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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 Mavis Staples, 'Livin’ on a High Note'

Mavis Staples, ‘Livin’ on a High Note’

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. 

Learn More: Mavis Staples' Ode to Joy: How M. Ward, Neko Case and More Shaped New LP

Best albums of 2016 Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger

Paul Simon, ‘Stranger to Stranger’

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. 

Learn More: Inside Paul Simon's Genre-Bending New Album Stranger to Stranger

Best albums of 2016 Loretta Lynn, 'Full Circle'

Loretta Lynn, ‘Full Circle’

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. 

Learn More: Loretta Lynn on How New Album Full Circle Tells Her Life Story

Best albums of 2016 Margo Price - Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Margo Price, ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’

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. 

Learn More: Rising Country Star Margo Price on Why She Feels 'Like One of the Men'

Best albums of 2016 Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression

Iggy Pop, ‘Post Pop Depression’

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

Best albums of 2016 Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway

Lucinda Williams, ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’

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.

Learn More: See Lucinda Williams' Raw Ghosts of Highway 20 on Transmissions

Sunflower Bean, 'Human Ceremony'

Sunflower Bean, ‘Human Ceremony’

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

Best albums of 2016 Bob Mould - Patch the Sky

Bob Mould, ‘Patch the Sky’

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.

Learn More: Bob Mould: My Life in 15 Songs

Best albums of 2016 Peter Wolf - The Cure for Lonliness

Peter Wolf, ‘A Cure for Loneliness’

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. 

Learn More: Peter Wolf on Rootsy New LP: 'You Just Wonder How You Can Endure'

Best albums of 2016 Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered

Kendrick Lamar, ‘Untitled Unmastered’

We Say: Ultimately, this is a set of odds and ends, inspired freestyles and funk jams; many are likely [To Pimp aButterfly 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.  

Learn More: Kendrick Lamar Flaunts Casual Brilliance on Untitled Unmastered

Best albums of 2016 Anohni - Hopelessness

Anohni, ‘Hopelessness’

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.

Learn More: Anohni Talks Protest-Minded Pop, Identity Politics, Oscar Boycott

Best albums of 2016 Frankie Cosmos - Next Thing

Frankie Cosmos, ‘Next Thing’

We Say: 22-year-old Greta Kline started puting intriguing song sketches online when she was in her teens, slowly amassing a cult following before releasing her promising debut Zentropy in 2014. On Next Thing, Kline, who records with a roving group of collaborators under the moniker Frankie Cosmos, moves from the lonesome bedroom to the cramped garage, updating her cloistered lo-fi aesthetic with a crisp pop minimalism best suited for the tinny Macbook speakers that will be playing this record in dorm rooms across this country. If Frankie Cosmos sounds newly professional this time around, it hasn't affected Kline's insular anxiety and winking self-doubt one bit. 

Learn More: 10 New Artists Defining the Sound of Now: Frankie Cosmos

Best albums of 2016 The Monkees - Good Times!

The Monkees, ‘Good Times!’

We Say: The Monkees’ first album in nearly 20 years is also their best since the Sixties – to be precise, since the Head soundtrack in 1968. (Sorry, Instant Replay diehards.) It’s a labor of love – not just for the three surviving lads, but for all the Monkeemaniacs pitching in, headed by producer Adam Schlesinger (from Ivy and Fountains of Wayne), who contributes the gem “Our Own World.” It nails the classic summer-jangle Monkees sound, with seriously fantastic new tunes from Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge and the none-more-mod squad of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller.

Learn More: How the Monkees Got Their 1960s Groove Back

Best albums of 2016 Bonnie Raitt, 'Dig in Deep'

Bonnie Raitt, ‘Dig in Deep’

We Say: Raitt is … bold and sharp on Dig In Deep, made with her longtime road band. She takes sensual charge of INXS' "Need You Tonight" and renders Joe Henry's ballad "You've Changed My Mind" with healing authority. Raitt's own writing is often a secret strength, but she comes out swinging in "Unintended Consequence of Love," and closes with "The Ones We Couldn't Be," an intimate dissection of a broken affair delivered with the force of memoir.

