YOU DON’T need me to tell you that 2016 had been a pretty horrible year. I’m almost sure that by the time this article goes up, another beloved celebrity will have passed away, another city will have burned to the ground, or another fascist politician will have got his way. But as my colleague said in his round up of his favourite songs of the year, music has been a constant force for good. In the wake of all this death and despair, we saw some incredibly dark releases, both in empathy and in confrontation. Lyrics become more relevant than ever, and political songs appear in the good, the bad and ugly. So, without further ado, go ahead and check out these records, and revel in the good that 2016 had to offer, as little as it was.
Oh, and there’s 51 because Run the Jewels just HAD to drop an album on Christmas Day.
Why?: While The Life of Pablo was a crippling disappointment, The Life of Paul (the same album remixed by Reddit user Dorian Ye) gave us the album we deserved; a sprawling, operatic near-classic with a few surprises.
Key Cut: No More Parties in L.A. feat Kendrick Lamar
Why?: Calvin Johnson’s latest solo effort is many things: mad, cheesy, confusing… but at the same time incredibly fun. While the funky music, paired with Johnson’s monotonous voice, might puzzle at first, it’s not long before the music gets under your skin.
Key Cut: I Need Sum
Why?: Pulling influence from the likes of Battles, duo Right Hand Left Hand’s sounds is both infectious and experimental, manipulating the very idea of instrumental music in their own unique way.
Key Cut: Seat 18c
Why?: With flecks of Dream Pop and Country woven into her sound, Haley Bonar’s sixth studio album is an overall delight to wade into, providing both easy listening with sophisticated undertones.
Key Cut: Hometown
CTE / Def Jam
Why?: Seemingly out of nowhere YG dropped Still Brazy, one of the most streetwise and smart Hip Hop records of the year, slamming cities, politicians and street life, left, right and centre.
Key Cut: FDT feat. Nipsey Hussle
Steel Wool/Art Club/OBE/Empire
Why?: Silky smooth Neo Soul with patches of RnB and Hip Hop, Anderson.Paak’s Malibu embodies the spirit of it’s namesake, and features some great appearances from the likes of Rapsody and Schoolboy Q.
Key Cut: Without You feat. Rapsody
Why?: Majestic and beautifully arranged, Remember Us To Life is, at the end of the day, a really lovely Pop album that draws from Baroque and Alternative music.
Key Cut: Older And Taller
Real World Records
Why?: While still containing those Folk elements that brought them into the public eye, 9Bach continue to expand their sound with elements of Trip Hop and Electronic.
Key Cut: Anian
Why?: A truly unique concept mixed nine damn fine Psychedelic songs, Nonagon Infinity is a triumph, and certainly something everyone should check out, even if just for the gimmick.
Key Cut: Evil Death Roll
Play It Again Sam
Why?: Citizen Of Glass follows trends set by Baroque Pop in the past, with wonderful strings and keys accompanying Obel’s vocals. But the arrangements on this thing are truly wonderful, and make for superb listening.
Key Cut: It’s Happening Again
Mass Appeal / RED
Why?: A late release, RTJ3 is the duo’s most stately release, with Killer Mike and El-P’s flows coming thick and fast. Guests appear and contribute, but don’t detract from the self-aware greatness of Run the Jewels.
Key Cut: 2100 feat. Boots
Why?: The Glowing Man sees Swans continue to expand the formula they perfected earlier in their career (at least in this incarnation). Drones, haunting vocals and abrasive instrumentation all feature on this release.
Key Cut: When Will I Return?
Why?: Expansive Alt-Rock from Mexico is just what the doctor ordered. Balance is a surprise hit, and gives us nine unassuming hits that meander and build into walls of grunge inspired sound and ethereal vocals.
Key Cut: The Sound Of All Things
Why?: Glaspy’s debut is what it says on the tin; an ode to relationships, youth, and the tribulations she has come across. If the subject matter alone wasn’t intriguing enough, her honest, DIY Pop sensibilities sure are.
Key Cut: Situation
Sacred Bones Records
Why?: With it’s mantra blunt and to the point, Blood Bitch is another daring atmospheric and often disturbing release from Jenny Hval. But underneath all of that is a purely great record.
Key Cut: Female Vampire
Kool Girl Records
Why?: Post-Punk meets Surf Rock it’s finest form, from the snarling vocals to the dark and provocative lyrics to the driving and pulsating swagger to the instrumentation.
Key Cut: Broken Bone
Why?: Empire Builder is more than just another Folky solo album; it’s the story of someone without an identity, someone who is looking to the future. If you enjoy your solo albums confessional and personal, this is for you.
