The music critics of The New York Times share their picks for the best pop and jazz albums of the year.
1. BEYONCÉ “Lemonade” (Parkwood/Columbia) As a set of songs, “Lemonade” plunges into one troubled marriage: a cycle of distrust, betrayal, fury, loyalty and wary reconciliation. It moves sure-footedly through styles from the rooted to the futuristic; it touches down in gospel, blues, soul and country with all the programming expertise of the 21st century. And it presents Beyoncé the singer in guises from ethereal grace to raw ferocity and pain. Then, as a multimedia work, “Lemonade” goes even further: Its video album, directed by Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph with crucial interludes of poetry by Warsan Shire, magnifies the personal to the archetypal, situating Beyoncé among generations of African-American women in a long, unselfish, unfinished struggle. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
2. DAVID BOWIE “Blackstar” (ISO/Columbia) Bowie made his final album not a summation but a final metamorphosis. He assembled a studio band of forward-looking jazz musicians to play songs full of tense ambiguities: harmonic, structural, verbal. The album confronts mortality with a last burst of probing, passionate invention. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
3. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service” (Epic) A Tribe Called Quest reunited long enough to record a full album, its first since 1998, with all three of its founding rappers: Q-Tip, Jarobi White and Phife Dawg, who died in March. The group reaches back to the dense, swinging, sample-from-everywhere sound of its 1990s hip-hop, but it replaces its old whimsical storytelling with a deeper sense of urgency and impending danger. Rich with multileveled allusions, the raps confront gentrification, nativism, the dumbing-down of hip-hop and the rise of Donald J. Trump. “Troubled times, kids, we got no time for comedy,” Phife Dawg rapped, summing it up.
4. RADIOHEAD “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL) The sounds are often gauzy and pretty on Radiohead’s long-gestating “A Moon Shaped Pool”: bell tones, hovering vocals, shimmery reverberating keyboards, string arrangements. But that’s no protection at all against the malaise that fills the songs. Gazing at demagoguery, environmental ruin and intimate betrayal, Thom Yorke croons threnodies, not lullabies. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
5. LEONARD COHEN “You Want It Darker” (Columbia) Mr. Cohen’s entire catalog was, in a way, a mediation on love, death and spirituality. His last album remained somber and sly, still pithy and still skeptical about both the human and the divine; it was also attentive to musical detail. Mr. Cohen’s sepulchral, deadpan intonation is set within angelic voices, Gypsy violins and often an organ that can be churchy or bluesy; each verse could be last words. (Read the appraisal | Listen to the Popcast)
6. BON IVER “22, a Million” (Jagjaguwar) Justin Vernon set the homespun aside for his third album as Bon Iver. It applies Auto-Tune and other gadgetry; it unleashes samples and distortion; it tucks phalanxes of overdubbed saxophones and backup vocals into its mix. And its songs take the cryptic introspection of his previous work into even more convoluted realms. Yet somehow, something comes through all the multitracking: a yearning, a compulsion to explore, a vulnerable heart within. (Read the review | Read the interview)
7. MARGARET GLASPY “Emotions and Math” (ATO) Ms. Glaspy’s stubborn songs need nothing more than drums, bass and her own voice and electric guitar. Her sinewy music finds an intersection of roots-rock and indie grunge, as she sings, mostly, about relationships in various states of misapprehension and unequal expectations. Her voice wraps her lyrics in burlap: flexible, sturdy and a little rough to the touch.
