10. Britney Spears, ‘Glory’
If you counted the Holy Spearit out after 2013’s weird let-down “Britney Jean,” you should know better. Brit’s next success is always her next comeback, but “Glory” wasn’t just the teeter-totter effect – she’s over, she’s back – in full swing. Her return to artistic, well, glory repositioned the Vegas-headlining mom somewhere between the hazy “Blackout” and “In the Zone” with its celestial pop and less-fabricated production. And the nod to her Southern roots, the country-licked “Liar,” where she’s actually, like, singing? More of this singing thing please and stat.
9. Tyler Glenn, ‘Excommunication’
Mormonism – but really all organized religion – got a much-needed wake-up call thanks to Tyler Glenn. On “Excommunication,” the Neon Trees frontman was not about to sugarcoat his cutting words when he held the LDS Church accountable for his suicidal thoughts and made no apologies for being a glammed-out gay. In the process, Glenn’s first solo project as an out man sticks to his pop sensibilities, which make for the best music of his career. Standouts include the soaring “Midnight” and the sparsely produced “John, Give ‘Em Hell,” a sincere moment of encouragement that every shamed queer kid needs to hear.
8. Michael Kiwanuka, ‘Love & Hate’
It’s not until nearly halfway through “Cold Little Heart,” the cinematic-like launch song from Michael Kiwanuka’s stunning sophomore release, that we hear the British soul artist’s vintage-sounding croon wash over us like a warm bath. Kiwanuka is a modern-day Otis Redding, and his sensitive-man voice is unshakeable as it imprints an old-school vibe on each of these timeless tunes.
7. Angel Olsen, ‘My Woman’
Some voices make everything in their path disappear. Angel Olsen’s heavenly drawl is one of them. With “My Woman,” the St. Louis native tangled you within her intoxicating world of stirring melodies and whispery vocal flourishes. If she didn’t have you with the stark synth-specked opener “Intern,” well, that’s probably your fault. But there’s no way you could resist “Sister,” a guitar sprawl that will have you yearning right along with it.
6. Emeli Sande, ‘Long Live the Angels’
Five years is practically a lifetime between albums in the transient pop world, but for Emeli Sande, that time, it seems, is just what she needed. Reeling from the end of a longtime relationship to her childhood sweetheart, the gifted “Next to You” soprano let her forlorn feelings simmer into this devastating (the breathtakingly raw “Shakes”) and empowering (the lifting mid-tempo “Babe”) diary of a healing heart.
5. Lori McKenna, ‘The Bird & the Rifle’
Songwriter-to-the-stars Lori McKenna is nominated for four Grammys this year: one for Tim McGraw’s rendition of “Humble and Kind,” a song she wrote and also recorded for “The Bird & the Rifle,” along with best Americana album, American Roots performance and American Roots song. The recognition is overdue. As intimate as eavesdropping on a room full of revealing conversations, McKenna’s 10 character-driven songs – from the sincere “Wreck You,” about a relationship that’s gone off course, to the sharp ageism-commentary “Old Men, Young Women” – are a showcase for her unique ability to tap into the human condition.
4. Miranda Lambert, ‘The Weight of These Wings’
Country music’s incipient legend wanted her double-disc divorce album to speak for itself. She eschewed the typical promo interviews. There was no buzzy primetime confessional. Instead, Lambert’s glorious 24-song narrative – easily some of her best work – plunges deep into the heart and renders insight through her drunken, cigarette-dragging, broken-hearted path to contentment. The journey starts and ends with a pair of steadfast mantras, “Runnin’ Just in Case” and “I’ve Got Wheels,” meanwhile also challenging gender norms on “Tomboy” and enlisting rebound sex to remedy her breakup woe on the glorious Grammy-nominated “Vice.” At least half of Lambert’s steel-pedal confessionals – undoubtedly, “Pushin’ Time,” which is sweet, tender, perfect – will be sitting comfortably amid country’s classics.
3. Frank Ocean, ‘Blond’
Out music maverick Frank Ocean is responsible for some of this past decade’s best R&B, and this year, “Blond” proved that his skillful debut “Channel Orange” wasn’t just a fluke. The open-hearted “Blond” works like magic, slow burning snapshots of childhood nostalgia, bygone relationships (with women and men) and one very moving car ride (the mesmerizing James Blake-assisted “White Ferrari”) into your life story as Ocean reveals his own.
2. Bon Iver, ’22, Million’
“It might be over soon,” a piping voice cuts in. Amid the loop, a gospel sample and garbled synths, Bon Iver laments the inevitably of dissolve. Throughout “22, Million,” the Wisconsin-born songwriter is grappling with time through lyrical vignettes of life that are fleeting, just like this fly-by album and its transcendental back half. If you’re not moved to tears by the time you get to the album’s quiet coda, “00000 Million,” then it will purge you with its wistful reminder to surrender to the sometimes nasty doings of fate.
1. Beyonce, ‘Lemonade’
Who even remembers Beyonce before 2016? With “Lemonade,” the Slay Queen recast herself as an edgy auteur, thrashing radio pop parameters with a few swings of her baseball bat. Yes, she pretty much ran the world – and yes, she definitely made earlier career efforts look like amateur hour. Suddenly, she was more than a song slayer – she was a black voice that mattered. A risk taker. A meme-starter. She was the reason we couldn’t stop talking about some good-haired hussy named “Becky.” The storybook narratives lifted the curtain to potential personal reflections on married life with Jay Z, but also took a broader look at current gender and racial divides. “Freedom” furnished the strength for us to survive Trump’s America. “Daddy Lessons” was the country song you never knew you needed from Beyonce. And “Lemonade” as a whole? A cultural and genre-busting touchstone in both Bey’s career and pop music itself.