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.
It's remarkable to think that noise-rappers Death Grips once seemed as unstable as radioactivity: battling record labels, canceling shows and presumptively announcing their breakup via napkin in 2014. Two years later, the Sacramento trio has evolved into a dependably provocative unit that operates at the nexus of punk rock, live electronics and barking energy raps. Fifth album Bottomless Pit offers further refinement: "Giving Bad People Good Ideas" rattles like an old industrial banger, "Hot Head" applies breakcore dynamics like smeared lipstick and "Warping" stutters on a toy piano melody. Then there's MC Stefan Burnett, an animated and muscular presence who splits the difference between DMX and Henry Rollins, and whose vocal performance goes beyond mere war chants. When he quietly shrugs "Eh" over Andy Morin and Zach Hill's whirligig rhythm, he sounds just as devastating as when he's bellowing "My death is money" on "Ring a Bell." M.R.
This L.A. outfit's first four albums faithfully recreated the folksy, confessional vibe of Seventies Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, but with the band's former guitarist Blake Mills producing, the studio now becomes Dawes' playground. "As If By Design" is overrun with wild barroom piano and mariachi horns, while on several tracks Taylor Goldsmith's vocals are filtered with heavy electronics and the drums and guitars are processed to a digital crunch that recalls the more adventurous side of the Black Keys. Goldsmith's lyrics are still thoughtful and earnest ("I'm asking you for help/How do you fall in love with anything?" he sings on the title track), but he's also looser and more playful on cuts like the lead single, "When the Tequila Runs Out" ("We'll be drinkin' champagne"). With this bold left turn into sonic experimentation, Dawes proves that you can be faithful to your roots and still branch out. K.H.
After a Best New Artist Grammy and the well-received Radio Music Society, bassist-composer Esperanza Spalding could have certainly carved out a perfectly mellow career as America's virtuosic ambassador between contemporary jazz, neo-soul and pop music. Instead, on her first album in four years, she bravely and brilliantly machetes through thornier paths, including math-metal shredding ("Good Lava"), Laurie Anderson-style vocalizing ("Rest In Pleasure," "Ebony and Ivy") and brain-boggling progressive-rock majesty ("Elevate and Operate"). This unclassifiable art-funk-prog-bop concept opus is about identity, an unflinching look at love as theater, simmering rage over dreams deferred and class privilege. "Farewell Dolly" yearns for a piece of the pie, but by album's end she's doing a dissonant yet enthusiastic cover of Veruca Salt's Willy Wonka lament "I Want It All" and taking the whole thing. C.W.
The uncanny 1983 of Netflix series Stranger Things was a communicable virus of national nostalgia; and much of the heavy lifting was done via the vintage synthesizers of composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Austin band Survive. Their warm, pulsating music gave the John Williams era a John Carpenter makeover, tapping playful and romantic melodies with the surging wash of analog keys. Seventy-four brief cues and atmospheres sprawled across four vinyl discs made this the feel-good avant-garde event of the year. More than two hours of vocal-free burbles, drones, gulps and splashes, the albums run the gauntlet from achingly wistful innocence ("Biking to School," "First Kiss") to menacing ambience ("The Upside Down," "No Weapons") to minimalist propulsion ("Gearing Up," "Breaking and Entering") to the absolute panic of 65-second heart-attack "Lights Out." The cassette and CD-R underground has been mining the knob-twiddling era of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis for more than a decade now, but the wildly popular series mixed with Dixon and Stein's diverse emotional palette will likely make this a gateway to the experimental music upside-down for years. C.W.
"If we're all free, why does it seem/We just can't be?" muses Norah Jones in "Flipside," a swinging upbeat anomaly on her first "jazz" album since 2002 breakthrough Come Away With Me. Inspired, in all likelihood, by Roberta Flack's sassy 1969 version of Les McCann's "Compared to What," Jones's tune maintains the emotional and political attitude with more ambiguity. Titled after a bubbling track about deep loneliness, Jones's album feels like an ozone-charged pause before a virulent cloudburst. At 37, her voice has become more nuanced without losing an iota of cool, and her Americana excursions inform a splendid horn-driven cover of Neil Young's "Don't Be Denied." R.G.
