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17 Damn Good Albums From 2016

Swan songs for civilization.

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In no particular order.

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1. Rihanna — Anti

Westbury Road

Anti, no more easy to pin down than its divinely self-assured creator, found Rihanna playing to each of her disparate strengths: savage sex symbol ("Needed Me," "Sex With Me"), hopeless romantic ("Love on the Brain"), boundlessly inventive vocal stylist ("Consideration"). In "Work," it gave us an instantly iconic pop love song perfectly attuned to its time — emotionally and psychically punctured, but still bobbing upstream.

Play this now: "Consideration"

2. Frank Ocean — Blonde

Frank Ocean

Ocean's long-awaited and dazzlingly layered return to music plays like a series of interrelated, impressionistic sketches on the profound and the profane. The preternaturally gifted songwriter uses ethereal organs, dreamy guitar, and a drawerful of voice effects to conjure ghosts of longing and alienation — from his peers, from his romantic partners, and from his god. On Blonde's soulful highlights including "Ivy," "Pink + White," and "Self Control," he's an unflinching excavator of his own conflicting emotions, turning the rawest of materials into luminous mosaics.

Play this now: "Self Control"

3. Beyoncé — Lemonade

Columbia

No other musician alive is this popular and this fearless, this polished and this giving, this accomplished and this hungry. The songs on Lemonade — setting aside the stunning hour-long film that accompanied them — will break your heart and put it back together again, claiming yet new emotional territory for Beyoncé's reliably innovative pop craft.

Play this now: "Sorry"

4. Michael Kiwanuka — Love & Hate

Polydor

Though it was less heralded than some others on this list, few albums released this year (or in any recent year) simply sound as gorgeous as Love & Hate does. Kiwanuka's voice, a balmy update of Bill Withers (with a splash of Damon Albarn), could melt the most frigid of hearts. And his formidable backing band — including a full string section and choir — imbues his aching soul songs with cinematic grandeur. An ambitious leap from his more reverent but critically acclaimed 2012 debut Home Again, Love & Hate feels classic while deftly sidestepping staid revivalism. In the modern, internet-enabled tradition of cultural sampling, it synthesizes '60s psych rock, '70s soul, '90s Brit-pop, Afrobeat, and gospel into something both timeless and forward-looking.

Play this now: "Love & Hate"

5. Solange — A Seat at the Table

Columbia

A Seat at the Table goes down like a sweet tonic. Deeply personal and unapologetically political, the album's great thematic triumph is a concerted response to the problems of racial and sexist oppression rooted in self-actualization and communal empowerment, rather than righteous rage or blind hope. It's a balm for when the world has you weary, and a reminder of music's power to both clarify suffering and put it in due perspective.

Play this now: "Cranes in the Sky"

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6. David Bowie — Blackstar

ISO/Columbia

Bowie's final album appeared suddenly and miraculously just two days before his death from liver cancer (which he suffered privately, never having made a public announcement about his disease). Blackstar was a fittingly adventurous capstone to a legendarily eclectic career. Created with the help of a New York jazz ensemble, its loose, madcap energy is the last testament of a fervently restless soul. Single "Lazarus," the album's most overt elegy, is unforgettable.

Play this now: "Lazarus"

7. Chance The Rapper — Coloring Book

Chance the Rapper

Of all the ways Coloring Book defied convention — its lack of a record label, its streaming-only release, its self-professed classification as a "mixtape" — by far the most improbable, and impressive, came via the music itself. Chance found a holy trinity in transregional pluralism ("Mixtape," "Smoke Break"), misty-eyed nostalgia ("Summer Friends," "Same Drugs"), and the Christian spiritual joy of gospel music (pretty much the full tracklist), overturning all existing models of what a mainstream rap star should sound like. In a year when new heroes weren't always in great supply, Chance was a breath of fresh air.

Play this now: "All Night"

8. Anderson .Paak — Malibu

Steel Wool

One of the true breakout stars of 2016, Anderson .Paak was seemingly everywhere — a distinctive, soulful presence on eclectic albums from A Tribe Called Quest, Mac Miller, Kaytranada, Chance the Rapper, Schoolboy Q, and others. Malibu, his first solo full-length since his anointing as The Next Big Thing by Dr. Dre on last year's Compton, is a zig-zagging introduction to the singer and multi-instrumentalist's omnivorous brand of neo-funk. The breezy "Am I Wrong," with its thick slabs of bass and exuberant horn outro, bottles the blue-sky, carefree spirit of the album's namesake beach town into an instant mood-booster.

