Bon Iver – 22, A Million
David Bowie – Blackstar
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
“The fog and the smog of news media that logs false narratives of Gods that came up against the odds.”
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
Rusangano Family – Let The Dead Bury The Dead
“This is where history finds us, our history binds us / No blacks, no dogs, no Irish”
Solange – A Seat At The Table
Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
“Cause we living in that / Actavis double cups was addicted to that / Had them demons on my back / Was escaping through that.”
Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
The Gloaming – 2
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
The Avalanches – Wildflower
MMOTHS – Luneworks
Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being
Yeasayer – Amen & Goodbye
ANOHNI – Hopelessness
Camp Cope – Camp Cope
Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – SUNERGY
Lost Under Heaven (LUH) – Spiritual Songs for Lovers To Sing
- Frank Ocean – Endless
“Turn around now, you’re my A-Team.”
22, A Million is the Bon Iver album I sort of always wanted but wasn’t sure if we’d get; one where Vernon explores the depths of his sonic possibilities without the burden of his background as a folk musician. In 22, A Million, we watch this metamorphosis of Bon Iver. Digitally manipulated landscapes of endless brass (provided by new backing band The Sad Sax of Shit) clash with Vernon’s voice; forever its own instrument. Yet on 22, A Million it is augmented with the new instruments he built with Chris Messina – the Prophet and the Messina; creating this lush atmosphere throughout.
22, A Million feels as though an album made of a million vignettes, a collage of raw memories, and the struggle to connect all of these disparate experiences. Deeply personal, and at times convoluted to the point of being almost in code. Yet beneath it all you feel it. In one of the best songs in the year, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”, raw noise gives way to rhythm and rhythm gives way to beauty. “Taken in the tall grass of the mountain cable / And I cannot seem to find I’m able” – 22, A Million is an album of trying to find oneself in the noise.
It’s one I’ve kept coming back to. We all hold our own strange habits and significances. 22, A Million arrives as a step towards understanding.
“Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside / Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”
Much has been said this year of 2016’s so-called “Dark Trilogy” of albums: Bowie’s Blackstar, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. All three appear on this list, but my favourite remains Blackstar, an album that turned heads the moment it came out; Bowie returns at his most experimental take on rock, digging deep into the world of jazz, he addresses his mortality and that of those around him with a raw honesty. It sounds like absolutely nothing else in 2016 (though the influence of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips are cited by the Blackstar band). Blackstar is a gift and a work of art, a piece that will come to shape the long-lasting legacy of Bowie.
“You want it darker. We kill the flame.”
Cohen was a writer before he was a singer; the unique roughness of his voice and the pure poetry of his lyrics were important throughout his career. Yet You Want It Darker represents a sense of self and mortality heavier than anything we’ve seen this year (which gave us Blackstar, no less). On the first track, he cries in Hebrew for God to take him, and growls of the impending death of his soul as the candles go out, under a dark, haunting instrumental. The album forms around Treaty, as Cohen searches for hope and peace having felt a love like war for decades – though ambiguity is set throughout it. You Want It Darker represents a struggle to find a god, to find a place for himself, and as the album closes, the longing continues. There’s tones of gospel throughout. In his final interview, he speaks openly of being ready to die. And so, another icon leaves with an essential legacy piece.
Death is a running theme in part of this list, and this Tribe Called Quest record too is shaped by it – Phife Dawg died during the creation of this album, and his unrecorded verses are trusted to legends like Busta Rhymes, Kendrick Lamar, and Andre 3000. It’s rare that an album is so perfect for its time and place, as if by accident. We Got It From Here is equal doses of nostalgia and progression, but perfectly tuned for 2016; a voice against the surge of hate we’ve been forced to bear. It’s witty and complex; opening track The Space Program using the metaphor of interplanetary living to discuss gentrification and urban decay, still funky as all hell. It’s a fitting call for holding against the tide. ATCQ still push boundaries with an almost psychedelic take on the genre, and no form was lost in 26 years; not by Jarobi, not even by the unfinished Phife Dawg verses. A thrilling record.
“We return from the depths of the badland with a gun and a knife in our waistband / Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan; he wore a bad toupee and a spray tan.”
In a year where political instability dug deep throughout the world, the sound of Run The Jewels 3 wasn’t just the righteous anger that their voices channeled on two albums of outrageously fun braggadocio-laden technically proficient rap over tight production. RTJ3’s primary emotion is disgust. The purpose of the album is one of love, of struggle, of force. It features my favourite song of the year, 2100. RTJ3 serves as a guide. Love will survive.
