Picking an album of the year is an almost religious ritual for me, and sad to say I’ve fucked it up a couple times.
I declared Fetty Wap my favorite album of last year – an album which I still love but which fell pretty far down the frequently-played list once Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show sank its claws in me. At the time I wrote that list I was freshly in love with Fetty Wap, and that’s the problem.
What tops a critic’s list will usually end up being what they’re obsessed with at the moment. If you’d asked me about my album of the year that time I got really drunk and sobbed uncontrollably to the Avalanches’ “Kaleidoscopic Lovers,” I’d have said Wildflower without missing a beat. If Beyoncé had dropped Lemonade during year end-list season, like she did her self-titled, it might be on top of my list.
I’ve had less than a year to internalize the records on this list. I don’t know what I’ll like a month from now. So this year, I’ve tried to think the music I’ll carry with me down the road, what I’ll blast in the retirement home someday and piss off the nurses. What albums from this year do I love? Which ones do I cherish? Which ones would render my life incomplete if they vanished from the world?
I can think of only one.
1. Young Thug – Jeffery
Yes, Young Thug – who, according to a rap “tier” ranking I woke up to this morning on Facebook, falls into the bottom rung of “trash,” below Lil Dicky and Post Malone. He’s become a target of ire for purists who insist good rap should sound like Nas, to which I respond: why shouldn’t rap push itself forward? Music suffers when it becomes more about dogma than art.
But I’m not here to lecture oldheads. Let me tell you how this album makes me feel. When I listen to Jeffery, I smile, laugh, smile some more, laugh some more, feel a bit of a sting when the guitars in “Webbie” come in, then smile until the damn thing’s over. I’m awed by Thug’s cool and delighted by his humanity and silliness. I wouldn’t want to be Young Thug, I don’t know if I’d want to hang out with him, but what a charmer he is, and what a persona he’s created for himself.
Thug doesn’t feel any need to be messianic or authentic; in fact, like all glam rockers, he spits on both those conventions. He’s nothing more or less than a forward-thinking stylist. In doing away with rap dogma, he’s freed the form and can do whatever the fuck he wants with it. The instrument of his vision is his voice, which evokes stretchy-throated psych-soul singers like Sly Stone and George Clinton. I don’t think there are words in the English language for some of the noises he makes here; if any cultures do have such words, I’d like to hear their music.
This is pop rap as avant-garde putty, a big melting mess of vocals and woozy chords and squishy pads. Pop songs are often described as “slices” or “morsels,” as of a cake or pie. The songs here are more like little cocktails, or perhaps oysters – song-sized containers of sloshing, delectable liquid, threatening to spill over. Everything is a hook, and the part of any given song that gets stuck in my head could be a verse as easily as a chorus.
I was a bit underwhelmed by some of the pre-Jeffery Thug tapes, many of which comprised old masterial dumped into the world to combat a hard-drive leak. He seemed so fearsomely individual it was worth wondering what he was still doing rapping over basic trap beats. Jeffery pushes forward, but only slightly: the main difference from its predecessors is that it’s a lot poppier. Despite how fully-formed it feels, Jeffery still hints at more to come. The only way I’d ever put it down is if Thug released something that expanded on its highs and fixed its lows.
And there are lows. I often skip the posse cuts. Though he genuinely loves his sisters and fiancee, he mostly sees women as things to fuck on, and his post-gender philosophy is undercut by a series of ugly, emasculating threats on “Floyd Mayweather” (a song named after one of Thug’s “heroes” and a prolific woman-beater). I have no doubt Thug genuinely eschews gender. But the dress seems as much there for shock value as anything.
Jeffery comes on strong, as surprise releases must but often don’t (Blonde is a marvelous album, but I still wish Frank Ocean had just dropped something called Boys Don’t Cry and bothered with the Endless visual album later). Jeffery is all about Jeffery Lamar Williams – artist, stylist, star. Is it narcissistic? Of course, but what rapper isn’t? Spare me the dogma, the evangelizing, the old vs. new bullshit. Jeffery is one of the best things I’ve ever heard.
