January's Blackstar didn't need to be Bowie's final album to land in the top tier of his 25-album career. It's extraordinarily weird, and heavy, and tender and inspired, with a densely powerful 10-minute title track opener, a la '76's Station to Station. Its ambitious visuals forever stitch themselves to the songs once you've witnessed seen them. It took cues from Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and tasked jazz musicians with making rock music.
Bowie died of cancer two days after releasing the album on his 69th birthday, and his potent discography could've pushed Blackstar to the wings as the world mourned. Instead, it shone—and still shines—bright, emotionally concluding with the era-agnostic farewell "I Can't Give Everything Away." —Zach Dionne
We’re always in need of a good kiss-off anthem; that’s why, when Beyoncé surprise-dropped Lemonade on us, “Sorry” became the obvious stand-out. But the real magic of Lemonade is found on songs like “All Night” and “Sandcastles,” where Bey takes a long, hard look at her relationship and learns to love and trust again. She has no trouble saying “Boy, bye,” but the real strength in the album is reflection, acceptance and self-worth. —Emilee Lindner
An album with a ridiculously pretentious title (I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it) is at times ridiculously pretentious, but the pop song craft and passion radiating from Matt Healy and co. make this a sophomore album that’s at once risky and wholly endearing. If this is the future of arena rock, it’s a weird, wonderful future. —Jason Lipshutz
To Pimp a Butterfly was only a year ago, but we were already yearning for new music from the Compton rapper, and he answered us with a surprise masterpiece. untitled. unmastered. is a complete album of songs that may not have worked for Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album—possibly a few throwaways, B-sides and/or just plain improv songs—but they work extremely well together. With songs like the eight-minute, three-part track “Untitled 07 | 2014-2016” (or, as fans have named it, “Levitate”), it’s hard to believe Lamar would keep these jazzy tracks locked away from the world...especially with features such as Cee-Lo Green, Thundercat, Anna Wise and Jay Rock. —Amissa Pitter
As the seasons began to shift, James Blake decided to sink deep into the coldest depths of melancholy with his third studio album, The Colour in Anything. Sadness is an easy theme to bank on (just ask Drake), but Blake takes it to a frighteningly tangible level. With songs like “Radio Silence” and “Love Me in Whatever Way,” the U.K. singer tries so very hard to mend a heart that’s way beyond broken. It’s a task that many of us have tried to accomplish. When you find yourself in a dark storm, let The Colour in Anything be your guide. —Bianca Gracie
It's funny: When Rihanna abruptly dropped her eighth album in January, it was lauded for its non-radio-friendly tracks. But then lead single "Work" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and "Needed Me" has taken over pop radio. Six months after its release, Rih's personality is still addictive as ever, with each song—from her collab with SZA to her Tame Impala cover—serving as the soundtrack to our dreamy, drama-free lives.
