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Billboard’s 50 Best Albums of 2016: Critics’ Picks

Billboard’s Top 50 Albums of 2016
It’s been a year of event albums, surprise releases, commercial blockbusters and critical favorites — the kind of records that dominated the public conversation as much as prestige HBO dramas, long-awaited film sequels and presidential debates. (OK, maybe not the last one, but certainly the first two.) Format-expanding multi-media releases from standard-setting superstars, tweet-stretching titles from reunited hip-hop greats and ascendant British nu-wavers alike, and closing statements from all-time artistic legends: the last twelve months had it all. Here are our top 50 albums from the Starboys, Dangerous Women and all-around HEROes that provided our favorite views of 2016.

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50. Rae Sremmurd, ‘Sremmlife 2’
While the viral success of the Gucci Mane-featuring “Black Beatles” has dominated the latter part of Rae Sremmurd’s year, the duo’s first-ever No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 is just one standout on a sophomore album full of the wavy, infectious hip-hop gems that Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi have been pumping out since 2014’s “No Flex Zone” brought them to national attention. Whether instigating debauchery with album opener “Start a Party” and the Lil Jon-assisted “Set the Roof” or floating through Mike WiLL Made-It dreamscapes on “Look Alive” and “Do Yoga,” SremmLife 2 excels by delivering a collection of songs that keep the focus on feeling good at any hour of the night. – DAN RYS

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49. The Goon Sax, ‘Up to Anything’
A gorgeous collection of slacker-by-default rock from a trio of Australian teenagers — one with indie-pop in his genes, as frontman Louis Forster is the son of Robert Forster, leader of ’80s alt heroes The Go-Betweens — The Goon Sax’s debut LP captures the rush of apathy and romantic emotion present in pre-adult life. “I don’t care about much / But one of the things I care about is you,” Foster shrugs on “Sometimes Accidentally,” over a guitar-and-drum interplay as simple and effective as the song’s refrain. – JASON LIPSHUTZ

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48. Reik, ‘Des/Amor’
The Mexican trio’s Des/Amor stays true to Reik’s melancholic songwriting and heartbreaking tunes, but there is also a twist to their Latin Grammy-nominated album: Their track “Ya me enteré” has an urban version featuring Nicky Jam — their first collaboration ever with a reggaetonero. While the urban track may be the best song on the LP, the collection also includes a fusion of ballads with fun folk and groovy beats, with elixirs like “Spanglish” and “Qué gano olvidándote.” — GRISELDA FLORES

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47. PUP, ‘The Dream Is Over’
The title is what frontman Stefan Babcock’s doctor told him after taking a look at his injured vocal cords, while opening salvo “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will,” finds Babcock addressing his bandmates very literally, his scrappy voice straining for every last bit of snot-voiced ammo. But he and his relationship with the rest of the Toronto pop-punk quartet are doing much better now, thank you very much, as a sophomore effort this good will invariably aid. They’ll get by with some help from their fans, anyway — one of the year’s best mosh pits on record, there’s no shortage of opportunities here for shout-along, gang-vocal exuberance when Babcock needs to crowdsource a little backup. — CHRIS PAYNE

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46. Noname, ‘Telefone’
Chicago hip-hop is known as home to some of the genre’s sunniest artists, and Noname continues the tradition with her lilting debut,Telefone. Lush, layered synths get torn down and put back together with a dash of L.A. eclecticism, the perfect base for the rapper’s wide-ranging poetry. She has #bars, in the traditional sense, but what makes this album stunning is that it’s also lyrical, in the even-more-traditional sense: you won’t hear a prettier release in 2016. —NATALIE WEINER

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45. Sturgill Simpson, ‘A Sailor’s Guide to Earth’
This tour de force of kaleidoscopic Americana serves as an open letter to Sturgill Simpson’s newborn son, complete with brass from Sharon Jones’ retro soul backing band, the Dap-Kings. After Simpson’s previous album, Chris Stapleton sought out its producer Dave Cobb for his eventual breakthrough Traveller; after this unlikely Album of the Year Grammy nominee from country’s preeminent genre-distorting songwriter, expect to hear more horns in Nashville. And Nirvana covers. — C.P.

