Consensus holds that 2016 was a terrible, terrible year. However, setting global politics aside for just a second, 2016 was an incredible year for music. It had it all: Blockbusters from marquee stars, returns from reclusive auteurs, and breakouts from an ascendant class of rookies. Music is moving faster than ever, but this year still presented far many more than 50 opportunities to slow down and take in a full project; selecting what makes the cut for lists like these becomes a more difficult task every year.
Music is moving faster than ever, but this year still presented far many more than 50 opportunities to slow down and take in a full project; selecting what makes the cut for lists like these becomes a more difficult task every year. Of course, 2016 still has a few more projects in the chamber—Drake has a "playlist" on the way, J. Cole came out of nowhere with new tracks and a documentary, and Kid Cudi's return is imminent. But, for now, here are the 50 best albums of 2016.
50. Majid Jordan, 'Majid Jordan'
Label: OVO Sound, Warner Bros.
Released: Feb. 5
Party is the Golden Child. Dvsn is the shiny, brand new baby. Roy Woods is…around. That leaves Majid Jordan as the middle twins of the OVO family. And despite that distinction, they still put out, top to bottom, one of the more enjoyable records of the year. Singer Majid Al Maskati and producer Jordan Ullman took everything that made “Hold On, We’re Going Home” a runaway success and doubled down on it with a debut project that takes all of their influences—’80s pop, ’70s soul, with added dashes of funk and electronic—and throws it at the wall. The end result isn’t the splashy mess you might imagine, but instead something much more cohesive. With the help of OVO Sound steward 40 and Nineteen85, this self-titled album is a perfect distillation of their melting pot of inspirations. It successfully oscillates between throwback grooves (“Something About You”) and tenderness (“Love Is Always There”), often at the same time (“Small Talk”). Hail Majid Jordan, OVO’s very own Hall & Oates. —Frazier Tharpe
49. Ariana Grande, 'Dangerous Woman'
Released: May 20
Truth be told, Dangerous Woman is Ariana Grande’s weakest album. That it still made the cut in a year spoiled rotten with great music is a testament to Grande’s stunning abilities as a vocalist and her ear for producers and features. “Into You” and the title track are enormous assertions of power from the former Nick star. (At some point, that won’t bear mentioning when discussing her career as a musician, but as this album seems calculated to complicate her image, I’m alluding to it now.) Dangerous Woman stumbles, though, when it comes to deep cuts. Songs like “Greedy” and “Everyday” don’t match the consistent highs of My Everything. That said, the deluxe edition of Dangerous Woman comes closest; the bonus track “Knew Better/Forever Boy” is actually the best song she released in 2016. Don’t @ me. —Ross Scarano
48. DJ Khaled, 'Major Key'
Label: We the Best, Epic
Released: July 29
Believe it or not, DJ Khaled has released nine albums. The latest is Major Key, arguably the most important album of his journey, arriving at the peak of Khaled’s mainstream exposure. (Thank you, Snapchat.) The stakes could not have been higher, but Khaled didn’t falter by sticking to the formula that’s worked so well for him. The "Another One" meme came to life as he orchestrated high-profile features from his Rolodex of greats, including Jay Z, Future, Drake, Nas, J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean, and more. He had hits with "For Free" and "I Got the Keys," proving that, at the end of the day, you still know Khaled more for his music than his social media skills. —Zach Frydenlund
47. ASAP Ferg, 'Always Strive and Prosper'
Label: ASAP Worldwide, Polo Grounds, RCA
Released: April 22
ASAP Ferg using his squad’s acronym as his sophomore album title isn't lazy. On this project, Fergenstein tucks the themes of "bitches and fashion" the Mob usually traffics in for something more magnanimous—and weird, sonically speaking. "I can see it in your face and I know you wanna fly, so get off your ass and create your life," Ferg raps on "Strive." On paper that reads saccharine, but Ferg's delivery is genuine. He wants us to be great, and have fun while doing so, which is why he's delivering the message over a beat that somehow mixes funk, house, and trap alongside a reanimated Missy Elliott. Did I mention this album sounds weird?
"New Level" took off as it should've, and I'll never understand why the Renzel-assisted "Swipe Life" didn't follow suit. Ferg's family is lovingly paraded out to the listener to help paint a picture of the man he is today, with tributes paid to both the living (his uncle on "Psycho," his mom on "Beautiful People") and the dearly departed ("Yammy Gang," "Grandma"). The dedication to his girl—a relationship that reportedly didn't survive the making of this album—is literally titled "I Love You." Ferg is the beaming big heart of his mean-mugging Harlem crew, and the change of perspective and pace is more refreshing than he got credit for. —Frazier Tharpe
46. Mitski, 'Puberty 2'
Label: Dead Oceans
Released: June 17
There's a certain pride that you wear with sadness, and it sticks out like a thorn on singer-songwriter Mitski's latest album, Puberty 2. That title contains—albeit barely—the overwhelming, almost unbearable flood of feelings poured into this indie rock record. The 25-year-old Mitski has a voice that's at times sensitive and vulnerable; other times, it's affecting and powerful, almost fuck-it-all, but never not truthful and baring. It’s adaptable for both her softer ballads and her more explosive rock anthems, which sound like descendants of the Pixies. Her fourth full-length is a confident return to form following 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, which put her on the map (and several best-of lists that year). Reminiscent of real-life puberty (the first one), there's a recklessness and an almost violent swing of emotions here, but this is puberty the second time around, and it's far more poised and articulate than what we remember of our teenage years. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
45. Blood Orange, 'Freetown Sound'
Released: June 28
On Freetown Sound, the third album from Dev Hynes’ Blood Orange project, Hynes plays the role of the voice in the back of our heads. The one that reminds us of our creeping doubts and insecurities, or the people who try to make outsiders of us. Just listen to “Best To You” (“Did he even notice?”), “E.V.P.” (“Do you ever think, boy? Or does it just feel better alone?”), or “Hands Up” (“Are you okay? What’s in your way?”). Hynes frames these doubts within different contexts—questions of love, identity, or both—but never fails to find hope, or a chance to enact your truest, most vibrant self amid these conflicts. Guided by intimate, stoically cool arrangements of synths, percussion, and strings, and aided by vocalists like Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and Carly Rae Jepsen, Freetown Sound is a stirring celebration of personal strength, championing people and identities that society so often seeks to cage. —Gus Turner
44. Maxwell, 'blackSUMMERS’night'
Released: July 7
On the hook for “1990x,” Maxwell sings, in that effervescent falsetto of his, “We’re grown and we own it.” It’s his guiding principle for the loose trilogy he began in 2009, with BLACKsummers’night, and continues this year with its sequel. There’s nothing flashy about this album, nothing that challenges the tropes of R&B. Instead, it’s a long soak in all the tried-and-true qualities that make the genre timeless. The horn arrangements from Keyon Harrold and Kenneth Whalum III push songs like “Fingers Crossed” into deep pockets of feeling, and Maxwell’s voice has acquired a lacquered richness with age that suits the project.
