If there was one bright, uplifting arena in this emotional rollercoaster ride known as 2016, it was definitely politics. Ha ha. Just kidding. We’re still standing on a ledge because of all of that godawful mess.
No, what really got us through these tumultuous times was music, with its ability to comfort, console and lift our spirits and even break our hearts. Despite the losses of some of the recording industry’s luminaries — and there were sadly too many this year — an army of music’s greats gave us new bodies of work that, more often than not, provided much-needed food for thought.
From surprise releases to anticipated opuses to, well, just some completely left-of-center projects, musicians gave us a lot to consume in 2016. Actually, as usual, there were too many fantastic albums to choose from, but we did our annual duty to whittle it all down and present you with the best of the best. So let’s just get to it.
Below, our picks for the 10 albums that brought something to the table this year, for us and hopefully you as well.
10. Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman
Released: May 20
“Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?” Not like this, you haven’t. Ariana Grande’s transition from doe-eyed pop newbie to Diva ™ is complete, and she makes that fact abundantly clear on her third studio album Dangerous Woman. Highlights like the euphoric club anthem “Into You,” the sleek “Everyday” featuring Future and the fiercely soulful album title track prove that when Grande has the freedom to experiment, she soars. — RACHEL SONIS
9. Kristin Kontrol, X-Communicate
Released: May 27
Label: Sub Pop
“I was like, ‘I’m just gonna make the record that I wanna make’… I went where I wanted to go and beyond, and worried about how it was going to play out much later,” former Dum Dum Girls frontwoman Kristin Kontrol told Idolator in the spring. That place she wanted to get to was the area where her affection for ’80s and ’90s beats and synths and melodies reside. X-Communicate may have slipped past your radar upon its release, but there’s no time like the present to soak in this brilliant pop odyssey. The pulsating “(Don’t) Wannabe” alone makes it worth the effort. — ROBBIE DAW
8. Frank Ocean, Blonde
Released: August 20
Label: Boys Don’t Cry
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Blonde (or Blond) is that it’s equally intricate and chaotic. The slow-burning manner with which songs like “Nights,” “Pink + White” and “Self Control” unravel amid Ocean’s search for love and human connection. The way he frantically battles loneliness and addiction when he belts “I’m not brave/ I’d rather live outside” ” in “Seigfried.” How he reverentially calls upon past and present music greats like Elliott Smith, The Beatles, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to help tell his story. And though it’s only a brief look at the inner workings of Ocean’s mind, you can already tell: it’s anything but “sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned.” — RACHEL SONIS
7. Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
Released: November 18
Remember when “Sexyback” came out and people complained that there was barely any singing on it? That’s the mode Bruno Mars is in for about half of 24K Magic. This is an album for partying the way people used to when it was possible to be cheesy and cool at the same time. This is an album that has a dude whispering the word “dance” into a microphone to introduce a keytar solo. The reference points here are James Brown and Boyz II Men, new jack swing and Color Me Badd (but actually good).
Bruno’s complete dedication to reviving lost sounds on 24K means it probably won’t leave a long shadow. But that’s the point. With a tight nine tracks, it’s basically pop party pizza: instantly satisfying and fucking delicious, and even though you know it’s got little nutritional value it’s exactly the sort of thing you instinctively grab for in the darkest hours of the night. So it’s fitting that it dropped during 2016’s darkest stretch. — CARL WILLIOTT
6. The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
Released: February 26
Label: Dirty Hit/Interscope
From Anti to Lemonade to Pablo to Joanne to 24K Magic, the trend with blockbuster albums this year was the patchwork opus. While it’s common for a pop star to shapeshift from song to song, it’s an entirely different beast when a band tries it out. Which is why it’s so surprising that, out of all these big, genre-hopping releases, The 1975’s sophomore effort was possibly the most wide-ranging one.
They pilfered new wave, New Romantics, digi soul, M83’s grand atmospherics, goopy balladry, soft rock and more like a bunch of hired guns moving from project to project. But they fully committed to each excursion, so nothing sounds clinical or cynical — best illustrated by Matt Healy’s strained howl on “The Ballad Of Me And My Brain.” I Like It When You Sleep… takes a long and winding road, but the only unwieldy thing about the journey is its title. — CARL WILLIOTT
5. Shura, Nothing’s Real
Released: July 8
Imagine you’re at the weekend flea market and, out of the corner of your eye, oh look — a box of old 45s. So you start sifting and you find Madonna’s “Everybody.” And Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” And maybe Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” and Thompson Twins’ “If You Were Here.” And another Madonna, this time “Dress You Up.” And another — “Angel.” Stack them on top of each other, and you’ll have the prototype for twentysomething Shura’s beautifully-realized debut LP, Nothing’s Real.
