50 Best Albums of 2016 - Rolling Stone
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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.

Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Margo Price, ‘Midwest Farmer’s Daughter’

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.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, ‘Skeleton Tree’

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.

Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition

Danny Brown, ‘Atrocity Exhibition’

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 1975, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet so Unaware of It

The 1975, ‘I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It’

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.                          

Parquet Courts, Human Performance

Parquet Courts, ‘Human Performance’

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.

Miranda Lambert, The Weight of these Wings

Miranda Lambert, ‘The Weight of These Wings’

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.

Lvl Up, Return to Love

Lvl Up, ‘Return to Love’

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.

Green Day, Revolution Radio

Green Day, ‘Revolution Radio’

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.

Maren Morris, Hero

Maren Morris, ‘Hero’

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, Stranger to Stranger

Paul Simon, ‘Stranger to Stranger’

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.

Solange, A Seat at the Table

Solange, ‘A Seat at the Table’

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.

Young Thug, Jeffery

Young Thug, ‘Jeffery’

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, You Want It Darker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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