Key Cut: Two Kids
34. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
Why?: While not as evocative as her previous work, Hope Six is still miles ahead of much political music to come out in 2016, and shows Harvey exhibiting her natural talent as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Key Cut: The Wheel
Why?: 15 years after their debut, The Avalanches return with a dazzling, colourful display of Psychedelic Hip Hop and dance, featuring appearances from the likes of Danny Brown and Father John Misty.
Key Cut: Colours
Bad Seed Ltd.
Why?: Recorded during the aftermath of a terrible event, Skeleton Tree is one of Nick Cave & co.’s most stripped back, experimental and haunting releases to date.
Key Cut: Magneto
Why?: Their move to Rough Trade sees Parquet Courts prove that they are more than what we’ve come to expect, with some of their finest work yet debuting on this new record.
Key Cut: One Man No City
Why?: Classic three-piece Jazz with a modern twist dish out ten easy to digest numbers that lacks none of the credibility of their forefathers or influences.
Key Cut: Quiet Mind
Why?: Landing somewhere between an Avalanches record and Jamie XX’s In Colour, Gold Panada’s latest effort is sunny and upbeat, yet with an ethereal edge which makes itself known at just the right moments.
Key Cut: Your Good Times Are Just Beginning
Why?: As mysterious as ever, Goat’s latest release felt dark, but with enough grooves to pass off as lighthearted and fun. Much like the band themselves, this album is intriguing.
Key Cut: I Sing In Silence
Mom + Pop Music
Why?: Surprisingly not given much press when released, Polica’s third studio album is arguably their best, with some great experimentation from the group, leading to some tight grooves and unexpected curve balls.
Key Cut: Summer Please
Why?: A moving and majestic swan song, You Want It Darker follows the expectations it’s title sets. But beyond the now obvious tone, this album shows that, even at the end, Cohen was able to create a thing of beauty.
Key Cut: Treaty
Why?: Summer 08 reeks of nostalgia, and Joe Mount revels in creating a retro, late Noughties atmosphere that’s shaped by bad nights out, cheap wine and cheesy, yet infectious rhythms.
Key Cut: Hang Me Out To Dry feat. Robyn
Why?: Easily one of the best Indie records of the year, and at only a mere 30 minutes long, Psychopomp prickles with both naivety and experience, with songs that sound innocent, but are probably about oral sex.
Key Cut: Everybody Wants To Love You
Why?: Beyoncé keeps on upping her album game since her self-titled 2013 album. Lemonade is an album fueled by anger, both personal anger and frustration at the system. In venting that anger, Beyoncé creates a concept that incorporates some of the best RnB songs of the year. But hey, when life gives you lemons…
Key Cut: Formation
Why?: While Margo Price dishes a few cliches into her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter plays up to it, creating a Country album that gives us all the tropes we want to hear; unfaithful men, a desperate family life, an aspiring music career, and so on. Of course it also helps that the instrumentation on this is excellent and matches the story telling. With obvious influence from the likes of Emmylou Harris, there’s plenty on this album to really get stuck into, even for those new to the genre.
Key Cut: This Town Gets Around
Why?: With an offhand name like Schmilco, Wilco’s tenth studio album so laid back it may as well be diagonal. Jeff Tweedy’s breathy vocals and acoustic guitar lead the way through songs like ‘Normal American Kids’ , while more band focused songs still feel reserved and downbeat, yet lyrically punchy. After all the bombast of 2016, Schmilco keeps it’s head and provides witty and smart arsed comments through a cheeky grin.
Key Cut: If I Ever Was A Child
Why?: If the throwback Eighties Indie sound is unfashionable, Merchandise are certainly baring the brunt. With seemingly no coverage, the Florida band quietly released one of the best (if not THE best) album in their discography this year. While Corpse doesn’t vastly shake up their sound, it does just give us nine sprawling, timeless, class songs. Dampened, pulsating drum beats, washed out guitar, and Carson Cox’s ghostly Morrissey impression are a formula that works, and somehow has not become old. Whatever Merchandise are doing, it’s bloody working.
Key Cut: Flower Of Sex
Why?: As if it needed any more justifying, Emotional Mugger once again proves that Ty Segall does not give a fuck. In this intertwined, madcap 38 minute release, the lo-fi garage rock sound of Ty Segall and the Muggers holds no bars. Vocals are distorted and screamed, and Segall’s trademark fuzzed out sound is used to maximum effect. In a tour that saw Segall done a plastic baby mask and refer to himself as Sloppo, it’s clear that Emotional Mugger is surreal indulgence at it’s peak, but my God does it sound good.
Key Cut: Emotional Mugger/Leopard Priestess
Boy Better Know
Why?: Along with winning this years Mercury Prize, Skepta also managed to produce one of the finest Rap albums of the year. How? Well it features some stellar production, features some great guest spots, but when it boils down to it, Konnichiwa gives us 12 fantastic songs that define Britishness in it’s own special way. In a year that has seen a country divided, Skepta gives his side of the argument through quips, hooks and confessional lyrics, once again putting British Rap on the map.
