Alex’s Top 20 Albums of 2016

By Alex

No one really liked 2016. Everyone either died or turned into a fascist. That said, there were some good albums released. Let us have a look at my favourites below.

20. Emotion Side B – Carly Rae Jepsen

A patchwork album put together from scraps off the cutting room floor, Emotion Side B picks the best of the tracks rejected for Carly Rae Jepsen’s previous album. And yet what you get here, in this succinct eight track package, is in many ways better. The retro 80s style is still here, as are the catchy hooks, but there’s less fat, more killer and less filler – ironic in an album of offcuts. There is no real high point on Side B because the standard is so high throughout. Jepsen excels at playing the heartbroken lover on ‘Cry’ and the lovesick teen on ‘Body Language’ but it’s perhaps ‘Store’, a gloriously silly and hugely fun bit of pop where she really shines. If it’s true that Jepsen recorded over a hundred songs for Emotion, and if the rest of her scraps are anywhere near as good as this, she won’t need to record anything new for a good while yet.

19. Mind Of Mine – ZAYN

An album of sophisticated pop and RnB, One Direction this certainly isn’t. There’s the distinct feel on ZAYN’s debut album that this is the music he wanted to make all along, sultry ballads and moody bangers that toss the odd swear word around like it’s no big deal. ZAYN owes a lot to the producers on Mind Of Mine who have carved out a sound that is mature yet current, modern and sleek. And there’s so much to enjoy here. There are the obvious hits like ‘PILLOWTALK’ and ‘BeFoUr’ along with the slow burners like ‘wRoNg’ and ‘fOoL fOr YoU’ that take a little time to get to know, but really pay off over time. Then there’s the downright weird – the ethereal ‘iT’s YoU’ and the beautiful ‘fLoWeR’ interlude sung in Arabic offering unexpected turns just when you think you’re getting to grips with ZAYN’s new sound. ZAYN’s debut album marks a crucial moment in his burgeoning solo career, but with Mind Of Mine, all signs are pointing to long-lived mainstream success.

18. Adore Life – Savages

Love is a cocktail of emotions, some pleasant, some definitely not. There’s the giddy excitement, the head rush, the joy – but then there’s the doubt, the anger and the jealousy. Savages throw all of this into a blender and crank it up to the max, creating a dizzying, riotous clash of raw, conflicting emotion that clamours and roars. There is more energy in Adore Life than most bands will ever achieve in their careers, Savages proving at once anarchic and punky while remaining in touch with the very soft, human emotions at the album’s centre. Behind singer Jehnny Beth’s wailing and hollering is a desperate yearning, one that can be neatly summed up on track one as she decrees “Love is the answer” – and it’s hard to disagree.

17. Moth – Chairlift

A combination of tight, catchy pop tracks and sprawling, dazed electronica, Chairlift offer a spread of sounds and ideas on their third album. There’s the in-your-face punch of ‘Romeo’, an eruption of jubilant energy and excitement, while on the flip side, there’s the melancholic ‘Crying In Public’, a complete U-turn, a track brimming with barely contained emotion. ‘Moth’ is an album that flits between the two extremes of the emotional spectrum, at times giddy and triumphant, at others defeatist and yearning. But Chairlift navigate this remarkably well, able to switch between the two at a moment’s notice on an album that disorientates and delights, bedazzles and satisfies.

16. Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now – Niki & the Dove

A colourful burst of 80s inspired pop, Niki & the Dove shine on the glittering, summery Everybody’s Heart Is Broken Now. Drum machines and synths abound on tracks that move from sparkly sunny bops (‘You Want The Sun’) to brooding melancholia (‘Miami Beach’), carried along in a rush of heady excitement, like a summer romance. At times, listening to Niki & the Dove is like being in a disco all by yourself, lost in a dizzying haze of bright lights and youthful euphoria. There is both joy and sadness to be found here, sewn into the seams of every song that glides wistfully into the next, like colours on a spectrum but with added 80s funk.

