Beyoncé, Lemonade (Columbia) The queen of R&B/pop turns lemons into her most ambitious manifesto, a tale of infidelity spanning rage, reconciliation and a genre-bridging sonic palette that fits such varied guests as Jack White, Kendrick Lamar and James Blake. Cinematic even without its rich video version.
David Bowie, Blackstar (Columbia) Rock’s foremost innovator set the bar just one week into 2016 with his best album in decades, spun in brooding jazz textures and foreboding lyrics. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Two days later, he was dead from cancer, the first of many icons lost this year.
Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Alternately stark and lush, aching and fun, the transporting third record from this Midwestern singer/songwriter evokes girl groups, Stevie Nicks and gauzy grunge, led by Olsen’s spectral-to-soaring voice.
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial (Matador) Indie-rock savant Will Toledo sings like a cross between the Kinks’ Ray Davies and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus with all the lyricism and irony that suggests. Yet it’s this album’s dynamic sprawl—scuzzy guitar stomps, ruminative piano changeups, loopy tweaks—that seals his shape-shifty genius.
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (self-released) This aptly named mixtape from Chicago’s hip-hop wunderkind blends gospel and rap in a kaleidoscopic romp, exuding positivity and melodic creativity as he steps to the head of the class.
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (XL) Distanced from overt rock or reinvention, Radiohead casts consonant, hauntingly downbeat yet dulcet moodscapes, with Thom Yorke’s forlorn voice floating in Jonny Greenwood’s opaque orchestrations.
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, I Long to See You (Blue Note) The jazz sax/flute sage adds guitarists Bill Frisell and pedal-steel ace Greg Leisz to his group, bringing harmonic icing to a dream weave of originals and folk-pop standards that smolder and penetrate. Willie Nelson and Norah Jones lend their own subtle charms in vocal cameos.
Solange, A Seat at the Table (Columbia) In contrast to her list-topping sister Bey, the younger Knowles earns her spot with quiet consistency. She cracks pop consciousness with poised neo-soul that speaks to self-empowerment, aided by spoken insights from her parents, a rap from Lil Wayne and co-producers that include Raphael Saadiq, Q-Tip and Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth.
Drive-By Truckers, American Band (ATO) A white Southern band that bucks its region’s political climate, the Truckers nod to Black Lives Matter on an album that ranks with their early ’00s prime. Led by singer/songwriter/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the group rocks with grit and conviction.
And the Kids, Friends Share Lovers (Signature Sounds) A Northampton girls’ club that made its sophomore album in Montreal to include a deported band member, And the Kids expands its bohemian world with oblique angles and dream-pop layering, honing a distinct sound worth wider recognition.
Xenia Rubinos, “Mexican Chef” (Anti-) Playful pastiche of jazz, soul and hip-hop with political bite.
Margo Price, “Hands of Time” (Third Man) Candid, poetic autobiography in the hands of a promising country newcomer.
Christine and the Queens, “Tilted” (Atlantic) Seductive electro-pop that pulses with a French singer’s paean to people who feel out of balance.
The Jayhawks, “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” (Sham) Roots-rock pioneers return with a graceful jangle.
Beyoncé, featuring Kendrick Lamar, “Freedom” (Columbia) An exhilarating cry that rings across swirling organ and martial momentum.
Sturgill Simpson, “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” (Atlantic) A shot of soulful space-blues from a country traditionalist who likes to push the boundaries of the genre.
Foals, “What Went Down” (Warner Bros.) British rockers roar with their most densely visceral song to date.
White Denim, “Had 2 Know (Personal)” (Downtown) A head-spinning entry to this reborn Texas outfit’s latest album, as if Molly Hatchet were jamming with Rush.
Parquet Courts, “Human Performance” (Rough Trade) Brooklyn post-punk acolytes wax nostalgic on relationship peculiarities in the title track of their eclectic latest album.
Anohni, “Drone Bomb Me” (Secretly Canadian) The former force behind Antony and the Johnsons finds her voice in billowing protest music over dense electronic accents.