I used to live around the corner from a bar in Brooklyn that advertised itself as a “grown and sexy” spot. It’s since closed, and if I could go back in time, I’d take this album with me and deliver it to its regulars, knowing full well it would drop panties and boot-cut jeans with the quickness. —Ross Scarano
43. Lady Gaga, 'Joanne'
Label: Streamline, Interscope
Released: Oct. 21
Lady Gaga needed Joanne. She needed to strip down—not literally, of course. But after 2013’s Artpop, Gaga’s overexposure and a cluttered album left some wondering what she would do next. How can you keep our attention when you've already gone so big and bold? By doing the opposite: In October, Gaga dropped Joanne—a pared down, country-tinged version of herself.
It’s an album that mixes her tried and true sounds with something new—a dab of musical theater, a dash of Tina Turner, a sprinkle of Hall & Oates. Standouts include “Sinner's Prayer,” an alternate-world Kill Bill theme song, “Hey Girl,” a soulful collab with Florence Welsh, and lead single “Million Reasons,” which is a better version of Gaga’s hit ballad “You & I.” Joanne feels so fresh compared to electronic greats like The Fame Monster and Born This Way. It has something that those albums don’t: mystery. —Kerensa Cadenas
42. D.R.A.M., 'Big Baby D.R.A.M.'
Label: Empire, Atlantic
Released: Oct. 21
Bursting onto the scene with his hit 2015 single “Cha Cha,” Virginia's own D.R.A.M. exuded a different vibe, one based on huge smiles, loads of energy, and an ear for the unique. Not too many artists would think about throwing huge guitar riffs at someone like Young Thug (which he did on “Misunderstood”) and on the very same project duetting with none other than Erykah Badu. No one could escape the twinkling piano and booming bass from D.R.A.M.’s Lil Yachty-assisted “Broccoli”; but on much of the rest of the album, D.R.A.M. came sensitive and introspective. It’s hard to gauge what this album might sound like a few years removed, but for 2016, this is a perfect examination of the sounds that made up the year. —khal
41. Esperanza Spalding, 'Emily’s D+Evolution'
Label: Esperanza Spalding Productions, Concord
Released: March 4
This is a weird nut of an album, overtly theatrical and difficult to crack, even as Esperanza Spalding’s virtuoso gifts consistently awe the listener. Spalding, you may recall, beat out Drake and Justin Bieber, among others, for the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist. Her music has very little in common with her nominees that year; it seems diametrically opposed to pop success. One can imagine playing the cramped, quadruple-time opening of “Ebony and Ivory” for a collection of Bieber and Drake fans and getting mostly puzzled looks for the trouble.