The sessions for Iggy Pop's best album in many years were helmed by Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, who created the perfect dark, rangy sound for him to flex in front of. Throughout Post Pop Depression, he's in his finest low-rent punk-poet elder statesman mode. From the rumbling intimation of mortality "Sunday" to the predatory throb of "Gardenia," these songs are sinewy and hard-swinging. Arriving after the passing of his peers David Bowie and Lou Reed, its sense of ravaged anger and survivor's resilience gave the album a mordant urgency. "If I have outlived my use/Please drink my juice," Iggy sings over viscose guitar stabs on "American Valhalla, adding in a harsh grumble, "all I've got is my name." But this reminded us how much raw power he can still summon. J.D.
On the first studio album to contain all four Monkees since 1996's Justus, the "prefab four" – now in their seventies or, in the case of Davy Jones, sadly passed – reassure baby boomers that simple guitar-pop pleasures can last a lifetime. With the production help of Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, and new songs/homages by Rivers Cuomo, Andy Partridge and Ben Gibbard, alpha ape Micky Dolenz and associates create a conceptually intriguing artifact that rattles like a tambourine in a distressed time machine. Thanks to resurrected archival material, Dolenz belts out the title track alongside its long-dead composer, Harry Nilsson; Peter Tork sings Gerry Goffin and Carole King's plaintive "Wasn't Born to Follow" over an arrangement recorded in '69; and Tork and Dolenz add new harmonies to Davy Jones's 50-year-old take on Neil Diamond's downbeat "Love to Love." If this sounds strange, one could argue that we need the "Sixties" now more than ever. R.G.
"I got way, way too many issues," groggy Atlanta rapper Future moans on "Lie to Me," his voice-slurry lacquered with narcotic cough syrup and serrated with Auto-Tune. But that confessional vulnerability, the kind which he's staked his last two years of mixtapes on, is in short supply here. His real statement of purpose is "I'm reppin' for the low life," and he offers a worm's-eye perspective on a world that's both exhilarating and exhausting. Evol's pleasures are in how Future's flow negotiates the spare, skittering beats he's provided by the likes of longtime collaborators Metro Boomin and Southside. Oozing like venom, he escalates a little ahead of the rhythm on "Ain't No Time," lags a little behind on "In Her Mouth," falls out of meter entirely on "Savage Time" and repeats the title of "Fly Shit Only" until it blurs. K.H.
Every release from Drake is a love letter to his hometown of Toronto, but Views rises above as a true ode to the city's diversity and its lasting impact on the artist he is today. Borrowing from the Canadian city's deep ties to Afro-Caribbean culture led to his biggest hit to date – the Number One single "One Dance" – and standout moments like the equally breezy single "Controlla." Still, even though he won't always admit it, he's still the Drake from five years ago and his signature relationship-centric self-deprecation pulses through quotable tracks like "Child's Play" while his ego and paranoia duel it out like the rap beefs he knows well. B.S.
Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy is at his most low-key and wistful here, glancing backward at his youth with a perspective that's too wry to be merely nostalgic on "Normal American Kids" and trading in quippy aphorisms like "happiness depends on who you blame" without insisting on their truth. This is an album of brushed drums and hushed voices – even when the tempos race on "Cry All Day," Tweedy's vocals sound like they were recorded with a baby sleeping in the next room. And it's an album of subtle details to be cherished, from its lackadaisical guitar squiggles to its idiosyncratically loping beats to the sort of offhand sing-song melodies that have always been Tweedy's greatest gift. K.H.
The second installment of an album trilogy Maxwell began in 2008, blackSUMMERS'night is a stunning testament to the Brooklyn-born singer's talents as a vocalist as well as a shrewd yet openhearted observer of romantic tensions. Opening with the simmering "All the Ways Love Can Feel," where Maxwell's feather-light falsetto snakes in between brushed drums and gently blasting horns, SUMMERS shows how being an R&B classicist doesn't necessarily mean that one's hemmed in by a certain type of style: The glimmering "Lake by the Ocean," the percolating synth-jazz of "III" and the squalling guitars of the pleading "Lost" all fit seamlessly into his smooth aesthetic. His deeply felt vocal performances and unparalleled ability to ride a groove for just the right amount of time make for an album that can be luxuriated in. M.J.
Harking back to some of his early Seventies work like Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John's 32nd album is a bluesy celebration filled with delicious reflections and sweet celebrations of what has made his career so significant. The album's title track kicks things off with lusty nostalgia, as he recalls the "calypso moon" and loose clothes that highlight his memories, while the gorgeous, dreamy "Blue Wonderful" has him surrendering completely to the pull of love. B.S.