2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
This is as good an album-length statement as any pop star has ever made, but what I’ve come to admire most about Lemonade is what a splendid monkey wrench it throws to pop music. Take the controversy over “Daddy Lessons”: the mere idea of Beyoncé doing country ignited a mini culture war. Should she have been nominated for a Country Grammy? Is a country song by a pop singer country? Is the song even country? What’s up with those horns at the beginning?
“This doesn’t sound country,” a friend said to me when I played it. For a good chunk of its runtime, it doesn’t – then she whispers “Texas,” and the Wild West unfurls before our eyes.
It’s not hard to see Lemonade as a response to rockist criticism. It incorporates elements used as shorthand for “realness” – pianos, guitars, live drums. This happens in pop: look at Lady Gaga’s Joanne, a rootsy record that served as conscious rejection of her outsized past. But Beyoncé uses the trappings of folky authenticity not to add an extra “human” element but in the service of pure pastiche. The rock songs are blown-out arena cliches of rock songs. “Daddy Lessons” is a pulp Western ballad. The ballads are overwrought (“Pray You Catch Me”), bitterly ironic (“All Night”), or both (“Sandcastles”). And the entire story may be phony.
Bey knows her every move will be analyzed. I suspect she’s using her celebrity as a red herring; there’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to write a work of fiction about a troubled marriage. Jay-Z said he was going to make a response album to Lemonade. He hasn’t mentioned it in months. For that matter, when was the last time you heard anyone talk about Bey and Jay breaking up?
The acres of context are what make Lemonade so beguiling – and such prime fodder for thinkpieces (hey, free advertising!) But it’s the fact that those pulp Western ballads, arena-rock songs, and overwrought ballads can exist together on the same brisk, 46-minute album alongside electro-R&B kiss-offs, foreboding New Orleans bounce, and a Yeah Yeah Yeahs-sampling reggae song that’s truly impressive. They flow into each other seamlessly, and Lemonade plays as a lot shorter than it is (“Formation,” its first single, doesn’t fit into the album’s narrative arc and appears to play the role of a bonus track; as Lemonade debuted on Tidal, a true “bonus track” would have been impossible.) This is the sort of album the Beatles and Prince used to make, on which genre is secondary to the artist’s vision and star power. It’s in that league.
3. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Blonde depressed the hell out of me at first – not because of its content, but because I was disappointed by The Life Of Pablo and figured Blonde would be another unfinished surprise-album ego trip. I took its restraint for half-assery at first. I was floored on my second listen.
I’m not going to put on the pretense necessary in “objective” music criticism that I know everything about Blonde and that my review is the divine authority on the work. I’ve listened to it the equivalent of three times: twice all the way through, augmented by that first disappointing half-listen and a second later half-listen that I promise was much more fruitful. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of this album. Each review I’ve read has given me more to chew on.
I’m told relationships have a lot to do with the content here. Normally this should put me off. I’ve never been in a relationship, so breakup albums and albums about lost or even enduring love tend to put me off. Get Lonely was always one of my least favorite Mountain Goats albums. I didn’t feel much from Vulnicura, enthralled as I was by the string arrangements. When I love an album of this sort it’s usually because of its craft. To me, Joni Mitchell’s Blue is great because of its turns of phrases and gorgeous piano and singing and the little personal details Mitchell slips in. Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is hilarious, with all its exaggerated self-loathing and sarcasm.
And songs like “Ivy” and “Pink + White” are great because they’re goddamn gorgeous – and because Frank isn’t singing for all of us but for himself. In a way, Blonde’s obfuscation makes it more universal. Frank never goes for the “relatable” approach of recent indie rock songwriting. I felt sad listening, but not because anything on the album specifically tugged at my heartstrings. It just imparts you with that same happy-sad feeling you might get listening to the Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up,” where you have no clue what they’re talking about but you feel it deep in your gut anyway.
Blonde doesn’t appear to be nonsense, though it’s absurdly purple at times (“there’s a bull and a matador dueling in the sky”). I still need to figure a lot of it out. All I know is this is one of the year’s best pop albums. Musically, it’s stunning, chord changes so pretty as to be painful. And it’s catchy! “Ivy” and “Solo,” both spare guitar ballads, are as melodically slinky as anything the Beatles ever wrote. How ignorant I was to doubt the power of its minimalism. This album isn’t unfinished but richer than most. I may never listen to The Life Of Pablo again, and I certainly have no desire to right now. But I can’t wait to get lost in Blonde again. I just need to be ready.
