There was a certain, frustrating monotony about the 2016 year-end lists published by most major music press institutions. The same dozen or so records (Bowie, Beyoncé, Frank and Solange among them) seemed to crop up ad nauseam, which was disappointing because I rely on year-end lists to discover new music and catch up on anything I missed in the past twelve months. This year, such prospects for discovery were far and few. Hence this list: a comprehensive guide to 2016’s most underrated records. Excluding Grammy-nominations, Billboard charters, major label releases and any record that was prominently praised, this list aims to highlight 35 of some of the year’s best, most overlooked and under-appreciated LPs.
33. Night Lovell – Red Teenage Melody
19 year-old Ottawa rapper Night Lovell consistently drops straight fire, and his newest record Red Teenage Melody is no exception. The dissonant, post-Yeezus trap album boasts substantial bangers like “Contraband” and “Louis V,” captivating, turn-up-ready productions best enjoyed while heavily inebriated and/or lit.
32. Evy Jane – Breaking
Breaking is producer and singer-songwriter Evy Jane‘s Vancouver record, a blissful, rain-soaked, lo-fi electronica album that employs her soulful vocals in beautifully unconventional ways. On her solo debut, Evy conjures tender, sexy, sci-fi R&B vibes that linger on you like a lover’s scent.
31. Little Simz – Stillness In Wonderland
The appeal of British rapper Little Simz lies beyond her voice. It’s her presence, her vibe, her effortless, Aaliyah-like cool. Stillness In Wonderland isn’t her best or most coherent piece work, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Then again, just about everything she does is impressive.
30. Sean Nicholas Savage – Magnificent Fist
Canadian indie darling Sean Nicholas Savage has always been a prolific, hardworking chap, but in 2016 his efforts landed him some serious visibility. Savage landed songwriting, production and background vocal credits on Solange’s show-stopping A Seat At The Table, in addition to releasing a kooky yet sincere visual album called Magnificent Fist. Paired with its visuals, Fist is cute, campy, deliberately corny, and impossible not to love–a retro R&B album for lovelorn souls in need of a smile.
29. Ced Hughes – Life In Technicolor
The same week Do What Thou Wilt. (Ab-Soul) and 4 Your Eyez Only (J. Cole) dropped, Virginia rapper-producer Ced Hughes released a low-key amazing album that could easily rival them both. Boasting the confidence and creative savvy of a young Kanye, Hughes produced the entirety of Life In Technicolor, a thoroughly impressive rap record that doubles as a deliriously good R&B-pop epic.
28. Merchandise – A Corpse Wired For Sound
Tampa, Florida guitar band Merchandise bolster their rich, classic rock sound with synthesizers and drum machines on A Corpse Wired For Sound. Dark electro-pop numbers and glam rock dad jams make this an interesting listen for fans of their older material, but the change is definitely a welcomed one.
27. Clams Casino – 32 Levels
As the only album released by a major label on this list, 32 Levels secured a spot because it’s highly underrated despite its resources and aesthetic bravado. Following a pair of mixtapes and several wildly successful singles from major acts like A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller and The Weeknd, producer Clams Casino‘s debut album garnered nowhere near the amount of praise it earned. He chose his featured artists with expert precision, fiercely original vocalists across a dynamic range of genres and styles. Mikky Ekko, A$AP Ferg, Lil B, Kelela, Wet‘s Kelly Zutrau and Future Islands‘ Samuel T. Herring are all graced with Casino’s striking pop productions.
26. Lady Wray – Queen Alone
Lady Wray is just 35 years-old, but she’s been at this for nearly two decades. What began as a humble, Missy Elliot-cosigned R&B career has flourished into an extraordinary, old school reinvention of soul. With production from prestigious soul labels Daptone and Big Crown Records, Wray’s first solo album in years, Queen Alone, is an instant classic and a most fabulous comeback.
25. Man Made Mountain – Congo Square
Australian producer Billy Hoyle and Melbourne MC Cazeaux O.S.L.O. are Man Made Mountain on Congo Square, an inventive and impeccably fresh hip-hop album that concerns itself with music appreciation and Australian cultural identity. It’s a dense, perfectly brief duration was much appreciated, working against this year’s trend of frustratingly long albums.
24. Un Blonde – Good Will Come To You
Capturing the essence of proto-rock Americana with folk, blues, and country leanings, Good Will Come To You–the newest album by Canadian singer-songwriter and producer Un Blonde–is a gentle, feel-good rock record. Its most satisfying moments arise from waves of psychedelia and deep pockets of gospel and soul, frank emotional honesty and a willingness to explore. That’s what makes the sweeping, 46 minutes and 21 tracks of Good Will Come To You such an evocative, heartfelt listen.
23. Butcher Brown – Virginia Noir
They may be young, but Virginia jazzheads Butcher Brown pack a mean, old school feel. Their newest offering Virginia Noir hones in on the insane tight-knit grooves of previous records. There’s never a dull moment on this stark, thoroughly chill instrumental LP.