On her second album, this Swedish pop singer-songwriter is just as sexed up and drugged up as she was when she was passing out in the tub on "Habits (Stay High)" or promising "we fuck for life" on "Talking Body." On "Influence" she warns you not to trust her when she's loaded; on the title track she whips out her metaphorical gal boner. And whether she's riffing off a monologue from Gone Girl on "Cool Girl" or lunging into yet another doomed relationship on "True Disaster," Lo crafts the sort of messy but consistent three-dimensional character that's in short supply in contemporary pop. The album's spacey electronic production, with beats dropping in and out, offers the sonic equivalent of the carnal and pharmacological pleasures she sings about. K.H.
Does this sound like anyone we know? "You got a way of running your mouth/You rant and you rave, and you let it all out/The thing about it is, little that you say is true." You can't say that Bernie bae Bonnie Raitt didn't warn us about the Trumpocalypse in "The Comin' Round Is Going Through," her 20th album's politically seasoned outlier. Continuity, faithfulness and perseverance, as we seem to be re-learning, turn out to be underrated virtues. When Raitt and crew hunker down together, they bring the roadhouse to your house in confidently strutting material that blends rock, blues, R&B and gospel with Shaker durability and perfectly crafted slide-guitar solos. But when the party's over – and the party is definitely over – Raitt doesn't shy away from confronting adult demons in ballads like "The Ones We Couldn't Be," a requiem for either a relationship or, perhaps, an administration. R.G.
Although metal's biggest band has reveled in being one of the genre's most unpredictable (no one expected that Lou Reed collaboration), Metallica are always at their best when they allow themselves to just be Metallica. Their 10th album, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct – a two-act psychodrama of sorts about the devolution of humanity – finds them indulging the sounds of their first few records: machine-gun tempos, crushing riffs and apocalyptic lyrics delivered in drill-sergeant barks. The breakneck lead track, "Hardwired," presents James Hetfield's fatalism at its most dramatic ("We're so fucked!") while closing track and album standout "Spit Out the Bone" is an epic indictment of technocracies. Echoes of the group's landmark Black Album and Master of Puppets resound throughout, as do formative influences like Black Sabbath's groove, Mercyful Fate's orchestration and Iron Maiden's theatrical flair, making it the best representation of the Metallica experience in years. Best of all, they didn't even bother writing ballads. K.G.
As America focused its attention on the tangled election morass, New York chamber-pop genius Anohni was clawing at a bigger picture, dancing with tears in her eyes. On the year's most despondent and apocalyptic dance record, Anohni warbles and floats about climate erosion, the surveillance state, the endless death in the Middle East and the basic culpability of humanity itself: "How did I become a virus?" she croons in the title track. The album gets much of its jarring nature from its plainspoken lyrics, a cold, Hemingway-esque twist that updates cold-war dance floor songs like Paul Hardcastle's "19" or Heaven 17's "We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thang." And no small assist comes from trap producer Hudson Mohawke and avant-garde sound-stretcher Oneohtrix Point Never, who give the entire album the uneasy feeling of Kanye West remixing Ryuichi Sakamoto's 1983 score to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. C.W.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sturgill Simpson made headlines this year as a vehement voice against the Nashville establishment – but his music is the most articulate protest of Music Row around. Simpson's third album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, veers into late-Elvis balladry, brassy Sixties soul, Disney-inspired orchestral arrangements and one rumbling Nirvana cover. His songwriting has only gotten more imaginative since his 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, using his Navy years as a springboard to write to his newborn son from a far-away place. The characters on Sailor's Guide are beaten-down but defiant, such as the disillusioned, broke veteran in "Call to Arms," who's seen too much to be fooled by a broken political system and the media: "Bullshit on my TV/Bullshit on my radio/Hollywood telling me how to be me/The bullshit's got to go." P.D.
Rihanna's long-simmering eighth album brought together stinging songs that showcased the pop provocateur's ever-widening range, both stylistically and vocally. She channeled late-night loneliness and regret-tinged isolation on clamorous club arguments ("Woo") and faithful covers of Aussie indie-psych ("Same Ol' Mistakes") alike, creating a stark tableau on which she could work out grievances with those who have disappointed her. There are quite a few: The sinewy, dancehall-inspired "Work" is a parry toward a guy (portrayed by frequent foil Drake) who only wanted to connect physically; while the DJ Mustard-produced "Needed Me" is a biting kiss-off to a lover whose flights of romantic fancy proved to be too much. Her torch song "Love on the Brain" proves that she isn't totally immune to heartache, with an all-in performance that only strengthens the song's hurts-so-good imagery. M.J.
