Here at Hey Nineteen we are high on the sweet, sweet crack of endless list-making. But then there’s no denying that 2016 gave us some hugely enjoyable tunes and important albums, to distract and to awaken us in these strange and turbulent times. These are my favourite albums of the past year.
20. Victorious – Wolfmother
Andrew Stockdale has been away from the popular conciousness for a long time, and returns now with two newcomers at his side. Whilst that incredible debut cannot be replicated, this is the band’s most cohesive work since. The attitude, riffs and massive hair are all still present and good. ‘The Love That You Give’, ‘Victorious’ and ‘Gypsy Caravan’ all still blow your hair off, whilst ‘Pretty Peggy’ is a rare ballad, and sounds a bit like the Faces. A solid comeback from one of the last party-starters in hard rock.
19. Soulless Computer Boy… – Trevor Something
With Stranger Things dominating Netflix over the summer, the return of the 80s is nigh, and Trevor Something rode into 2016 on a cresting wave of dub, neon and cracked LCD. “I’m an 80s baby, raised by the TV” begins ‘Procreation’, setting the tone of an album big on atmosphere and light on crowd interaction. Creeping bass lines, grubby synthesisers and icy, narcotised vocals characterise an album dedicated to 21st century ennui. The huge strobing dub and breathy, intimate vocals mark ‘Girlfriend’ out as one of the hottest electronic recordings of the year.
18. Joanne – Lady Gaga
Whilst Gaga missed the hit single she desperately needed in this sad, Top 40 crazed world, Joanne is easily her best album. The haughtiness that marred ARTPOP is not entirely expelled, but Gaga rediscovers her sense of fun. The silliness and bounce of ‘Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)’ is found again here, in a bumper crop of songs that shows Gaga’s humanity amongst the Mother Monster shctick. The sheer musicality of this piece is incredible, and Gaga plays well with others, with the likes of Mark Ronson, Father John Misty, Kevin Parker and Josh Homme on board. Joanne is a seriously good time.
17. ANTI – Rihanna
Ri has never been an album girl. She has cranked out hit singles near constantly since her break in 2005, often with four or five massive hits in a single year (i.e 2011). However that changed with ANTI, where Ri put her thinking cap on, dialled back the easy hooks and pushed to the fore her own incredible voice. ANTI is every bit as great as the huge smash ‘Work’ would have you believe.
From the dancehall flavours and Caribbean edge to the wonderful ballads ‘Love On The Brain’ and ‘Close to You’ which end the album, this is an album which shows the signs of a a difficult and protracted production, but also of sweat, toil and strife from the singer herself.
16. The Neon Demon – Cliff Martinez
Equal parts creepy, exhilarating and sexy, Martinez’ album provided a lasting impression that made it the most vital soundtrack of the year. An irony, given the film is about literally, lesbian vampire killers. From the twinkling windchime of synth effects that opens the album, Martinez seduces and menaces in equal measure with driving robotic basslines, catwalk stacatto synth melodies and large, eerie mood pieces.
15. VHS – X Ambassadors
On their long awaited debut album, the band often assimilated with Imagine Dragons find their own groove. The autobiographical tone of VHS is owed to the use of family video snippets as interludes, and the gritty texture of that junked tech can be felt in the rough production. Childhood memories are contrasted with the contemporary fears of American twenty-somethings, and the use of home movie footage helps to connect a tonally disparate album.
Not everything works, and some of the band’s energy is mistranslated into ill-advised experiments and wonky production, particularly on the Imagine Dragons collab ‘Fear’. However on ‘Unsteady’, ‘Jungle’ and ‘Superpower’ the band craft a curious mix of suburbanite R&B, red-neck hollering and dorky dad rock. The peak is ‘Renegades’, a ballad perfectly tuned to the nervous energy that characterises being young and hoping for more in our strange, uncertain times.
14. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
2016 was the year we needed Radiohead to return. Their endless doom-saying was no fun when the economy was shitting money and the housing market hadn’t fucked itself into a fatal inertia. But now as we head towards a big right-wing pizza party, it’s time for them to come back. However, they too have audibly grown, and refound their sense of groove. From the shrill, screeching tension of ‘Burn the Witch’ to the forlorn, filmic ‘Glass Eyes’, this is a band that knows better than most just how fucked we are. Welcome back guys!
13. Red Earth & Pouring Rain – Bear’s Den
Outstanding indie rock may have been thin on the ground this year, but Bear’s Den reinstated how effecting a lovely chorus can be. Andrew Davie sings with such clarity, such boy-like earnestness, that he instantly draws comparisons to Bono and Sting. Here he infuses the airy synths and lovely guitar licks with a humanity, an earthy genuity befitting of the band’s image of pastoral calm.
12. Dangerous Women – Ariana Grande
If 2016 was the year shallow pop divas produced staggeringly good albums, Ari’s may have been the best. She sings with little in the way of maturity or experience, but this is what makes it work. She’s given up pretending to know things she clearly doesn’t, as well as that whole Disney-ingénue crap that no one this side of donutgate was ever going to believe for a second. Here she strikes a familiar pose: a young person, enjoying fame, fortune and men, but not knowing what comes next, or how to live up to the pop star ideal.
It isn’t that the lyrics are densely written it’s just that she sings them really, really well. What’s more the music is top-notch pop. ‘Into You’ was my favourite pop song of the year, but ‘Side to Side’ is also great; a cheesy cod-reggae track with a seriously filthy bassline. Yet the twilight serenade that opens the album and a wonderfully unexpected guest verse from Macy Gray, suggests the girl has a little heart too.
11. Wrong Crowd – Tom Odell
There is surely few genres more stale or hopeless than that of the humble singer-songwriter, a hold-out from the 20th century too earnest and corny to survive in this age. It is Tom Odell’s stubborn, lonely defence of it that intrigues me. There is something sort of brave in his casting himself in the shoes of the Piano Man, and the original even gets a call out on ‘Constellations’, where a Billy Joel song soundtracks the heartache of two young lovers. Odell brings something genuinely fresh and surprising to this well-worn vantage.
Opening like Hail to the Thief and ending with a Lennoneque flourish, Wrong Crowd reaches its peak with ‘Magnetised’, where Odell bellows out a massive chorus to the crack of rolling drums and floored piano. ‘Concrete’ dials things back to a lackadaisical swing with sarcastic, playful vocals. There are times where Odell falls back into the slightly worn rhythms and themes of his debut, but when he’s pushing he approaches a sort of quiet riot that rejuvenates a faded genre in a way few young artists have.
10. RR7349 – S U R V I V E
After half of S U R V I V E enjoyed overnight success with the Stranger Things soundtrack, the band found themselves in a difficult place. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein were expected to stay firmly rooted in the 80s soundscapes that scored the Netflix series. However, having regrouped here with the full band, they have gone far, far off the beaten track. This is an album full of eerie slow-jams and looming suspense, one that forgoes any direct references to the pallet of their soundtrack work.
Fans of conventional structure, vocals, persistent beats and pretty much all of the accoutrements of mainstream pop music will struggle in this murky new world. However, S U R V I V E manage to convey a sense of journey, however auteur and floaty it may get along the way.
This is an album with a fearsome command of synth music, and the range of synthesised loops, percussion and melodies swirl, coagulate, and then dissipate with an impressive sleight of hand. This is a niche album for sure, but for fans of synthesiser music RR7349 is the most inventive thing released all year.
9. Centerfold – MOTHXR
A debut album should do one of two things, experiment with lots of different sounds, or pursue one with a greater thoroughness. MOTHXR’s is an example of the later, and with an engaging and pretty pallet of rock, pop and R&B sounds, they produce a satisfying body of work.
