The 50 best albums of 2016
Rihanna and Frank Ocean finally dropped heavily-anticipated releases; newcomers like Kaytranada and Mitski were breaths of fresh air; veterans like Paul Simon and A Tribe Called Quest proved they’re still making vital music well into their careers; and towering greats like Leonard Cohen and David Bowie bid farewell with some of their best records. But, of course, no one blew the roof off in 2016 quite like Beyoncé. Below, EW’s list of the 50 Best Albums of 2016, and to hear all these albums in one place, subscribe to EW’s playlist.
50. RMX RBN
OK: It’s not technically an album. Swedish dance-pop queen Robyn spent much of 2016 by asking her favorite producers to remix some of her most beloved material, handily available as a Spotify playlist. Still, the results were as if she released a set of entirely new material. The French DJ Joakim took “With Every Heartbeat”’s thumping disco energy and turned it into a weeper of a ballad; the Chicago producer The Black Madonna added even more Giorgio Moroder-style panache to “Indestructible”; and Robyn’s own 2014 collaboration with the songwriter-producer Kindness on the New Jack Swing-biting “Who Do You Love” was reinvented as otherworldly space-pop, courtesy of Wolfgang Voigt, the co-founder of the influential techno label Kompakt. Jonesing for a follow-up to her wonderful 2010 Body Talk trilogy? Here’s a solid placeholder. —Kevin O’Donnell
49. Into It. Over It, Standards
Into It. Over It frontman Evan Weiss has been heralded as a leader for this decade’s emo revival, and on his third — and best — album, he delivers fading memories of hometown friends and missed ex-lovers with aching guitar riffs and tender vocals. Written in a cabin in Vermont and produced with analog equipment, Standards has such rich and delicate sonic details, it feels timeless. —Jessica Goodman
48. Ricky Eat Acid, Talk To You Soon
Sam Ray, a member of the Maryland emo-noise outfit Teen Suicide, puts nostalgia on blast for his fifth album as Ricky Eat Acid, his electronic solo act. Here, Ray explores memory by chanting the same lyrics over and over against lush bells and piano keys. With occasional air horns or a straight-up scream, Talk To You Soon was this year’s most addictive experimental-ambient release. —J.G.
47. Various Artists, Day of the Dead
Organized by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National, the 59-track Grateful Dead tribute could’ve been a messy flop. Instead, the Dessners assembled a who’s who of indie-rock for often-transcendent interpretations of the jam band kings’ expansive catalog. The album’s more traditional renderings — Courtney Barnett’s brooding take on “New Speedway Boogie” or Jim James’ version of “Candyman” — impress, but Day of the Dead‘s most essential moments are the less expected. The War on Drugs applies a synth-heavy sheen to late-career hit “Touch of Grey.” Béla Fleck turns the proggy epic “Help On the Way” into a mystical newgrass meditation. And the classically trained Bryce stitches together motifs from Jerry Garcia solos for the serene instrumental “Garcia Counterpoint.” —Eric Renner Brown
46. Against Me!, Shape Shift With Me
As a follow-up to 2014’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the first album frontwoman Laura Jane Grace penned since coming out as transgender, Shape Shift With Me casts aside an obvious political message and instead confronts audiences with another seemingly radical idea: that transgender people have screwed-up romantic relationships, too. A heartbreaking collection of rupture and dissolution, Against Me!’s seventh album explores breakups and misery with commanding guitars and Grace’s signature bellows. —J.G.
45. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
On paper, it almost sounds too obvious. The dude from the Walkmen and the guy from Vampire Weekend teaming up to create a baroque-pop masterpiece? Yes, please. I Had a Dream is a wide-ranging, melancholic, Leonard Cohen-esque album that’s classic enough to have come from a bygone era — but modern enough to end up in an Apple commercial. —Ray Rahman
44. Noname, Telefone
Unpretentious and emotionally direct, the heartfelt debut from Noname — a beloved affiliate of Chance the Rapper — feels less like a mixtape and more like an intimate slam poetry session. Austere arrangements thrust the 25-year-old’s stark rhymes to the forefront, and the Chicago MC’s verses brim with dry wit and incisive social observation. “I’m trying to re-imagine abracadabra for poverty,” she muses on “Forever,” “like ‘poof,’ I made it disappear.” Elsewhere, the twinkling R&B of “Diddy Bop” provides a vibrant backdrop for rich sketches of her community: “This sound like kiddies on the playground when mama was running up / ‘Ooooh, you about to get your ass beat!'” —E.R.B.
