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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.

Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
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Leonard Cohen, ‘You Want It Darker’

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 West, The Life of Pablo
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Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’

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.

Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome
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Rolling Stones, ‘Blue & Lonesome’

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.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
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Radiohead, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’

"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.

Frank Ocean, Blonde
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Frank Ocean, ‘Blonde’

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.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
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Car Seat Headrest, ‘Teens of Denial’

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.

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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