Debut album Centerfold is an intricate tapestry of loops, synth effects, drum machines and catchy hooks. It’s a record with a lot going on in the background, a sleek, skeletal take on a style approaching R&B. The simplistic, rhymtic guitar is a trope of New Wave but with MOTHXR, it’s made to feel fresh and moody. It’s an evocative and memorable style, at once polished and practised and totally improvisational. The band recorded their first five songs over a five day stretch, the fruit of a frantic stretch of jamming sessions. Lead man Penn Badgley strikes a waifish, ethereal stance, gazing into the mid-distance and delivering unaffected, but nonetheless highly effecting falsetto.
Simple riffs and humming keyboards channel clean grooves on ‘Stranger’ and ‘She Can’t Tell’, whilst the only song on Centerfold leaning toward balladeering, ‘Wild Ride’ languishes in a washed out, wasted atmosphere. The highlight ‘Easy’ is a two-part masterpiece of danceable chill.
8. The Boxer Rebellion – Ocean by Ocean
On their fifth LP the Boxers experiment with 80s tinged guitars, tropical rhythms and a sense of expansiveness. ‘Weapon’ retains the atmosphere of unrest we’ve come to know but plays it over a slick tribal beat, sky-scrapping falsetto and wah-wah guitars. ‘Big Ideas’ is a lush, nocturnal night ride. Ocean by Ocean is packed with fun guitar songs and sees main man Nathan Nicholson looking outwards rather than the introspection characteristic of his work.
‘Keep Me Close’ has a wonderfully malevolent feel in it’s verses, before peaking into a chorus that is a literal cry for help. It’s emotionally opaque and imbues the song with a sense of mystery. The album ends on the refrain “I choose to be happy” along with a yearning for release and finding a way forward. It’s incredibly simplistic, but Nicholson is able to intone it with such vivid, heartfelt emotion, and it leaves the album on an empowering note. The Boxers, like the rest of us, aren’t out of this mess yet, and Ocean by Ocean is an album for disenfranchised romantics.
7. DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall
Whilst his most acclaimed works have been personal ablutions for lonely nights, turntable supremo Josh Davis goes for Big on this new effort. From the enormous waterfall of effects that opens the album, Davis hammers home the feeling of hugeness. His seminal Endtroducing… was the sound of a man with a mixer in a room, whereas this succeeds as a visceral adventure in hi-def. ‘Bergschrund’ has the massive beats that made Shadow a taste maker at Mo-Wax, whilst ‘3 Ralphs’ reminds us of the echo-lathered weirdness and sly humour that marked out tracks like ‘Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96’.
‘Ashes to Oceans’ is weary lounge music, whilst ‘Pitter Patter’ sounds like a sea-sick Lana Del Rey. The best song: the raucous, trumpet-led hip-hop banger ‘Don’t Speak’ featuring Run the Jewels. This is a true auteur at the pinnacle of his craft.
6. Blackstar – David Bowie
On his epilogical final work, Bowie reminds us of how irreplacable he truly is. His final album begins on a near 10 minute long jazz-hip-hop odyssey. Track one is as beguiling as it is creepy and cold and will surely turn off a few fans longing for the grit of Aladdin Sane.
Things soon get frantic on ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’ where pounding drums duel with manic, squealing trumpets. The persistent jazzy lilt throughout the album is due in large part to Bowie replacing the long-standing crew behind The Next Day, in favour of New York jazz grand-standers lead by Donny McCasslin on the sax, and the prodigal Ben Monder on guitar. And whilst they bring a sense of elegance to proceedings, I’d be lying if I said this was a fun album. But I don’t think that is the point. The whiff of the occult is ever present, as is a sense of schizophrenia: ‘Lazarus’ contains the lyric “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” as well as “I was looking for your ass”. But then Bowie always did delight in these bizarre lyrical quirks.
The standout may be a revision of the 2014 single ‘Sue’, which sees the original, slightly-overlong dirge discombobulated into a guitar lead, high-energy blast of heat and friction that is ultimately the centrepiece of the album.
Bowie sings like he doesn’t really mean what he’s saying. Like he’s slightly disingenuous. Is that the point? I don’t know, but the vocals particularly in the opening track waver up and down in a way that leaves a weirdly ecclesiastical feel to things. Otherwise, Blackstar is a challenging, ambitious exercise of artistic disregard for the idea of legacy. Bowie strays far away from pop, rock, and in truth, comes out sounding more like Low accomplice Brian Eno. Not for everyone, but for those long time Bowie fans who are still up for a new adventure, Blackstar is tough stuff: bold, bruised, and black as midnight.
5. Starboy – The Weeknd
This may have been pegged as the most important R&B album of the year, but that isn’t what Starboy is. This is an album that incorporates many different styles, collaborators from all over the place and a musical wanderlust that results in an ambitious genre-hopper.
‘Sidewalks’ is a street kid’s lament, a lonely guitar line playing over hip-hop backbeat, where Weeknd tempers the rawness of his tale with layers of auto-tune. ‘False Alarm’ is a frantic rave, that plays with glitch effects and screaming vocalists, trailing off into misty middle-eastern calls. ‘A Lonely Night’ is the best song, better even than the singles. It’s a dank, 90s dance groove with a totally compulsive chorus and makes the trope of the psycho-ex into something fun and new. It’s longevity may dilute the fun for some, but this is worth the investment. In called it ‘Hip-hop Intergalactica’. I still mean it.
4. Love & Hate – Michael Kiwanuka
After the lovely, sun-faded 70s soul of his debut album, Michael Kiwanuka returned with a stark, pointed, and in places agonised collection on Love & Hate. The bluntness of it’s title is reflected in an album where Kiwanuka turns a fierce glare on race as well as his own personal demons. ‘Black Man In a White World’ is simple and true, a gospel-tuned call-to-arms not just for the black community, but to a world whose glaring issues remain without remedy. The pain and doubt that shakes the narrator is bellied by a unifying chorus and full-blooded, powerful instrumentation.
More impressive however, are the bluesy-guitar noodling and peppery social commentary found throughout. That the album opens on a ten minute near instrumental is credit to Kiwanuka’s grit, and draws obvious comparisons to Bowie’s Blackstar. The self-titled track provides a seriously impressive funk-rock instrumental and a couplet that perfectly summarises the issues and fears held in Love & Hate’s splintered wooden heart: “Love and hate / How much more are we supposed to tolerate?”
3. Chaleur Humaine – Christine and the Queens
Surely the breakout talent of the year, Christine and her Queens have produced an album of heavenly pop. Further to her astounding performance on Graham Norton, where she flawlessly recaptured the charm of ‘Tilted’, it was obvious she was someone without any obvious contemporary comparison.
On her debut album she demonstrates the same energy, wit and inventiveness that so marked that performance.”I won…I’m a man now” she proclaims in the albums opener, a hint that read literally, this is an album about life between genders. Christine, or rather Héloïse Letissier, explores her own pansexuality with a playfulness that avoids navel gazing. The ultimate conclusion: that all of us are free to define ourselves.
This is a wonderfully restrained album. The huge cut in the cost of recording and production have resulted in massive overkill in recent years, with new bands cluttering their records with endless bells and whistles that break any chance of immersion. Chaleur Humaine is elegant, silky R&B with the lightest of electronic sparkle, and plays like fine wine poured into a crystal chalice.
‘Paradis Perdus’ lifts from Kanye’s ‘Heartless’, transforming the enormity of that song into something quiet, misty, and mysterious. Its the sound of twilight. Occasionally the phrasing is a little cutesy, mostly on ‘No Harm Is Done’, but more often, Letissier’s use of French is perfect, and accentuates the grace and guile of the piece. This is a very special album, and a true modern classic.