43. Whitney, Light Upon the Lake
The Chicago group has regularly cited Bob Dylan’s 1969 country-rock gem Nashville Skyline as a major influence for their breezy debut, but Light Upon the Lake is far more than a Dylan retread. Singer-drummer Julien Ehrlich’s high-pitched croon guides cathartic ballads like “Dave’s Song” and “Polly,” while guitarist Max Kakacek delivers riffed-out nirvana on “The Falls” and “No Matter Where We Go.” And Whitney’s striking horn section — best heard on chilly opener “No Woman” — applies the brassy inclinations of fellow Windy City artists like Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment, but to an indie-rock setting. —E.R.B.
42. Loretta Lynn, Full Circle
More active at 84 than most artists in their primes — Lynn also released a full-length Christmas album in October, just because she could — the country-music matriarch returned to her roots (if she ever really left them) on the intimate, organic Full Circle, a 14-track album equally inspired by traditional Appalachian folk songs and her own epic back catalog, with charming assists from old friends like Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. —Leah Greenblatt
41. Tkay Maidza, Tkay
The pressures of burgeoning fame can be draining, if not totally overwhelming, but the Zimbabwean-born, Australian-bred upstart has no problem shrugging them off. “I really don’t care, and I’m still kinda young,” she raps on “Carry On,” a fiery collaboration with Run the Jewels’ Killer Mike. She’s totally right: Maidza’s debut album proves she has a promising future ahead of her. And whether she’s spitting lightning-quick rhymes or showing off her knack for pop melodies on the dancehall-tinged highlight “Simulation,” she’s got more than enough talent to back up boasts like “I’m nothing less than fire.” —Nolan Feeney
40. Sunflower Bean, Human Ceremony
The Brooklyn psych-pop trio dig deep into the record bins to find eclectic inspiration on their excellent, angsty debut. Flecks of metal, krautrock, folk, and punk crop up throughout these 11 tracks, while lead vocalist and bassist Julia Cumming’s soft soprano weaves sweet, impatient tales about growing up. —J.G.
39. Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto
Money, men, and a whole lot of champagne — Kamaiyah’s pleasures are simple on her debut mixtape. Yet in an era where trap is increasingly infiltrating the mainstream, the 24-year-old Oakland emcee isn’t about to let Atlanta have all the fun, drawing on ‘80s and ‘90s R&B and the rich legacy of Bay Area hip-hop for this carefree collection of blast-it-from-the-car tunes. The only thing more infectious than her beats is her confidence: “No more nights starving,” she raps on the album’s opening track, “I believed in me all year and came out on top balling.” Sounds about right. —N.F.
38. Common, Black America Again
In a year dominated by hip-hop’s youthful vanguard, the veteran of Chicago rap delivered one of the genre’s most vital statements. Jazz powerhouses including Esperanza Spalding and Robert Glasper constitute Black America Again‘s polished instrumental fusion of R&B and neo-soul, but Common himself is front and center, spinning deeply felt and rousingly poetic narratives about the modern African-American experience. And few songs by any artist capture the ills of police brutality, mass incarceration, and institutionalized racism as viscerally as the record’s stunning title track.—E.R.B.
37. White Lung, Paradise
Two years after releasing their third album Deep Fantasy — a manifesto on body dysmorphia, rape culture, and identity — Mish Barber-Way and her band of Vancouver punks return with another collection of thrilling thrasher anthems. But here, Barber-Way combines slick pop elements with her unpredictable growl and Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s clattering drums to create an electrifying rock record so dynamic, it’s bound to cause whiplash. —J.G.
36. Young Thug, Jeffery
For his third and best mixtape of 2016, the weirdo prince of Southern hip-hop named nearly every song after a celebrity, from “Floyd Mayweather” to “Kanye West.” And more than ever, the 25-year-old’s eccentric persona shines at every turn: there’s idiosyncratic yelps, loads of Auto-Tune, and his taste for the lyrically bizarre. Where many hip-hop artists live and die by the co-sign, Thugger easily outshines the names he associates himself with, whether he’s besting Future at lurching trap on “Future Swag” or perverting the hook of Rihanna’s “Work” on “RiRi.” —E.R.B.
35. Ray LaMontagne, Ouroboros
With production by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne delivered his loosest and most blissed-out album yet. All eight tracks — from the stomping “Hey, No Pressure” to the spaced-out “A Murmuration of Starlings” — daisy-chain seamlessly; the result is a reminder that the album format ain’t dead yet. —K.O.
