Year-end lists are meant to be lively affairs, but the specter of death and sting of betrayal have cast a somber mood onto many of the best albums of 2016. We were gifted with final acts by David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, who passed away in the wake of Blackstar and You Want It Darker’s releases, respectively. We also heard some unexpected final bars from the late Phife Dawg, as A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years shot out of leftfield in November, at a time when much of the country was reeling from an altogether different form of grief.
Ruminations on mortality also trickled into the work of those artists who’re still with us as 2016 draws to a close: Nick Cave’s teenage son accidentally fell to his death during the recording of Skeleton Tree, while Lucinda Williams uses the death of her father as a catalyst to revisit childhood haunts in The Ghosts of Highway 20.
Elsewhere, focus shifts to broken trust and damaged relationships. Beyoncé examines the emotional fallout of a cheating spouse on Lemonade and Gwen Stefani takes on a messy divorce in Is This What the Truth Feels Like. While grim details may surround a bevy of our picks for the 25 best albums of 2016, the silver lining, of course, is that out of darkness can be derived the most vibrant art. Josh Goller
Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
Norwegian avant-garde musician Jenny Hval declares in a conversational interlude that her sixth album is “about vampires,” but this purposely oversimplified description of Blood Bitch can’t obscure that Hval more specifically examines taboo, at least as viewed by ancient patriarchies, where aberrant women were quickly deemed witches, and even the misogynist notion of feminine purity could be marred monthly by the arrival of menstrual blood. Leaning on electronic textures more than discernible melodies, Hval also draws influence from the transgressions of ’70s-era exploitation films, a disorienting aesthetic bubbling up most notably on the dark vortex of “The Plague.” Yet for all its unholy flourishes, ragged breaths, and sticky surfaces, Blood Bitch’s imagery can’t be reduced to a fixation on vampirism, for Hval ultimately taps into a very human form of yearning and desire. Goller
Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
In a year in which social issues have remained at a constant boil, music can provide a form of relief that doesn’t necessarily constitute distraction, streamlining tough, complicated topics down to their essential points. There’s no better argument for diversity, pride, and the riotous mélange of viewpoints that make up the real spirit of America than Freetown Sound, an album that acts as a living rebuke to a persistent cultural undercurrent of ignorance and hate. Kicking off with oddball polymath Dev Hynes crooning over a warm, sonorous piano line, opener “By Ourselves” then cedes to a lengthy sample of feminist-focused slam poetry, before melding seamlessly into a second track on which Hynes jumps back into the mix, doing his own spin on spoken word. These kinds of wild, rhythmically rhyming leaps—lyrical, musical and stylistic—occur throughout, cementing the effect of an album that’s theatrical, expansive, and reassuringly weird. Jesse Cataldo
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
From Ray Davies to Julian Casablancas, the whole history of guitar-based indie rock can be heard right there in Will Toledo’s smirking, laconic warble. On Teens of Denial, the 24-year-old becomes something of a culminating millennial avatar for this entire lineage. Coming on the heels of a series home-recorded affairs self-released on Bandcamp, Toledo’s Matador studio debut, Denial, is a fully realized, sprawling statement of purpose. He uses his newfound recording budget to fatten up his compositions with layers of chunky guitars; as a result, the breakneck pace and anthemic heaviness established early on by the charging “Fill in the Blank” and the chugging “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” rarely let up for well over an hour. Jeremy Winograd
Gwen Stefani, This Is What the Truth Feels Like
As these pages have suggested before, the best Annie Lennox album isn’t the Eurythmics’s Touch or Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), but the artist’s first solo effort, the immaculately sustained 1992 mood piece Diva. Gwen Stefani’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like follows a roundly failed attempt at rekindling No Doubt’s early-aughts flame with 40 minutes of modern, commercially competitive and stylistically diverse pop. If Lennox’s album moved away from the sharp synthesizers of the 1980s toward the moody atmospherics that would define pop in the following decade, Stefani’s distances itself from the last No Doubt album’s retro-leaning fetishism by embracing a kaleidoscopic electronic palette, one which more than justifies her individualist instincts. Sam C. Mac
Big Black Delta, Tragame Tierra
A Spanish-language expression of exasperation informs the title of Big Black Delta’s Trágame Tierra. So it’s a bit of a surprise to discover that the album itself is rife with crisp beats, bubbly synths, and big, bright major chords. Surprising, that is, if the album’s opening track, the ironically titled “H.A.,” doesn’t tip you off to Jonathan Bates’s cheeky sense of humor: “A house without the roof/A tree without the fruit…A heart without the chest,” he croons atop a lullaby-baby melody and flurry of digital swirls. As on past Big Black Delta releases, Bates’s vocals are masked, distorted, and sweetened with copious overdubs and harmonies—but only to a point. Despite his fondness for distortion pedals, the hook of “Kid Icarus,” for example, is straight out of a Hall & Oates song. Bates’s skittering effects and big, cavernous soundscapes can leave a metallic aftertaste like a mouthful of antibiotics, but the album’s female guests—including Debbie Gibson and Kimbra—provide the blood for Trágame Tierra’s big, beating heart. Sal Cinquemani