The year of the "surprise release" has given us monster showings from Beyoncé, Radiohead, Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West and Chance the Rapper. But traditional release schedules have brought a wealth of music from hard-rhyming hip-hoppers, buzzy indie-punks, up-and-coming country songwriters, veteran Hall of Famers and more. Here's the best from New Year's Day to now.
We Say: Lemonade is an entire album of emotional discord and marital meltdown, from the world's most famous celebrity; it's also a major personal statement from the most respected and creative artist in the pop game. All over these songs, she rolls through heartbreak and betrayal and infidelity and the hangover that follows "Drunk In Love." Yet despite all the rage and pain in the music, she makes it all seem affirming…. Like the professional heartbreaker she sings about in "6 Inch," she murdered everybody and the world was her witness.
We Say: This is a messy album that feels like it was made that way on purpose…. It's a labored-over opus that wishes it were a mixtape, trying hard to curate the vibe of a sprawling mess, and that's because it's made by an artist who feels like a mess and doesn't care to hide it. "My psychiatrist got kids that I inspired" is the most brilliant line on the album: Ye can't even go to the shrink without getting his ass kissed about what a big shot he is, so he has to go to the studio instead. And dude knows he's got some issues to work on…. Pablo doesn't go for any grand musical and emotional statements on the level of "Bound 2" or "Runaway" or "Hey Mama." West just drops broken pieces of his psyche all over the album and challenges you to fit them together.
We Say: If Radiohead have made the dehumanizing effects of technology their great theme, A Moon Shaped Pool is the first record in which, musically, they kick their way out of the machine, or at least make their cyborg soul more vestigial. Where Kid A and Amnesiac were defined by electronic music vernacular, this record is defined by its orchestral arrangements…. Electronics haven't been abandoned, and the orchestrations, like the band's "rock," often seem shaped by techno and its kin. But the magic is in the blending…. As always, it's Yorke's voice that holds the emotional center, and it's never been more affecting. Credit both his delivery and the production clarity, a statement in and of itself.
We Say: Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti and cut with a small combo of New York-based jazz musicians whose sound is wreathed in arctic electronics, Blackstar is a ricochet of textural eccentricity and pictorial-shrapnel writing. It's confounding on first impact: the firm swing and giddy vulgarity of " 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore"; Bowie's croons and groans, like a doo-wop Kraftwerk, in the sexual dystopia of "Girl Loves Me"; the spare beaten-spirit soul of "Dollar Days." But the mounting effect is wickedly compelling. This album represents Bowie's most fulfilling spin away from glam-legend pop charm since 1977's Low. Blackstar is that strange, and that good.
We Say: [A] sprawling masterpiece of psychedelic soul that's far more straightforward than its tangled rollout…. After more than a decade as a superstar of the singles chart, Rihanna has become an album artist…. This is an album that forces us to question the boxes we've placed Rihanna in all along. Is she queen of the clubs or a break-up balladeer? Are her pop instincts sharper than her hip-hop ones? The answer, as provided here, is all of the above and more.
We Say: Coloring Book is the richest hip hop album of 2016 so far. Gospel choirs are the backbone of the LP, rocketing skyward in the background the same way soul samples did on Kanye records, James Brown breaks did on Public Enemy records or disco interpolations did in the Sugar Hill catalog. Reaching back to the very beginning of black music in America, Chance recontextualizes one of the most enduring African-American art forms for 2016's most urgent one…. And, as a rapper, Chance is everything we love about hip-hop in 2016. The convoluted and conscious-minded bars of Kendrick Lamar, the melodic gymnastics of Young Thug, the Oculus Rift ambitions of Kanye West.
We Say: Like past work, Denial conjures Nineties indie aesthetics – Guided By Voices' British Invasion logorrhea, Liz Phair's emo sucker-punching, Pavement's accidental-on-purpose hooks. Instead of playing everything, Toledo has a band now, and access to proper studios, so the sound is fuller and crisper. But the main difference is his voice, no longer muffled in effects but spitting out Moleskines-worth of pain, disgust, anger, confusion, and music-geek inside jokes with clarity and presence…. Like Courtney Barnett, he comes off as a rock-loving child of alt-rock's skepticism working backwards towards something to believe in.
We Say: Even in an absurdly abundant time for brilliant young indie bands, Parquet Courts approach their jittery art-punk guitar buzz with a playful sense of adventure that sets them way ahead of the pack…. Despite the songs' loose-limbed wit, there's anxiety and paranoia all over them. The title tune is a disarmingly somber breakup ballad, as [Andrew] Savage power-mumbles about a bleak room, staring at overflowing ashtrays and empty bottles, listening for the footsteps of that girl who's never coming back. "Captive of the Sun" is a snapshot of contemporary New York malaise ("Trucks pave the roads with amphetamine salt"), and "Berlin Got Blurry" is a nerve-racked European travelogue, full of homesick surf-guitar tremors.
