Picking a top 10 in a year as rich in musical talent as 2016 is a pretty thankless task. In the end I found myself with a interesting mix of legendary artists, upcoming talents and innovative greats. Thank you for following the list and here are my personal ten favourite albums of the last year.
The first of the ten (what can only be described as) masterpieces that this list takes in is the first album from legendary alternative hip-hop collective, A Tribe Called Quest, in 18 years. An album that also happens to be their last, following the untimely death of Phife Dawg (only aged 45). We Got it From Here… Thank you 4 Your Service is the sound of a collective working at their most innovative and powerful, a restless epic of an album tackling race, Trump and US society as a whole. Opening track ‘The Space Programme’ sees the group flexing their muscles, a socially aware insight into the American psyche, before launching into the political sledgehammer of ‘We the people…’, a protest song of the modern era, slamming the current state of US politics. We Got it From Here… is Tribe laying down the gauntlet and urging others to continue their legacy, with the record featuring many of the biggest names from the new generation of intelligent hip-hop artists including Kendrick Lemar and Anderson Paak (both more than worthy successors). We Got it From Here… is a fully-fledged protest album of the modern era, with the New Yorkers never being ones to shy away from the big topics. The swansong of one of hip-hop’s finest.
Best Track: ‘We the People…’
After five years out, Justin Vernon resurfaces with 22, A Million. Sonically it’s a million miles away from the delicate indie folk of For Emma, Forever Ago which gave us arguably his most famous track in ‘Skinny Love’. His latest album in contrast sounds like the by-product of time spent rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kanye West and James Blake, complete with outlandish titles, glitchy effects and auto-tune vocals. In spite of the sparkly electronic production, there still remains the Bon Iver subtlety to the record, with the likes of ’22 (Over Soooon)’, ‘715- Creeks’ and ’29 #Strafford APTS’ casting quieter, more introspective moments in contrast with the more classic, epicly scaled ’33 “God”’ and ‘8 (circle)’. In fact the record as a whole has a dreamy level of production, casting a spell on the listener, which is both familiar and yet idiosyncratic in its delivery. On 22, A Million Vernon established Bon Iver almost as the Radiohead of folk. An innovative and thought-provoking album that demands repeat listens.
Best Track: ’33″GOD”‘
After releasing over 40 albums and EPs on Bandcamp, the former Porches bassist has expanded on her early promise with sophomore album Next Thing. A lo-fi indie rock rollercoaster, Cosmos has a distinct talent of cramming her unique brand of observational and witty suburban poetry into songs that barely outstay two and half minutes. In fact, the album (that consists of 15 songs) only runs for 28 minutes. With a distinct bedroom-DIY sound to tracks like ‘If I Had a Dog’ and ‘Too Dark’ alongside Cosmos’ slacker-esque vocal delivery you may be forgiven for thinking the album appears somewhat simplistic. But it’s the juxtaposition with the off-kilter, meandering lyrics that give Cosmos’ songs on Next Thing their real depth. Cosmos is the voice of angst-filled teens for a new generation, a hipster boy’s dream girl with razor sharp wit and uncompromising honesty in her songwriting (whether she’s tackling themes including her dead dog, romance or just chilling with friends). Next Thing is by far one of the most underrated albums of the year.
Best Track: ‘Fool’
Is protest music dead? It’s a question often asked by music aficionados and critics, with what some describe as popular music’s refusal to concern itself with the political sphere. ANOHNI’s Mercury Prize nominated Hopelessness obliterates this idea, and that’s just on the first track. The latest work from the artist previously known as Anthony and the Johnsons, Hopelessness tackles the topics very few pop artists have a dared to go, traversing climate change (‘4 Degrees’), drone warfare (‘Drone Bomb Me’), capitalism (‘Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?’) and the monitoring ‘Big Brother’ complex of modern governments (‘Watch Me’) to the swirling, kaleidoscopic synthpop sounds expertly orchestrated by the brilliant Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Hopelessness packs a punch like very few albums released in 2016, a lingering sinister atmosphere lurking under the glossy production values and soaring electronica. Hopelessness is an album of the 21st century, providing a dark outlook on the future and acting as a vital piece of protest art. It’s stark and to the point, I mean how often do you get an artist so explicitly reference terrorism, child molesters, execution and chemotherapy, and can truly go down as one of the masterpieces of 2016.
Best Track: ‘Drone Bomb Me’
Has there been ever been another artist who has been as influential in shaping the musical landscape as David Bowie? Whether it be the glam rock persona he created on 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders (possibly my favourite all-time album) to the soulful, art rock material he created with Brian Eno in the Berlin sessions Bowie has always been an innovator and exceptional musical talent. Something that was acknowledged on a widespread scale following his death two days after releasing last year’s Blackstar. But Blackstar should be examined on its own merits. An expanisve mix of art rock, jazz and experimentalism, Blackstar exceeds expectations and them some, giving a brutally honest insight into the final years of one of the world’s greatest rock stars. Bowie has never been one to completely open up on record and there’s still the arty playfulness in his lyrics and visuals (the music videos are something to behold). There’s an enchanting and haunting air to singles ‘Blackstar’ and ‘Lazarus’, whilst the jazz caper that is ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ shows off his flair for invention and intricacy. Blackstar is the sound of Bowie grappling with his own mortality, but this final musical flourish is the perfect end to his legacy, with the music he has created sure to live long beyond the great man himself.
