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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.

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
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Chance the Rapper, ‘Coloring Book’

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.

David Bowie, Blackstar
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David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’

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.

Beyonce, Lemonade
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Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’

"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.

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