Graphic: Nick Wanserski

2016 has been a big year for music, with the likes of Beyoncé, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, Chance The Rapper, and Drake all releasing records that vary from pretty good to really, really great. Then there’s the emerging talents that have turned in career-defining works and earned high marks, like Blood Orange, The Hotelier, Modern Baseball, Mitski, Nails, Car Seat Headrest, and plenty more. With that in mind, The A.V. Club could have easily put together a list of the best music so far that only touched on records we’ve already praised. And while we certainly encourage everyone to dig through everything we’ve reviewed so far, it seems more useful to turn an eye to the things we’ve, for one reason or another, not yet covered.

Below you’ll find a collection of albums, EPs, mixtapes, and demos that are just as good as the many acts mentioned above, even if they don’t have as big of names. We hope you dig in and find something that excites you as much as it did us.

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Anderson Paak, Malibu

Fresh off a bunch of big looks on Dr. Dre’s 2015 album Compton, Paak is ready to break out like a post-Chronic Snoop. Except the erstwhile Breezy Lovejoy and 2016 XXL Freshman Class inductee isn’t just a Cali rapper with a congenial flow. With the January release of Malibu, the multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter started summer early with a cocktail of beach-ready R&B (“Heart Don’t Stand A Chance”), boom-bap rap (“The Waters”), Chevy-ready funk (“Am I Wrong”), and more. Not since Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange has an artist melded these new and old styles with such playfulness and rascally charm. [Kenneth Partridge]

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Big Thief, Masterpiece

Like the year’s other great indie-country hybrid record, Pinegrove’s Cardinal [More on that record later—ed.], it’s tough to pinpoint just what makes Big Thief’s Masterpiece so unique. Both bands play with some of rock’s most common influences, yet these sounds have rarely been executed quite like this. Singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker writes in biographical scribbles, and if it’s a joy trying to map her many twisty, digressive thoughts, it’s even more of a joy hearing all those blustery, tuneful guitars trying to keep up with them. Yes, you’ve heard Neil Young roots music through the prism of alternative rock before, but this is one of those bands where a simple RIYL doesn’t do them justice. You’ve got to hear it to understand it. [Evan Rytlewski]

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Black Mountain, IV

Like Wilderness Heart before it, IV feels like a concept album without being a true concept album—not tied to a specific narrative or theme, but rather a specific environment. Where Wilderness Heart explored the freedom of nature, IV looks skyward for an LP preoccupied with outer space, from the punked-out alien invasion of “Florian Saucer Attack” to the woozy satellite transmission of closer “Space To Bakersfield.” Make no mistake; this is still a Black Mountain record, and as such, it comes loaded with the weighty yet accessible stomp that’s always made them a great psychedelic rock band. But they cast a brighter floodlight on the sci-fi keyboard textures, transforming IV into a work that gleefully captures the B-movie weirdness of the album cover. [Dan Caffrey]

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Charles Bradley, Changes

He’s called “The Screaming Eagle Of Soul,” and on his third studio album, Changes, Charles Bradley lives up to the moniker. His nearly six-minute, slow-burning cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes” serves as the disc’s title track and centerpiece, but don’t let it overshadow a slew of incredible R&B and soul throwback numbers, from the delicate, horn-flecked “Nobody But You” to the summertime shimmy of “Things We Do For Love” to the gorgeous balladry of album closer “Slow Love.” Bradley, now 67, sings about the love from a perspective younger generations haven’t yet experienced, let alone understood, but it’s a pleasure to be taken to school. [Scott Heisel]

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Chew, Chew

In its short time together Chew has positioned itself as the breakout act in Chicago’s hardcore scene. Its seven-song demo appeared without warning on Bandcamp, barely breaking 10 minutes but packing countless big ideas into that tiny space. What’s most notable about Chew’s first offering is how the band routinely twists discordant noise into melodic hooks. “Black Sheep” is the most palatable of the batch, yet it still sees Doris Carroll unleashing blood-curdling screams each pass through the chorus, showing that Chew’s not content to stick to any genre template. [David Anthony]

