With fifth studio album Death of a Bachelor, Panic! at the Disco experienced a slew of firsts. Not only was it the band's first No. 1 record, but it's also the first to be helmed entirely by frontman Brendon Urie, the only founding member left in the Las Vegas outfit. The result is a fascinating, introspective record that should satisfy longtime pop-punk fans and widen their aperture of what PATD represents today. Lead single "Hallelujah" has classic Panic! quirk, but Urie unleashes an impressive falsetto on the LP's title track and, most remarkably, channels Frank Sinatra's crooning on LP closer "Impossible Year" to truly hammer in that he's a frontman to be reckoned with and has a lot more to prove. –Jeff Benjamin
The long-awaited 22, A Million is a natural progression for the elusive Justin Vernon, who forced his folky singer-songwriter background into intense studio sessions, crafting Bon Iver’s third album into something more glitchy than melodic. The album fights his fame, testing true fans with warbled samples, religious undertones, mechanical chattering and more Auto-Tune than ever. The nonconventional song titles—"715 - CR∑∑KS" and “21 M◊◊N WATER”—reflect the idea of doing things a little different and off-putting, a masterpiece for those invested enough to dig in. His signature falsetto is there, as well as the sad sax from five years ago, but as he obstructs his face in photos and pulls away from the media, he’s using that same veil on his music. –Emilee Lindner
“Feminism wears a throwback jersey, bamboo earrings and a face beat for the gods,” Ashlee Haze defiantly spits on “By Ourselves,” the opening track of Freetown Sound. The spoken word poem is fierce, black, female, vulnerable and unapologetic—setting the tone for Blood Orange’s third album from the get-go. With more tracks than any other Blood Orange project so far, Freetown Sound glides from song to song, asking the questions nagging at us all (“Did he even notice?” “Do you really want to?” “Are you okay?”), harnessing the vintage groove we love from Dev Hynes and posing important questions about the way black people are positioned in our world. The track “Hands Up” is a triumphant call for love in a world of hate, a protest of the police brutality we are forced to witness again and again across the internet. Freetown Sound highlights the importance of sitting back, shutting up and listening to other voices that have something they need to say. –Brooke Bunce
Originally compiled as a bunch of rejected songs that Sia pitched to other artists, This Is Acting shows off some of the Australian’s best songwriting. From “The Greatest” to “Alive” to “Unstoppable,” most of the tracks off her seventh album paint her as a strong-as-steel powerhouse, overcoming everything in the way. The music videos, which brought back the mind-numbingly fantastic Maddie Ziegler, paralleled Sia’s internal conflicts, always coming out triumphant. Some songs were written for Adele, Rihanna and more, but now that Sia has gone gold with This Is Acting, orange ya glad she ended up doing them herself? –Emilee Lindner
Up until the release of this album, Mac Miller was that dude next door you always kicked it with and probably got high with, but you weren't really sure if he could be taken seriously. The Divine Feminine proved to be a sonic experiment well worth the risk, introducing fans to a level of sophistication and refinement previously unseen from the Pittsburgh rapper. R&B, soul and trap seamlessly blend on tracks like "Stay" and "Skin," while the refreshingly funky "Dang!" serves as the album's shining lead single. While never one to shy away from introspection, Miller approached his pensiveness with a new kind of finesse this time around. –Tina Xu
One of the most polarizing questions of 2016 is, "Was the new Frank worth the wait?" Four years and one month after his masterwork debut Channel Orange, Frank Ocean gave us an Apple Music–exclusive visual album appetizer, Endless, swiftly followed by a traditional record, Blonde. The (very enjoyable) Endless all but vanished in the latter's mammoth shadow, and no one seemed to agree on what was excellent—or awful—about either. But Blonde makes sense, and progress, after Channel Orange, once again showing one of our most talented artists doing exactly what he wants to do, no matter how many chipmunked vocal lines, interludes ("sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned"!) and understated sonic journeys that amounts to. There are cuts for your playlists, sure, but this is 100 percent the fabled album-lover's album. –Zach Dionne
Nightride is 15 tracks of sultry, twisted Tinashe, put together as a mixtape as fans await an official label release of sophomore album Joyride. With her own music industry frustrations apparent, Nightride puts her in control of the music, showing off a more experimental side as she digs into beats from Metro Boomin, The-Dream and the like. On songs like “Company,” “Ride of Your Life” and “Ghetto Boy,” T’s voice goes from menacing to dreamy with each joint—soundtracking the hazy late nights when you’re up to no good. –Emilee Lindner
We're pretty sure .Paak made a significant number of lifelong fans with this remarkably cohesive, approachably complex, fully realized sophomore album. The singer/songwriter/producer/drummer has a voice like no other, and he keeps us cradled in his omnivorous soundscape from front to back. –Zach Dionne
