As we pull through towards winter, politics is dominating the conversation.
From Donald Trump’s toxic rhetoric in the USA to the aftermath of the UK’s destructive departure from the European Union, tensions are high. Resistance to police brutality continues to guide protest and action by marginalized communities in America, and the thorny mood is undoubtedly having an effect on music, which feels more politically charged than ever – from Frank Ocean’s pensive, raw Blonde to Jenny Hval’s unravelling of menstruation myths on Blood Bitch. It’s not all social realism, though – the 25 best albums of the last three months also include heart-bursting rave memories, ghostly ambient and sci-fi techno.
Get a taste of all the records on the list in our Apple Music playlist.
Click the album title on each entry to preview or stream each release.
With Princess, Awful Records alum Abra gives us her most convincing proof yet that she’s destined for greatness. The EP is short and sharp but doesn’t waste a moment, laying out Abra’s unmistakable personality without hesitation. She pulls from ‘80s pop, classic electro and other disparate genres to create an authentic sound that sits a few paces away from any contemporary trend, and her production has never sounded better, her distinctive coos swaddling the songs in a personality that towers above her peers. World domination has to be next. JT
Angel Olsen’s music hardly ever sounds of this time, but with My Woman, she ups the ante on her record-crackle folk and goes for mid-century pop glamour, invoking acts like the Shangri-Las and the Shirelles as well as the able-bodied heartstring pulls of Conway Twitty. Olsen has perfected the ability to completely dismantle listeners with her lyrics, but on My Woman she channels her writing chops into lyrics that are a little more hopeful, as on the ultra slick ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’.
The album also contends with other types of intimacies, like a good old friend-crush; Olsen told FACT that track ‘Sister’ is about liking someone without necessarily having physical desires: “Maybe you’re attracted to that person because you admire something about them and you need to get to know them. Maybe you should learn to get to know people before you jump to conclusions on who they are, because then you’ll be less hurt in the end.” That’s a far more modern idea than any of the sounds of on My Woman, but it’s one of the things that makes Olsen so special: she has the ability to compose the sound of another era with an emotional core that is extremely now. CL
(La Vida Es Un Mus)
Comprising members of UK hardcore titans The Lowest Form, power-pop queeros Pennycress, plus bassist Kay Logan (who coincidentally made another one of our favourite albums this year under her lo-fi techno guise as Helena Celle), Anxiety are a local punk supergroup whose reputation precedes them. The Glasgow band’s debut mini LP – a writhing, flailing, seething, hopelessly hopeful manifestation of existential dread, neuroses, and all the things that keep you up at night – is built on a tornado of distorted guitars that sweep up everything in their path, while melody and vocal effects are brought into the eye of the storm. ‘Addicted to Punishment’ is pure death-rattle discordance, while standout track ‘The Worst’ is self-flagellation with a vocal echo. If you only listen to one punk album this year, make it this one. ACW
Twenty-five years and countless releases after his debut as Biosphere, Geir Jenssen’s creative spark has lost none of its brilliance. The name of his latest album important: Departed Glories is not only a departure in style for Jenssen, offering a markedly different sound and process from its predecessors, but references the key theme behind the record – the countless Polish citizens executed during World War II. Using Akira Rabelais’ unpredictable Argeïphontes Lyre software to distort and process samples of Eastern European folk music, he transforms haunting songs into blurred echoes and faded drones. The result is not unlike Rabelais’ own underrated masterpiece Spellewauerynsherde, but Jenssen imbues his compositions with a hint of his signature ambience. The ghosts of the past are ushered into a future that’s deliberate, well-paced and often incredibly touching. JT
Cam & China
Cam & China
Twin sisters Cam & China have been making some of the most forward-thinking rap around since they were members of L.A. teengirl five-piece Pink Dollaz. Their 2012 debut tape Pink Drugs, a plateau in the jerkin’ phenomenon, featured production by DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign’s rachet incubator D.R.U.G.S. and rhymes ripped directly from a bad bitch convention, but despite the quality on show, Pink Dollaz never broke through.