15. Post Pop Depression – Iggy Pop

Was anyone expecting much from Iggy Pop’s seventeenth studio album? Perhaps I am doing the rock legend an injustice, but I had little to no interest in Post Pop Depression until I heard ‘Gardenia’ played on the radio. This led me to the album, which it turns out is a reflective, intelligent, compelling listen, Iggy Pop in a retrospective and often melancholic mood, examining his own legacy as he croons “I’m nothing but my name” on ‘American Valhalla’. Post Pop Depression is a gritty, rocky listen, full of sweeping guitars and spunky riffs. But it’s Iggy’s voice and his lyrics that take centre stage here, particularly on sprawling closing track ‘Paraguay’ that again sees the singer musing on past escapades. While this might be a record concerned with the past, Iggy Pop has proved himself to be an artist of persisting relevance in the modern day.

14. The Colour In Everything – James Blake

Sparse, autotune arrangements characterise James Blake’s The Colour In Everything, a quiet, nuanced album rich in subtleties. Blake’s soulful voice is at odds with the alienating synths tinkering in the background, creating an interesting juxtaposition between the human and the electronic. The line between the two is blurred further due to the heavy use of autotune and Blake’s often cryptic lyrics. But on this album, it turns out, there is no line between electronic and acoustic, between the human and the robotic, as Blake deals more in the grey space between the two. But speaking of black and white, this is an album that sounds very monochrome, making the title almost ironic. Whatever colour Blake’s second album is though, it’s an enthralling listen, a slow burner full of hidden gems.

13. 99 Cents – Santigold

Bright, bold and brash, Santigold’s glistening 99 Cents is a poppy addition to the singer’s hook-heavy back catalogue full of memorable tunes and tight production. Santigold’s voice has the same stiff upper-lip monotone of her previous albums but she lets loose more often here, going for big choruses on stand out tracks ‘Banshee’ and ‘Can’t Get Enough Of Myself’. Aside from the obvious big tunes, there is real style here, such as on ‘Rendezvous Girl’, a sophisticated, sleek track that opts out of obvious hooks in favour of a more elegant, subtle approach. On 99 Cents, Santigold once again proves herself to be at the forefront of pop, a true pioneer and purveyor of relentlessly good tunes.

12. Starboy – The Weeknd

A vibrant, exuberant album packed full of spanking, sparkling big tunes and cool, moody slow jams, The Weeknd triumphed on Starboy. Jumping from loin-burning ladies’ man to sensitive, yearning Romeo, Abel Makkonen Tesfaye blends smooth, seductive RnB with elements of rap, dance and electronica on an album that bleeds urgent, vital energy with every track. It’s a pity that The Weeknd hasn’t quite broken the habit of littering otherwise stellar tracks with casual misogyny, as he proves he’s capable of excellent lyricism when he puts his mind to it. Tesfaye’s beautifully sleek voice welds itself around funk-influenced RnB, croons through synth-heavy ballads and duets with Daft Punk at both the album’s opening and close. Starboy demonstrates an impressive vocal dexterity as well as a collection of unmissable tracks that ooze lust and love at every turn.

11. Lemonade – Beyoncé

On her genre-spanning sixth studio album, Beyoncé documents her husband’s infidelity in startling honesty, stepping into the role of woman scorned with ease. In many ways, it feels like the part she was always destined to play, as she growls her way through ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ alongside Jack White and the sparse, defiant ‘Sorry’. But Lemonade is much more than a swipe at Jay Z. It’s an album about women who persevere in spite of the odds stacked against them. It’s about black women and their struggle to triumph in a world that favours whiteness. And it’s about an individual journey, that travels through pain, to rage, to forgiveness. Lemonade is a courageous album that sees Beyoncé move away from the RnB jams that made her famous to more experimental ground, marking another milestone in her already illustrious, hugely successful career.

