It was a year in which the most glorious music spanned a diversity of sounds, but a surprising unity of emotions, thoughts and anger. We’ve ranked the best albums of 2016.

The greatest music has always reflected something in us, in the world as it was, as it stands, and – just maybe – what it could become. There’s a through line that you could draw between most of the albums in this gallery, which boast similar themes of unrest, heartbreak and grief. Lots and lots of grief.

We saw the end of music legends David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, and heard directly from them how it felt to stare down disease and death on Blackstar and You Want it Darker. Other albums allowed musicians to express their grieving experiences, in the rock charge of Bob Mould’s Patch the Sky, in the dream pop netherworld of Japanese Breakfast’s Psychopomp, in the waking nightmare of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree.

Drive-By Truckers and Green Day cast a weary eye on the state of the union while Chance the Rapper attempted to forecast a better future for Chicago. Wilco turned inward, PJ Harvey looked outward and Radiohead went to the moon (or at least a pool in that shape). Kanye West made a mess, Beyoncé set herself on fire and Sturgill Simpson tried to prepare his son for rough waters. Meanwhile, the younger folks in this gallery, from Mitski to Frank Ocean to Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo, weren’t sure that adulthood is what they signed up for.

It was an ugly year made a little more beautiful by this music, much of which brought beauty, grace, empathy and understanding to a world in desperate need of it. 2016 would have been a much tougher year without these albums.

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