22. Soft Glas – Late Bloom
The remarkable debut album by Brooklyn electronic producer Soft Glas is among the most uplifting, spiritually rejuvenating records I’ve heard all year. Late Bloom was conceived as a means of emotional healing–when Soft Glas felt cornered in by depression and anxiety– and the bulk of it was created with exceptionally talented underground musicians he discovered online: executive producer and bassist Alex Szotak, Brooklyn-via-Beijing artist Fishdoll (vox), Cautious Clay (sax) and Madison McFerrin (vox). Featuring lush arrangements and simply gorgeous melodies, this progressive R&B-electronica record is a personal favorite.
21. Trim – 1-800 DINOSAUR Presents Trim
Seasoned UK MC Trim teams with James Blake‘s 1-800-DINOSAUR label to release his newest full-length, a ferocious rap album that features production from Blake, Happa, and Airhead among other dope talents. These dark, arrestingly deep beats motivate Trim in powerful ways, presenting the world with an exciting new future for UK rap thats borrows from progressive techno and club music.
20. Jameszoo – Fool
Dutch musician Jameszoo released his fantastically weird album, Fool, via Brainfeeder this year. The record’s disjointed, stuttering flow flips between surreal sound collage abstractions to loosely arranged neo-soul vamps. Jameszoo says Fool is “naive computer jazz”, an awfully accurate but nonetheless silly moniker for the experimental producer’s unique take on electronic music.
19. Mono/Poly – Cryptic
Brainfeeder’s electronic producer Mono/Poly is the secret weapon behind some of Thundercat‘s biggest hits like “Oh Sheit It’s X” and “Them Changes.” On his third album, Cryptic, Mono/Poly once again collaborates with the prolific bassist to replicate that same energy–trippy rhythms and gnarly, gargantuan dubstep beats that give way to forceful cosmic funk. The full LP plays out like an instrumental hip-hop album indebted to equal parts doom metal, experimental jazz and trap.
18. Omni – Deluxe
Atlanta’s zany guitar trio Omni formed out of ex-members from Deerhunter and Carnivores. Tinny, lo-fi guitar riffs and groovy bass hooks make up Deluxe, a faithful homage to 70s post-punkers Television and Devo. It’s a weird, irresistibly good time.
17. Topaz Jones – Arcade
Like Anderson .Paak, Frank Ocean and Childish Gambino, New Jersey native Topaz Jones often blurs lines between his rapping and singing. His vibe is brilliant, pop radio-ready, and funky to the max, an updated continuation of James Brown and George Clinton’s vamps on The One. But it’s Topaz’s knowledge of music beyond funk that does much to color his debut album, Arcade.
16. Weaves – Weaves
Toronto band Weaves are like the kooky, deranged cousins to Alabama Shakes. Each act is a proper rock and roll band, fronted by fearless, mixed race women who accent the fabulous, noisy chaos with sweet yet powerful vocals. Their self-titled debut album hosts a violent mess of ideas, intriguing and intelligent pop-rock songs that start in earnest before spinning out of control.
15. Azealia Banks – Slay-Z
Like her scathing social media presence, Azealia Banks‘ wildly diverse catalogue of hybridized EDM-R&B-rap holds nothing back–no idea too big, no sentiment too offensive–and each project is ultimately more developed than the last. Following her phenomenal, self-released debut LP Broke With Expensive Taste, Banks dropped the eight-track surprise mixtape Slay-Z to minimal fanfare.
14. Jamila Woods – HEAVN
Jamila Woods‘ free album HEAVN might be one of the most important albums of 2016. It’s a captivatingly honest expression of black womanhood, a socially woke message sung to R&B and soul that works to uplift the city of Chicago and its people. Chance The Rapper, Noname, Saba and Donnie Trumpet all lend a hand on this exceptionally moving album.
13. Josef Leimberg – Astral Progressions
Everything about trumpet player and composer Josef Leimberg‘s debut album–right down to its fantastically illustrated album cover–takes a page from the spiritual jazz renaissance of the 1970s. Leimberg updates the model with a malleable, cosmopolitan understanding of jazz and R&B vocal performances by Georgia Anne Muldrow and soul wizard Bilal. He’s worked with everyone from Kamasi to Kendrick, but there’s something stark and wholly individual about the awesome, consciousness-expanding song of Astral Progressions.
12. Warehouse – super low
With super low, Atlanta post-punk band Warehouse delivered an damn good follow-up to their excellent debut, Tesseract. This second record feels more mature, more willing to experiment, and every risk they take pays off. Singer Elaine Edenfield’s signature growl is sometimes traded for a gentle, whispery coo (“Long Exposure”) and the band’s rollicking, angular guitar figures eventually give way to a hazy, psychedelic saunter (“Modifier Analogue”). But everything unmistakably awesome about Warehouse has stayed the same.
11. Jon Bap – What Now?
Buffalo, New York’s Jon Bap boasts a fresh, badass sense of cool on par with Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield and Prince. He released two albums this year, both of them dope and excitingly unconventional, but What Now? surely takes the cake. The first ten minutes of the 40-minute album is a female-spoken monologue called “Guided Meditation” over lo-fi ambient noise. The remaining 30 minutes careen between frantic, hyper-speed jazz experiments and slippery, off-kilter soul songs with searing hot grooves. This record is delightfully hard to wrap your head around.