We Say: "[C]ountry" is a limiting term for Simpson, who embodies the word in its most inclusive sense. That's him snarling "Sugar Daddy," the nasty blues-boogie theme song to HBO's Vinyl, a song that doesn't appear here. His cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom" does, however, and it's the album's most brilliant WTF moment…. Sailor's Guide is classic album length – nine songs, 39 minutes – and best heard in one sitting; this is Nashville craft less as pop science than as rangy headphone storytelling. That's clearest on "Sea Stories," a cautionary tale that involves an enlisted man in Southeast Asia who gets booted from the Navy and ends up back home with a drug habit he regrets, but not completely. "Flying high beats dying for lies in a politician's war," he hollers. It's one of many powerfully defiant moments from an artist who's just getting started.
We Say: Following the breakout success of 2014's Bury Me At Makeout Creek, 25-year-old Mitski Miyawaki takes a walk on the weird side in her fourth LP. Assisted by producer and instrumentalist Patrick Hyland, she shrugs off indie rock convention from the onset…. As bawdy and unpredictable as anyone is in their first puberty, Puberty 2 shows Miyawaki indulging her whims with a devil-may-care attitude – the result is an incendiary self-portrait.
We Say: Esperanza Spalding['s] … Radio Music Society, transmuted the textures of neo-soul through tricky changes and unlikely arrangements – avant-garde, yes, but ultimately as welcoming as pop music. Follow-up Emily's D+Evolution is a far more ambitious and thornier affair. The lyrics, flowing in disjunctive clusters, are about deleted narratives, glass ceilings and dreams deferred – ultimately a complex, funky prog-rock concept opera about love and identity. It’s a scorching art-pop statement.
We Say: Wonderful Crazy Night is the latest stage in an extended return to form for John – his third straight album with co-producer T Bone Burnett…. [T]here is a matured pacing and weight to the music and John's vocal performances that make this record one of his finest in its own right. Wonderful Crazy Night is about what happens after those loose clothes and cool drinks. The final tally: It's all worth it.
Learn More: Elton John: The Bitch at Peace
We Say: [A]fter two Jeff Tweedy-produced LPs did for her what Rick Rubin's benchmark American Recordings did for Johnny Cash, Mavis Staples takes her comeback higher still with this set, using an A list of songwriters informed, but not bound, by roots music. Valerie June, Ben Harper, Justin Vernon, Aloe Blacc and Nick Cave all rise powerfully to the occasion. Credit the challenge of writing for an icon who addresses spiritual and political matters with minimal abstraction: You either step up, or step off.
We Say: Stranger to Stranger … draws together nearly all of the man's accrued vernacular with seeming effortlessness: the gentle folk of Simon and Garfunkel; the gospel flavor of There Goes Rhymin' Simon; the percolating Afropop of Graceland; the samba fireworks from The Rhythm of the Saints; the vintage-sample flipping of 2011's So Beautiful or So What. His latest continues in the same vein; it's as inviting, immaculately produced, jokey and unsettled a record as any he has ever made.
We Say: For Loretta Lynn's first album since 2004's Van Lear Rose … the iconic queen of no-bullshit country music, now 83, looks more backwards than forwards. Culled from a decade's worth of sessions and co-produced by John Carter Cash – Johnny's son, whose diapers Lynn changed back in the day – Full Circle is a homey set…. There are well-travelled traditional numbers – "Black Jack David," popularized by the Carter Family, and Kurt Cobain's beloved "In The Pines" – that one could imagine being sung in a sitting room down in Butcher Holler.
We Say: Price is a thirty-something East Nashvillian originally from Illinois; the vocal style is restrained yet mighty, her songcraft amazingly vivid, and the arranging instinct spot on, with a taste for retro styling that never tilts into Gramma's attic dress-up. The set opener "Hands of Time" comes close, a six-minute memoir-style wrapped in lush strings that channel late Sixties Bobbie Gentry-style country soul. But by the time Price sings about losing a first-born and crying out to God, bruised stoicism muting the sound of her knees hitting the floorboards, you're reminded of the incredible power that lies in tradition well-used.
