2016 was a rich and plentiful year for music, with major releases from chart-topping stars like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Kanye West. It was a year packed with bold musical statements, and rightfully so, much of the online conversation centered around these ambitious and politically-minded projects. Even though many of us focused on these stellar releases, 2016 gave us tons of other projects that we feel deserve your attention. We’re defining “underrated” in a broad sense here – these albums may have had a low-key release; they may have been well-received but overshadowed by other major records; they may be albums we didn’t get a chance to write about, or albums we believe other outlets should have written about more. Or they may just be excellent projects that deserve to be revisited before we say goodbye to this trash year. Here are 10 amazing, underrated albums you may have missed in 2016. –Isabelia Herrera, Music Editor
La Ñapa – 'RD: República Decadente' (Dominican Republic)
La Ñapa’s RD: Republica Decadente is not your run-of-the-mill hip-hop joint. Right out of the gate, opener “Pasos Para Ser un Dictador (Para Principiantes)” prophesies a somber journey to the depths and complexities of the Dominican political psyche. The track also puts a heartbreaking twist on Fernando Villalona’s merengue classic “Baila La Calle,” while outlining a sort of “how-to” guide for becoming a dictator.
The Dominican trio conceived RD as a mixtape that comments on the island’s corruption and sociopolitical realities, like president Danilo Medina’s constitutional amendment to empower himself to hold office for another term, as well as his highly disputed election victory. “Lo’ Mono,” a hilarious trap and tambora track, comments on the jarring frequency of police bribery. “Patrón dese algo, pa’ lo refrescos” rings the chorus, both a veiled threat and a friendly request for snack money. “Mi Paí,” a disheartened, pessimistic look at an island full of chapiadoras, blackouts, and apathy, is aimed at holding their compatriots accountable for perpetuating a never-ending cycle of hypocrisy and conformity. “Los Vegetales” – perhaps the most stinging track on the mixtape – is a jab at those who remain on the sidelines, mocking them for watching silently as their country spins out of control.
La Ñapa have tasked themselves with making devastating music that is also enjoyable, a tricky proposition to be sure. Though social criticism runs deep through the album, the production is slick, with bass-heavy tracks featuring plenty of traditional Dominican percussion. However, it’s ultimately La Ñapa’s message that’s setting them apart from the crowded ranks of excellent politically minded releases this year. This is a young and relatively unknown group, so you may have missed this record upon release, but if you turn off the news and play RD: República Decadente, you’re guaranteed to find yourself reflected in the wry wit of La Ñapa’s lyrics. –Richard Villegas
Las Piñas - 'Espanto Caribe' (Argentina)
Las Piñas co-founders Sofía Cardich and Antonela Périgo are still in the fledgling stages of their inky surf rock endeavor, having formed in the summer of 2015 in La Plata, Argentina in Cardich’s garage. When a few weeks of casual jamming turned into actual tunes, the duo decided to lean in wholeheartedly. The name was chosen somewhat arbitrarily: All the ideas they had were taken, and they stumbled on Las Piñas — an actual city in the Philippines — after browsing Google letter by letter.
While their foundation is fairly happenstance, everything they’ve built after it has been methodically mapped out. Their El Perro Beach EP, dropped just months after, was fleshed-out as a full-length in February. Espanto Caribe was released on vinyl via Crang Records, also home to Las Kellies, and on cassette courtesy of Hallo Discos, both relatively well-known Argentina imprints. They teamed up with San Antonio imprint Yippee Ki Yay for a U.S. version, making it easier to push their generally languid but beach-ready collection at SXSW, where they snagged a slot right before Thee Oh Sees, among other notable feats for a considerably fresh-faced band.
That’s why Espanto Caribe deserved to make a bigger splash. The noir-leaning work recalls a shadowy, storm-riddled sky; it harkens back to the genre’s heyday, but with Cardich’s generally blasé vocal delivery, tales of violent undertows and sharks tormenting tourists feel less like warnings than inevitable futures that call for little more than a shoulder shrug. Aside from an ode to pizza, Las Piñas’ brand of surf comes with a menacing overtone — a refreshing take we think is well worth your listen. –Jhoni Jackson
El Shirota - 'El Shirota' EP (Mexico)
Mexico City studio Progreso Nacional might not have an endless parade of international renowned artists coming through its premises, or the underground cred others have for being part of a collective or record label. But in the past few years, it has produced some of the best music to come out of Mexico, yielding an album making waves on year-end lists worldwide: Exploded View’s self-titled debut. On par with the international meeting of the minds that is the View, Progreso Nacional produced another important record this year: El Shirota’s self-titled EP.
Before the release of this record, El Shirota were a garage rock band with a fun and energetic EP and an awesome live show. After dropping El Shirota, it’s hard not to think of them as one of the most vital outfits in the noisier corners of the Latin American rock world. The Estado de México foursome’s record voyages into the instrumental unknown, is punctuated by soul-scorching yells, and can stand neck-to-neck with the best and fiercest of the year’s releases. Each of the tracks provides its own flavor, like 10-minute opener “No Quiero,” which splits the difference between fuzzy fury, washes of guitar riffs, and garage punk frenzy.
