It’s December 2016 and that means only ONE thing here. It’s time for us to share our ‘Albums of the Year’ list with you. Now in its fifth year running, this list is one of our most popular and sometimes contentious features of the year. It has been a great year for Hip Hop, R&B and Grime music, while Afrobeats music continued its onslaught on the mainstream. It was also the year for music veterans including Radiohead, Common and The Rolling Stones to roll back the years with acclaimed albums.
It has generally been a weird year with Brexit and Donald Trump winning the elections to become the next US president, but more pertinently, its been a very sad year – we lost David Bowie, Prince, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, Phife Dawg and Billy Paul, among others, in the past 12 months. Rest in peace to them and more, and we pray for strength and comfort for their families.
The first part of our ‘Albums of 2016’ list, curated by Andrew Watson, Davina Oriakhi, Joseph Horne, Libby Beacham, Martina Di Gregorio, Nathan Roach, Raffaele Buono and myself Ayo Adepoju, highlighted the best albums of the year from #50 to #21 and you can check them all out HERE, we continue our countdown from #20 to #11 below.
20. Noname – Telefone
Telefone, the debut project from Chicago rapper and poet Noname aka Fatimah Warner is a beautiful album and will continue to take us soulfully through the end of the year, and well into 2017. The project spans just over 30 minutes, but has managed to fit in a lifetime of experience, wisdom and pain and has resulted in an articulate and captivating and soulful body of work.
Despite the general overtones of sadness and melancholy, Noname does not urge us to wallow in this sorrow, but rather to overcome it and make something beautiful of these hard times like she has. Despondency might be a major element of this album, but strength, power and hope are also present. Telefone proposes we embrace those hardships and struggles we have been through, since that’s what makes us who we are. And we might not be as articulate, but we all have our own stories to tell…
19. Kings Of Leon – Walls
Kings of Leon are the rock band of the rock bands. Their new album Walls is the perfect combination of their early work and that edge that has made them the huge band that everyone loves. This is the perfect album to listen to while you power walk across town, feeling invincible, or when you have to get some work done and need some pumping up.
Their old garage sound will give you some nostalgia and remind you of how everything started. Kings of Leon were not afraid of appealing to a certain audience, and they simply made the music they love recording, which is exactly what gives the album that extra kick that makes it so special.
Walls is the band’s seventh album and it’s an acronym for ‘We Are Like Love Songs’. Four singles were released from the album, ‘Waste a Moment”, “Around the World”, “WALLS” and “Reverend”, all reminding listeners of the initial Kings of Leon sound that was lost with Mechanical Bull, and restoring their faith in the band.
The album debuted at number one in the Billboard 200 and it delivered the southern gruff that makes Kings of Leon stand out from other modern alternative rock. When bands reach success, they can sometimes lose sight of why they began producing music they love in the first place, and with Walls, Kings Of Leon have drawn back the passion needed to create great tracks.
18. Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis
Kilmarnock rockers, Biffy Clyro, are arguably one of the biggest bands at the moment, and are a big draw on the live circuit, too. This year’s album, Ellipsis, perhaps merits most mention, though. The grand opening of “Wolves Of Winter” proves that these guys don’t mess about, as they get straight to the point on this record.
Come “Medicine” and you have some respite from what is generally a full on guitar album. There are still layers, though, much to contemplate even when playing mellower tracks. Not only do you have loud and quiet, a prerequisite for bands seeking mass appeal, there’s also some comic relief, too. This comes in the guise of “Small Wishes”, which is very tongue in cheek. Again, another box for an ambitious band to tick off – should a band be seriously ambitious?
Finally, there’s “People”, sedate and acoustic, and only a whisker from being the album highlight. That’s real testament to a band predominantly known for their work on amplified instrumentation. You could argue this effort’s a mix of their formative years of exploration, put together, sometimes uneasily, with an ear for the mass market. Very contradictory, sometimes, trying to get your head round these debates of progressive music lending to more unpredictable, therefore satisfying music.
17. John Legend – Darkness and Light
Darkness and Light, the new album from John Legend prove the real growth from the R&B musician. Although he is known for romantic songs that not everyone will like, with Darkness and Light, John Legend will appeal to all those negative cynics that always think of the worst of love. His sound has grown and his lyrics are not sugar coated, proving that John Legend has matured, together with all his fans, that will now have one more album to cry and scream to.
The usual love theme has been explored more deeply in this album: it is not only a magical feeling anymore, it includes fear of losing someone, disappointment and even anger that can come from a relationship. This album is more real, exploring death, social issues such as the lack of privacy through social media and political issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. The title Darkness and Light is the perfect description of Legend’s journey, that has been changing this artist from this unreal person that knows exactly what romanticism is to a real person, someone who struggles like everyone else.
16. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie (RIP) is the face of the 70s-80s. His music was revolutionary, out of this world and true artistry. So when he died early in 2016, it shocked fans old and new, all who were still reeling after the release of his latest album Blackstar just two days before. What makes this album so deserved of a top spot in the best albums of 2016 is the haunting message from beyond, that Bowie left with this album, knowing he would die and that the public did not know he was ill.
