Best of 2016

Essential albums

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 check out the year’s best music below.

The Top 10

  • ANOHNI - HOPELESSNESS
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    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.
  • David Bowie - Blackstar (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    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.
  • As one of the best-selling artists of all-time, Rihanna’s more than earned the right to call the shots in her own career. That’s precisely what she proceeds to do – arguably, for the first time – on this much-hyped follow-up to 2012’s Unapologetic. Unlike previous LPs, Anti finds Ri-Ri eschewing powerhouse pop songwriting teams and big-name EDM producers, and swapping chart bangers for more laid-back cuts. The Drake-starring, Patois-flecked single ‘Work’ is the most energetic thing here, closely followed by the loose hip hop swagger of SZA-duet ‘Consideration’. Add to that a surprise Tame Impala cover (‘Same ‘Ol Mistakes’), and a Prince-worthy slow jam (‘Love On The Brain’), and Anti winds up feeling more like a mixtape than it does a studio album-proper. Nevertheless, it’s also Rihanna’s most soulful and consistent record to date.
  • Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
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    In a year where music fans have had to endure the loss of legends like David Bowie, Prince and Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen’s return is a cause for celebration. Now 82 years old, and in possession of a voice so gravelly you could re-surface roads with it, Cohen remains to be a force to be reckoned on his third album in six years, addressing death, spirituality and the recent dark turn in North American politics, in typically poetic fashion. Meanwhile, production comes courtesy of his son Adam, and the record’s diverse arrangements are handled by Old Ideas/Popular Problems-collaborator Patrick Leonard, encompassing everything from gypsy fiddle to dolorous surf guitar, gospel singing to monastic harmonies. The result is a timeless record that resonates deeply in our troubled times. Long may Cohen continue.
  • Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
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    Where a mutual affection for Warp Records has directed much of Radiohead’s output post-OK Computer, A Moon Shaped Pool finds Britain’s best band combining their love for experimental electronica with a set of influences that extend from Solid Air-era John Martyn to Erased Tapes-esque contemporary classical music. As a result, this relatively serene, frequently string-led, ninth LP often feels like the calm after the electrical storm that was The King Of Limbs. That it’s no less innovative or engaging is largely thanks to Johnny Greenwood’s intricate arrangements and producer Nigel Godrich’s deft use of layering, both of which really shine on songs like ‘The Numbers’, ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Present Tense’. It’s a real treat to hear long-time live-favourite ‘True Love Waits’ finally committed to tape too.
  • Angel Olsen - MY WOMAN
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    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.
  • Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (Explicit)Contains explicit content
    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.
  • King - We Are KING
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    In an era where most artists cross-pollinate six or seven disparate musical styles in the space of one song, it’s arresting to discover a group with such a distinct sonic identity. King is the work of Anita Bias and twins Paris and Amber Strother, a self-sufficient LA-based trio who write, perform, produce and release all their own work. This much-anticipated full-length delivers on the promise of 2011’s Prince and Questlove-endorsed EP, The Story, with a smooth sound that harks back to the sensuous soul of the early to mid-90s. Think Jodeci, Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu: songs that float by in a glorious haze of soft-focus synth textures, laid-back rhythm tracks and dreamy vocal harmonies. If the prospect of uplifting soul with a retro spin sounds appealing – and frankly, why wouldn’t it – We Are King is one of 2016's must-listens.
  • Anderson .Paak - Malibu (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    At 30 years of age, Anderson .Paak is a little older than most emerging stars. Indeed, the Californian songwriter has conducted his career at a purposely leisurely pace thus far, sharing a couple of mixtapes under his former alias, Breezy Lovejoy, and one Gilles Peterson-approved full-length prior to Malibu. This sophomore set validates every second spent pouring over every sonic detail. Aided by prolific beatmakers Madlib and 9th Wonder, .Paak wraps his syrupy drawl around meandering, jazz-infused bass-lines and trap-indebted 808s, effortlessly fusing fragments from the past and present to form one timeless whole. The result is melt-in-the-mouth neo soul which warrants comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Frank Ocean.
  • Jessy Lanza - Oh No
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    Released on Kode 9's imprint Hyperdub, Jessy Lanza's smouldering debut provided a sensual switch-up from the prevailing melancholy of label-mate Burial and post-dubstep crooner James Blake. Three years on, this follow-up finds the Canadian R&B fanatic on similarly sparkling form. Instant standouts include the footwork-inspired 'VV Violence', which finds her sugary vocals embellished with ethereal synth arpeggios and skittering snares, and the 80s-inspired slow-burner 'I Talk BB'. As a whole, it's a collection than only reaffirms the cool edge that continues to keep Lanza ahead of her peers.

The rest of the best...