kendrick’s ambitions are at their absolute peak here. Conceptually, sonically and lyrically, To Pimp a Butterfly is a devastating, exhausting whirlwind that delves into the consciousness of a black man overwhelmed, grief-stricken by communal despair and personal tribulations. He’s at a loss, but never at a standstill. He’s self-deprecating and self-loving, incited and in tears — a cinema-length expression of entangled, multitudinous contradictions that needs so much time to wholly parse out.
To Pimp a Butterfly imprinted itself onto the national consciousness, a call to arms that is unapologetic in its blackness and unencumbered by respectability politics. A work as urgent as when the first snippets of early single “i” dropped last year, “i” still holds as To Pimp a Butterfly’s beacon of hope: “I love myself.”
— Joshua Bote
Adele — 25
Adele’s 25 is arguably the most talked-about and anticipated release of Q4. From the moment she sexily crooned her now infamous opening line, “Hello, it’s me,” the world was back on its knees, bowing down at Adele’s feet and impatiently begging for more music. After a barrage of tell-all interviews and patriarchy-destroying magazine covers, Adele’s latest lives up to the hype, delivering her patented tear-jerking, relationship-reconsidering ballads with the utmost gusto.
While the album does little to steer from the singer’s past works, she steps out of her comfort zone with pop-friendly beats such as in the cheeky “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” She treads through “Rumour Has It” territory with the brooding “I Miss You,” and evokes stadium-shattering, grandiose melodies with album-closer “Sweetest Devotion.” But the toast of 25 is “When We Were Young,” a heartstring-tugger in which Adele slinks back into her tear-soaked comfort zone — and believe me, we’re all there with her.
— Rosemarie Alejandrino
Various Artists — Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
Hamilton is, in a word, unlikely.
It is a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton’s rise to the top, from a penniless, bastard orphan in the Caribbean to the first Treasury Secretary of the United States of America. It is a 46-song, genre-bending, barrier-toppling Billboard chart topper that employs a dizzying array of musical idioms to tell Hamilton’s story. Cabinet debates are transformed into rap battles, Hamilton’s wife and her siblings are reimagined as a ‘90s R&B girl-group and King George III is pointedly out of touch with a dash of Brit-pop. It is a history in which our Founding Fathers and Mothers are black, Latino, Asian — or, as Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it, “a story about America then, told by America now.”
With Hamilton, actual (MacArthur) genius and the musical’s mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda has written an urgent, vibrant work of art. It accomplishes the impossible by packing an expansive, complex history into a rapid-fire, gratifyingly dense two hours that commits fully to its ambitious premise. It doesn’t just revive history for new audiences — it dusts off the people history forgot and puts it front and center. In the process, Miranda reminds the world that the American story continues as the “young, scrappy and hungry” continue to fight for their shot.
— Miyako Singer