20. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a tight album, clocking out at nine songs that altogether last 38 minutes. However, in less than half the time of a number of different albums that made our Top 50, Simpson covers vast ground. The album opens with “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog),” a full-throated, earnest-as-hell address to a newborn son that plunges into a raucous soul anthem. Simpson and his band then go on to offer up placid folk songs, thrashy country jams and a beautiful take on Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” When Simpson played the album end-to-end at the State Theatre in October, the whole upper balcony was a throbbing sea of Realtree camo, plastic cup beer and pure joy.
— Shay Collins
19. Sammus — Pieces in Space
As with any great opening track, “100 Percent” lets us know right out of the gate what kind of album we’re in for. Without hesitation, we get an attack-line just bursting at the seems with pointed spite and internal rhymes: “Your parents are a red herring for your merits / I’m embarrassed by the lyrics that you parrot.” From here, Sammus only ups the wordplay-ante, getting more and more intricate with her phrasing till a coruscating peak on the ostentatiously tongue-twisted eighth track, “Headliner” (“I’m GI Joe they Cobra / Fe-fi-fo I’m growin’ though / Keep on flowing / Over dope beats and my peeps hella deep like the Coppolas”). The great part, though, is that nowhere on Pieces in Space do we get empty lyricism — when Sammus is hurling her phrases, she’s hurling them for a reason. Tearing down every stigma you can conceive — those against black gamers, black academics, women gamers, women academics, women rappers (in all of which roles Sammus, a.k.a. Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo grad, excels) — and wearing her Nerdom on her sleeve like a medal the whole time, Sammus gave us not only her most fully formed album yet, but a disc worthy of this top-20 spot on any publication’s list, Cornell-ties or no.
— Troy Sherman
18. Kendrick Lamar — untitled unmastered.
Three years after good kid, M.A.A.D city, Kendrick Lamar produced such a vast body of work that it could not fit into one album, no way. Instead, we got the masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly and then — the dream of all die-hard fans of any artist — unrefined tracks of pure creativity that did not make the cut for commercial release. Yet, if it wasn’t for the album’s aesthetic — the title is untitled unmastered, no less — no one would have dared call these “leftovers.” While it is appropriate to point out the record’s musical accomplishment, Kendrick’s soulful storytelling is music in its own right. Oscillating between stirring and calming, the disorienting ability of Kendrick’s lyrics is brought to the forefront in untitled unmastered. This is an intimate work, the result of Kendrick’s intense contemplation on the state of race and identity in America and the world, with due respect to his beginnings and the roots of the genres he adopts, such as soul and jazz. By releasing this album, Kendrick Lamar showed how much he treasures his admirers. We, on our end, treasure him as well.
— Andrei Kozyrev
17. Death Grips — Bottomless Pit
Up to now, Death Grips’ music had been more of an acquired taste and took some getting used to. Bottomless Pit is the type of album that is suitable to show your friends without scaring them away, but it keeps its hallmark edginess, especially with frontman MC Ride’s rugged rap style. The album’s lyrics go from badmouthing hipsters to describing what it’s like to be feeling just, “Eh.” Just as with previous albums, Bottomless Pit is meant to be abstract and slightly chaotic. But it’s still a masterpiece full of stacked guitar riffs, jerky percussion and bubbly synthesizer sounds.
— Viri Garcia
16. Katie Dey — Flood Network
Foreboding, anxiety-inducing noise pop? An imaginative, unresolveable merging of the personal and the technological? The kind of music computers would make if we made them self-aware and then stressed them out with metaphysical questions? How the hell do you even begin to describe Flood Network, the debut LP from noise-pop experimentalist Katie Dey? Flood Network is undoubtedly a meditation on computers and computing (see: the album’s title, the interlude tracks “f 1-8,” the emphasis on glitching), but Dey experiments not as an end in-and-of-itself, but to craft unnerving, heart-wrenching tracks like “Only to Trip and Fall Down Again” and “Debt.”