As a sisterly duo, Cam & China have been dropping ferocious, arresting loosies for the past two years, culminating in their debut self-titled EP, which boasts last year’s ‘Run Up’, a taunting diss cut aimed at no one in particular which wipes the floor with every single second of the Drake and Meek Mill beef — and, really, almost any adversarial rap song that came out in 2015. You can cry all you want about how artists like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert don’t rap like they did in the good ol’ days, but Cam & China not only have the lyrical dexterity of their elders, they have a feminist eye toward the future. Don’t sleep. CL
There’s always going to be some apprehension when a producer as revered as Gerard Hansen re-emerges from 10 years in hibernation. Thankfully, his latest album as Convextion is as essential as anything he released in the ‘90s. Not much has changed in Hansen’s sound; he still combines the wistful futurism of Detroit originators such as Juan Atkins with the heady, dub-inspired sound of Basic Channel, but on 2845 his sci-fi techno evokes a much lonelier corner of the universe. Sometimes a sound as timeless as Hansen’s needs a period of isolation so you can hear it with fresh ears. SW
Cousin Stizz is dominating Boston’s rap scene and it shouldn’t be surprising. He’s blessed with not only skills on the mic, but an ear for beats and perfectionist streak. MONDA is only his second mixtape, but he’s not content to throw projects together simply to keep his name buzzing from blog to blog – we only get to hear what’s good and ready to be heard. That’s more clear on MONDA than it was on last year’s excellent Suffolk County. It’s a challenging, sometimes gloomy record that shows Stizz at an interesting crossroads – grappling with sudden notoriety and being pulled in multiple directions. His reaction is to take things down a notch and use the tape to confess and ask questions, while never losing sight of his humble Dorchester beginnings. Stizz is here to stay. JT
Detroit’s gonzo-rap wildchild sounds like he’s gatecrashing his own damn record when he swings into the first bar of ‘Downward Spiral’, the portentous opening track to his hell-raising, gut-spilling cocaine saga, Atrocity Exhibition: “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / Been in this room for three days / Think I’m hearing voices.” A psychedelic psychodrama that pins us onto the couch for an hour-long session with our troubled protagonist, Atrocity marks a peak of creative synchronicity between Brown and his producers Paul White, The Alchemist, Black Milk and Evian Christ, weaving together the split personality portrayed on each half of 2013’s Old – from moody, reflective and lyrical to turnt up and heading over the edge. Brown claims to have spent $70,000 on clearing samples to achieve his directorial vision; every gruelling, gripping second is a fistful of dollars well spent. CR
Bird Sound Power
You’ve no doubt heard the name of Jamaican production crew Equiknoxx this year, and with good reason. The core duo of Gavin “Gavsborg” Blair and Jordan “Time Cow” Chung with collaborators Bobby Blackbird and Kofi Knoxx have managed to put together one of the year’s most startling records, infusing their dancehall riddims with experimental influences from across the map. Bird Sound Power was assembled by Demdike Stare and Jon K from a wide variety of tracks – some made as far back as 2009, some completely new – but it has a rare coherence. Each track works on multiple levels, showcasing Equiknoxx’s ability to mutate recognizable dancehall tropes without ever losing the essence of the sound. It’s not deconstructed, it’s reconstructed. JT
(Boys Don’t Cry)
There’s a scene in the first episode of Lena Dunhams’ Girls — stick with me here, please — where, in a drugged up haze, Dunham’s character Hannah begs her parents, who have just cut her off, to continue to support her because she just might be the voice of her generation. Many accused Dunham of anointing herself as the mouthpiece of millennials (she later contested it was a voice, not the voice, but isn’t it all the same?), but who even cared when Channel Orange was looming around the corner, released just months later? If the intimate introspections of that album do not make Frank Ocean the voice of his generation, then his actions — really, inaction — certainly made his fans vocal on their own. How could a year of chronic social media demands for an album not themselves be a banner waving for the necessity of Ocean’s voice? Even if you don’t believe that Ocean keenly illustrates the right-now, a cursory glance at the liner notes of Blonde should change your tune.
