It’s impossible to ignore all the awful shit that happened in 2016, but let’s focus on the good stuff. Hundreds of great albums came out this year, showcasing everything from enlivened fuzz to politically-charged R&B to identity-shifting pop. Some of these great albums were topped by genuinely amazing albums, records we’ll be remembering for years to come. Below, we’ve rounded up 16 records that shaped 2016 (and were shouted about the most by you, dear readers). There are hundreds more we could have included, but here’s a selection of the best, in alphabetical order.
Beyoncé - Lemonade
Unleashing entire records out of nowhere, in the manner of a not-very-scary ghost, is arguably something Beyoncé ignited with her previous self-titled album, which came out all in one go in 2013. Its successor aired in similar fashion, as a one hour movie of painstakingly constructed matching visuals. ‘Lemonade’ wound up being Beyoncé’s boldest and most trailblazing record to date, brashly genre-hopping from the Texas burr of ‘Daddy Lessons,’ to the yowling, burbling onslaught of Jack White collab ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’. And then, of course, there’s ‘Formation’. Released during Black History Month, the sparse, hard-hitting celebration of blackness, the American South, womanhood, and resistance stands defiant and strong, tall in the face of the threats facing marginalized people in the States.
‘Lemonade’ is often touted as Beyoncé’s political moment. In truth, she’s always been fired up and engaged; from the early days of ‘Independent Woman’ with Destiny’s Child, to ‘Run the World’s riot police dance face-off. Unapologetic, furious, and squeezing bitter scorn and injustice into this – a sweetly sour jug of pop lemonade - this record set the world talking about “Becky with the good hair” for months, and shook up an entire genre, too. This year we’ve seen pop titans from Beyoncé through to Kanye West and Rihanna sacking off all conventions,and defiantly doing whatever the fuck they like instead, chucking old hat templates out the window. ‘Lemonade’ is a prime example, and pop’s landscape - shaped by albums like this - has never looked more exciting. (El Hunt)
Bon Iver - 22, A MILLION
Taking a look at the tracklist for ‘22, A MILLION’, it’d be easy to think that it’d be a far more absurd album than Bon Iver’s third record actually is.
Sure, the mind-boggling lyrics are there in abundance, and rhyming “quandry” with “waundry” is almost unforgivable, but there’s something about Justin Vernon that can make even the highest form of gobbledigook seem heartfelt. Musically, ‘22, A MILLION’ is a natural progression from 2011’s ‘Bon Iver, Bon Iver’, taking the majesty of that album’s closer ‘Beth/Rest’ and running with it. Closer ‘0000 Million’ feels like the tenderest moments of Springsteen, and when things are amped up on ‘666ʇ” and ’10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’, erratic, fidgety drums take Vernon’s tales of fear and anxiety to their greatest heights yet. (Will Richards)
Christine & The Queens - Chaleur Humaine
Telly has the power to create stars. From Future Islands’ ridiculously mesmerising bopping on Letterman two years back, to Declan Mckenna’s outing on Jools just a couple of months ago, all the telly-box cogs lining up at the right time can fast-track a fringe talent to a household name.
When Christine and The Queens filled in for a Graham Norton show drop-out at short notice this year, her trajectory to stardom felt slightly different. The UK re-release of Héloïse Letissier’s debut album ‘Chaleur Humaine’ saw grannies from titchy rural villages heartily belting out choruses like “I’m a man now” without a second thought, and vest-sporting gaggles of lads fist-pumping to ‘Tilted’. Her queer, outsider handle infiltrated a whole new playing field. Christine and The Queens’ constant presence on tube billboards, mainstream radio and magazine covers feels like a quiet, visible revolution, and for LGBT people in particular – who are still poorly represented by the media, on the whole – she represents a monumental change in the tide. ‘Chaleur Humaine’ – and Christine and The Queens herself – are unstoppable forces, taking up space with perfectly crafted, tilted pop. Amid the tangible hatred whirling around the world right now, this album provides a respite of acceptance and hope. (El Hunt)
Daughter - Not to Disappear
Releasing ‘Doing The Right Thing’, a painfully stark portrayal of the devastating affects of alzheimers and dementia on families, as an album’s first single speaks volumes about Daughter’s ambitions for ‘Not To Disappear’. Topics as heart-wrenching as these are commonplace on the three-piece’s second album, but instead of being bogged down in the sorrow, the lush, crisp instrumentation gives ‘Not To Disappear’ a majestic feel, and one of escape.