Key Cut: Shutdown
Sacred Bones Records/Bella Union
Why?: To call Marissa Nadler’s voice haunting would be cliche. There’s something about it, notably on Strangers, that cuts to the core. It’s cuts through you, but with a soft touch and compliments the Baroque Pop and (nearly) Sad Core instrumentation. It’s like he soundtrack to a Winter walk through dark city streets. Nadler’s songwriting is patient and beautiful, and while she doesn’t bring anything incredibly revolutionary to the table, she needn’t because this is one of those albums that doesn’t need anything more than simplicity.
Key Cut: Janie In Love
Why?: Claiming to pull influence from the likes of Joy Division and Talking Heads, Brown’s new album still sounds a million miles away from them. But out of the 15 tracks on this record, nearly every one has a killer hook. From the excellent posse cut ‘Really Doe’, to the Avant Garde ‘Downward Spiral’, to the dark and repressive ‘When It Rain’, Atrocity Exhibition is a no filler affair, and boosts Brown’s status from popular Rapper to boundary breaking artist.
Key Cut: Really Doe feat. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt.
Why?: 22, A Million was the album that saw the Bon Iver project transform from something vaguely Folktronica into something completely experimental. With an absurd tracklisting, and a sound that seemed to stem from Justin Vernon’s collaborations with Kanye West, 22, A Million is strangely beautiful, yet totally unbelievable. It’s Bon Iver’s baby steps into the real realms of experimental music, yet retains enough structural appeal to relate to. The results are staggering.
Key Cut: 33 God
Why?: Not one for the weak of heart, Death Grips new LP is a continuation of their past work; abrasive, distorted and downright incredible. Tracks like ‘Eh’ and ‘Hot Head’ show how the groups stripped back approach works to maximum effect. It’s hard to put into words just how MC Ride, Zach Hill and Andy Morin’s formula continues to work, but Bottomless Pit gives us some of the most boundary-pushing Hip Hop of 2016, if not the decade, and that truly is Death Grips’ specialty.
Key Cut: Giving Bad People Good Ideas
Why?: In a total change up of her usual style, Solange tackles modern day racism and double standards on A Seat At The Table. In a year which has seen the continued struggles of black lives in America, A Seat... is pivotal in voicing the concerns of a generation, and, while numerous albums have tackled it’s themes, few do it as well as Solange, and in such an inventive and downright enjoyable fashion.
Key Cut: Don’t Touch My Hair
Why?: While her previous album saw a more Folk orientated sound, My Woman saw Olsen swing into areas of Dream Pop and Alternative Rock. With this new sound came a defiant and stubborn approach which translates through this album. Tracks such as ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ and ‘Heart Shaped Face’ showcase some of Olsen’s finest songwriting to date; a real lovesick, almost angst ridden sound, but with waves of maturity.
Key Cut: Shut Up Kiss Me
Why?: Perhaps one of the oddest records of the year, I, Gemini sounds like a record to soundtrack those twisted Fairy Tale graphic novels. But the weird mysticism of Let’s Eat Grandma is enticing, and their use of pianos, mandolins and even recorders adds an nymphish charm to these recordings. While their vocals may be marmite, if its your thing it adds another level in intrigue and enjoyment to proceedings, and combine it with their creative and colourful lyrics, makes for a story of it’s own. But whatever your taste, I, Gemini will blow you away.
Key Cut: Eat Shiitake Mushrooms
Why?: On Will Toledo’s 13th (!!) record under the Car Seat Headrest moniker, the band finally break out on Teens Of Denial, with some of the best Garage and Alternative Rock of the year. While their lyrics about youth, revolt and bad decisions are kind of staple for this genre, the spin which Toledo puts on them give them a wonderful charm that helps make this album so bloody good.
Key Cut: Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales
9. BadBadNotGood – IV
Why?: With their roots deeply embedded in the Hip Hop/Jazz crossover, Canadian quartet BadBadNotGood’s fourth album swings more towards traditional jazz, with all original compositions, and some stunning features from the likes of Colin Stetson, Sam Herring and Kaytranada. Much like their past work though, IV continues to advance BBNG’s sound, and in the process gives us some brilliant songs, and further advancements in modern Jazz music.
Key Cut: Confessions Pt. II feat. Colin Stetson
Boys Don’t Cry
Why?: After four years of waiting and more teasing and we could handle, Frank Ocean’s second LP finally dropped. What’s so great about Blonde is that Ocean hasn’t just been sitting on another Channel Orange; he’s shifted and changed his style, downsizing to a more minimalist approach, with often little more than a guitar and Ocean’s own vocals. The whole effect makes Blonde feel confessional, beautiful, demanding attention and rightfully receiving it. Tender, deep, and often breathtaking, Blonde is a welcome return.
