As 2016 comes to a close, it was hardly a surprise that Oxford Dictionary selected "post-truth" as its word of the year, fitting for such a bizarre time in history.
Despite the ridiculousness of the last 12 months, music really came through, with this being an absolute standout year for comebacks, marquee albums, groundbreaking debuts and heartbreaking farewells.
As in previous years, we've selected 50 of our favorites from a list of hundreds. And as difficult a task as it was, we believe the final list is a reflection of the best and brightest of the various genres we cover.
Our 2016 year-end coverage will continue through the month of December with Best Songs of the Year, Artists of the Year, Best TV Shows of the Year and our 2017 FutureSounds picks, among others.
See the 50 Best Albums below.
50. Brandy Clark
Big Day in a Small Town
A big and brash set of songs from the songwriter-turned-frontwoman, who’s clearly still adjusting to the spotlight but embracing it all the same. Rather than using her major label debut to deliver a safe, whispering coffee shop LP, Clark went for the stompers, the stadiums, the stars. And it was worth it.
49. Francis and the Lights
Francis Farewell Starlite quietly set up this great launchpad during the second half of the year. With co-signs from the likes of Justin Vernon and Chance the Rapper, expectations were definitely high. Perhaps unreasonably so. It’s not flawless, but it’s a dazzling, earnest record, giving listeners a preview of Starlite’s untapped potential.
48. Glass Animals
How to Be a Human Being
The perfect followup to the band’s 2014 debut ZABA, this new album was a splashy, inventive offering. Just as weird and fizzy as their first album, this time around, there was a confidence we hadn’t heard before, which is immediately promising, considering the band’s relative youth and wide open future.
47. Isaiah Rashad
The Sun's Tirade
While it’s true the Chattanooga emcee seemed to hold himself back at times throughout this proper debut, he easily built on the foundation of his Cilvia Demo EP. It was also admirable to hear such personal honesty, with distinct references to drugs, alcohol and addiction, of which he’s struggled with during the making of the record.
46. Empire of the Sun
It’s clearly going to be hard to top their 2008 debut Walking on a Dream, but Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore seem to be up for the challenge. The Aussie duo made the ultimate sacrifice and recorded part of the new album in the paradise of Hawaii, which influenced the summery sound and perhaps allowed the pair to push themselves to expand musically.
The Oklahoma rockers flipped the script on their third album, exploring different sonic waves and prompting listeners who may have felt they had the band all summed up realizing BRONCHO can’t be pigeonholed quite that easily. The group deserves credit for venturing out and exploring new territory, yet maintaining their distinct knack for crafting ridiculously catchy gems.
Sure, the album was No. 1 for a quarter of the year. And it’s a good, commercial record, for an artist who’s a good, commercial music figure. If Drizzy had a checklist for the album, he likely checked off all the boxes. He got his first No. 1 song. He had a massive tour. He Snapped Kevin Durant. All great things. But Views also showed us an artist who’s increasingly comfortable, at a time when rap music is quickly evolving.
43. River Tiber
This was one the year’s most underrated albums—period. After his song “No Talk” was sampled by fellow Toronto native Drake, Tommy Paxton-Beesley (aka River Tiber) worked with the likes of Pusha T and Kaytranada, and gave us a mesmerizing debut. A gripping, melancholic 12-song set which demands listeners’ full attention from start to finish.
Christopher Gallant is the future. He’s had our attention since his 2013 track “If It Hurts” and with his debut album he proved he is here for the long haul. Having long confirmed his stunning vocal abilities, the album allowed him to showcase the power of his very personal songwriting, which at times seemed painfully confessional.
41. The Weeknd
Abel Tesfaye is clearly one of the biggest stars of his generation and he’s not slowing down any time soon. With his latest entry, just over a year after his previous record, The Weeknd didn’t take many big risks or set out to reveal a different side of himself. Instead, he banked on the familiar, trusting fans would follow. Perhaps that was in fact the risk.