We Say: On his awesomely gnarled 17th solo album, he plays the low-rent elder statesman, a spectacularly scuzzball Leonard Cohen still snarling, still hoping to get his rocks off. "America’s greatest living poet/Was ogling you all night," he sings modestly on "Gardenia," addressing a girl "much taller and stronger" than he, with an "hourglass ass" and a "powerful back." (What woman wouldn’t be flattered?) His sinewy visions are shaped by producer Josh Homme and Dean Fertita (bunkmates in Queens of the Stone Age), and Matt Helders, the hip-hop-snappy drummer with the Arctic Monkeys. Over nine songs and 42 minutes – old-school LP length – they juggle tight and loose, conjuring a ravaged cadaver in a sharp funeral suit.
Learn More: How Iggy Pop Recaptured Berlin Glory Days
We Say: With blowsy, parched vocals, languorous tempos, straggly melodies and flyaway guitar lines, Lucinda Williams' 12th album feels a little like an alt-country picture of Dorian Gray. You could also call it a portrait of the artist as an older woman: time-scarred, unapologetic, but still potent. [I]ts jazzy rawness represents a high point of emotional craft in a career defined by it.
We Say: When Tom Petty reassembled his first, pre-Heartbreakers band in 2007, it may have seemed like a novelty. Now, with a second album, Mudcrutch feel like a steady moonlighting gig.
We Say: After surviving a shooting at a recording studio, West Coast slick-talker YG details terror on micro and macro levels: from his own paranoia after catching a bullet, to the insanity of his native Compton, to the frayed state of the nation — see "FDT," which stands for "Fuck Donald Trump"
We Say: Listening to the debut album from Brooklyn trio Sunflower Bean is a bit like flipping through some smart stoner's impeccably refined record collection. All the correct drone-rock references are present: the Velvet Underground at their beachiest, the Autobahn liftoff of vintage Seventies Kraut-rock, the Eighties drug-punk of Spaceman 3, recent garage-grind aesthetes like Ty Segall, and the entire college-jangle canon from early R.E.M. to the Smiths to Real Estate and beyond. Sunflower Bean take these influences and shape them like Silly Putty into sweet, ingenious psych-pop songs that are more economical and compact than you'd expect from a band whose hottest tune is called "Wall Watcher." "
Learn More: Hear Sunflower Bean's Sharp, Dreamy Debut
We Say: No cellos, no club music electrobeats, no acoustic guitar breathers, and no light at the end of the tunnel – precious little, anyhow. Just a classic power trio lineup in the spirit of Midwest post-punk juggernaut Hüsker Dü and its barely-sweetened descendant Sugar, with Bob Mould conjuring the ecstatic rage of his earlier bands for a grim new era, apparently still convinced that the best way to meet crushing hopelessness is by barreling head first through it with a throat-shredding howl and all amps cranked.
We Say: If you've been praying for Peter Wolf to drop a bluegrass remake of his J. Geils Band classic "Love Stinks" – congratulations. The man heard you. It's just one of the welcome surprises on the Woofa Goofa's superbly rugged new solo album, rambling through various strains of roots music, yet infusing it all with his own lanky-boned rock & roll spirit.
We Say: Ultimately, this is a set of odds and ends, inspired freestyles and funk jams; many are likely [To Pimp a] Butterfly outtakes, albeit none with the laser-focused resonance of "The Blacker The Berry" or "Alright." But there's brilliance in even Lamar's cast-offs, and an intimacy here that makes this more than just a gift for his ravenous fans — it's an illuminating look at a red-hot rapper's craft. And coming from a dude thinking hard about the price of success while creating art for a multinational corporation (listen to the single full-blast verse of "untitled 03," about being sold for $10.99), it's a shoot-from-the-hip-gesture that feels empowered. The titular pun is clearly intentional.
We Say: "It's an American dream" coos the transgender artist formerly known as Antony, on "Execution," a spangled pop jam about state-sanctioned murder delivered over silvery percussive stabs and synth builds. It may leave you uncertain whether to dance or collapse in tears, which is the operative dichotomy of an extraordinary record fusing disco uplift, blues pain-purging, gospel salvation-seeking, and protest song testifying. Despite the rangy gorgeousness of her voice and the state-of-the-art electronic dazzle of the music, created with Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) and Ross Birchard (Hudson Mohawke), Hopelessness isn't easy listening.
We Say: [T]heir music is driven by emotions that are almost unprecedented in the genre that gave us Joy Division and Public Image Limited: "Love is the answer," they advise, somewhat shockingly, against the spiked guitar tumult and haymaker drum assault of "Answer," like flowers of romance in full bloom.
We Say: Mish Barber-Way … and her crew of Vancouver punk ruffians whip up a gloriously hostile racket, sharpening the raw attack of their 2014 breakthrough, Deep Fantasy. The songs gain a mammoth melodic crunch thanks to guitar whiz Kenny William, who sounds like Johnny Marr with his cardigan on fire.