To make their most rewarding album in eight years, Drive-By Truckers had to piss off a portion of their fan base. Over the 11 tracks on American Band, head Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley tackle immigration ("Ramon Casiano"), mass shootings ("Guns of Umpqua") and police violence ("What It Means") – polarizing topics that, when coupled with the group's onstage support of Black Lives Matter, might not exactly sit well with many Red State country fans. But the Truckers gave zero fucks and created one of the most of-the-moment albums in any genre. American Band sinks its hooks all the way in with crunching riffs, Hood and Cooley's defiant lyricism and the reassurance that someone today actually gives a damn. J.H.
Indie rock's brightest star continued and reaffirmed a hot streak with a potent, raucous fourth album. As Mitski Miyawaki rips through her emotions and her guitar, the singer-songwriter blazes through a catalog of deeply personal anxieties and feelings ranging from racial identity (standout track "Your Best American Girl") to deteriorating relationships (brazen album opener "Happy") As technically proficient as it is unhinged and raw, Mitski opens up her personal world so we can all wallow along. B.S.
The millennium's most critically acclaimed folk star abandons the cabin and holes up in the laboratory, creating an album full of digital mush, distorted noises and desolate croon. As the year's weirdest indie rock record, it's the sound of an acoustic balladeer settling into life as a paranoid android, complete with what sounds like decaying tape loops, skipping vocal samples and saxophone solos run through a meatgrinder of effects. As the year's most desolate R&B album, it's as tender and fragile as his Grammy-nominated Holocene, but with the post-modern elusiveness of invented words like "dedicoding," "paramind," "waundry" and "benefolance." C.W.
The CMA ignored Margo Price at their 50th awards show in November, but they did so at their own peril. This Illinois troublemaker's debut album, released on Jack White's Third Man Records, is a marvel from a modern outlaw. Price lays it all bare, singing in her Loretta Lynn yodel about the death of a child in "Hands of Time," her skeevy experiences with Nashville music men in "This Town Gets Around" and, in "Weekender," even a stint in the can. In a town where "honest" and "authentic" are thrown around to suggest credibility, Price needn't even speak the words, she just lives them. J.H.
Though reliably seeped in the candlelit melodies and Southern gothic gloom that Nick Cave has been dredging from the swamps for more than 30 years, the 16th album from his Bad Seeds is shadowed by tragedy. Cave recorded parts of the album while still reeling from the death of his 15-year-old son, the singer bravely plunging emotional depths with his worn, world-weary voice. In eight songs, all of them agonized ballads, Cave sings love songs haunted by loss, confusion and the questioning of God. His scenes view himself and his cast of characters in the center of the infinity of nature or the mundanity of supermarkets. It's impossible not to hear mourning and desperation in songs like the title track: "I called out, I called out/Right across the sea/But the echo comes back empty/And nothing is for free." C.W.
Every fan of off-kilter Detroit rapper Danny Brown knows that he chronicles the highs and lows of chemical and sexual indulgence. But if 2011's XXX was a Xanax fantasy turned sour, and 2013's Old was an electric Molly candyland, then Atrocity Exhibition is a merciless, dizzying tweaker fest. "I'm sweating like I'm in a rave," he begins on "Downward Spiral" and only gets more debauched from there. The blues-rock beat for "Rolling Stone" offers him cold comfort as he loses his brain and goes insane, while the dusty soul loop of "Lost" underscores the grungy tedium of a dealer getting high on his own supply. But it's the Adderall shake of producer Paul White's "Ain't It Funny," "Golddust" and "When It Rain" that really drives Brown's exploration of his frazzled mind, and makes Atrocity Exhibition a thrillingly uncomfortable exercise in self-flagellation. M.R.