4. The Avalanches – Wildflower
I mentioned a “happy-sad feeling” in writing about Blonde. These aren’t my words but those of Robbie Chater of the Avalanches, who said they were trying to capture such a feeling on their second album Wildflower. But while Frank did it through creating a nostalgic balance between a happier then and a bleaker now, the Avalanches do it through baroque ridiculousness.
Wildflower is shallow and superficial in comparison to Blonde. It uses cues like poetic lyrics and harpsichords and fluttering flutes and nine chords and starry-eyed monologues to trick us into thinking we’re listening to something transcendent, just as a movie might use tracking shots to trick you into thinking you’re watching a good one – or how the strings on its soundtrack might trick you into crying. Or how acid or shrooms might trick you into thinking you’ve found the key to the universe. Wildflower is steeped in both these drugs. It’s easy to be cynical about this thing.
Wildflower seems to know how absurd the trappings of psychedelic pop are and counters them in two separate, opposite ways. On the one hand, it brings in grim realists like Father John Misty and Danny Brown (who talks about drugs in the polar-opposite way of most of the bands we love from the ‘60s) to dump the occasional bucket of fish guts on the love parade. On the other hand it plays up its own idiocy with stretches of music that pine so floridly for the heavens it’s hard to say whether you should laugh or surrender yourself to its acid-spangled vision.
Still, it’s hard to resist the voice of Jonathan Donahue, late of Mercury Rev and now something like the band’s frontman. He sounds like an innocent little lamb. It’s heartwarming. He just sounds so goddamn sweet; his voice, like Wayne Coyne’s, has a way of reassuring us that the world is essentially positive. It’s not, and it’s getting harder to believe in cosmic benevolence. But that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to Wildflower to kid myself for the better part of an hour.
5. Mark Barrott – Sketches From An Island II
Most people who make chill-out music try to evoke faraway paradises they’ve never seen. Mark Barrott one-ups them all, because he actually lives in a faraway paradise most folks have never seen: Ibiza, the Spanish party island where he runs the International Feel label and lives off heaps of DJ money (“I have people who do that for me,” Barrott cheekily responded when an interviewer asked what he liked to cook). He doesn’t need to imagine beaches and palm trees. He just needs to look out his window, maybe go for a drive, and lay down some tracks.
The simple, lived-in domesticity of Sketches From An Island II is what makes it Barrott’s best work by some margin as well as the best record to emerge from the chill-out revival led by International Feel. There’s no sense of menace or foreboding; “Distant Storms At Sea,” the moodiest track here, emphasizes the “distant” part. This is good-vibes music, but it’s more interesting than most because it assumes the listener cares as much about what’s going on musically as the feeling the album imparts. There’s a lot going on here, and though Sketches From An Island is never challenging, sometimes the instruments don’t do what you’d expect.
Above all else, Sketches From An Island is deeply comforting. One of my best memories of listening to music this year came early one morning. I’d stayed up until 6 a.m. and still couldn’t sleep. The breakfast places near my house had just opened, and I shuffled over to one, ordered some eggs, and sleepwalked back, comatose with food. Upon returning, I watched the dawn break through my window, loaded a bowl, and put on Sketches From An Island until I fell asleep. Barrott would approve. In fact, I bet he’s doing something similar right now, as you read this.
6. Wadada Leo Smith – America’s National Parks
I’ve only just started getting into jazz, and Wadada Leo Smith is one of the best discoveries I’ve made this year – a likable, seventy-something Rastafarian trumpeter with a patient, measured playing style and an unflinching but hopeful view of American history. His Ten Freedom Summers is the most acclaimed album of all time on Metacritic; I have yet to tackle its four hours, though I liked his album with Vijay Iyer from this year and his Miles Davis tribute with Henry Kaiser. America’s National Parks, though, has become one of my go-to jazz albums.
