2016 may be remembered for all of the horrible, terrible things that happened, but the one thing we can all agree on is that it has been an exceptional year for music. And as we have gone back and sifted through every release to decide on the year’s best, we found that there were too many great albums left in the dust.
This list is an even mix of rare gems discovered at random and albums that are not getting nearly enough attention in year-end lists. So without further ado, here are our 12 picks for 2016’s Most Underrated Albums.
Animal Collective – ‘Painting With’
Many fans were understandably nervous when Animal Collective announced that Painting With, their 10th studio album, was what they considered to be their “Ramones record.” And though that comment remains cringeworthy, it is still the most fitting description for the record yet. In other words, it is short, concise and almost manically in your face.
Unsurprisingly, it is a divisive work, but one that with time stands as one of the year’s most rewarding listens. Elements of Animal Collective’s sound like insanely complex time signatures, call-and-response vocals and elastic electronics are all still here, but they have been pummeled with amphetamines and honed down into a true roller coaster of a 40-minute listen.
Chairlift – ‘Moth’
In a crowded field of indie synth-pop acts, Chairlift have never once had to fight for attention. This is in large part due to the fact that they are just so damn weird (their best song is called “Amanaemonesia” for God’s sake) but it is equally due to the unparalleled talent of singer Caroline Polachek. On Moth, both of these elements are presented in their most maximal form yet. And boy does it pay off.
Take lead single “Ch-Ching” for instance. It is an infectiously catchy slice of their off-brand pop that relies on a saxophone blaring like an alarm clock and a chorus that goes “27-9-9-23.” None of these elements should work together, but Chairlift weave them together in a way that feels yes, odd, but also oddly perfect.
And should you need any more proof of Polachek’s supreme soprano, then just give a listen to “Romeo” or “Polymorphing,” both career-bests in the band’s ever-growing catalogue.
Charli XCX – ‘Vroom Vroom’ EP
Though it is only four tracks long, you would be hard-pressed to find a work more jam-packed with bizarre sounds and even more bizarre ideas than Vroom Vroom, an EP from reigning pop princess Charli XCX that has been met with both love and hate in passionate amounts this year. But though Charli’s name is on the project, this is every bit as much (if not more so) of a work from SOPHIE, the elusive and massively influential DJ behind the PC Music label.
It took guts for Charli to make a hard left turn into the abrasive world of SOPHIE when she could have very comfortably remained Top 40 material. The result, for those that can bear a listen, is perfection.
SOPHIE’s dark, twisted production has met its match in the sugary-sweetness of Charli. And no better is this demonstrated in songs like the title track, which is at once the catchiest pop song of the year and transmissions from a crack-addicted underworld. It is the sound of Princess Peach in Bowser’s castle and owning that shit.
Crystal Castles – ‘Amnesty (I)’
It makes complete sense why this record got shunned and/or forgotten this year. Lead producer Ethan Kath constructed his own PR nightmare in creating an enemy with former bandmate (and true star of the show) Alice Glass after a very nasty public split. Many assumed the band was over. And just as many (perhaps rightfully) refused to support Kath in the wake of the aftermath.
All this serves as way to distract from the fact Kath is still creating a kind of nightmarish electronic dance music that literally no one else can make. Fans of the original trilogy of Crystal Castles will find little to be disappointed by in this offering.
“Char” and “Ornament” are some of the most beautiful songs Kath has ever made, period, and his replacement for Alice Glass does a more than admirable job of resurrecting the horror show of their past work.
dvsn – ‘SEPT 5TH’
It must be difficult to remain elusive when you get signed to a label owned by Drake, but for the most part dvsn remains a mystery. The recent signees to OVO Sound quietly released their debut in the spring to little fanfare, but as the months have worn on it is clear that this is the best piece of sex-music to hit our ears all year.
Nor is that descriptor a matter of opinion. This is literally a 45-minute ode to the joys of sex. Tracks like “Too Deep” and “In + Out” are about precisely what you think they are.
But what singles dvsn out in the ever-growing world of neo-R&B is the quiet grace in which these tales are presented. The beats (in part produced by the wizard Noah “40” Shebib) whirr like clockwork under the yearning vocals as the rich electronic instrumentation blankets over all, like the warm breath of a lover nestled under the sheets with you.
GAIKA – ‘SPAGHETTO’ EP
It would have been very easy for GAIKA to rest on his laurels this year. He dropped the excellent mixtape SECURITY to acclaim back in April, and could have taken the rest of the year to bask in that success. Instead, he threw that mixtape into a blender with a handful of razor blades and produced the SPAGHETTO EP, which is the former mixtape’s seriously twisted evil twin.
While GAIKA’s flow and delivery inherently make him part of the grime scene, it is stunning to see how many influences are channeled and sharpened into this work. Tracks like “3D” rage with the kind of rhythmic industrial noise that would make a band like Death Grips swoon, while “Glad We Found It” is a slice of tinkling trip-hop, which would be an utter dream were it not so nightmarish.
Isaiah Rashad – ‘The Sun’s Tirade’
“Free Lunch” is one of the most unassumingly great rap tracks to hit our headphones this year, and it is also an ideal gateway drug into the world of Isaiah Rashad. You’ll find yourself fist pumping in time to the infectious hook of “MEAL ticket ticket MEAL ticket,” and as you smile at how fun it is you may realize what a profoundly sad subject matter just slipped past you.
Which is really how all of The Sun’s Tirade is. The fact that Rashad can get signed to TDE before his second full-length says enough about his talent, but what is truly exceptional is his ability to subtly weave his stories of poverty, delusion and despair into beats that are not only catchy but light and airy.
The album is a tightrope act, and Rashad plays it like he was born to.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – ‘EARS’
EARS is the perfect name for this album, the stunning new work from classically trained electronic composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. There is an overwhelming sense that this music is organic; a living, breathing work that is as sonically complex as the natural world it evokes. The arpeggiated rhythms and rumbling bass lines ebb and flow through the songs like the tides; saxophones and Smith’s own staccato vocals pierce the ambient calm like jagged mountaintops.
If you hadn’t guessed by now, this is one hell of a trippy electro record. This is the musical equivalent of taking two tabs of acid with the love of your life and exploring the depths of your soul while camping in a field. It is like staring into the oblivion of space post-bong rip, or watching nothing but Cosmos for a month. In short, it is transcendent.
Kamaiyah – ‘A Good Night in the Ghetto’
There is something miraculously intriguing about Kamaiyah. Her voice is pointedly matter-of-fact, perhaps even apathetic, which stands in utter contrast to her absurd, meme-worthy lyrics. How could a woman who “lives every day like it’s Friday” sound this blasé about it? Never in your life have you ever heard someone yell “aww shit” with such a profound lack of inflection.
But Kamaiyah works so well because despite this tone, it is clear that she is living for every god damn second of this. This is one hell of a self-assured debut. The production is juiced up on old school G-funk and firing on all cylinders, her rhymes are literally lol-worthy and she is not afraid of you.
Come for her, she doesn’t care. You know why? “I’ll eat every rap beef like an entreé.”
Nite Jewel – ‘Liquid Cool’
While Liquid Cool may not be the most groundbreaking piece of music this year (far from it even), it is a stunning leap in maturity and songcraft from Nite Jewel, one of many ambiguously synth-pop indie stars floating around the depths of today’s alternative scene. This is her big moment.
And what a moment it is. This is the most concise collection of retro-leaning synth-pop you’re likely to find this side of all the playlists dedicated to the Drive soundtrack. Yet for every thoroughly glitter-encrusted ‘80s ballad like “I Mean It” there are moments of millennial clarity, like the anxious relationship dissection of “Kiss the Screen” or the delusion that cuts her voice in the sparklingly gorgeous “Over the Weekend.”
It culls extensively from sounds of the past, but in its own quiet way it is inherently here and now.
Noname – ‘Telefone’
It is frankly absurd that Telefone is a debut album. It is really that good. Noname has a preternatural gift for storytelling; for instance, in the first 60 seconds of the song “Reality Check” she is able to convey her anxiety of creating the album you’re listening to, keeping her ambitions in check, her heritage as a black woman, her grandmother and ordering a cup of coffee.
This divide between easy self-confidence and gnawing doubt is the key to this record. It is represented musically as well, with the production boasting warm, bubbly synthesizers contrasted with skittering, syncopated beats. Much like the chanteuse behind them, it is hard to pin down. But the fact that it is so forthright and honest about this element is what makes this album one to remember.
YG – ‘Still Brazy’
In all its glamor and excess, it is easy to forget the real human cost behind so many of the stories told over the thrumming beats of gangsta rap. Which is perhaps in stripping down every song to its bare, minimal essentials, Still Brazy becomes a bracing, shockingly urgent piece of music. It upholds the long lineage of West Coast G-funk while reaching a plane of emotional relevance entirely its own.
All of this is condensed most singularly in “Who Shot Me?,” which is a revelation of a track. Note the way YG sings the title in the hook. There is an element of hip-hop braggadocio for sure, but there is also despair.
This is a man who has stared into the void due to a senseless act of violence and has emerged with questions with which there are no easy answers. It is a haunting album, and one that proves rap has room for a kind of emotional honesty far more meaningful than the Drake-brand of self-loathing.
Stay tuned ’til next week for our lists of the best albums and songs of the year.
For more musical lists, check out our selection of 10 Escapist Albums to really kick your daydreaming up a notch.