The barely contained erotic energy and boundless hooks of the 1975 make them INXS for the Snapchat generation. The band's take on pop is jittery and malleable – they work with sumptuous synth-pop on the pulsing "The Sound," cover themselves in glam-era glitter on the posturing "Love Me" and give listeners a taste of their mini-epic ambitions on "Please Be Naked. But leader Matthew Healy's winking lyrics and his bandmates' ability to keep their eyes on the melodies, even when they're flipping through genres, make them especially vibrant. The 1975's self-aware bravado, circa-1988 retro production and knack for brain-Velcro melodies make this sprawling collection both a rock anomaly and a pop event. M.J.
The artfully mistuned guitars that stray off into tangents are pure Pavement; the flat, droning groove is one more example of how the Velvet Underground's rhythms are open to endless reinterpretation. But these Texan transplants to New York are more than the sum of their art-damaged indie influences; they use those old styles as tools to respond to the contemporary world around them. With thoughtful detachment, singer Andrew Savage muses on the annoying paradoxes of modern life: "One Man, No City" is about how crowds make an individual feel alone, "Paraphrased" examines how the more you try to express yourself the more misunderstood you wind up being. But "Dust" is nothing less than an existential call to action: "Dust is everywhere/Sweep." And each song he sings is, to quote "Captive of the Sun," "a melody abandoned in the key of New York." K.H.
On her 24-track double album, the new country generation's leading outlaw balances humor, regret, love and anger in the brutally blunt way that only she can. Both sides of the album – and Miranda Lambert – are effortless blends of modern country pop with more soulful, rootsy Americana; and it's complemented by tales of rebellion ("Highway Vagabond") and lessons from heartbreak ("Tin Man"). From the irreverent Side One – titled "The Nerve" – where she "wears her sadness like a souvenir" to the more earnest Side Two – "The Heart" – the singer-songwriter not only builds upon her complexities but does so with admirable pride. B.S.
The indie-rock scene is awash in bands trying to update the genre's Nineties glory day. But pretty much nobody is doing it as imaginatively or passionately as these Brooklyn upstarts. Their third album is a great leap forward, remaking the sweet guitar tangles of Pavement and the heart-heavy drive of Neutral Milk Hotel and Built to Spill to fit their own unique take on quarter-life what-the-fuck. With three songwriters all coming into their own, there's a sense of creative possibility sparking in every direction. But what makes Lvl Up so great is the spiritual hunger they put into their songs. The highpoint is "Pain," where the struggle to process a friend's trauma explodes into shimmering, slashing catharsis. J.D.
Having completed the slightly improbable journey from Bay Area punkers to rock elder statesmen, Green Day decided to take on the state of the world on their 12th LP, which depicted the American psychosis with a slew of thundering tracks – and a few lighter ones, too, like delicate album closer "Ordinary World" and the steely yet triumphant "Still Breathing." Anchored by Mike Dirnt's bouncing-ball basslines and Tre Cool's frantic drumming, leader Billie Joe Armstrong tackles social ills and personal demons in taut songs that recall the band's early-21st-century high points, while adding just enough timeworn wisdom to reflect 2016's frayed state of the union. M.J.
The debut album by Maren Morris may not be immediately recognizable as country music – even by today's standards – but the Texas native's storytelling and homegrown drawl elevates Hero to the top of 2016's pop-country pack. Produced in part by Busbee (Shakira, Keith Urban), the record introduces Morris as the next great crossover artist, buoyed by Top 40 radio-ready jams like the sexy "Sugar," the swaggering "80s Mercedes" and her ubiquitous breakout hit "My Church." Hero also proves Morris to be a keen observer of both pop culture and everyday speak. In the baller anthem "Rich," she name-drops Diddy and sets up the chorus with an ad-libbed "shit." Neither sound calculated – the only thing Morris is adding up here are hooks. J.H.
Paul Simon said the theme of his 13th album was sound, packing it with sideways reinventions of the mournful blues snap and early rock & roll melodicism that have long charged his work. But the genre-bending oddball sonics draw you into songs full of the anxiety that defined our annus horribilis. Werewolves are on the march in the opening track ("Ignorance and arrogance, a national debate/Put the fight in Vegas, that's a billion dollar gate"), mass shooting victims are mourned in "The Riverbank," the have-nots of heartland towns are convulsed by riots in "Wristband," and the rich get all the fries. There was also consolation: the love he describes as "a waterfall of light" and the music itself, swaying, popping, weird and lovely. J.L.