I don’t think I know enough about jazz to write anything authoritative on the album, and my view of Parks might be shaped by its theme. But it feels like a sprawling Ken Burns documentary like the one that inspired it: vast, rich, rustic, immensely detailed. Each sustained note seems to contain miles and multitudes. Smith’s quintet features a cellist, an interesting touch that at times makes America’s National Parks feel more like classical music. The album was tagged on Bandcamp as “AACM,” which I thought might stand for “African-American Classical Music” before I clicked on it and discovered the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
Smith has dedicated this album to both real national parks and fictional ones he’s created in his head, including a memorial to the black bodies dumped in the Mississippi River and a cultural national park in New Orleans, home of jazz. The album alternates between calm, ambient stretches that evoke natural beauty and violent free-jazz wailing (especially during “Dark And Deep Dreams Flow The River,” the Mississippi tribute) that suggests the wrath of vengeful ghosts. Conceptually, America’s National Parks is brilliant, but it’s also a treat to sink into: at 6 tracks running more than 100 minutes, it’s consistently interesting and brimming with detail.
7. Shinichi Atobe – World
Shinichi Atobe is a miracle. His Ship-Scope EP, released on the great German label Chain Reaction back in 2002, is a cult holy grail among fans of Y2K-era ambient; even at only 18 minutes, it’s one of the most immersive electronic albums I’ve ever heard. After dropping it, the Japanese producer vanished into the ether. Apparently, he has vaults of music waiting to be heard, because collective/label Demdike Stare has managed to coax not one but two albums of unreleased work from him: 2014’s great Butterfly Effect and this year’s even better World.
I’m a Chain Reaction nut and an unabashed sucker for its sound (see #10 on this list). Still, I’ve never heard anything like this album – pretty in a ponderous way, its corrugated pianos playing endless melodies as all sorts of synths and staticky drones crack and sizzle behind them. It’s not so much the melodies that make World great as the spaces in which Atobe situates them; everything sounds like it’s gone through an acid bath. The more intently you listen, the more you might notice. This is a headphones album, and I haven’t been able to keep it out of my ears.
Turn-of-the-millennium ambient seems to be experiencing a revival of interest. Most of the Gas discography was recently reissued; Porter Ricks, Oval, and Fluxion made new albums this year; Huerco S.’s ambient phenomenon For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Some Of Those Who Have) bows at the feet of Chain Reaction, Kompakt, and Mille Plateaux. Perhaps Atobe will crawl out of his cave and make something new and brilliant. Perhaps Demdike will keep digging up gems like these. Either way, it’s fantastic to have Atobe around, even in spirit.
8. inc. no world – As Light As Light
inc. play R&B as ambient music, less interested in writing songs as creating spaces for the listener to step into. Their miasmatic approach has garnered countless comparisons to Sade, but while Sade always had something to say, inc. are vague and obtuse. Their lyrics don’t seem to express anything personal so much as every emotion every soul singer in history has experienced, often at once – love, romance, loss, doubt, restlessness, religious ecstasy.
As Light As Light is their second album, and it’s more or less identical to their debut No World. This doesn’t seem like the kind of band interested in reinvention; they’ve got a sound and they’re going to stick with it. But there’s plenty here we didn’t know they could do before. Who knew that they had a groove as funky as the one on “Watch This Dream” in them?
inc. might not garner the same adulation as like-minded peers like Autre Ne Veut or How To Dress Well, but they might just end up one of R&B’s great cult bands. They’ve been everywhere but the spotlight; they’ve worked with fka twigs and Nite Jewel, they’re signed to the great indie label 4AD, and they’re longtime L.A. session cats. You might very well have heard them without knowing it. But on their own records, it’s hard to mistake them for anyone else.
9. Solange – A Seat At The Table
The shortest, simplest lines speak the most truth on Solange Knowles’ third album A Seat at the Table. “This hair is my shit.” “You want to be the teacher, don’t want to go to school.” And has there ever been a simpler and more eloquent rebuke to the fetishization of blackness than “some shit you can’t touch”? A Seat at the Table is an exercise in short, sharp sloganeering. Rather than wrapping herself in elaborate metaphors, Knowles speaks in simple, hard truths.
