(Album art links to Amazon, title links to Spotify)
1. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Whether it’s all marketing theatre or a legitimate examination of a marital breakdown, the Queen has used it to give her subjects the best album of the year, and the best of her life. Ignore the hype, put on some headphones, and just listen. And bow down.
2. Lady Gaga – Joanne
The album she should have made after Born This Way. Raw, sparse, lyrical, fun, gut-wrenching. We all knew the range she was capable of, especially after a Tony Bennett album and her stunning Oscar and Super Bowl performances. The big surprise was going inward for even more.
3. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Ace finally, finally, makes a full album of coherent narrative biographical rap. It’s still light years beyond and above anything anyone else is doing in hip-hop, but bringing it back down to earth was just what the game needed.
4. Thrice – To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere
A few years away as a solo artist is all Dustin Kensrue needed to bring his band into clear, concise focus. The best political album of the year reminds us that even in the Age of Trump that war is hell, drones are bad, transparency is good, and love is all we need.
The best Broadway musical and one of the most inspired artistic works of all time necessarily spins off the best compilation of the year. Much less focused than its source, but still full of unique and diverse takes on Lin Manuel-Miranda’s magnum opus.
6. Rihanna – ANTI
Nostalgia is all the rage, but no one uses it like RiRi to move her art forward instead of backward. From the 60s to the 90s, the influences are clear, but the music is definitively now. The lead single inspired one of the best memes of the year.
7. Run the Jewels – RTJ3
Rap’s most unexpected blockbuster duo surprised us with another Christmas Fucking Miracle by dropping their album three weeks early (and as usual, for free). The trademark fists are gold-plated, and so are the verses and beats. “Thursday in the Danger Room” should be the next In Memoriam song for the Oscars.
8. Sia – This is Acting
While the best album of the year may be called Lemonade, Sia actually made it here, taking a full album of rejected songs she wrote for other artists and making it into a #1 album, #1 single, and three Grammy nominations. Not bad for a singer whose face we haven’t seen this decade.
9. The Weeknd – Starboy
Occasionally an artist will have an album span two years on the charts at #1. It’s much more rare to have two different albums at #1 in consecutive years, but The Weeknd’s filthy, fluid r&b makes it look easy. There’s too much mid-album filler here, but collabs by Daft Punk, Future, Kendrick Lamar, and another brief Lana Del Ray appearance keep things fresh.
10. Years & Years – Communion
I missed the original release last year, but the deluxe reissue in March helps me make penance to the new kings of twink-pop. The thump, the groove, the yearning, the lust; it’s all very sinful and delicious.
11. Tegan & Sara – Love You to Death
The followup to their seventh album, a revolutionary breakout more than a decade and a half into their critically acclaimed career, LY2D was destined to fall short. It does, but only a little, with surprising gems like “100x” making up a fair share of the slack.
12. Deftones – Gore
Chino & Co have settled into a trademark groove unlike anyone else, which can sometimes get stale. But there’s enough new ideas here to keep the band moving forward. “Phantom Bride” with Jerry Cantrell on guitar is one of the most deceptively catchy rock songs in a decade.
13. Phantogram – Three
Spending a year hanging out with the funky half of Outkast on their collaboration, Big Grams, has done this alt-electronic duo a world of good. Their beats are fresher, their lyrics sharper, their tunes bigger.
14. Lou Rhodes – theeyesandeye
The voice of Lamb often sounds like one, but that doesn’t mean she can’t roar. As expected, her solo work is more acoustic and ethereal than her day job. On anthems like “All I Need” that makes it a strength, not a weakness.
15. Nine Inch Nails – Not the Actual Events
If they had managed to get out a full album, it would’ve been top 5. Loud, confident, funky. I would like to hear alternate, more stripped down takes on these songs, though. There could be an unexpected torch song or two here just waiting to be discovered.
16. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
I have no idea what any of it means, art, titles, lyrics, but goodness is it lovely. The live version of “8 (circle)” is heavenly.
17. The Pretty Reckless – Who You Selling For?
Not quite the heavily melodic tour-de-force of their previous release, this one has more of a moody, bluesy swagger. Fortunately, that makes the bangers stand even taller when they come.
18. Dustin Kensrue – Thoughts that Float on a Different Blood
The gravely Thrice singer’s solo acoustic shows are known for their left field covers, so it only made sense to compile them on an album. From Radiohead to Lorde to Miley Cyrus, Kensrue slays them all, like a Millennial Tom Waits. (Yes, he covers him too.)
19. Mike Posner – At Night, Alone.
If you expected the best acoustic confessional album this year to be released by bro-pop missing person Mike Posner, you’re a liar. But after all, it is 2016, and #lolnothingmatters.
20. Panic! At the Disco – Death of a Bachelor
Somehow they become more like and unlike Fall Out Boy with every release. The party-boy braggadocio wears a little thin here about halfway through, but the title track crooner anthem is one of their best.