Home Music Music Lists

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.

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.