10. Il, Jean-Michel Blais
In an exhausting year, there’s relief to be found in music that embraces simplicity. On his debut Il, Canadian pianist Jean-Michel Blais strings together stunning improvisations and composed pieces that harken back to Chopin, Satie, and modern minimalists like Harold Budd. The album is remarkably physical: you hear Blais’ pedals being pushed, the keys clacking up and down, idle ticks and hums from the room around him. The music breathes, and it invites you to take a moment and recognize there’s still plenty of beauty left in the world.
9. Emily’s D+Evolution, Esperanza Spalding
Having proven her jazz bonafides with the graceful one-two punch of 2010’s Chamber Music Society and 2012’s Radio Music Society, Esperanza Spalding blazed a bold new trail with Emily’s D+Evolution. Songs like “Judas” and the ferocious “Rest in Pleasure” sound less like jazz than multi-hyphenate art-rock-jazz-fusion hybrids, with serpentine melodies unfolding over robust rhythm sections. Spalding emerges from the fray like some unholy combination of Janelle Monáe and Steely Dan, playing and singing with remarkable ambition and skill.
8. Freetown Sound, Blood Orange
Dev Hynes leaves convention behind on his third album as Blood Orange, rendering his prodigious gifts as a pop songwriter just one small part of a complicated collage. Freetown Sound is full of unexpected voices and sounds: guests like Empress Of and Nelly Furtado, sampled black luminaries like Marlon Riggs and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and field recordings of Hynes’ beloved New York. All of these pieces make for a fluid, nonlinear listening experience anchored by a few key interests: the pain black and queer people experience on a daily basis, their rich cultural histories, the things they do to find refuge. When Hynes opens up the throttle on percolating dance jam “Best to You,” he creates the kind of joy that often proves elusive in the lives Freetown Sound explores.
7. Anti, Rihanna
Rihanna might be the most charismatic person on the planet, and Anti is her first album to recognize that said charisma is her greatest strength. The music within is all over the place: she moves from dancehall to stoned soul to grimy trap-pop to Tame Impala-style psych without blinking, relying on her force of personality to hold everything together. The result is an album that creates and ignores trends instead of chasing them. Rihanna’s stardom has been inarguable for a solid decade at this point; Anti is the first album that does her justice.
6. A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
A Moon Shaped Pool finds Radiohead shrugging off the relative disappointment of 2011’s The King of Limbs with a collection of intricate, surprisingly playful new songs. Whether they’re nodding at the scary global uptick in populism with nervy single “Burn the Witch” or writing subtle, twinkling songs about climate change (“The Numbers”), Thom Yorke & co. find new energy by engaging with the world around them to an unexpected degree. Three decades into their time together, they can still stumble into remarkable beauty: heartbroken waltz “Daydreaming” and slinky bossa nova “Present Tense” are two of the most straightforward and stirring songs the band’s ever made.
5. Potential, The Range
When producer James Hinton needed vocalists and samples for his new music, he didn’t turn to friends or artists he respected. Hinton trawled YouTube for little-watched, intimate singing videos, stumbling on bedroom cover artists and struggling amateurs, and he filled Potential — his second LP as The Range — with their voices. The resulting electronic music is curious and humane, full of skittering rhythms and bright keyboard melodies. The identities of the people rapping and singing throughout Potential don’t make a practical difference, but hearing them become core pieces of Hinton’s glittering tracks creates a sense of intangible optimism. Look past the memes and the fake news in your Facebook feed: there’s infinite beauty out there, just waiting to be discovered.
4. My Woman, Angel Olsen
My Woman feels less like a single album than two distinct, focused EPs, each anchored by Olsen’s astounding voice. The first half moves at a brisk pace, with a handful of guitar songs pulling from folk and country in equal measure; the second half is cosmic and expansive, pitched somewhere between Neil Young’s craziest jams and Cat Power’s intense confessionals. It’s on that second half that Olsen really shines: she meditates on femininity and nostalgia, whips a wicked band into shape on epics like “Sister” and “Woman,” and imbues every new note with trembling intensity.
3. Puberty 2, Mitski
Puberty 2 is a raw, graceful rock record, and it finds Mitski Miyawaki tapping into a strain of millennial anxiety that’s gone largely untouched in other art. In her hands, “Happy” isn’t a feeling worth pursuing — it’s a sloppy houseguest, one who gives her fleeting pleasure before taking off and leaving her apartment strewn with wrappers and dishes. She one-ups herself with the explosive “Your Best American Girl,” tracing a relationship undone by differences in identity and impossible expectations. Veering between delicate melodies and howling distortion, she captures the emotional, financial, and existential stressors that define young adulthood for the Twitter generation.
2. A Seat at the Table, Solange
Solange knows the personal is political. On A Seat at the Table she enlists her family, friends and network of collaborators to help her render the agony and ecstasy of black womanhood. The music is elegant and warm, running the gamut from classic soul to bubbling electro-pop, and the messaging is gentle but firm. “Don’t Touch My Hair” puts the invasion of personal space into straightforward terms; on “Mad,” she dismantles the way black women's anger is stereotyped. “Cranes in the Sky” is even better, a digest of all the coping mechanisms she’s employed to fend off the pain of living in a world that doesn’t respect her. If an album has the power to change that for future generations, it’s A Seat at the Table, a patient and magnanimous statement of personhood.
1. Blonde, Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean has become pop music’s leading ascetic, a less-is-more devotee who’d rather let his melodies do all the talking. Released after four years of increasingly interminable hype, Blonde finds Ocean leaving behind the rich arrangements and narratives of 2012’s Channel Orange in favour of radical simplicity: little percussion, few guest stars, lyrics that are both stunning and impossibly opaque. “Nights” is a multi-part suite — like Ocean’s own “Pyramids” — given an acid bath and stripped to spare parts; “Solo” and “Godspeed” are breathtaking modern hymns. (They’re queer, too, and so deeply felt they make a song like “Forrest Gump” sound cloying.) If Channel Orange made Ocean a star, Blonde confirms that he’s a singular figure.