The first half of 2016 will be known for its surprises — and not just because stars of a certain level no longer find it necessary to give anyone fair warning before releasing new work.
Of course, Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” fits both definitions, stretching her songwriting skills by revealing the vulnerability of relationships and arriving unexpectedly on a Saturday night following an hourlong HBO special.
But she was not alone in confounding expectations this year.
Here’s a look at the best albums of the year so far:
25. Brothers Osborne, 'Pawn Shop'
The sound of T.J. Osborne’s warm drawl and John Osborne’s virtuoso guitar playing in “Stay a Little Longer” cut through all that clutter like a hot knife through butter, even before John’s masterful guitar solo kicks in, chiming like The Edge circa “The Unforgettable Fire.” (nwsdy.li/brothersreview)
24. Jeff Buckley, 'You and I'
Buckley’s eclectic influences are also on display here, filling The Smiths’ “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” with longing and swooning angst and turning the blues classic “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” into something that merges the blues and the indie-folk sound that would be all the rage a decade later. (nwsdy.li/buckleyreview)
23. Bob Mould, 'Patch the Sky'
Only Mould would pair his happiest melody and a rollicking guitar roar to a post-apocalypse anthem called “The End of Things,” but that is part of his considerable charm. (nwsdy.li/mouldreview)
22. KING, 'We Are KING'
The first single, “The Greatest,” a tribute to Muhammad Ali that oozes with style, mixes shimmering ’80s-styled synths with ’90s R&B girl group attitude. And they even throw in some Tom Tom Club references. (nwsdy.li/kingreview)
21. Vince Gill, 'Down to My Last Bad Habit'
The title track is a stunner, a gorgeous slice of country rock that sounds like it could have come from The Eagles circa “The Long Run,” with Gill’s voice splitting the difference between Glenn Frey cool and Don Henley plaintive. (nwsdy.li/gillreview)
20. Kendrick Lamar, 'Untitled Unmastered'
“Untitled Unmastered” is a fascinating look at Lamar’s creative process, especially when he’s freestyling on the sprawling “Untitled 07” for his friends. (nwsdy.li/lamarreview)
19. Kaytranada, '99.9%'
The Haitian-born DJ builds good-time dance music out of house beats, hip-hop attitude and silky soul with help from everyone from Little Dragon to Craig David on his impressive debut.
18. Rihanna, 'Anti'
“Anti” is all over the musical map — everywhere except the hip-hop-leaning dance-pop center that she has occupied since blasting on the scene in 2005. (nwsdy.li/rihannareview)
17. Bob Dylan, 'Fallen Angels'
Dylan infuses most of the songs here with a distinctively craggy beauty, instilling classics like “All the Way” and “It Had to Be You” with both swagger and lament, which makes the title “Fallen Angels” all the more fitting. (nwsdy.li/dylanreview)
16. Gwen Stefani, 'This Is What the Truth Feels Like'
“This Is What the Truth Feels Like” is a return to form, back to the fearless, boundary-pushing pop days of her platinum-selling “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” as a “Hollaback Girl.” (nwsdy.li/stefanireview)
15. James Blake, 'The Colour in Anything'
The EDM artist (and Beyoncé collaborator) uses a much larger sound palette to create unforgettable moments like “Love Me in Whatever Way” or “I Need a Forest Fire” with Bon Iver without losing the immediacy and visceral connection of his earlier work.
14. Red Hot Chili Peppers, 'The Getaway'
With “The Getaway,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers sound energized and adventurous, using the building blocks of their career — Anthony Kiedis’ swaggering P-Funk vocals, Flea’s distinctive slap bass and Chad Smith’s pounding drumming — in new ways, as Josh Klinghoffer comes into his own as the band’s guitarist. (nwsdy.li/rhcpreview)
13. The Hotelier, 'Goodness'
Poetry and punk unite in singer Christian Holden’s scruffy vocals, surrounded by layers of indie-rock guitar that make all the struggles more bearable.