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Dowsing, Okay

Asian Man Records keeps finding bands and putting out albums that could come to define them. The 2016 example: Dowsing’s Okay, which shows the Chicago punks leading the type of sing-alongs best done at the top of your lungs with your friends over a couple of beers. With a higher self-awareness, lyrics like “It’s about coming to terms with how unmanaged and absurd I’ve let myself become” spring over the beautiful chaos of feedback until you can almost smell the dirty basements they’ve performed in. Maybe they’re doing merely fine, but despite the album title (which doubles as its final lyric), Okay isn’t just okay: It’s nearly perfect. [Dan Bogosian]

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DTCV, Confusion Moderne

The prolific band DTCV (pronounced “detective”) came out with their finest work yet in the first part of 2016, an album with sprawling ambition but laser-focused songwriting. Whereas previous double album Hilarious Heaven felt like an agreeably compelling record that gradually wore out its welcome, Confusion Moderne does everything right: fuzzed-out pop, punk rave-ups, slinky French pop (with French lyrics to boot)—it all feels of a piece, even as it mixes genres and styles in a distorted wall of femme-fronted rock ’n’ roll cool. [Alex McCown]

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Field Music, Commontime

The sixth album by Sunderland’s favorite art-poppers finds David and Peter Brewis settling comfortably into middle age, and discovering the virtues of decluttering. Always a fairly minimalist act—relying mostly on two guitars, a drum, and the occasional piano—Field Music on Commontime pares its compositions down too, getting a lot across with just a couple of chords and some snappy, rhythmic vamping. The Brewis brothers seem more relaxed and intuitive than unusual on this record, internalizing their influences rather than feeling compelled to dazzle listeners with their expertise. Songs like opener “The Noisy Days Are Over” stretch out like vintage Genesis, but stay rooted in the same taut, XTC-like melodies and riffs as the Field Music of old. [Noel Murray]

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Frankie Cosmos, Next Thing

The prolific Greta Kline, better known by her stellar moniker Frankie Cosmos, forges lo-fi pop songs that sound like a cross between stray observations and scrawls omitted from love letters (“I drink bad coffee / Hope that you’ll call me,” she confesses on “Too Dark”). Kline’s latest effort, the shimmering Next Thing, recalls the winsome observations of her last album, 2014’s Zentropy. This time, she fleshed out her minimalist sound (thanks to a terrific full band, including Eskimeaux’s Gabby Smith) and incisive lyrics that zero in on moments of understanding, all while musing about watching David Blaine and admitting that she’d “sell my soul for a free pen.” Hey, we probably would too. [Paula Mejia]

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Kevin Gates, Islah

What does it take for a regional rap star to no longer be classified as “regional”? For Kevin Gates, who is a decade into a career he launched in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it meant surpassing Adele. After Gates dropped his studio debut in January he took the No. 2 spot on the Billboard 200, pushing Adele’s 25 down to No. 3. Sure, 25 came out months before, but given Adele’s reputation as a bestseller Gates turned plenty of heads. Gates leads by example—not only is he the latest to show that regional rap scenes can continue to produce stars, but also Islah suggests he’s worthy of such a designation on an international level. Gates raps with a sleek flow that doesn’t diminish his Hulk-like grit or his drowsy drawl, which enhances his detailed, affecting bars. And the dude manages to pull off mentioning his erect member in a lovesick ode called “Hard For.” The acoustic-guitar melody is unmistakably pop, but Gates sounds definitively himself. [Leor Galil]

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G.L.O.S.S., Trans Day Of Revenge

Last year G.L.O.S.S. released a five-song demo that took the hardcore world by storm and now the band is back with five more tracks of angry yet eloquent hardcore. The opening call from vocalist Sadie Switchblade, “When peace is just another word for death / It’s time for us to give violence a chance,” puts the band’s mission statement right up top and it’s all the more pointed from there. In seven blistering minutes Trans Day Of Revenge offers both a call to action and a cathartic release—one that couldn’t have come at a better time. [David Anthony]

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Greys, Outer Heaven

On their dissonant, dreamy second album Outer Heaven, the Toronto quartet Greys liken their lives to Green Day songs, call out the complainers, and riff on the sound of confusion. But it’s not all sunshine and Dookie on this album, which fine-tunes the throttling post-punk of 2014’s If Anything. “Where do I turn with no star in the sky?” vocalist Shehzaad Jiwani pleads on “No Star,” a song that was written in the wake of the Paris attacks. Our guess is as good as theirs in this disquieting time. Yet there’s a small comfort in thrashing with these self-dubbed “noisy boiz” and trying to figure it out together. At least we have that. [Paula Mejia]

