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Top 50 albums of 2016, ranked: David Bowie, Beyonce, Taking Back Sunday, more

It was the Year of the Surprise. Though 2016’s top releases were as meticulously planned as any other year, many stars didn’t want to talk about them. Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Frank Ocean — they all rolled out their new albums with little to no notice, simply unleashing them all at once with no advance singles or explanatory interviews. Unorthodox? Sure. But it’s hard to argue with the results. Here’s a look at the year’s best albums, surprise or otherwise.

50. Charles Bradley, “Changes”

50. Charles Bradley, “Changes” (Daptone): The 67-year-old soul
Photo Credit: Daptone

The 67-year-old soul man confronts his struggles with unflinching, wrenching accuracy, including covering Black Sabbath’s “Changes” to address his mother’s death. Hopefully he can take the pain of his current bout with stomach cancer and transform it into something just as uplifting. (Daptone)

49. Brothers Osborne, “Pawn Shop”

25. Brothers Osborne,
Photo Credit: EMI Nashville

The sound of T.J. Osborne’s warm drawl and John Osborne’s virtuoso guitar playing in “Stay a Little Longer” cut through all of 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.” Read the review here. (EMI Nashville)

48. Jeff Buckley, “You and I”

24. Jeff Buckley,
Photo Credit: Columbia

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. Read the review here. (Columbia)

47. Nice as [expletive], “Nice as [expletive]”

47. Nice as (expletive), “Nice as (expletive)” (Loves
Photo Credit: Loves Way

Ever wonder what Luscious Jackson would sound like if it was fronted by Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis? Well, now we know, as Lewis and pals Erika Forster and Tennessee Thomas pull together simple, funky pop tunes like “Homerun” and “Mall Music.” (Loves Way):

46. DNCE, “DNCE”

46. DNCE, “DNCE” (Republic): Building on the template
Photo Credit: Republic

Building on the template of the smash singles “Cake by the Ocean” and “Toothbrush,” Joe Jonas and friends tell even more playful stories over funk-driven pop on their full-length debut. Read the review here. (Republic)

45. Solange, “A Seat at the Table”

This cover image released by Saint Records shows
Photo Credit: AP

Solange mines a particularly soulful groove throughout “A Seat at the Table,” showing how cool and pretty her voice can be, especially in the lovely “Cranes in the Sky.” (Columbia):

44. Rolling Stones, “Blue & Lonesome”

Rolling Stones'
Photo Credit: Interscope Records

The result is a thrilling surprise, the Stones’ most inspired work in decades, captured essentially live by producer Don Was over three days of sessions. Read the review here. (Interscope):

43. Pinegrove, “Cardinal”

Photo Credit: Run for Cover

Evan Stephens Hall shows what roots rock sounds like coming from Montclair, New Jersey. It’s as pretty as Americana from the heartland, but its bits of Wilco are spiked with bits of indie rock and emo yearning, which makes for one gripping tale after another. (Run for Cover):

42. Bob Mould, “Patch the Sky”

23. Bob Mould,
Photo Credit: AP

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. Read the review here. (Merge)

41. KING, “We Are KING”

Photo Credit: KING Creative

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. Read the review here. (KING Creative)

40. Vince Gill, “Down to My Last Bad Habit”

21. Vince Gill,
Photo Credit: MCA Nashville Records

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. Read the review here. (MCA Nashville)

39. Maxwell, “blackSUMMERS’night”

Maxwell album blackSUMMERS'night. For Summer Music Preview.

Harder-hitting songs like “Hostage” show how Maxwell has sharpened his sound. In his earlier work, he would have ridden this dreamy groove all the way through, as he repeats, “I am falling hostage,” but there’s a soulful bit of uncharacteristic fire in the bridge that breaks things up before settling into another dreamy groove. Read the review here. (Columbia):

38. Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled Unmastered.”

20. Kendrick Lamar,
Photo Credit: Top Dawg/Aftermath

“Untitled Unmastered” is a fascinating look at Lamar’s creative process, especially when he’s freestyling on the sprawling “Untitled 07” for his friends. Read the review here. (Top Dawg/Aftermath)

37. Kaytranada, “99.9%”

19. Kaytranada,
Photo Credit: XL

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. (XL):

36. Lisa Hannigan, “At Swim”

Photo Credit: ATO Records

On the lovely ballad “Prayer for the Dying,” Hannigan’s restraint — and the spare, classic country arrangement accented with clear, pretty harmonies — calls to mind the great k.d. lang, a master of cool composure and constant, yet checked, craving. Read the review here. (ATO)

35. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”

35. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book” (Chance the
Photo Credit: Chance the Rapper

Nearly everything Chance takes on sounds like a massive production, whether he is surrounding himself with gospel choirs (“No Problem”) or stacking vocals so that they sound like an army (“Summer Friends”) or trying to make Justin Bieber sound serious (“Juke Jam”). (Chance the Rapper):