Best Track: ‘Lazarus’
South East London street poet Kate Tempest is very much the leading light in British spoken word. The successor to 2014’s Everybody Down, Let Them Eat Chaos sees Tempest tread grittier ground and address the state of the world through a series of vignettes and characters. Backed by an ever-changing soundscape of hip-hop beats and distorted electronica, Tempest has created a restless and shifting platform that gives her honest and dark poetry even greater depth and meaning. To anyone that says protest music is dead, I urge you to listen to Let Them Eat Chaos, with ‘Europe is Lost’ in particular standing out as one of the finest examples of the millennial voices screaming out against the emoji generation and growth of the far-right. However it’s the dark, emotional urban tales like ‘Tunnel Vision’ and ‘Ketamine for Breakfast’ that pack the biggest punch. Let Them Eat Chaos is less a piece of music and more a piece of fine art, as Tempest examines the lives of Londoners in 2016 Britain, savagely insightful and packed full of dark satire. Is there a more talented lyricist in Britain right now? I can’t think of any.
Best Track: ‘Europe is Lost’
Now this is one that may come as somewhat of a surprise. Standing amongst some of the most formidable names in music is British modern soul artist Michael Kiwanuka. Following his winning of the BBC’s Sound of 2016 poll back in 2012, Kiwanuka picked up two Mercury Prize nominations and was even handpicked by Kanye himself to work on his record The Life of Pablo (which ultimately not working out), but it was his sophomore album Love & Hate that stands out as his finest achievement to date. It may not be as political as some of the other albums in the upper echelons of this list, nor contain the odd artistic nuances of Bowie or Bon Iver’s records, but on scale and entertainment value it more than stands its ground. From the sprawlingly epic, Pink Floyd indebted opener of ‘Cold Little Heart’ to the grooving and melodic ‘One More Night’, Kiwanuka consistently delivers high-end soul bangers drenched with interesting guitar effects, nostalgic nods to Motown and personal lyrics (which see Kiwanuka explore his ethnicity and the role of religion in his life). Love & Hate is a record that deserves to catapult Kiwanuka’s status to that of one of the best singer-songwriters operating in Britain at the moment.
Best Track: ‘Love & Hate’
If there was an artist that could deservedly follow on from Bowie it would be Radiohead, the experimental chameleons of the modern era. Opening with archaic strings and Thom Yorke’s haunting falsetto, ‘Burn the Witch’ set the scene for what was to be a dark and angst filled record, and maybe Radiohead’s finest since they broke the mould with 2000’s Kid A. There’s a certain eeriness to the soundscapes carved by Yorke, Greenwood and co. on tracks like ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Glass Eyes’, whilst even the grooving bass lines of ‘The Numbers’ are contrasted by Yorke’s apocalyptic lyrics. And then there’s ‘True Love Waits’, a song that’s long been part of the Radiohead cannon and finally got its first studio produced version, leaving A Moon Shaped Pool on an emotive and powerful closing note. A dark, menacing album reflected through the lens of ambient synths, beautiful melody’s, warped string arrangements and Yorke’s distinctive voice and lyricism, A Moon Shaped Pool is quite easily one of the best albums of 2016 and reaffirms Radiohead’s place as one of music’s best innovators.
Best Track: ‘True Love Waits’
In what could easily have been deemed the year of the solo artist (there are a lot on this list), it’s unsurprising to find Leonard Cohen at second place in this list. You Want it Darker is very much Cohen’s swansong, a dark and brooding album that sees the great poet wrestle with his own humanity. In many ways it would be easy (and quite lazy) to draw comparisons to Bowie’s Blackstar, a similar record of finality, however whilst Bowie’s represents the artistic flair of his illustrious career, Cohen paints a starker picture. The opening title track itself (possibly also the best off the record) sets the tone, packed with religious imagery and set to menacing gravelly growl of Cohen as he readies himself for the inevitable. In fact, given Cohen’s age at the time of recording (82), it sounds remarkably modern and fresh, with the sparse instrumentation on much tracks acting as the perfect vehicle for his twisted and emotive wordplay as he looks back on his life. A wise and honest appraisal of his own career as wordsmith and one of the finest poetic voices music has offered up. He may be ‘out of the game’, but You Want it Darker is the perfect final chapter of his legacy.
Best Track: ‘You Want it Darker’
And finally, clinching the top spot of my countdown is Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial. Following a prolific Bandcamp career (releasing 12 albums on the platform), Car Seat Headrest’s 10th studio album, and second signed to the Matador label and first of entirely new material is for me the most vital record of 2016. Having cut his teeth on DIY indie rock, cult hero Will Toldeo (only 23), treads newer ground on Teens of Denial, straddling genres somewhere between the slacker influence of Stephen Malkamus and Pavement and classic guitar led indie rock, whilst also throwing in a smattering of horns and disjointed song structures for good measure. The record is an anarchic 70-minute train ride through the psyche of its front man, twisting and turning and even referencing Dido. In spite of the biting guitar riffs, Toledo’s ear for melody and epic, shifting scale of tracks like ‘Vincent’ and ‘Ballad of the Costa Concordia’, it’s Toledo’s wit and pure song-writing ability that makes Teens of Denial such an intriguing listen. Lifted straight from his sub-conscious, Toledo marvels at the mundane as he muses on drug taking with friends, paranoia and feelings of inadequacy set to an indie rock soundtrack that ebbs and flows at the most unexpected moments. However, there’s still a hint of the DIY ethos on tracks like ‘Fill in the Blank’ and ‘1937 State Park’, crammed full of observational lyrics and fuzzing from start to finish despite the far bigger budget at Toledo’s disposal. A smart, sharp record and truly 2016’s masterpiece.
Best Track: ‘Ballad of the Costa Concordia’