Indebted to both vintage soul and contemporary indie rock, A Seat at the Table is a love letter to self-sufficiency in the face of incredible pain and a manifesto for modern black womanhood. Above dreamy synths and muted drums, the youngest Knowles sister rockets into the neo-soul pantheon, demanding that the curious "Don't Touch My Hair" and reminding everyone that "this shit is for us." Collaborators like Kelly Rowland, Q-Tip, Master P, Lil Wayne and Knowles' own parents unlock their own experiences to create a smooth, experimental soul masterpiece that unsettles as gracefully as it heals. B.S.
Anyone who claims that Young Thug is an incoherent "mumble rapper" isn't listening hard enough. The heavily tattooed Atlanta iconoclast has a vocabulary that expands the terrain of getting high, having sex, copping cash and doing dirt. "Pop a molly now I'm in the fucking air/Cloud nine, nigga smokin' like a fucking bear," he raps on "Floyd Mayweather." He has an inimitable voice – no one else sounds like him – and a sharp sense of rhythm that allows him to flip easily from the electronic trap bounce of "Future Swag" to the plodding bass charge of "Harambe." As usual, Young Thug splayed his talents over too many releases in 2016, and it remains unclear if he'll ever fulfill his fans' expectations that he's the new Lil Wayne, his sometime-influence, sometime-enemy. But Jeffrey is an undeniable highlight, from deserved hit "Pick Up the Phone" with Quavo and Travis Scott, to the cover art of the rapper in a purple dress, a minor but important crack in mainstream rap's glass house of heteronormativity. M.R.
Leonard Cohen spent the final months of his life holed up the second floor of his daughter's suburban Los Angeles home battling severe health problems and working on his final LP, You Want It Darker. Mobility issues made it impossible for him to enter a studio, so his son Adam simply put a microphone on the dining room table and recorded him straight into a laptop. The result is a stark, haunting work by a man that knows that the end is near. "At times I was very worried about his health, and the only thing that buoyed his spirits was the work itself," says Adam. "And given the incredible and acute discomfort he was suffering from in his largely immobilized state, [creating this album] was a great distraction." On the title track, Cohen speaks directly to his maker. "A million candles burning for the help that never came," he sings. "You want it darker/I'm ready, my Lord." A powerful final chapter in a career full of surprising left turns and achingly beautiful songs. A.G.
Kanye's messiest album – the one he couldn't stop working on even after he released it. The Life of Pablo is a Guernica-sized sprawl to make Picasso's head spin, crossfading between some of Yeezy's greatest songs and some of his corniest shtick, mouthing off on his celebrity paranoia and fatherhood issues and uptight misogyny and antidepressant meds. Yet it adds up to a fractured statement of his life as "the 38-year-old 8 year old." The peaks are West at his summit: the all-star gospel throwdown "Ultralight Beam," the melancholic Drake R&B road trip "30 Hours," the bluesy Kendrick-blessed midlife crisis "No More Parties in L.A." R.S.
For their first studio album in a decade, the Rolling Stones return to what they started as: an electric blues band. But 51 years after their cover of "Little Red Rooster" went to Number One in the U.K., the band's approach has evolved from hyped-up energy to effortless, smoky conviction. The slow-burning numbers are the best: Take their cover of Jimmy Reed's "Little Rain": guitars weave in an out, Mick Jagger's harmonica flies and Charlie Watts provides subtle, jazz-informed fireworks. On "All of Your Love," Keith Richards' charred fingers wrestle with his instrument with laid-back intensity, while Ronnie Wood channels Buddy Guy's violent, note bending early Sixties work. The all-covers song selection reflects a lifetime of Chicago blues crate-digging, with the band breathing new life into obscure, left-field picks by Magic Sam and Memphis Slim. By going back to their roots, the Stones found a way to grow up. P.D.
"This is a low-flying panic attack," Thom Yorke announces at the start of A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead's gorgeously orchestrated return from five years of limbo. Just in time, guys. In ballads like "Decks Dark," Yorke sounds overwhelmed by the alien strings and dub bass, as if he awoke from the troubled dreams of Kid A or Amnesiac to find real life was no longer recognizable. This might be Radiohead's most ravishingly beautiful album, awash in piano and violin and acoustic guitar frills straight out of Led Zeppelin III, finally giving the full studio treatment to longtime live favorite "True Love Waits." Yet somehow it's never soothing – as Yorke warns here, the truth will mess you up. R.S.