2. I Love It When You Sleep… – The 1975
Verbose, full-bore and cryptic (and that’s just the title). ‘Love Me’ begins the album in a hysterical, Fame-aping bit of sleeze rock. It’s a great example of how risky it is to emulate the very thing you are trying to pastiche. It’s the band reacting to their own enormous success over here and their steady success across the pond. Healy stabs a finger in the direction of Generation Z and the chintzy mishmash of senpai worship and social media fakery. “I’m just with my friends online / And there’s things we’d like to change”.
‘Love Me’ slyly encourages a straightforward interpretation, almost willing the listener to flinch away at the oscillating, tinny guitars and brazen synths, whilst the real intent lurks beneath. And that is sort of amazing. It’s certainly a ballsy and risky lead single, one that hoodwinked a few, including me, into writing the whole thing off.
Elsewhere things are more straightforward. ‘UGH!’ is the time-worn story of drugs, drugs, and more drugs but it’s told via pleasingly squeaky synth blips and pretty melodies. ‘The Sound’ rides a simplistic house-y piano hook, though the start-and-stop relationship at the heart of it is anything but.
Healy’s writing carries a playfulness about it and some of the lyrics allow a little viewer discretion. References to Epicurus may leave a few teeny-boppers scratching their heads, but the frankness with which Healy discusses his own frailty end things on a refreshingly honest note. A couple deciding to call it off because of ones vulnerability (“And we left things to protect my mental health”) is fine, but that vulnerability coming from the guy and not the girl, is an exciting twist on the standard.
I like it when you sleep… opens and closes with decision, but the midsection is awash with mood pieces that lean towards chillwave in their narcotised, indistinct production. This is a structure I am entirely at peace with, but for those who like their pop albums svelte and to the point, it may provoke some mid-album frustration.
Ultimately the band have succeeded in producing an album that sticks to their sense of fun whilst also allowing for some maturity and frankness in the songwriting. Critics are quick to write the lads off as music for teenage girls to mope around to. Indeed, I hope that is true, because music this honest and unafraid is exactly what young people ought to like.
Three wonderful ballads that round off the album with tales of addiction (‘Paris’), the death of a loved one (‘Nana’) and post-natal depression (‘She Lays Down’) drip with longing and regret. No crowd-pleaser but pop music this candid, inventive and memorable ought to be commended.
1. 55 -The Knocks
In a year where the world desperately needed to dance, 55 was the answer. Major keys, joyful hooks and light-hearted fun were all things sorely missed at the top rungs of pop music. This year may be the year of the protest album, the year where every other album was positioned as a treatise on the pointlessness of ‘now’ (quite a few on this list in fact). The Knocks gave us the perfect tonic.
You won’t find many fits of artistic agony here, but you will find an absolutely killer batch of house and dance songs. It is a fantastically balanced album that extends the olive branch of collaboration to the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Wyclef Jean as well as complete newcomers, and yet each vocalist is couched in a track perfectly attuned to their own vocal quirks. Cam’ron opens the album with a heartfelt and vivid tribute to the big, broken Apple, while Wyclef coasts on nocturnal R&B. Meanwhile Alex Newell, last seen on Glee and Blonde’s smash ‘All Cried Out’ stars on a bona fide disco track.
The best song of course is ‘Classic’ which needs to be the song of the summer, each summer hence, from now until Jacob Rees-Mogg is advertising Curly Wurlys in The Mail on Sunday. On 55 funky riffs, propulsive beats and audacious choruses collide in a kaleidoscopic groove.
There is a universality to this music. It’s fun without being sleazy, and perhaps it says something of our poseur, post-ironic scene when an album about having fun on a night out, and targeted at anyone who deigns to listen, is a refreshing change. It sounds like ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’ mixed with JT’s LoveSounds. This is an album I am absolutely head-over-heels in love with, and you should be too.