Spalding closes this album with a cover of the song Veruca Salt sings before catching a serious L in the 1971 film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That’s the distant corner of left field Spalding occupies, and if you’re willing to sit with her, there are substantial joys to be found here, chiefly the elasticity and strength of her voice. It’s the driving engine behind the album’s best song, “Rest in Pleasure.” In fact, you may want to enter through that door, by listening to that song before skipping around to find the nooks and crannies that tickle you—then unpack the album from front to back. Choose your own adventure. Spalding would probably dig that. —Ross Scarano
40. The Weeknd, 'Starboy'
Label: XO, Republic
Released: Nov. 25
At 18 tracks, Starboy is the most ambitious Weeknd album yet. The project features Abel Tesfaye embracing the pop-star status he earned from his second studio LP, Beauty Behind the Madness, while also trying to stay true to his day-one fans. The title track, "Rockin," "I Feel It Coming," and "Secrets" show his radio-friendly side, while darker, more hedonistic songs like “Reminder” play to his base, as he calls out lame R&B dudes and sings about pouring codeine in his trophies. In the end, he tries to do too much with the album, vacillating back and forth between the mainstream and the underground on a whopping 18 tracks; the material begins to drag. Instead of making the tightest project he could, he tried too hard to make everyone happy. —Zach Frydenlund
39. 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, 'Savage Mode'
Released: July 15
Ever wonder what a serial killer sounds like on wax? Listen to Savage Mode. Atlanta’s 21 Savage raps like a middle-aged maniac in a young man’s body. His delivery is always calm, cool, and murderous—and also somehow quite soothing, actually. Put that in a pot and add some Metro Boomin beats in there and you have one of rap’s grimiest projects. Savage hits the same vein as early DMX and the Gravediggaz—the imagery is gory, and his taunts toward his targets borders on psychopathic. John Carpenter or David Lynch should direct one of his videos. “Issa Knife” memes aside, 21 is to be taken seriously. —Angel Diaz
38. Frank Ocean, 'Endless'
37. Ka, 'Honor Killed the Samurai'
Label: Iron Works
Released: Aug. 13
From Iron Works to Grief Pedigree to The Night’s Gambit to Honor Killed the Samurai, all Ka knows how to do is create greatness. The Brooklyn MC makes art for those who have an appreciation for detail: the obscure movie samples, the wordplay, the darkness of his production, the cinematography and moods of his videos. His latest feels like an Akira Kurosawa flick, with death and despair and wisdom lurking around every corner. Each listen feels like watching a murderous movie scene — samurais sacking a village, perhaps. Ka is the shogun’s assassin speaking truth to power, using his pen as his Hattori Hanzo sword. —Angel Diaz
36. Joey Purp, 'iiiDrops'
Released: May 27
Joey Purp is the most lyrically vicious MC in Chicago’s Save Money clique. But iiiDrops isn’t just about bars. “Girls,” featuring Chance the Rapper, should be a hit in its own right. “Kids” demonstrates Purp’s range as he contorts his voice while singing his heart out. Joey is at his best on rapping his ass off on tracks like “Morning Sex,” “Corner Store” featuring Saba, and “Godbody.” He’s “poppin’ like Polo tags in ’98,” and his ear for beats is nothing short of impressive. 2017 might be the year he turns into a household name. —Angel Diaz
35. Baauer, 'Aa'
Released: May 18
It’s unlikely Baauer will ever top the commercial success of “Harlem Shake,” but that didn’t seem to cross his mind while making his debut album, Aa. Instead, the Philly producer/DJ crafted a collection of dance-ready backdrops that fully explore the electronic landscape, bouncing from trap to grime to Baltimore club seamlessly. His guest list is a producers’ dream, too, with Pusha T and Future whipping up that raw on “Kung Fu” and M.I.A. and G-Dragon doing the absolute most on “Temple”—and knocking it out of the park. With Aa, Bauuer Harlem shakes through the pressure of any one-hit wonder talk and solidifies his space in the industry. —Edwin Ortiz
34. David Bowie, 'Blackstar'
Label: ISO, Columbia
Released: Jan. 8
David Bowie’s death on January 10, just two days after the release of his final album, should have tipped us off that 2016 wasn’t going to go well. Thankfully, he left us with a parting gift to cope with the madness and confusion to come: his powerful and unexpected goodbye, Blackstar. The album has been rightfully called a fitting swan song for the rock icon, and not simply because of its timeliness and prescience. It boasts two tracks (“Blackstar,” “Lazarus”) that stand tall in the pantheon of his all-time greats, as well as a slew of other winding, jazzy, and frantic dispatches from the edge of the void.
Rarely does an artist of this stature have the chance to tell us of their end; Bowie takes advantage of the opportunity by speaking not only about the grave, but from it. On “Lazarus,” as he sings, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” it’s hard to not tilt your head toward the ceiling, and take some comfort in the fact that our Starman is finally up there, waiting in the sky. —Gus Turner
33. Dvsn, 'Sept. 5'
Label: OVO Sound, Warner Bros.
Released: March 27
Over the past few years, Drake has struggled to build a label with a roster as deep as the great rap labels of the past. But Drizzy has done well with the R&B duo Dvsn. Made up of Daniel Daley and super-producer Nineteen85, the duo slunk onto the scene as a mystery, but have since come out of the shadows to join Drake on his successful "Summer Sixteen" tour. (And they sound amazing live.) On their debut project, Sept. 5, Dvsn come out the gate swinging with standouts like "With Me" and "Too Deep." Both songs were released long before the project arrived in full, but even after playing them hundreds of times, they still ring off. The mix of Nineteen85's electronic-R&B swing and Daley's booming vocals is grown-folks music that will keep growing on you. —Zach Frydenlund
32. Angel Olsen, 'My Woman'
Released: Sept. 2
Angel Olsen is president of contemporary indie rock's lonely-hearts club—a pained, poignant voice for the broken and rejected. On her past work, she was there for you doling out wry, self-deprecating "I'm lonely, too" high-fives when you needed them most. And there's still an inkling of that Angel Olsen on her latest album, My Woman, but this music arrives with a newfound sense of self, and a desire to shake off "just the sad girl" persona. The result is a much more commanding presence. With the opening track, “Intern,” the album's first single, she dabbles in synths for the first time; in the song’s video, she pairs the sound with a bold tinsel wig. Just a couple songs later—still rocking the tinsel wig—she demands, "Shut up, kiss me, hold me tight." Olsen still pines and croons, but there's no fear about going after what she wants. —Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
31. Lil Yachty, 'Lil Boat'
Released: March 9
Lil Yachty carved out his own lane with his debut mixtape Lil Boat, showcasing his bubble-gum trap approach to hip-hop and his delightfully weird overall individuality. A lyrical technician he is not, but Yachty makes up for it with sunny Auto-Tuned melodies, blunt honesty, and an energy that matches his age. Throw on “Fucked Over” and you’ll feel like you were done wrong; “Good Day” is pure joy in musical form. Yachty makes anthems, and that’s evident when a mixtape cut like “One Night” enjoys charting success. Plus, the combo of Yachty, Thugger, and Quavo on “Minnesota” is straight cold. At 19, Yachty floated into uncharted territory in 2016, “gatekeepers” be damned. Like the dialogue you hear from Finding Nemo’s Dory during the album’s intro—”just keep swimming”—he maneuvered through the bullshit to become one of the rap game’s strongest rookie of the year contenders. Lil Boat set the tone for that achievement. —Edwin Ortiz
30. Rae Sremmurd, 'SremmLife 2'
Label: Ear Drummers, Interscope
Released: Aug. 12
The lost and helpless would tell you this album didn’t deliver save one five-minute crowd pleaser. They’ll talk of #MannequinChallenges, album delays, and buzz that fell short of “No Flex Zone” and “No Type.” Sorry, Khaled, but if there was ever an album that exemplified “staying away from They,” it’s SremmLife 2. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played the tenth track, “Take It or Leave It,” only to have someone ask what song I was playing. Do you all listen to albums or just skim through them during yoga?