It took four years to construct this quietly audacious follow up to Channel Orange. There were almost no drums, the pulse coming from swaying guitars and undulating keyboards. Dreamlike and hushed, as if you were listening to the sound leaking out of someone else's headphones, these songs were awash in memories that kept threatening to slip away: childhood, love, that time you took acid and got your Jagger on. Chasing a freedom that's only ever temporary – musical, emotional, sexual – was the idea, as in "White Ferrari," where Ocean rewrites the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere" to recapture a teenage joyride, or maybe it was a drug vacation. Nothing on Blonde was binary – tracks slipped from space-rock to church, from thoughts of Trayvon to furtive sex, from him to you – opening space for every listener to slip inside. J.L.
Here was some of the year's most surefire guitar alchemy, full of revolving riffs and lyrics that flashed insights, slogans and jokes so quickly it erased any difference between them. "Friends are better with drugs, drugs are better with friends," Will Toledo sang over and over in the one about taking mushrooms and not transcending. And his songs were full of drug trips to nowhere, girls who offered empathy instead of sex and medicine cabinets where you could choose a new personality. But the sound was anything but depressed. Like Nirvana building quiet and explosiveness into the same space, Car Seat Headrest knows how to be intimate and epic at the same time. J.L.
The year's finest hip-hop album had a vision as radiant as its pink-sky cover art. Chance the Rapper's third mixtape combines radical politics and heavenly uplift to create life-affirming music that refuses to shy away from harsh realities. He uses the optimistic, joyful sounds of gospel choirs to soundtrack his hopes, fears and blessings, giving practically everything a spiritual hue: "I don't make songs for free, I make 'em for freedom," he raps on "Blessings." The album explodes with enthusiasm, as Chance embraces both the convoluted microphone mathematics of the old-school and the unpredictable melodic twists of the new. An electric dispatch from Chicago, Chance's infectious sing-song weaves together his faith, a city in crisis, his new daughter and the unique struggle of being the world's most famous unsigned musician: "If one more label try to stop me, it's gon' be some dreadhead niggas in your lobby," he raps with the giddiness of someone who's already the victor. C.W.
There's never been a musical farewell anything like Blackstar: The Cracked Actor saved his bravest and boldest performance for the final curtain. David Bowie showed up on his 69th birthday to drop a surprise masterpiece, let an astonished world puzzle over the music for a couple of days, and then slipped off into the sky. Nearly a year later, Blackstar still gives up fresh mysteries with every listen. Right from the start, this came on as one of the Starman's most dizzyingly adventurous albums, stretching out in jazzy space ballads like "Lazarus" or the ten-minute title epic. (Producer Tony Visconti revealed Bowie was soaking up fresh inspiration from artists like Kendrick Lamar and D'Angelo.) But it took Bowie's death to reveal Blackstar as his rumination on mortality – anguished, bittersweet, mournful, refusing to give in to self-pity even as he sang his passionate final word, "I Can't Give Everything Away," a song every bit as moving as "Heroes." After a 50-year spree of rock & roll mind-bending, David Bowie still wasn't running out of ways to shock people. Damn. Blackstar remains an inspiration – and a challenge – to us all. R.S.
"Girl, I hear some thunder" – damn, that's putting it mildly. Beyoncé shut everyone else down this year with a soul-on-fire masterpiece, testifying about love, rage and betrayal that felt all too true in the America of 2016. The queen not only made the album of the year (and make no mistake, David Bowie would have been the first to say so), she delivered a confessional, genre-devouring suite that feels larger than life yet still heartbreakingly intimate, because it doubles as her portrait of a nation in flames. She dropped Lemonade as a Saturday-night surprise after her HBO special, moving in on every strain of American music from country ("Daddy Lessons") to blues-metal ("Don't Hurt Yourself") to post-punk-gone-Vegas dancehall ("Hold Up") to feminist hip-hop windshield-smashing ("Sorry"). Even with "All Night" as an ambiguous resolution, it's a whole album of hurt, which is why it especially hit home after the election. Beyoncé speaks on how it feels to get sold out by a lover – or a nation – that fooled you into feeling safe, how it feels to break free of a home built on lies. The question of whether it's singing about Jay Z is moot because, unfortunately, it turned out to be about all of us. But thanks to Bey's sheer fire-breathing musical power, Lemonade was a sign of hope amid all the emotional and political wreckage. Ashes to ashes. Dust to sidechicks. And woe to any fool who tries to interrupt her grinding. R.S.