More than perhaps any other year, 2016 has been marked by surprises, both beautiful and heartbreaking, and sometimes even both. The rise of the “surprise release” continues, as the stars that once initiated the practice — Beyoncé and Radiohead — came back to do it again. There were more big names, too, like the unexpected drops of The Colour in Anything, Coloring Book, and untitled unmastered.. On top of all that, there were the records that came with just a little notice though still unpredictable in their final release, like Kanye’s ever-changing Life of Pablo, Drake’s Views, and Rihanna’s ANTI.
Though, as we all know, not all surprises are happy. We also had to deal with shocking loss, mourning the passing of Glenn Frey, Prince, and David Bowie, to name a few. Though surprising, the latter of those came with a beautiful silver lining, the album that will stand as Bowie’s stunning farewell. That kind of shattering artistic presence will be sorely missed, and we’ll forever be digging back into the remarkably layered curtain call that is Blackstar.
Finally, there were other, less obvious surprises: the near-constant surprise that comes with each excellent new album. It might not register similarly on a newsworthy scale, but we’re still stunned each and every week by the flood of excellent new albums that make their way into our world. They can break us down to crying puddles or raise us up to unknowable heights, and we’ll be waiting patiently, gratefully for the next one to arrive.
25. Greys – Outer Heaven
Origin: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The Gist: The Toronto punk quartet takes a giant leap forward on their second album, crafting noise rock that’s not just aggressive, but keenly self-aware.
Why It Rules: An album in constant conflict with itself, Outer Heaven pairs the manic energy of punk with a probing intellect that reaches beyond the genre. In an interview with Consequence of Sound, vocalist-guitarist Shehzaad Jiwani described the band’s sophomore effort as an attempt “to make the noise more melodic and the melodies more dissonant.” Over the course of just 10 songs, Greys oscillate between hard and soft, anxious and acerbic, but they never sound anything less than fully engaged. –Collin Brennan
24. The Body – No One Deserves Happiness
Origin: Providence, Rhode Island
The Gist: Lee Buford and Chip King have released handfuls of massively weighty releases in the last few years, both on their own and collaborating with others. The two make pummeling noise sound somehow comforting, embracing the cathartic ritual of shrieking out and hammering at something.
Why It Rules: No One Deserves Happiness explores the harsh bottom of sludge, doom, noise, and more, scraping away at the eardrums. Though that may seem daunting, it’s somehow uplifting — sure, you may not be happy, but The Body insist that no one should be, considering the inevitable end. –Adam Kivel
23. White Lung – Paradise
Origin: Vancouver, Canada
The Gist: The Canadian punk trio White Lung have spent a decade upping the ante on their hardcore sound, each record building intensity on top of the last. 2014’s Deep Fantasy saw them at their leanest and gnarliest, setting a high standard to match.
Why It Rules: Rather than try and build something even heavier, lead vocalist Mish Barbery-Way and co. find success in pulling themselves back on Paradise. The record lets the band revel in balladry alongside monstrous anthems, resulting in their most impactful and emotional record to date. –Dusty Henry
22. Kaytranada – 99.9%
Origin: Montreal, Quebec, via Port-au-Prince, Haiti
The Gist: After making his name as a skilled producer and remixer, Kaytranada has arrived with a varied and promising debut LP.
Why It Rules: If electronic music is a spectrum, 99.9% touches on nearly 100 percent of it, and it does so very well. A sampling of the featured artists on the album can attest to that, whether Kaytranada is making jazz fusion with BADBADNOTGOOD or alternative hip-hop with Vic Mensa and Anderson .Paak. –Derrick Rossignol
21. Låpsley – Long Way Home
Origin: Southport, England
The Gist: This 19-year-old wunderkind is a techno-virtuoso, a Mozart with a Macbook who pours her molasses voice over shimmering R&B beats.
Why It Rules: Is pure gorgeousness enough of a reason? With painterly attention to detail, Låpsley mixes old-fashioned musical tropes with new-fangled techniques on Long Way Home to create a dazzling array of lush soundscapes. –Wren Graves
20. The Range – Potential
Origin: Providence, Rhode Island
The Gist: Potential is notable for James Hinton’s unorthodox approach of building each song around samples of undiscovered artists that he found on YouTube. Using the voices of these relative unknowns, Hinton is able to capture truly raw emotions that he accentuates with elements of down-tempo, house, and grime.
Why It Rules: It’s an album about unwavering determination in the face of adversity, a meditation on what it is to strive for a goal that may not be attainable. The record’s opening line of “Right now I don’t have a backup plan for if I don’t make it” serves as its mission statement, a combination of fear and anxiety fueling ambition, and the rest of the album captures those feelings perfectly. –David Sackllah
19. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Origin: Woodstock, New York, via Los Angeles, California
The Gist: The former Woods bassist and Babies frontman reaches a new high on his beautifully arranged third solo effort, which merges Dylan-esque folk rock with a distinctly modern sensibility.
Why It Rules: Kevin Morby’s sepia-toned Singing Saw rings with echoes of the past, and the LA-based songwriter clearly isn’t trying to hide his debt to ‘60s singer-songwriters (the album’s release synced neatly with the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde). But Morby’s voice is all his own, the product of late nights and long hours spent alone. Like most classic or soon-to-be classic records, Singing Saw has a pleasant, indescribable blurriness to it, as if it’s touching on truths that can’t be transcribed on the lyric sheet. –Collin Brennan
18. Deftones – Gore
Origin: Sacramento, California
The Gist: The making of Deftones’ follow-up to 2012’s Koi No Yokan was marked by creative tension, but all for the better.
Why It Rules: Prettier than its name implies, Gore is the alt-metal veterans’ best effort in years. It’s also their most balanced, giving moody experimentalism and powerful volume equal room to roam. –Ryan Bray
17. Various Artists – Sing Street (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Origin: Dublin, Ireland
The Gist: The soundtrack to John Carney’s film of the same name, Sing Street
combines original songs by the titular fictional band and real-life musicians of the era. While predominantly featuring seminal New Wave acts like The Cure, Duran Duran, and Joe Jackson, there’s also a dash of heavy metal and straight-up punk.
Why It Rules: The new songs sound right at home alongside the vintage tunes, proving just how perfectly director John Carney, composer Gary Clark, and — on one song — Adam friggin’ Levine nailed the sonic atmosphere of being a young person in 1985. –Dan Caffrey
16. Mothers – When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired
Origin: Athens, Georgia
The Gist: Mothers formed out of songwriter Kristine Leschper’s art school solo project, before recruiting band members to join her and flesh out her music. This lineup resulted in the band’s debut record, When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired.
Why It Rules: Leschper has a knack for tapping into the stagnant weariness that hangs over a gray day, letting her slight Georgia drawl flutter above sparse arrangements. It’s a comforting sadness, reflecting the exhaustion the record’s title implies while becoming something transcendentally beautiful in itself. –Dusty Henry