2016 may have been rubbish but at least the music was great, yeah?
Here's our list of the 20 best albums released over the past 11 months.
20. Christine and the Queens. Chaleur Humaine
Héloïse Letissier was already huge in her home country with the French-language version of Chaleur Humaine, but became a breakout global star thanks to an English-language version of 'Tilted', the album's lead single; one of the first French pop artists in recent years to succeed in crossing the Channel and onto UK airwaves.
Proof that intellectual, sophisticated pop does exist: Christine and the Queens gathered a fiercely loyal fanbase over what feels like a very short space of time, thanks to her frank discussion of gender identity, catchy tunes and superb live performances. This is an incredible debut from an artist who is clearly only just getting started.
Best tracks: Titled, No Harm Is Done ft Tunji Ige, Jonathan ft Perfume Genius
19. Common, Black America Again
11 albums in, this was a return to form for the Chicago MC – one of the most politically charged (and that's saying something) releases of 2016, fraut with tension.
The Guardian noted in November that Common was “woke” before “woke” was a thing; while he had always taken inspiration from black culture and the politics that surround it, on Black America Again he evolved to note the specific issues that need change.
Black America Again was a call to arms during election month; current in terms of context, but the production and style has a Nineties sensibility to it that arrived with Common’s old producer NoID.
On the title track featuring Stevie Wonder, there's a gorgeous piano intro before it drops into Common's flawless flow that runs over jazz textures and frenetic drum patterns.
Best tracks: Black America Again, Little Chicago Boy, Home
18. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like A Levee
Hiss Golden Messenger’s sixth collection deals with MC Taylor’s guilt of being away while he tries to provide for his family: it's a remarkable record that feels like a breakthrough.
Here is a well-paced, uncluttered collection of arrangements that manage to make the hardest of times sound upbeat, featuring HGM’s trademark grooves on the likes of “Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer” and fusing modern tones with ancient ones – it is utterly exquisite.
Best tracks: Heart Like A Levee, Tell Her I'm Just Dancing, Ace of Cups Hung Low Band
17. David Bowie, Blackstar
On his 69th birthday, David Bowie released what our critic said was "the most extreme album of his career - as far as he'd strayed from pop".
Blackstar was a swansong from a man who was all-too aware of his own mortality – this felt like Bowie's gift to the world – and we needed it.
There's the sense here that he fully embraces his legendary status – producing classic laments from a soul that wouldn't rest until it was sure it had done enough to be remembered forever.
Best tracks: Blackstar, Lazarus', Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
16. Kaytranada, 99.9%
Ignoring the considerable, borderline ridiculous amount of hype over Kaytranada is difficult, but he definitely deserves to be on this list.
Canadian producer Louis Kevin Celestin's debut is bursting with old-school hip hop flavours along with nods to boogie, funk and disco.
The album features Craig David’s best track since Born To Do It (that wasn’t on his own 2016 album release) – the delightfully smooth “Got It Good” – while Anderson .Paak makes an appearance on “Glowed Up” – a dazzling track with a hefty beat lifted by .Paak's energy.
Best tracks: Got It Good ft Craig David, Glowed Up ft Anderson .Paak, Breakdance Lesson N.1
15. Rihanna, Anti
Anti was the moment Rihanna finally asserted herself as an album artist, after reigning as queen of the singles charts for so many years.
Becoming bored with pop music, she took a week’s hiatus (it was supposed to be a year) before heading into the studio and producing her eighth, long-awaited EP.
The build-up to this was ridiculous – there were three singles that didn't actually make it onto the album, teasing social media account – but the arrival of the record itself seemed remarkably low-key.
On Anti you can hear how she moves away from pop and towards a more reflective R&B sound – and there's a braveness to all of this as though, while she hasn't quite worked out who she wants to be as an artist; she's definitely worked out who she isn't.
Best tracks: Consideration, Love On The Brain, Desperado, Needed Me
14. Solange, A Seat at the Table
One of the biggest surprises of 2016 was this exquisite offering from Solange.
While artistically different to her older sister, Solange explores similar, intensely personal themes of community and self, moving at a leisurely pace through songs that speak powerfully of black lives in America.
Best tracks: Rise, Cranes in the Sky, Don't Touch My Hair ft Sampha, Junie
13. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered
Without the fanfare or hype that seem to be required ahead of an album by Kanye, Frank Ocean or Drake, the release of untitled unmastered is mostly comprised of songs that didn't make it on to To Pimp A Butterfly.
Featuring the female vocalist who stars on “King Kunta” and a wonderful turn from Thundercat for “untitled 08 09.06.2014”, untitled unmastered is a generous insight into Kendrick’s creative process – a sprawling, and at times uncomfortable, collection of incomplete works.
Best tracks: untitled 02, untitled 04, untitled 08, untitled 06
12. Skepta, Konnichiwa
Skepta's year hasn't been too bad. He scooped up the Mercury Prize after his monumental fourth album Konnichiwa made an indelible mark on grime – featuring everyone from Jme to Novelist to Wiley and Chip.
On this album Skepta is fearless, full of contempt for pop culture; versatile, groundbreaking yet also reflective, and full of blatant derision for the Government, the media, for authority.
Wiley's 2004 single “Pies” provides the groundwork for “That's Not Me” while “Corn On The Curb” delves into UK bass. Listen to “That's Not Me” and you'll hear that bristling swagger – the black tracksuit is back on and the Gucci suit is in the bin.
Best tracks: Shutdown, Corn On The Curb, That's Not Me
11. Chance The Rapper, Coloring Book
Chance The Rapper changed the game in 2016 by proving that an artist with no record label could release one of the best rap albums of the year.
Coloring Book is a euphoric, gospel-fuelled mix that features guest slots from Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Kanye West and Young Thug – a soul-soothing work that gives equal weight to fun and spiritualism.
Best tracks: No Problem ft Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz, Blessings, Same Drugs, All Night
10. Kanye West,The Life Of Pablo
Kanye's 20-track epic brought in guest slots for Rihanna, Andre 3000, rising star Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar.
And of course it wouldn't be Kanye West without controversy: his follow-up video for 'Famous' caused uproar over its wax likenesses of various celebrities, along with the song's lyric about Taylor Swift.
He seemed unsatisfied with the 'final' result after its release - literally jumping into the online version to tinker with it - but this still felt like one of his most personal, introspective records in recent years.
Best tracks: No More Parties In LA ft Kendrick Lamar, Wolves, Saint Pablo, I Love Kanye
9. Iggy Pop, Post Pop Depression
It's hard to believe that this is Iggy's 17th album – the man has still got it.
Joining forces with Arctic Monkeys' Matt Helders and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita, Iggy's Post Pop Depression is cool as hell and lots of fun.
It's an album that sees him reflecting on his legacy, and captures the potent energy of his personality: full of sex and swagger.
Best tracks: Gardenia, Break Into Your Heart, German Days, Paraguay
8. Kano, Made In The Manor
After six years away, one of the most unique voices in British music announced his triumphant return to grime with Made In The Manor: an homage to east London's past and present – incredibly personal – which starts and ends with a bang and earned him a Mercury Prize nomination.
Kano's lyrics are poetic, contemplative: he explores the relationships that define who he is today and who he was, broken friendships and estranged siblings – “Lil Sis” details Kano's relationship with his estranged half sister and how they met at the funeral of the father who abandoned them.
He reminisces about parties on the block, his musical influences and family. This is a fiery, devastatingly powerful piece, and one that will go on to gain “classic” status in later years.
Best tracks: Hail, This Is England, Seashells In The East, Strangers
7. Glass Animals, How To Be A Human Being
The Oxford band’s highly anticipated, self-produced follow-up to their debut ZABA is a slice of electro-pop brilliance.
Frontman Dave Baley’s obsessive nature contributed to the staggering detail in this album – not only in the songs but also the accompanying videos, the stage shows and the album artwork.
Sampling anything from retro video games to The Carpenters’ “Mr Guder”, How To Be A Human Being takes a scientific approach to making sonically pleasing tracks about characters that have their own plots; their own histories. Bayley’s lyrics are touching and witty; the closing song “Agnes” is one of the most emotionally affecting songs of the year.