The last track is titled “Saqué Siete,” which roughly translates to “I Got a C” – but this is nowhere near average material. Rather, it’s a step forward for the young band, one of the most accomplished offerings from their corner of the Mexican underground scene, and a virtuosic avant-rock album. –Marcos Hassan
Lay - '129129' EP (Brazil)
It takes the rest of the world a bit longer to catch onto the sonic genius that comes out of Brazil, despite the explosive success of baile funk stars like MC Bin Laden or MC Pikachu. Happily, we have ears in São Paulo – shout out DJ Pininga, who linked us to the beauty that is rapper Lay. The MC’s aggressive flows call up comparisons to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, but also to dancehall greats — Lay herself has given props to Lady Saw for inspiring dancehall touches, and you’re liable to catch stretches of trap and funk caricoa as well on her debut EP 129129. And this is all before considering that Lay’s aesthetic is razor sharp, aided in part by her close association with stylist Brecho Replay, who works with the artist in building the visual side of her hard-as-hell, femme-as-fuck persona. We’re not sure if the language barrier is going to be enough to hold Lay out of the international spotlight for another year, you should probably start studying up on her now. –Caitlin Donohue
No Panty - 'Westside Highway Story' (US/Puerto Rico)
Having worked with Nas, Amy Winehouse, and The Fugees, Queens-bred producer Salaam Remi can lay claim to some of the most impactful records of the last 20 years. Suffice it to say the world takes notice when Remi gets behind the boards. But in a year that saw critically acclaimed releases from the biggest pop and hip-hop stars of our time, his involvement in the formation of supergroup No Panty and his sublime production on their debut project Westside Highway Story make both the group and album feel criminally overlooked.
Composed of Afro-Boricua emcee Nitty Scott, Nuyorican Joell Ortiz, and Dominican-Puerto Rican Bodega Bamz, No Panty pays tribute to the golden era of Nuyorican hip-hop. But the project has plenty of left turns and surprises, refreshing enough to make it stand out in 2016’s rap climate. Salaam Remi blends classic salsa samples and boom bap beats, creating a sonic landscape even abuelito would fuck with if the rappers didn’t cuss so damn much.
Meanwhile, the trio of MCs bless their respective mics with the type of slick wordplay Big Pun would have been proud of. Part homage to the islas, part ode to Nueva York, Westside Highway Story is ambitious in its breadth. It surely will resonate with all Latino hip-hop fans, but speaks distinctly to the Nuyorican experience, with subway rides and break beats featuring just as prominently as mofongo and Héctor Lavoe.
Almost tipping its hat to Fania’s Our Latin Thing, Westside Highway Story suggests this is the next Latin thing, the newest manifestation of young Latinos blending cultures to create their own. –Jorge Courtade
BCOTB - 'Angle' EP (Mexico)
It wasn’t that their beats didn’t go unnoticed; Suriel de León and Javier Cisneros’ “Easy,” a swooning, incriminating breakup ballad that the production duo known as BCOTB (the acronym stands for Black Cat On The Bag) made with R&B singer Jesse Baez definitely caught the ears of Finesse Records fans. But from where we’re standing, the rest of the San Luís Potosí team’s four-track Angle EP didn’t get the love it so richly deserved.
On the EP, the boys lay down rich palettes for Finesse voices to play with. Check “Fckboy,” a fast-paced, wavy track that Mexico City’s Samsi uses as the foundation of her counter-asshole manifesto. Samsi’s vocals float over the beat — the sounds all seem to occupy the same celestial range, one never dominating the other. “Soul” and “Trilla” use the human voice only as atmospheric accents, sleek tracks that combine hip-hop and ambient in a postmodern dream world. They’re not ones to smash the listener over the head with heavy beats or dramatic crashes. Theirs is a slow burn, and that fact alone should guarantee that Angle is just the beginning. –Caitlin Donohue
NOIA - 'Habits' EP (Spain)
Contrary to received wisdom, originality can actually hurt a release. If NOIA’s EP Habits didn’t make huge waves this year, it might be because it is too utterly unique for some people to know how to react to it. The four electronic pop songs on Spanish producer Gisela Fulla-Silvestre’s debut weave the finest filaments of Europop moods, Balearic beats, 80s synth nostalgia and hard-edged, avant-garde aesthetics into a strange, weightless new material. Each one feels airborne, as if gliding high above the Earth.
The philosophical lyrics, delivered by the producer’s silvery, effects-laden voice, match her innovative productions with their own kind of loftiness. The sun-bleached ambient pop song “Nostalgia del Futuro” reflects coolly on existential futility; it could have been titled “Sartre Goes to Ibiza.” “Love Hack” is a digital-age meditation on the “agony of eros” constructed on a minimal R&B beat. On “Carl Sagan vs. Zeus,” Fulla-Silvestre straight-up ponders the mysteries of the universe over a future-industrial track lit only by stars.