A Seat at the Table explicitly aligns itself with the tradition of African-American entrepreneurship, featuring interviews with successful black businesspeople and positing itself as a product “for us, by us.” Accordingly, a host of producers from the rap, soul and indie spectra show up to slather Knowles’ voice in deep layers of funk. The production most explicitly recalls the neo-soul movement of the turn of the millennium, itself a callback to the ‘70s golden age of black art pop. This is rich, languid soul that unfurls slowly like smoke and sets in your clothes and hair.
The album features 21 songs, countless guests, numerous monologues, and yet—and this is the miracle of A Seat at the Table—it doesn’t aim for the scope of a Pulitzer Prize-winning treatise. It feels like a labor of love from a singer with a big bullhorn and a lot to be mad about. “I’m not really allowed to be mad,” she laments, but she doesn’t need to shout to make noise.
10. Porter Ricks – Shadow Boat EP
What a treat to hear Porter Ricks again. Though they’re doing more or less what they’ve always done on their 21-minute Shadow Boat EP, what they’ve always done is make stellar dub techno. Their Biokinetics is the best album to emerge from the hyper-niche subgenre, and the three tracks here are of the same caliber. It’s too bad there’s not more music here, but they’ve teased more to come, and if it’s anything like what’s here, they might just dish up a masterpiece.
This is classic Chain Reaction techno: gritty and lo-fi but with mindfuck sound design and a kick that wouldn’t be missed too much if it disappeared – as it often does. I could see these sounds coming out of a rusty old iron machine. The percussion clinks and clangs. The chords seem labored, as if powered by some ancient steam-powered contraption, and take a second to surface. Digital wind whips at the periphery. It sounds a bit like, well, being on a creaky old boat.
At first, the music might seem underwhelming, especially if you’re used to Biokinetics. Shadow Boat isn’t quite as out-there as that masterwork of dancefloor psychedelia. But this is a sterling example of the Chain Reaction sound – and as that label boasts about a dozen of the best techno and ambient releases in history, that’s no trifle.
11. Suzanne Kraft – What You Get For Being Young
Had this come out in 2011 I might have smoked to it all through senior year of high school. This is immaculately recorded, mostly noiseless ambient beat music, as good as anyone since Tycho’s done but melancholy enough not to feel mindlessly positive. Billowing house chords form the harmonic framework as drum machines skitter and melodies arrange themselves in irregular patterns. It’s comforting and quiet but just a bit unsettling, as good ambient music often is. Like Biosphere’s sonically similar N-Plants, it suggests machines dutifully working away once the humans have gone home. Put it on next time you explore an abandoned power plant.
12. Hieroglyphic Being – The Disco’s Of Imhotep
Beguiling dance music from an acid house veteran who’s ventured into severely outré territory as of late. This seems like a solid approximation of what might have boomed out of Imhotep’s discos had the ancient Egyptians owned synths and sequencers. It’s monolithic, heavy, and so raw the obvious grammatical error in the title only adds to the vibe. But Moss is clearly a master of sound design, and the beats ultimately matter less than the weird little synth squiggles and organs that snake between them. This is one of the weirdest, best-sounding techno albums of the year.
13. Floorplan – Victorious
It’s no coincidence Robert Hood, the man widely considered to have invented minimal techno, is a preacher. More than any other genre of dance music, minimal harnesses the ability of endless repetition to evoke spiritual ecstasy. Victorious, Hood’s second album with his daughter Lyric as Floorplan (is this techno’s only daddy-daughter duo?), better captures this quality than any minimal album since the Field’s From Here We Go Sublime. Pop truisms, snatches of prayer, exhortations to dance – all looped ad nauseam until they blur in the brain like mantras. And the beats are funky as shit, too.
14. KING – We Are KING
The fusion of dream pop and R&B hasn’t been novel since about 2009, but rarely has it been done more successfully than on KING’s debut. Rather than simply adding flanged-out guitars and an indie-rock sensibility, KING embraces the sound-blurring approach of those trippier developments in British rock while remaining grounded in R&B. We Are KING is as true a wall of sound as any, its shimmering synth chords and silvery vocoders and ethereal vocals bleeding together into a futuristic, neon blizzard. KING can sing too, but don’t come here expecting show-stopping melismas. Everything’s in service of the sound.