I know that this list starts looking like it’s trying to paint political points at times, but the undercurrents simply don’t change the fact this album is utterly fantastic. God Knows and MuRli are two of Ireland’s strongest MCs in history, carrying boundless energy and effortless flow. mynameisjOhn is a producer with international-level talent, with a sunny, sample-focused style of beats that meshes soul with tribal-influenced drums, providing the perfect tapestry for what may be a defining record for Irish grime. It’s only enhanced with its politics; immigrants finding Irishness and common ground with our culture; appealing to our history of migration in a turbulent world. Rusangano is against bigotry, xenophobia, patriarchy, and all the rest of it. National pride abounds.
“Don’t touch my pride / They say the glory’s all mine / Don’t test my mouth / They say the truth is my sound”
Hundreds of writers have covered this in far more detail than I ever could in dissecting its origins and its influence and what makes it perfect. Let me tell you instead why I love it. I love the sense of raw confidence, playful elements of colliding genres and influence, the overt focus on black excellence, the clever songcraft, even the design that goes into it. There is power between the tracks, there is fantastic vocal performance, there is pop sophistication and complexity in the grooves of this. It has one of the year’s best songs in Cranes In The Sky, but it’s a full album experience where its greatest songs aren’t standouts but brush-strokes in a great piece. The combination of this and Lemonade shows the Knowles sisters in dominant form, focusing firstly on the art, and any pop appeal thereafter. This is the R&B essential of the year – feeling like a successor to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah.
“I was adrift and caught in the ropes; under a pinhole sky blowing off course.”
Lisa Hannigan’s best song is Ora, a beautiful piece that feels as much like it belongs to an orchestra but grounded firmly by her voice. Its sound holds a sort of influence from contemporary classical and the works of many artists from the Brooklyn scene like Clogs, but it’s unique, it’s perfect. The magical quality of voice and poetry that Lisa Hannigan creates can not be copied, but the influence of Aaron Dessner is felt on the tracks. At Swim is her strongest work; her songwriting is tighter and holds depth. Her vocal performances remain unparalleled but here are given their proper match in instrumentation. A blessing.
“Just don’t leave. Don’t leave.”
A Moon Shaped Pool is an album shaped by and from loss and yet may be an album that Radiohead have always strived to make. This is most clear in the closer; True Love Waits. This song first debuted in 1995, but it never felt right on any Radiohead album, so never made it to one. Here it sits as its closure – a song written by Thom Yorke at the beginning of the relationship that took “half of his life” appears as the coda of an album at its end.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a sonically perfect Radiohead album too, channeling my favourite from their discography so far, In Rainbows, but it moves forward. Tracks like Ful Stop and Identikit strike hard during a listen. Burn The Witch is energetic and unique with driving strings not usually heard in the context of a Radiohead record. Daydreaming might be one of the best songs the band is ever responsible for.
Atrocity Exhibition nails its goals. It is a raw, post-punk influenced, soul-bearing hip-hop masterpiece. It’s experimental and dark to the core. Some of its beats take the soul of Detroit, and hinge on techno, but for the most part the album sounds like it’s from the same headspace as Ian Curtis – the Joy Division reference in the album title confirms the intention. Brown raps in several voices, outlining his story in grave, excessive detail. Nobody else could make this album. To make matters somehow better, he’s fit some bangers on this; but far from the festival-ready EDM star-producer works of Old, Atrocity Exhibition’s hits like When It Rain still channel the awful struggles of poverty and addiction.
Pablo is a stunning mess, everything that Kanye West is and breathes. It suffers from its inconsistencies, but holds some of his best ideas, and sees him covering new ground. It’d earn a Top 10 spot with some tracks cut, and some additional love and polish. But part of the legend is in its frenzied creation.
Malibu is a summery, breezy R&B album with a true hip-hop heart and a dash of modern soul. Masterful production and strong vocal performance roots it as a runaway hit of the year.
Frank Ocean’s flagship album of the year is over-long and at times a bit self-indulgent, but holds his position as the voice of a generation and the best songwriter in the hip-hop world. On Blonde, he teams up with characters dotted around the west coast indie rock scene and electro producer SebastiAn, among a cast of many, to create something organic and pure, a true delight of an album. Legendarily, on standout track of the year Pink+White he relegates Beyoncé to uncredited backing vocals, and on Nights, reprises form we haven’t heard since Channel Orange’s legendary Pyramids.
