As the world seemingly crumbles around us, the mantra of L.A.'s vast and varied music community remains, "We gon' be alright." The best music coming out of Los Angeles was soulful and life-affirming, even at its darkest. YG's grim street sagas were buoyed by politicized defiance and G-funk grooves; Warpaint's ominous incantations found new life in pop hooks and dance-floor tempos.
Hip-hop continues to be the defining sound of our city in this decade, occupying nearly half our list. But don't sleep on rock & roll, either. Deap Vally, Bleached, Warpaint, Kevin Morby, Cate Le Bon, Touché Amoré and The Dead Ships all served up energetic and often wildly creative takes on guitar-based music, proving that, however much rock's commercial impact may be fading, there's still plenty of new ground to be explored for the inevitable comeback.
Speaking of commercial — since L.A. is also the pop music capital of the world, we chose to include some artists who, though not originally from here, now call our city home and regularly tap its creative community for collaborators and general inspiration. So is Kanye West, up there in his Calabasas mansion, really now an Angeleno? Maybe, maybe not — but with contributions from DJ Dodger Stadium, Madlib, Ty Dolla $ign and Kendrick Lamar, The Life of Pablo is certainly an L.A. album.
So turn off the news and get lifted to L.A.'s best albums of 2016. In spite of everything, maybe we really will be alright. — Andy Hermann, music editor
20. The Dead Ships, Citycide (Nevado)
L.A. is home to a million talented garage-rock bands, but too many of them are content to string together riffs and never quite seem to get around to writing songs. Against that backdrop, the lyrics and melodies on The Dead Ships' stunningly assured debut are almost as attention-grabbing as the slashing guitars and frontman Devlin McCluskey's ragged howl of a voice. There are Strokes-like, stomping odes to roadside sex ("Canyon"), slow-build freakouts reminiscent of when Radiohead was a guitar band ("Seance") and grunge-punk throwdowns with Cobain-like, primal-scream choruses ("Floorboards"). It's thrilling to think that these guys are only just getting started. —Andy Hermann
19. Touché Amoré, Stage Four (Epitaph)
Burbank-based Touché Amoré’s emotional hardcore has placed substantial emphasis on “emotion” since their 2009 debut. On Stage Four, vocalist Jeremy Holm channels all of the feelings he was dealing with after the cancer-related death of his mother in 2014, cycling through every stage of grief via the power of song. His tortured screams and earnest lyrics have always powered the band’s connection with their fans, but the grave circumstances surrounding this album lend a heavier weight to their latest work. —Jason Roche
18. Anenon, Petrol (Friends of Friends)
Brian Simon’s vision of Los Angeles is mostly a cold one — at least that's the case on Petrol, his third album as Anenon. It's a record about L.A. that forgoes sunshine for the city’s gray areas: the dripping, thrumming interstates and the sterile automobile cabins that frame our day-to-day lives in this city. Simon pairs his own solemn saxophone with synthesizers that hum, sputter and strobe, making for an album that, like a long commute, encompasses long, meditative stretches, moments of frantic action and even the occasional flash of sunshine. —Chris Kissel
17. Linafornia, Yung (Dome of Doom)
Linafornia makes mature beats for those too restless to grow up. Her debut, Yung, reads like secret code, with anchoring tracks titled "Mafmaticbapp” and "GotchuallinCHECK!!!!!" At a performance in Los Feliz, checking her phone over an SP-404 sampler, she gave me a glimpse of her screensaver: an image of Madlib’s animated alter ego, Quasimoto. He’s definitely an influence, but she's worthy of comparison to Quas, too. Linafornia’s beats live on through their personalization. Yung is made for friends. Its vignettes cut through the monotony of L.A. traffic straight to the living room, where compositions grow out of company. —Cory Lomberg
16. Cate Le Bon, Crab Day (Drag City)
Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon's fourth record, Crab Day, is pure counterculture, collecting some of the finest interloping musicians in the city on one vastly experimental record: producer Josiah Steinbrick, Sweet Baboo's Stephen Black, guitarist H. Hawkline and Stella Mozgawa of Warpaint. A concept album, it's about turning off life's noise to create our own nonsense, an idea neatly expressed in surprising lyrics such as “Love is not love when it's a coat hanger.” The uncompromising Le Bon's direction is as challenging to second-guess as a traveling egg yolk in a frying pan. Yet whatever shapes this record pulls, its essence remains comfortingly familiar. —Eve Barlow
15. Sia, This Is Acting (Monkey Puzzle/RCA)
Australian-born, L.A.-based Sia Furler is probably best known for her face-obscuring wigs and epic, dance-infused music videos, but her initial success came from writing songs for mega pop stars such as Rihanna, Beyonce and Britney Spears. This Is Acting was maligned by some as a reject-pile project, since the material included stuff originally intended for her famous clientele. But for a hook-spewing hit-maker like Sia, even her castoffs can yield gold. The rhythmic thrust of “The Greatest” (from the deluxe edition) lives up to its bravado, while dance-y cuts such as “Reaper” and “Move Your Body” meld inventive, EDM-lite beats and tempos with Sia’s sensual, soul-stirring vocals. These songs were written for the best, and this time, that just happened to be Sia herself. —Lina Lecaro
14. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits (Ropeadope)
As L.A.’s concurrent funk, jazz and hip-hop revivals reached new heights in 2016, Renaissance man Terrace Martin remained at the forefront of each. Velvet Portraits bridges some four decades' worth of Southern California music, contrasting his band’s more traditional jazz instrumentation with melodic synths and talkbox vocals. Branded “100% the Sound of Crenshaw,” it’s a crisply engineered record with expansive arrangements fueled by the band’s spontaneous energy, yet its warmth is relieved by a somberness that makes it of a piece with Kendrick Lamar’s latest records. The finale, a 12-minute instrumental rendition of To Pimp a Butterfly’s “Mortal Man,” poses the same pointed query, one that has reverberated across the last year and a half: "When shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?" —Pete Tosiello
13. Vince Staples, Prima Donna (ARTium/Def Jam)
Gang life is a poor preparation for fame. The constant paranoia of the former only intensifies when someone aims a lens at your every move. So Northside Long Beach's Vince Staples is understandably on edge. Prima Donna is a prayer for sanity from the top of the Ace Hotel, an impassioned dissection of celebrity, race, music industry politics and the places they intersect. Riddled with heavy allusions to suicide, the sonically frenetic EP would be cause for concern if it weren't clear that Staples has used these songs to prevent just that. Sometimes you have to talk about dying just to make it through the day. —Max Bell
12. ScHoolboy Q, Blank Face (TDE)
In what was probably the worst year of the century (so far), escapist pop and rap seemed especially trivial. Luckily, we have ScHoolboy to hammer home the ever-present paranoia that there might be a lot of people out there waiting to destroy anyone they can. It turns out there is no dearth of villainous ghouls out there, as we all now collectively have one eye over our shoulder, waiting for the worst. ScHoolboy paints this fucked-up tableau in a style that's one click away from horrorcore, but with a conversational, disarming drawl. Blank Face is a bleak record of psychedelic, sherm-dipped proportions, but not entirely devoid of hope. —Jonny Coleman
11. Kevin Morby, Singing Saw (Dead Oceans)
The first 30 seconds of Singing Saw are as gorgeous and theatrical as any album opening this year: the gentle reverb on the bass and drums; the sighing bed of singing saws; Morby’s voice, rich and assured, a folk singer summoning his energy for a nuanced ballad. The opening also foreshadows much of what’s to come. Singing Saw, Morby’s third, is a play of darkness and light, a lyrically ambitious record that nonetheless foregrounds the joy of music, finding as much meaning in tinkling piano runs and well-placed saxophone solos as in Morby’s evocations of fire and water, consolation and desolation. —Chris Kissel
10. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo (GOOD Music/Def Jam)
The Life of Pablo might ultimately be remembered most for its rollout, which included numerous changes to the album title (R.I.P., Swish and Waves) and track updates akin to new app versions on an iPhone. Or it might be remembered for the manner in which its tour concluded, with Kanye West pushed to the brink and winding up in the hospital. But it’s an album stuffed with ideas, ranging from the holy masterpiece “Ultralight Beam” to the winking self-parody “I Love Kanye” to the stark centerpiece “Wolves.” Yes, TLOP is a chapter in the life of one of music’s most captivating figures. But it’s also a statement record, where West, warts and all, grapples with faith, family and fame. —Philip Cosores
9. Buyepongo, Todo Mundo (self-released)
Founded with as much reverence for the melodies of Colombian cumbia as for the eccentric beats of Wu-Tang Clan, Buyepongo represent the musical salad that is black and brown L.A. unlike any other band right now. Since forming in South Los Angeles in 2005, the septet have spent the last decade exploring what happens when lo-fi cumbia gets dosed with the spastic drumming of Honduran punta music, the accordion-fronted Dominican merengue and the far-out jam sessions of L.A.’s funky jazz scene. Buyepongo call this custom mezcla “buyangú,” meaning infectious, summer-ready hip shakers filled with wailing horns, African polyrhythms and a tropical pulse, as if a dance party on Colombia’s Caribbean coast got dragged through Central America on its way to Leimert Park. —Sarah Bennett
8. Isaiah Rashad, The Sun's Tirade (TDE)
Isaiah Rashad did not conform. After his stellar, albeit underappreciated 2014 EP, the Chattanooga, Tennessee, transplant remained quiet by contemporary rap standards. No mixtapes, few features. His debut LP, The Sun’s Tirade, chronicles the two-year interim. Punishing percussion backed by warm, subdued and soulful melodies supports Rashad’s tales of a forever haunting past, fame-bred anxieties and the resultant addictions. This is rap as blues, rhymes gravelly and half-sung after you’ve emptied all the bottles. This is rap as therapy, notebooks filled to fill the void. This is rap that does not conform. It’s worth the wait. —Max Bell
7. Deap Vally, Femejism (Nevado)
