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
15. Tim Hecker – Love Streams
Origin: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Why It Rules: Drone artists struggle to convey the feeling of their music in a live setting — it circles your body, pushes against the skin, vibrates until it becomes liquid, calms via anxious quivering — over a pre-recorded LP. Tim Hecker not only recreates the power of his live work on Love Streams, but he elaborates that texture, inserting medieval choral music, synthesizing digital alterations, and stretching the metallic core of his work until it becomes something warm enough to replicate the strangeness of love. –Nina Corcoran
14. Savages – Adore
Origin: London, England, via France
The Gist: After a debut LP known for critical buzz and post-punk reminiscing, the quartet returns with a follow-up full of love songs as bold as older numbers about politics, polyamory, and guilty pleasures.
Why It Rules: After a failed attempt to write the loudest songs ever, Savages found themselves with a pile of material that exhausts itself from unremitting honesty, defining love not with gooey valentine cards or PDA but with suspicious flirting and mid-tempo crescendos. Adore Life’s greatest feat is its focus on love for something other than humans: life itself. Is there anything braver, or scarier, than infatuation with the very thing that throws stones at us all day, breaks our heart with ease, and gives the grim reaper the freedom to come and go as he pleases, toll-free? –Nina Corcoran
13. Into It. Over It. – Standards
Origin: Chicago, Illinois
The Gist: Evan Weiss and drummer Josh Sparks retreated to a snowy cabin in the Vermont woods to write Weiss’ third proper album about late-20s/early-30s ennui.
Why It Rules: Unlike most cabin-in-the-woods albums, Standards is full of bombast, its hundred-dollar words and metaphors delivered through the might of a full band rather than skeletal dude-with-a-guitar arrangements. –Dan Caffrey
12. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness
Origin: Austin, Texas
The Gist: Legendary Lone Star post-rockers return to their roots after multiple seasons of film scoring — from David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche to Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor — to follow up 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care with their first proper studio album in five years. The end result, The Wilderness, finds them roaming the woods and searching for new ways to update their now-iconic sounds.
Why It Rules: Namely because they succeeded in the hunt. The Wilderness is a sprawling, magnificent epic, yawning with fresh air and stretching impressive muscles previously unused. Digitized bleeps and bloops punctuate their heavenly swells and the way they use the piano should make atheists believe in a higher power. Producer John Congleton bottled up magic with this one and we could use it this year. –Michael Roffman
11. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
Origin: New York, New York
The Gist: Prolific singer-songwriter Greta Kline established herself with dozens of releases on Bandcamp before unveiling her debut studio album, Zentropy. On her sophomore effort as Frankie Cosmos, Next Thing, she returns with support from a solidified backing band and even more incisive, personal lyrics.
Why It Rules: The pared-down instrumentation highlights Kline’s delicate, subdued vocals on this collection of short tracks. And the record shows her growth as a poignant songwriter, giving fleeting glimpses into youthful innocence and heartbreak on tracks like “I’m 20” and “Sappho”. –Killian Young
10. Sioux Falls – Rot Forever
Origin: Bozeman, Montana/ Portland, Oregon
The Gist: Sioux Falls established themselves in their current Portland home base, recording a handful of EPs along the way. Citing early Modest Mouse as a major influence, the post-punk rockers unleashed a sprawling 73-minute debut album, Rot Forever.
Why It Rules: In a time when many bands have downsized albums in favor of shorter running times, Rot Forever swings for the fences with its grand scope, with droning guitar breakdowns, anthemic hooks, and crashing drum fills. Vocalist/guitarist Isaac Eiger also delivers 16 tracks worth digging into, penning both hyper-specific observations and more abstract lyrics. –Killian Young
09. LUH – Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing
Origin: Manchester, England
The Gist: Following the flame-out of his beloved, volatile band WU LYF, Ellery James Roberts teams with girlfriend Ebony Hoorn on a debut LP produced by the Haxan Cloak (Bobby Krlic). Somehow the best elements of both Roberts’ and Krlic’s previous work find their way to the surface.
Why It Rules: It’s possible to hear the album as a convoluted display of too many ideas, but the forward-thinking of presenting rock vocals and song structures with influences that draw on contemporary hip-hop, EDM, and pop makes LUH one of the most important releases of the year. It’s a record that lyrically and sonically reflects our times, entering a dialogue across genres. Not many can say the same. –Philip Cosores
08. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
Origin: Enfield, London, England
The Gist: Ethereal pianos, throbbing beats, and poignant sorrow are combined on a sometimes minimal and always powerful third album from one of the UK’s finest talents.
Why It Rules: James Blake is far removed from the “post-dubstep” label that was ascribed to him in his early career, abandoning that in favor of what dubstep most lacks: powerful, real, human emotion. With that now at the forefront, it’s easy (and rewarding) to see how beautifully vulnerable his soul really is. –Derrick Rossignol
07. Pinegrove – Cardinal
Origin: Montclair, New Jersey
The Gist: A childhood band turns into a grown-up band, with life-long friends finding their footing with tunes equally comfortable in the alt-country and emo scenes.
Why It Rules: Pinegrove leader Evan Stephens Hall hinted at songwriting genius with earlier recordings, but Cardinal is a revelation of tunes not reliant on predictable song structure. The record sounds like the unveiling of a band out to make a career — sturdy melodies, lyrical depth, and a general sense of ease. –Philip Cosores
06. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Origin: Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England
The Gist: The most celebrated alternative rock band of the past 30 years release their ninth album after five years of anticipation and speculation. All of which came to a head when the band erased their internet presence for the week leading up to A Moon Shaped Pool’s release.
Why It Rules: A Moon Shaped Pool is a quiet reflection upon the lost loves, lingering fears, and infinite uncertainties spread across the stretch of perceivable time in a single life. Radiohead continues to mature, as do we as their listeners. –Sean Barry