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Ital Tek, Hollowed

Alan Myson’s fifth full-length as Ital Tek may as well be his first. The British producer all but abandons the traditional dubstep and footwork trappings of his previous recordings in favor of guitar drones, dark ambient washes, and ghostly choirs, creating his most varied and haunting work to date. From the warped Gregorian chant of “Redeemer” to the strobe-light techno shards of “Cobra,” Hollowed is an intense, intensely moving album more tailored for close study than club banging, and easily one of the most artful electronic records of the year. [Sean O’Neal]

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Kaytranada, 99.9%

With co-signs from Madonna and Janet Jackson, Haitian-Canadian producer Kaytranada was a producer to watch long before dropping his debut album 99.9% in May. But the record cements the buzz in reality, combining feature-heavy tracks fronted by hip-hop and pop stars with his own celestial sample stitching. Vic Mensa, Anderson Paak, Little Dragon, and AlunaGeorge all show up to the party, contributing to an entrancing listen that manages to be equally cerebral and fun. [Philip Cosores]

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Kristin Kontrol, X-Communicate

As leader of Dum Dum Girls, Kristen Welchez gets to make like a brooding Bangle on dreamy rock songs with a cool ’80s edge. On her first record as Kristin Kontrol, she digs deeper into that decade, finding a pathway between Madonna synth-pop and Siouxsie goth drama. On highlight “Going Thru The Motions,” her various influences coalesce to conjure up sweet Martika memories. Kristin Kontrol may be an alter ego, but it’s one that should stick around a while. [Kenneth Partridge]

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Magrudergrind, II

II is a syringe of feral anxiety. Thirteen of the LP’s 15 songs fall under two minutes, and every track carries a concentrated dose of sewing-machine blasts and eviscerating D-beat. During its 14-year lifespan, Magrudergrind has perfected the ability to craft grind albums that consistently strip facial tissue but avoid feeling too repetitive. This is hardcore punk taken to its logical extreme. [J.J. Anselmi]

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Muncie Girls, From Caplan To Belsize

Over the course of a few EPs and splits going back to 2013, Muncie Girls have shown an aptitude for smart, hooky, punk-inflected rock, but its debut full-length, From Caplan To Belsize, marks a stunning step forward. The songs have never been grabbier, and singer-bassist Lande Hekt never more incisive addressing online harassment (“Respect”), entitlement (“I Don’t Wanna Talk About It”), social inequality (“Learn In School”), and other targets of righteous anger. But it’s not all finger-wagging—“Social Side” pays tribute to Hekt’s siblings—and the “message” never comes at the expense of the songwriting. The hooks come quickly and dig deep. “Respect” has one of the year’s best choruses—the fact that it’s a stinging rebuke of misogyny is a bonus—but the whole album radiates the confidence of a band coming into its own. [Kyle Ryan]

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Muscle And Marrow, Love

With its second LP, Muscle And Marrow filters haunting, folk-laden doom through a veil of eerie electronica. Kira Clark’s lugubrious croon reaches from a well of distortion and Only God Forgives-esque synth, underneath which Keith McGraw’s drumming hypnotically churns. Like the emotional state it examines, Love resists description and categorization—but it’s undeniable in its ability to overwhelm the senses and arrest the brain. [J.J. Anselmi]

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Nothing, Tired Of Tomorrow

The ongoing shoegaze revival can be a bit challenging to crack if you’re more into hearing lyrics than effects pedals. On Tired Of Tomorrow, Philadelphia quartet Nothing manages to strike the perfect balance of grit and gloss, with songs like “The Dead Are Dumb” and “Everyone Is Happy” skating across frozen ponds, while “ACD (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder)” and “Curse Of The Sun” forcefully crack the ice and plunge the listener into the depths below. It’s an album designed for a good set of headphones but one that translates just as well to the live setting, where frontman Domenic Palermo flails his guitar around onstage, occasionally remembering to sing the lyrics he spent so much time crafting. [Scott Heisel]