8. ANONHI “Hopelessness” (Secretly Canadian) The intent is vociferously political in this set of songs by Anonhi, previously known as Antony Hegarty. Her voice remains arresting and androgynous, while the perspective, often, is dystopian and blatantly ironic: calling down a drone bombing, welcoming constant surveillance and looking forward to boiling oceans and burning forests. Anonhi trades the chamber-pop of Antony and the Johnstons for caustic, arresting electronica — veering between stark and vertiginous — produced with Hudson Hawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. It’s not exactly dance music, but it pushes hard. (Read the interview | Read the live review)
9. SAVAGES “Adore Life” (Matador) Love is a elemental, colossal force on the second album by Savages: one that can be barely contained within the drone, gallop, blare and incantations of the English quartet’s post-punk onslaught. At once muscular and enveloping, the music nonetheless makes way for Jehnny Beth’s high-beam voice, clear and determined even as her lyrics battle to figure things out. (Read the review)
10. ELZA SOARES “A Mulher do Fim do Mundo” (Mais Um Discos) No translation is necessary to recognize the wrath and nerve of “A Mulher do Fim do Mundo” (“The Woman at the End of the World”) by Ms. Soares, a 79-year-old samba singer who has long been celebrated in Brazil. She uses the raspy but still commanding state of her voice to hurl songs about abuse and abusers, poverty and history, lust and violence. (The album package has thorough translations.) Ms. Soares is abetted by musicians from São Paulo who describe their music as “dirty samba”; they spike traditional samba with distorted guitars, pushy drums and unruly electronics that underline how indomitable Ms. Soares remains.
1. KANYE WEST “The Life of Pablo” (Def Jam) A grand, caustic album about grace: finding it, praying for it, falling from it. There remains no more adept fuser of the sacred and profane working in pop, and no one else who, time and again, will unflinchingly assess — at his own peril — the costs of audacity. (Read the review | Read the live review)
2. BEYONCÉ “Lemonade” (Parkwood/Columbia) The obvious revenge narrative coursing through this album is about marital infidelity — face value or fiction, it’s bristling either way. But the more significant revenge here is against humdrum industry protocols: This is album as medium-length film, and also album as format-free superstar safe space. (Read the live review)
3. CHANCE THE RAPPER “Coloring Book” (self-released) In a turbulent year, Chance the Rapper preached the values of exuberance, of sweet nostalgia, of prayerful vigilance, of shocking jolts of love. (Read the review | Read the festival review)
4. STURGILL SIMPSON “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” (Atlantic) A broken soul album from a hardened country singer. Tender yet serrated, Mr. Simpson finds unexpected fertile ground at the intersection of Bill Withers, Merle Haggard and Elvis Presley, replete with roadhouse guitar and spiky classic R&B horns. (Read the interview)
5. YG “Still Brazy” (Def Jam) and PAYROLL GIOVANNI & CARDO GOT WINGS “Big Bossin, Vol. 1” (self-released) All nostalgia is imagination of a sort, but not always the same kind. Here are two complementary interpretations of California rap history. For YG, who is from Compton, it’s the sound of his upbringing, thick with local hits and local quarrels. For the Detroit rapper Payroll Giovanni and the Texas producer Cardo Got Wings, it’s invention and faithful homage. (Read the review)
6. LORI MCKENNA “The Bird & The Rifle” (CN) and DORI FREEMAN“Dori Freeman” (Free Dirt) Two bare-bones but astonishingly sturdy albums by female country singer-songwriters. Ms. McKenna, a veteran, is wry, seen-it-all unimpressed, unerringly wise; Ms. Freeman, far younger, is well on her way. (Read the review)
7. FRANK OCEAN “Blonde” (Boys Don’t Cry) After four years of quiet, Mr. Ocean returned with a pile of songs that are slippery, shifting in and out of focus, and full of characters who are in dialogue but do little to reassure one another. (Read the review | Read the interview)
8. A BOOGIE WIT DA HOODIE “Artist” (Highbridge the Label) Heartbreak is the best thing that could have happened to this creaky-voiced young Bronx rapper, who alternates between puffing his chest and exhaling sorrowfully. (Read the interview)
9. MAREN MORRIS “Hero” (Columbia Nashville) Yes, the songwriting is immaculate, and yes, the singing is convincing. But Ms. Morris’s debut album is most notable for her spitfire wit, poking fun at Nashville convention, and also at herself. (Read the review)