No, SremmLife 2 isn’t the sequel that manages to improve on Rae Sremmurd’s breakout hit. It’s not a renewable energy source that can power a party straight through like their debut. It’s riskier and weirder, but run it back this time without lamenting the lack of an “Up Like T**m*” or “Come Get Her” and you’ll find gems like “Take It.” Songs that see Swae experimenting and Jxmmi joining him for the ride over some of Mike Will’s spaciest production yet. Not everything worked, but when it did, what was the result? A co-sign from Paul McCartney. We should be excited to see what the Brothers Sremm do next. —Frazier Tharpe
29. 2 Chainz, 'Collegrove'
Label: Def Jam
Released: March 4
Collegrove is billed as 2 Chainz's third studio album, but it's really the self-titled debut of his duet with Lil Wayne, released as a workaround for Lil Wayne's contractual impasse with Cash Money. The secret to Collegrove is the great chemistry 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne share, which makes the project one of the most enjoyable records of 2016. Their relationship dates back to the "Duffle Bag Boy" days, something 2 Chainz describes in detail on the opening song, “Dedication,” one of the best odes to friendship in recent musical memory. With Wayne's situation with Cash Money and Birdman getting uglier by the day, it's nice to see him get some wins—especially alongside a faithful ally. —Zach Frydenlund
28. Bruno Mars, '24K Magic'
Released: Nov. 18
Do you like cheese? Are you susceptible to lyrics about romance and love-making belted with utter sincerity? Are you even comfortable with the term “love-making”? Do you swear by the sort of ’80s adult contemporary that you hear in drug stores? Have you ever owned silk underwear? Does the name Chris de Burgh mean everything to you? Is there a wedding playlist saved in your phone that you update with frightening regularity? If I told you Bruno Mars recorded an album that sounded like a middle school dance, would you know I meant that as a compliment? Do you still bump and grind? Did one of your parents have a perm when you were conceived? When you listen to "Calling All My Lovelies," does the low-end piano chord struck before Bruno wails “neeeeeeeds a hoo-ooo-mmmmmeeee-yeeaahh” vibrate you? Cool—you know what it is. —Ross Scarano
27. James Blake, 'The Colour in Anything'
Released: May 6
From the album artwork, featuring a watercolor illustration of a damp, cloudy autumn day, you know James Blake’s The Colour in Anything is strapping you in for a ride to Feelzville. This entire project is a dark, gloomy masterpiece of sound and song. “Love Me In Whatever Way” is the Simp Gawd anthem of the year, and if your lady can’t stand to see you cry while Blake sings that song, let her go, bro, and charge it to the game. “My Willing Heart” is so powerful, it’s hard to explain. Blake’s voice over his signature subtle bass and piano makes for some of the most beautiful music created this year. The Colour in Anything is packed with melancholy ballads and dreary yet dope production. Have you ever seen a thug cry? Play this, and catch the tears with your durag. —Angel Diaz
26. The 1975, 'I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It'
Label: Dirty Hit, Interscope
Released: Feb. 26
The 1975 weren't even on my radar until they pulled music duty on the Larry David episode of Saturday Night Live (that is, one of perhaps three episodes of SNL worth watching this year). When the album dropped shortly after, I gave it a spin, and to merely say that I was “pleasantly surprised” would be an understatement. This is one of the funkiest albums of the year, the English dance rock album you didn't know you needed. It is a little too self-indulgent—word to the biblically long album title—but when it works, you have jams ("She's American"), vibes ("Somebody Else"), and awesome ballads ("If I Believe You"). —Frazier Tharpe
25. Noname, 'Telefone'
Released: July 31
It made perfect sense for many to first hear Noname’s smooth vocals on material from Chance the Rapper; both represent the jazzier, more melodic world of hip-hop growing within the city of Chicago. But to call Noname a Chance clone misunderstands her place in the city’s deep-dish hip-hop pie. Though Telefone was long delayed (to the point where some of her peers called her the “Jay Electronica of Chicago”), Noname made up for that wait with a gem. On 10 captivating songs that are as quirky as they are smooth, Noname runs the gamut of emotions with her pen, but always returns to the confusion and pain that writhes beneath the surface of many of our lives. If you’re in search of a voice for the future of the struggle, look no further than Noname. —khal
24. Gallant, 'Ology'
Label: Mind of a Genius, Warner Bros.
