The 10 Best EPs & Mixtapes Of 2016

The trend over the last few years was that EPs and mixtapes were overtaking albums as the true source of experimentation and ambition, demonstrating unfiltered artistic expression that was less beholden to label interests. But in 2016, full-lengths from major artists took the sort of risks you’d usually find buried on B-sides and demos. So in terms of creative independence and challenging the listener, this felt like the first year of the streaming age in which blockbuster albums caught up to EPs and mixtapes.

More:: The 10 Best Albums of 2016

That means the context has changed for our year-end EP/mixtape list, but the results are no less impressive. In the top five, you’ll find two collections of stellar album session scraps, and two releases that blur the line between mixtape and full-fledged LP. And once again, there’s a handful of emerging names who put together captivating introductory statements.

Below, check out the 10 best EPs and mixtapes of 2016.

10. Nina — Beyond Memory

We  premiered “Beyond Memory,” the moody title track to this synthed-out little release, back in April, and damn if the song isn’t still running through the corridors of my mind eight months later. Produced by electronic maestro Richard X, Nina’s EP is a short but sweet retro-analog ride. Literally, this thing is two songs plus a remix of each. Sometimes that’s all it takes. — ROBBIE DAW

9. Bridgit Mendler — Nemesis

Long gone are the Good Luck Charlie days of Disney Channel for Bridgit Mendler. On Nemesis, the singer’s second EP, she emerges as our latest formidable indie darling, experimenting with R&B-tinged beats (“Do You Miss Me At All”), wistful folk (“Library”) and dream-pop that rivals the likes of Imogen Heap (“Atlantis”). And this is only the beginning. — RACHEL SONIS

8. Betsy — Fair

This 24-year-old Welsh songbird had a promising career in fashion in the palm of her hands, but she chucked the glamour of London and Paris to the side to go live in a caravan propped up in her brother’s backyard and record some demos on her laptop. We’re all the better for that decision. Fragile ballad “Fair” was one of the first breaths of fresh musical air we heard this year, and further outside-the-box cuts like “Time” and “Rosie” ensured that Betsy has our full attention going forward. — ROBBIE DAW

7. Annabel Jones — Libelle

Lovers of offbeat, vaguely depressing British pop music will find a lot to love about Annabel Jones’ debut EP. Libelle ticks all of the boxes – sassy, pseudo-top 40 bops (“IOU”), brittle synth-pop (“Happy”) and ethereal electro-experiments like “Not Today” and “Magnetic.” The latter is where the EP really comes into its own, heralding a clever, defiantly odd new voice. — MIKE WASS

6. Dagny — Ultraviolet

Of  all the Scandipop queens currently wreaking havoc on the music world, Dagny has one of the lower profiles. Which is deeply confounding because the Norwegian’s debut EP is one of the most eclectic, fully realized collections of pure pop songs released in 2016. Pay particular attention to the euphoric “Fools Gold,” bouncy Partridge Family-channeling “Fight Sleep” and the glorious early Pretenders swag of the title track. — MIKE WASS

5. Grace VanderWaal — Perfectly Imperfect

Singer-songwriter Grace VanderWaal plays ukulele and, vocally, sounds like some post-grunge ’90s alt diva falling out of time. Despite that, there’s an unmistakable modernity to the five emotional tracks here on her debut EP. By the way, Grace is 12 years old. And she won America’s Got Talent this year, plus she’s signed to Simon Cowell‘s SYCO label. What a world. — ROBBIE DAW

4. Tinashe — Nightride

It’s confusing as to what Nightride actually is. It’s billed as a mixtape by some but an album by others, with little clarity from the artist herself, who tends to describe it as a two-part “project” comprising this and her long-overdue sophomore LP Joyride.

Fuzzy classifications aside, even if Joyride never happens, Nightride finds Tinashe holding her own more than ever before. Velvety slow jams like “C’est La Vie” and “You Don’t Know Me” hit equally as hard here as hazy bangers like “Party Favors” and the feisty “Company.” Maybe this won’t get her the Top 40 fame she and her team have been so obviously aiming for, but it does place her in the ring with alt-R&B pioneers like Dawn Richard and Kelela. Which is honestly just so much more interesting. — RACHEL SONIS

3. Kendrick Lamar — Untitled Unmastered

kendrick lamar untitled unmastered album cover artwork

For anyone who mistakenly claimed there wasn’t enough “rap” on To Pimp A Butterfly, they’ll get their fill of Kendrick bars here. The studio versions of the untitled songs he performed on TV throughout the TPAB cycle alone would’ve made this an essential listen, but this thing is littered with boom-bap spitfire, trap stomps and stream-of-consciousness studio riff sessions, with a jazzy swing underlying much of it that conceptually ties the release to its predecessor LP. That his rejects are this full-bodied and listenable is more proof that when he’s not catering to the lowest common denominator on trash pop features, Kendrick’s high up on his own plane. — CARL WILLIOTT

2. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book

Coloring Book is a mini-miracle for many reasons, the first being simply that the 23-year-old rapper managed to skyrocket to music superstardom without a proper record deal. The second (and perhaps more important) reason is just how much this work gushes with joy. Chance finds unwavering happiness in love, new fatherhood and faith, while also putting the trials and tribulations of the black experience at the center. On “Blessings (Reprise),” he acutely points out that “the people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be.” I don’t know if this is a self-fulfilling prophecy or what, but it seems to me like we’ve found our guy. — RACHEL SONIS

1. Carly Rae Jepsen — Emotion: Side B

carly rae jepsen emotion side b

Liking Carly Rae Jepsen post-“Call Me Maybe” is a little like being a teen and wondering why your favorite band isn’t more popular. You wish they’d get the arena-filling crowds they deserve, but then you get a little older and think, “Ya know what, I’m glad it’s my little secret. I don’t want them to be pressured to pander to the taste-blind masses.” Granted, Jepsen is famous, but she still feels like a pop secret. And so a year after releasing what was arguably 2015’s best pop album, she puts out throwaways from that project and the results are nearly as exhilarating — and even more ignored by the masses. Songs like “First Time,” “Cry” and “Body Language” are among the best she’s ever done, and brainless mall pop doesn’t get much more proudly brainless than “Store.” These leftovers made for one of 2016’s sweetest surprises, but it’s no longer surprising when CRJ delivers like this. — CARL WILLIOTT