The career that Chicago's 23-year-old savior has built off two mixtapes and a slew of guest features is awe-inspiring, and hip-hop has been watching. It's not hard to picture frantic voicemails from Kanye West, Future, Lil Wayne, Young Thug, Justin Bieber, T-Pain, Jay Electronica and 2 Chainz all begging for Chance to take their guest verses, and it's impossible not to picture how much fun everyone involved had while scribbling their crayons and markers all over Coloring Book. The year's most ebullient rap album is also free, as Chano continues to hold fast to his label-lessness, refusing to sell any of his work. —Zach Dionne
In the words of Ariana Grande, “Are you kidding?” This is the only reaction I have when listening to the flawless gem that is Dangerous Woman. It melds genres, mixing together soulful pop, hip-hop, dancehall and the ethereal dreaminess that we’ve come to love from Ari. With features from Lil Wayne, Future, the queen Nicki Minaj and the LEGEND Macy Gray, Grande pulled it all off on her third album, and we're constantly trying to sing along, even if we can’t even touch her range. —Emilee Lindner
On Malibu, Anderson .Paak impressively blends hip-hop, R&B, soul and dance while also establishing a comic and confessional personality. One listen of Malibu gives you a sense of who this dynamic drummer is… but with songs these strong, one listen is also an impossibility. —Jason Lipshutz
It was a long wait—over a decade—but R&B and soul fans sent praise when Tweet made her official comeback with Charlene. While the neo-soul songbird initially broke out with "Oops! (Oh My)," she retained a passionate following through the years for the smoky, harmony-heavy cuts on her past two LPs Southern Hummingbird and It's Me Again, and that's what makes up a majority of Charlene. The sexy, acoustic-leaning LP brings together all those gooey harmonies Tweet fans initially fell for, giving it just the slightest update, to make this a classic R&B album for a new decade. —Jeff Benjamin
Paul Simon’s always doing something new. He never relies on his old hits; he’s too busy exploring new ideas and new music from all over the globe. Stranger to Stranger features African woodwinds, drumming from Peru, gospel singers, one-of-a-kind instruments, plus beats from Italian electronic dance music artist Clap! Clap!, thanks to Simon’s son Adrian, who told his dad to check him out.
One of the thousands of things to appreciate about Paul Simon is that he still constructs albums, instead of just packing together a bunch of singles and fillers. Stranger to Stranger takes you on a journey. The music rolls out in waves, from rhythms that get your feet moving to lovely, lilting melodies. And the lyrics are brilliant as always, whether serious or playful. But the best one? “I can’t talk now, I’m in a parade.” It’s my new mantra. —Laurie Ulster
The astounding heavy-bass, soul and electronic sounds of SBTRKT have poured over into his latest project, Save Yourself. The short but sweet album features a few new collabos with D.R.A.M., Mabel and The-Dream; in fact, two of the tracks (“Revert” and “Bury You”) were originally released on the R&B singer's Genesis project. This was a big moment for fans of The-Dream, who recall when he released the visual album exclusively on Tidal and could not find the songs individually. Also, we cannot forget about how well the soft spoken singer Sampha sounds over any SBTRKT track, especially “TBD," because what would a SBTRKT project be without Sampha?
While getting shot *might* be a slight obstacle for most people, West Coast rapper YG took it as a call to action. A month after receiving three bullet wounds in the hip, he dusted himself off, released the infectious G-funk jam “Twist My Fingaz,” and went on to eviscerate the dreaded sophomore slump with his second studio album, Still Brazy. After the MC parted ways with longtime collaborator DJ Mustard, Still Brazy loosened his seamless flow with 17 tracks of spare, guttural bass lines and modern, buzzy beats. With songs like “Who Shot Me?”, “Blacks & Browns”, and “F–ck Donald Trump”, the Compton native reflects on gang life with a micro lens, while, at the same time, posing far-reaching questions about the current political and racial climate.
YG: 1; every other setback: 0 —Brooke Bunce
Transitioning from boy band member into solo stardom isn’t anything new in the pop world, but all eyes were on Zayn Malik when he decided to leave One Direction—the biggest group in the world. While members like Harry and Louis had created distinct identities, not many knew the personality behind Zayn’s quiet, chiseled face. His debut album, Mind of Mine, was his chance to prove that he was able to stand on his own, and he mastered it.
