We Present To You… We Plug Good Music’s Best Albums of 2016
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 #10 to #1 below.
10. Anohni – Hopelessness
Anohni Johnson’s career has seen her consistently bewitch us with heart-rendering, strikingly beautiful lyrics. ANOHNI – the latest work from the artist formerly known as Anthony Hergarty and Anthony and the Johnsons – pulls off this with an added dimension. Blissful production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never cushion Anohni’s powerful protest chants with a wall of immaculate synth sound.
A departure from I Am A Bird Now, no doubt – and yet Anohni has never sounded more in her element. There are so many ways to enjoy HOPELESSNESS. Be it as a political statement or a timeless, staggering piece of musical creativity. There’s no doubt that throughout everything, Anohni is continuously able to produce time-tested art.
On Hopelessness, Anohni surprises the public with her angriest project to date. The album is not an easy listen: a political record against contemporary society and its paradoxes, it challenges the listener, asking question, making us grieve, but after all, if music is supposed to move us, ANOHNI is definitely a new synonym for it.
9. Jon Bellion – The Human Condition
Very little was known of rapper, songwriter and producer Jon Bellion before he released his critically acclaimed debut album The Human Condition in June. The 25-year old Hip-Hop musician already had four mixtapes under his belt, and he wrote the Grammy Award-winning single “The Monster” for Rihanna. The brilliance of The Human Condition should certainly not have come as a surprise, as Bellion had been showing and proving since 2011.
Call this a concept album, call it a soundtrack for a Disney movie, or call it a summer Pop album, whatever you want to call it, or however way you look at it, Jon Bellion’s The Human Condition is a sublime piece of work all the way through – the album is thematic and meticulously sequenced, the songs are excellently written, the music is expansive yet makes for easy listening. What’s more, the hidden genius of this record will yet be uncovered in years to come.
8. Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
The Life of Pablo was always going to be a top album of the year, as Kanye West never fails to deliver a decent album. The seventh album by the rapper features collaborations with big names such as Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, Desiigner, Ty Dolla Sign and Frank Ocean. It is fragmented, seemingly unfinished as though there is further greatness to come, or perhaps a creative comment made by West, who really knows?
Whatever it is, it works and helped it reach number one on the Billboard 200, Kanye’s seventh consecutive number one. “Waves” is a clubby track, featuring vocals from Kid Cudi and has that feeling of a track you have heard before, as you can’t believe it had not been produced up until the point of its release. “I Love Kanye” is a definite to be heard, as it gives a slight insight into West’s views on himself, not that anyone really needs to be told.
It would be ever so easy for Kanye West to consign his music career to a back seat or take the easy way out. The intensity surrounding his personal life seems to, at times, reach a critical mass, and the inevitable breakdown was perhaps the least surprising event of the year. It’s relieving for those more committed to following his musical output that his quality and quest to break new ground has not faltered.
The Life Of Pablo is hardly a return to the commercial, early West sound. All the same, Pablo is undoubtedly more palatable for a mainstream audience than the polarising Yeezus. Earworms like “Famous” are complete with immortal lyrics, and “Father Stretch My Hands” evoke the listener to sit back and admire a glorious beat beset by the rapper’s impudent, brilliantly puerile lyrics. He’ll never truly silence his critics, but so long as his target audience can separate a public profile from a music oeuvre, Kanye will continue to leave his listeners speechless.
7. Skepta – Konnichiwa
Skepta is most likely the biggest name in Grime, what with his record label Boy Better Know (BBK) which he created with his brother JME, and now, with the success of his latest album Konnichiwa. The album won the Mercury Prize, beating David Bowie’s posthumous Blackstar, which is a great achievement considering the lack of grime limelight – ‘grimelight’ if you will – in the music business and the level of competition Bowie is.
There are some better known tracks on this album, that have already achieved successes as singles, such as “Man” and “Shutdown”. The album is remarkable, packed with political messages, heavy beats and even guest appearances from a spectrum of artists, including Pharrell Williams on “Numbers”. “Ladies Hit Squad” samples Drake’s “Hotline Bling”, sending it soaring up to an immediate club banger combining perfect lift dancing music with a grime-esque beat, making it one of the best tracks on the album. Easily the greatest grime release of the year.
2016 saw the surprising, yet welcome revival of Grime. Skepta can be considered its new de facto leader. As with so many underground subcultures, authenticity is key, and is hammered home in Joseph Adenuga’s triumphant effort. The collaborative “That’s Not Me” with JME re-announced the presence of the two to a receptive British public, filling a gap in the rap void.
Konnichiwa, having won the Mercury Music prize and reaching #2 in the UK album charts is hardly a sleeper hit. But the grittiness of the record’s production, and endless reference to an urban lifestyle, dismiss the prospect of Skepta adapting his style for a mainstream audience, the fate befalling popular grime artists of decades gone by.
6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Only a band with Radiohead’s profile and diehard following could provoke a legion of overseas fans to pore over a music video of 60s children’s TV show Camberwick Green, attempting to tie together meaning and political substance. “Burn The Witch” did just these things with its visuals and Thom Yorke’s haunted vocals. It also showed off the band’s new found taste for lavish orchestral arrangements, possibly the most triumphant and defining aspect of A Moon Shaped Pool.
Thom Yorke has always had a phenomenal voice, but pairing it with the trance-y, chilled sound of this album has worked extremely well for the band. The record is filled with weird, out of place sounds that just seem to work with the guitar riffs and Yorke’s otherworldly vocals and the album flows beautifully. Listeners could put their earphones in and fall asleep to the sounds of nature and the chilled vibe of the music. “The Numbers” sounds alien, oriental, classical and acoustical, takes you on a strange trippy journey that leaves you feeling perfectly at peace.
A Moon Shaped Pool sees Radiohead return to the modus operandi that’s made them so critically acclaimed. It’s an experimental record, but its invention is rewarding and well founded. Guitars make a welcome return to the Radiohead instrument arsenal, but the NME crowd that are still yearning for a return to The Bends era of eminent 90s rock will be disappointed. It’s not without good reason, as Radiohead once again have created music that’s inimitable, distinct from any other artist. It’s a feat that’s impossible for most artists to achieve over two albums, let alone nine.
5. The Weeknd – Starboy
No one should be shocked at this reveal, as not only did Starboy, released on 25 November, receive such massive success, it is the work of one of the greatest names in music at the moment. The Weeknd has the ability to produce the music that the world wants; he wants to be the biggest pop name in the world and there is no doubt he will achieve this.
The second album from The Weeknd has already broken records, proving how much Abel Tesfaye has changed the world of R&B. Every single song from the album has charted, and the album reached the top of the Billboard 200. With collaborations with Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey, and Kendrick Lamar among others, The Weeknd is taking over the world with his music and you do not want to miss on this musical revolution.
With the initial release of “Starboy”, the single of the same name, the album had high expectations as the Canadian singer collaborated with Daft Punk and produced a high quality beat of a track that has the signature Weeknd sound with a funkier edge. “False Alarm” was more upbeat, and sounded very 90s pop with the accompaniment of backing singers shouting their “hey hey hey” during the chorus.
The quality of each song is equal to the last, “Party Monster” is darker like the tracks on Beauty Within the Madness, “Sidewalks” is a more hip-hop track, featuring Kendrick Lamar and surprisingly, yet clearly, Sam Smith, and “I Feel It Coming” has the same funky sound produced by Daft Punk that makes you want to get up and dance.
The Weeknd knows what he is doing, and all alternative R&B and pop lovers out there will see and appreciate this. His success is deserved, and although the album sparked the cutting of his signature hairstyle, is musical style is still in tact and revolutionary.
4. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
2016 could be considered, among other things, to be the year of the triumphant send-off. Following the passing of Phife Dawg in March, A Tribe Called Quest have united once more with a record that’s every bit as good as one could hope. Contributions from other artists come from far and wide, but the inimitable vintage rap styles of Q-Tip and Phife are the most welcome sound.
“Solid Wall Of Sound” sees Busta Rhymes hook back up with Tip for another helping of the hip hop stylings that pervaded the 90s. The accompaniment of familiar, traditional production buoys the record, which doesn’t need a standout track to go down as one of the band’s finest works.
It’s always appreciated when a legendary group reconvenes to produce more music, even more so when one of the members passes away before it is released. A Tribe Called Quest’s new album was released 18 years after their last album The Love Movement and the band had barely worked together since then, apart from a couple of brief reunions.