Released: April 6
Gallant, a singer from L.A. by way of D.C., is pushing soul music forward with an unorthodox sound that’s on full display throughout his debut album, Ology. The project highlights his ability to croon over contemporary rhythm and blues (“Jupiter”), with hints of gospel (“Shotgun”), and even electronic-leaning production (“Open Up”). That has a lot to do with Gallant’s command over his voice as he tackles his roller coaster of emotions throughout; “Bourbon” is a clear standout in this department. Lyrically, he leaves much to interpretation, but what’s not up for debate is his pure talent. —Edwin Ortiz
23. Mac Miller, 'The Divine Feminine'
Label: REMember, Warner Bros.
Released: Sept. 16
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
The Love Below.
The list of hip-hop love albums is remarkably short. This year, Mac Miller’s The Divine Feminine joined those ranks, a worthy addition for its sincerity and sonic ambitions. When Mac’s enthusiastic conflation of love with pussy-praising begins to feel rudimentary, the complicated arrangements and excellent guest vocalists (Anderson .Paak, Ty Dolla Sign, Njomza, and Kendrick Lamar make especially vital contributions) keep the album surprising. “Dang,” “Planet God Damn,” and “Cinderella” fly high while painting a more nuanced portrait of romantic love—one that involves more than just masterful blow jobs. “How the fuck did/We get into a place we ain't accustomed to lovin' inside of?,” Mac raps on “Planet God Damn.”
Many of the songs pay lip service to honesty and communication as the backbone of a strong relationship, but the lines that Mac appears to enjoy most involve stuff like “Your pussy a ride better than Six Flags.” The album’s title, with its stereotypical hetero male overcompensating, is the first clue that Mac is no James Salter (or even Scott Spencer), so the basic sex talk shouldn’t come as a shock. But he deserves recognition for embracing so completely the fresh feelings of love in his life (hi, Ariana). He’ll keep growing up, and his heart is in the right place. —Ross Scarano
22. Nxworries, 'Yes Lawd!'
Label: Stones Throw
Released: Oct. 21
“And now you say I changed/Like I'm doing all of this to stay the same,” Anderson Paak raps on “Starlite,” summing up his glorious 2016. Between his solo album, Malibu, his crucial contributions to Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, his appearances on A Tribe Called Quest’s return and Mac Miller’s best project to date, and his collaborative album with Stones Throw producer Knwledge, Paak put his entire foot in this year. You couldn’t avoid him if you tried, and no project he touched had quite the same flavor. For my money, Yes Lawd! is his finest work to date: by turns crass, ridiculous, beautiful, and constantly surprising. He plays a character on the album—think Curtis Mayfield's Superfly—and it frees him to play with '70s soul conventions and song structure, to create hilarious skits and embody the crazy joy encapsulated in the album’s frequent exclamation: Yes Lawd!
“Scared Money,” “Wngs,” “H.A.N.,” “Suede,” “Sidepiece,” “Livvin,” “Link Up”—the album is stacked. It’s like the score to an unproduced Blaxploitation musical. “Bitch, I want you in my life for all of my days,” Paak belts near the album's end; the misogyny might shut some listeners down, but at the bottom of that declaration there’s a total admission of prostrate weakness and real twisted humor. —Ross Scarano
21. Kamaiyah, 'A Good Night in the Ghetto'
Released: March 14
The West is rising, and in 2016, it found a new First Lady. You'd be hard-pressed to find a project this year as fun from top to bottom as Kamaiyah's debut mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto. With old-school G-funk sounds, Ill Yaya glides across each track with verve that can both demand your attention and put you in the mood to chill. Every banger, from "Mo Money Mo Problems" to "One Love," sounds like it could soundtrack one of Will and Carlton's parties during the college seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. And when she's done partying in the rays of California sunshine, by dusk, she's flipping the script on fuccbois: "He don't love me, he just want me for my artistry/And, uh, I can tell, so I bone him and I bail," she raps on “Niggas.” You're guaranteed a good night wherever you play this tape. Kamaiyah surely has better nights, in better locations, ahead of her. —Frazier Tharpe
20. Lil Uzi Vert, 'Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World'
Label: Generation Now, Atlantic
Released: May 27
On the strength of three projects (including a collaborative EP with Gucci Mane), Lil Uzi Vert emerged in 2016 as the most petulant, charismatic, and magnetic of hip-hop’s newest class of ascendant stars. But it’s his standout mixtape Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World that most shows off Vert’s impeccable taste; from the album artwork to the Technicolor trap beats, it’s a project that operates cohesively—the sum of its parts equals more than any one track (though “You Was Right” makes a strong case for standing on its own two feet). Its mastermind wholeheartedly embraces his role as rap’s latest enfant terrible, going from bratty to bored and back again over the course of each song. Lil Uzi Vert raps more in maxims than verses, uncovering phrases that seem optimized to get stuck in your head. The young rapper doesn’t have a lot to say, but he sure knows how to say it. —Brendan Klinkenberg
19. YG, 'Still Brazy'
Label: 400, CTE, Def Jam
Released: June 17
Part of the success of My Krazy Life can be attributed to what was missing in 2014: an unapologetic street rapper who wasn’t afraid of his own truth. YG stepped into that role and owned it better than anyone thought he could. That surprise turned into speculation about whether he could do it again; coupled with a temporary split with close producer DJ Mustard and a shooting, it felt like the odds were against YG. Still Brazy squashed any doubt.