After the tragedy that was 2013’s Britney Jean, us fans held on to sheer faith that the Princess of Pop would reclaim her crown by giving us the album that we deserve—Glory. There are very few missteps on the project, which is one of her strongest since 2008’s Circus. Instead of giving us air-headed, sticky pop songs (save "Private Show”), Britney returns to exploring R&B, electronica and trap. From the breathy, reggae-infused “Slumber Party” to the trippy French banger “Coupure Èlectrique” and stand-out track “Love Me Down,” Ms. American Dream sounds more musically engaged than she has in a long time. –Bianca Gracie
Yeezy hopped on an ultralight beam and merged My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's scope and starriness, Late Registration and The College Dropout's sampling expertise, 808s & Heartbreak's Auto-Tuned emoting and Yeezus' distorted grit to break the longest solo album gap in his career. Following the early declaration "I just wanna feel liberated," Pablo is spiritual and strange, juvenile and juicy, and, in the end, eminently replayable. –Zach Dionne
You know those artists you hear about for months but never really listen to, but when you finally do listen, you feel like the biggest idiot for not doing so sooner? That was Nao for me earlier this year. Nao (pronounced Nay-O) and her crisp, soulful vocals simultaneously sound like something from the future of electronic music and classic ‘80s R&B. The British singer/songwriter’s debut album may be one of the most cohesive albums released this year, coming in at just under an hour, the funky, head nod-inducing, electronic production intertwines seamlessly with Nao’s stimulating and expressive singing from start to finish. –Mark Sundstrom
After years of topping the charts in his native Australia, the electronic wunderkind finally got his due shine with sophomore full-length Skin. The LP brought all the trippy electro-flourishes Flume is known for, but polished them for maximum consumption. Breakout hit "Never Be Like You" features newcomer Kai on a swishing blend of grinding synths, and the aggressive "Smoke & Retribution" sees Vince Staples shouting lyrics of pained infatuation over percolating bleeps and boops. –Jeff Benjamin
In the three years since their debut, BTS has garnered a wholly passionate fanbase around the world, thanks to the seven members' active involvement in both writing and producing vulnerable and honest song material—all rarities to find in K-pop. Sophomore album Wings amplifies those strengths with more fascinating concepts and wholly accessible productions that don't sound out of place on Top 40 radio. Lead single "Blood Sweat & Tears" recalls recent Justin Bieber hits; "21st Century Girls" is a hip-hop-tinged, female-empowerment anthem; and closing track "Interlude: Wings" has some of the most fire club beats from any country. Perhaps most notably, listeners also get insight into the seven different personalities that make up BTS, with each member having a solo song on the record. You get everything from Rap Monster's melancholic rap track, "Reflection," to Jin's stirring ballad, "Awake." There's loads to explore in the 15-track album and loads of indication that BTS is just starting to truly spread their wings. –Jeff Benjamin
One of R&B's best-kept secrets is, well, no longer a secret. Earning a 2017 Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album, Gallant has captured the hearts of alt-R&B and old-school blues/soul fans alike. Packaging his knack for poignant lyricism with an effortless ability to blend soul, funk and R&B, Ology truly reflects the honesty and "glittery optimism" the 24-year-old sought. While "Weight in Gold" stands as Gallant's breakout single, "Skipping Stones," "Miyazaki," "Episode" and "Bourbon" round out the album's most noteworthy tracks. Versatile, powerful (that falsetto, though!) and deeply introspective. –Tina Xu
Many pop fans weren't sure what to expect when Ariana Grande called an audible on her third album. Originally naming it Moonlight, with lead single "Focus," Grande switched it up, giving us the sultry Dangerous Woman, with the sensual, rock-tinged "Dangerous Woman" as the centerpiece. But that pivot was for the best. DW proved to be not only one of the year's best pop records—good luck trying to find better a club cut than "Into You"—but a display of Ariana's unapologetic side. "Greedy," "Touch It" and "Side to Side" see Ari full-on embracing her sexuality, while "I Don't Care" brushes off the diva rumors. Most remarkably, we get a glimpse at what a big romantic the singer is via the vulnerable "Thinking Bout You" and brutally honest "Knew Better / Forever Boy"—all pristine pop songs that make the listener feel like Ariana is talking to sharing secrets directly to them. –Jeff Benjamin
On Saturday, Jan. 9, I went to sleep with Blackstar in my earbuds. On Sunday, the same. On Monday, I opened my eyes and David Bowie was gone. It was eerie to a degree I can't capture, but also perfect, like he had sung—and rocked—me to sleep on his last night on Earth. The timing of the 69-year-old icon's death ensured endless individual relationships with his last offering, composed as "his parting gift," said producer-of-47-years Tony Visconti.