The album meant big things for the group and the fans, as it was long awaited and marked the resolution of their previous issues, but in the end, marked the last recordings of member Phife Dawg who passed away during the album production. It reached number one in the Billboard 200 and features all kinds of sounds, from a blues track, to 90s hip-hop, to a more political track making comments on the results of the US Election, “We The People”.
3. Lady Gaga – Joanne
No one in the music industry learnt from their mistakes better than Lady Gaga, who put the pop-freak costumes back in the closet for her latest incarnation, after her flop ARTPOP. Thanks to stellar collaborations with Mark Ronson, Tame Impala and Father John Misty, Joanne is an honest, raw, passionate collection of songs that finally let us find out more about the fragile woman behind the biggest pop-juggernauts of the past 10 years. And considering the results, we might prefer Joanne over Gaga.
Art Pop was a flop and the bottom line for Lady Gaga, who has come back massively with Joanne. This is not the comeback album, this is the redemption album for Gaga who has gone country gospel and decided to base her new image on positivity and fighting. Her voice, talent in songwriting and Gaga’s ability to create a hit have been put all together to create Joanne. This album is highly acclaimed by both fans and critics, and Lady Gaga has truly proven how amazing and talented she is.
Lady Gaga is effortlessly talented, both in singing and acting, what with her recent roles in American Horror Story. Despite all the extra work, Gaga has managed to produce a fantastic album, with Western country sounds, Spanish beats, slow piano melodies and her soaring vocals. She has the ability to focus on a completely different genre of music to fit her sound to and make it work; her vocals seem to pair with anything. “Perfect Illusion” is certainly the electronic highlight of the album.
2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
The queen of albums of 2016, Beyoncé has started a revolution with her sixth studio album Lemonade, with the combination of alternative R&B and pop that have shocked the world, fan or not. Women everywhere started hating on “Becky with the good hair” and using lemon emojis, there was an absolute riot over Beyonce’s short film that came with the release.
It was overall madness, and although Beyonce is so far away from the pop sound she first became known for, she is a social icon people look to, and her albums prove just how much she has become the queen of alternative music. Queen Bey. Love her or hate her, there is no denying she knows how to start an uproar just by releasing (in complete secret) an album.
Like her last album, Lemonade is a departure from the soulful R&B that made Beyoncé famous. She is now firmly a Pop star who feels comfortable with experimenting and pushing the envelope of pop music. The modern sound she puts forth on this record, which was released as a visual album, is studded with 11 passages of poetry by 27-year old Somali British poet Warsan Shire, a former Young Poet Laureate.
Beyoncé’s lyrics are at times heavily political, for example quoting the likes of Malcolm X on “Don’t Hurt Yourself“, and she makes a stand against police brutality and institutional racism. The music is also deeply personal, with lyrics touching on the alleged infidelity of her famous husband, Jay Z. Overall, this is yet another great pop album from arguably the world’s greatest female solo artist of today. She continues to push the boundaries and take her sound in new directions.
1. Solange – A Seat At The Table
This soft sounding yet hard hitting album is the album that has given Solange Knowles legendary status. Recorded over three years, and featuring Lil Wayne, Q-Tip, Sampha and Kelly Rowland, among others, A Seat At The Table is undeniably Solange’s best body of work to date. The entire album yells the frustration and celebrations of Black living in 2016, ever so softly with her unique nuances to the R&B sound.
As twenty one tracks, A Seat At The Table is expansive, engaging and so fluid, that the tracklisting is never an issue. The album is radical and defiant, it is brutally honest and deeply personal, and it thrives in its unrepentant blackness. With all that was happening in America this year – police brutality, Trump winning the presidential elections and the overt racism – this record came as an urgent and thematic call to stand proud of your black experience and culture.
In a year that was blessed with timely black excellence and social commentary in music, with records from the likes of elder sister Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Common and Chance The Rapper to mention a few, Solange’s A Seat At The Table is simply the best and most inspiring of them all.
Click HERE for a full list of our Top 50 Albums of 2016!
Words by Andrew Watson, Davina Oriakhi, Joseph Horne, Libby Beacham, Martina Di Gregorio, Nathan Roach, Raffaele Buono and Ayo Adepoju.