2016 Best of | Best albums | Best songs | Irish albums | Irish songs | Club tracks | Guest selections


If 2016 proved anything in album terms, it’s that the format isn’t going anywhere. We had artists who we lost this year make some of their most complete work (Bowie, Cohen, Phife Dawg), we had black American artists see hate and respond with restraint and beauty (Solange), we had mainstream experimentalism (Bon Iver, Frank Ocean), we had joy (Chance), we had terror (Anohni), we had new artists reaching highs (Anderson .Paak, Rusangano Family, Kaytranada) and older artists finding new sounds (Radiohead; or in Cohen’s case new lows). 2016 sucked in many ways but recorded music wasn’t one of them.


In association with:

tower
40. James Blake — The Colour In Anything
39. Trim – 1-800 Dinosaur
38. DD Dumbo – Utopia Defeated
37. The Avalanches – Wildflower
36. NAO – For All We Know
35. Underworld – Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
34. Junior Boys — Big Black Coat
33. NXWORRIES – Yes Lawd!
32. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
31. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
30. Banks – The Altar
29. Romare – Love Songs Part 2
28. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
27. Angel Olsen – My Woman
26. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
25. The Gloaming – 2
24. Leon Vynehall – Rojus (Designed To Dance)
23. All Tvvins – llVV
22. WHITNEY – Light Upon the Lake
21. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Special Night
20. Shura – Nothing’s Real
19. James Vincent McMorrow – We Move
18. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
17. BadBadNotGood – IV
16. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
15. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
14. King – We Are King
13. Kaytranada – 99.9%
12. Roosevelt – Roosevelt
11. Rusangano Family – Let the Dead Bury The Dead


10.

It may have been originally released in her native France in 2014 but there have been significant changes to that version to warrant an inclusion on this list. Released for America in English with extra production touches and guests (Perfume Genius, Tunji Ige aren’t on the French release) late last year and released in Ireland in February, Héloïse Letissier was the shining new star in a year that extinguished too many. Her performance on Jools where she paid tribute to Prince with the best dance moves around captured my attention and from there Letissier became an inspiration, an artist with a commanding presence and great tunes. Chaleur Humaine had the songs to keep you coming back, an intelligence and an energy that danced off the speakers.

Buy from Tower Records.


9.

UK grime’s longstanding linchpin stayed independent and individual. Fourth album Konnichwa was the North London rapper burying other MCs in the dirt. He had the Americans, Pharrell, Young Lord, ASAP Nast (and a Canadian Drake co-sign) embedded into his vision and brought his Boy Better Know family with him on the journey.

The urgent energy is what hits. This is Skepta’s album and he has something to prove. Not only does his lyrical athleticism bring the energy flash, the production largely made by Skepta himself reaches a streamlined level of impact.

That urgency is tangible. ‘Man’ which samples Queens Of Stone Age’s ‘Regular John’ is classic grime remade with learned experience. ‘Shutdown’ and ‘That’s Not Me’ (with Skepta’s brother JME) signalled Skepta’s renaissance and are still fervent highlights here. ‘Lyrics’, which features grime protegée Novelist and pelts along on a warped vocal sample, chiptune synths and percussive claps is one of the most exciting tunes I’ve heard in ages.

Skepta proved with hard work, belief and style, you could reignite a scene and bring it to the wider world.

Buy from Tower Records.


8.

Radiohead’s most beautiful album. A Moon Shaped Pool is their most confident record since 2003’s Hail To The Thief and also their most serene and personal. ‘Daydreaming’ encapsulates it. The song, addresses Thom Yorke’s split with his wife of 23 years. “This goes beyond me, beyond you.” he sings. The track that drifts along on a piano line with swells of Jonny Greenwood’s strings that is at once, intimate and widescreen.

A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead enacting, both in music and subject matter, the thing that makes them long-lasting, the move between the micro and macro, the suggestion of the personal and universal, without ever committing to anything but a trace of the real. This time, the reflection they leave us gives is them at their clearest.

Buy from Tower Records.


7.

Since his 2009 breakout album Ambivalence Avenue, a record that came across like an English musician trying to recreate the magic of Dilla’s Donuts with whatever he had to hand, Steven Wilkinson’s music has been eclectic. A Mineral Love, his fifth album – is his most complete work since that critically-acclaimed LP, due largely to featuring his most affecting songs.

A stated celebration of “the sacred and precious struggles of human insecurities through many windows of familiar musical forms,” A Mineral Love has a record collector’s ear to it drawing from back-of-the-crate inspirations in funk, lo-fi folk, electro and pop and everything in between.

The album works in a cohesive mixtape form in a varied palette that include fragile smudged funk, bright soundscapes, kaleidoscopic acoustics and pastoral song-writing with a beat producer’s ear.

Buy From Tower Records


6.

Even in death, Bowie remained the ultimate artist. The Starman’s parting gift to the world, was the release of his 25th album Blackstar.

A lush, rich jazz-inspired experimental rock album, it will hereafter be viewed as a poignant closing statement, which is how Bowie intended it to be. The signs were all there – on Blackstar he sings “something happened on the day he died,” On ‘Lazarus’ he sings “look up here, I’m in heaven.” The videos for the tracks point towards a final transformation, in a career defined by them.

On the album track ‘Dollar Days’, the melancholy consumes the song and Bowie hints at explicitly saying what we now know. “I’m dying to / Push their backs against the grain / And fool them all again and again.” That now reads as “I’m dying too.” Bowie was always chasing, always pushing, always seeking. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see,” he sings.

