18. Mary J. Blige, 'Strength of a Woman'
Mary J. Blige returns to familiar yet not unwelcome territory: the R&B queen standing tall amidst a broken romance that could have shattered her; instead, it has empowered and enlightened her, making her more formidable in every way. But its resemblance to past Blige watermarks like 1994's My Life isn't the only reason her 13th studio album might her best in more than a decade. The autumnal production boasts sinuous bass grooves ("U + Me [Love Lesson]") and drilling, propulsive drums; Blige portrays a woman with hard-won experience, full of life, steeped in deep melancholy. "What a hell of a year/If I make it through hell and I come out alive I've got nothing to fear," she sings in a wavy, half-rap flow on "Thick of It." Her introspection feels unvanquished, as if she knows she is turning the page towards a brighter future. M.R.