15. Jeremih – Late Nights
In the final hours of 2015, when Late Nights dropped, it seemed anachronistic: an R&B loverman for whom debauchery affirmed life rather than draining it. With his high, almost childish voice and willingness to throw himself headfirst into the nightlife, Jeremih evoked an older class of R&B star that preferred to have fun on the freakin’ weekend rather than numbing themselves into a haze and calling their exes. Accordingly, Late Nights is lush, uplifting and catchy, its pop songs the kind you hear at a bar and smile. This is the feel-good pop album of the year, almost; I regret not spending enough time with it last December.
16. Kamaiyah – A Good Night In The Ghetto
A Good Night In The Ghetto is a lovingly crafted West Coast rap album, skits and all, but what I loved about it was Kamaiyah herself – the likable 20-year-old with the androgynous voice, bragging about her sexual prowess while pondering how it feels to be rich. She’s the shit in her little corner of the world, meaning she doesn’t have to compete with every other rapper with the money and resources to make themselves the shit. I’m reminded of Shamir, the most popular kid in school but an underdog anywhere else. She also has a way with quick little pop songs – verses that are hooks, yielding to choruses which are hooks, over in three minutes or so.
17. DJ Katapila – Trotro
This Ghanaian gem is technically from 2009 but saw a wider release this year on Awesome Tapes, and it’s the most joyful-sounding dance release I’ve heard this year. I’m informed the snatches of dialogue that punctuate these tracks are in-jokes only a Ghanaian would get (or, likely, understand; the album’s in Ga, a Ghanaian language). But it just sounds funny, all these chipmunk voices and comically fast clave beats and cheap little fake-organ leads. And it even finds time for a moodier and more emotionally compelling second half. I’ve never heard anything like this music, but connecting with it was easy enough.
18. dvsn – Sept. 5
Oddly, the best release yet from Drake’s OVO label – a brand synonymous with oversharing – is its most anonymous. The first collaboration between producer Nineteen85 and singer Daniel Daley is all craft: it’s Wagnerian R&B, its songs stretched to six-plus minutes, its emotions blown up to religious proportions that somehow make them feel more universal. Nineteen85’s best-known as an assist to OVO hits, but Sept. 5 makes the case that the limelight is where he belongs – not as a star but as a pop auteur whose vision is reason enough to flock to a record. As for Daley, we don’t know much about him except that he can belt.
19. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
This is mixtape as symphony to God in both the literal and Wilsonian sense. Chance is more than just a rapper; he’s an arranger, singer, conceptualist and, like his hero Kanye, expert assembler of albums. His choice of collaborators is as immaculate as those gigantic gospel choirs, which were purportedly left off Kanye’s The Life Of Pablo because the older auteur thought they’d distract. Chance is still obnoxious, but he’s toned down some of his more cloying tendencies and acts as chameleonic frontman rather than chewing the scenery with his personality. He’s a hell of a singer, too.
20. Les Halles – Transient/Sentient
Transient is all flutes – South American ones, sampled mostly from advertisements. But I’ve had a better time listening to them than just about any other ambient music this year. They’re so pretty and mysterious, undulating in space with only the faintest trace of processing. Names like Oneohtrix Point Never and Popol Vuh come to mind, but the places Les Halles evoke are a bit harder to pinpoint. Transient is a bit too short at 35 minutes, but I generally just queue up Sentient, its companion EP, after it.
21. Roly Porter – Third Law
Third Law is nothing so much as 52 minutes of a fearsome low end being swung around like a giant sledgehammer. Porter, one half of dubstep duo Vex’d, knows a thing or two about bass; here, he revels in the possibilities of exaggerating it. Porter thinks cosmically when naming his albums and tracks, and the bottom-heavy ruptures in Third Law’s ambient fabric suggest impossibly heavy objects bending time and space. Third Law is minimal, but it feels more massive than any other electronic record this year. I’d love to hear it on an expensive sound system, but I’d fear the speakers might break.
