Best Albums of 2016
Music is a vital part of my life. I listen to new albums on a daily basis, whenever I have an hour or two of spare time. Which might seem strange to some in the era of Spotify and Youtube, but I can affirm that there is a rush of excitement from hearing a well-sequenced album that simply can’t be replicated on a DIY playlist.
The album format is not just surviving in the age of streaming, it’s thriving. Last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly and my number one choice from this year generated as much discussion and fevered analysis around the world as any film or TV series to have graced our screens.
That’s enormously encouraging to folks such as me who like to hear album-length stories and/or collages of musical ideas. Albums may only create the illusion of narrative consistency, but when top-level artists are aware of the power of this illusion and utilise it, the results can be staggering.
Here’s a list then of the albums that I found not only artistically invigorating but also great entertainment, for a variety of reasons. Looking down the list I’m encouraged by a few things: the emerging dominance of female pop stars, a critical consensus forming around the quality of contemporary hip-hop/R&B that I am delighted to share, a number of rock albums that cracked my scepticism regarding the genre’s future, and a preponderance of new artists who bode well for all of the future innovations we can scarcely imagine.
The feeblest argument in the world, and an irritatingly common one, is that music, and culture in general, is getting worse. It’s a fallacy, always has been a fallacy and always will be. It says more about the individual arguing it than the culture at large. Music isn’t getting worse: it’s diversifying, mutating, constantly evolving. You can choose not to keep up with those changes and be scared by them, but that’s your loss, and you should keep it to yourself. If rock music was the only musical genre of worth then this would undoubtedly have been a shit year for music. But it isn’t and it wasn’t.
I believe in diversity not just as a core political ideology, a fuck you to those who think Trump’s culture of homogeneity is winning, but also as a key to having a hell of a lot more fun. Listen to any of the albums from any of the genres below, make sure you listen carefully, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll have yourself a good time. Which is what music is all about.
1: Beyoncé: Lemonade
Nothing has cheered me up more in 2016 than the World’s Biggest Pop Star releasing the year’s only indisputably great album. The ease with which Lemonade transitions from the personal to the political, and from the wintry spiritual of the first cut to the heated funk of the last, takes my breath away every time. It hangs together conceptually, sure. But like any great album it’s the music that keeps you coming back. Fresh and innovative, roving across American genres from bluegrass to hip-hop, it’s glued together by Beyoncé’s vocal nuance and authority. When she sings of her complicated victory over Jay-Z’s cheating ways (fact or fiction – does it really matter?), I can’t help but hear it as a battle cry against the misogyny that Trump’s victory represents: ‘My love was stronger than your pride.’ Fingers crossed we can say the same to Trump and his ilk in four year’s time. Cross them tight.
2: Drive-By Truckers: American Band
One of the reasons that rock music has been dying recently is that it lacks a certain fighting spirit which, in many ways, has been its lifeblood from the very start. That makes this release, from Alabama’s finest country-rockers, all the more essential. They soldier on against waves of injustice on all sides with a simple, driving boogie and impassioned songwriting, neither of which they have ever made sound so urgent.
3: Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
Did I just say something about rock music dying? Hold on to your guitar straps for a minute because here comes Will Toledo, up-and-coming genius and frontman of Car Seat Headrest. Toledo knows that displaying your influences is unavoidable, so it’s easy to trace this one back to Sonic Youth, Pavement, Nirvana, and – yes, really – Dido. He knows too well the truth about drugs: ‘Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms/I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit.’ And he knows that real transcendence can come from music, with huge riffs and singalong choruses helping us to see past human tragedy to a damn good joke.
4: Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World
79 year old Brazilian samba queen who has faced a life of devastating tragedy and is coming to the end of her world, yet still likes to fuck (‘Pra Fuder!’) and belt out compact tunes like a young ’un. Her kaleidoscopic clash of world music styles can be abrasive, until you notice that she loves a killer melody all the same.
5: Rihanna: ANTI
My most-played album of the year, probably because it’s less challenging than any of the above. It’s just an old-fashioned great pop record, consistently fun and surprising in ways that Rihanna has never fully achieved before. It only stumbles when taking on Tame Impala, but returns with a vengeance on the final three tracks. They go from modern doo-wop to vocal powerhouse to expertly-judged ballad in my favourite sequence of music of the year.
