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Stephen Thompson's Top 10 Albums Of 2016

Bon Iver's <em>22, A Million</em> is Stephen Thompson's favorite album of 2016.
Courtesy of the artist
Bon Iver's 22, A Million is Stephen Thompson's favorite album of 2016.

If one defining thread ran through 2016's best albums — or, to be more precise, this one observer's favorite albums — it was an air of mystery. It's one thing to string together a tidy bundle of MP3s, and another to cultivate a sense of myth, otherworldliness, storytelling ambition or multimedia wizardry.

This was the year that opened with a tremendous David Bowie record — which, the world learned only two days later, was recorded and released with the knowledge that it would be his last. And this was the year Beyoncé promised a new project of some kind, only to release a stunning long-form video on HBO (and accompanying album) that addressed — in ways both blunt and oblique — her complex and public personal life, while also serving as a manifesto on black womanhood. (Beyoncé's sister Solange followed suit with a manifesto of her own, but packaged select copies with a limited-edition book instead of a high-profile movie.)

If a 2016 album was high-profile enough, it didn't need to be completed at all: Kanye West, for example, "released" The Life Of Pablo via streaming services but continued to tinker endlessly with its track listing; the muddled and oft-befuddling results were only occasionally spectacular. But of the albums that were finished, these 10 felt like the best — the most surprising, beautiful, bracing and/or all-around stunning music of 2016.

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Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)