All it takes are some simple but powerful guitar riffs, thunderous rhythms and bold, provocative lyrics to make local duo Deap Vally’s Femejism one of the more compelling rock albums of the year. As Julie Edwards slashes away ruthlessly at her drums, singer-guitarist Lindsey Troy bares her fangs (and soul) as she coolly declares, “And I am not ashamed of my mental state/And I am not ashamed of my body weight/And I am not ashamed of my rage.” The stark production by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner leaves plenty of room for Edwards’ rumbling drums and Troy’s fuzzed-out grunge guitar. —Falling James
6. Bleached, Welcome the Worms (Dead Oceans)
Jennifer Clavin was in extreme pain when she wrote the lyrics on Welcome the Worms, disentangling herself from an abusive relationship. The reveal cuts deep, rattling the habitual SoCal surf-rock template with muscular rock & roll fueled by grunge, goth, bassist Micayla Grace's smooth glide and Jessie Clavin’s soaring guitar solos. It's about going to the farthest extremes without dying. It’s Bleached colored with blackness and redeemed as something more than a byproduct of the Smell’s all-ages existentialism, where the melodies infiltrate the brain with wormlike infections that turn helplessness into redemption. —Art Tavana
5. Frank Ocean, Blonde (Boys Don't Cry)
Amidst all the tragedies, confusion and upsets of 2016, the release of Frank Ocean’s sophomore album, Blonde, was nothing short of a miracle. It's a perfect follow-up to Ocean’s groundbreaking and critically acclaimed debut, Channel Orange, but it’s bolder, edgier and altogether extraordinary. The album is a trans-genre opus of sexual freedom and Hollywood life, with stark sonic portraits of drug use and vague relationships, an inside look at Ocean’s perception of reality, which is unapologetically individualistic, emotionally vulnerable and full of beauty. —Jordannah Elizabeth
4. Warpaint, Heads Up (Rough Trade)
L.A.-based four-piece Warpaint came back this year with what might be the finest album of their career so far. For Heads Up, the group spent time working apart, with band members writing songs solo or as duos. The result is a subtle, eclectic collection that's as rousing as it is soothing. "New Song" is the album's earworm, with a melody that will run through your mind as you tap your feet to a house beat. It's no wonder Belgian tastemakers Soulwax just gave the tune an all-out club remix. Meanwhile, "Above Control" and "White Out" have the moody, groovy vibe that old fans expect. —Liz Ohanesian
3. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered (Aftermath/Interscope/TDE)
“Pussy is power, fuck on a new bitch every night,” raps Kendrick on "untitled 03 | 05.28.2013," presaging what became 2016's most pivotal political moment: Trump's pre-election “grab her by the pussy” remark. Both men draw ego boosts from female attention, but where Trump violates the female form, Kendrick praises its allure. Everything is in the delivery. This fuss-free compilation of To Pimp a Butterfly outtakes revealed K-Dot's writing process over three years. It's a beatnik psychological exploration from an African-American visionary, with Scripture-like dates for titles. Beginning with the apocalypse, it ends with a mind-over-body proclamation that could also be innuendo (“Head is the answer, head is the future”). Kendrick's steadfast defiance makes his messages all the more sobering in a demented world. —Eve Barlow
2. YG, Still Brazy (Def Jam)
From N.W.A’s first single to Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, there’s a proud tradition of groundbreaking rappers using flawless beats and expert rhymes to bring to the masses tales of life in L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods. In 2016, that responsibility went to YG’s masterful Still Brazy. Led by inescapable protest anthem "Fuck Donald Trump," Still Brazy is one of the most thought-provoking and hardest gangsta rap albums of the 2010s. Even if quick follow-up Red Friday wasn’t in the same ballpark, it guaranteed YG a spot among the biggest names in hip-hop for the foreseeable future. —Josh Chesler
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1. Anderson .Paak, Malibu (Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club/Empire)
Anderson .Paak, the slickest dude ever to come out of Oxnard, was everywhere in 2016 — stealing Coachella and the BET Awards, dropping guest hooks and verses with A Tribe Called Quest, Mac Miller and Kaytranada, soundtracking a Google smartphone commercial. He even followed up the stellar Malibu with a quick victory lap in the form of Yes Lawd!, the funky debut full-length from NxWorries, his collaboration with Stones Throw producer Knxwledge. No one had a better year, in L.A. or anywhere else.
Paak's sudden rush of success was the fruit of more than a decade of grinding, which explains why Malibu sounds less like a sophomore album and more like bone-deep work of an old soul. The feel-good jams "Am I Wrong" and "Come Down" hook you on first listen, as does Paak's seductive singing voice, part velvet and part sandpaper, Curtis Mayfield meets Bobby Womack. Then you go back and revisit the autobiographical "The Waters" and "The Season/Carry Me" and realize two things: This guy can rap his ass off ("sharp as a Ginzu," as he boasts) and he has a personal story as compelling as anyone in hip-hop. Like To Pimp a Butterfly before it, Malibu is the kind of album that can inspire everyone else to elevate their game — which bodes well for hip-hop, R&B and pop music in 2017. —Andy Hermann