11. JOYCE MANOR “Cody” (Epitaph) and PUP “The Dream Is Over” (SideOneDummy) At every turn, punks are looking inward — in the case of Joyce Manor, the excavation is in plain sight; in Pup, it’s hidden beneath a squall. (Read the Joyce Manor review | Read the Pup review)
12. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service” (Epic) What began simply as A Tribe Called Quest’s long-awaited reunion album ended up with a heavier remit: to celebrate the life of Phife Dawg, who died in March, and to speak forcefully to a political moment it couldn’t have wholly anticipated. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
1. MARY HALVORSON OCTET “Away With You” (Firehouse 12) Ms. Halvorson, a guitarist, has a knack for unruly but resolvable tensions, and here she pushes it practically to the limit. Her compositions are drafted in an original language, full of rattling counterpoint and eruptive flair, and she inspires fantastic work from every member of her octet — especially the brilliant pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, whose chiming sustain contrasts neatly with her own pluck and decay. (Read the interview)
2. DAVID BOWIE “Blackstar” (ISO/Columbia) More than a sly valediction (though it’s one of the slyest ever), Mr. Bowie’s final album is a chamber of secrets, a brave experiment in style and a morbid yet vibrant work of performance art. It’s also a reminder that when you want to elevate your sound, your best bet will always be an elite corps of jazz musicians. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
3. JASON MORAN “The Armory Concert” (Yes) A solo piano recital, but one that reverberates with echoes of collaboration. A clutch of terse provocations from a composer inclined to take the long view. A snapshot that ends up feeling like a panorama, irreducible and immersive. (Read the Critic’s Notebook)
4. CHANCE THE RAPPER “Coloring Book” (self-released) Exuberance — the earnest, embracing, nonaggressive kind — was often in short supply this year. So give it up for Chance the Rapper, whose third mixtape fuses the imperatives of a block party and a worship service. Poignant, judiciously stocked with guests, it’s soul- and life-affirming without ignoring harsh realities. (Read the review | Read the festival review)
5. ANDREW CYRILLE QUARTET “The Declaration of Musical Independence” (ECM) Mr. Cyrille, a master jazz drummer, holds the center here with regal composure, while acting as chief instigator. His collaborators — Bill Frisell on guitar, Richard Teitelbaum on synthesizer and piano, Ben Street on bass — bring a fidgety eloquence, creating music of dreamlike but restive beauty. (Read the interview)
6. RADIOHEAD “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL) “It’s too late/The damage is done,” Thom Yorke sings in one of this album’s calmly devastating moments. Radiohead has uncorked more snarl before, and strained harder against formalities, but rarely has it sounded surer of its strengths — or more flat-out gorgeous, as Jonny Greenwood’s orchestrations deepen the glassy disquiet. (Read the review | Listen to the Popcast)
7. JONATHAN FINLAYSON & SICILIAN DEFENSE “Moving Still” (Pi Recordings) Mr. Finlayson is an improvising trumpeter almost never caught off balance, and on this album he applies that poise to compositions inspired by the poetry of the chessboard. That might sound cerebral, but the music doesn’t, partly because of the graceful work of peers like Matt Mitchell on piano and Miles Okazaki on guitar.
8. KRIS DAVIS “Duopoly” (Pyroclastic) Ms. Davis, a pianist of investigative instinct, digs in separately with eight worthy partners, including the clarinetist Don Byron, the drummer Marcus Gilmore and the guitarist Julian Lage. The results, both song-based and purely spontaneous, reveal a rigorous mind-meld in real time.
9. WADADA LEO SMITH “America’s National Parks” (Cuneiform) The grandeur of a natural vista poses just one facet of this 100-minute suite by this trumpeter. The album, on two discs, also explores notions of conservation, inheritance and social justice, all through the solemn stirrings of his chamberesque Golden Quintet.
10. JEFF PARKER “The New Breed” (International Anthem) and “Slight Freedom” (Eremite) This guitarist stamps each of these albums with slow-burn charisma and a sense of solitude. “Slight Freedom” is a proper solo effort, recorded live with a Gibson 335 and effects pedals; “The New Breed” is a retro-futurist jazz-funk reverie, slithery, smart and cool.
The Best in Culture 2016
More highlights from the year, as chosen by our critics: