15. TEGAN AND SARA, LOVE YOU TO DEATH
The turn to buoyant electropop that Tegan and Sara began on 2013’s Heartthrob comes full circle on Love You to Death, packed with flawlessly produced jams that could soundtrack any Saturday night (and some proms, too, but only the cool ones).
14. DEAP VALLY, FEMEJISM
Gritty, bluesy stompers from a band you wouldn’t believe is made up of just two people if there weren’t video proof. Their volume is truly aspirational.
13. THAO & THE GET DOWN STAY DOWN, A MAN ALIVE
Thao Nguyen enlisted Tune-Yards’s Merrill Garbus to produce A Man Aliveand it shows. The album is eclectic, joyful, and rhythmically adventurous, even as the lyrics tackle complicated emotions and Thao’s own painful personal history.
12. BRUNO MARS, 24K MAGIC
Bruno Mars often gets knocked for making music that’s just a rip-off of older, “better” artists, but you have to wonder if some of the people who say that can even name such an artist or have ever listened to a Bruno Mars album in full. I’ll be the first to admit that I have long been a Bruno skeptic and still cannot stand many of his early hits, but if “Uptown Funk” was the song that put the crack in my Bruno wall, then 24K Magic is the thing that shattered it. It is delightful, start to finish, possibly because it lacks any awareness of how much 2016 was like a garbage fire. It’s unwise to proceed in such blissful ignorance all the time, but go ahead and do it for these 33 minutes. It’s what Bruno would want.
11. MARGO PRICE, MIDWEST FARMER’S DAUGHTER
“Country music for people who don’t like country music” has become a popular term in the past few years, but it does not apply in the case of Margo Price. Margo Price makes country music for people who do like it and recognize that it’s about more than copious consumption of whiskey (though Margo also understands that sometimes the only cure for heartbreak is a bottle).
10. ARIANA GRANDE, DANGEROUS WOMAN
Say what you will about Ariana and her unchanging ponytail, the woman knows how to make a good pop song. Whether she’s in full belt mode on “Dangerous Woman,” soundtracking club night on “Into You,” or duetting with — of all people! — Macy Gray, Ariana sounds confident and fully liberated from her Nickelodeon past.
9. TACOCAT, LOST TIME
Seattle punk rockers Tacocat have a history of mixing feminism, politics, and humor in their music — their last album included a song called “Crimson Wave” — and Lost Time only expands and continues that tradition. The band’s third album includes a love letter to X-Files icon Dana Scully, a passionate takedown of mansplaining, and a catchy ode to the biblical earthquake that will eventually hit the Pacific Northwest. The apocalypse has never sounded like so much fun.
8. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, WE GOT IT FROM HERE…THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE
Eighteen years after the release of what was supposed to be their final album, A Tribe Called Quest surprised everyone with We Got It From Here, miraculous both because it exists at all and because it crackles with so much energy. Phife Dawg’s death in March does cast a sense of loss over the album, but overall Tribe proves they’re just as relevant and innovative as ever.
7. MITSKI, PUBERTY 2
On her fourth album, Mitski explores the range of emotion that comes with being a young woman who’s never fit in any one box, alternating between grunge-y rage, lyrical melancholy, and deceptively sweet rock anthems. Even if you can’t relate (but you probably can), you’ll be fascinated.
6. RIHANNA, ANTI
Rihanna kept the Navy waiting for Anti for more than three years, basically an eternity after her impressive run of seven albums in eight years. It was worth the wait, obviously, and turned out to be her most musically varied project yet. She dipped into indie rock with a cover of Tame Impala’s “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” taught your mom about dancehall with “Work,” and pushed her voice to its formidable limits on the doo-wop ballad “Love on the Brain.” Anti didn’t produce as many smash hits as Rihanna’s used to, but it also found her challenging herself in ways she hasn’t before.
5. CHANCE THE RAPPER, COLORING BOOK
Remember on “Ultralight Beam” when he said he had to sell Chance three to snatch the Grammy? He didn’t sell it, the Recording Academy changed the rules, and now he’s got seven nominations. See you in February, suckers!
4. MIRANDA LAMBERT, THE WEIGHT OF THESE WINGS
After her very public split with Blake Shelton (and his subsequent public flaunting of his new relationship with Gwen Stefani), Miranda Lambert could have easily made a straightforward divorce album, full of songs about heartbreak and sassy kiss-offs like 2014’s “Little Red Wagon.” Instead she made something more complicated — an ambitious double album that incorporates those things without over-relying on them or sounding trite. If there was any doubt before that Miranda is a modern country great, then TWOTW should put it to rest.
3. SOLANGE, A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Solange spoke several times this year about the difficulties she’s faced as a black woman in the music industry and in the world at large, and in September, she channeled her emotions into her most personal and political music yet. Dotted with spoken-word interludes by her mother, her father, and Master P, A Seat at the Table is a powerful statement of purpose from a woman who’s finally getting the recognition she deserves.
2. ANGEL OLSEN, MY WOMAN
Angel Olsen’s 2014 album Burn Your Fire for No Witness was excellent but it also led to her getting typecast as an “ethereal” folk queen, to the point that she told her publicist she couldn’t do any more photo shoots in the woods. My Woman acts as a rejection of that persona, with driving, frenetic rock songs like “Shut Up Kiss Me” and sprawling ballads like “Heart Shaped Face.” One thing remains constant, though — her inimitable voice, which sounds stronger here than it ever has.
1. BEYONCÉ, LEMONADE
Back in 2013, Beyoncé so successfully revitalized the idea of the surprise album that releasing your music without promotional lead-up is now called “pulling a Beyoncé.” The practice has become so common among lesser artists that it’s actually gotten annoying, so of course Mrs. Carter tweaked the format for her sixth album, which was also an hour-long movie that premiered on HBO. For a second time, she stopped the world, causing the entire cable-viewing public to think she was about to divorce Jay Z, setting off a witch hunt for Becky with the good hair, and inspiring protests (but mostly counter-protests) about her most politicized work yet. Most of the gossip turned out to be just noise, but Lemonade has held up as Beyoncé’s finest work. She even tried her hand at country with “Daddy Lessons,” which one assumes the Grammys only rejected as a country submission because they were too worried about pissing off the same dummies who got mad at Beyoncé’s ***flawless duet with the Dixie Chicks on the CMAs. But the most exciting thing about Lemonade is what it promises for the future of Beyoncé’s career — it’s great enough to be her peak but this is Beyoncé. She’s not done getting better and better.