Critics’ choice: The top five albums of 2016
In a year when the album as art form underwent “an exhilarating Renaissance,” Beyoncé Knowles “upped the ante,” said Lindsay Zoladz in TheRinger.com. Every other A-list pop star who helped fuel the format’s revival was following the example Beyoncé had set with her self-titled 2013 release. But her latest topped them all. On Lemonade, a song cycle that becomes the “achingly candid” outcry and manifesto of a woman wronged, hip-hop’s reigning queen used her husband’s infidelity—or the rumors of it—to take listeners on an emotional roller-coaster ride that reached peak passion with the “seething primal scream” of “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” The record is about more than rage, though, and from that midpoint transitions toward a brave recommitment to love even as it broadens into a celebration of black women’s resilience. Sonically, Lemonade touches “practically every corner of popular music,” said Nolan Feeney in Entertainment Weekly. Rap, rock, country, calypso, and R&B balladry all get time before the star wraps up her 12-song set with the “trunk-rattling” lead single, “Formation.” By then, it’s clear: “Beyoncé leads the pack: Everyone else is just trying to get in line.”
2 Frank Ocean
“Very few artists could get away with an album this formless,” said Tom Breihan in Stereogum.com. But Frank Ocean is a “towering” talent: The young R&B visionary is a masterful enough songwriter that he can ignore standard pop architecture, and he possesses a singularly soulful voice—“conversational but also effortlessly virtuosic, capable of flying off into a heavenly falsetto whenever the mood strikes.” Blond (aka Blonde) arrived four years after Ocean’s acclaimed debut album, and it’s rich in tracks that “drift along impressionistically, expanding and contracting according to their own internal rhythms.” The album’s mood is “druggy and dislocated,” and “snapshots of elusive love” litter the lyric sheet, said Tim Jonze in TheGuardian.com. Once you adjust your ears to the minimalist arrangements, what emerges is “a record of enigmatic beauty, intoxicating depth, and intense emotion.”
3 David Bowie
“There’s never been a musical farewell anything like Blackstar,” said Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone. An “anguished, bittersweet” rumination on mortality, the record was released two days before David Bowie died, and it “gives up fresh mysteries on every listen.” Adding a bold coda to his long career, Bowie for the first time threaded modern jazz into his tapestry of sound, and the results are remarkable— a symphony of mournful saxophone, skittering beats, and Bowie’s still-marvelous, elastic voice. In keeping with the tone of his lyrics, Bowie is “almost a spectre throughout,” said Robert Ham in PasteMagazine.com. His look back at a life lived in the spotlight, and at how death reframes its significance, sounds 11 months later like a closing statement that will, like so much else that Bowie recorded, “resound through the ages.”
4 Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper’s third full-length solo effort is “impossible not to like,” said Jack Hamilton in Slate.com. An “irrepressibly joyous” work that’s “absolutely bursting with melodies,” it’s “the first great hip-hop album to successfully channel the centuries-old musical traditions of the black church without anything like pretense or irony.” Chance, 23, isn’t just a rapper; he’s “an all-purpose vocalist—a killer emcee who skates in and out of singing and scatting,” and he barely has to mention his faith to get across his belief in potential salvation. His hometown of Chicago and his newborn daughter inspire outpourings, too; listening to them “feels like having Chance’s benevolent smile beam right into your heart,” said Adam Kivel in ConsequenceOf Sound.net.In this tumultuous year, no other record “has been as comforting, inspiring, and life-affirming as Coloring Book.”
A Moon Shaped Pool
This lushly produced record is easily “the most beautiful and profoundly emotional” album Radiohead has ever made, said Robin Hilton in NPR.org. Created shortly after singer Thom Yorke split with the mother of his children, it’s short on noisy guitars or fractured polyrhythms and long on “songs of heartache, longing, and surrender.” Among all the “gossamer” arrangements of piano, strings, and acoustic guitar, “traces of the old ways linger,” said Craig Jenkins in NYMag.com. “Decks Dark,” for example, ends with a “positively dirty” three-guitar jam.
Sources used to establish our rankings included Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, NPR.org, PasteMagazine.com, TheRinger.com, Rolling Stone, Time, Vice.com, and The Washington Post.