Top Ten Non-Local Albums of 2016

1. Beyoncé, “Lemonade” (Columbia Records/Parkwood Entertainment)

Beyoncé did a lot this year. Most recently, she took the stage at the Country Music Awards, flanked by the Dixie Chicks, and dared anyone in the audience and at home not to enjoy themselves. The song she performed, ‘Daddy Lessons,’ didn’t get a Grammy nod because, well, racism. The song was, according to Rolling Stone, “shunned” for the country category by the Recording Academy, never mind that country’s roots are black as hell. Even so, “Lemonade” earned the singer nine nominations in all, and let us know that she can do whatever the fuck she wants to: sing country, smash stuff, threaten to leave Jay Z for the next dick, etc. In the process, she inspired many fans (myself included) to realize we could do whatever the fuck we wanted, too. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

2. Rihanna, “Anti” (Roc Nation/Westbury Road)

While she’s had solid albums in the past, Rihanna’s always been best consumed as a singles artist. If she never released another full-length project and just dropped two great pop singles a year, most fans would probably be sufficiently sated. But with “Anti,” she’s finally given the world a complete LP that sonically makes good on the promise of her public persona. Every track shows off a different facet of the Rih Rih we know, love, and stalk on Instagram: the moonlit temptress on ‘Yeah I Said It’ is given equal footing with the lovelorn, wine-drunk romantic on ‘Higher’; the take no prisoners mercenary of ‘Needed Me’ is the same woman who turns Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’ into a nostalgic anthem for perennial fuck-ups the world over. The only song that really feels aimed at the radio is ‘Work’ and that’s less a pop song than a highly sought after chapter in the ongoing AubRih fanfiction saga the world can’t seem to get enough of. As a pop art statement, it may not be as ambitious as “Lemonade,” but “Anti” proves Rihanna is still destined to be more than a future Greatest Hits compilation in stilettos. (Dominic Griffin)

3. Kanye West, “The Life Of Pablo” (GOOD Music/Def Jam Recordings/Roc-A-Fella Records)

It is a cold-ass Tuesday in the middle of December in Baltimore and Twitter is agog. As I write this, Kanye West, an almost Coltrane-ian force of chaotic evolution and subversion is hanging out with Donald Trump. It is all nearly enough to kick Kanye off this list—doing so would make room for say the apocalyptic cli-fi torch songs of Anohni (“Hopelessness”) or Angel Olsen’s burnt, visceral blues (“My Woman”) or Anderson .Paak’s fusion of Black Panther pop and ’70s MOR soul (“Malibu”). To praise "The Life Of Pablo" right now I’ve got to go back to when it came out, when it was simpler to enjoy it. “A quilted, distracted throat-clearing hot mess of audio clips, chunks of other people’s songs (not so much samples), half-songs, and Kanye-ized radio trends,” I said over at the site Noisey back in February. “Trap and house music become one, and Kanye morphs into a previous era’s forever-tinkering genius, Arthur Russell, and those blips of IRL Kanye (laptop theft, Lexapro freak-outs) and ‘properly’ personal-is-political Kanye (conflating the failing economy and his father’s failings, a line about police shootings) are more profound than the crowbarred-in Christian imagery. It begins in the church and ends in a Chicago warehouse in the mid-‘80s, and those are kind of the same place really.” (Brandon Soderberg)

4. Frank Ocean, “Blonde” (Boys Don’t Cry)

With “Blonde,” Frank Ocean creates a wandering, melancholic, and quietly optimistic cruising soundtrack. The much-hyped album meanders, sometimes building to mythic climaxes and sinking to emotional lows, constructing a collage of different states of mind distorted with autotune, the passage of time, and hallucination. He relishes in memories of empty sexual and drug-induced highs and reveals these to be dead-end, unending cycles; he chooses a life outside people’s expectations of him to be a certain kind of man, a pop star, a champion of LGBTQ rights, to militantly address the black experience; and he offers music as therapy, creating a space of comfort for outsiders even if the record is so uncompromisingly his. (Garrett Stralnic)

