We get it, 2016 has been a shitty year. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. We lost Cohen. We lost civility and Carol Brady. We lost some hope. We lost a lot of shit, much of which we’ll never get back. But for all of that, 2016 was an exceptional year for music. In addition to excellent final albums from Bowie and Cohen, we saw the rise of Chance the Rapper and several of his Chicago contemporaries, we finally got a new Frank Ocean album, and we thrilled in some of the most vital, urgent hip hop and R&B albums to come along in quite some time. If nothing else, 2016 was an exceptional year for music, and maybe that’s to be expected: when everything else goes to shit, of course the art is going to be good—that’s how we cope. As we share The Collapsar and friends’ Albums of the Year list(we received just over twenty lists from our awesome readers), I’d like to urge everyone to maybe give 2016 a bit of a break as, even though the year took so much, it’s only a matter of time before our wounds heal and we begin to push back. Without further ado, then, let’s talk about some awesome music.
And don’t forget to stop by for part two of the list tomorrow!
Noname has a warm, inviting presence on the mic that sets her apart from the sea of rappers trying so relentlessly to be cold. But in this way, her bars are deadly. Telefone is a work of dense lyricism and conversational ease. In its verses, Noname rejects materialism (“Me only wearing tennis shoes to clubs with dress codes / cause fuck they clubs”) as well as Black discrimination in America (“They ain’t tryna see us shine, shine / bullet on our time, time / but fuck it, we’ll live forever”). Meanwhile, she pursues all the joy, vitality, and freedom outside those limitations, “on a lonely road where happiness needs us.” –Eric Wallgren
A phenomenal sophomore album for Travis Scott proves why he is one of the top artists in hip hop. Scott shows a certain mastery in using his voice and lyrics as another instrument in his arrangements, something that was innovated by two of his biggest influences: Kanye West and Kid Cudi. BITTSM is one of the best produced albums of the year, and is loaded with features including Kendrick Lamar, 21 Savage, and even Andrè 3000, Mr. 3 Stacks himself. Regardless of who accompanies Scott on a particular track, though, he always manages to get the best out of them in a way that not only showcases the guest artist, but meshes well with the album’s sound. Indeed, the future looks bright for La Flame. –Marrell Jones
In the lull before Tropical Storm Trump, the broader left is wringing their hands about whether their political future necessitates jettisoning issues like transgender rights in order to reach the white working class. Listening to Trans Day of Revenge in this moment feels like being grabbed by the shirt and furiously implored to remember that we’re talking about people’s lives. G.L.O.S.S. exposes an arrogance in the intra-left debate about whether to abandon “identity issues” —the growing attention was merely lip service anyway. Violence against trans people has reached epidemic levels and now many Democrats are asking the trans community to shut up in order to help them win future elections. Trans Day of Revenge is a rejection of this baffling demand from supposed allies, filled with rage, mourning, and urgency. Sings Sadie on the anthemic “We Live”: “We scream just to make sense of things.” –Frank Matt
Kim Gordon’s hot streak continues with Glitterbust’s eponymous debut, which, like Body/Head, is an improvised guitar duo (with Alex Knost from the band Tomorrows Tulips). Where the sound on Body/Head’s debut, Coming Apart, is permeated by dark introspection, Glitterbust provides just a bit more levity. These rather lengthy and mostly instrumental performances are evocative, exploratory, and ethereal. It has been interesting to track Gordon’s musical development since the collapse of the legendary band Sonic Youth. It has been Gordon who has most successfully continued the experimental vision of that band, not Lee Ranaldo or her ex-husband Thurston Moore (whose work since has been comparatively traditional). This is all to say that Glitterbust will probably turn off listeners expecting noisy but well-constructed tunes drenched with dissonance and feedback. Those with the patience to listen to these meandering and slowly unfolding improvisations will find plenty to like here. –Brian Flota
Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens opens with “Killing Time,” an eleven minute opus that begins with soft tones and gentle twinkles before blossoming into an off kilter, politically charged “ballad” with lyrics like “Money, it seems, needs its working class” and “We are just waiting for the old folks to die/We are just waiting for the old thoughts to die.” From there, Jaar takes us on a weird, almost confrontational journey through oddball dance music, gentle ambient explorations, and ambitious electro-epics. Stunning album closer “History Lesson,” is a glorious riff on doo wop, but processed through dizzy electronics and woozy melodies. For all that, perhaps the most enduring thing about Sirens is Jaar’s ability to seamlessly blend the personal (recordings from his childhood) with the political, all against his raw and visionary compositions. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an album like it, before. –James Brubaker
Since 2014’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Angel Olsen’s sound hightailed it from a barren Greenwich Village-like folk landscape to the crooning and vibrato of Nashville’s Broadway honkytonk scene. My Woman is a little Loretta Lynn (see: “Give It Up”), a little Roy Orbison (see: “Never Be Mine”), and still a tinge of Leonard Cohen (see: “Pops”). Olsen’s vocals have a newfound and defiant confidence—shattering any preconceived notions about her aesthetic—including outlier tracks like the synthpop-infused opener, “Intern.” Despite My Woman being far more populated as far as personnel and production go, Olsen still delivers her trademark: songs trembling with emotion and introspection. –Emma Murray
I recognize that, as a thirty-seven year old white male, this record can never resonate with me the way it resonates with others, but still, it resonates. Woods’ songs are passionate, optimistic, sometimes angry, and always important. Album opener “Bubble” begins with the lines “Black girl be in a bubble, bubble” and its last verse ends with “I’ve been picking my hair out and I know, now/How tall I really be,” a declaration of personal empowerment, the ramifications of which I could never truly, fully understand, but can maybe learn a thing or two from. Likewise, on “Blk Girl Soldier,” when Woods sings “The camera love us/Oscar doesn’t,” before reeling off a list of strong black woman artists and activists (Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Sojourner Truth, and Assata Shakur), describing each as “a freedom fighter” who “taught us how to fight,” before declaring of the song’s titular soldier girl “she don’t give up,” it becomes clear that Woods has arrived at a profound intersection of anger, hope, and resolution that’s hard to find in protest music. –James Brubaker
Young Thug is so confusing that to be a fan of his is to be given a new mystery every time he drops a mixtape. And he’s so prolific that just when you start to think you’ve figured him out, he puts you to work on another one. JEFFERY felt like a breakout moment where Thugger beat the odds and, like Prince and Bowie did before him, got popular culture to accept and cheer for a true alien. The full range of his contradictions is proudly on display here as Young Thug keeps introducing wild new possibilities for hip-hop as a cerebral art form. –Eric Wallgren
If the title didn’t give it away, this albums sounds like the first few months of falling in love. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is collaboration between reformed indie heartthrobs Hamilton Leithauser (formerly of the Walkmen) and Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend), A valentine in a year of (necessary) polemic music, any cheesiness is mitigated by the range of Rostam’s instrumentation: harpsichord, saxophone, harmonica, slide guitar, cello, angelic choirs, and tasteful handclaps. Love songs aren’t obsolete just yet. —Susannah Clark
Beginning with 2011’s stark and unflinching XXX, Detroit rapper Danny Brown has been on a roll. Across three albums, the aforementioned XXX, 2013’s Old, and his latest, Atrocity Exhibition, Brown has plumbed the depths of his own depravity as well as the culture and class structure surrounding him. When Brown released Old, Jayson Greene, writing for Pitchfork, declared that “Danny Brown’s XXX was a concept album about desperation [and]… Old is a concept album about existential confusion.” Following that logic, Atrocity Exhibition, then is an album about resigning oneself to a hedonistic cycle of resistance against the morals and values enforced by the systemic oppression to which Brown’s music is a reaction. With gloriously murky production that draws on electronic, industrial, and punk music, Brown’s latest is just as harrowing and, perhaps, even bleaker than his previous work—after all, this time he’s almost entirely swapped out his drunken rants about eating pussy and pills for twitchy explorations of broken cities, alienation, and regret. –James Brubaker