Arguably the most talented 1D guy, he utilized his brooding vocals and edginess to a body of work filled with his interpretation of alternative R&B. “Pillowtalk” is a woozy downtempo bedroom romp, “It’s You” is an intimate ballad, “Do Something Good” transports you to ‘70s-era Jamaica, and “Like I Would” is a dance floor igniter. If Zayn continues to dig deeper into sonic experimentation, he’ll become even more of a music force. Watch out, Harry! —Bianca Gracie
When it came time for his first full-length album She Is, soul-pop singer Jonghyun-—who makes up one-fifth of sensational K-pop boy band SHINee—wasn't going to play it safe like he might have on his debut EP Base. This LP is lead by the wonky, synth-pop title track, but there's loads of ambitious experimentation to be found within each quirky treasure that makes up the tracklist. "Orbit" mashes clangy piano and pulsing synthesizer lines, while "Dress Up" is an aggressive turn-up. Notably, Jonghyun is showcasing a more confident side with his vocals, going full-on crooner on cuts like "White T-Shirt" and switching from falsetto to an all-out belt on "Red." Even the album's closing track, "Suit Up," a track most K-pop fans would expect would be a classic ballad, is a sentimental, trap-influenced throbber. Changing up what's expected is sometimes the greatest thing an artist can do, as evienced by a great album start-to-finish. —Jeff Benjamin
Whoever is still claiming R&B is dead clearly isn’t looking hard enough! Sept. 5 may have fallen behind the shadows of mega-albums like Kendrick Lamar’s untitled. unmastered. and Zayn’s Mind of Mine during its March release, but it is R&B’s hidden treasure. Recorded by DVSN, the latest signees of Drake’s OVO Sound label, the duo’s debut album is dripping with a raw sex appeal that has been missing in the genre due to the trap fusion takeover.
Unlike their peers, DVSN takes the act of sex very seriously. Rather than a throwaway one-night stand, it returns to being an emotional transfer of souls that is backed by passionate music. The balance of restraint and lust is heard in tracks like the pounding “With Me” and “Too Deep,” which samples Ginuwine’s 1999 hit “So Anxious.” Thanks to DVSN, the art of musical complexity with male R&B singers isn’t lost. —Bianca Gracie
The British singer-songwriter doesn't have a cohesive sound on her sophomore record. Instead the heart of the album is its subject matter: The confusing in-between space of between the love and war aspects of a relationship. Foxes digs her dudes when they're in bed, but knows she needs something more on "Better Love"; meanwhile, she's moving from being ready to exit said relationship on "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" to begging a lover to stay on "If you Leave Me." The middle space always makes for the most interesting song subject matter, and the singer tackles it with introspective and personal-yet-relatable lyrics that make the album stand among other top pop releases this year. —Jeff Benjamin
If there's one thing you'll read in almost every positive piece of writing about Modern Baseball's third full-length LP, it's a note that the Philly emo band has become an important act. It's a weird designation: Somehow in thirty minutes and 11 songs, Mobo have become poster children for mental difference and healing. It's not a new message, but a direct one.
From co-frontman Jake Ewald's suggestion of "I want to make something good / Make something better / Something that cannot leave the ground / Unless we lift it up together" on "Note to Self" to Brendan Luken's closer "Just Another Face," with "I 'm not just another face / I'm not just another name / Even if you can't see it now / We're proud of what's to come / And you," it's impossible to leave this record without feeling something. More often than not, that's enough. —Maria Sherman
Yeezy's God-dream, his "gospel album with a whole lot of cursin' on it," had one of the messiest and most interesting album rollouts of all time. The Life of Pablo premiered at Madison Square Garden, showcasing My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-sized ambitions and grandiosity, Yeezus' abrasiveness (and wonky lyricism) and soul samples straight from The Old Kanye. It's an often jarring affair that begs to be playlisted and re-ordered, with even Kanye subbing in new mixes, edits and entire songs months after dropping it. But it would've landed on our list if it was just an EP featuring "Famous," "Wolves," "Ultralight Beam," "Real Friends" and the "Father Stretch My Hands" two-parter. —Zach Dionne
Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” will never stop inspiring, but at the top of the year, the pop star finally released her major-label debut, which gave us a collection of even more hits. From her declaration of love in “Stand By You” to Platten questioning her level of commitment in “Lone Ranger,” Wildfire is a patchwork of emotions, each accompanied by either a soft piano or a high-power beat. So dig in, and you’ll quickly find yourself spreading the Platten fever to all your friends. —Emilee Lindner