That the Manchester, England, native worked with frequent Adele/Kelly Clarkson righthand man Greg Kurstin on a couple tracks is a pop coup, to be sure. But where Shura’s new wave throwback shines gloriously is on her synthesizer-soaked collaborations with producer and Athlete frontman Joel Pott. Let this one into your heart. I promise it’s worth it. — ROBBIE DAW
4. Rihanna, Anti
Released: January 27
Label: Westbury Road/Roc Nation
It’s fitting that Rihanna called her eighth album Anti. Not only did she take three years to unleash the record, she also effectively chucked the “classic Ri banger” trope to the wind. (Though, I’d argue that the Drake-assisted “Work” and deluxe track “Sex With Me” are vastly underrated in that regard.) The result? Her most rebellious and experimental work to date. Clobbering numbers like “Woo” and “Needed Me” are met with dizzying ballads (“Higher”) and ’80s power jams (“Kiss It Better”). She even goes so far as to dabble in Aussie psychedelic rock, covering Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes” just for fun.
As Jenna Wortham once pointed out, “‘Anti is the record you make when you don’t need to sell records.” And it’s true – here we see an artist who stands sincerely, unwaveringly fucks-free. Consequently, it’s also the most powerful Rihanna’s ever been. — RACHEL SONIS
3. Kanye West, The Life Of Pablo
Released: February 14
Label: GOOD/Def Jam
Kanye ended the year the way he started it — loudmouthed and erratic, calling out his peers, defending indefensible creeps (Cosby then, Trump now). But what was an art freakout playing out on Twitter became a real mental breakdown happening behind hospital walls. TLOP was a living work that took many forms and contexts, and this may end up being the most permanent one. But even before West’s psychiatric episode, there was no other album like it in 2016.
No other album mashed together so many contradictory ideas and styles. No other album was so sloppy and so meticulous. There are transcendent asides here that are given a few bars before being tossed to the heap like ignoble scraps, while other ideas drag on too long or feel half-finished. No other album was this exhausting to care about. And nobody else could’ve made it. Pablo was a Twitter-optimized experiment that, ironically, outlasted the hot takes and provided an old-fashioned immersive album experience. — CARL WILLIOTT
2. Solange, A Seat At The Table
Released: September 30
It’s a Knowles world, and we’re all just living in it. I don’t think it’s ever worth comparing Solange to Beyoncé (both are brilliant in their own right), but let’s take a moment to celebrate what they’ve done this year. How long has it been since siblings dominated the musical landscape in such a massive capacity?
It might seem strange, but Solange’s A Seat At The Table feels inextricably bound to The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. Of course, Knowles and Hill were writing under differing personal circumstances (not to mention almost 18 years apart). Still, there’s a central force here that connects them. It’s the ferocious strength and the feeling of unabashed self-love both of these woman exude in their works, despite the harsh, often wearying realities of life.
It’s also the way these two albums build on one another. Where Hill explores pain, anger, love and resilience within black womanhood, Solange fearlessly continues to push the conversation forward through songs like “Cranes In the Sky,” the Lil Wayne-assisted “Mad” and “Don’t Wish Me Well.” That’s precisely why A Seat At The Table already feels timeless. As long as women continue to search, question and discover (and they will), its relevance will never be denied. — RACHEL SONIS
1. Beyonce, Lemonade
Released: April 23
On the surface, Lemonade is a thoroughly modern concoction with its surprise release (a feat Beyonce mastered with her self-titled LP) and critically-acclaimed album movie, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find a surprisingly old-fashioned body of work. A concept album that details the initial suspicion of infidelity and follows through the stages of rage, grief and, ultimately, forgiveness, the musical roots of Lemonade trace back to Doris Duke’s devastatingly honest I’m A Loser and Millie Jackson’s confronting Caught Up.
Queen Bey’s ability to present the traditional in such a bold and creative way certainly explains some of the praise lavished upon Lemonade. However, the project’s real genius lies in the unwavering excellence of the music. While the hunger for a hit single is palpable in most LPs released this year, Beyonce is more interested in the overall vision. This is one of those seemingly-extinct albums where all the tracks balance and complement each other to create something bigger than the individual parts.
Not that there’s anything wrong with those individual parts. In fact, Beyonce’s willingness to experiment is astounding. From the sparse, acoustic opening of “Pray You Catch Me” to the rock detour of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the winning country swagger of “Daddy Lessons,” the 35-year-old uses genre to express emotions and propel the story forward. It should come across as showy and jarring, but in Bey’s miracle-working hands, it still sounds quintessentially her.
Lemonade is the culmination of a half-a-decade’s work for Beyonce. The game-changing diva first signaled her fatigue with playing the pop game on 2011’s 4 and completely turned her back on it with 2013’s visual album. In a strange way, Lemonade finds a middle ground between the two. It boasts the soulfulness and vocal mastery of the former and the innovation of the latter — reason enough to crown it the best album of the year. — MIKE WASS
Have something to say about our picks for the best albums of 2016? Agree? Think we’re out of our minds? Let us know your thoughts below.