It has been described by the co-produced of the album and Bowie’s friend Tony Visconti as his “swan song”, and his “parting gift” for all those fans devastated by his death. To listen to the album, is to listen to Bowie’s brilliance, as even whilst ill and with his album released years after his most popular era, he still managed to produce life-changing music. It’s to feel Bowie’s presence even though the Starman has gone back to his home planet, as he is immortalised by his music. “Lazarus” is a self-epitaph, a must-hear track from the album.
15. The Avalanches – Wildflower
The Avalanches remain the enigma, fifteen years on from their otherworldly debut. Their sound is repackaged, yet undeniably more original than the wildest dreams of any of their electronic music contemporaries. Red tape as well as departing band members may have played a part in the protracted release of Wildflower, but thankfully this year, we were blessed with the fruits of the band’s labour.
Since I Left You was labelled a bittersweet record, but Wildflower has much more of a saccharine laced, hippy sound without ever becoming too sickly. Crucially though, the record channels the spirit of its predecessor – snippets of forgotten recordings and oddities are pasted together into a collage of delightful weirdness.
Hearing from the Avalanches after all this time is like being reacquainted with an eclectic group of friends after years apart. Much has changed, the realities of life and adulthood have set in – but there’s still a flicker of youthful exuberance that the passage of time can’t extinguish.
It would be hard to find fault in the album despite the ravenous anticipation that surrounded its release. The stylistic clashes may not be to everyone’s taste, but the record is more likely to open the minds of its listeners than to polarise them.
14. The Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
After a decade since their last album, The Rolling Stones have blessed everyone with a collection of blue covers in their newest album Blue & Lonesome. It only came out recently, but it already has everyone rocking, with old and new fans joining in with this band who has made everyone rock for more than 50 years. The comeback is welcome, and although the songs are not original, that doesn’t mean we can’t rock and roll to it.
The legendary band have taken a step towards the foundation of their Jazz and Blues music origins, which means many fans of said legends will be heavily divided between those who live in the nostalgic years of their great hits and those that just wet themselves with excitement pondering the concept of a ripped back blues cover album.
Let’s nip this in the bud from the offset, this is not a polished attempt at renewing themselves as it seems the London lackeys of rock n roll have realised that they have reached their pinnacle of greatness with originality a few albums previous, so have decided to take their biggest influences from the delta blues era of Chicago artists and honour them with some delicious English Jagger licks and authentic Wood(en) guitar twangs.
13. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
A highlight of Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo is in opener “Ultralight Beam”, where Chance The Rapper takes the spotlight and proceeds to give one of the most powerful sermons you’ve heard in a long time. It was a true revelation, for everyone listening. “This is my part, nobody else speak”, he said, but it wasn’t that time just yet. Coloring Book, his Grammy Award-nominated mixtape, is truly his part. The main act.
It turns out Chance’s little flirtation with gospel-tinged hip hop on “Ultralight Beam” wasn’t just that. This was a budding love that’s now blossomed into a full and uplifting passion. “Music is all we got” realise him and guest Kanye – returning the favour for Chance’s guest spot on The Life of Pablo – in opener “All We Got”. A sentiment that many a church goer in the black community would share, where music plays such a big part in the way religion is practised.
It’s this particular form of spirituality, a melodic one, which flows through the entirety of Coloring Book that gives it the unique, inviting energy shooting out of it from every angle. And while the religious themes are overt, it’s not overbearing, and it’s not smothering, not by any means. Instead, it makes you want to smile and cry at the same time, but the good kind of crying. It’s a cathartic kind of energy and warmth, one that will not only wash away any sins you might be looking to atone for, but also anything else that’s weighing down your heart and soul.
12. Emeli Sandé – Long Live The Angels
Long Live The Angels, the comeback album from British singer and songwriter Emeli Sandé has proven her real talent. All the different sounds (from pop to R&B, from gospel to rap) are perfectly executed on this record, which also became a family matter as Sandé included her family in the song “Tenderly”.
The best part of this album is the originality of her sound: from her Zambian roots with her family singing in the background, to the chilling harps and piano accompanying her soulful voice, no song sounds alike and this is where Emeli Sandé sets herself apart from most of the mainstream pop artists currently in the top charts.
Emeli Sandé’s Long Live The Angels is a journey through her life that will make you hurt for all those past lovers that have left you broken and scattered all over the floor. The whole album is a journey through heartbreak and it is the recovery for Sandé, who went through a divorce before recording this album. Nonetheless, Long Live The Angels threatens Adele’s 25 as the best breakup album in British modern history.
11. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Contrary to the impressions gained from the title of Blood Orange’s third LP, Dev Hynes‘ third full length outing doesn’t mark a dramatic shift in sound. Freetown Sound does, however, bring about a side of the British-American musician, that we seldom see conveyed through his musical output.
The vintage, funk inspired guitar hooks underpinning smooth vocal harmonies are this time punctuated by impassioned subject matters – themes of contemporary politics, racial identity and police brutality make their mark on the record without becoming overbearing. Though opening track “By Ourselves” sets the tone emphatically.
Freetown Sound is Hynes’ most accomplished record to date, and his freshest sounding, having finally perfected and etched out his own sound. It’s an album much in the same vein as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly – refreshing, topical and empowering, with the potential to be remembered as an immortal, classic album, the likes of which the public at large embrace during times of darkest political volatility.
Click HERE for a full list of our Top 50 Albums of 2016!