He’s influenced by both Elliott Smith and Beyoncé, he honors A$AP Yams and Trayvon Martin in the same breath, he uses a tape-recorded conversation about the fallacy of Facebook friendship (meta) as an interlude. Blonde is the comedown from Channel Orange, four years later. It’s a sigh of relief after everyone’s stopped watching, and has the meditativeness (boasts) of your most confessional diary entries. CL
(1017 / Atlantic)
Gucci Mane’s return after almost three years in prison came with plenty of expectations; the rapper was back, but he had returned a little different. Gone was the pot bellied, syrup-guzzling Gucci we knew and loved, replaced by a fitter, happier Guwop – a government clone, perhaps? These changes aren’t restricted to his appearance – Everybody Looking is a marked shift for the Atlanta veteran, as boasts of pints and keys are swapped for sober reflection and prison memories. Gucci’s quick to get across that this is his personal decision – he’s not judging those that don’t share his new lifestyle choice – but the album nevertheless stands out in his catalogue. Sure, the beats are handled by Mike Will and Zaytoven, two Gucci lifers, but we’ve never heard Gucci like this before, and who knows whether we will again. JT
Human Story 3
After several years exploring the murkiest depths of his sound, James Ferraro returned to the hi-fi cyberscapes of Far Side Virtual with a shiny plastic symphony, using the same palette to develop even more complexity on Human Story 3. With shades of wonder and spirituality through choral samples, Ferraro conjures Philip Glass by way of a Nokia ringtone. The horror of the modern age is still there, but he sounds more at ease and playful this time. Or maybe it’s us who’ve changed after five years in this perpetually accelerating era. “You’ve hit your peak,” a computer-generated female voice murmurs on the album’s final track. She almost sounds sympathetic. MB
When people ask where have all the protest songs gone, they should be swiftly directed to Jamila Woods’ HEAVN. She may be most recognized for her work with Chance the Rapper and for appearing on Macklemore’s activism-for-amateurs anthem ‘White Privilege II’, but her freebie album overshadows both, despite the stature. Her music has the same playfulness and youthful joy of Chance’s but is more intricately political, both in its themes of race (‘Black Girl Soldier’) and womanhood (‘Lonely, Lonely’). It’s an adept primer on the emotional depth that goes into identity — the power, the pain, the pride — but it has an earnestness about really living life. This record has been slightly slept on, many of the nods coming because of her association with Chance. But to paraphrase her Surf collaborator, Jamila Woods made ‘Sunday Candy’, but we should listen to her solo music as well. CL
It’s gross to say, but periods are having a ~moment~. It’s not gross because it’s yucky to talk about the monthly shedding of blood and mucus that make up the uterine wall lining. No, it’s gross because even though it’s painful and can be messy, the stigma around periods just shouldn’t exist. So it’s a revolutionary act that Norwegian experimentalist Jenny Hval named her album Blood Bitch and made it about menstruation, 1970s vampires and deconstructing gender, all through a goth and black metal lens.
Blood Bitch is breathy and hypnotic, both high gloss pop and reflective spoken word. Despite its themes – no, because of its themes – it’s an extremely fun record rooted in celebrating this distinct bodily function, which still mystifies so many. It’s Kiran Gandhi, who “free bled” the London Marathon. It’s people on Twitter protesting that there are still luxury item taxes on tampons. It’s editorials in Teen Vogue urging young girls not to feel ashamed when their time of the month starts. It’s one of the most innovative albums of the year – one that shouldn’t really have to be. CL
Honor Killed The Samurai
(Iron Works Records)
The samurai trope is well-worn at this point and should be familiar to most rap listeners, but Brownsville’s Ka doesn’t aim for sword swipes and occidental heroism. Instead he tells his complex tales from the perspective of the grizzled veteran, his voice betraying battle scars and offering cautionary advice to the next generation of lyrical duellers. As he’s watched his borough crumble and shift irreparably, Ka has become its best documentarian, sharing his wealth of knowledge with anyone dedicated enough to listen hard enough to disassemble his complex mesh of metaphors. We’re lucky to have him. JT
North Carolina-born cellist and vocalist Kelsey Lu recorded her debut EP live at a church in Brooklyn with a loop pedal, and it’s one of the most startling and evocative pieces of music you’ll hear all year. Lu was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and fled home at 18 to escape her strict upbringing, so her choice of location, the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Family, is in a way a subverted act of rebellion. A suite of songs that push and pummel gospel music into experimental new places, the album opens with ‘Dreams’ – Lu’s voice as thick as molasses as it slides up and down the scale, quavering and punctuating the stillness with decorative trills – glides through ‘Time’ with her falsetto in tow, before ending on the plaintive ‘Visions of Old’. Her instruments may trade stages on occasion, but mostly they are symbiotic: an extension of Kelsey Lu, an extension of herself and everything she has been – and no doubt still wants to become. ACW
Caramel is a crumpled love letter to raves gone by, a daydream of half-remembered piano riffs and wonky vocal samples put through a misty-eyed filter. Boards of Canada’s hauntological haze and Oneohtrix Point Never’s sky-scraping synths are handy touchstones, but the Glaswegian producer has created a world of his own on this instant electronic classic. CR
(Memory No. 36)