6: Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
If there’s a God, I want it to be Chance’s God. A higher power of forgiveness and optimism, He doesn’t frown upon collaborating with Muslims or see much of a difference between party and gospel music. Chance is now a confirmed major talent: thoughtful, goofy when he feels like it, and a superlative rapper. What’s more, you can download his music for free.
7: Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings
94 minutes over 2 discs still leave me hungry for more. Admittedly, 5 or 6 of the tracks fail to hit home, mostly on the second disc. That leaves a success rate of about 75%, which is still better than The White Album. And that fraction peaks so high that you don’t much care anyway.
8: Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos
British rappers haven’t achieved much success globally, and deservedly so. Yet every once in a while there’s an exception who deserves much more, and here Tempest proves herself to be the heir apparent of The Streets. Sharp and attuned to political reality, her beats are also more finely crafted than the over-lauded Skepta. Go forth and take the world by storm.
9: Leonard Cohen: You Want it Darker
Bowie’s vanishing act was the more memorable for being so carefully orchestrated, but I’ll always prefer this elder statesman’s final album. Direct where Bowie was evasive, the lyrics here face up squarely to mortality and his maker: ‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.’ I’d swap that one line for everything on the irritatingly opaque Blackstar. Meanwhile, the chamber music that Cohen turns into his epitaph never stops accumulating depth and beauty. A fittingly humble farewell.
10: Macy Gray: Stripped
‘I Try’ is one of my all-time favourite singles, although I’ve failed to connect with much else of note from this jazz-pop vocalist. This live acoustic set, recorded in a church, is a revelation: the jazz quartet aid and abet Gray’s unmistakeable gravel-toned voice, lulling the singer bassline by sinuous trumpet solo into a playfulness that is truly becoming.
11: The Julie Ruin: Hit Reset
12: The Avalanches: Wildflower
13: Britney Spears: Glory
14: Paul Simon: Stranger to Stranger
15: Young Thug: Jeffery
16: Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
17: Houston Person & Ron Carter: Chemistry
18: Kanye West: The Life of Pablo
19: Conor Oberst: Ruminations
20: Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid
21: Parquet Courts: Human Performance
22: Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition
23: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
24: A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
25: Pussy Riot: xxx
26: Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.
27: Bon Iver: 22, A Million
28: Against Me!: Shape Shift With Me
29: Anderson .Paak: Malibu
30: Blood Orange: Freetown Sound
31: Aesop Rock & Homeboy Sandman: Lice Two: Still Buggin’
32: The Hamilton Mixtape
33: American Honey Soundtrack
34: Chance the Rapper & Jeremih: Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama
35: Wussy: Forever Sounds
36: The Coathangers: Nosebleed Weekend
37: Lady Gaga: Joanne
Best Songs of 2016
This list was a little easier to compile: I simply checked my most-played tracks on iTunes for 2016, and with a few alterations lo and behold I had my favourite songs of 2016! I like this method because it’s honest – I’m not about to bullshit you about tracks I think I should like. Here are some tracks that I actually do like, nay love, and play on a regular basis. Which doesn’t mean the pleasures I receive from them are just instinctual, so I’ve tried to lay out the reasons for my fascination with each one below, to explain why I keep on returning for more. And because 2016’s been such a stinking pile of horse manure, I thought it might be a nice idea to chuck in an inspirational line from each one to cheer everyone up a bit:
1: Kanye West: ‘Waves’
The man’s had a balls-up of a year by any standards, and released an atypically muddled album. Anyone predisposed to be pissed off by him, which is a lot of people, will be immediately turned off by the ‘bitch’-centred trilogy of opening lines on this track, and his misguided decision to collaborate with Chris Brown. Still, listen closely and you will discover not just redemption but a beauty that is overwhelming. The gospel vocals, brilliantly clipped to sound very much like ‘Waves’, are the entry point to soothe your anger. And then you catch the lyrics, which are all about love and respect – even after sex, which Kanye’s decent enough to believe should never involve degrading women. ‘Bitch’ turns out to be a term of endearment in this song, which you and Taylor Swift and I might not agree with, but the messy intention is all Kanye’s and there all the same. He loves women, he loves sex, and he loves Love. And for the space of this song at least, he doesn’t see much difference between them: they are all waves that never die.
Inspirational Line: ‘Waves don’t die, baby/Let me crash here for a moment/Baby I don’t, I don’t need to own you.’
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2: Rihanna: ‘Higher’
If you question Rihanna’s talents as a singer (as I foolishly used to) then give this a spin. Her delivery pushes on higher until you can really believe, more than any performer in years, that she really is in love. Or is that just a blunt she’s singing to?
Inspirational Line: ‘I know I could be more creative/And come up with poetic lines/But I’m turned up upstairs and I love you/Is the only thing that’s in my mind.’
3: Rihanna: ‘Love on the Brain’
Exhibit B in the case for Rihanna’s vocal prowess. Smart and funny, just like on the rest of ANTI, she handles doo-wop with a solid sense of control that we’ve come to expect since ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, and an incredibly astute sense of timing that we now will too. Bitch better give her credit.
Inspirational Line: ‘It beats me black and blue but it fucks me so good/And I can’t get enough/Must be love on the brain.’
4: Car Seat Headrest: ‘Fill in the Blank’
Songs about depression shouldn’t fill you with joy. But somehow I’ve been bopping around to this for months now. A crescendo of guitars, layered vocals, and pain turns out to be life-affirming once again – a trick that only Nirvana and a select few others have managed to peg down. That’s the sort of level Car Seat Headrest are pitching at.
Inpirational Line: ‘I’ve got a right to be depressed/I’ve given every inch I had to fight it.’
5: Kanye West: ‘Ultralight Beam’
One of the many signs of a genius is the effect that they have upon their collaborators – they know exactly when and how to tease the best out of them. So we have career-best spots from first Kelly Price, soaring in gospel anguish, and then, even more impressively, the irrepressibly upbeat Chance the Rapper. Their mentor knows exactly what he’s doing.
Inspirational Line: ‘I’m tryna keep my faith/But I’m looking for more/Somewhere I can feel safe/And end my holy war.’
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6: Miranda Lambert: ‘Vice’
It took at least three plays for this country ballad to stop sounding corny and worm its way into my consciousness. But I’m glad I stuck it out, in the end taking it for more rides than Lambert’s had post-divorce flings, notches on the bedpost that she used to wear with pride but here has grown troubled and weary of.
Inspirational Line: ‘I wear a town like a leather jacket/When the new wears off, I don’t even pack it/If you need me/I’ll be where my reputation don’t precede me.’
7: Britney Spears: ‘Invitation’
Britney’s back, and packing more conceptual weight than ever before. If you enjoy S&M this may well turn you on. If not then you can just revel in the kindness of Britney’s desire to set you free and the power released by her self-realisation of complex, loving desires.
Inspirational Line: ‘Here’s my invitation, baby/Hope it sets us free/To know each other better/Put your love all over me.’
8: Drive-By Truckers: ‘What it Means’
This band admit they don’t know what it all means by the song’s end. But they make a damn good hack of keeping the spirit of 60s protest music alive, starting with a graphic depiction of Trayvon Martin’s shooting and sliding further into hell from there, if that’s possible. It’s so refreshing to hear a white Alabaman sing ‘If you say it wasn’t racial… It means you ain’t black’, and the spirit-of-rock handclaps at the end never fails to raise a tear.
Inspirational Line: ‘We want our truths all fair and balanced/As long as our notions lie within it/There’s no sunlight in our ass/And our heads are stuck up in it.’
9: Aesop Rock: ‘Rings’
The wordiest of rappers delivers plenty of them here, although the theme is about the pictures he used to draw. Now he paints pictures with music, and his funk-electronica mix paints them beautifully.
Inspirational Line: ‘You can’t imagine the rush that ensue/When you get three dimensions stuffed into two.’
10: Drake: ‘One Dance’
I can’t stomach Drake, but it would take a real buzzkill to deny the fun of this mega-hit summer anthem, in which his African roots pick up the flow and run with it.
Inspirational Line: ‘I need a one dance.’ Of course.