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44. Phantogram, ‘Three’
Love & loss contributed heavily to the “more f–king bombastic” sound of Phantogram’s third (and highest) charting album to date, as the album was written while the duo was grieving the death/suicide of frontwoman Sarah Barthel’s sister. Standout tracks include “Same Old Blues,” “Cruel World” and the alt-radio smash “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” but the entire album is full of heavenly melodies and otherworldly sonics, feeling both like an alien abduction and an unexpectedly satisfying journey out of darkness. — LESLIE RICHIN

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43. iLe, iLevitable
Ileana Cabra debuts as a soloist after singing backup to older brothers René Pérez Joglar and Eduardo Cabra of Calle 13, and she really shakes it up. ilevitable is old-school bolero and alternative pop, with a touch of funk and genre-bending arrangements that make it both current and vintage — and great soundtrack fodder. Ile’s vocals, beautifully exposed, can convincingly traverse from torch-singer depth to indie innocence in this sometimes haunting, sometimes thrilling debut that’s garnered both Latin Grammy and Grammy nods. — LEILA COBO

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42. Flume, ‘Skin’
“It was really important for me to have accessible things and not so accessible things in one place to challenge people a bit,” Flume toldBillboard in May. Mission accomplished: The Aussie producer’s second album excels in its contrasts, juxtaposing commercial ear candy (the Kai-featuring “Never Be Like You” and Tove Lo-led “Say It”) with left-field gems (“Wall Fuck”) that showcase his signature sound-design chops. — MATT MEDVED

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41. White Lung, ‘Paradise’
Since the start of the decade, these Vancouver punks have been a safe bet to smack us upside the head with a blistering half-hour LP every other year. On their fourth since 2010, White Lung’s battle-tested, two-minute shredders benefit from added production sparkle, and lyrics from frontwoman Mish Barber-Way that push her further from her (and her listeners’) comfort zone than ever before: “I will give birth in a trailer / huffing the gas in the air,” she proclaims in the album’s most memorable hook on “Kiss Me When I Bleed,” a song about Barber-Way’s quest for personal happiness in a relationship her peers don’t understand. — C.P.

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40. Alicia Keys, ‘Here’
Here is the album soul fans have been waiting for from Alicia Keys. We’ve always known what a fantastic pianist and singer Keys was, but now her subject matter has caught up, with honest, captivating songs about her “Blended Family” with husband/producer Swizz Beatz, the always tempting “Illusion of Bliss,” and our country’s ongoing “Holy War,” making for one of the singer-songwriter’s most satisfying, engaging full-length listens yet. — KATIE ATKINSON

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39. Drive-By Truckers, ‘American Band’
Much as Drive-By Truckers would have liked to spend 2016 coming to your town to help you party down, no American Band could completely ignore the world outside their tour bus this year, and so the southern rockers’ 11th studio album is their most political yet. “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks / Well I guess that means you ain’t black,” co-leader Patterson Hood sings matter-of-factly on LP climax “What It Means” — powerful words from a man who played a shooter himself on record a decade earlier, now too incensed to still give voice to the other side. —ANDREW UNTERBERGER

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38. Young Thug, ‘Jeffery’
With Jeffery, Thug seems to have finally completed the transition from oddball outsider to mainstream trendsetter, traditional aesthetics and expectations be damned. While each track is ostensibly named after one of Thug’s idols — like “Wyclef Jean,” “Kanye West” and “Guwop,” though the inclusion of “Harambe” keeps the Atlanta rapper’s offbeat humor front and center — there is no dominant theme to the project, save for Thugger’s own lyrical predilections. But sonically and melodically, Jeffery serves as the singular MC’s most accessible album to date, while still finding room for his particular brand of eccentricity. — D.R.

