What a crazy year for music.
We’ve lost innumerable high-profile musicians and songwriters, witnessed heated battles between artists and streaming services, and even seen the hospitalization of one of the music world’s biggest icons.
If this year’s happenings have taught us anything it’s this: Even when the light at the end of the tunnel feels like it’s slowly fading, great artwork will always prevail. And in that spirit, despite major challenges in the music industry and the world at large, 2016 was one of the best years for new music we’ve seen in a long time.
Each week this year, we’ve have had the distinct pleasure of listening to as much new music as possible, hoping not only to help ease the stresses of the world around us, but also the stresses of choice that can be a burden for the modern listener. We’ve listened to all of of the most-hyped (and many of the lesser-known) records and assembled our favorites into this ranked list of 50. Here, you will find newcomers and long-established artists alike, a living, breathing portrait of some of the most exciting sounds being made today.
Here are our top 50 albums of the year, for your listening pleasure. Want to explore in more depth? Check out our full Spotify playlist.
1. David Bowie — Blackstar
David Bowie’s final album is a dense and melodic look straight into the eyes of the end of his days, offered to the world by one of its greatest-ever songwriters. Every one of Blackstar’s 41 minutes feels vitally important to this tombstone work, a maze of jazz-influenced sounds that will keep many pondering life’s true meaning for years to come.
2. Frank Ocean — Blonde
In a musical universe that feeds on hype, the four-year wait for Frank Ocean’s second studio album felt like it bolstered impossibly high critical expectations. But even so, Blonde is all that we hoped it could be and more. Within are 17 tracks of experimental R&B with soulful interludes and introverted musical explorations — including some of the downright hippest chord structures we’ve ever heard from a major release. There’s almost no drums on Blonde, an album which instead relies on the singer’s own beautifully melodic musings to drive it from start to finish.
3. Beyoncé — Lemonade
The immense sense of empowerment felt by women — and particularly women of color — at the hands of Beyoncé’s sixth studio album is unparalleled in the world of pop. Searingly honest and staggeringly diverse in form and structure, the musical queen uses intimate personal pains and superimposes them on the downtrodden at large, grabbing listeners by the scruff of the neck for a journey of self-acknowledgement, actualization, and improvement.
4. Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
Leonard Cohen’s final work is a gritty canvas of darkness painted with sandpaper-like vocals and tempered by church choir vocals, piano, and organ. You Want It Darker is a musical work that showcases the ideological battles that humanity faces at life’s end, a weighty tome in which the recently deceased songwriter fights a losing battle — hand to hand, lyric to lyric — with death itself.
5. Anderson .Paak — Malibu
Anderson .Paak burst onto the music scene early this year, following a signing to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint and several high-profile collaborations with the LA hip-hop mogul. Despite his high-profile sideman work, it’s his own record which revolutionized the sounds of 2016. A bright batch of upbeat singles that puts a bow on Southern California’s recent jazz-influenced hip-hop renaissance, Malibu is a release without a single dull moment that will have you dancing from first song to last.