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The top 11 best music releases of 2016

2016 has been insane—but there’s no sense in rehashing it, because a) it’s already been talked about at length, and b) I have a word count.

Luckily music has still been great. As hard as it is to distill all this year’s releases into a list, here’s an attempt at a top 11.

11. Danny Brown—“Atrocity Exhibition”: inspired by Joy Division and loaded with top-tier production from Paul White, “Atrocity Exhibition” is Brown’s strongest album yet, as he delivers horrifying bars about addiction, poverty and mental illness over haunting beats that cover a huge range of genres.

10. Pinegrove—“Cardinal”: New Jersey Americana-punk newcomer Pinegrove’s major-label debut is one of the warmest, friendliest albums of the year. With traditional punk instrumentation—and a country twang and occasional pedal steel—the band issues a strong statement: friends matter, and make sure they know that. It’s a simple message from a simple band, and it’s all the better for it.

9. Weyes Blood—“Front Row Seat to Earth”: in Natalie Mering’s fourth album as Weyes Blood, hazy 70’s soft-rock instrumentation supports Mering’s fragile and elegant voice as it yearns for more time in “Seven Words” and more face-to-face interaction in “Generation Why.” Psychedelic and hauntingly quiet, it manages to perfectly channel a bygone era, like the next album in this list.

8. Whitney—“Light Upon the Lake”: I worked in the mountains this summer, and let’s just say that it is my biggest regret that I didn’t get into this album until September. Simple melodies and an incredibly short runtime make it a breezy affair anchored by catchy riffs and perfect horn arrangements—even if the lead singing can be a little grating.

7. Car Seat Headrest—“Teens of Denial”: Will Toledo’s Bandcamp side project blew up more than he could have imagined this year, and even though it might not stack up against self-released opuses like “How to Leave Town” and “Twin Fantasy,” the song-writing covers all of Toledo’s bases, from majestically self-deprecating epics like “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia,” to throwaway jams about social paranoia like “1937 State Park” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers.”

6. Young Thug—“JEFFERY”: Even though the attempt to rebrand himself by his given name might not have held up, Thug’s millionth mixtape is easily his best. An ode to his heroes, musical and otherwise, it’s his most focused release since his album “Barter 6,” and his vocal contortions go far beyond previously charted territory, which is saying something. Easily his most romantic album, he goes so far as to say that he wants to share his lean with his girl. So generous.

5. YG—“Still Brazy”: In his second album, Compton rapper YG’s gangster masterpiece is a collage of boasts, retro G-funk beats and new forays into social commentary, a territory previously neglected in his earlier releases. YG’s focus on Compton guests makes the album feel hyperreal, as if YG needs any help with that after being shot in the studio in 2015. Also, there’s “Fuck Donald Trump” (even if it was remixed and somewhat neutered after a visit from the Secret Service back in the spring).

4. Kanye West—“The Life of Pablo”: Waves don’t die.

3. Angel Olsen—“MY WOMAN”: In a departure from her earlier folk, Olsen’s third album is by far her strongest. Songs vary from the harshly endearing garage rock “Shut Up Kiss Me” to the lounging “Heart Shaped Face,” with the sprawling “Woman” and “Sister” bridging the gap. Olsen’s Pat Benatar-aping voice takes center stage and enthralls with its incredible power and range, even if it isn’t particularly refined.

2. Sturgill Simpson—“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”: After his psych-country “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music,” it only makes sense that Simpson would incorporate horns into the mix, right? Featuring guest spots from the Dap-Kings throughout, Simpson’s latest, dedicated to his newborn son, is an incredible mix of soul, country and psychedelia that even goes so far as to cover Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” A song cycle, the album runs together seamlessly and flies by.

1. Frank Ocean—“Blonde”: The rumors of Frank Ocean’s death were greatly exaggerated. The follow-up to 2012’s “channel ORANGE” is even better than could have been predicted, and is a stark testament to the end of a relationship. The instrumentation is far more stripped-back than his prior work, allowing Ocean’s voice to take center stage, which, of course, he owns. From the soul of “Self Control” to the pure pain of “White Ferrari,” every song—except maybe “Facebook Story”—is compelling and affirms that Ocean is maybe the most important young songwriter alive today.


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