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37. The Hotelier, ‘Goodness’
Emo reinvented as campfire singalong, and every bit as unnerving, intimate and elemental as that would imply. Lead Hotelier mystic Christian Holden channels a lifetime’s worth of wonder, nostalgia and regret into the 13-song cycle, and his band brings the thunder to match his lyrical rainmaking, giving a near-hymnal strength to incantations like “Sun” and “End of Reel” and allowing even the spoken-word intro and instrumental interludes to reverberate with gospel-like intensity. Just wait till they get around to covering “Hallelujah.” – A.U.

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36. Tove Lo, ‘Lady Wood’
If “IDGAF-pop” was a real genre, Tove Lo would be its reigning luminary: Since breaking out as an explicit-hook genius on 2014’sQueen of the Clouds, the Swedish singer-songwriter has continued to mine the darker side of dance-pop with little regard for current Top 40 trends. The alluring, sinewy Lady Wood may not have soared at radio, but few pop projects this year took as many chances — or sounded so intoxicating. — J. Lipshutz

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35. Metallica, ‘Hardwired… to Self Destruct’
A double-album of relentless, red-eyed anger anthems, anchored by Lars Ulrich’s precision double-kicks and machine-gun guitar bursts that turn highlights like “Moth Into Flame” into live classics before you’ve even stepped into the arena. Even epics like the 8-minute “Halo on Fire” and “Here Comes Revenge” hardly ever drag, crystallizing the band’s signature clenched fist fury into their sharpest attack in years. At a time when mainstream hard rock is on life support, even a doomy ballad that asks “Am I Savage?” can only be met with a “Hell yeah!” — GIL KAUFMAN

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34. M83, ‘Junk’
An indelible and ultimately appropriate album cover, as Anthony Gonzalez’s latest electro-rock opus is half intergalactic space odyssey and half surreal kids’ program. Though fans split on the LP’s odd mix of uncanny-valley dance-floor excursions and string-drenched soft-rock melodrama, time will likely prove the album one of M83’s definitive statements; the sound of its leader flying warp-speed into the depths of his subconscious and taking a series of blurry Technicolor selfies. — A.U.

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33. Blood Orange, ‘Freetown Sound’
With Freetown Sound, Blood Orange’s sprawling sonic mélange of Sade, Scritti Politti and Terry Riley meets an equally disparate host of topics: Subjects ranging from Christian missionaries to particle accelerators to police killings of unarmed black men all clutter Dev Hynes’ mind. But Freetown Sound isn’t activism with an expiration date – it’s the sound of an unusually empathetic soul grappling with the unmanageable complexities of life, and that’s an artistic feat that tends to stand the test of time. — JOE LYNCH

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32. Lady Gaga, ‘Joanne’
After a partial misfire with the ambitious pastiche Art Pop and a successful Great American Songbook career-reset with Tony Bennett duet LP Cheek to Cheek, Gaga landed back in her sweet spot with Joanne: a kitchen-sink pop album that tosses in Nashville swing, rock guitars and open-veined lyrics. There are fun, hand-clapping romps (“A-Yo”), meditative acoustic odes (“Joanne,” devoted to her namesake aunt), classic Gaga bangers (“Perfect Illusion”) and an instant-classic breakup ballad that will soundtrack every crying-in-the-rain montage for decades to come (“Million Reasons”). Stefani’s (still) not flawless, but she’s definitely got a diamond heart. — G.K.

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31. Car Seat Headrest, ‘Teens of Denial’
In a quietly great year for traditional indie rock, Will Toledo’s ramshackle exploits broke through after years of underground adoration. Teens of Denial had moments of thrilling pop bliss (roaring opener “Fill in the Blank”), but its most lasting impressions were in the sprawl of back-to-back epics “Cosmic Hero” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” — which combine for over 20 minutes of guitar-rock grandeur, and one extended and extremely well-timed Dido reference. — J.Lipshutz

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30. Kevin Gates, ‘Islah’
Kevin Gates’ career has long alternated between seeming preordained for success, and appearing doomed by personal and legal hiccups, a frustrating back-and-forth for fans of the melodically gifted, unflinchingly honest Baton Rouge MC. But while 2016 continued that roller-coaster ride, he finally delivered his major-label debut Islah, the payoff after a string of releases that have gotten stronger and stronger as the cult hero’s abilities have developed. As a storyteller, Gates should soon be considered amongst the very best that hip-hop has produced, while his capacity for introspection and uncanny knack for writing hooks and verses that go beyond one-note raps make the MC’s chart-topping breakthrough seem much shorter and fresher than its guest-less 15 tracks would imply. — D.R.