Nothing else in 2016 was quite like Habits. It suggests all kinds of new avenues for cerebral but poppy electronic music that we can only hope NOIA will explore in years to come. In the meantime, maybe this first EP will sound more at home in 2017. –Beverly Bryan
Lido Pimienta - 'La Papessa' (Colombia)
After a long hiatus following her 2010 Color EP, Lido Pimienta returned this year with La Papessa, a collection of shimmering gems as enthralling as they are complex. Mostly electronic and supported by acoustic instrumentation, La Papessa features songs that are at once intimate, universal, and deeply political.
The album opens with “Agua,” a quietly energetic number whose gentle synths resemble the sonic quality of a babbling brook. The song was inspired by the Wayuu people’s struggle for water at the hands of foreign coal mining interests – a struggle she saw firsthand when visiting her Wayuu relatives. That “Agua” was released well before the Dakota Access Pipeline protests grew to their current notoriety makes its point even further: indigenous people across the globe have been subject to colonization of land and resources, a process that began in 1492 and continues forcefully to this day. Far from its only political stance, La Papessa also explores themes of global feminism (“La Capacidad”) and sexual liberation (“Fornicarte Es Un Arte”).
La Papessa boasts a wild variety of musical influences, including Pimienta’s own Afro-Colombian and indigenous roots. Pimienta relishes in making music whose geographic origins are difficult to place, a feat she accomplishes with grace on La Papessa; “Ruleta,” “Para Quererte,” and “Quiero Jardines” particularly good examples of this dexterity. Despite this diversity of influences, Pimienta’s artistic vision serves as a clear thread, allowing one to travel seamlessly through the various worlds she creates.
Released just one week before the U.S. presidential election, La Papessa emerged as much of the world’s eyes were focused on the general descent into the apocalyptic madness turned global tragedy of Donald Trump’s rise to power. But for those of us who had been waiting for it, La Papessa brought comfort and hope in times of despair – and all the rock-solid jams we’d been hoping for. –Verónica Bayetti Flores
The Guadaloops - 'Almanueva' (Mexico)
In a year of bold and sometimes overwhelming musical statements, The Guadaloops came out of left field with a softer, smoother contribution. Almanueva finds the Mexican trio in their element, pushing the boundaries of hip-hop into jazz and soul-tinged territories to great success. Almanueva has a warm and full sound, in no small part due to the band’s recent addition of a full-time keyboardist and drummer.
What makes Almanueva one of the year’s standouts is the care and detail that has gone into fleshing out each song. These guys have gone the extra mile in the production department, adding small but brilliant flourishes at every turn. Take “Somnífera”: with its mellow summer afternoon moods, the song is bookended by glimmering piano and flute playing, elevating the composition to a level of sophistication seldom seen in indie hip-hop. Consider “Hombre Caja,” possibly the EP’s most striking song, which plays out as a breezy yet psychedelic rumination on relationships and life lessons built on glitchy synths and an asymmetrical melody. The band’s encyclopedic musical knowledge also shines on Almanueva, with tracks like “Para Veintiuno” exuding lovey-dovey doo wop sweetness, and “Nunca Es Tarde” packed with videogame synths and a tremendously catchy chorus.
The Guadaloops have found a way to satisfy their audience without saturating their ears, an easy line to cross in a world that looks to hip-hop as the soundtrack to turning up. We’ve included Almanueva on this list not because it wasn’t heard – the band’s non-stop touring will take care of that soon enough – but because in an abundant and often stressful year for music, this sublime and understated collection of songs might have flown under your radar. This is a record you just can’t miss. –Richard Villegas
Extraperlo - 'Chill Aquí' (Spain)
Chill Aquí, the follow-up to Extraperlo’s El Guincho-produced 2012 album Delirio Específico, finds the Barcelona quintet at their most sophisticated, polishing their breezy, laid-back pop with ease and precision. With band member Aleix Clavera behind the boards, Extraperlo toned down the Balearic rhythms explored in their previous works, but retain their penchant for hooks through bass grooves and carefree guitar riffs. Chill Aquí focuses on reinterpreting the brightness of 70s and 80s nostalgia, adding enough funk inspiration for an undeniably groovy end result that sparkles even in the slowest numbers.
But the most experimentation lies in Chill Aquí’s lyrics. Vocalist Borja Rosal, who we know for more abstract and romantic lines, created concise narratives on each song, tales that are charged with a cynical and ironic sense of humor. Rosal sings about deception, passion, and even hatred here: “No Me Toques Por la Espalda” includes epic affronts like, “Y tu cuerpo me da asco/tus historias me dan vergüenza/deberías pensarlo mejor/a la hora de seguir viviendo.”
It’s a shame Chill Aquí didn’t receive the attention it deserved; the Extraperlo crew is prolific and multi-talented; promoting numerous side projects (Ulldeter, Capitán, Elsa de Alfonso y los Prestigio) and having two members in El Guincho’s live band must be tough to juggle. But this album should be remembered as a high point in their discography, and one of the year’s finest. –Cheky