Will Toledo’s singer-songwriter project reveals a masterful concept album and a standout release for the indie rock genre on his long anticipated first major album (and something like 12th overall). Check out Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales.
Dev Hynes’ solo project Blood Orange’s strongest project comes out this year, reaching his prime form in production, atmosphere and R&B charm. A celebration of identity, every moment on this feels essential. Holds one of the year’s most essential songs in Best To You, where Empress Of (Sharp’s best new artist for 2015) steals the show under a track that merges both of their beautiful production styles. Notably, Dev lends the spotlight to women at a number of points on the album, including to Nelly Futardo on Hadron Collider. A lovely album.
One of the most unique producers in hip-hop, with a style that moves between genres, taking in 90s French Touch and touches of jazz, releases a brilliant full album here. Collaborations include Craig David on the best track he’s been responsible for since his comeback on the excellent Got It Good and Anderson .Paak in top form on lead single Glowed Up. An updated version of the breakthrough Vic Mensa track Drive Me Crazy rounds out the album’s biggest tunes, but the whole thing oozes good vibes, even when it takes a turn towards more serious jazz featuring BadBadNotGood and a surprising match of styles with AlunaGeorge. All killer, no filler.
Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree is a difficult, harrowing album covering loss and grief following the death of his son. It feels like a step apart for him and a dive into far more raw territory; the album feels minimal yet essential.
Irish trad supergroup The Gloaming explore the upper atmospheric limits of the form on this master work that fuses the instrumentation of trad and sean-nós with a modern sensibility of production and space. Ireland has been known for excellent post-rock music, but The Gloaming is the first to take this and make it truly Irish – the crescendos and inflections often end up recalling the best work of Sigur Rós. And hey, I’m sure you know more Irish than you do Icelandic, so it works out.
Nonagon Infinity is a completely cyclical psych-rock album with nine tracks that runs continuously and loops back on itself, reprising melodic and lyrical themes throughout. It’s a thrilling, complex work that’s as fun as it is anything else.
This album is real. It exists. It’s not their best work, or close to it, but it is a joyful tapestry of hundreds of tunes, it’s pure, truthful and a journey that I’m thankful for having this year. If you’re an Avalanches fan already, I don’t see how you can’t love this.
Irish ambient producer MMOTHS closes out this part of his career with a really lovely album that has been keeping me company in quiet spaces for quite a few months now.
Glass Animals triumph in this album that proves that great pop can be, and should be, gloriously weird. It’s probably the greatest thing ever live, I’m sure.
Who would’ve thought that my new jam would be on a Yeasayer album in 2016? I’d kind of assumed they’d stopped being good. This album is great and if you’ve forgotten about it, you’ll appreciate another listen.
Powerful, engrossing pop-tinged sirens of oblivion by Anohni come covered in the lush yet unlikely work of collaborators Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never.
Punk of sorts from a new Australian band giving some of the greatest song titles of the year if nothing else. Check out Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams and Lost (Season One).
Second-best Death Grips album.
This is like twenty minutes long, so I don’t even know if we can call it an album? It’s absolutely fantastic though and brutally honest and dripping with honesty. Shout out to this verse for being the best first twenty seconds of any song this year: “Can I get your number? / Can I get you into bed? / When we wake up in the morning / Will you give me lots of head?”
Roughly an hour’s worth of lovely bleeps and bloops that’ve become my go-to soundscape for quiet walks home in orange-glowing cities.
Ellery Roberts’s new project sees the bombast and ambition of WU LYF under completely different sonic territory. It’s huge, it finds some faults, but it’s good.
I won’t tell you Endless is the better album of Frank Ocean’s two, but there’s so much on this I wish was fully realised and made it further. Some of his best ideas this year are on here, as well as his best vocal performance, and some unbelievably lush instrumentation and atmosphere. I revisit this often, but it’s not fully realised at all.
What albums did I not listen to enough that other people love and possibly could’ve been on this list?
- Pinegrove’s Cardinal
- Angel Olsen’s My Woman
- Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens – this year I fell in love with his other works and never really caught the time to admire Sirens. It probably deserves a place here.
- Porches Pool – I’ve found myself wowed by moments on this but haven’t had the time to digest the whole thing yet.