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29. Bon Iver, ’22 A Million’
Justin Vernon went from seemingly hanging up his folkie Bon Iver alter ego to giving it a Picasso-like makeover, jumbling the parts with filters, Auto-Tuned voice manipulation, layers of synths, tape pastiche and distorted drum machine beats. Tracks like “33_God” pretend at traditional acoustic balladry, only to get space-invaded by pitched alien voices, booming drums and wavery samples of everyone from Paolo Nutini to Sharon Van Etten and The Browns. Leave it to a publicity-shy 35-year-old Grammy-winning cheesehead to make the kind of ADD album that sounds like a Millennial’s over-crowded social feed. — G.K.

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28. Angel Olsen, ‘My Woman’
Depressing music is usually just, well, depressing, but when it reaches that rare place of catharsis, the result is often more fun than actually fun music. Thanks to the trembling acrobatics she pulls off with her haunting voice and those oblique yet pointed lyrics, indie singer/songwriter Angel Olsen’s My Woman is the firewood to fuel (and balm to soothe) your raging soul. — J. Lynch

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27. YG, ‘Still Brazy’
YG paints a vivid picture of the Wild Wild West on his 2016 opus Still Brazy. The politically charged set followed a whirlwind two years that included him getting shot by an unknown assailant during a recording session in Studio City in 2015, and welcoming a baby girl at the top of this year. But on his second proper full-length, the Bompton MC still finds time to throw a gangsta party (lead single “Twist My Fingaz”), question the critics (“Why You Always Hatin?”) and target police brutality (“Blacks & Browns” and “Police Get Away Wit Murder”). Perhaps his loudest message, though, is reserved for the Republican presidential candidate, on the scathing protest track “FDT” — and if you don’t know what that stands for by now, you probably never will. — ADELLE PLATON

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26. Kaytranada, ‘99.9%’
The Toronto producer’s varied debut album remains one of the year’s most forward-thinking releases. Star features like Anderson .Paak, Vic Mensa, AlunaGeorge and Craig David have only burned brighter since the LP’s May release, proving Kaytranada’s ear as peerless when it comes to wrangling that final .1% out of top-tier talent. — M.M.

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25. Paul Simon, ‘Stranger to Stranger’
In his first solo album in half a decade, Paul Simon slips into his 70s like a man unsure of the weather outside, wondering if his obituary will be a mixed review and hoping that he has wristband access for the time he has left. Stranger to Stranger eschews easy comfort but also keeps unnecessary morbidity at arm’s length, instead letting his curiosity from the days of miracle and wonder continue to fuel his next chapter — with relentless sonic unpredictability and expertly enigmatic lyrical turns stoking both his and your curiosity about what’s to come on the other side. — A.U.

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24. J Balvin, ‘Energia’
Mastering the art of crafting chart-topping hits like “Ginza” and “Bobo,” J Balvin’s Latin Grammy-winning Energía is charged with irresistible and seductive upbeat reggaetón tempos familiar to Balvin’s style, while at the same time allowing the Colombian singer to showcase his versatility with the acoustic ballad “No hay título.” Recruiting hit-makers like Daddy Yankee, Juanes, Yandel and Pharrell, Balvin’s Energía sets the bar high for reggaetoneros in 2016. — G.F.