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Operators, Blue Wave

It can be tough to follow Dan Boeckner’s career, since he tends to shift from project to project—Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, Divine Fits. His latest, Operators, released a fantastic, new wave-indebted debut this year: Blue Wave has plenty in common with his other outfits, most notably an excess of cold coolness and a desperate sort of swing. New Order fans willing to go a little darker should love it. [Josh Modell]

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Pinegrove, Cardinal

Pinegrove’s second album is eight songs long and just barely passes the 30-minute mark, but the heartfelt tunes feel as though they could break free of their run times and infiltrate your day. Frontman Evan Stephens Hall sings about a world expanding before him with a charming lilt that contains hard-edged punk yearning with a hint of a country drawl, and the group plays these fervent songs like a seasoned Nashville bar band—funny thing is Pinegrove hails from Montclair, New Jersey. For all its country vibes, Cardinal is an emo album through and through—one of the best from the fourth wave this year—and though that might look odd on paper it makes complete sense when Pinegrove’s swelling instrumentals overcome Hall’s vulnerable vocals on the magnificent “Size Of The Moon.” Cardinal’s inviting, well-worn essence can easily consume your world. [Leor Galil]

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Pinkshinyultrablast, Grandfeathered

Pinkshinyultrablast has kept shoegaze nerds’ hearts a-fluttering for nearly a decade now with its punchy, self-described “thunder pop”: a sound that’s so massive and insidious, it’s enabled the band to develop a global following despite its geographic separation from the rest of the West (the quartet’s based in St. Petersburg, Russia—not exactly a Lush kind of town) and accordingly rare international shows. It may have gotten its name from an Astrobrite song, but Pinkshinyultrablast proves anything but imitative on Grandfeathered, a vibrant assemblage of Afrobeat rhythms, new-wave synths, slick pop hooks—and of course, hulking guitar riffs that could make Kevin Shields blush. Ultimately, however, the LP’s biggest draw lay not in its stylistic fluidity or sharp production, but rather in its joyful spirit—tangible, playful, and boundless. [Zoe Camp]

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Pity Sex, White Hot Moon

With guitar tones switching from churning distortion to clean, bright chords, and back-and-forth vocals from co-leads Britty Drake and Brennan Greaves, “Burden You” finds Pity Sex in perfect balance between its contrasting elements. The loud-quiet dynamics and thick guitar fuzz recall 1990s shoegaze, while elsewhere, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, band excels in power pop (“Bonhomie”) and ballads (“Dandelion”) that draw on a host of influences like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and Smashing Pumpkins. [Eric Swedlund]

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Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Pain is the lifeblood of great country music, and Margo Price’s Job-ian life inspired one of the genre’s most devastating tracks in recent memory. “Hands Of Time,” the simmering opener to Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, tracks her fight in painful detail: A lost farm, brutal music-biz shittiness, and the death of her son Ezra almost knocked Price out before she landed a punch. But her debut—Third Man Records’ first country album—is a gutsy, honky-tonk triumph, despite (okay, because of) its twangy tales of heartbreak (“Since You Put Me Down”), jail time (“Weekender”), and hard drinkin’ (“Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)”). [Matt Williams]

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Joey Purp, iiiDrops

Chicago hip-hop collective Save Money has come a long way the past few years, thanks to Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa. Those two MCs are just a fraction of the crew, whose members have been busy dropping mixtapes and EPs since early May for what they’ve called “Save Money Summer”: Chance’s Coloring Book has been at the top of most mid-year lists, but the best of Save Money Summer is the full-length debut from Joey Davis, a.k.a. Joey Purp. His rapping conjures plenty of hyperbole—he raps like he’s got something to prove, like he was made to do this—though those tropes fail to capture his intensity, lyrical nuance, and down-to-earth sense of debonair. Throughout iiiDrops Purp handles a variety of stylistically scattered songs with aplomb, from party tracks that beg to be played at loud volumes to pristine, maximal cuts fit for rap deities, and he’s at his best when he gets deeper into his own life. On the searing, sumptuous, and immersive “Cornerstore” Purp taps into the rawness of the systemic injustice that disproportionately affects young people of color, and despite this grimness Purp’s fierce performance infuses “Cornerstore” with a sense of hope. [Leor Galil]