— Shay Collins
15. Esperanza Spalding — Emily’s D+Evolution
Esperanza Spalding does not produce the simple, infectious music that you sing along to in a long car ride. Instead, Emily’s D+Evolution is filled with rich, layered sounds and unexpected turns that flow into deliberately crafted melodies. Spalding’s voice is expressive and warm, exuding just as much meaning in her tone as in her words. Here, her vocals mix with the array of sounds for a cohesive experience that tells the story of Emily, a muse based on Spalding’s middle name and her past life experiences. Emily’s D+Evolution cannot be pigeonholed into a single genre; it occupies a space somewhere between jazz-rock, pop, R&B and funk which results in a background unlike any other for the emotions she conveys in her songs.
— Ryan Slama
14. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Dev Hynes’ third album is, as they always are, a work of art. Following on the heels of “Sandra’s Smile,” released last year, Freetown Sound is an expression of the endless and endlessly tiring ways in which it’s difficult to live as and express pride in being a person of color, particularly in the United States. The scope of the tracks stretches from “Hands Up,” a frank navigation of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, to “By Ourselves,” an homage to black women creating a support network for each other and searching for their daughters to have more public figures who look like them. Some tracks feel like memories, some painfully fresh and some too whimsical to tell. But Hynes’ latest album is a show-stopper and much more at a time when the country will soon have to come to terms with systems of oppression it’s been simultaneously enforcing and refusing to acknowledge.
— Jessie Weber
13. Rihanna — ANTI
ANTI is the album Rihanna finally made because she wanted to—instead of for the sake of her brand, royalties, position on Billboard Top 40 lists and shelves of VMA trophies. For ANTI, Rihanna split from her longtime label, Def Jam; executive producing the album and contributing almost all of its lyrics.
Rihanna’s artistic autonomy is palpable on the album—she imbued herself in it. It’s chaotic, unexpected, edgy and ambitious in it’s quality and style, flippantly almost teasingly transitioning from sexual, throbbing big-beat bangers (“Work,” “Sex With Me”), dark, fuzzzed-out moody tracks (“Woo,” “Desperado,” “ Consideration”, “ Kiss It Better”) and raw, voice-cracking R&B ballads (“Higher”, “Love on The Brain”). Absent is the polished pop coherence of her previous Unapologetic, Talk that Talk, Loud and Rated R. ANTI is intense and playful; intimate and complicated, with bolder and more explicit Caribbean musical influences than it seems she’s had the freedom to explore before. It certainly isn’t completely out of Rihanna’s wheelhouse. Her bad-bitch-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and aesthetic still drips from every track (even the most vulnerable and emotional) but it’s less easily consumable and readable, and more compelling and satisfying than anything I’ve ever heard from her before. Without giving Kanye too much credit, ANTI is Rihanna’s Life of Pablo—erratic, surprising, resisting expectation, with moments of confusion and of total brilliance, and ultimately a total fucking joy to listen and dance to.
— Jael Goldfine
12. The Hotelier — Goodness
Maybe in a few years we’ll look at the critical furor of a so-called “emo revival” as the creation of a bunch of nostalgic, obsessive former Hot Topic patrons like myself. At least, that’s what I speculated before The Hotelier dropped Goodness back in May. Goodness is undoubtedly an emo album par excellence (by which I mean it was created by early-twenty-somethings unabashedly poeticizing their feelings of regret and nervousness). The Hotelier, however, both reminded listeners of the scene’s emotional power on “Two Deliverances,” “Goodness, Pt. 2” and “Sun,” and toyed with many of the genre’s long running forms, incorporating spoken word introductions and interludes and manipulated drum tracks. Overall, Goodness is an ambitious, shameless, experimental album that proves that emo may be closer to its start than its end.
— Shay Collins
11. Noname — Telefone
Most rap fans first caught wind of Noname (then known as “Noname Gypsy”) on “Lost”, a standout track from Chance the Rapper’s 2013 breakthrough Acid Rap. On a cute but otherwise one-sided slow jam, Noname’s spoken word verse tapped into whole new dimensions of love, hope and depression, deservedly earning the rapper buzz and prompting more than a few Google searches. But much like her pseudonym, the artist herself remained a mystery, limiting her social media presence while occasionally dropping a guest verse here or a solo track there. Three years later, her first full-length arrived, and its intro track alone makes good on the promises of “Lost,” radiating with the soulful optimism so unique to Chicago’s current music scene. Backed by a team of mostly homegrown talent and longtime friends, Noname delivers a 10-song statement that ends far too quickly.
— Chris Stanton