Learn More: How Bonnie Raitt Overcame Loss for Her First LP of New Songs in a Decade

Best albums of 2016 Brian Eno - The Ship

Brian Eno, ‘The Ship’

We Say: The Ship, is a variation on the typical Eno theme, the next warm period in his glacial unthawing, and it's one of his more interesting works. Where his last release, 2012's Lux, seemed like a brighter distant cousin of Music for Airports, The Ship finds Eno combining ambience with his own voice for the first time. He's billed it as a sort of "musical novel" – a loose story collage inspired by the Titanic sinking, World War I and random throwaway lines from emails and his own writing – but it's not so much what he or his computer or his comedian friend and collaborator Peter Serafinowicz say on the record that matters as much as how it feels.

Learn More: Brian Eno on Kanye West, David Bowie and His Immersive LP The Ship

Best albums of 2016 PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Report

PJ Harvey, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’

We Say: Harvey traveled to Afghanistan and Kosovo, and spent time in Washington, D.C., witnessing the many costs of imperialist aggression. But anyone expecting a traditional protest record hasn't paid much attention to her long career. This music is impressionistically pointed…. [T]ightly quilted tapestries of accordion, flute, violin, "field recordings" and sax, sax and more sax throughout – all recorded in an art installation where anyone could watch the singer & co. work through one-sided glass.

Best albums of 2016 Deftones - Gore

Deftones, ‘Gore’

We Say: While evolving from dreadlocked headbangers to multihued experimentalists, they've made introspective shoegaze, anthemic alt-rock, shimmering dream-pop and speaker-melting metal seem like oddly easy bedfellows…. On much of Gore, however, the Deftones follow a slightly different route, wielding the tension between their contrasting creative urges like a weapon. The strange new demon inside them has driven the band to roughen up some of their mirrored surfaces and make a darker, more uncomfortable record.

Learn More: Deftones Talk New Album, Band Tension: 'We Like Unnerving Feelings'

Best albums of 2016 Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town

Brandy Clark, ‘Big Day in a Small Town’

We Say: It's music tooled alternately for stadiums and songwriting circles, commercial and public radio, line-dance bars and coffee shops…. Clark is good at bending country boilerplate: On "Drinkin', Smokin', Cheatin'," she teetotals while listing a downward spiral of coping fantasies. She also spikes the comic with the grim; in the cheerfully deadpan "Big Day in a Small Town," a high schooler passes out in class when her water breaks, and a dude drunkenly flips his pickup en route to his son's football game. 

Learn More: Brandy Clark on the Antiheroes of New Album Big Day in a Small Town

Best albums of 2016 Various Artists - Day of the Dead

Various Artists, ‘Day of the Dead’

We Say: This five-plus hour, 59 track Grateful Dead tribute album is a monument of living history – an image of their golden road branching out endlessly…. Pretty much every sound the band touched on or suggested gets represented – from ambient music (several sound-sculptures by Bryce Dessner of the National and experimental composer Tim Hecker's "Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald") to Afropop (Orchestra Baobob turning "Franklin's Tower" into a shining desert mirage) to psychedelia (Flaming Lips making throbbing lysergic mush out of "Dark Star") to roots rock (Lucinda Williams locating the lust in a slow humid "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad"). But indie songwriters and guitar nerds get most of the action; Courtney Barnett hazily savors the conversational drift of the post-Altamont rap session "New Speedway Boogie," and Stephen Malkmus does his hey-whatever guitar wizard thing on a ten minute "China Cat Sunflower → I Know You Rider," just to pick two of the more wonderful examples among many.

Learn More: Inside the National's Epic Grateful Dead Tribute

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 

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