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Sheer Mag, III

The raucous DIY group Sheer Mag have been making the biggest (and most necessary) racket in rock music as of late, with barreling songs about injustice, political and otherwise. And while the Philly-based band has yet to release a debut album (though they’re reportedly working on one), they’ve already flexed appearances at Coachella and on Late Night With Seth Meyers. Until then, we thankfully have a trio of sizzling 7-inches to tide us over, including this year’s release, III. On it, vocalist Tina Halladay howls over lickety-split power chords and lo-fi production on the likes of the roaring “Nobody’s Baby” and the infectious “Worth The Tears,” both of which belong alongside barroom jukebox classics such as “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Crank it up. [Paula Mejia]

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Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

Country singer Sturgill Simpson cemented himself as one of the most progressive voices in the genre with 2014’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, though—a vessel of life advice for Simpson’s young son—rejects the trappings of country convention almost completely, opting for bristling, electrifying rock ’n’ soul decidedly more Memphis than Nashville. The Kentucky drawler saves the wildest incarnation of this for ballistic finale “Call To Arms,” but also gets dreamy with a blissful cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” and flexes his country muscles on “Sea Stories,” growling through navy tales from his time in the South Pacific. [Matt Williams]

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Andy Stott, Too Many Voices

Continuing an evolution that began with his breakout Luxury Problems, Andy Stott’s fifth full-length finds him moving even further away from murky-warehouse dub techno toward the more melodic, hazy dream pop he began exploring in earnest on 2014’s Faith In Strangers. But whereas Faith maintained a cold detachment, Too Many Voices flickers with candlelit R&B warmth on tracks like “Butterflies” and “New Romantic,” evoking a warped Sade album that’s been unearthed from rubble and reconstructed by machine. [Sean O’Neal]

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The Sun Days, Album

Comparisons to The Sundays are perhaps inevitable for this Swedish group, especially given the jangly, sunny, and bittersweet rock ’n’ roll that emerges on this debut album. Led by singer Elsa Holmgren (who is no longer with the band), The Sun Days absolutely soar on tracks like “Don’t Need To Be Them,” “You Can’t Make Me Make Up My Mind,” and “Get Him Off Your Mind.” Album is a record of gorgeous indie pop that heralds this Gothenburg quintet as one of the more promising new arrivals of the year. [Eric Swedlund]

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Umberto, Alienation

Matt Hill’s prolific output as Umberto has been stolidly in the realm of Goblin-inspired soundtracks for horror films that never existed (or, in the case of his re-scores for Pieces and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, never sounded so propulsive). But his latest moves away from those increasingly common nods to giallo and Italo disco, balancing those influences with more textured ambient pieces suited less for slasher scenes than the uneasy calm of the end credits. It’s a slower burn for sure, but also a surprisingly effective one—and the varied moods give added punch to the night-stalker themes that do remain, like the classic, John Carpenter-evoking “Drifters.” [Sean O’Neal]

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Whitney, Light Upon The Lake

When Chicago’s Smith Westerns broke up in late 2014, singer Cullen Omori would have been the obvious pick to make the biggest impact post-split. Not so, though, as guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich have formed Whitney, a breezy seven-piece rock band that taps into the charms of both the Bay Area in the ’60s and the Laurel Canyon a decade later. Foxygen mastermind Jonathan Rado’s production and the band’s unflinchingly warm songwriting complement each other in their timelessness, having little in common with their previous projects besides the high quality of the output. [Philip Cosores]

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YG, Still Brazy

The MVP of YG’s second LP might be producer DJ Swish, who gives six of these tracks a muted G-funk bounce reminiscent of Dr. Dre’s 2001. A rapping granny couldn’t go wrong over these beats, but YG never coasts. On “Who Shot Me?” he opens up about the anger, confusion, and paranoia he’s felt since catching a bullet in the hip last June. “Gimme Got Shot” is a clever takedown of friends looking for handouts. “FDT” (as in “Fuck Donald Trump”) and “Police Get Away Wit Murder” are better protest songs than their blunt titles suggest. Not the nimblest or wordiest rhymer, YG succeeds with forcefulness and honesty. When white kids in Middle America start swapping Cs for Bs, imitating his Bloods speak, he’ll know he’s arrived. [Kenneth Partridge]

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