The separation from Mustard allowed YG space to collaborate with other producers (Swish, CT Beats, P-Lo) who helped the Compton MC dig deeper into his West Coast roots. His pen game also improved; check “Who Shot Me?,” which recounts the night of his shooting, and “Bool, Balm & Bollective.” He even provided the anti-Trump anthem of the year. Should YG get snubbed for a Grammy nod in the Best Rap Album category again, expect more outrage from the rapper. Justified outrage—it’s that good. —Edwin Ortiz
18. Kevin Gates, 'Islah'
Label: Bread Winners' Association, Atlantic
Released: Jan. 29
Kevin Gates is by no means a new artist, but all the same Islah felt like an introduction to an entirely novel audience for the Louisiana rapper. With hits like "2 Phones," which hit the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and "Really Really," Gates found crossover appeal on a whole new level in 2016, as fans finally figured out he's more than just an insane interview. In addition to the hits on the project, Gates stayed close to his roots to satisfy day-one fans with the blend of street rap and catchy hooks that's made his career so durable. Gates released another project in May, but Islah will be remembered as a major turning point in his career. —Zach Frydenlund
17. Kaytranada, '99.9%'
Released: May 6
Haiti-born, Montreal-based producer Kaytranada is known for a style that impressively mixes forward-thinking hip-hop beats and sweaty, disco-tinged dance jams, and his debut album fully satisfies those two impulses. At a time in his life where he probably could’ve finagled any number of high-caliber artist features, you can tell that he drew more from his heart, calling on guests like Craig David (“Got It Good”) for hypnotic R&B burners or up-and-comers like Vic Mensa (“Drive Me Crazy”) for understated turn-up vibes. He linked again with the Internet’s Syd for the immaculate “You’re the One,” a perfect blend of his club-rocking style and her soothing voice. If you’re looking for the ideal chill album for you and a select group of squad members, 99.9% comes correct. —khal
16. Young Thug, 'Slime Season 3'
Label: 300 Ent., Atlantic
Released: March 25
2016 was a high watermark for Young Thug, with three successful projects: I'm Up, Slime Season 3, Jeffery. They all have memorable moments, but Thugger really stepped out on the concise Slime Season 3 to justify all the internet hype surrounding him. Bangers like "With Them," "Drippin," and "Digits" prove that Thug isn't just an eccentric one-off—he has staying power and the ability to continuously make unorthodox jams. You never know what Thug (or Jeffery, now) is going to do next, but with his long-awaited debut album on the horizon, it seems possible that he can top his incredible 2016 next year. —Zach Frydenlund
15. Drake, 'Views'
Label: Young Money, Cash Money, Republic
Released: April 29
Too often, Views is the sound of going through the motions. As strong as it is, “Controlla” is a borderline sequel mandated by the blockbuster success of Rihanna’s “Work.” Tough talk tracks like “Hype” feel prerequisite, retreading the ground covered by "The Language" and others. The passionless delivery of the uninspired closing track—a place in the sequence where Drake usually shines—is so distressing that it made Joe Budden’s criticism of the album understandable (even if it did launch the most unrequited beef rap has ever seen). “Child's Play” and “Still Here” coast on superior production. “9” and “Redemption” are the rare tracks that seem to genuinely probe Drake’s current state of mind. Nothing on Views is bad per se—Drake is too talented for that—but it’s rarely enough. Drake's set the bar too high with his past work.
Is Drake the new Jay? That's a pedantic debate to begin with, but if Drake wants Hov-level cred, there is one stripe he definitely earned this year. Not many other rappers can commiserate with him on the stresses of delivering a wildly successful album commercially that's, say, a B+ on paper, but falls apart upon close inspection. In rap, the gods aren't allowed to go through the motions. —Frazier Tharpe
14. Anderson .Paak, 'Malibu'
Label: Steel Wool, OBE, Art Club, EMPIRE
Released: Jan. 15
Malibu is the perfect title for Anderson Paak's sophomore album because it conjures a sunny Southern California day. But it ain’t all sweet. Nestled comfortably alongside the smooth vibes are raw, deeply personal looks into one of the most prolific artists of the year. On the album’s intro, “The Bird,” Paak speaks on his family life growing up—one that involved a gambling mother and an imprisoned father. On “The Season/Carry Me,” Paak sings his heart out about his first time putting on a pair of Jordans, meeting his first love, and trying to make enough money so his girl wouldn’t get deported. Malibu is a 16-song opus featuring production from Paak himself, Kaytranada, 9th Wonder, Madlib, and others, and it crosses several genres. This is as much a hip-hop album as it is an R&B and rock one. Paak refuses to be boxed in. —Angel Diaz
13. Young Thug, 'Jeffery'
Label: 300 Ent., Atlantic
Released: Aug. 26
Young Thug has long been a creative power center for hip-hop. He outstripped his reputation as an oddity years ago to become an undeniable star, even as his public persona became bolder the longer he occupied the spotlight. 2016, even by Thug’s high standards, was a special year. Slime Season 3 is a bizarre bolt of songs stunningly devoid of precedents, but Jeffery is another beast entirely. While one could debate for days whether any of the songs on it reach the manic heights of “With Them,” Jeffery is, inarguably, Thug’s most cohesive, coherent album. It’s the first time I could play a Thug record for my mom (her favorite song is “Webbie”), and it lays out the best blueprint for how Jeffery—rap’s most outré star—could one day take over the pop charts. —Brendan Klinkenberg
12. Danny Brown, 'Atrocity Exhibition'
Released: Sept. 27
On his fourth studio album, Danny Brown, the Detroit rapper who once proclaimed himself a “hip-hop fusebox,” sparks and spits through 46 nightmarish minutes of what is, undoubtedly, the best LP of his career. Atrocity Exhibition is a showcase for everything that makes Brown’s voice and approach so singular: his unmistakable squawk, barking ad-libs that provide crucial rhythmic force, his flair for the grotesque and bawdy, an appetite for production that’s unexpected and occasionally hard to love.