Maxwell Sterling’s Hollywood Medieval translates all the glitz and grit of the City of Angels into a musical suite that comes across like a hyper-modern film noir soundtrack. Occupying the middle of a venn diagram that includes Oneohtrix Point Never, Steve Reich and one-time collaborator James Ferraro, the album makes nods to vaporwave but takes the sound of kitsch on an journey into Los Angeles’ dark, unforgiving corners. Not just one of the year’s best electronic debuts, but a cult classic in the making. SW
About halfway through opening song ‘Lit Negative’, a glow of melody emerges from the arctic blizzard of noise that sounds, as FACT’s Miles Bowe described, “like driving out of a tunnel after holding your breath for good luck.” This idea is at the beating heart of an album that aims to find solace and warmth amidst the haze, but remains wracked with a numbing sense of isolation. MJ Guider’s debut album for Chicago-based label Kranky – and her first as three-piece, rather than a solo artist – is built from layers of tape delay, smears of bass guitar and billowing electronic drone, veering from the quasi-devotional ambience of ‘Surfacing First’ to the piano-backed ‘Former Future Beings’ and ‘Evencyle”s 10-minute hypnosis. ACW
Nef the Pharaoh
Fresh Outta Space 3
(Sick Wit It)
If the Bay Area has a spotlight over it right now, Vallejo hopeful Nef The Pharaoh is center stage. Signed to E-40’s Sick Wid It imprint, the young rapper has more than a hint of his mentor’s tongue-twisting style. Fresh Outta Space 3 is Nef’s second near-flawless offering this year (after January’s Neffy Got Wings) and it makes an even stronger case for his bass-heavy, Bay-centric sound. He’s clearly at home spitting over hyphy (“Still hyphy, still retarded, still dumb”), but he’s equally confident working with more difficult, more cloudy material. Nef has the personality, the flow and the spark to break even further in 2017 – watch this space. JT
On Negative Gemini’s Body Work, the album that will bring Lindsey French the attention and audience she’s deserved for years, she doesn’t let her songwriting take center stage until several songs in. The glittery rush of ‘No Rum’ leading through to the title track could have given way to an entire album of blacklit house music and still made it onto this list, but then French delivers the heartwrenching vocal turn of ‘You Never Knew’, a clever misdirection that showcases her strength as a producer while setting us up to be knocked down by one of the best pop songs of the year. From there it’s a sneak attack of confidence: the cat-caller takedown of ‘Don’t Worry Bout The Fuck I’m Doing,’ the breathy re-envisioning of old highlights ‘Real Virtual Unison’ and ‘Hold U,’ and the skittering techno of ‘Infinity’. It’s another release that makes us wish more people listened to her, but this time it’s big enough to make it a reality. MB
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
(Bad Seed Ltd.)
A lot has already been said about Skeleton Tree. Its subject matter and its catalyst – the death of Nick Cave’s son – brace us for bleakness and tragedy, elements that already treat Nick Cave like an old friend. It’s intimidating, but you need to hear Skeleton Tree. You need to hear how this man channels a situation so overwhelming into something so healing and graceful. It feels strange to even compare it to previous Bad Seeds albums when its synth-drenched sketches drift like a satellite planet around the band’s grim world. Cave moves through his tracks in zero gravity, floating through gorgeous bursts like ‘Rings Of Saturn’ in a grief-stricken daze, with the looming threat that he could succumb to the weight at any time. And yet when he does, on the cathartic bloodletting of ‘I Need You,’ Cave soars even higher; it’s what makes Skeleton Tree such an honest human experience. Listen to it, share it, talk about it with people you love while they’re still here. MB
The artist formerly known as Funkineven takes the diverse influences of his previous work and blows them up to macro proportions on his analogue-driven debut album, leaning towards hazy funk on the first half before donning a tougher techno carapace for the second. It’s all about the synths, really: his vintage machines form the backbone of a journey through abstract breakbeat, psychotropic techno and zonked acid, finding original pathways through existing forms. CR
The Outfit, TX
Green Lights (Everythang Goin)
The Outfit, TX might be your favorite rap act of 2016 – you just don’t know it yet. The Houston trio have been impressing for a while at this point, but Green Lights (Everythang Goin) is their most decisive statement to date. Admittedly, it ignores some of the woozy darkness they’ve relied on in the past, but as the veil is lifted we get to witness more of their distinct personality. The tape is just jam-packed full of gold, from the druggy paranoia of ‘Precedent’ and ‘What I Like’ to the ugly Three 6 Mafia shakes of ‘To The Room’ and ‘Type Shit’. Whether you’re in a dark room with a handful of pills and a cup full of liquor or driving through the city with the top down, Green Lights (Everythang Goin) just works. JT
No, My Name Is JEFFEREY
“Fuck it, I’m changin’ up on ‘em!” For a rapper with a reputation for indecipherability, Young Thug makes sure this line on ‘Harambe’ comes through loud and clear, his elastic yelp suddenly hitting with the weight of a cannonball. And while the title’s name correction may not have stuck, Thug proves his ability to “change up on ‘em” again and again with his most adventurous mixtape since his ascension to rap’s strange golden boy. On tracks like ‘RiRi’, ‘Floyd Mayweather’, ‘Future Swag’ and the aforementioned gorilla tribute, Thug proves his pop ambitions aren’t a hindrance and reaches new heights of psychedelic disorientation in the process. Thug is primed for all-timer status and we may look back on Jeffery as an explosive statement of purpose, the first steps toward a new peak. MB