This year, artists gave us the full story. Their bigger picture. Packaged in the form of fully conceptual projects, some of music’s most renowned artists cemented their place in the modern music landscape with career-defining albums. Some new artists popped up to claim their place, as well.

These are our favourite albums of the year:

Video by: Janelle Haye


20. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

Vince Staples brings a barrage of heavy house beats to Big Fish Theory, both emboldening and obscuring his thoughtful persona.

Vince's interests may remain the same, but just about everything else has changed. While moments of Summertime ‘06 oozed sadness and desperation, Big Fish Theory is jaded, defensive bitterness mixed with confidence and posturing. Staples himself has referred to the record as “afro-futurism,” but in truth there isn't so much of that to be found here as simply a beats-focused, summer club record. - Chase McMullen

19. Syd – Fin

Syd continues to intrigue on her confident debut solo album Fin.

Syd's solo debut is clearly influenced by the more boundary-pushing R&B records of the 90s; it is Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson and Timbaland productions thrown in a blender with added modern electronic sensibilities. These influences drive Fin. - James Norman-Fyfe

18. Protomartyr – Relatives In Descent

From the outset of ‘A Private Understanding’, listeners will understand that Relatives In Descent is not a safe record. What it is, instead, it is the year’s most vital LP. Written in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Protomartyr made a bold, expressive and truly dense album. Packed with even references to keep you Googling for hours, vocalist Joe Casey’s performance here is a marvel. His sardonic voice drips with attitude while the sinewy performances of Greg Ahee, Scott Davidson and Alex Leonard offer the record its considerable sonic muscle. But the greatest achievement for Relatives In Descent may be that it delivers an emotional catharsis largely absent elsewhere in these bleak political times.

“I could write about my love life or the mundane today, but then the world news comes and it’s much darker and much more serious than your day-to-day existence, and you’re just trying to get through the day,” Casey told The 405 earlier this year. For many of us, Casey’s anger was a vessel for our own, his mind rippling with ideas, references and frustration. I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel good to listen to that. - Will Tomer

17. Lorde – Melodrama

I’m happy to admit that I was wrong about Lorde. Back in 2013, ‘Royals’ was one of those songs you couldn’t escape, and which I could only begrudgingly appreciate as an enticing earworm. I wasn’t the target audience for Pure Heroine: teenage, preternaturally precocious, post-internet, zero fucks givers. So whilst expectations for Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s sophomore album reached fever pitch levels over the course of four years, I shrugged with Indie snob indifference. Melodrama kills indifference. Melodrama grabs it by the hair, forces a quart of vodka down its throat, and implores it to dance the night away until it’s crumpled in the corner at 3am, crying whilst scrolling through the photo reel on its iPhone.

From the irresistible endorphin rush of opener, ‘Green Light’, to the Jai Paul-channeling banger that is ‘Homemade Dynamite’, to the deliciously and magisterially overwrought ‘Writer in the Dark’, Melodrama is song after song of perfectly constructed pop music with undeniable substance. She might be a bona fide pop star, but it’s on her unequivocal terms. What stands out most on Melodrama is that Lorde is a supremely gifted lyricist, capable of capturing lucid moments of piercing, wrenching truth amongst the hedonistic blur of alcohol-fuelled nights, and sifting wisely through the flotsam of heartbreak’s emotional wreckage. We’ll love her ‘til our breathing stops and she calls the cops on us. - Andy Johnston

16. Björk – Utopia

If we think about Björk and her career, we see a pattern: to each album there is a compelling story, and with it comes a special element that becomes iconic in its narrative. On Vulnicura, she sung about her darkness, processing her divorce and the aftermath. The use of strings was a prime choice, embellished with Arca’s co-production, blending all together with her vocal quirks. Vulnicura was her vehicle out of pain and also became her most transparent album to date.

Throughout seventy minutes, Björk’s Utopia demands that you pay special attention to the detail, the musical elements and the carefully-placed glitched-out electronics… and also the many, many flutes, the chosen element the Icelandic singer decided to focus on and explore to the core. By wanting to be happy and dust off her ache, Björk’s ninth full-length album created a safe haven for herself and her emotions, and she craftily built it to be a loophole for a fearless new beginning, leaning onto a brighter and airier horizon. - Francisco Gonçalves Silva

15. Kelela – Take Me Apart

Take Me Apart is Kelela’s first proper album, but it is hardly a debut for the singer, who has been patient in her build up to this, but not elusive. Spring-boarding off of the introductory tape Cut 4 Me in 2013, she has signed to Warp, released the Hallucinogen EP, and popped up on tracks from Danny Brown, Solange and Gorillaz, to name a few of the higher-profile ones. It is this pedigree that she brings into Take Me Apart, which is as effortlessly confident an R&B album as has been released in recent memory.

54 minutes of rich low-end and forward-thinking production from the likes of Arca, Jam City, and Kwes ensure that it is fully deserving of the “future R&B” tag, but, moreover, Take Me Apart is body music; the kind that brings to mind warm breath, skin-to-skin contact and barely audible involuntary murmurings. The low-lit productions aid in cultivating this steamy sensibility, but it is capitalised on by Kelela’s fearless approach to sex and relationships in her lyrics. She can flit from clearly conflicted in relationship-assessing ‘Frontline’, infuriatingly cocky on ‘LMK’, make an unabashed booty call on ‘S.O.S.’, crumble from enchantment in ‘Turn To Dust’, and hit dozens of other sharply-drawn spots on the love spectrum throughout the album. It’s no wonder, then, that even with all the other big names associated, Kelela’s is the only voice and only name to be found on the record. - Rob Hakimian

14. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

Moses Sumney's debut album Aromanticism is a stunning elegy to lovelessness, delicately drawing on jazz, soul and atmospheric music.

Moses Sumney has taken the quiet, introspective sound of his earlier singles and built upon it to create textured soundscapes that draw as much from ambient as they do jazz. These dreamy soundscapes are composed of a variety of instruments; plucked harps, electronic swells, soft percussion and meandering bass lines, but for the most part Aromanticism is an exercise in instrumental minimalism. It sees the artist lost and alone in space that is of no time and place. - Robert Whitfield

13. Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Somewhere, floating along the edges of dream pop, techno, and ambient, Kelly Lee Owens settles in her nook, providing her listeners with a sound which refuses to be characterized. Her self-titled record, Kelly Lee Owens, which hit the markets in March, has literally gone on every playlist I have made since that date. Her unparalleled ability to combine various forms of electronic composition resulted in a project that is as much cohesive as it is serene, which is quite impressive given that it is her debut full-length release.

Kelly Lee Owens is unique in that it has multiple layers of evolution embedded within. From the first track to the last, the listeners are taken on an auditory yet highly visual journey which explores different lyrical, thematic, and sonic content alike. Although the evolution in this regard is absolutely noteworthy, perhaps just as memorable is the evolution within the tracks themselves. Oftentimes starting with highly textured, ambient qualities, the tracks are prone to take multiple forms within minutes, sometimes resulting in a four-on-the-floor club jam, while others propel into a densely melodic, vocally-driven assertion of artistry.

K.L.O’s flexible voice allows her to be one with the instrumentation, adding layers and textures to her already hypnotic form of songwriting. On the other hand, she is able to gracefully place her voice up front, drawing more attention to her melodic and lyrical capabilities when she sees fit. As engaging as it is catchy, Kelly Lee Owens allows oneself to take a step away from the burdens of reality and instead explore the possibilities of what could be. - William Morrow

12. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die - Always Foreign

The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s third full-length Always Foreign is soaked in drama. That it's not defined by it is a testament to its appeal: at least a fair amount of the whole affair is devoted to a dramatic dismissal for an ostensibly harmful presence in the band, but I listened for months without having a clue. Of course, it's obvious looking back, but it's a great work of art that can at once be so intimate and universal. ‘Hilltopper’ and other cuts may be filled with venom, but the impossibly-long monikered band are reaching in every direction, whether singing about friends lost or political strife, The World is... are firing on all cylinders. The album’s epic, ‘Marine Tigers’, never lets up; 7 minutes of seething emotion for our current age, extending all the way into a damn choir; it's liable to make you tear up while thrashing about to its crashing guitar after one drink too many. It's one for the ages, y'all – perhaps one of the year's most underappreciated wallops. - Chase McMullen

11. JAY Z – 4:44

Jay-Z is more human than ever on 4:44, resulting in his most compelling and impressive album in over a decade.

Not everything has necessarily changed for Jay-Z on 4:44. For one thing, he's still talking about his art collection, but the mood couldn't be more different. He's more interested in explaining – and, above all, in being understood – than stunting. The most immediately apparent truth here is, in a sense, Hova is over Jay-Z. While much of his recent material has felt like a rapper struggling with ageing, he finally feels ready to kick back and enjoy his status. - Chase McMullen

10. The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

On The War On Drugs’ fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding, multi-instrumentalist and production-wiz Adam Granduciel crafts a stunning and explosive bombshell of an album. Far removed from their third and arguably most popular studio album, Lost in the Dream, A Deeper Understanding expands Granduciel's Americana-influenced compositions to sprawling, psychedelic anthems best suited for open road drives. The tedious production details of A Deeper Understanding blow anything in The War On Drugs' discography to bite-sized pieces. A Deeper Understanding is best listened to in small increments, unless you want your brain blown up permanently — if that’s the case, good luck. - Timmy Michalik

9. Ariel Pink – Dedicated To Bobby Jameson

Ariel Pink shows his most absurd and impressive traits on Dedicated To Bobby Jameson.

Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is an extremely entertaining and visceral listen, a necessity for those who even slightly comprehend Ariel Pink for what he really is - a tortured genius. Pink embraces an absurdist ideology throughout. Each track from Dedicated to Bobby Jameson grows on you like a bacteria. A listen here, a listen there, and sooner than later you notice these songs swallowing your concentration whole, as Pink's lustrous voice takes your train of thought over completely. - Timothy Michalik

8. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

Robin Pecknold and company’s comeback inhibits exactly the same exquisite organic beauty that long-time fans have come to expect, while also injecting a healthy dose of the new and progressive to their repertoire. A clear evolution from their debut and Helplessness BluesCrack-Up takes those same intimate, picturesquely illustrious harmonies and prioritises more progressive elements. Add to this the meticulous nature and sheer instrumental depth of Pecknold’s songcraft, and you get an effortlessly boundary-pushing prog-folk record.

The song structures on Crack-Up are staggeringly dense but still mellowing and comforting; while elements of folktronica are invited to sit in the background, adding yet another layer to Fleet Foxes’ sound. Pecknold pushes himself to compose more complex songs while maintaining those harmonious melodies with which his band are synonymous. Crack-Up is, above all, brimming with breath-taking musical moments. The howling chorus of ‘Fool’s Errand’, the irresistibly lush key change in the second phase of ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’, and the constant unearthing of ever-more beauty throughout ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ are just a few of the many highlights. Crack-Up doesn’t just impress as an evolutionary comeback record, but in just how expertly it achieves this, standing as one of the most stunning records of the year. - Ed Cunningham

7. Sampha – Process

Sampha's long-awaited debut album Process is an impressive message of strength in trying times.

Facing the pressure of collective expectations, genuinely buckling from 6 years of anticipation, Process manages to both deliver on, and gracefully dodge, them all. The album refuses to settle on one obsession, often dealing with lovers lost or scorned, drifting into politics and back into the hyper-personal. - Chase McMullen

6. Big Thief – Capacity

There’s a radio edit of ‘Shark Smile’ in the echelon that shamefully cuts the first minute of guitar squelching and drum arrhythmia. Sure, Adrienne Lenker’s voice certainly stands on its own two feet and then some, but it’s the extra-musical oomph the band packs in that makes Capacity such an emotional standout of the year. ‘Mythological Beauty’ is another gorgeous combination of songwriting and structure. Lenker spares no detail about her experience growing up in the American Midwest above one of the breeziest guitar-based instrumentals Saddle Creek has ever released. Lenker still doesn’t overcome you with her voice, making each lyric and passage precious and essential to the story behind Capacity’s tales of pain, family, loss, and love. All moments, be they whisper-quiet or cacophonous, are worthy of the tale, and we need that radio edit stricken from the airwaves as soon as possible. - Michael Cyrs

5. Perfume Genius – No Shape

Mike Hadreas has always channelled emotion and trauma into his music. His first albums were intense listening, an artist exposed to his audience. Following on from the fantastic Too Bright, Hadreas has begun to own his persona and channels his individuality into strong assured statements throughout No Shape.

It is an album as diverse as it’s narrator. The brightest moment of Perfume Genius’ discography to date, ‘Slip Away’, an ethereal, all-consuming piece of pop, sits aside the tender ‘Just Like Love’, a track that is little more than string and melody. The truly chilling ‘Choir’ demonstrates the darkness Hadreas is willing to express, while the following ‘Die 4 You’ sounds like the sort of alt-R&B you can imagine he delights in dancing to on a Saturday evening.

This album is joyous, and it is equally joyous to see Perfume Genius presenting proudly and unashamedly bold pop structures and genre-bending alternative. - Sean Ward


Like all Top Dawg Entertainment members, The First (and only) Lady of the crew doesn’t rush music out. Her debut album proper CTRL is the result of five years of grinding since the release of her first EP in 2012. Having always been blighted with inconsistency in her releases, it’s a testament to SZA’s hard work that CTRL is a stellar piece of work from start to finish.

Full of relatable one-liners in her velvet voice, SZA has such a knack for digging out the observational moments in daily life that she could take to the stage as a stand-up comedian and not miss a beat.

“Forget to call your mama on the weekend,
You should put yourself in time out,
Shame, shame on you”

Platinum selling singles ‘The Weekend’ and ‘Love Galore’ attracted all the headlines but any of the 13 proper tracks could have led the line. With a handful of features from Kendrick, Travis Scott and Isaiah Rashad the album feels like SZA’s own; and after writing for others for so long, who can blame her for wanting the spotlight to herself with an album like CTRL? - Joni Roome

3. Fever Ray – Plunge

Fever Ray takes us into her frenzied mindset on the outgoing and vibrant Plunge.

Fever Ray seems a lot happier, or at least more energetic and outgoing, coming into second album Plunge. But that only seems to bring her up against more frustrations in the world around her, which are wrought vividly in ambitious electronic compositions. This dallying with desire is the constant force driving the album, which is alive with conflict in both her lyrics and the beats that crop up throughout. - Rob Hakimian

2. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

When James Murphy announced the reformation of LCD Soundsystem early last year, the response was something of a mix of ridicule and incredulity. The project was supposed to have been over five years prior, punctuated with one final, stunning concert at Madison Square Garden, captured in the documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits. A reunion wasn’t unwelcome, especially not one bringing back his old LCD cohorts, rather than making it “James Murphy Presents: LCD Soundsystem.” However, there was still the question of whether Murphy was restarting the band because he had something to say or because he had some bills to pay.

The reunion was confirmed in January of 2016 then something happened in November and we weren’t sure if we’d get through January of this year all right. The American Dream, a concept that had been on life support for just about all of the 21st century (if it ever existed at all) now feels like a cruel joke, one where people are on life support, medically, financially, and more, for reasons outside their control. It’s also the namesake of LCD Soundsystem’s stunning reunion album. This isn’t great for a comeback album. It’s great, period.

Murphy and company sound as polished as ever but also hungry to expand their sound and depth (like the ode to David Bowie on ‘Black Screen’). He confirms his status as heir apparent to David Byrne on ‘Other Voices’ (is there any musical moment this year quite as joyful as his aside to Nancy Whang?) and leads an anthem that could usurp ‘All My Friends’ as their go-to setlist closer with ‘Call the Police’. Their version of the American Dream might just be an hour of music, but when it’s this riveting, we’re happy to dream on. - Brody Kenny

01. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.


There’s a truism that, by comparison to its epochal predecessor To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. is unambitious and even rudimentary. It’s still great, the truism hastens to footnote, but slightly underwhelming and insubstantial after To Pimp A Butterfly’s gleaming tome of genre synthesis and powerfully eloquent scholarliness.

It’s a great album without being a Great album. There’s validity to this view and it’s one I held on my first view listens, but the more I listened the more I discerned its hooks and unpacked its lyricism. There’s exquisite individual storytelling allied by a tectonic and flawlessly coherent directive maligning structural racism, and maligning the way rap is twisted into dangerous and artless by structural racism; all underscored by masterfully satisfying, thrilling, enraging, despairing production.

It’s not pioneering but it has no intent to be. It is what it is, a deliberately single-minded album, and as a pure rap creation – as in rap defined by its traditional parameters rather than those disintegrated by To Pimp A Butterfly – it’s executed perfectly. Hyper competence is its own Greatness, and this is hyper-competent rap album in years. DAMN. isn’t a reversion to basics but a flexing digression; an alarm clock reminder that, in whatever he touches, Kenny is King. - Kieran Devlin