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45 Best Albums of 2016 So Far

From Bey to Parquet, the best LPs from the first six months

Chance the Rapper, David Bowie and Beyoncé made some of 2016's best records.

Chance the Rapper, David Bowie and Beyoncé made some of 2016's best records.

Jeff Kravitz, Getty, Jimmy King, Kevin Mazur/Getty

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.

Best albums of 2016 Kevin Gates, 'Islah'

Kevin Gates, ‘Islah’

We Say: On his major-label debut, Baton Rouge rapper Kevin Gates is not afraid to be as flashy, daring and intense as he was on the five acclaimed mixtapes he's released since 2013. He's a rapper's rapper, a lyrical Evel Knievel without any desire for a cloying pop crossover; it should be mentioned that he works with no guest appearance safety nets, save one track on the deluxe edition – ultimately resulting in a cohesive, satisfying, fat-free full-length. His prowess is evident not only in his dizzying lines ("Relationship flaking, no eczema/She catching feelings, she say we inseparable/Oyster Perpetual, it's not a replica"), but in the way his melodic flow glides so naturally, to a point where lyrics can have the sing-song feel of a hook, and a sung chorus can have the swagger of a rap. 

Learn More: Watch Kevin Gates Talk Writing Process: Why Are You Trying to Dissect It?

Best albums of 2016 Drake - Views

Drake, ‘Views’

We Say: The best thing you can say about Drake on Views is the worst thing, too: He's a lightweight. That description suits his breathtaking nimbleness in switching between flows, intonations and genres; his fleet-footedness adapting to, and jettisoning, passing trends; his ear for killer stripped-down beats and his stunning economy when crafting hooks – singing irresistibly wounded melodies, finding unlikely musicality in barked refrains about woes and Jumpmen.

Learn More: Drake's Views: Everything You Need to Know

Best albums of 2016 The 1975,' I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It'

The 1975, ‘I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It’

We Say: This ascendant U.K. quartet ground their second album in sleek dance rock that often feels like it was sculpted on a gaudy Eighties budget as the bandmates tried hard not to get too sweaty in their aqua-neon sport jackets. No shame in that – and they do it well, filtering in elements of spacy ambience (with echoes of acts from My Bloody Valentine to M83), Jacksonian R&B and arty dance pop…. "Love Me" funkily recalls Nile Rodgers' splashiest Duran productions; "A Change of Heart" is the John Hughes soundtrack ballad moment.

Learn More: The 1975 on Channeling Personal Issues Into Chart-Topping Rock

Best albums of 2016 Tegan and Sara, Love You to Death

Tegan and Sara, ‘Love You to Death’

We Say: Their latest continues a transformation into full-on dance-pop that began with their last LP, 2013's excellent Heartthrob, and its euphorically horny hit "Closer." Once again Tegan and Sara are collaborating with co-writer Greg Kurstin, best known for his work with Adele, Pink and Kelly Clarkson. He helps them create big, splashy songs that thrive on intricate intimacies – tangled love, barbed honesty, hard-won empowerment – with lyrics implying not only romance but friendship, familial bonds and artistic partnership as well. "Boyfriend" has a track that recalls Madonna's first album and bizarre-love-triangle lyrics that evoke New Order; "White Knuckles" builds from pensive pianos and a dolefully rumbling beat into a cloud-riding chorus as they sing about "love twisted up like a chain or a nail" and "excuses for the bruises we wear." 

Learn More: Tegan and Sara Scale Back on Dancey New LP

Best albums of 2016 Fifth Harmony, 7/27

Fifth Harmony, ‘7/27’

We Say: The beats are mostly booming or bouncy and the swagger is all over the place. There's nothing here as good as 2014's "Bo$$," but "That's My Girl" bites its honking horns just fine and delivers a booming addendum to its empowering message: "Destiny said it, you got to get up and get it/Get mad independent, don't you ever forget it." The second Fifth Harmony LP isn't a massive step forward, but with a constant bombardment of hooks, high energy and incredible harmony there's not much time to catch your breath to compare.

Learn More: Watch Fifth Harmony, Ty Dolla $ign 'Work From Home' in New Video

Best albums of 2016 Death Grips, Bottomless Pit

Death Grips, ‘Bottomless Pit’

We Say: On what might be their ugliest release, the elusive noise-rap crew explodes with rhythms that hearken back to the crossover punk and thrash metal of mid-Eighties California. But texturally and lyrically, Bottomless Pit is boiling with the digital chaos, paranoia and tension of Internet-era info overload: "All I do is lose my form, I'm warping."

Best albums of 2016 Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, ‘Ears’

We Say: Aurelia Smith makes electronic music utilizing the rare, modular Buchla Music Easel synthesizer, expertly wedding its blipping arpeggios to her processed voice. A former acoustic guitarist from the isolated Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest, Smith made "cinematic folk" with touches of Segovia, Ravel and Debussy before going electronic. Smith's classical acumen remains intact on Ears, a wholly immersive, mesmeric listen. 

Learn More: 10 New Artists You Need to Know: March 2016: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith