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.
Some of our core editorial team – Andrew Watson, Davina Oriakhi, Joseph Horne, Libby Beacham, Martina Di Gregorio, Nathan Roach, Raffaele Buono and myself Ayo Adepoju – have come together again to curate our list of the best albums of the year, and what a list we have this year. So without wasting anymore time, here are our 50 best albums of 2016!
50. J Dilla – The Diary
J Dilla, the late American producer from Detroit, Michigan has been dead for ten years now. His classic sophomore album, Donuts, was released on February 7, 2006, his thirty second birthday, and three days before he died. Since his death, he has released numerous EPs and LPs posthumously. The latest album, The Diary, was released in April and merits inclusion in this discussion.
One standout track is “Gangsta Boogie”, a track featuring Snoop Dogg and Kokane. It has that bottomless bass indicative of the West Coast. Not only that, the album is a joyful trip down memory lane, with nods given in “The Introduction” to Q-Tip’s verse on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”. Further nods are given to “N**gaz 4 Life” by N.W.A in “The Shining, Pt. 2 (Ice)”; and “F*ck Tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A in “F**k The Police”.
49. Goat – Requiem
Goat are, it’s safe to say, the best Swedish afrobeat-inspired band around. Snarling attitudes are packed into an unexpected delight of an album, as well as a range of worldbeat instrumentation on Requiem. Opener “Djorolen / Union of Sun and Moon” harks back to early The Go Team! with its spontaneity, guitars and recorder riffs abounding.
The track titles tend to lend a tribal feel to the music, along with the blaring vocals. That’s not to say the music is simplistic – Goat’s exemplary songcraft sets them apart. Capable of creating conventional hits and abstractness alike, they are a band shrouded in mystery, with no one knowing the identity of any of the members. As long as they keep making music this good, no one’s likely to mind too much either.
48. Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
Back with their long-time collaborator Greg Kurstin, our favourite twins Tegan and Sara are back with an 80s-indebted recollection of smash hits for their 8th studio album Love You To Death, further redefining and nuancing their New Wave sound crafted with their previous album.
Lyrically, the album is fantastic. The words are easy to hear, and they come across as simple, yet are filled with so much meaning, while musically, it gives off an 80’s electro-pop bubblegum vibe. For the most part, it’s upbeat, has many interesting layers, is catchy and danceable.
This album doesn’t sound like their previous ones, but the band believe that they have to reinvent themselves to make their audience happy. Sara in particular was looking forward to making music that wasn’t typical of them. For fans of the old stuff though, Tegan says that they aren’t necessarily leaving their guitars behind.
47. Common – Black America Again
For his 11th studio album, American Hip-Hop legend Common created one of the most politically charged albums of the year. Released during US election month, Black America Again wasn’t just protest music at its very core, it is very topical and pertinent to today’s Black America. On this record, Common was angry, and he emphatically addresses the racism issue strife in America, with conviction and focus.
The Chicago native is assisted by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bilal and Marsha Ambrosius on this record, and sonically, the record sees Common collaborating with Detroit based drummer and producer Karriem Riggins, who provides gritty and moody musical backdrops, largely with live instrumentation and sampling that the late great J Dilla would be proud of, over which Common brings forth a crucial and vital voice around the fight for freedom, justice and equality for Black America.
46. Tremonti – Dust
Although the illustrious sophomore album Cauterize from Heavy Metal band Tremonti was released only last year, lead singer Mark Tremonti commented that the majority of their 2016 release Dust is a selection of the songs they had written around their last LP’s creation. Rest assured these songs are anything but a collection of B-side tracks and in fact, might be the boldest work in the super group’s project.
45. Glass Animals – How To Be A Human Being
The second album from Oxford quartet Glass Animals is a journey. Zaba made people feel like they belonged in nature, and this time How To Be A Human Being has the perfect title as it is a spiritual trip to make you understand humans.
It is completely different from the sounds that are currently on the charts, and that’s exactly why Glass Animals belong on this list. They are different and have a sound that you can’t help but love. The sound is varied, and it is a tribute to being eccentric. Glass Animals are confident, they fully embraced their weirdness and this is exactly what makes the album one of the best of the year.
44. Alicia Keys – Here
Alicia Keys‘ sixth studio album and first in four years Here sees the New York native offering her most experimental record sonically till date. It is still seeped in Soul and R&B music as you would expect from Keys, but Hip-Hop plays a massive role on this record, thanks to her husband and producer Swizz Beatz, who helms four tracks on this album, and Mark Batson, who produces another four tracks – all co-produced with Alicia Keys.
Thematically and lyrically, the album brings to the fore, a realness and grittiness that we haven’t heard from Alicia Keys before. The record chronicles the life of Keys at 35-years old – a black American wife and mother in 2016 making a strong statement. This statement ranges from racism in America to unrealistic beauty standards to humanity, and some of the narratives on this album are very personal to Alicia Keys, yet so relatable to many others.
43. Gregory Porter – Take Me To The Alley
Gregory Porter is an American jazz vocalist, songwriter and actor, plus Grammy Award winner, from Sacramento, California. His fourth album, Take Me To The Alley, was released in May. The excellent opener, “Holding On”, starts with ringing piano chords and double bass. Vocally soulful, daresay bluesy, and from the gut. The track seems to convey the struggling journey of life. The drums and double bass get a bit busy, too. A highlight, though, is the saxophone solo; sad, longing and really taking the centre stage.
Other strong points include “Don’t Be A Fool”, a song with its own identity within the album. Although there’s plenty of soul and blues, it stands out as, strictly, the only song on the album evocative of gospel. “Fan The Flames” is a far busier one. Most songs on this album are slow to mid tempo, and jazz’s arguably best at frenetic pace. It has that in spades. Then there’s closer, “French African Queen”. The double bass playing, good throughout the album, reaches its apex on this final track.
Gregory Porter, with Take Me To The Alley, has put together a very consistent work that still, however, manages to explore a few genres. Jazzy ambience combines, usually, with soulful, and daresay sometimes poppy, melodies. Jazz, soul and blues are all African in their roots but, on this album, still crossover towards fans of usually completely different genres.
42. Sia – This Is Acting
Sia’s vocals are always phenomenal, and if she is not liked for her voice, she is certainly capturing attention for her quirky performance style (she hides her face beneath a wig to keep her face out of the limelight and instead hires a young dancer to perform as her). From her 7th studio album This Is Acting, singles “Cheap Thrills” achieved immediate success, reaching number one in the US, as did “The Greatest” reaching number 2 in the US and number 5 in the UK – pretty decent for a collection of songs she wrote for other female Pop stars, that weren’t used.
When Sia produces music, it feels full of emotion and reasoning, especially for her mentality within the profession. She does not wish to distract from the music and the message behind it and through this, she manages to touch the hearts of those who listen to her. This Is Acting is an interesting – some might say risky – concept alone, as Sia admits, “I feel like they’re hits, but nobody wanted them. So I thought, ‘Let’s see, as an experiment, if I’m right’”. History will show that she was indeed right!
41. De La Soul – And The Anonymous Nobody…
The legacy of legendary rap trio De La Soul has resurfaced from their extensive vanishing act of a 12-year absence. Dealing with a number of restraints and struggles, including rights over digital distribution of their earliest albums being restrained to ‘cassette and vinyl’, due to Warner Bros not re-writing any contracts to make them available in other forms.
It is no real surprise that the announcement of new work would attract a large handful of guest appearances from acts that respect or have been influenced by the entourage’s genre moulding repertoire. Snoop Dogg, Rob Marciano and Usher (to name a few) are featured and each passing track emanates a specific view of the world through the eyes of ageing musicians falling into place with the growing popularity of casual rap (as made noticeably famous by R&B artist, Drake). The difference however, is that the 90’s hip-hop is deeply stitched into a soulful rhythm that makes it recognisable and hits you hard in the De La Soul.
De La Soul’s latest effort gained its footing with the necessity of a Kickstarter campaign. The good thing, however, is that in under ten hours, it surpassed its projected $110,000 goal. They’ve obviously, to some extent, fallen on hard times, but, thankfully, this wasn’t of any detriment to the music. Particular highlights on this album are the likes of “Greyhounds” and “Here In After”.
The former simply because of how it’s a track not specifically in the traditional rap format, and how it just works. The latter for similar reasons, plus the fact that there are expert tempo and, seemingly, genre changes, yet still the trio barely blink an eye during delivery. Tracks definitely link well together sonically and thematically, so much so that this is the case when they’re not even side by side. The persistent electronic effects, rearing on a few tracks, seem to hint at the peril of an ever more technical age. There’s solid efforts in “Royalty Capes”, “Pain”, “Memory Of…US”, “Lord Intended” and “Sexy B*tch”, too.
Click HERE for a full list of our Top 50 Albums of 2016!