Best Pop Music of 2016: From Bowie to Beyonce

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Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Frank Micelotta/Parkwood EntertainmentPictureGroup/Sipa USA/TNS)

Pop music in 2016 was about the element of surprise.

That was true of the two big B's who were the biggest stories of the year - Beyoncé and David Bowie.

In Bowie's case, the news was the singer's own death in January, when the Thin White Duke succumbed to cancer two days after the release of his mysterious Blackstar. That surprise focused social-media attention as the world remembered how much it loved the changeling British rocker and was a sad prelude to a year full of suddenly passing pop stars, most notably Prince.

Beyoncé's surprises, however, were planned, refining the strategy she used with her sneak-attack self-titled 2013 album. This year, first she came with her "Formation" video and Black Lives Matter-supporting performance at the Super Bowl, and then Lemonade, the tour de force visual album that caught the world unaware in April.

Lemonade and Blackstar are also united in being two of the best albums released in 2016, a not-hard-to-reach conclusion that the Grammy Awards nonetheless whiffed on last week in nominating a different "B" - Justin Bieber instead of Bowie - for album of the year.

2016 also brought the inexorable advance of streaming as the dominant form of music consumption. The year's biggest hit, Canadian rapper Drake's artistically inconsistent but massively popular Views, had been streamed 4 billion times on dominant service Spotify. Drake will have to be happy with that, because he's not on the Top 10 list that follows.

1. Beyoncé, Lemonade (Columbia). Lemonade is as powerful as it is because it feels deeply personal and unhappy with someone the world presumes to be Jay Z, to the point of smashing car windows with a baseball bat in the "Hold Up" video. But there's way more going on than finely focused rage. The signs of growth are political on "Formation" and the righteous "Freedom," with Kendrick Lamar. But they're also musical, as in the gale-force blues rock of "Don't Hurt Yourself" and unforced country leanings of "Daddy Issues." (Read the review of Lemonade

2. David Bowie, Blackstar (RCA). Speaking of Lamar, Bowie producer Tony Visconti talked in interviews about how the rapper's To Pimp a Butterfly was an influence on Blackstar. Not that it's a hip-hop record, but that Bowie's goal was to avoid rock and roll and put saxophonist Donny McCaslin's jazz combo to experimental use. The effect is otherworldly on songs that can sound like the stuff of science fiction or a confrontation with mortality. (Read the review of Blackstar)

3. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial (Matador). Is there hope for rock and roll? Skinny indie wunderkind Will Toledo's 2015 Teens of Style rerecorded songs issued on the eight DIY albums he had previously released. Teens of Denial collects a still more impressive dozen artful packed-with-ideas songs that never trip over their own ambition. There is hope for rock and roll. (Read "Car Seat Headrest drives into town for NON-COMM, Underground Arts dates")

4. Drive-By Truckers, American Band (ATO). Spurred by Patterson Hood's move from Athens, Ga., to Portland, Ore., this American band - led by Hood and his equal songwriting partner Mike Cooley - steps back to take the measure of their country, from the racial divide and senseless gun violence to the core of their identity as sons of the South. (Read "Solange Knowles and Drive-by Truckers: Making music about race in an election year")

5. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here . . . Thank You for Your Service (Epic). The early-1990s musically expansive rappers hadn't made an album in 18 years, and with beloved emcee's Phife Dawg's death this year, few expected them to ever make one again. Instead, this worked-on-in-secret, buoyant, biting set carries on without missing a step, with many Tribe-influenced rappers, from Kendrick Lamar to Andre 3000, chipping in enthusiastically. (Read the review of We got it from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your service)

6. Anderson .Paak, Malibu (Interscope). A breakout coming-of-age album by the California singer, rapper (and drummer!) who first caught attention with multiple appearances on Dr. Dre's 2015 Compton album. .Paak's voice can be reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield, and his music has a joyous uplift as well as an analytical bent. (Read the review of Malibu)

7. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book (Apple Music). "Music is all we got, so we might as well give it all we got," Chancelor Bennett's hero Kanye West opines in a guest spot. And why not? Chance is a verbally gifted, spiritually inclined emcee who seems incapable of engaging in any pursuit without committing himself wholly. Here, he mourns lost pals in "Summer Friends," acts tough with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz on "No Problem," and collaborates with talented song-poet Jamila Woods on "Blessings." (Read "Let Chance the Rapper take you to church at Made in America")

8. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate (Interscope). British singer Michael Kiwanuka's 2012 Home Again marked the London-bred son of Ugandan parents as a Bill Withers-Van Morrison disciple. Working with producer Danger Mouse, Kiwanuka broadens that blueprint, with slow-building arrangements that ebb and flow like early 1970s Pink Floyd on soul-searching songs like "Black Man in a White World." (Read the review of Love & Hate)

9. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings (RCA). "There's trouble where I'm going, but I'm gonna go there anyway," Miranda Lambert sings on the first of the two dozen quality songs on her classic (double) breakup album. Blake Shelton's ex has often portrayed herself as an appealing bad girl, not to be messed with. Here, she does the braver work of facing her own vulnerability. (Read the review of The Weight of Those Wings)

10. Childish Gambino, Awaken, My Love! (Glassnote). Donald Glover, Renaissance man. The creator and star of the acclaimed TV series Atlanta has shown promise as a rapper, but he upends expectations with this 1970s funk homage, unabashed in its ardor for George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. Working with Swedish producer Ludwig Goransson, that's true down to the Brides of Funkenstein-style undead backup vocals on "Zombies," a consumer capitalist critique that rhymes "We're eating you for profit, there is no way to stop it." Maybe a too-precise replication, but nonetheless a blast. (Read "'Atlanta,' 'Better Things' & 'One Mississippi': TV's new half-hours deliver more than laughs")

Honorable Mentions.

Big Thief, Masterpiece (Saddle Creek); Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker (Columbia); Conor Oberst, Ruminations (Merge); Frank Ocean, Blonde (Apple Music); Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jajaguwar); Margo Price, Midwest Farmer's Daughter (Third Man); Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth (Atlantic); Solange, A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia); Adia Victoria, Beyond the Bloodhounds (Canvasback/Atlantic); Jamila Woods, HEAVN (Soundcloud).

 

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