No fireworks or fancy production on this album. Just a straightforward, pure acoustic album from Jeff Tweedy and the gang. It might not be the band’s most spectacular or innovative record, but in the middle of the muck of 2016, it seemed timely. For those souls in need of comfort food, Wilco indeed hit the spot.
The Manchester songstress has had our hearts in the palm of her hand for the past couple of years. And with her debut album, she managed to give away just enough of her own while leaving a veil of mystery. The way she so effortlessly flutters from shiny, neon pop to tear-jerking ballads is truly an art.
38. Travis Scott
Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight
With guest appearances from Kanye West to André 3000 to Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott risked being overshadowed by such a weighty roster. Instead, he shined, proving himself a star enough to bring together such talent but also confident enough to lean on each artist—many of them with much more storied careers—to make up for his own weaknesses.
Chicago’s Fatimah Warner gave fans a summer treat with this debut album, a humble but confident record. The Chance the Rapper collaborator made up for the two-year wait with an honest album looking inward just as much as outward. From personal relationships to police brutality to struggles with addiction, she goes there. And the result was poetic gold.
Light Upon The Lake
Former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek and Unknown Mortal Orchestra vet Julien Ehrlich together are a force to be reckoned with, as they made clear on their first album together. It’s a crisp, quick listen, but considering its source material of breakups and regret, it seems appropriate that they didn’t linger too long, dwelling on the past. As they look ahead into this phase of their career, it was quite the perfect intro.
For an album that almost never happened, it might be the South Carolina rockers’ most tangible yet. It was born out of the band’s near-split due to a number of internal struggles. But the finished product is a raw, very real, very relevant record. The group has for years straddled the line of big faith and major festivals (they’re one of the best live acts around), but the world of Christian music is mostly high octane and shiny veneer, which has never suited NEEDTOBREATHE. On Hard Love, they maintained their roots, but they also revealed a more human layer of themselves while proving to be stadium-worthy rock giants.
The road to Anti might have been a windy one, but after building a hefty career by conquering the pop charts with one massive single after another, Rihanna showed us she’s feeling a new level of confidence in her own artistry. Thus, she put out a truly rich, well-crafted album not dependent on one song. Time will tell what it means for the singer long-term, but it certainly seemed like the end of an old, rusty chapter and the beginning of a new, clear-eyed one.
33. BJ The Chicago Kid
In My Mind
After lending his voice to the likes of heavyweights such as Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, the Chicago singer finally had his big moment in the sun this year. His sophomore album, which also marked his major label debut on Motown Records, solidified his standing as one of this generation’s most formidable soul singers.
At first, it seemed the New Jersey quintet released an album 10 years past due. But it became quickly apparent, despite the clear Wilco, Built to Spill-esque influences, this was definitive 2016. A perfectly organic, undiluted record, offering a glimmer of hope as it navigated the roadblocks of life, something especially relatable.
31. Bruno Mars
With just nine tracks, the pop star swooped in at the tail end of the year with a glitzy, cohesive album serving as a bit of an escape after a whirlwind year. Maybe it’s short on bangers, but Bruno knew what we needed—and maybe we didn’t need bangers. For an artist at this blockbuster level of his career, it seemed this record was less about meeting expectations or demands and rather just releasing the sleek jams he wanted on his terms.
30. How to Dress Well
Tom Krell is quite simply one of the most honest songwriters around, and that showed on his fourth studio album. While his voice is flawless as ever, he went with his gut and followed his deepest pop intuitions, with help from collaborators such as Jack Antonoff and Dre Skull. However, the biggest risk wasn’t that he might stray too far from his indie roots, but instead that he showed so much of himself in an arguably sincere way.
29. Young Thug
For an artist who recently declared “there’s no such thing as gender,” this new project (technically a mixtape) marked an exciting new chapter for the emcee. It also seemed to be defined by a fresh energy and freedom, perhaps reflective of the rapper’s decision to identify by his birth name Jeffery Williams. It may not have been a game changer, but he definitely challenged some of the limits of rap and society.
