2016, eh? It’s been a tough time for us all. But, never forget, that beyond the mire of politics and the horror of world events, we still have MUSIC. Music will never leave us. Cling to that, and listen to these albums as you watch the world burn.
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
In Chance the Rapper’s third streaming-only album, there really is not ‘one gosh darn part you can’t tweet’, just as he had foreshadowed in Kanye’s ‘Ultralight Beam’. Coloring Book is a political, deeply spiritual gospel-rap album that features Chicago Children’s Choir as well as the likes of Future, D.R.A.M., Kanye West and, more unusually, Justin Bieber. Chance’s unique, angelic voice powerfully professes the lyrics throughout, accompanied by incredible production that creates a meaningful and thoroughly enjoyable album. Highlights are ‘No Problem’, about the struggles of being an independant artist, and ‘Smoke Break’, about how his life has changed since having a daughter. With songs like ‘All We Got’ catchy enough to stay in your head after one listen, this is right up there with the best albums of the year.
By Sarah Blake
Skepta – Konnichiwa
On his fourth and most successful studio album, Skepta raps about his independence, lack of trust and vulnerability whilst not compromising on his sound. Although he is at the height of his musical powers, he is conscious of keeping his musical individuality in a fight not to be exploited. Despite A list American guest spots and production from Pharrell (‘Numbers’) and Drake’s producer Noah “40” Shebib (Ladies Hit Squad), Konnichiwa is, above all, a British grime album with Skepta’s high profile collaborators demonstrating how far he has taken grime this year – a genre we thought had died in 2013. After 13 years of making music, by bringing grime to the masses, Skepta has finally cemented his reputation as its forerunner – the direction of the genre is now in his hands.
By Ben Levett
Frank Ocean – Blonde
This long-awaited album is much less ‘pop’ than its predecessor Channel Orange. It is a moving, stripped-back and personal affair which focusses on Ocean’s unpretentiously soulful voice and pursues works of vulnerable artistic beauty rather than ones with commercial appeal. There are gorgeous church-organ ballads in the form of ‘Solo’ and ‘Godspeed’, the ambitious, insightful ‘Nikes’ and the Beatles-sampling ‘White Ferrari’, as well as the deeply affecting ‘Ivy’, with its nonchalantly painful hook: “I thought I was dreaming, when you said you loved me”. On Blonde, Ocean elegantly negotiates the intersections of love, sex, technology and identity with maturity, humour and authenticity.
By David Young
Swans – The Glowing Man
Marking the end of Swans current line-up, The Glowing Man also represents its apogee. The stylistic elements remain much the same as in The Seer and To Be Kind, only here pushed to a further extreme – the arrangement more elaborate, the drones more hypnotic, and the lyrics darker. The highlight of the album is probably its gruelling thirty minute long title track, both an exhilarating and exhausting experience that pummels the listener with its droney post-rock repetition. Following this is the final track, suitably named ‘Finally, Peace’, which caps the album and indeed Swans in its current form. Surprisingly upbeat, its rich texture flows under typically pessimistic lyrics (“All creation is hollow”), and it glistens among the lamentations of drear Gira – a better ending to Swans’ remarkable reappearance would be hard to imagine.
By Milo Garner
Robbie Williams – Heavy Entertainment Show
Heavy Entertainment Show showcases Robbie at his finest. Whether he’s making bolshy remarks about Putin or swearing at his children (in a paternally affectionate manner), his forceful charm and renewed collaboration with Guy Chambers make the album a resounding success. Let’s just, er, sidestep ‘Pretty Woman’. If the music isn’t enough to convince you, the album is my number one of the year simply because of all the renewed press: Robbie fighting with neighbour Jimmy Page, detailing ridiculous blowjob stories, sleeping with all but one of the Spice Girls (sorry you missed out Mel B). 2016 has often taken away, but in this instance, it gives and gives and gives.
By Dana Moss
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
This album finds Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon at his most unique and ambitious yet, massively expanding his use of synths, samples and glitchy drums. But this does not come at the expense of all that you know and love about Bon Iver: Vernon’s vocals are still powerfully emotional, his lyrics are at their abstract-expressionist best, and his ability to hit you right in the feels is strong as it ever was – just go listen to “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” or “29 #Strafford APTS”. My personal highlight is “715 – CR∑∑KS”, which revisits the territory of “Woods” to great effect.
By David Young
David Bowie – Blackstar
So, the album that began the year, and the event that ripped the hole in the fabric of the universe which resulted in the avalanche of fuck that was 2016. If I learnt anything this year, it was that Bowie was singlehandedly holding the world as we know it together and now he’s gone we’re fucked. But what an album to depart on. Never anything less than startling, experimental, moving and strange, it’s a portrait of an artist that never stopped evolving, never stood still, not even in his final months. Look up here, he told us, I’m in heaven. I know where I’ll be directing my prayers.
By Amy Gwinnett
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Bowie’s constant (not to mention staggeringly successful) experimentalism and reinvention is perhaps only matched by Radiohead. Moving away from the energetic, rhythmic focus of The King of Limbs (2011), A Moon Shaped Pool embraces yet another change of style, melding gentle melodic songwriting, ambient production wizardry and breathtaking orchestral and choral arrangements. Radiohead’s trademark marriage of complexity, intensity and emotiveness is unparalleled in modern alternative music, and has not abandoned them on their ninth record.
By Sam Taylor
Kate Bush – Before The Dawn
Kate Bush’s 2014 residency at the Hammersmith Apollo was a momentous event. After a thirty-five year absence from live performance, her return sold out within minutes as Ticketmaster failed to handle the demand (I swear I’m not bitter…). The three-disc live album retains the storytelling focus of the concerts including the spoken word interludes and is beautifully packaged with photography of the theatrical sets and costumes. The first disc, made up of standalone singles, reinvents classics like ‘Hounds of Love’ replacing the high-pitched frenzy of the original with a more mature voice and deeper tone. The remaining two sides captures the song cycles The Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey in a haunting narrative of near death and rebirth. The entire album is a divine return for an artist who remains as spell-binding as ever.
By Niall Adams
The Avalanches – Wildflower
Spotify recently made everyone a playlist, ‘your top tracks of 2016’, at the top of mine was Because of me. Because of me demonstrates what The Avalanches do best; hazy mixes of samples from gold pop, disco beats and filmic levels of indulgent strings. But this album has one clear change from their last, Since I left you, songs made not just from samples but new recordings as well and Camp Lo’s joyous rhythms seamlessly run into the crooning sample to create a disco tune like no other. The rest of the album, a huge 21 tracks, is just as successful a mix of every style and orchestration imaginable, brimming with sun-bleached nostalgia for the summer and just about every decade of the 20th century. We had to wait 16 years for it but it was definitely worth the wait.
By Anna Monks
You can also check out our end of year piece: The best films of 2016: MUSE writers’ picks