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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.

28

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.

27

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.

Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
26

Sturgill Simpson, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’

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, 'Anti'
25

Rihanna, ‘Anti’

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.

Drive-By Truckers, American Band
24

Drive-By Truckers, ‘American Band’

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 Re