28. Parquet Courts
This was simply an impeccable record and perhaps the Brooklyn outfit’s best of their career. Their tendency to explore fused with bursts of new energy also suggests the band is feeling more assured about themselves and the kind of music they’re capable of making.
27. Jamila Woods
Following a run as half of the Chicago duo M&O, the Chance the Rapper affiliate put out this important, necessary solo debut, anchored by her celestial vocal abilities but defined by her impassioned critiques of recent racial struggles in America. Despite the very distinct angst, she is standing tall, full of hope and sharing her very personal story with listeners.
A sharp, uncompromising album, this record was probably as paramount to the future of grime as it was to Skepta’s own discography. Having gotten lost in the shuffle of the wobbly genre he previously helped champion, this album was also symbolic of an artist taking back his mantle. And with guest appearances from the likes of A$AP Nast and Pharrell, it’s not just about England—he’s coming for America.
25. Nicolas Jaar
The New York-based musician plunged into his roots on this record, tackling Chilean history and politics, but the project was also cloaked in mystery. There’s a swagger about the six tracks, one of which is over 11 minutes long, with each song pulling listeners in, begging to be heard and reheard, if only because there’s so much to digest that one listen isn’t enough.
24. Jon Bellion
The Human Condition
The 25-year-old Long Island native’s debut full-length was truly something special, reflective of its very unique and brilliantly talented creator. Bellion has made clear it’s a concept album, with artwork and lyrics all inspired by a hypothetical Pixar movie. And while such a film has so far resided only in the singer’s head, it’s a testament of his artistic vision and ambition, especially at a time when music is so rapidly consumed and then tossed aside.
23. Leonard Cohen
You Want It Darker
It was certainly fitting that his final album, arriving just three weeks before his death in November, was some of his best material yet. With his husky voice on full display and lyrics alluding to the finish line, the album never overwhelmingly suggests finality. Although it’s clear now he knew it was his final chapter, it’s a reminder of the timelessness of his music, which will live on.
22. Margo Price
Midwest Farmer's Daughter
The up-and-coming songstress exceeded expectations with her debut, which more than validated her inaugural signing to Jack White’s Third Man Records. Having been compared to country goddesses like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, Price is a fresh face with an old sound, but she did things her way on this first album. The result was a pure, valiant record good for the backwoods as much as for the city.
21. Kanye West
The Life of Pablo
Not quite the masterpiece of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, this record was reflective of a pivotal time for West. Of course, it’s drenched in his genius, the carefully crafted work of a perfectionist, but as was evidenced by the messy release (and re-release), it’s clear this was an album Ye needed to make for himself at a specific point in his own life. We may never know the full story of Pablo, but there are a lot of layers to it that have nothing to do with music.
20. Danny Brown
As a lyricist, this was the Detroit emcee’s best work. Unlike on some of his previous material, he wasn’t playing around this time. In fact, the album is largely absent of festival EDM-friendly cuts and is instead bleak and rather haunting. There’s a chill to the record throughout its 15 tracks, but even at its most unsettling moments, it’s entrancing, further proof of his staying power.
19. Anderson .Paak
An album with breathtaking instrumentation and even more stunning lyrics, it’s proof of .Paak’s precision, his undeniable talent and his strength. He speaks candidly on the record about growing up without a father (he was in prison) and facing a number of family struggles, but the album isn’t about the mess. It’s about the aftermath—a 16-song message of empowerment for those who don’t feel worthy.
18. James Blake
The Colour in Anything
The British singer-producer didn’t lose his touch with his third record. While he did seem to fall back on some of his familiar methods, it’s because they worked. Once again, he relied on his reliable instincts and gave fans a rather introspective album, flooded with emotion and inspired by the musician’s broken heart, while leaving himself room to wander musically.
While Louis Celestin definitely put out an album so definitively 2016, it also seemed to be of the future, offering a melting pot of soundscapes and genres, with guest features from Anderson .Paak, AlunaGeorge, River Tiber and BADBADNOTGOOD, among others. As his first full-length, it was a riveting formal introduction for an artist who has spent the past few years proving himself as a remix and experimental phenom.