Opener "Blackstar" is a 10-minute odyssey that carries you to a destination only you can find. (1976's "Station to Station" would tip a respectful nod its way.) Finale "I Can't Give Everything Away" lands like a personal, one-on-one goodbye. In between are songs of pain, theatrics, nostalgia, and a relentless, joyous drive to do things, on this 25th album, that he'd never done before. –Zach Dionne
Chance’s third mixtape is a standout among his already prolific body of work. Even though Chano’s been bubbling up since 2012, Coloring Book let him loose into the mainstream, earning him a No. 8 spot on the Billboard 200 and a firm place in the social consciousness of many rap (and non-rap) fans. Coloring Book is an album you listen to straight through, no skips, because the music is so varied and seamless that you don’t want to miss a thing (including the artists featured on just about every song). It’s fresh and familiar all at once, full of gospel soul and easy bounce. Regardless of your faith, a listen to this mixtape is a spiritual journey, and proof that labels aren’t necessary to make the art that resonates most with our culture. –Brooke Bunce
For years, Beyoncé was kicking men out of her house by shoving their stuff in a box to the left. She was hounding them for not putting a ring on it. She was damned if she saw another chick on your arm. But with Lemonade, the visual album that Bey dropped on us like an Oscar-worthy film, she played around in the gray area. A concept album mirroring the rumored infidelity in her own life, Bey went through anger, sadness, confusion, torture, independence, freedom and acceptance, and, in the end, she sings, “My torturer became my remedy.” She finds herself, grants forgiveness and gives thanks for her blessings. In Lemonade, Beyoncé’s no longer tossing his things in a box to the left. She’s growing and learning to love again while her family gets even stronger. –Emilee Lindner
The new generation of Black people struggled through years that were intensified by people who want to either shut out our culture or strip it from our skin and pretend it was theirs all along. We were filled with frustration and anger that flowed from the soles of our feet through the tips of our fros, and we channeled it through protests, educational hashtags on social media and political debates.
As for artists like Solange? She managed to culminate all of the feelings we’ve pent up for so long and translated them into an album that couldn’t be more pro-Black. For A Seat at the Table, she called upon fellow creatives like André 3000, Q-Tip, Lil Wayne, Sampha, Raphael Saadiq and more to help drive the story of resilience. The gorgeous “Cranes in the Sky” is wrapped with vulnerability, piano-laced “Mad” encapsulates just how much we’re fed the fuck up, and the chilled “Don’t Touch My Hair” reflects a Black woman’s plight in this judgmental whitewashed world. In a refreshing twist, Master P and Solange’s parents (Tina and Mathew) narrate their experiences in honest interludes. It is a musical journey of tears, heartbreak and suffering that culminates in celebration. If you didn’t understand our proud Blackness before, you have no choice to pull up a seat at our well-seasoned, fruitful, nourishing table; listen and learn. –Bianca Gracie
"I got to do things my own way darling / Will you ever let me? Will you ever respect me? No.”
The lyrics to “Consideration,” the opening track to ANTI, say it all. Throughout her immensely successful career, Rihanna has blessed us with infinite dance-pop smashes that had us grooving until our feet bled, collaborations with mainstream artists that kept her riding high on the charts, and team-ups with some of the biggest hitmakers of all time. But for ANTI, affectionally dubbed R8 by the Navy, the pop-icon-in-the-making threw that all away to make room for an album that officially solidified her as a true, bona fide artist.
It wasn’t an easy road to get there. We fans struggled through more than three years (the longest Rih has ever waited to drop an album) of messy promotions from her label, random singles that didn’t even make it to the final product, Instagram snippets that had us salivating for more, and even her saying it was coming “very soon” in interviews. But it was all worth it, because she gave us her most cohesive project to date. We thought Rihanna stepped out her comfort zone with 2009’s Rated R, but ANTI proved to be the more mature, in-control, risk-tasking sister that didn’t take shit from anyone.
ANTI swims in sounds we’ve never heard Rihanna explore before, remarkable notes that reflect how much she’s grown as a vocalist, and an all-encompassing celebration of the facets of her womanhood. “Higher” is a passionate, pleading voicemail that we’ve all sent to ex-lovers while drunk, “Love on the Brain” is a masterfully wounded ballad (and one of her best songs of all time), “Desperado” is a sinister Western romp, “Needed Me” is the ultimate savage kiss-off anthem, and “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is a psychedelic ride of euphoria. Anti is the full embodiment of Rihanna: dark, dangerous, slightly vulnerable, sensual and way more than your typical pop star. –Bianca Gracie