Key Cut: Solo
7. Kendrick Lamar – untitled. unmastered.
Why?: Once again, Kendrick proves just how great he is by producing an outtakes album that’s better than most artists other work. While technically leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, Untitled Unmastered still stands well by itself, with eight tracks that’s exhibit Kendrick’s continued experimentation and adventures in free jazz and soul. There are some great features from the likes of Cee Lo and the continued collaborations with Thundercat help make some of the tracks on her some of Kendrick’s most Avant Garde yet. It’s truly a delight to listen to, as Kendrick becomes the gift that just keeps giving.
Key Cut: untitled 08 | 09.06.2014
Why?: After so many years of disappointment and let downs, Weezer finally deliver a worthy follow up to 1996’s Pinkerton. The White Album is an all killer no filler affair, with tune after tune of pure Pop Punk goodness. Songs like ‘L.A. Girlz’ and ‘Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori’ have Doo-Wop elements to them, while ‘Thank God For Girls’ and ‘Do You Wanna Get High?’ feel new for the band, taking them into darker Alternative Rock territory. All this and more makes The White Album Weezer’s best album in a long time, and a wonderfully carefree and easy going ride.
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Key cut: L.A. Girlz
Why?: Eighteen years after their last album, Tribe finally return on what will probably be their last album, since core member Phife Dawg passed away during the making of this record. We Got It From Here… is a wonderful jazz rap record, where Tribe acknowledge their influence and pass the torch on to a new generation, whilst also commenting on the world they helped shape. The hooks are on point, the instrumentation is brilliant, and the contributors, while nice additions, don’t detract from the main attraction, which is the Tribe themselves. This is an album that will appeal to hardcore fans and newbies alike, and even though it’s over an hour long, keeps on giving, with every track feeling as fresh as the last. A must listen.
Key Cut: Dis Generation
Why?: It’s often difficult to find Ambient records as mesmerising as Will, but Julianna Barwick succeeds in making her third solo studio one of the most beautiful of the year. Stripped back to feature keys, strings and Barwick’s own voice most prominently, Will utilitises patience and silence to emphasise the sheer power of each note. It’s devastatingly beautiful and even on the cuts which include percussion and added instrumentation still give you goosebumps and often feels elating. With such minimalist tendencies, Barwick has said more in nine tracks than a lot of artists do in their entire careers.
Key Cut: Beached
3. David Bowie – Blackstar
Why?: Firstly it’s David Bowie’s final album, that historical significance alone is enough to make this album a landmark. But even with this out of the equation, Blackstar is still a stunning release. Bowie dives into areas of Experimental music, free Jazz, and even some influence of Hip Hop, all while trying to tell us that he is about to pass away. The whole thing is disturbing, breathtaking and confrontational, with throw backs to Bowie’s past, but very much at peace with his old age. His vocals quiver with age, yet it’s tender and comforting; as all chaos falls around us, Bowie guides us through it. His familiar vocals are heartbreaking, especially on the closing track, and now in retrospect, as he is literally giving all he can, for one last time. It’s an album that has to be listened to to be believed.
Key Cut: Blackstar
Why?: Imagine David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but stripped of it’s humour, it’s colourful characteristics and it’s quirks. What you have left is Xiu Xiu Plays The Music Of Twin Peaks, a terrifying, emotional experience that strips the series back to it’s repressed sexual desires and death. Now, admittedly, I recognise I’m not exactly selling this record, but this harrowing experience is, at the same time, strangely enticing. Firstly Xiu Xiu do a terrific job of transposing Angelo Badalamenti’s score into their own interpretations. There’s plenty of Jazz, Post-Punk and Experimental influences here, yet retain Badalamenti’s structures with amazing accuracy, whilst adding their own, unique touch. Perhaps the scariest example of this comes in the closing track, ‘Josie’s Past’ where the album goes full Horror, and becomes more frightening than most films. If you’re a fan of Twin Peaks, this is a must have for you. But be warned, it’s heavy.
Key Cut: Into The Night
Why?: When Radiohead announced their first album since 2011’s The King Of Limbs, expectations were already running high. No one could have predicted they would have given us one of the most heartbreaking and personal records of the year. With tender Dream Pop meets Ambient songs and some deeply meaningful lyrics from Thom Yorke, A Moon Shaped Pool just keeps on giving. From the political ‘Burn the Witch’ to fan favourite ‘True Love Waits’, Radiohead take listeners on a tender but heartbreaking journey. With the incorporation of majestic strings courtesy of Jonny Greenwood on the likes of ‘Glass Eyes’ to pulsating apocalyptic synths on ‘Ful Stop’, A Moon Shaped Pool is classic Radiohead, and one of their finest and most poignant albums to date. Long live the kings.
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Key Cut: Burn The Witch