16. Maren Morris
Even though this was her fourth album, as her major label debut, it marked a true genesis. Bursting with fresh energy, the polished record was laced with country flourishes, but it was pure pop at its core, evidence of her immense potential to broaden her appeal far beyond the walls of country—which isn’t exactly a growing demographic.
15. Childish Gambino
“Awaken, My Love!”
The man born Donald Glover capped his stunning year with this gripping funk record, ditching the bars of his recent rap past for some grown-up soul. And although it’s clearly a departure, even with its short notice prior to release, it never seems manufactured or untrue. Instead, it comes across as Glover’s logical next move, and perhaps the result of giving in and finally exploring the sounds a younger Gambino might have shied away from.
A Moon Shaped Pool
Three decades in, Thom Yorke and Co. created an album that could easily serve as a dazzling finish. But it also feels like the start of something new. While it’s a trademark Radiohead record, it doesn’t cling to the band’s past success. It channels those triumphs into a compelling work of art and resulting in some of the band’s most refreshing work in years.
13. Miranda Lambert
The Weight of These Wings
If you’re going to put out a two-disc album, it sure as hell better be a good one. And oh, this one was glorious. Coming off a rocky two years and marking the first new material since the collapse of her marriage, Miranda Lambert poured her heart and soul into this record. All the heartache, mess and perseverance. And despite the album’s very personal contents, she also managed to venture left when she could have gone right, exploring different sounds and proving she’s not just vital to country music—she’s one of the most important voices in music, period.
A brave, beautiful debut solo album from the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty. While Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never deserve credit for their co-writing and production contributions, ANOHNI should be applauded for this protest record, released in the middle of such a murky political climate and still poetically disarming and thick with stunning commentary. Lyrically, it’s crushing at times, but that’s part of why it’s so relevant.
11. Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor's Guide to Earth
For all that’s been said about the Kentucky singer’s relationship with Nashville, this album proved he’s not trying to be “outlaw country” or stir the pot just for the sake of doing so, he’s just bigger than any particular genre of music. With this extraordinarily personal record, he gave fans a stunner of an album which demands their full attention.
10. The 1975
I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
While the British outfit will likely retain many critics, their sophomore album is so much more than its ridiculous title. They could have easily followed up their debut with a safe, schmaltzy pop record, but instead they took big risks and saw quite the payoff. In fact, there were probably few other pop offerings this year with such a meticulous attention to detail. And it’s only up from here.
09. Angel Olsen
One would be hard pressed to find another 2016 album so real and so pure. Somehow the North Carolina-based singer outdid herself with this ambitious and self-confident record. Just minutes into the album, it’s clear Olsen has a firmer grasp of herself as a person and as an artist. There’s a refreshing clarity, a progression from her last album. And track by track, it just builds with intensity, leaving listeners yearning for whatever is next.
A Seat at the Table
This album was clearly a long time coming and it’s easily the best of the younger Knowles sister’s career. While there have been plenty of politically-charged releases in recent years, the beauty of Solange’s delivery is in how she can offer razor-sharp rebukes and share the very real tension of being black and proud, but coated in rich melodies and steered brilliantly by that divine voice, she was the Mary Poppins of 2016. Because “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” right?
07. Frank Ocean
Even though the wait was painful for his Channel Orange followup, Frank Ocean made sure he did it right—and on his terms. The album was a complex creation, defined by agony, joy and ambiguity. While the crooner left many blanks for listeners to fill in, it also seemed intimate and personal. It’s also clear that in the long four years since his last album, Ocean has matured significantly, allowing him to make a record that reveals itself in new ways after each listen.
06. A Tribe Called Quest
We got it from Here…. Thank You 4 Your service
The group could have easily banked on nostalgia and called it a day. Rather, they crafted a timeless final record. Instead of leaning on ‘90s rap greatness, they channeled their skills into a modern work of art and an admirable tribute to the late Phife Dawg. Coming back after two decades can’t be an attractive undertaking, but Tribe exceeded expectations.
