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.