22. Prins Thomas – Principe Del Norte Remixed
The original Principe Del Norte was underwhelming, an attempt at a cosmic disco epic that ended up sounding like cop-show music. The producers who appear on Principe Del Norte Remixed must have heard something I didn’t, because Remixed contains some of the best and weirdest electronic music I’ve heard this year. Upstarts (Sun Araw, Hieroglyphic Being) and legends (The Orb, Ricardo Villalobos) unite to stretch, distort, and deform Thomas’s tracks. The source material’s mostly unrecognizable, so it’s a failure as a remix album – but an unequivocal success as a primer to electronic music’s fringe.
23. Britney Spears – Glory
After the failure of Britney Jean, Britney Spears and crew did the smartest thing possible: rather than making an album that bends to chart trends, they’ve made a classic Britney album. Glory is convincingly sexy and brilliantly produced, tracks like “Private Show” and “Slumber Party” evoking the times when she was big enough to make experimental risks like “Toxic” pay off. We don’t get much insight into her personal life here, but who cares? Pop is all craft, and pop albums don’t come much better-crafted than this one. Britney’s name should be a seal of quality rather than a stamp on anonymous pop records. Glory knows as much.
24. Lone – Levitate
Another reliably great entry in the catalog of a producer who can do no wrong as long as he sticks to those candy-colored chords and spry little synth leads. Here, he applies his formula to jungle, a style he flirted with on his masterpiece Galaxy Garden but into which he dives headfirst here. Levitate is slight at 33 minutes and won’t be most people’s favorite Lone release. But even his minor works feel like classics. More impressively, Levitate indicates a few potential new directions for the producer, including ambient music; about a quarter of the album’s runtime is spent on beatless interludes, and not a minute is wasted.
25. Huerco S. – For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
On his second album, Huerco S. (whose Colonial Patterns was one of the best albums of 2013) ditches the kick drums to craft an amniotic tribute to the ambient music of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. This is pure hero worship, and there’s scarcely an original idea on it. But ambient music is what you listen to when you don’t want to get caught up in trivialities like who’s ripping off who. More likely Huerco just played his copy of Pop to death and wanted to make his own version of it. And at its best, it’s as immersive as anything Wolfgang Voigt ever recorded. Curl up in a couch and let it do its work.
Shout-out: Rihanna – ANTI.
Four of my favorite songs of the year – “Kiss It Better,” “Work,” “Love On The Brain,” and “Sex With Me” – are on this album or its deluxe version. (I will not be writing a Best Songs of 2016 list; I hate writing about songs.) I’d feel bad not including this album on my list for this reason. But overall, I was disappointed by ANTI. It’s full of filler, the midsection (“Desperado” through “Never Ending”) is a slog, “James Joint” and “Higher” could be longer, and there’s no reason “Bitch Better Have My Money” or “FourFiveSeconds” shouldn’t be on here. I wish the album had cared less about looking or seeming like great art and more about just being great art; I feel like a lot of the filler was added to make the album seem “weirder” or less like a pop album. As it is, ANTI barely cracks my Top 50. A good recut could be in my top five.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
CFCF – On Vacation
Clams Casino – 32 Levels
Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning
Future – EVOL/Purple Reign
Nicolas Godin – Contrepoint
Gold Panda – Good Luck And Do Your Best
Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman
Kyle Hall – From Joy
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Omar-S – The Best
Oval – Popp
Matthewdavid’s Mindflight – Trust The Glide And Guide
Ras G – Gospel Of The God Spell
Sheer Mag – III 7”
Elza Soares – A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo/The Woman At The End Of The World
Studio OST – Scenes 2012-2015
Tiger & Woods – On The Green Again
Adrian Younge – Something About April II
Albums I need to spend more time with:
Anohni – Hopelessness
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – In Summer
Fluxion – Vibrant Forms III
G.L.O.S.S. – Trans Day Of Revenge
Isorinne – Echoic Memoir
Mary Lattimore – At The Dam
Lil Uzi Vert – The Perfect LUV Tape
Lil Yachty – Lil Boat
Metro Boomin/21 Savage – Savage Mode
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service