“I can rap over two pots scraping each other,” Brown told Beats 1 Radio host Zane Lowe in September. On certain tracks, it seems as though he’s nearly taken up the challenge, backed by dissonant instrumentals that sound something like an exploding kitchen. With help from producers Evian Christ, Alchemist, Petite Noir, Playa Haze, Black Milk, and Paul White (who produced the majority of the album), Browns teases and tugs at hip-hop’s fringes, being as dark, unpredictable, surreal, and, yes, atrocious as he wants to be. —Gus Turner
11. Kendrick Lamar, 'Untitled Unmastered'
Label: Top Dawg, Aftermath, Interscope
Released: March 4
Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered demonstrates how great of an artist the Compton native really is. Effectively a collection of ephemeral leftovers from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, the project offers rough sketches of Lamar’s thoughts about society and himself. But even as sketches, they have more power and technical ability than any of his peers could easily muster.
In a year where K.Dot showed out with guest verses on blockbuster albums—Lemonade, The Life of Pablo, Starboy, Blonde—you can still find his most impactful performances on Untitled Unmastered. As a fan, you can’t help but salivate over the thought of what he’s cooking up for the next project. —Edwin Ortiz
10. Bon Iver, '22, A Million'
Released: Sept. 30
On his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon embodied an archetype—the sad, introspective, bearded artist, decamping to the woods to sing about his feelings. The story was embellished, of course, but the narrative stuck. For his next album as Bon Iver, Vernon pushed outward, in every direction, to create a sprawling, stately, and, above all else, beautiful album. Then, it seemed like he was finished with the Bon Iver project. Vernon—someone who follows his artistic impulses with enough blind rigor to qualify as an auteur—couldn’t make the music any prettier or heartfelt. So, instead, he stopped. He went back to Wisconsin and started a music festival, indulged a few side projects and worked with Kanye West some more. Then he came back with the first Bon Iver album that doesn’t sound like a Bon Iver album.
22, A Million is a record of broken moments. The beauty Vernon can seemingly conjure in his sleep is still there, but now it’s marred, intentionally and artfully. The glitch-ridden results are gasping, disorienting, and, at times, angry. It’s not the Bon Iver album anyone could have predicted. It’s better. —Brendan Klinkenberg
9. Schoolboy Q, 'Blank Face LP'
Label: Top Dawg, Interscope
Released: July 8
Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP is as much a psychedelic funk and R&B record as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a jazz record. At 17 songs and 72 minutes, it’s a long, disorienting, challenging album that’s mindful enough to prepare the listener for the journey from its first song. On “Torch,” Anderson .Paak sounds manic and paranoid, and a menacing bass riff unfurls like a flamethrower in slow motion. At times Blank Face sounds like how violence feels. Its first single, “Groovy Tony,” is perhaps the gnarliest, most heartless major rap record of 2016. Check Jadakiss’s verse: “When I hug your mom and look over her shoulder/You notice I got the blank face.” It’s so very cold.
The album was released in the summer, on July 8, while the country was mourning the losses of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and reeling from the police shooting at an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. Q’s lyrics do grapple with police brutality and hate, but it's more than just specific lyrical references—the album overall captures the gut-bucket feeling of a tilt toward chaos that so many of us couldn’t shake in 2016. On “Kno Ya Wrong,” a slow-rolling, shit-talking exercise in the tradition of Teddy Pendergrass when he was still with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, producers Alchemist and J.LBS sample Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness” in such a way that the oft-quoted synth line sounds like an alarm. The world’s on fire, if you didn’t already know. —Ross Scarano
8. Rihanna, 'Anti'
Label: Westbury Road, Roc Nation
Released: Jan. 27
If anyone pulled a big 180 this year, it was Rihanna. In the long, teasing wait for Rihanna’s eighth studio album, it was easy to get excited for another energy-filled, dance-floor-packing album, the sort that we’ve come to expect from the pop queen. Instead, Anti reimagined what Rihanna can do and what we should expect from her. The album is perfect bedroom pop, what you listen to while sprawled on your bed lamenting a lost love or fantasizing about a new one. Anti feels more complete than any of her previous albums, which often seemed like mere vehicles for No. 1 singles. Anti is the opposite of that (aside from “Work,” her collab with Drake). It’s an album that’s worth listening all the way through, for the deep cuts and unexpected moments; you don’t want to miss the excellent cover of Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes” or the whiskey-soaked, last-call anthem, “Higher.”
Vocally, she’s never sounded better, and the stoner vibe makes so much sense, it’s amazing it hadn’t arrived earlier. But don’t be worried about the lack of bops—the bonus track “Sex With Me” is one of the best pop songs of the year. I’ll fight anyone who disagrees. —Kerensa Cadenas
7. Solange, 'A Seat at the Table'
Label: Saint, Columbia
Released: Sept. 30
Five years after releasing her EP True, Solange dropped A Seat at the Table, filled with gorgeous, haunting visuals. While True was dancey pop with an undercurrent of loss and longing, A Seat at the Table strips away that EP’s upbeat feel for a more mellow, wistful R&B sound and songs that examine the trials and triumphs of being black in America. Much of that work is done in the interludes: Master P tells the story of his rise in the music industry; Solange’s mother, Tina Knowles, explains what it means to be proudly pro-black, despite how frustrating the reactions to that sentiment can be; and her father/former manager Mathew Knowles talks about growing up “angry” after experiencing segregation. It’s a vital album for our current political climate, anchored by Solange’s angelic vocals and incredible lyrics.
