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Ann Powers' Favorite 2016 Albums (Beyond The Obvious)

Jamila Woods'<em> HEAVN </em>is one of Ann Powers' top albums of 2016.
Courtesy of the artist
Jamila Woods' HEAVN is one of Ann Powers' top albums of 2016.

As a year of strife and confusion veers toward its welcome end, what do passionate music lovers crave? Relief, it seems, through accordance. The Knowles sisters, David Bowie and Frank Ocean made the best albums of 2016, according to virtually every list; only a handful of others deserve Top 10 status at all. The critical consensus is beginning to feel a bit suffocating; what about the hundreds, nay thousands, of other artists who released music this year to at least some acclaim? It's fair to wonder whether writers and editors have largely abandoned the process of listening widely, using their precious time away from memes and diatribes to concoct yet another recipe using lemonade.

Don't get me wrong: I love Lemonade. I reject naysayers' assertions that its multimedia nature and inexhaustible reach overshadow its value as music. Pop comes in whole packages — songs, image, audience response – and no one has mastered its many facets more thoroughly than Beyoncé. She's firmly claimed what, in my opinion, is the loftiest title in pop: She's the Aretha of the new millennium, the artist whose personal expressiveness aligns ideally with the emotional and aspirational needs of a culture wracked by historic change.

As for Bowie, he was this year's newly-ascended patron saint. His final artistic gesture, so full of grace, heralded what would turn out to be a year pockmarked by loss. Solange and Ocean made more modest gestures, but each fed a current craving: A Seat At The Table beautifully expressed the need for and resilience of community in the face of deep unrest, and Blonde reminded listeners to claim their own interior spaces, accepting the challenge to be honest within (and about) life's lack of resolution.

Kudos, then, to the guiding musical spirits of 2016. We needed them. Yet consensus also appeals for reasons that have little to do with these particular artists. This year, divisiveness seemed to become a virus, defeating obvious deeper shared interests and making it difficult to even do the basic things. People fought while grieving, while seeking help, while expressing nearly primal fear. In a small way, agreeing on a group of top albums alleviates the sense that, as a public, we are shattered. The title track of Bowie's Blackstar puts its protagonist "at the center of it all"; to claim anything as a center, as refuge, even for a 40-minute span of listening, is a balm.

Acknowledging this need, this year I'm offering something different with my list. Here are 10 deserving albums and songs that, in any other year, would have topped more lists than they did. These albums and songs (listed in alphabetical order by artist) aren't completely obscure: Each has inspired devoted followings and received some share of critical acknowledgment. But in a year when we desperately need the spirit of sharing to be refreshed, they all deserve to be shared again.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music podcasts.