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50 Best Albums of 2016

Beyoncé smashed the system, Chance the Rapper counted his blessings, David Bowie left a powerful goodbye and more

Top 50 Albums of 2016 Bowie Beyonce Chance List Look

Chance the Rapper, David Bowie and Beyoncé made some of the best albums of 2016.

Jeff Kravitz/Getty, Jimmy King, Kevin Mazur/Getty

2016 was seemingly hardwired to self-destruct, as Metallica sang on their furious 10th album – and music stared down the chaos. It was a year of explicitly political R&B molotovs, (Beyoncé, Solange), revolution rock (Green Day, Esperanza Spalding), hip-hop that heals (Chance the Rapper, A Tribe Called Quest) and even one especially poignant country plea from a Red State (Drive-By Truckers). Powerful and unique personalities like David Bowie and Leonard Cohen had the powerful and unique ability to say goodbye with album-length farewells. Anohni sang about the environmental apocalypse over a dance beat. But of course there was also no shortage of messy pop stars, indie rock diarists and proudly indulgent rappers happy to simply let their pens and personalities explode. Here's the year's best.

Angel Olsen, 'My Woman'
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Angel Olsen, ‘My Woman’

My Woman expands the folk-grunge template that St. Louis native Angel Olsen established on 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Though the title suggests self-confidence, the central figures in her songs aren't always granted the same clarity. But there's a resolve to keep putting one foot in front of the other: "Still got to wake up and be someone," Olsen sings, as though through clenched teeth. She cautiously glides through the shimmering girl-group pop arrangements of "Never Be Mine," the wailing psych-rock freakout of "Not Gonna Kill You" and the woozy, Mazzy Star-style balladry of "Heart Shaped Face." These elements all come together for the gorgeous, seven-minute epic "Sister," which swells and crashes with cinematic grandeur. J.F.

Sting, '57th & 9th'
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Sting, ’57th & 9th’

It's been a pretty long time since Sting went for it as a rocker, so it's great to see him tapping that side of his artistry on guitar-banging songs like "I Can't Stop Thinking About You" and "Petrol Head." The sense of urgency comes from a relatable sense of mortality; on "50,000" he reflects movingly on the passing of rock icons like Prince and Bowie, flashing back to memories of sharing the massive Eighties with the Purple One and then fast-forwarding for a bathroom-mirror vision of his own aging face and body. The album's more somber moments use this personal sense of worry to focus on larger concerns, like global warming and Europe's refugee crisis. It's proof he's still a vital pop music force. J.D.

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Alicia Keys, ‘Here’

On her most political album to date, Alicia Keys sings from the perspective of a black everywoman with undiminished optimism. Her subjects on Here are many: the angry, struggling woman at the center of the heartbreaking "Illusion of Bliss," the city of New York as personified as a young dreamer on "She Don't Really Care/1 Luv" and the gay couple on "Where Do We Begin Now" that worries about leaving the closet. Much like her widely publicized decision to abandon heavy makeup in public appearances, she strips down her music and largely communicates through her own strident piano chords, save for the occasional homage to classic NYC rap like Raekwon's "Spot Rusherz" ("The Gospel") and Nas' "One Love" ("She Don't Really Care"). There is a bit of spoken-word braggadocio as she declares over the latter, "The chair that I'm sitting on is a throne/Perfection kneels at the seat of my soul." However, her true victory is identifying and empathizing with others, and finding hope that the world, despite all its problems, is changing for the better. M.R.

31

White Lung, ‘Paradise’

In the two years since Vancouver punkers White Lung released their caustic breakthrough, Deep Fantasy, they've grown up just enough to write sharper songs but still maintain an edge. On Paradise, singer Mish Barber-Way no longer growls like a tortured gremlin, instead singing about trailer-park aspirations ("Kiss Me When I Bleed") and real-life serial killers ("Demented,""Sister"). Guitarist Kenneth William has abandoned his miasmas of riff-like noise, instead playing with a lighter touch that gives Barber-Way room to work. Emerging both more coherent and more disturbing, it's post-punk without the postmodern baggage. K.G.

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A Tribe Called Quest, ‘We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’

A Tribe Called Quest's final album is a wistful mix of nostalgia for their golden-age past, and an inspired protest at a difficult present and future. They talk with amusing grumpiness with André 3000 about the millennial generation on "Kids," and a flicker of the Rotary Connection melody used in their classic love jam "Bonita Applebum" percolates through "Enough!!" Produced by Q-Tip (with help from guitarist and engineer Blair Wells), it sounds starkly different from Tribe's canonical Nineties output. It often has a strange and otherworldly minimalism typified by "We the People" and "Conrad Tokyo," which find Q-Tip punching out harsh keyboard notes; and "Black Spasmodic," which features a grungy, rickety dancehall loop reminiscent of Kanye West's irreverent patchwork The Life of Pablo. The vibe is looking backward and thinking forward, whether it's protesting how people of color and the LGBT community are marginalized or worrying that the world is facing an uncertain apocalypse on "Conrad Tokyo." It's also a fitting sendoff for the late Phife Dawg, who sounds magnificent here, certifying his reputation as an influential hip-hop great. M.R.

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Mudcrutch, ‘Mudcrutch 2’

Tom Petty made his best record in years when he reformed his pre-Heartbreakers band for 2007's Mudcrutch. But the crew had unfinished business. Petty proves he still does lost-love wistfulness better than anyone on "Trailer" (originally a Southern Accents-era B-side), while he stretches his sound in shadowy, ethereal new directions on songs like the seven-minute "Beautiful Blue." And Petty shares the spotlight with the band more than he did on Mudcrutch's debut: Tom Leadon's psychedelic bluegrass number "The Other Side of the Mountain" and Benmont Tench's wicked boogie "Welcome to Hell" stand as highlights. P.D.

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Blood Orange, ‘Freetown Sound’

With Sierra Leone and New York City as the backdrop, avant-R&B trailblazer and indie-rock expat Blood Orange explores change and justice in the face of discrimination. The songwriter born Dev Hynes explores identity from multiple angles, from his parents' relocation from West Africa to London ("St. Augustine") to the experiences of a friend and trans woman in Los Angeles ("Desirée"), all above a percolating stew of experimental jazz, synth-pop and Eighties hip-hop. A collage of sounds and ideas, his journey is complemented by samples from iconic drag-ball flick Paris Is Burning, slam poets like Ashlee Haze, and features from Carly Rae Jepsen, Debbie Harry and more from his star-studded Rolodex. B.S.

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Brandy Clark, ‘Big Day in a Small Town’

Country songwriter Brandy Clark's tremendous gift for wordplay and storytelling was never in question, but on her second album she unleashes her inner diva like never before. With help from the savvy production of Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), Clark tries on a number of new looks – like the glammed-up country-disco queen in "Girl Next Door," chiding her man for wanting a "Virgin Mary metaphor" – to find they all suit her perfectly. Her upbeat songs are viciously funny, whether it's the priceless parting shot to an ex in "Daughter" ("Karma's a bitch, so I hope you have a daughter") or the wry observations of small town drama in the surprisingly funky title track. But Clark's slower, more measured numbers like "You Can Come Over" and "Three Kids No Husband" are truly stunning, her aching vocal performances and razor-sharp lyrics expertly articulating complicated, if all too common, human struggles. J.F.