13. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
“Awaken, My Love!” marks the first time I’ve viewed the multitalented Donald Glover as an actual musician as opposed to a comedian who raps on the side. The intense aesthetic focus and consistency are unprecedented in Glover’s career, and although funk has steadily been making its comeback, “Awaken My Love!” doesn’t settle for generic nostalgia. Amidst the glistening funk, Glover never loses his voice, which, on this album, happens to be remarkably elastic. His falsetto slices through spacey synths on tracks like “Redbone” and “Terrified,” and he stretches it to comedic effect on “Zombies” and “California.” “Awaken, My Love!” is a throwback record that is still quintessentially Donald Glover.
12. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
With his crass lyrics and squawky delivery, there’s no doubt that Danny Brown is an acquired taste. But his willingness to be unlikable to some is perhaps what makes him one of the most original hip-hop artists working today. Dark and depraved, albeit with some moments of odd comedy, Atrocity Exhibition is everything Brown has been working towards his whole career, his unfiltered madness coming through in every track. As much as Danny Brown raps about drugs, women, and money, it’s clear from the get-go that he has a bumpy relationship with them. It’s that binary—those conflicting notions about drugs, that they are worthy of glorification in hip-hop as well as caution—that makes Atrocity Exhibition such a fascinating project.
11. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Nobody understood better the heightened expectations of the long-awaited sophomore album than Frank Ocean. In the four years since the Channel Orange made him a staple of contemporary R&B, Ocean sharpened his songwriting, delving into naked introspection in ways Channel Orange never quite did. Blonde is Ocean’s most personal work yet, the Odd Future alum largely reminiscing about love and failed relationships. Perhaps most impressive about Blonde is its features list, and, more specifically, the subtle manner in which Ocean utilizes them, playing their voices like instruments. Beyoncé lends backing vocals to “Pink + White,” James Blake’s soft falsetto closes out “White Ferrari,” and the warped vocals of Austin Feinstein and Yung Lean break up the verses on “Self Control,” never eclipsing or diluting Ocean’s distinct artistic style.
10. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
On the song “Trash,” Death Grips frontman MC Ride laments the “blink and you’ll miss it” longevity of Internet fame; “Face down, trash begets trash,” he bellows over the hook. Funny, considering that ever since the release of their acclaimed 2011 mixtape Exmilitary, Death Grips has become a cult phenomenon on the Internet. But perhaps that is why they’ve refused to coast or let their fame lapse; every project they’ve released since then has garnered intense discussion amongst music geeks, and Bottomless Pit may be their best album to date. Combining their signature industrial hip-hop form with hardcore punk and thrash metal, Bottomless Pit is nonstop chaos from start to finish, never straying too far from the core qualities responsible for the band’s ascension to fame. Anyone who likes a nice musical kick in the teeth should give Death Grips due diligence.
9. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
So much of James Blake’s best work emphasizes the silence surrounding his minimalistic synthesizers. Like his self-titled debut and Overgrown, The Colour in Anything is about echoes, how the music flutters in the void before disappearing. Although the inclusion of legendary producer Rick Rubin on six of the album’s seventeen tracks lends The Colour in Anything a slightly more propulsive energy than previous James Blake projects, Blake ultimately retains the spaciousness and introspection that make his work so moody. Five years after the release of his superb debut album, James Blake is still alien, still morose, and still utterly brilliant.
8. Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
In a genre often noted by either narcissistic braggadocio or gritty tales at the intersection of crime and poverty, Chance the Rapper is a warm, bubbly, uplifting presence. Coloring Book has a deep and unmistakable gospel influence coursing through its veins. “Blessings” is essentially a call to prayer, Jamila Woods’s delicate voice tip-toeing on the chorus, Chance harvesting the positive fruits of his lifelong devotion to God. The final track, a reprise of “Blessings,” largely articulates the same messages, closed out by a hauntingly beautiful sample of “Let the Praise Begin” by Fred Hammond & Radical for Christ. The gospel through line doesn’t touch every song—case in point, the cloudy love song “Smoke Break,” the house-rap track “All Night,” and the slow, sexy “Juke Jam”—but its spiritual overtones ultimately define the album. Chance the Rapper’s brand of Christianity so deeply personal and welcoming that it manages to supersede the listener’s own religious proclivities in its emotional impact.