Play this now: "Am I Wrong"

9. Young Thug — Slime Season 3

300 Entertainment

Hip-hop's most inexhaustibly prolific, persistently inventive, effortlessly influential ATLien dropped three projects this year (I'm Up in February, Jeffery in August), but March's Slime Season 3 is the banger. Just eight songs, it knocks from start to finish, with delirious highs ("Drippin," "Digits,") that capture Thug at his propulsive, playful best.

Play this now: "Drippin"

10. Bruno Mars — 24K Magic

Atlantic Recordings

Bruno Mars is very hard not to like, and 24K Magic demonstrates why. There's little here that we could call new or progressive, but Mars's refashioned, pop-facing R&B jams are so slyly and skillfully rendered, so eager to please, that resistance becomes an exercise in futility. In 2016, the '80s and '90s party pop of "24K Magic" and "That's What I Like" offered exactly the kind of uncomplicated feel-good vibes we needed.

Play this now: "That's What I Like"

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11. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service

Epic Records

A tribute to late founding member Phife Dawg ("The Five Foot Assassin"), and so much more, the unexpected final Tribe album is brimming with urgency and verve. Rather than retread the laid-back funk and jazz of their youth, Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi flank their bass-heavy beats with stentorian rock and industrial sounds, jettisoning any notions of going gently into the good night. The posthumous voice of Phife, who died in March after a long battle with diabetes but recorded several verses for this project, makes for heady listening. But the mood is never sorrowful. On "We the People...," "Dis Generation," and "Conrad Tokyo," the group defies gravity once more.

Play this now: "Dis Generation"

12. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool

XL Recordings

No one does dystopia like Radiohead, but on their ninth album, the band balance their signature foreboding imagery and atmospherics with sweeping, orchestral beauty. Thom Yorke's stirringly confessional songwriting creates moments of both surprising tenderness and, following this year's global political upheavals, deep resonance. "Dreamers, they never learn," he sings on "Daydream." It's a line that could be delivered with fire, but he sounds utterly heartbroken.

Play this now: "Daydreaming"

13. Swet Shop Boys — Cashmere

Customs

Riz Ahmed and Himanshu Suri's hip-hop tag team brilliantly captured the roiling mix of pride, indignity, and righteous anger felt by many in the Middle Eastern and South Asian diasporas in 2016. But Cashmere's alternately witty and cutting observations on life under white supremacy (like from the TSA-targeting "T5": "Always get the random check when I rock the stubble") are likely to hit close to home for people of color, descendants of immigrants, and sociopolitical outsiders of many stripes. At a time when brown people are still the subject of precious few first-person narratives in mainstream media and culture, the Swet Shop Boys rap like their very existence depends on it. Cashmere is both immediately gratifying and a powerful argument for broader representation in art.

Play this now: "Shottin"

14. Blood Orange — Freetown Sound

Domino Recording Co.

Solemn and deeply felt, Dev Hynes' ambitious meditation on being black in post-Ferguson America takes free jazz, R&B ballads, and Michael Jackson's world-healing pop in its sweep. Highlights "Best to You" feat. Empress Of, "Hadron Collider" feat. Nelly Furtado, and "Desiree" hold you in their hypnotic thrall.

Play this now: "Best to You"

15. Mitski — Puberty 2

Dead Oceans

Though she's standing on the shoulders of alternative giants — St. Vincent, TV on the Radio, Angel Olsen, Weezer — Mitski's deadpan, diaristic songwriting puts a fiercely individualistic spin on left-of-center indie rock. These songs, about the agony and ennui of your mid-twenties, channel the compound anxieties (romantic, economic, social) of coming of age at exactly this moment.

Play this now: "Your Best American Girl"

16. Kanye West — The Life of Pablo

Good Music/Def Jam

Despite his recent Trumped-up meltdown, there may be no more sublime piece of music released this year than "Ultralight Beam", the opener and skeleton key to Kanye's stubbornly confounding and sporadically thrilling seventh album. Its transcendent production and stunning performances — from Kelly Price, The-Dream, Kirk Franklin, and Chance the Rapper — are new testaments to West's aptitude for assembling a wide array of musical talent and extracting moments of genius from creative chaos. Other high points, including "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" and "Pt. 2," "Famous," and "Waves," are uniformly life-affirming, joining the spiritual and the corporeal in a way that only Kanye can.

Play this now: "Ultralight Beam"

17. Kaytranada — 99.9%

XL Recordings

This is music as release valve. A shimmering collage of house, disco, hip-hop, and R&B, Haitian-Canadian electronic producer Kaytranada's debut album, 99.9%, is a soundtrack for vibrant days and ecstatic nights. A tasteful supporting cast of guest vocalists, including Phonte, Anderson .Paak, and Little Dragon, contribute to an elite round-robin of convivial vibes.

Play this now: "Leave Me Alone"

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