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23. Various Artists, ‘The Hamilton Mixtape’
In 2009, a then-lesser-known Lin-Manuel Miranda formed the idea for The Hamilton Mixtape, a hip-hop concept album that told the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, written by Miranda and sung by other artists. That project turned into the Tony Award-winningHamilton, which became endlessly popular and turned even skeptics into full-blown super-fans — many of whom are counted among the acclaimed musicians bringing their personal spins to this year’s Billboard 200-topping Hamilton Mixtape. Whether Sia’s stunning rendition of “Satisfied” with Miguel and Queen Latifah, or Wiz Khalifa’s futuristic remake of “Washington’s By Your Side,” Miranda’s original plans for a Hamilton mixtape were fulfilled in ways his ’09 self could never have imagined. — DOMINIQUE REDFEARN

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22. Ariana Grande, ‘Dangerous Woman’
Ariana Grande’s third full-length album might not quite deliver on the “danger” promised in the title, but it sure is fun — especially its latest two hit singles (“Into You” and the NIcki Minaj-featuring “Side to Side”), which perfectly show off Grande’s untouchable vocals and unimpeachable pop sensibility. And there are still plenty of gems left to mine, including the throwback trifle “Greedy,” which casts Grande as a lady Bruno Mars. — K.A.

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21. The Weeknd, ‘Starboy’
The album that dared ask the question: What happens when the party actually becomes more fun than complaining about it? The Weeknd sporadically feigns torture on Starboy, but only when he remembers that he’s not supposed to be having the time of his life; otherwise, we’re treated to dazzling synth-pop grab bags like “Secrets” and shredded-nerve post-punk like “False Alarm,” which sound like Abel Tesfaye’s cackle at the rest of us for ever letting a new-wave weirdo like himself into the mainstream. Now look what we’ve done. — A.U.

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20. Sia, ‘This Is Acting’
Even upon first listen of the songs on Sia Furler’s seventh LP, one would never think it’s a collection of rejects – let alone songs she originally wrote for other artists. Every track is just about as Sia as they come, with power-vocal moments on songs like “Alive” and “Reaper” that prove she’s got stamina to fight right alongside Rihanna, Beyonce and anyone else she ever fooled herself into thinking would be better suited for her unstoppable anthems. —TAYLOR WEATHERBY

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19. Gallant, ‘Ology’
Gallant is the rare crooner with enough depth and shade to his voice that he can stop your soul with one falsetto sigh. His debut,Ology, is pristine PBR&B from a singer who can actually sing, and who’s savvy enough to avoid the newcomer mistake of emoting songs into a state of meaninglessness. — J. Lynch

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18. Leonard Cohen, ‘You Want it Darker’
No writer ever truly gets to have the last word — unless you’re Leonard Cohen, who penned his own soulful eulogy as the lights grew dim. On his final, parched goodbye, Cohen shuffles off with a spare, elegant meditation on hanging up his lothario mantle (“I don’t need a lover/ That wretched beast is tame”) and negotiating his complete surrender to God, with its title track repeating the Hebrew phrase “Hineni,” translating to “Here I am… I’m ready my lord.” A sad, sweet surrender befitting a poet who spent a quarter of his life preparing his epitaph. — G.K.

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17. Drake, ‘Views’
Drake turned the 6 (and the charts) upside down once again in 2016, as the Toronto rapper’s fourth studio album enjoyed Viewsfrom the top of the Billboard 200 for 13 weeks, in addition to “One Dance” ruling the Billboard Hot 100 for over two months. On his fourth official full-length, Drizzy continues to do what he’s known for, which is “making a career off reminiscing,” delivering 20 personal tracks dealing with life, love and fame, and making sure to take plenty of dance breaks in between. — ALEXA SHOUNEYIA

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16. ANOHNI, ‘Hopelessness’
There’s nothing more exhausting than a self-consciously “important” piece of work with a message that’s rendered impossible to enjoy thanks to its single-minded sententiousness. Anohni’s Hopelessness somehow escapes that, becoming the first album in history to tackle subjects like American drone bombing, NSA spying and animal extinction caused by climate change without sacrificing aural delights like shimmering synths and hypnotic, practically dance-floor-ready beats. — J. Lynch

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15. Mitski, ‘Puberty 2’
Mitski’s uniquely violent brand of gutteral songwriting found its sonic ideal with the skinned-knee production of Puberty 2, with the grating guitars of “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” and froggy sax of “Happy” matching the bloodiness of of her lyrics scrape for scrape. The resulting combination made for one of the decade’s most emotionally vivid rock albums, and the breakout of a singular voice in 21st-century indie — one in which anxiety, lust, fear and exhaustion congeal inseparably within her haunting coo to express impossibly hard-earned maturity. — A.U.