5. Solange, “A Seat at the Table” (Columbia/Saint Records)

Meditative, comforting, wise, bittersweet—Solange gave us music for the Trump administration with “A Seat at the Table.” “All my niggas let the whole world know/ play this song and sing it on your terms,” she sings on ‘F.U.B.U.’ Solange’s voice is delicate, and through it, “nigga” becomes a feather-soft term of endearment. Pivoting outward, she tells her white listeners “Don’t be mad if you can’t sing along/just be glad you got the whole wide world.” She started working on the album, which includes spoken interludes by both her parents and Master P, four years ago. It hits the spot in a world that suddenly feels colder and more hateful, reminding us that the problems we face have always been there and that we have the smarts, resourcefulness, and beauty to make it through. (LS)

6. David Bowie, “Blackstar” (Columbia Records)

“Blackstar” is not here to comfort us. Now we know that David Bowie’s unexpected death on Jan. 10 was the really, really bad omen telling us that 2016 was going to go wrong in just about every way (we should have listened). In the aftermath of his passing and as the state of the world got even worse thereafter, we found it difficult to re-listen to Bowie’s final album after its release on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death. The jazz-laced record is utterly bleak, with labored breathing on ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,’ haunting moans on the title track, frantic sax squeals throughout, and lyrics that, in hindsight, appear to obviously express his goodbyes, his private struggle to come to terms with his approaching end and what he would leave behind, and what he still wanted to do. Every song feels like Bowie’s fading voice whispering his final words directly in our ear, the most intimate and yet unsettling experience he could give us. (Maura Callahan)

7. Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound” (Domino)

Death by blackness was the morbid narrative of 2016, and “Freetown Sound,” British singer and songwriter Dev Hynes’ third album under his alias Blood Orange, judiciously dissects the complex emotional burden of what it feels like to be simultaneously disenfranchised, imitated, and villainized. Free flowing between genres like new wave, ‘80s pop, spoken word, and hip-hop, “Freetown Sound” serves as a beacon of hope, an empathetic ear, and a beautiful clapback in a time when justice and acceptance are elusive concepts. (Casey Embert)

8. Kamaiyah, “A Good Night In The Ghetto” (self-released)

Simultaneously conveying both a bubbly warmth and a lived-in resilience, Kamaiyah’s “A Good Night in the Ghetto,” as the name suggests, savors a rare moment when the elements conspire to produce something benign amidst the bullshit, getting to pop bottles instead of having to pop off. It also sounds as much, with Kamaiyah’s breezy flow transforming her producers’ interpolations of early ‘90s West Coast staples and quiet storm deep cuts into a party that’s much more than just a self-conscious, niche-internet throwback. That she sounds as at home on Death Row as Sick Wid It, or even on Cash Money as Bad Boys, is more singular than singularity. Whether riffing over ‘Freaky Tales’ or ‘Doggy Dogg World’ with a gender-flipped rundown of side dudes, adding a post-struggle epilogue to E-40’s locked-up lament ‘1-Luv’ or asking existential questions like “How does it feel to be rich?” over deceptively comfortable Bernard Wright and Jeffrey Osborne samples, Kamaiyah uses the club to shake off the streets in a way that works as a salve as much for the future as it does for the past. (Adam Katzman)

9. Mitski, “Puberty 2” (Dead Oceans)

Mitski Miyawaki dredges the depths of female socialization with a devastating, empathetic album about emotional labor, anxiety, and depression, and the way that hardness is a product of forever being seen as soft. Much of it feels like an updated and matured riot grrrl for 2016, with delicate, lo-fi synth touches reminiscent of the “Take-Offs and Landings”-era Rilo Kiley. The whole thing feels as overwhelming as your first sleepover, the first time you heard what would be your favorite punk album, the first person you kissed at a show, and your first break-up—all rolled into one. (Karen Peltier)

10. Danny Brown, “Atrocity Exhibition” (Warp)

Detroit rapper Danny Brown confronts the reality of addiction with cautionary tales while bouncing through the highs and lows and lessons learned (“and if I learned anything it’s don’t nod off with a motherfuckin’ cigarette burning,” he raps at one point), without sparing the unglamorous reality of what happens when you’re fucked up all the time (“couldn’t get it hard tried to stuff it in soft/had to fuck em both raw, keep my fingers crossed”). The album has plenty of songs for the club such as ‘Ain’t It Funny,’ ‘When It Rain,’ and ‘Dance in the Water’—great tunes for getting geeked up for the end of world—and wraps with a big fuck you in ‘Hell For It,’ a spite-powered track that makes it clear that finding any way to survive is a revolutionary act in a world designed to fuck you over. (KP)

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