#20: Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger
Who doesn’t absolutely adore Rhymin’ Simon? He’s in his mid-70s and couldn’t be cooler. The man has transcended the limits of songwriting and overall musical popularity. I’ve seen him live numerous times, and it’s always a treat. Such grace beams out of this uniquely talented individual, and the audience inevitably lights up. Every generation since the ’60s has, quite frankly, been blessed by Paul Simon’s sonic awesomeness. After his last hit album, 2011’s So Beautiful, So What, I was convinced he’d never deliver another golden nugget…and then he did.
Stranger to Stranger is Simon’s 13th studio album, and it boasts some pretty incredible sounds. Take the song “Wristband,” for example. It has a classic storytelling theme behind funky beats, and I think I even heard some synthesizers in there. Not only does the album take you on a journey like any other Simon album, it’s a very real, raw delivery of his opinion of the world today as well. It explores narcissism and ego — two prominent characteristics of so many people nowadays. Thanks for telling it like it is, Paul. We love ya. – Anthony Marks
#19: Touche Amore – Stage Four
There is very little that I can say about this record that I haven’t already said. For records that have powerfully affected me, this one ranks near the top. Even for Touche Amore, whose compassionate, thoughtful lyrics have always spoken to me, Stage Four is a devastatingly human record. I still can’t listen to it without tearing up every. single. time. It’s unflinchingly courageous and infinitely inspiring. This is a record that can change lives. – Lex Voight
Listen: “Palm Dreams”
#18: Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Though his off-kilter style may have initially put off some of the more traditional hip-hop purists when he first began making noise in the early ’00s, Aesop Rock has determinedly built an incredible career in the underground over the past 15 years and earned his spot as one of the genre’s most unique and prolific writers. His 2016 album The Impossible Kid — released on indie powerhouse label Rhymesayers Entertainment — further legitimizes that claim, but it also stands as one of the most personal pieces of work in the rapper’s catalog.
Aes has never had trouble weaving together intricate Rorschach-esque rhymes that required multiple listens in order to unravel, and you’ll find plenty of those here. But he also simplifies his style in ways that connect in an even deeper sense than the method by which he built his legacy. Songs like “Lotta Years,” “Get out of the Car,” and “Blood Sandwich” are as straightforward as can be, yet they are still thoughtful and expertly told tales of loss, family, and aging in a genre that has yet to fully embrace getting old. Completely self-produced, the record has a cohesive feel that is equal parts paranoid, sarcastic, and emotionally wrought. – Sean Kramer
#17: Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP
Blank Face LP was definitely one of the dopest album releases of this year. Schoolboy Q used his unique sound to speak on important issues and relate to his fans on a groovy level. He mixed West Coast vibes with new-school flow and had the features to match. From E-40 in “Dope Dealer” to Tha Dogg Pound in “Big Body,” this album is a banger. Q also gave fans a sick three-part video series for the songs “By Any Means,” “Tookie Knows II,” and “Black THougHts,” which ends up telling the story of him as a dad. – Kimberly Quitzon
Listen: “Tookie Knows II”
#16: A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here, Thank U 4 Your Service
Farewell albums and those that drop in close proximity to the death of someone in the group often stink of a desperate final money grab that lacks in sincerity or substance. Although We Got It From Here, Thank U 4 Your Service is said to be the final album from A Tribe Called Quest following this year’s loss of founding member Phife Dawg, it isn’t lacking a thing.
We Got It From Here, Thank U 4 Your Service is fresh, modern, and retains everything about ATCQ that we love: cohesive multi-vocalist flow and onion-like layers of whip-smart wit that crystalize only upon dedicated listening. From the kaleidoscopic “Lost Somebody” to the distorted Elton John hook on “Solid Wall of Sound” and an apparent diagnosis of myxomatosis on “We The People,” ATCQ’s playful concoction today conjures the same magic that once lured me in as a high school freshman in 1992.
It’s been 18 years (18 years!) since the release of A Tribe Called Quest’s last LP, The Love Movement. With We Got It From Here, Thank U 4 Your Service, ATCQ has risen for one last go around. Along for the ride is an impressive cast of contributors. Join them. – Kyle Smith
Listen: “We The People”
#15: Drake – Views
Drake’s Views has been topping the Billboard charts for a minute now, setting vibes in clubs all across the country while hits like “One Dance,” “Too Good,” and “Hotline Bling” took over the airwaves. The album became the first to reach one billion streams on Apple Music, with features from PARTYNEXTDOOR, Future, Rihanna, and more helping it break that record. Drake went in on the vocals and incorporated R&B with Caribbean influences on Views, and while his flow remains classic, the album resulted in some solid gems that carry the artist forward. – Kimberly Quitzon
Listen: “Hotline Bling”
#14: James Blake – The Colour in Anything
When James Blake released his third album, The Colour in Anything, the world took a collective, melancholic sigh. It’s beautiful in the way wet leaves draped on the sidewalk on a gloomy day are beautiful. It’s the soundtrack to that cathartic moment right after a breakup or a life change when you realize you are free to make your own way once you let go. It’s beautiful in the way Blake has captured beauty before.
Blake expertly paints in pensive notes and rhythms, but he does so in a way that doesn’t just evoke sadness or pity. He encourages a deeper look at the nuances of relationships. “Radio Silence” and “Put That Away and Talk to Me” speak to the disintegration of communication. “I Need a Forest Fire (featuring Bon Iver)” expresses the overwhelming need to burn down said relationship in order to begin again.
Blake knows the right way to invite the listener to experience the journey of frustration, heartbreak, and loss just enough to sit in it for the duration of the record. Then, when the album ends one hour and 16 minutes later, he breaks the trance, reminding us all that “music can’t be everything.” – Christine Perez
Listen: “I Need a Forest Fire (feat. Bon Iver)”
#13: Blink-182 – California
When founding member Tom DeLonge departed from legendary pop-punk band Blink-182 in 2014, fans mourned. It was hard to believe that anyone could replace his lighthearted antics, unstoppable energy, and unique vocals, but then Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba stepped in and helped Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker create their seventh studio album, California.
The result was a recapturing of all the elements that first made Blink-182 relevant as a pop-punk band, but with a modern twist, be it the youthful energy of “Kings of the Weekend,” the emotional lyrics of “Home Is Such a Lonely Place,” the hard rock instrumentation of “Los Angeles,” or the nod to the band’s playful roots with “Built This Pool.” The album honored the band’s legacy while giving fans 16 tracks strong enough to make us fall in love with the group all over again.
I saw Mark, Travis, and Matt perform at The Forum this year on the tour promoting this album, and I was blown away by how solid the three were and how warmly fans received the new music. But then again, one listen to the album and anyone would. 2016’s Blink-182 is different, but the same. You could say they’re back, but they never really left. – Mary Bonney
Listen: “Bored To Death”
#12: Kaytranada – 99.9%
As far as debut albums go, it’s rare to find one as polished as Kaytranada’s 99.9%. It folds a healthy smattering of retro stylings and samples into unconventional rhythms to create a sound that somehow manages to be as avant garde as it is accessible. Despite the wide swathe of genres represented in 99.9%, it’s a tightly woven package. From the experimentally exploratory “Breakdance Lesson N.1” to the hook-riddled “You’re The One,” there’s not a single wasted track on this record.
My favorite offering on the album — and make no mistake, picking one was really hard and my decision is apt to change depending on the day of the week — is “Got It Good,” a collaborative track that features Craig David on vocals. Reminiscent of a revamped and slickly produced ’90s R&B slow jam, “Got It Good” is one of those tracks you can listen to over and over again and still find something new about it each time. – Lesley Park
Listen: “Got It Good”
#11: Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange shook souls this year, releasing an album that spoke straight from the heart. A Seat at the Table is a raw piece of self expression, taking listeners on a journey through Solange Knowles’ understanding of being a Black women in America. Her gentle voice accompanied by some funky bass and hard-hitting lyrics make for a rich piece of art.
The album includes interludes of quotes from Knowles’ parents and features from artists like Lil Wayne, BJ the Chicago Kid. and more. Check out her sleek visuals for “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” to put some equally thought-provoking pictures to the album’s sounds. – Kimberly Quitzon
Listen: “Don’t Touch My Hair”