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14. Miranda Lambert, ‘The Weight of These Wings’
The country legend-in-the-making had so much to say following her very public divorce from Blake Shelton (and brand-new relationship with Anderson East), a single disc just wasn’t enough. The Weight of These Wings, Lambert’s most ambitious project yet, is perfectly exepmlified by lead single “Vice,” which aches with each strum and longs with each lyric (“If you need me, I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me”). But these two discs — titled The Nerve and The Heart, with 24 songs in total — not only don’t let up; they keep you hanging on Miranda’s every extraordinary word for 90-plus minutes. – K.A.

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13. Kendrick Lamar, ‘untitled unmastered.’
Outtakes and leftovers rarely make for compelling listening for anyone outside of the die-hards, but Kendrick Lamar is clearly not drawing from the same well of creativity as other mortals. Existing as a supplement of sorts to the MC’s landmark 2015 album To Pimp A Butterflyuntitled unmastered overflows with ideas and grooves just as strong as that album’s high points, without the thematic pressures with which Lamar’s latest releases have arrived. In place of grand statements or incisive commentary is a freedom of expression that makes listening to the project feel like sneaking into the band’s late-night rehearsal space, where risk is the ultimate reward and the only consideration is the inspiration flowing through every thought and riff. — D.R.

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12. Radiohead, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’
These veteran alt-rockers proved still capable of capturing fields of festival-goers’ attention this summer by way of the irrefutable ingenuity of the majestically serene A Moon Shaped Pool — the band’s first album in half a decade, and their most acclaimed album in nearly twice as long. With both “True Love Waits” and “Burn The Witch” existing for years before seeing an official release, this album pieced together parts of the band’s past while also solidifying its future, as one of the few bands remaining who can still create nearly as much excitement with a surprise release as pop’s ruling class. — LYNDSEY HAVENS

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11. Rihanna, ‘Anti’
The quintessential bad gal album, Rihanna’s eighth studio albumAnti offered a series of blunt-induced and whiskey-soaked high notes. While she led the charge with the dancehall-infused, Drake-featuring earworm “Work,” other heavy hitters like the anti-relationship anthem “Needed Me,” the sensual all-nighter “Kiss It Better” and the bedroom touchdown dance “Sex With Me” gave Riri’s predominantly pop catalog a new edge. — A.P.

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10. Anderson .Paak, ‘Malibu’
In the same way that Anderson .Paak’s career had been building toward a fleshed-out opus, the R&B world had been slowly moving toward a project like Malibu. As hip-hop artists like Drake and Chance The Rapper became their own hook-singers, and soulful artists like D’Angelo and Blood Orange placed their social consciences front and center, .Paak embraced the evolving style and substance by packing Malibu with poetry both rhymed and crooned; most of the songs here cannot be shoved into one genre. .Paak isn’’t afraid to show out with Schoolboy Q on “Am I Wrong” or examine his faith on “The Season | Carry Me,” and in each scenario, his voice remains inviting yet firm in its declarations. Malibu has many sides and stories to tell, and dutifully captures one of the more complex new artists to grace the mainstream in recent memory. — J. Lipshutz

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9. Maren Morris, ‘HERO’
Head to the coasts, to the metropolises, and the consensus is clear: modern country music is boring. But Maren Morris is one of a bevy of young artists emerging from the Kacey Musgraves/Sam Hunt side of Nashville, where twangy radio bonafides, razor-sharp lyrics and a breezy, pop-infused (but not over-produced) sound can happily coexist. Hero, her debut, touches on reggae and R&B without ever straying too far from its pop-country core, all made distinctive through Morris’s rich, bluesy voice. Her wise-beyond-her-years point of view cuts the album’s sweetness (even on the track called, yes, “Sugar”); overall, it’s a cohesive statement that still makes an easy soundtrack for anyone seeking a little audio redemption, gasoline-fueled or otherwise. — N.W.

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The 1975, ‘I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it’
It wasn’t just the record-breaking name that caught our attention with The 1975’s sophomore effort — though its 71 characters topped the previous record, shared by LL Cool J and P. Diddy & Bad Boy, for longest No. 1 album title. The British quartet really captured audiences in 2016 with their magnificent blend of funked-up synth-pop and melancholy melodies that boast the group’s ever-expanding versatility. Presenting seemingly overdone song topics of love and loss in masterfully worded and tonally unpredictable ways (like “You used to have a face straight out of a magazine/Now you just look like anyone” from “A Change of Heart”), The 1975 managed to make their leap forward with their second record that’s memorable for so much more than its long-winded, impossibly emo title. — T.W.

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7. Solange, ‘A Seat at the Table’
Regardless of seating assignment, it seemed like just about everyone had a lot to be mad about in 2016, but no one expressed their anger as thoughtfully, delicately and soulfully this year as Solange. Strength-in-fragility statements like “Weary” and “Cranes in the Sky” speak to universal feelings with such profound and plainspoken grace that listening to them is like unlocking pockets of your long-term memory. But while the Junior Knowles sister’s album hopes to speak to your truth, it makes clear — down to the this-is-me LP cover and the spellbinding spoken-word interludes featuring her own parents and mentors — that at the end of the day, this is her truth alone. And as Master P would say, if you don’t understand her album, you don’t understand her, so this is not for you. — A.U.

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6. A Tribe Called Quest, ‘We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’
The anticipation for We Got It From Here was monumental, as both the first project for the hip-hop collective in 18 years, and the first since the death of founding member Phife Dawg in March. But even with expectations and attention at a fever pitch, surviving members Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White — with an assist from pre-recorded Phife material and a host of A-list guests — delivered beyond fans’ most impractical fantasies. They spit vital verses about current issues (first single “We the People….,” “The Donald”) and heralded the future of hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak), while expertly nodding to their past with a string of familiar faces (Busta Rhymes, Consequence) and sounds (Tip and Blair Wells faithfully stepped in for late producer J Dilla). They weren’t lying with the first part of that title, certainly. – K.A.

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5. Frank Ocean, ‘Blond’
Oft-delayed enigma. “Colin Kaepernick moment.” Whatever you want to call Frank Ocean’s much-anticipated sophomore effort, it’s worth the wait. The first three tracks — brilliantly blurry opener “Nikes,” acoustic confessional “Ivy” and the Pharrell-produced, feel good jam “Pink and White” — feel timeless from the first listen, and despite the album featuring discrete features from the likes of Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and James Blake, Ocean manages to never be overshadowed while navigating the album’s soaring emotional highs  (“Solo”) and tortured lows (“Seigfried”). His seventeen-track opus won’t be winning a Grammy, but it’s likely to be replayed longer than any of Ocean’s would-be competitors. —M.M.

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4. David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’
Just two days after hoisting his closing transmission into the firmament, David Bowie himself joined his final art rock masterpiece in the halls of eternity. It’s tempting to scour Blackstarfor posthumous messages from rock’s most otherworldly auteur, but the simple truth is that Bowie didn’t need to die to this to be hailed as one of our best albums of 2016: It’s an astonishing, boundary-pushing mixture of jazz, rock and electronic atmospherics that proves creativity doesn’t slow down just because your body does. — J. Lynch

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3. Chance the Rapper, ‘Coloring Book’
The slow and steady success of Chicago native Chance the Rapper seemingly culminated in the vibrant and explosive mixtape that isColoring Book.  Features from the starry likes of Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Justin Bieber and more are sprinkled over all of Chance’s gospel-influenced tracks, proving that he belongs in their stratosphere, while never letting them disrupt his own wavelength. Meanwhile, feel-good party anthems like “No Problem” and “All Night” and religiously fueled tracks like “How Great” and “Blessings” harmoniously coexist, making it difficult to define Coloring Book in terms of one specific sound or genre. Even seven months after the mixtape dropped, Chance is still surfing the waves of its success, filling U.S. Cellular Field for his Magnificent Coloring Day one-day festival and becoming the first artist nominated for a Grammy based on album streams alone — reflecting just how far one rapper can go when he refuses to draw inside the lines. — L.H.

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2. Kanye West, ‘The Life of Pablo’
Sprawling, ambitious and never truly finished, The Life of Pablo was easily the most divisive album of the year. In an hour-long microcosm of Kanye’s own life and times, there are moments of pure brilliance (“Ultralight Beam”), gorgeous meditation (“Waves,” “Wolves”), anxious soul-searching (“30 Hours”), earnest introspection (“Real Friends”), uncanny pop prescience (the “Panda”-interpolating “Pt. 2”), irreverent humor (“I Love Kanye”) and cringe-worthy lyricism (the opening of “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”). And then there’s “Famous,” which somehow manages to combine all of those elements into one three-minute reflection on the bizarre realities of life in the public eye, over possibly the best collection of samples released this year — and which still manages to shoot itself in the foot with a vulgar, better-left-unsaid Taylor Swift reference.
Pablo is not Kanye’s best album, but it might be his most Kanye album, saddled as it is with both manic genius and boundary-defying risk. He annoys with his casual misogyny and outsized ego, and he’s certainly lost fans over the course of a year in which he was never far from the headlines, whether that came from presiding over perhaps the most confusing album rollout of all time, stoking the fires of his increasingly bizarre beef with Swift, oraligning himself with Donald Trump. But like West, Pablo remains alluring, bold and uncompromising, serving as both a telescope into the faraway reaches of its conflicted creator’s mind and a reminder that there is no light in the world without the balance of an uncomfortable darkness. — D.R.

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1. Beyoncé, ‘Lemonade’
Beyonce stopped the world for (at least) a second time when she dropped her sixth studio album, and the year’s most soul-baring effort, with her visual album Lemonade. The stunning musical and cinematic work debuted as an hour-long film in April on HBO, capturing the essence of being a strong Black woman in America. Unfolding in chapters with titles such as Denial, Apathy, Accountability and Forgiveness, and accompanied by poetry from poignant scribe Warsan Shire, Lemonade flipped the scorned woman-narrative into a tale of triumph — even while dropping in the midst of infidelity rumors between Bey and husband Jay Z.
The first inkling of Lemonade came a day before Yonce’s Super Bowl performance with “Formation,” a black fist-pump in the air that pissed off FOX News and the Miami police but inspired many. The full Lemonade expanded on its riotous introductory blast with the resilient Just Blaze-produced anthem “Freedom,” the viral deuces-up jam “Sorry,” and the no-shame call-out “Hold Up” — while chilling opener “Pray You Catch Me” and make-up ballad “Sandcastles” served as emotional highs and lows. But Beyonce doesn’t commit to one genre or vision on the album, which marked her sixth million-seller: She also flaunts her Houston roots in the twangy, country-infused “Daddy Lessons,” and even earned a Best Rock Performance Grammy nod for the Jack White-blessed, Led Zeppelin-sampling “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”
Many who lived on the Internet in 2016 will remember The Queen’s latest masterwork for a combination of the one-liner “Becky with the good hair,” a twerking Serena Williams and a profound new use for the lemon emoji. But Lemonade‘s enduring message is found through its closing footage — of Hattie White, Jay Z’s grandmother, turning 90 years old, and delivering a succinct message about the album’s truest theme: perseverance. “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up,” she testifies. “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.” — A.P.

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