Best tracks: Life Itself, Agnes, Pork Soda, Season 2 Episode 3
6. A Tribe Called Quest, We got it from Here – Thank You 4 Your service
The timing of this record couldn’t have been more perfect. Days after the US elected Donald Trump as president, ATCQ released their first studio album in 18 years – because they saw him coming.
Q-Tip’s voice is as fresh and funky as ever but much of this album nodded to the past – recorded right before the death of founding member Phife Dawg, aged 45, it's the final chapter in the group's story.
He calls out to the artists he views as the ones who should keep the flame alive – Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick – as though he's reading out his final words, as ATCQ address black lives in America, sexism, and cultural sickness.
Best tracks: We The People, The Space Program, 'his Generation
5. Frank Ocean, Blonde
While our critic Andy Gill wasn’t a fan, Frank Ocean made an undeniable mark on pop culture in 2016 when he released one of the most anticipated albums of the year – only to go and release another album a day later.
Endless fulfilled Ocean's recording contract with Def Jam Recordings, but Blonde – initially known as Boys Don't Cry – features guest vocals from Andre 3000, James Blake, Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, and felt like the album Ocean really wanted to make.
The elegant, sweeping piece is full of richly contemplative songs that continued to showcase Ocean's talent for storytelling; an intimate listening experience that trawls through feelings of love and loss, hope and regret.
Best tracks: Pink + White, Self Control, Close To You, Nikes
4. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch
Unsettling, disjointed and atmospheric – Norwegian artist Jenny Hval’s album draws on vampire myths and Seventies exploitation films; themes of death, menstruation, unchecked desire and the female voice. It also has humour – on “The Great Undressing” Hval’s bandmates are heard discussing what the album is about.
“Don’t be afraid,” she sings on “Period Piece”, “It’s only blood.”
Co-produced with Norwegian noise musician Lasse Marhaug, who collaborated with Hval on Apocalypse, girl, Blood Bitch has a strange, bewitching rhythm that stays with the listener long after the final note.
Best tracks: Female Vampire, The Plague, The Great Undressing
3. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
More than an album, this 14th and final album felt like a farewell letter from a man who seemed aware that his life was drawing to a close, as much as he enjoyed denying those rumours during his live shows.
While this sense of inevitability and acceptance of mortality are traits a listener would find in any one of his records, You Want It Darker is a melancholy masterpiece, full of exquisite lines about inner demons and haunting memories, as fascinating as Cohen has ever been.
Best tracks: On The Level, You Want It Darker, Traveling Light
2. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
.Paak’s energy and swagger are irresistible on Malibu – the follow-up., and step-up, from his debut album Venice. .Paak is about community and bringing voices together – 2016’s collaborations have included everyone from Chance the Rapper to Knxledge. And so on “Room In Here” The Game drops a minute-long verse, while “Without You” features a stunning guest appearance from Rapsody.
For the entire album .Paak’s flow is knife-sharp and his transitions are seamless – it’s Sixties soul on one track and Nineties hip hop on the next; Kendrick Lamar’s sharp observations and D’Angelo’s gorgeous sensuality. Each song has a moment that you feel you need to rewind and listen again just to make sure it really is that good. Listening to this record is a near-religious experience.
Best tracks: The Bird, Come Down, Heart Don’t Stand A Chance, The Season/Carry Me
1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
Lemonade sums up everything that Beyoncé is about; affirming her identity both to herself and to the world. In “Formation” she delights in the power of her sexuality, of her swagger, and her sheer genius of innovation.
She reiterates her star status, and also how hard she worked to get it (“I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it”), remaining grounded and aware of where she comes from the whole time (“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”). That’s without getting into how she tackles police brutality, capitalism, and standards of beauty for black women. And that’s just one song.
While Rihanna and Kanye West also experimented on their albums, they felt unfinished (not helped by their messy releases), “Formation” is strong and coherent throughout – featuring her first country song, and contributions from Father John Misty, Kendrick Lamar and Jack White.
It's almost not neccessary, but Lemonade cements Beyonce's status once and for all as The pop culture phenomenon.
Best tracks: Formation, Don’t Hurt Yourself, Daddy Lessons, Sorry
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- Best albums 2016
- Frank Ocean
- Jenny Hval
- Anderson .Paak
- Kanye West
- Life of Pablo
- Black Lives Matter