34. Rihanna, “Anti”

This cover image released by Roc Nation shows
Photo Credit: AP

“Anti” is all over the musical map — everywhere except the hip-hop-leaning dance-pop center that Rihanna has occupied since blasting on the scene in 2005. Read the review here.  (Roc Nation)

33. Bob Dylan, “Fallen Angels”

17. Bob Dylan,
Photo Credit: Columbia Records

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. Read the review here. (Columbia) 

32. Gwen Stefani, “This Is What the Truth Feels Like”

16. Gwen Stefani,
Photo Credit: Interscope Records

 “This Is What the Truth Feels Like” is a return to form, back to the fearless, boundary-pushing pop days of Stefani’s platinum-selling “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” as a “Hollaback Girl.” Read the review here. (Interscope) 

31. James Blake, “The Colour in Anything”

15. James Blake,
Photo Credit: Polydor/Universal

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.(Polydor/Universal):

30. The Weeknd, “Starboy”

This cover image released by Universal Republic Records
Photo Credit: AP

Success has never sounded quite so dark. Nevertheless, The Weeknd builds irresistible pop melodies that he twists into lonely tales about making it big, especially when Kendrick Lamar (“Sidewalks”) or Future (“All I Know”) stop by. (XO/Republic):

29. Various artists, “The Hamilton Mixtape”

This CD cover image released by Atlantic Records
Photo Credit: AP

With “The Hamilton Mixtape,” which Lin-Manuel Miranda says is the first of at least two, he and a star-studded cast of collaborators ranging from The Roots to Sia and Miguel employ a variety of strategies to bring the show’s music and message into the mainstream. Read the review here. (Atlantic)

28. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “The Getaway”

14. Red Hot Chili Peppers,
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Records

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. Read the review here. (Warner Bros.)

27. The Hotelier, “Goodness”

13. The Hotelier,

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. (Tiny Engines):

26. Anderson .Paak, “Malibu”

26. Anderson .Paak

The California singer-producer uses both his warm voice and clever production, not to mention friends like Schoolboy Q and The Game, to build a whole new neo-soul world that sounds modern and classic simultaneously. It’s no wonder this combination landed him a Grammy nomination for best new artist. (Steel Wool) 

25. Car Seat Headrest, “Teens of Denial”

12. Car Seat Headrest,
Photo Credit: Matador Records

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. (Matador):

24. Radiohead, “A Moon-Shaped Pool”

11. Radiohead,
Photo Credit: Xl Recordings

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. Read the review here. (XL)

23. Weezer, “Weezer”

10. Weezer,
Photo Credit: Atlantic Records

“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. Read the review here. (Crush Music/Atlantic)

22. Lori McKenna, “The Bird & The Rifle”

Lori McKenna's
Photo Credit: CN/Thirty Tigers Records

In true country form, McKenna writes a lot about broken relationships, but they are filled with real, often flawed people. It’s clear what side she’s on in the album’s title track, which tells the story of a dysfunctional couple, but she tries to explain where each side is coming from. Read the review here. (CN)

21. Modern Baseball, “Holy Ghost”

9. Modern Baseball,
Photo Credit: Run for Cover Records

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. (Run for Cover)

20. Norah Jones, “Day Breaks”

Norah Jones'
Photo Credit: Blue Note Records

Jones is a far more seasoned songwriter now, as seen in the sultry, poetic “Burn,” the angry protest of “Flipside,” and the patient first single “Carry On” with its gorgeous New Orleans vibe. And she can still deliver a knockout ballad like “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love,” while holding her own with greats like saxophonist Wayne Shorter in a classic like Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africaine.” Read the review here. (Blue Note)

19. Anohni, “Hopelessness”

8. Anohni,
Photo Credit: Secretly Canadian Records

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. Read the review here. (Secretly Canadian)

18. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”

Leonard Cohen’s “I Want It Darker.” (September 21,
Photo Credit: Columbia

Like David Bowie, the legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen knew he was ill as he worked on what would be his final album. And like Bowie, the illness proved to be an indelible inspiration for a bittersweet album about endings and lessons learned. (Columbia):

17. Panic! at the Disco, “Death of a Bachelor”

7. Panic! at the Disco,
Photo Credit: Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen

Brendon Urie seems determined to graduate from being one of the leaders of his genre to being one of the leaders of pop. Mission accomplished. Read the review here. (Fueled by Ramen/DCD2)

16. Zayn Malik, “Mind of Mine”

This CD cover image released by RCA shows,
Photo Credit: AP

“Mind of Mine” positioned Malik at the tail end of The Weeknd’s promotional cycle and before Frank Ocean unleashed 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. Read the review here. (RCA)