05. Bon Iver
22, A Million
Justin Vernon proved he could do it again. This time, it was a jarring, nuanced odyssey, one which challenged longtime fans of the band largely because it had challenged Vernon and his bandmates. The multi-hyphenate musician, who’s quickly become an unconventional superstar, poured more of himself into this record, leaving blemishes exposed and even holding up a magnifying glass to them at times. It’s clear he’s still trying to make sense of the world before him, but he sure managed to put out a quintessential record along the way.
04. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
It’s quite possibly Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ most cohesive and expressive album, but it also happens to be the darkest. In all of its 39 minutes, the pain is raw and undeniably evident. But unlike Cave’s past tendencies to gravitate toward loss and anguish, with fictional characters and story lines, this time it’s personal. His 15-year-old son died in an accident while the band was still in the studio, lending to the album’s sense of grief and its heart-wrenching narrative.
She’s one of the biggest stars on the planet, but on her sixth studio album, she’s an artist fully realized, ready to take ownership of her incredible platform. While Lemonade immediately plays like an ode to infidelity and offers listeners more questions than answers, the record is about far more than some “Becky with the good hair.” It’s arguably not even about Beyoncé. Considering how much of her public narrative has long been carefully constructed, it’s unclear how much of the album is just teasing the looky-loos. Ultimately, the record is simply about being a woman—a black woman—proud of who she is and giving voice to the many of whom feel helpless or left behind. Of all the great things she’s done throughout her career, there’s something truly admirable about an artist of Beyoncé’s caliber speaking up with such fervency for the marginalized and those who see themselves in her—knowing she’d attract the scorn of Fox News and people who would rather we just not "see color" so we don’t have to talk about race at all. In an age with racial tensions as they are and with white supremacy being made to look cute and cuddly, Lemonade is a massive achievement. And it extends far beyond music or HBO specials.
02. David Bowie
The jazz-infused record at first seemed like a bold, fresh new chapter in the music icon’s catalog. He had previously wanted to make a jazz album, and perhaps this was his chance to do just that. Far from safe, it was brimming with novelty and crisp energy. But despite its newness, it was really his way of saying goodbye without actually doing so. The fact that Bowie released the album on his 69th birthday, two days before his death, proved it wasn’t just a new chapter, it was the final one. Co-producer Tony Visconti has since called it the singer’s “parting gift” for fans, as if he owed us anything at all. But a gift it truly was, a spectacular, timeless album with the music legend’s fingerprints on every fragment of it, his breath forever giving life to this last capsule of wonder.
01. Chance the Rapper
The line of critics eager to point out Chicago’s problems isn’t a short one. It might be tempting for many—especially non-residents—to bemoan the city as a sort of violence-stricken wasteland. And with his star quickly on the rise, 23-year-old Chancelor Bennett could have crafted a respectable album or mixtape lamenting the city’s struggles—or his own—without much opposition. But as he’s been proving for the past three years, he can’t be confined to music genres or label deals or industry rules in general. He doesn’t consider Coloring Book his official debut album, which is totally fine, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was the best, must-hear musical composition of the year, confirming Chance’s status as one of the most definitive voices of this generation. Throughout the 14 tracks of Coloring Book, he didn’t boast about the familiar hip-hop escapades. Instead, he declared that he’s “got angels,” that he “[speaks] to God in public” and that he makes songs “for freedom.” Yeah, but what about the inner city and the crime and the bitches? Nah, he made a song with Kirk Franklin and a gospel choir. And it’s not that he doesn’t reside in reality. It’s that he lives it everyday, he knows how bleak this world can be, and he still feels optimistic. He’s seen agony up close and he still has hope for tomorrow. He’s had his own shortcomings and he still believes in redemption. With all that seems to be wrong with society and the world at large, Chance the Rapper is a reminder of what’s right with it. And Coloring Book was the gospel hip-hop album we needed, for such a time as this.
Editor's Note: Best Albums selections and commentary by Janna Davis, Rachel Faylene, Lindsay Howard, Emily Hulseberg, Josh Morris, Jonathan Robles & Tyler Schmitt