Best Album of 2016

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Best Album of 2016

  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.”

  1. 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, or aligning 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.

  1. 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, or aligning 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.

  1. 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 Blackstar for 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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