When artists release albums close to their death, the “late style” of the release adds extra resonance (J Dilla’s Donuts). On Blackstar, Bowie is aware of his imminent death. He spent 18 months with cancer before he lost, yet he remained in control of his own artistic destiny. Bowie remained a music maverick, the magician who orchestrated his final departure in his art.

Buy from Tower Records.


5.

A self-described “project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing,” A Seat At The Table is an album about race and being black in America. It’s personal and political. It’s informed by black culture, family and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Musically, A Seat At The Table is made of soul, R&B, pop and funk. Its gossamer style is delicate and rich. Spoken word interludes frame the album: encouraging words from Master P of No Limit about how he got to where he is, Solange’s father talks about racial threats and her mother about how being pro-black doesn’t mean anti-white. These statements allow Solange to write less directly from a black woman’s perspective for others like her.

Production is by Raphael Saadiq. Guests include Sampha, Lil Wayne, Kelela, Andre 3000, The Dream, Sean Nicholas Savage, Q-Tip and the likes of Kwes, Kindness, Chairlift’s Patrick Wimberly, Nia Andrews and Dirty Projectors Dave Longstreth contribute. There are multiple highlights from the Andre 3000-featuring synth funk of ‘Junie’, the synth drawl of ‘Don’t Wish Me Well’, the woozy R&B of ‘Weary’, the piano soul of ‘Mad’, the vulnerable vista of ‘Cranes In The Sky’ and the subtle power of ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’.

“Be leery ’bout your place in the world,” she sings on ‘Weary’, yet Solange keeps it serene in defiance of what seems right and wrong around her. A Seat At The Table isn’t something to be unpacked in a week, or even two. It’s an album of defiance, empowerment and beauty.

Buy from Tower Records


4.

Chancelor Bennett’s single greatest feat this year was that verse on Kanye’s gospel song ‘Ultralight Beam’. It is joyous, uplifting, full of light. Coloring Book is a continuation of that idea drawing on his faith in religion and love for community. Chance relishes his uniquely independent status by giving the music away without a label by threatening to bring goons to the record label office courting him on ‘No Problems’. Except Chance doesn’t have a hurtful bone in his body. Coloring Book is a spread of joyful music with acknowledgement of the harshness of reality that takes in the tragic (‘Summer Friends’) , gospel (‘Blessings’ , ‘Angels’), dance bangers (‘All Nite’) and slow jams (‘Juke Jam’). Chance’s faith is all-encompassing but there’s a spirit and authenticity that is infectious enough for heathens.


3.

18 years after their last album, A Tribe Called Quest re-appeared with what may be their best ever release. When a band reforms, they often lose their youthful energy and spark but it never left Tribe. Here’s a rap group who sound as fresh and individual as they did the first time round – nostalgia doesn’t come into it. Q-Tip sounds 23 years of age, not double that. Jarobi raps more than he ever has since their debut People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Phife, who died during recording, reaffirms his legacy as one of the best MCs.

The jazz samples, the interplay, the beat drops, the synergy between Phife and Tip is magically still there from the moment those keys come in the first song. Real masters of ceremonies have had years of practice and it’s heartening to hear they never lost it.

Buy from Tower Records


2.

It’s fair to say the wait was worth it. Expectations were high but when Blonde debuted two days after the visual album Endless, it surprisingly felt unburdened with expectation. Blonde takes time to reveal itself. The atmosphere is muted, the instrumentation minimal, beats and percussion are largely ignored. Even the calibre of the marquee guests on this thing are put into the deep background – to the point where you may not even realise Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are on it until you’ve read the credits. Only Andre 3000 (who appeared on Channel Orange too) gets to leave his mark, thrillingly so.

Ocean’s sweet voice is one that is rare; consuming, soulful, nimble, honey-toned and it responsible for all of the highlights here. ‘Pink + White’ is beautiful sunshine soul, ‘Solo’ is buoyed by one of the year’s most memorable choruses over barely more than an organ. others, ‘Self Control’, feel like acoustic demos with some bare production until harmonised Frank drops in the memorable outro. Other tracks meander aimlessly yet Ocean continues to magnetise the listener like ‘Skyline To’ (where Lamar exists but is barely heard) while interpolations of songs from Beatles, Burt Bacharach and Elliott Smith appear adding familiarity. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon sings outro on ‘White Ferrari too’.

Blonde is all about Frank and his interactions with friends, family, strangers, crushes. A guy living the high life, a clichéd love of fast cars with a new openness about his sexuality. Blonde feels like the result of someone in transition, adjusting to a new life while looking back on the old one that made him. A nostalgic boy, a sensitive man. Blonde is an avant-leaning minimal R&B album of significance. The year’s most hyped record revealed itself in subtle ways.


1.

Brandon Paak Anderson was everywhere this year. With Knxledge as Nxworries, on tracks from Kaytranada, Tribe, Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller, Snakehips and ScHoolboy Q. Yet, the Californian songwriter, producer and singer’s second album Malibu released at the end of January has remained his finest work.

Malibu has a jazz-smudged funk, soul and R&B feel to it. It is an album dominated by nostalgia, romance and a troubled family. He can rap like Kendrick, sing like Curtis Mayfield, play drums like the best of them and spin a groove with panache. Already a competent producer on his own, Paak enlists beats from Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder, Madlib and Kaytranada and guest verses from Schoolboy Q, The Game and Talib Kweli. They drop in and add colour but it’s Paak that remains at the forefront. Malibu and Paak shine with greatness, warmth and light.

Buy from Tower Records.


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