15. Lucinda Williams, “Ghosts of Highway 20”

5. Lucinda Williams,
Photo Credit: Thirty Tigers Records

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. Read the review here. (Thirty Tigers)

14. Mitski, “Puberty 2”

Puberty 2
Photo Credit: Dead Oceans

Mitski Miyawaki toughened up her sound on her fourth album, “Puberty 2,” ripping a page from the Courtney Barnett songbook to add slicing, grungy guitars to her arsenal of gorgeously strained anthems like “Your Best American Girl” or the raging “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.”  (Dead Oceans):

13. Green Day, “Revolution Radio”

This cover image released by Warner Bros. Records
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Records

The band’s new album “Revolution Radio” was done essentially in secret and, for the first time since 2000’s “Warning,” has no overarching theme. But the freedom to write whatever they want seems to have energized Billie Joe Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt and drummer Tré Cool to deliver plenty of great songs on a wide range of topics. Read the review here. (Reprise)

12. Bon Iver, “22, A Million”

Bon Iver's
Photo Credit: Jagjaguwar Records

About halfway through “22, A Million,” Bon Iver’s stunning third album, Justin Vernon’s voice starts to come into its own. No falsetto. Less processing through the Vocoder-like, voice-bending software. Just Vernon sounding warmer, sweeter, stronger than ever. Read the review here. (Jagjaguwar)

11. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service”

A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From
Photo Credit: Epic

In yet another 2016 surprise, A Tribe Called Quest pay tribute to the late Phife Dawg by reuniting and delivering their first album in 18 years. But Q-Tip and Jarobi White didn’t just mine the past, they offered one of hip-hop’s timeliest albums, filled with the conscious rap lyrics they are known for in the hard-hitting “The Space Program” and “Melatonin.” (Epic)

10. Taking Back Sunday, “Tidal Wave”

Taking Back Sunday's
Photo Credit: Hopeless Records

On their new album “Tidal Wave,” the Long Beach-based band have regained loftier ambitions, bending any number of rock genres to their wills to create their most diverse album yet while still maintaining a cohesive sound. Read the review here. (Hopeless)

9. Against Me!, “Shape Shift With Me”

Against Me's
Photo Credit: Total Treble Records

Laura Jane Grace, who came out as a transgender woman in 2012, made a powerful statement about identity with the band’s 2014 album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues.” With “Shape Shift With Me,” she is once again balancing the personal with the political, but with a bit more subtlety and humor. Read the review here. (Total Treble)

8. De La Soul, “And the Anonymous Nobody”

De La Soul album And the Anonymous Nobody.

The trio’s first album in 12 years is packed with friends and collaborators — including Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, Usher, David Byrne, Snoop Dogg, Estelle and Jill Scott. But the real stars are still Pos, Dave and Maseo, whose vision for the album is as ambitious as they come. Read the review here. (AOI)

7. Kanye West, “The Life of Pablo”

3. Kanye West,
Photo Credit: Peter De Potter

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. Read the review here. (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam):

6. Frank Ocean, “Blonde”

Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” on Def Jam Recordings
Photo Credit: Def Jam Recordings

While many of the best moments of “Channel Orange” came when Ocean was seemingly swept away by emotion, on “Blonde,” he is strictly in control. Read the review here. (Boys Don't Cry)

5. David Bowie, “Blackstar”

4. David Bowie,
Photo Credit: ISO/Columbia Records

Bowie has 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. Read the review here. (ISO/Columbia) 

4. Paul Simon, “Stranger to Stranger”

2. Paul Simon,
Photo Credit: Concord Records

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. Read the review here. (Concord)

3. Swet Shop Boys, “Cashmere”

Cashmere by Swet Shop Boys ( Customs Records,Oct
Photo Credit: Customs Records

“Cashmere” never gets too heavy, thanks to uplifting South Asian-inspired beats from producer Redinho and the Swet Shop Boys’ sense of humor that’s baked into even the darkest songs. One minute they are worrying about the effect of hate on their nephews, the next they are talking about disposable contact lenses. It sounds just like life. Read the review here. (Customs)

2. Miranda Lambert, 'The Weight of These Wings'

Miranda Lambert's
Photo Credit: Vanner/RCA Nashville Records

Years from now, people will simply marvel at the way Lambert, who wrote or co-wrote 20 of the 24 tracks, crystallized all sorts of country influences — from classic Dolly Parton to the stadium-rock feel of her touring pal Kenny Chesney — into something that’s all her own. Read the review here. (Vanner/RCA Nashville)

1. Beyoncé, "Lemonade"

1. Beyoncé,
Photo Credit: Sony

Queen Bey’s most personal album is also her most political, expanding her kingdom beyond R&B and hip-hop to include rock, reggae and even country. The crowning achievement, though, is “Formation,” which combines self-affirmation and calls for unity with a tribute to hard work and the need to “slay.” Read the review here. (Parkwood/Columbia)

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