10. Jordan Rakei – CLOAK
London transplant Jordan Rakei released his fantastic debut album, CLOAK, just two years after moving from New Zealand. A reflection of London’s cosmopolitan diversity, the record is an eclectic vision of experimental soul, tender and beautifully honest, somewhere between John Mayer with the Grateful Dead and Voodoo-era D’Angelo.
9. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits
Saxophonist and hip-hop producer Terrace Martin made a name for himself composing original music for Kendrick Lamar‘s last three albums, but Velvet Portraits is his new calling card. Assembling an all-star cast of jazzheads (Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, and Lalah Hathaway among several more), this phenomenal, spiritually stimulating, 70-minute album captures a vital sound thriving on Black America’s West Coast.
8. Robert Glasper – Everything’s Beautiful
On Everything’s Beautiful, jazz composer and hip-hop producer Robert Glasper curates a brilliant Miles Davis tribute album that uses original stems from the late great artist’s original work. Featuring a phenomenal crew of musicians–neo-soul acts like Hiatus Kaiyote and Bilal and heavy-hitting R&B legends Erykah Badu and Stevie Wonder–these freeform remix-covers are nothing less than enchanting. Glasper’s collaborators deliver deep, heartfelt renditions that aim to bring new life to a bygone era of jazz.
7. Kahdja Bonet – The Visitor
Los Angeles singer-songwriter and producer Kadhja Bonet imagines herself as a mystical, alien entity metaphysically removed from the present day on The Visitor. This first official album is a strange but beautiful one, evanescing through complimentary visions of electronic soul, centuries-old chamber pop and Eastern-influenced string arrangements. Bonet’s voice hovers above the airy delirium, full and foreign and hauntingly beautiful.
6. Show Me The Body – Body War
Electric banjo-wielding hardcore trio Show Me The Body is easily the dopest, most authentic thing that’s happened to New York’s indie rock scene since Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Their first album Body War contains exhilarating, thrill-seeking, manic-depressive jams–unforgiving assaults of noisy, rhythmically aggressive rock that perfectly mirror the palpable energy of their live shows.
5. Mal Devisa – Kiid
Singer-songwriter and musician Mal Devisa has all the skill and sweetness of 19-era Adele, but her musical sensibility wrestles with a greater, angrier, uglier force of will–and that’s why she makes fantastic records. On Kiid, the Northampton, Massachusetts-based artist delivers her most conceptually evocative piece of work to date. Devisa’s messy vision of rock contains jazz, gospel and R&B–implemented by her towering vocal range and formidable tenor– and then revolts. Upon closing track “Dominatrix,” she’s fully converted, rapping furiously about the patriarchy and metaphorical slave shackles over a cacophonous trap beat.
4. River Tiber – Indigo
The music of River Tiber offers an exciting new blueprint for R&B, one that’s nonchalantly made its way to mainstream acts like Ghostface Killah and Drake. The multi-instrumentalist wrote and produced just about everything on his debut LP, a graceful yet challenging pop record that sources a myriad of genres like psychedelic jazz and experimental beat music. Aside from Indigo’s impressive groove, it’s his stark, startling fresh voice that ties together its disparate sounds, a gentle cooing that cuts through the commotion like a knife on butter.
3. Jessy Lanza – Oh No
Hamilton, Ontario’s Jessy Lanza makes industrious, deeply intimate, utterly electrifying dance pop. On her newest record, Oh No, Lanza’s performance is altogether sassier, stronger, and more disruptive than the bulk of her 2013 debut, Pull My Hair Back. Production-wise, the two records feel nearly night and day. Brighter, faster, and more lucid, Oh No is pristine electro-R&B that never falls short of absolutely dope.
2. BadBadNotGood – IV
Talent has never been a question when it comes to Canadian jazz outfit BadBadNotGood, but on their three previous albums BBNG seemed to have a hard time marketing their sound to non-jazz listeners. Collabs with Charlotte Day Wilson, Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring, Chicago MC Mick Jenkins and electronic dance producer KAYTRANADA on the band’s newest record, IV, strive for pop, albeit sophisticated and emotionally intelligent pop. And elsewhere on the LP–where lengthy, invigorating instrumentals reign–they deliver some of their headiest, most rewarding compositions to date.
1. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
You might be inclined to overlook Anderson .Paak’s collaborative LP with experimental hip-hop and beat producer Knxwledge, considering his supremely dope solo album, Malibu, was nominated for a Grammy earlier this month. Unlike Paak’s Malibu, recorded with a full band, the NxWorries album Yes Lawd! is a kaleidoscopic beat tape made up of dozens of samples–from deep cuts like Ahmad Jamal and Eddie Robinson to more colorful cultural references like Rick and Morty and Krissychula. Guided by Paak’s brilliant rhymes and painfully good vocal hooks, this raw, deeply soulful and downright hilarious hip-hop album is quite simply his best work ever.