34. Hinds, Leave Me Alone
The Madrid-based rockers drew heavily from ‘90s-era riot-grrrl punk for their exceptional debut album. Filled with dismissals of lame exes and tales of sangria-soaked parties, Leave Me Alone sets Hinds up to be one of the greatest garage-rock acts of our time. —J.G.
33. Angel Olsen, MY WOMAN
“Intern,” the ethereal first song on Olsen’s remarkable fourth album, will have you daydreaming among the clouds. Don’t be fooled — the rest of My Woman is a sharp slap in the face. Jumping from wistful rock ballads (“Never Be Mine”) to impassioned barnburners (“Shut Up Kiss Me”), Olsen’s latest effort helps solidify her as one of the most intriguing and electric figures in rock today. —R.R.
32. Wilco, Schmilco
At this point, new Wilco albums are like your favorite sweatshirt: Cozy, familiar delights that feel good whenever you put them on. Schmilco — named in the style of Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson — echoes other beloved Wilco albums like Sky Blue Sky, with it’s lovely, low-key acoustics. —R.R.
31. Tove Lo, Lady Wood
The Swedish singer-songwriter scored big in 2014 with “Habits (Stay High),” her explicit anthem for numbing the pain of a break-up. Success has only emboldened her. On her follow-up, with its titular reference to female arousal, Lo takes listeners inside the climaxes and comedowns of searching for the next fix – whether that’s with lovers or late-nights out. And while the lyrics are strikingly intimate, the music is anything but. These gooey grooves are meant for the club. —Madison Vain
30. Låpsley, Long Way Home
Some artists turn to music to overcome heartbreak, but 20-year-old Holly Lapsley Fletcher prefers to wallow in it. “So if you’re gonna hurt me, why don’t you hurt me a little bit more?” she pleads on “Hurt Me,” a glacial ballad that helps kick off her debut LP. Combining a fondness for old-school soul with a love of electronic music she developed by spending her teen years attending raves, the British singer brings an Adele-meets-the-xx ambiance to tracks like the standout single “Love Is Blind” or the ghostly “Station.” It’s intimate, visceral, yet strangely comforting — the musical equivalent of pressing a bruise. —N.F.
29. Nao, For All We Know
The British singer and producer Nao doesn’t just write songs, she creates entire worlds. Her woozy combinations of R&B, soul, and edgy electronica — a sound she’s described as “wonky funk” — are so layered and cavernous, you could practically crawl inside tracks like the lava lamp-swirling “Bad Blood” or the soaring “Girlfriend.” And with vocals as plush as hers, there won’t be a cozier record to curl up with come winter. —N.F.
28. Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition
Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Detroit rapper Danny Brown lives on hip-hop’s fringes — and his third album, Atrocity Exhibition, bursts with more of the absurdly vulgar rhymes and outré beats that have become his calling card. The manic “Ain’t It Funny” pairs Brown’s unrestrained id with aggressive, discordant horns, while the menacing “Really Doe,” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and Earl Sweatshirt, is hip-hop’s best posse cut of 2016. But Exhibition surpasses Brown’s previous work because he’s learned to leaven his most frenzied moments with serenely palatable ones, like the dreamy stoner anthem “Get Hi.” —E.R.B.
27. Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman
Anyone who is still hailing Grande as the second coming of Mariah Carey shut up once the ex-Nickelodeon star donned those terrifying latex bunny ears. Whether she’s raising goosebumps with ballads or effortlessly plowing through genres like house, disco, and reggae, Dangerous Woman is the sound of a diva arriving strictly on her own terms. If her guest list doesn’t impress you — Nicki Minaj, Future, Lil Wayne, and Macy Gray(!) all make appearances — Grande’s point of view as a young woman owning her sexuality in the glare of the spotlight certainly will. —N.F.
26. St. Lucia, Matter
John Phillip-Grobler and his band crafted the feel-good album of the year — a glorious throwback to ‘80s New Wave acts like Flock of Seagulls, minus those angular haircuts and day-glo threads. Every moment on Matter is the sonic equivalent of an escape to a gorgeous tropical paradise. —K.O.
25. Norah Jones, Day Breaks
The past decade has seen Norah Jones start a country band, release an album of traditional songs with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, and team up with Gnarls Barkley co-founder Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton for the poppiest record of her career. But Day Breaks is her big jazz homecoming; it’s a return to the piano-based sound of 2002’s Come Away With Me that won her approximately a million Grammys in 2003. Her subject matter has taken on a new urgency — gun violence and social unrest inspired a few songs here — but thankfully Jones’ voice is as soothing as ever. —N.F.