10. HOPELESSNESS – Anohni

Drone bombs, environmental disaster and Guantanamo Bay – these are just some of the themes Anohni tackles on the sparse, electronic HOPELESSNESS, an album that lives up to its title on every track. Anohni hovers over shimmering synth beats like a vulture, diving into meaty moral issues and gouging out the humanity hiding within them. Here she is a harbinger of doom, looking at the world and despairing, warning us of our impending destruction but feeling helpless to do anything about it. In many ways, Anohni is all of us, just another witness to the moral and physical corruption of earth. The only difference is, unlike Anohni, few of us would be able to cobble together an album of such striking emotional power from such feelings of despair.

9. Freetown Sound – Blood Orange

Dev Hynes has come a long way since his Lightspeed Champion days, ditching the cutesy folk songs for high production RnB and hip hop. Hynes shines on Freetown Sound, an album that unravels in slick production, dreamy vocals and moral messages. Feminism is a theme that recurs throughout the album, Hynes at times happy to step aside and give a voice to women to speak about the importance of a modern feminist movement. Elsewhere, it’s slow, moody and percussive RnB that characterises much of the album, Hynes’ smooth vocals layered over electronic drum beats and soothing keys. Freetown Sound is an album that’s so consistent, that gels so well as a single piece of work, that it sometimes feels like it’s one long track – a track that floats by in a sleepy haze of effortlessly cool synth-pop RnB.

8. Let Them Eat Chaos – Kate Tempest

Already known for her no-holds-barred lyrical approach to tackling the crises of modern life, Kate Tempest outdid herself on her second album, Let Them Eat Chaos. A damning take-down of global capitalism and an exposé on the loneliness, isolation and alienation felt by so many living within its oppressive system, Tempest lambastes governments and landlords, employers and millionaires in sharp, fierce bursts of rap over an arrangement of sinewy electronic beats. But among the acerbic wit and the raw, ferocious rage is a burning empathy. Tempest raps about mothers who have lost their children, of people living in poverty, of people so disconnected from real life that they’re unsure what is real and what is fake. Her observations are always astute and her delivery is always brimming with such emotion that the listener has no choice but to sit up and listen. Enthralling and uncompromising, Tempest bulldozes her way through an album that echoes long after its final track is finished.

7. Anti – Rihanna

Released amidst one of the messiest, most shambolic album campaigns in recent memory, Anti emerged to much hype and mixed reactions. Anti is unlike any Rihanna album that has come before it; it’s jagged and unstructured, choppy and rough round the edges. In other words – it’s the Rihannaest album to date. A marvellous thrown together collection of gangster ballads and experimental mid-tempo tracks, Anti plays by its own rules, disowning the big, banging choruses that made Rih a global superstar altogether. Some radio-friendly fun comes in the shape of ‘Work’, while Rihanna shows off her vocal prowess on big band ballad ‘Love On The Brain’ but Anti is at its best when it’s being weird, such as on the intoxicating album opener, ‘Consideration’ or the unravelling, ballsy ‘Needed Me’. While it may have been polarising upon its release, Anti has aged extremely well, remaining compelling and interesting. Undoubtedly Rihanna’s most enduring – and endearing – album to date, Anti is a risk that definitely paid off.

6. AIM – M.I.A

Since her debut over ten years ago, M.I.A has been known for her creative use of sound, merging genres to make weird new ones, the bastard children of rap, hip hop and bhangra. AIM is perhaps M.I.A’s most musically interesting album yet, a mesh of sounds and hooks that sound so fresh and original that it only makes sense that M.I.A is the one who conceived them. From the kazoo-style honk of ‘Bird Song’ to the vocal distortions on ‘Go Off’, AIM is a consistently intriguing listen full of innovation. And then there are the hooks. ‘Borders’, ‘Ali r u ok?’ and ‘Freedun’, featuring a star turn from ZAYN, are just some of the tracks that niggle into your head and refuse to leave, the choruses so irresistible and yet often so simple you’ll wonder how no one thought of them before. Running through the album is a political discourse, M.I.A on typically polemic form as she takes on the refugee crisis, capitalism and border control with her particular brand of blasé wit. Still a boundary pusher on her fifth studio album, M.I.A hit another home run with AIM.

