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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.