As she croons on “F.U.B.U,” she made A Seat at the Table because “some shit is for us.” But everyone else is lucky to listen. —Kerensa Cadenas
6. Frank Ocean, 'Blonde'
Label: Boys Don't Cry
Released: Aug. 20
After the waiting, the false starts, the rumors, and the feverish anticipation, Frank Ocean released something that, somehow, lived up to the hype. Channel Orange cemented his reputation as a singular talent, a voice and songwriter like no other in the landscape. Afterward, he flirted with the indelible fame that comes with releasing an undeniable classic and then disappearing. Instead, he released Blonde.
The album itself is amorphous; even the most incisive critic will have trouble articulating what, exactly, it’s about. Rather than working around some sort of unifying theme, Blonde engages with race, sexuality, social unrest, and identity with a feather-light touch and Ocean’s now-trademark novelistic eye for detail. It’s impressionistic and deeply felt—no one else can express yearning, in more permutations than you thought possible, this beautifully. Musically, it’s gorgeous, perhaps the most listenable album of 2016, which is fortunate—Ocean is grappling with so much on Blonde. It’s the rare album that could take years to fully unpack. —Brendan Klinkenberg
5. Travis Scott, 'Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight'
Label: Grand Hustle, Epic
Released: Sept. 2
“Find your balance,” Travis Scott intones on the fourth, and depending on the day, best track on his sophomore album. It’s advice the G.O.O.D. Music-raised master curator in training feels comfortable imparting to his rowdy constituents now that he’s finally found his own. The song is “Through the Late Night,” and it features Scott at long last rapping alongside his professed idol, Kid Cudi. After years of making his desire to collaborate plain, it’s hard not to fist pump for La Flame when he opens his verse with an homage to Cudi’s seminal breakout hit “Day n Nite.” It’s a triumph on an album that contains many, as Travis Scott finally delivered the real full-length crowd pleaser we knew he could.
No offense to Rodeo (still a great, wild ride that contains his best song to date), but it’s clear opening for the Weeknd and Rihanna while crafting Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight gave Travis a Kanye, Graduation-esque epiphany. The songwriting here is more precise and fine tuned, resulting in bangers that go bigger; there’s no doubt he’ll be refining his Rodeo Tour moshing for stadiums. More importantly, he’s reclaimed his ability to command attention solo. Sure, he gets out of the way to let André 3000 and Kendrick Lamar do their thing (as anyone should), and cherry-picks the best of the youth (21 Savage and especially NAV) for added sauce, but some of the album’s best songs—“Way Back,” “Sweet Sweet,” “Lose”—are done dolo. And in terms of production, only Kanye West himself could coordinate this many cooks in the kitchen to create such a unified, seamless sequence. Just try listening to one of the first four songs without having to play them all together.
During his set at Made in America shortly after the album dropped, Travis, who had been assigned only the festival’s second biggest space, commanded the crowd to turn up because he “ain’t no opening act.” With Birds, the protégé has definitively proven he’s main stage material. —Frazier Tharpe
4. Kanye West, 'The Life of Pablo'
Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam
Released: Feb. 14
The Life of Pablo had the strangest release of any album—ever. Kanye West let loose his seventh studio album in February, debuting it at a release party/fashion show in Madison Square Garden. Then, over the course of months, he changed it. And changed it again. And again. Equal parts high-minded art installation and the consequence of West’s frenzied process, Pablo is the first album that uses the internet as a fully-realized medium, a piece of software its developer could patch updates to as he saw fit.
Like its rollout, Pablo is messy. It’s not a statement album; it doesn’t have the heft of MBDTF, or the tight, furious control of Yeezus. Instead, it’s an album of rough edges filled with second guesses, an album where the strangest things reach out to grab you. And, above all else, it’s an album of moments. Chance the Rapper’s star turn on “Ultralight Beam,” the drop in “Father, Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” the meme-as-song “I Love Kanye”—they’re among the most memorable instants of 2016. It’s those moments of genius, taken together, that make Kanye, still, the most compelling rapper in the game. —Brendan Klinkenberg
3. A Tribe Called Quest, 'We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service'
Released: Nov. 11
Why does this album sound like the 2016 version of 1997? The drums on “We the People” hit harder than an Onyx track; the video should’ve premiered on Yo! MTV Raps. I was crossing the George Washington Bridge the weekend after this dropped, and when those drums hit at the tollbooth, I had a flashback to when I was cutting class and smoking grass in my Honda, with old-school Tribe blaring through my Pioneer speakers that a crackhead stole and later tried to sell back to me.
With the passing of Phife, celebrating the final Tribe album is bittersweet (especially with his beloved Knicks finally showing so much promise). But New York City rap needed this—the rap game in general needed this. Busta Rhymes and the 5-Foot Assassin spitting in patois like they never missed a beat was needed. Consequence, Kendrick, André 3000, Talib Kweli, Anderson Paak, and Kanye went above and beyond with their contributions. This is A Tribe Called Quest album, not an album made by some old guys trying to sound new. —Angel Diaz
2. Chance the Rapper, 'Coloring Book'
Released: May 12
The way 2016 went, we needed some of the good word. We needed an infusion of gospel in our hip-hop. Kanye West did it with the opening track of The Life of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam.” Fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper gave the world spirit with his guest verse on the song, and so it made sense when his third project, Coloring Book expanded on his testifying. The album has a vibe that otherwise you only get at the peak of church service (just check the vocals that weave in and out of the Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz-assisted “No Problem”). Even when tracks like “Blessings” explicitly espouse the virtues of belief in a higher power, the album is never overly preachy. For many artists, the battle between the sacred and the secular can create some of their best music (see most of Marvin Gaye’s finest work); Chance the Rapper walks that path, and he walks it well. Coloring Book colors outside the lines, painting Chance into a beautiful space as an artist and a man. —khal