5. Aforger – Douglas Dare

Sensitive, injured and honest, Douglas Dare lays himself bare on Aforger, an album that reveals itself in restrained electronic patterns. Over a backdrop of skittering percussion and sombre synths, Dare sings of love and heartbreak, his voice full of mournful longing. While many of the tracks feel autobiographical (‘Thinking Of Him’, ‘Oh Father’), Dare lets his imagination unfurl on album opener ‘Doublethink’ inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. But it’s when he’s at his most confessional that Dare really shines, such as on ‘Stranger’, a track about the gradual process of unknowing someone you were once intimate with. Dare’s lyrics reject tired clichés about heartbreak and embrace an emotional honesty that many artists would surely shy away from. On Aforger, Douglas Dare opens his soul – and the result is quite breathtaking.

4. A Seat At The Table – Solange

An anthology of songs about race, equality and the black lived experience, Solange’s ‘A Seat at The Table’ was one of the most arresting albums of 2016. Interspersed with spoken word interludes relating stories about growing up in white America and musings on what it means to be black in the current political and social climate, ‘A Seat at The Table’ is an album that doesn’t so much grapple with the big issues as it does grab them by the throat. While on the surface, this is an album of smooth RnB, bubbling just below is a quiet rage, seen on tracks ‘Be Mad’ and ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, both mellow, chilled-out tunes seething with restrained anger. A blend of astute observations and first-hand experiences coupled with stripped back soul, ‘A Seat at The Table’ is a crucial listen that heralds Solange as one of the great protest singers of our generation.

3. Blackstar – David Bowie

It’s difficult to think about Bowie’s swansong objectively now, given that since his death at the beginning of the year, Bowie has been lauded, mourned and elevated to almost Godlike status. How then, do you begin to unpick his final album, away from the hype and the context, the sadness and the aftermath? The answer is you take it on its own terms. Of course Blackstar gained extra significance after Bowie’s death, tracks like the retrospectively foreboding ‘Lazarus’ preempting his demise, and the rest of the album, but particularly the title track, carrying a funereal morbidity. But beyond the sombreness is Bowie’s legendary experimental spirit. Blackstar sees Bowie continuing to innovate, push boundaries and fuse genres, such as on the jazzy, noirish ‘Sue (Or in A Season of Crime)’, a dazzling, brassy track that shows Bowie at his uncompromising best. Blackstar may have become especially poignant after Bowie’s death, but even if the legendary icon were still alive, this would remain one of the best albums of his career.

2. Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

It’s important to remember that much of Skeleton Tree was recorded before the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son, but with its overarching themes of loss, grief and death, it’s near impossible not to hear this collection of desperately sad songs through the prism of Cave’s very personal mourning. These tracks are often stripped so bare they’re little more than piano and Cave’s gravelly, restrained vocals, raw and chilling. Skeleton Tree is like the soundtrack to a musical where someone dies in every scene, a wispy, harrowing trek through a grief that seems never-ending and eternal. This is an album that examines the aftermath of grief, what happens to the people left in the wake of a tragedy. Through its stilted, precarious melodies, its delicate arrangements and fraught, poetic lyrics, Skeleton Tree brings the experience of grief and loss to life in horrifying frankness.

1. The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey

How do you follow up an album of acclaimed war songs brimming with political and social commentary? The answer’s easy if you’re PJ Harvey – you release another one. But while 2011’s Let England Shake was more concerned with past atrocities, The Hope Six Demolition Project is rooted firmly in the present. From album opener ‘The Community Of Hope’ that details the poverty and destitution of one of Washington’s poorest districts, to ‘Ministry of Defence’, offering a grim view of a bombed out Afghan building now littered with syringes, knives and human shit, Harvey is typically uncensored in her descriptions and unwavering in her delivery, at once damning but detached. Backed by a rocky arrangement of drums, guitar and trumpet, the sound of Hope Six mirrors the jagged, feral backdrop that lies at the centre of Harvey’s album. Hope Six is in many ways a documentary album, but it is also a protest album, an album that focuses on inequality, poverty and war and asks the question – where do we go from here?

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