24. The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep…
Even with the worst album title of the year, The 1975 put out 2016’s most progressive pop-rock album, featuring massive power ballads (“Change of Heart”), inspirational gospel tunes (“If I Believe You”), and banger singles (“The Sound”). Stylish frontman Matt Healy croons lyrics that may as well have been written for a Livejournal poem, but the genre-blending, 17-song set solidifies the Brits as bona fide stars. —J.G.
23. Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger
“Life is a lottery / A lot of people lose / And the winners, the grinners, with money-colored eyes, eat all the nuggets and order extra fries.” Paul Simon’s 13th studio album is packed with funny and illuminating sociopolitical turns of phrase like these. And musically, he’s just as deft: the singer-songwriter deploys an arsenal of esoteric instruments — cloud-chamber bowls, anyone? — to create his most adventurous and pleasurable album in years. —K.O.
22. James Blake, The Colour in Anything
The 28-year-old Brit broke through earlier this decade with his quaking, post-dubstep compositions, but on his third LP, The Colour in Anything, he infuses his nuanced electronica with heavier doses of R&B and soul. Thanks to production from Rick Rubin, a couple co-writes from Frank Ocean, and a jaw-dropping collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, this sprawling record goes heavy on melancholy without muting Blake’s penchant for the starkly beautiful. And while these songs might not even be Blake’s best moments of 2016 — for those, see “Pray You Catch Me” and “Forward,” his contributions to Beyoncé’s Lemonade — standouts like “Timeless” and “Modern Soul” are some of the year’s most elegant tunes. —E.R.B.
21. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Since 2010, 24-year-old Virginian Will Toledo has self-released 11 promising albums of lo-fi, singer-songwriter fare through Bandcamp — but even the best selections from his voluminous discography didn’t hint at the brilliance of his Matador Records debut, Teens of Denial, which draws on ’90s alt-rock heroes from Weezer to Modest Mouse to Guided By Voices for a product that’s entirely his own. And while old-school indie-heads found plenty to love aesthetically, Toledo’s vivid lyricism pumps Denial‘s 70 minutes full of heart and humanity, best heard on the stunner about a bad drug trip, titled “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”. —E.R.B.
20. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
The sudden passing of central member Phife Dawg — he succumbed to complications of diabetes this March at just 45 — added a bittersweet note to the return of the legendary hip-hop influencers. But their first studio album in nearly two decades also offered a joyful coda to their fallen comrade, and showcased the still-epic intra-band chemistry of a crew whose lyrical flow and funky production (chopped and screwed “Bennie and the Jets” sample, anyone?) continues to offer up a singular blueprint for the genre. —L.G.
19. School of Seven Bells, SVIIB
School of Seven Bells’ co-founder Benjamin Curtis passed away from lymphoma in 2013, but his spirit lives on in his group’s marvelous capstone SVIIB. His musical partner Alejandra Deheza shaped their final material into a dazzling opus of electro beats, shoegaze-y guitar grooves, and her heavenly vocals. —K.O.
18. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
In a year with no shortage of great albums that examined black life in America, Dev Hynes’ third LP as Blood Orange stands out for its scope. He references the history of Christianity and his parents’ immigration stories (“Augustine”) while confronting the potential danger he faces every time he leaves the house (“Hands Up”); he recruits a diverse slew of guest stars — including Debbie Harry, Nelly Furtado, and Carly Rae Jepsen — but doesn’t limit the outside voices to just singers. Woven into his singular blend of R&B, pop, and new wave are audio clips from author Ta-Nehisi Coates, slam poet Ashlee Haze, and the ball-culture documentary Paris Is Burning. It all plays like a lost mixtape from the ‘80s, but its message couldn’t be more relevant to today. —N.F.
17. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
In an already exceptional year of music-world losses, few were as devastating as the death of Canada’s baritoned bard of darkness — though the scant silver lining came with this parting gift, delivered just days before he passed away unexpectedly at the age of 82. Less a loose collection of songs than a sort of sonic monolith, the album gathers every last one of his innumerable talents — bone-deep lyricism, beautifully stark melodies, that eighth wonder of a voice — without a note or a breath wasted. Haunted and haunting, Darker was a fitting final epigraph for a man who, even as an octogenarian, never ceased to be the coolest cat in the room. —L.G.
16. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings
Let Mr. Shelton handle the score-settling; Lambert’s post-divorce double album does nothing so easy and obvious, though it’s not hard to find clues to her emotional state across Wings’ sprawling 24 tracks. More importantly, it’s just a big, messy beauty of an album — stacked with red-dirt rambles, deliberately unpolished ballads, and wry odes to independence and regrets (she’s got a few). And like always, the lady writes hooks like it’s her job: cue up the open-road ode “Highway Vagabond,” crackling confessional “Vice” or strutting, chugging “Pink Sunglasses,” then play them again and again and again. —L.G.
15. Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Margo Price’s debut full-length was 10 years and a lifetime of heartbreak in the making. She brings all of that — plus a girlish, Loretta Lynn-like vocal and a rocking backing band — to Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: There’s her family falling on hard times, run-ins with music industry sleazeballs, years of record label rejection, the death of a child, the many empty liquor bottles that followed, a weekend in jail. She’s unflinching in her accounts of grief and regret — and her willingness to find hope in despair is nothing short of a triumph. The 33-year-old hails from rural Illinois but someone should cross-check her family tree; there’s gotta be some of George Jones magic in that bloodline. —M.V.
14. Frank Ocean, Blonde
It’s tempting to say that the long, torturous wait for this album — four years; that’s two Beyoncé surprise albums long! — made its arrival all the sweeter. But even if it had been released four days after Channel Orange, we’d still be talking about Blonde as the brilliant, engrossing document that it is. Dreamily abstract and deeply personal, the record is technically R&B, but really it’s whatever Ocean wants it to be at any given moment: underwater hip-hop, outer-space folk, emo EDM. It’s all pretty enigmatic, yes, but it’s also all pretty great. —R.R.
13. Tegan and Sara, Love You to Death
You won’t find self-deprecating, woe-is-me musings on unrequited love here. For their eighth LP, the Canadian sisters decided to dissect their own flaws and habits — as well as their once-tumultuous sibling bond on songs like the gutting “100x” — with lean synth-pop tracks produced by Adele whisperer Greg Kurstin. It usually takes a small army of hitmakers to come up with hooks like the ones the duo trade back and forth on the Robyn-esque “Dying to Know,” but Love You to Death firmly establishes them as some of the sharpest songwriters of their genre. —N.F.
12. Solange, A Seat at the Table
Emerging further still from the towering shadow of her superstar sister, Solange Knowles continued to forge her own path on Table, a melodious boho-R&B dream whose gentle rhythms defied its deeply felt messages of personal and political autonomy. But what she presented was no infallible, unattainable icon of self-control. “Fall in your ways, so you can crumble,” she advised on the airy galactic-jazz opener “Rise.” “Fall in your ways so you can sleep at night/Fall in your ways, so you can wake up and rise.” —L.G
11. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
It’s been a trying year for even the most devoted Kanye West fan. But by now, we’ve become all too accustomed with separating West’s extracurricular activities from his music. Because no matter what, The Life of Pablo is the kind of fascinating, unconventional artist statement that forces everyone near it to pay attention. Besides, the Chance the Rapper-aided opening track “Ultralight Beam” alone makes TLOP better than much of whatever else came out this year. —R.R.
10. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
The best albums are the ones that unveil mind-blowing new sonic details with every subsequent listen. It’s a trick Radiohead have mastered since their 2000 masterpiece, Kid A. On A Moon Shaped Pool, the 21st century’s most visionary art-rockers proved they have a seemingly endless font of brilliant music ideas, from the swelling orchestral nightmare “Burn the Witch” to the stunning revision of the years-old fan favorite “True Love Waits.” —K.O.
9. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
You know you’re having a good year when showing up on A Tribe Called Quest’s final album is just icing on the cake. So it was for Anderson .Paak, whose collaboration-filled 2016 was anchored by a phenomenal breakout album of his own: Malibu, an exuberant blast of feel-good hip-hop. With a mix of old-school R&B, trippy neo-soul, and gospel-infused earworms, the West Coast artist’s triumphant second record dominated headphones and house parties, making him one of the few things everyone could agree on in a year where that seemed impossible. —R.R.
8. Anohni, Hopelessness
Pop music might not be the most obvious tool for social change, but Anohni’s Hopelessness proved that crafting earworms and galvanizing your inner activist aren’t mutually exclusive. And while the pointed political content of songs like “Drone Bomb Me” might be the last thing you’ll want to hear after the election, her calls to action won’t depress you. In fact, they’ll inspire you: to examine your own role in the world, to consider your power to enact change — and yes, even to hit the dance floor. —N.F.
7. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
While superstars Kanye West and Justin Bieber line the credits, the rising Chicago MC’s jubilant third mixtape is ultimately an ode to his Christian faith and hometown. Chance remains one of the Windy City’s most outspoken activists — he decries its rash of gun violence again on “Angels” and “Summer Friends” — but elsewhere he trains his razor-sharp lyricism on parenting challenges, faded friendships, and the music industry. But while Coloring Book’s subject matter isn’t always uplifting, its narrator is: His unflappable optimism conveys genuine reassurance at every turn, a revelation for hip-hop in 2016. —E.R.B.
6. Mitski, Puberty 2
In an era that often makes indie rock feel like the last dusty refuge of white-male monotony, 26-year-old Mitski Miyawaki swept in to blow out the cobwebs with her dazzling, idiosyncratic Puberty 2 — a reverbed symphony of confession and catharsis that echoes the best of bygone alt heroes’ jagged riffs even as it bristles with her own spiky 21st-century poetry. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe where “Happy” sells Old Navy knitwear to the masses, and “Your Best American Girl” is the stadium anthem of the year. —L.G.
5. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
When Sturgill Simpson released his stellar second album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, two years ago, he was heralded as the genre’s new keeper of the flame. He could’ve cared less: With his latest, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the Kentucky native made the country record of the year — largely by torching every contemporary Nashville cliché. This marvelous album skillfully blends brassy, 1960s-style soul, riff-fueled rock & roll, orchestral bombast, and a totally awesome, totally WTF cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” into an approachable and intimate yarn about family and fatherhood. —M.V.
4. Kaytranada, 99.9%
Leave it to Kaytranada to unite a divided nation. If you caught any of this Haitian-born Canadian DJ’s shows in 2016, you would’ve seen a diverse crowd of B-boys, B-girls, frat bros, seen-it-all hipsters — the huddled masses yearning to dance free. That inclusionary vibe courses through his essential debut, capturing how most non-one-percenters survived this weird year: with fierce hip-hop, ecstatic disco, free-form jazz, sexy booty calls, tender love songs. (It also has social critiques: “Bullets,” featuring Little Dragon, was this year’s sharpest recrimination of America’s gun-violence epidemic.) And thanks to our hero’s gift for the groove, it’s all woven into a 15-track celebration of oneness. Send a copy to Trump Tower. —K.O.
3. Rihanna, ANTI
Call it The Emancipation of RiRi; after more than a decade churning out albums stacked with glossy mainstream bangers, pop’s clockwork Barbadian retreated for an unprecedented three-year incubation. And what emerged was ANTI: a dense collection of deep cuts that deliberately turned its cheek to the Hot 100 — yet still yielded “Work,” the longest-running No. 1 of her career. Nearly every moment here, from the dusky dubstep swagger of “Consideration” to the vintage-soul swoon “Love on the Brain,” feels like the liberated work of a superstar who decided finally, rightfully, that she could be an artist, too. —K.O.
2. David Bowie, Blackstar
Blackstar begins with a 10-minute suite of wonderfully warped jazz fusion. It ends with “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” an impossibly gorgeous anthem that soars nearly as high as his indelible 1977 classic “Heroes.” And in between, rock & roll’s most adventurous soul continues to destroy every convention of pop music — and he does it all with profundity, mystery, grace, sadness, and humor. (He also has clutch assistance from his backing band, the heretofore obscure Donny McCaslin quartet — can you imagine being on the receiving end of that introductory phone call?) David Bowie’s swan song, released two days before his surprising death on Jan. 10, isn’t just one of the best albums of 2016; it’s one of the finest creative statements of his five decades at the vanguard. What a farewell. —K.O.
1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
“You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation,” Beyoncé purrs toward the end of Lemonade — and whoo, girl, did she have everyone talking in 2016. Two days after Prince died, she snapped us out of mourning with a feature-length visual album that touched on practically every corner of popular music—including rock, country, and reggae—while spilling a juicy tale of infidelity that left some wondering if she was surprise-releasing divorce papers, too. But Beyoncé didn’t highlight a marriage in crisis just to stoke tabloid intrigue. She did so to tell a larger story about the struggles and triumphs that black and marginalized women everywhere experience. It’s no wonder Beyoncé has been taking over awards shows and live streams with epic medleys of singles and deep cuts. Every track here deserves its own celebration, from the aching ballad “All Night” to the trunk-rattling “Formation,” whose central command is a fitting metaphor for music in 2016: Beyoncé leads the pack. Everyone else is just trying to get in line. —N.F.