Best of 2016
It might not have been a vintage year for glad tidings, but what 2016 lacked in LOLs it just about made up for in quality albums. From Bowie’s final masterpiece to a powerful protest record by Anohni – via Christine and the Queens’ irresistible debut and Skepta’s Mercury Prize-winning comeback – check out the year’s best music below.
The Top 10
- When you’ve a back catalogue as peerless as David Bowie’s, you can be afforded the luxury of looking back a little. From its Heroes-referencing artwork to the stately art-rock within, his 2013 comeback LP, The Next Day, did just that. By contrast, this follow-up finds the 69-year-old reverting to trailblazing type with an unpredictable, pioneering set inspired by free jazz and Kendrick Lamar, and variously referencing John Ford, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and British cant slang Polari. Ably assisted by producer Tony Visconti, Grammy-nominated saxophonist Donny McCaslin and acclaimed drummer Mark Guiliana, Bowie creates a universe where jazz, industrial rock, drum n bass and glacial electronica co-exist in perfect harmony. Spellbinding stuff from start to finish.
- Opening his fourth LP with the words, “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / been in this room for three days”, Danny Brown wastes no time asserting that his hedonism hasn’t waned during his three years away. Yet amid tales of sex, drug-habits and dollar-bills, there’s an air of introspection to the Joy Division-inspired Atrocity Exhibition, as the Detroit-rapper picks up where he left off on 2013’s existential panic-laced Old. Combining innovative production – which ranges from stark guitar distortion (‘Downward Spiral’) to hyperactive horn loops (‘Ain’t It Funny’) – with superb guest verses from Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt and Kelela, Atrocity Exhibition is Brown’s most claustrophobic and compelling album yet, and one of 2016’s finest.
- Two years since Chaleur Humaine made Héloïse Letissier a huge star in her native France, it finally gets its long-overdue release on our shores. Revamped for the English market, her full-length debut now features translated versions of ‘Christine’ (now ‘Tilted’) and ‘Saint Claude’, plus superb new collaborations with Perfume Genius and Philadelphian rapper Tunji Ige. Happily, everything else here remains as it ever was. Assisted by Metronomy-producer Ash Workman and NZCA Lines’ Michael Lovett, Letissier sets musings on gender to sleek, kinetic synth-pop underpinned by crisp hip-hop beats, and often embellished by the swoon of strings. If a debut his flawless doesn’t catapult Letissier to stardom in the UK too, our nation simply doesn’t deserve nice things.
- Naming your solo debut ‘Greatest Hits’ might seem a tad hubristic but, as Skepta’s proved, if you’ve the talent to back-up your self-belief, things will pan out pretty sweetly. A decade on, the Boy Better Know-founder now finds himself at the forefront of the UK’s most vital music scene, with A-listers like Drake and Kanye clamouring for collaborations, and is now releasing a fourth album worthy of that greatest hits tag. Featuring the colossal singles ‘Man’, ‘Shutdown’ and ‘That’s Not Me’ – plus collaborations with Pharrell, Wiley and Jme – Konnichiwa is the sound of the Tottenham grime star operating at the peak of his powers. Believe the hype.
- A full eight years since Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, and four since acclaimed EP True, Beyoncé’s younger sister finally unveils her third LP. By turns defiant, triumphant, moving and soothing, A Seat At The Table sees Solange deliver a deeply personal account of her experiences as a woman of colour that will doubtless resonate on a global scale. Featuring contributions from Kelela, Sampha, Q-Tip and Lil Wayne, her dreamy, often jazz-inspired strain of soul is interspersed with powerful spoken-word interludes, including her father revealing the racial discrimination he faced growing up, and her mother discussing the importance of celebrating black heritage. Culturally important and hugely absorbing, this is Knowles’ finest offering yet.
- If the prospect of an album critiquing ecocide, surveillance culture, US defence policy and the brutality of drone warfare doesn’t sound like the most joyous way to spend 40 minutes, we urge you to put your preconceptions aside: this is a beautiful, powerful and inexplicably uplifting protest record. Written in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Hopelessness is a far cry from the pastoral indie-folk of Anohni’s work with Antony and the Johnsons, and her previous collaborations with Hercules and Love Affair. And yet, the album’s elastic beats, doomy subs and euphoric synths prove the ideal vehicle for Anohni’s soulful melisma, and bring an added sense of urgency to her searing missives. Quite astonishingly brilliant.
- As dream career beginnings go, it doesn’t get much better than winning the BBC Sound Of poll, bagging a Mercury Prize nomination, and being invited to open for Adele and collaborate with Kanye. Conversely, this chain of events actually sent Michael Kiwanuka into a spiral of self-doubt post-Home Again. We can only be thankful he rallied, because this follow-up is as fascinating an examination of struggles with confidence and trust as you’ll hear this year, plus Kiwanuka’s decision to secure Danger Mouse to perform production duties proves an inspired move. From the wistful, string-driven sprawl of the title-track to gospel-inspired single ‘Black Man In A White World’, Love & Hate feels like a significant step forward.
- Rebutting reductive readings of her work, Angel Olsen recently explained, “I’m not trying to make a feminist statement with every single record, just because I’m a woman.” Her latest album invalidates any similar preconceptions in its exploration of complex situations and complicated feelings, exposing the universality in deeply personal experiences. Musically, My Woman as every bit as multifaceted – swinging between garage-pop (‘Shut Up Kiss Me’) and icy synthscapes (‘Intern’), warm Americana (‘Sister’) and stark piano ballads (‘Pops’) – and provides the ideal platform for Olsen’s spellbinding voice, which flips between tremulous and tender to full-throated and fearsome. An intimidatingly accomplished third set from an enduring talent.
- Tempting as it is to join the dots between art and the context in which it was created, the relationship between the two is always much more complex than autobiographical readings allow for. And while it would be unwise to fully separate the follow-up to 2013’s Push The Sky Away from the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son, to suggest that Skeleton Tree is purely concerned with grief would be both reductive and untrue. Like all of Cave’s catalogue, his latest is rich in lyrical content, taking in everything from doomy, Old Testament-inspired imagery to themes of hope, lust and loss. It’s really the ravaged quality of some of Cave’s vocals that betrays the horrific circumstances in which the set was completed, but listening you come away incredibly thankful that he and his band persevered.
- It’s a common enough quandary: when you’ve been composer in residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and you’ve written beatbox symphonies, handclap concertos and music for MRI scanners, what next? The answer for Anna Meredith was electronica. Four years since she first made the transition with her excellent Prince Black Fury EP, Meredith continues to impress with this playful full-length debut. Varmints finds the multi-instrumentalist mingling strings, brass and woodwind instruments with all manner of synthesised sounds and effects, to create avant garde, boundary-pushing pop that challenges and delights. Surely a shoo-in for a Mercury Prize nod?