2016 so far has been a year of surprises in pop music, with unexpected releases from some of the biggest artists in the industry alongside LPs from legends who are still at the top of their game. Here are 10 albums that have risen to the top of pop’s ever-more-crowded field.
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A stunning, expansive statement on gender and race in America, Beyoncé’s second “visual album” brings together disparate genres and musical sensibilities in a way that conforms to her singular artistic vision. While the acid-tongued “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the vicious “Sorry” allow Beyoncé to put her scorned-woman side on full display, the sumptuous love song “All Night” provides a happy ending—and another blissed-out devotional to add to her already impressive roster.
David Bowie, Blackstar
Rock’s No. 1 chameleon worked with the saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his namesake quartet on an album that both called back to his past musical adventures and looked ahead at a future that he painted as both foreboding and enticing. That Blackstar would wind up being Bowie’s final work before he died in January only adds to its artistic gravity; Bowie was an innovator until the very end, pushing against boundaries and smashing calcified ideas about what “rock” could be.
Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book
The third full-length mixtape from Chicago’s next hip-hop hope is a spiritually charged album that doesn’t retreat from the harsh realities of life in 2016; it balances gospel’s transcendence with pointed lyrics about his home city’s corruption and dashed romantic hopes. While Coloring Book‘s all-star tableau of guests includes Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Justin Bieber, Chance is the album’s white-hot center, showing off intricate lyrics and inimitable flow.
Lucy Dacus, No Burden
KING, We Are KING
This Prince-endorsed trio’s debut is a Quiet Storm dreamscape, with meticulous production (courtesy of self-professed vintage synth nerd Paris Strother) that harkens back to the era of stretched-out soul jams while filtering them through a dreamy haze. Vocalists Amber Strother and Anita Bias play off each other beautifully, dipping in and out of rich harmonies while also shining on their own.
Kendrick Lamar, Untitled Unmastered
After setting the Grammys aflame with a ferocious medley, the Compton-born MC Kendrick Lamar pulled off another remarkable move—he released an odds-and-sods collection that further showed off his talents as a lyricist and thinker. Even when he’s musing about being possibly in need of editing, as he does on the epic-in-miniature “untitled 07 2014-2016,” he’s flaunting how cogent he is not just compared to his contemporaries, but to all of pop. This trip through Lamar’s archives serves as an amuse-bouche for the next step in Lamar’s storied career.
The Barbadian pop princess’s eighth album was more than a surprise release-date-wise: Rihanna’s moody, emotional Anti- balanced forward-thinking megahits (the sinewy “Work,” the spiteful “Needed Me”) with tracks like the old-school tour de force “Love On The Brain,” which allowed her to show off her voice’s surprisingly wide range.
Esperanza Spalding, Emily's D+Evolution
Having already established herself as a bass prodigy and thoughtful interpreter of jazz, Esperanza Spalding dives deep into her own head on this album, which is named after her “un-cultivated curiosity” and which surfs through heady funk, sparse soul, and the soundtrack to Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. (Perhaps appropriately, given the album’s arms-around-the-world ambition, Spalding takes on the role of the wanting-it-all “bad egg” Veruca Salt.)
The 1975, I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
While guitars have been largely absent from top-40 radio this year, this fearlessly ambitious collection from British cult heroes The 1975 shows how guitars can still have a place in 2016’s pop pantheon. Frontman Matty Healy has an eroticism that recalls the nervous energy of INXS’s Michael Hutchence, but his sardonic lyrics about love, lust, and notoriety on songs like the biting “Love Me” and the jittery “UGH!” are very much of the hyper-self-examined social media era.