12. Car Seat Headrest, 'Teens of Denial'
All the promise Will Toledo has shown in years and years of homemade solo tapes comes to fruition in this hard-charging, heartfelt mix of indie-rock styles and undeniable choruses.
11. Radiohead, 'A Moon Shaped Pool'
Thom Yorke’s voice rarely gets above a warm, lullaby-ready croon on the band’s ninth album, “A Moon Shaped Pool,” but he’s generally singing about dark topics designed to keep you up at night. (nwsdy.li/radioheadreview)
10. Weezer, 'Weezer'
“Weezer” takes some of the sunniest, melody-driven parts of its eponymous debut and some of the creative writing lyrics of “Pinkerton” to create one of the prolific band’s best albums in years. (nwsdy.li/weezerreview)
9. Modern Baseball, 'Holy Ghost'
On their new album, “Holy Ghost,” the band, led by singer-guitarists Jake Ewald and Brendan Lukens, takes a more ambitious run at describing the far larger, more emotionally complex world in which the 20-somethings now find themselves.
8. Anohni, 'Hopelessness'
In the first three songs of “Hopelessness,” Anohni, the transgender singer formerly known as Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, takes on drone warfare, climate change and governmental spying. And she does it using memorable melodies and sometimes aggressive beats, letting her gorgeous vocals soften the mental blows she is shelling out. (nwsdy.li/anohnireview)
7. Panic! at the Disco, 'Death of a Bachelor'
Brandon Urie seems determined to graduate from being one of the leaders of his genre to being one of the leaders of pop. Mission accomplished. (nwsdy.li/panicreview)
6. Zayn Malik, 'Mind of Mine'
“Mind of Mine” now positions Malik at the tail end of The Weeknd’s promotional cycle and before Frank Ocean unleashes his much-anticipated follow-up to “Channel Orange.” Malik’s brand of R&B bridges the gap between the two, with a bit of pop-leaning Justin Timberlake thrown in for good measure. (nwsdy.li/zaynreview)
5. Lucinda Williams, 'The Ghosts of Highway 20'
It is no lighthearted affair, with songs weighing issues of mortality and immortality, of love and forgiveness. However, Williams’ changing perspectives and varied approaches keep propelling the journey forward. (nwsdy.li/lucindareview)
4. David Bowie, 'Blackstar'
[The late David Bowie] cobbled together these seven songs out of bits of jazz, EDM, metal, Broadway and pop, creating something fresh, but also wholly familiar, thanks to his distinctive, legendary voice. (nwsdy.li/bowiereview)
3. Kanye West, 'The Life of Pablo'
First things first, it sounds incredible. West and his team have built this album as a step back from the harsh, avant-garde sounds of his 2013 album “Yeezus.” It’s in a well-conceived middle ground that pushes the envelope oh-so-slightly, while returning to the chopped-up soul and undeniable grooves that landed him so many pop hits. (nwsdy.li/kanyereview)
2. Paul Simon, 'Stranger to Stranger'
Everything about the opener “The Werewolf” seems unfamiliar and menacing, aside from Simon, who punctuates verses about a world spiraling out of control with “The werewolf’s coming.” He calls on the gopichand, a twangy stringed instrument from India, as well as hand claps, catcalls and a slowed-down flamenco beat to build the angst — from a murdered Milwaukee man to, well, the world — and it’s nothing short of brilliant. (nwsdy.li/simonreview)
1. Beyoncé, 'Lemonade'
There is no doubt about who is in control in “Lemonade.” There was no call put out for material to be cobbled together, the way most superstar albums are built these days. Instead, Beyoncé clearly called together a dream team of collaborators to make her vision a reality. She uses all of Jack White’s powers to magnify her fury in the rocking “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” a withering attack on a cheater from intellectual, spiritual and visceral standpoints. On several tracks, she heightens the tension by using her warm voice to do battle with James Blake’s cold electronica. And in “Hold Up,” destined to be a summer smash, she takes the lilting, reggae-tinged indie rock of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and bits of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” and injects them with some soul as she wonders “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?” (Read our review: nwsdy.li/beyoncereview)