The record, released within the first fortnight of 2016, has only grown stronger across its never-ending touring schedule for the year. Main stages at Latitude and Primavera were conquered, when the band previously looked out of place on such platforms. Most revelatory, though, was the band’s final UK tour for the record in October, when an added string section pointed to a future of even more exciting things. In danger of becoming a one-dimensional band after their debut ‘If You Leave’, ‘Not To Disappear’ and Daughter’s 2016 has shown them to be a band that can go anywhere from here. (Will Richards)
Photo: Emma Swann.
David Bowie - Blackstar
During a year where uncertainty has reigned supreme, one thing is for sure: no one can argue that David Bowie’s final act was anything less than perfect. Precisely planned, ‘Blackstar’ was always going to be an incredible album, but the narrative that came to surround it has shone a whole new light on what has become Bowie’s last bow. Released on his 69th birthday and just two days before he passed away, ‘Blackstar”s become so much more than his 26th album. It’s a record of prophecy, full of both questions and answers, of the unexpected and the eerily familiar. With the gift of hindsight, it’s the sound of a man dealing with the inevitability of his own mortality, and the mark he’ll leave behind him. It’s the most graceful way of saying goodbye.
Twelve months on since both its release and his passing, we’re still discovering new aspects to the record – hidden gems buried within its layers, ready to be uncovered when the time is right. No detail has been left unthought of. Much like Bowie himself, it’s an album that will go on to be so much greater than the sum of its parts and it’ll live on in our hearts for much longer than just 2016. (Sarah Jamieson)
Frank Ocean - Blonde / Endless
Nobody in their right mind expected Frank Ocean to outrun the anticipation behind his next move, but that’s exactly what he did. After years of build-up, all eyes were on Ocean. And by July 2016, an extended one-year silence after the due date of his ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ project, things were getting silly. Then a shadowed bloke appeared on a livestream and began to cut some wood. Fans expected fireworks and drama when Frank Ocean finally came back. Instead they got a two-week carpentry lesson.
Like veterans Radiohead, he knows how to play with expectations. And how to break hearts. With the ‘Endless’ and ‘Blonde’ double win, he managed to oust former label Def Jam (almost killing streaming exclusives in the process), set expectations ablaze and showcased two sides to his trade - ‘Endless’ with its abstract, acid trip glaze and ‘Blonde’ with a piercing, emotional gut punch. He managed to turn the agenda in his favour, just when it was starting to become bigger than the man himself. (Jamie Milton)
Glass Animals - How to Be a Human Being
If Glass Animals’ second album comes across like a conventional albeit quirky pop record, think again. Without making a seriously fun LP seem fancy, few releases come steeped in such a deep level of thought.
It all stems from the Oxford group’s frontman Dave Bayley, who treats full-lengths like novels. Dave dots and i’s and crosses the t’s. For every song on ‘How to Be a Human Being’, he created a character, whose story then played out in heady, bleep-bloop mania. On ‘Cane Shuga’, a mad gangster takes the wrong path. ‘Youth’ is a heartbreaking portrait of a family torn apart. ‘Season 2 Episode 3’ finds a young hipster wasting her days away. The closer you peer into ‘How to Be a Human Being’, the more it reveals - it’s like a scratchcard with endless layers. It might still be early days for Glass Animals, but they’ve proven themselves creators with serious credentials, obsessed with every hyper-acute detail. (Jamie Milton)
Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
Finally emerging back in February after months of ‘will he, won’t he’, Kanye West’s return was every bit as indecisive as the man himself. ‘The Life Of Pablo’ lived up to its billing as “a living, breathing, changing creative expression” long before Ye started tinkering. Turning on its heel throughout, it kept expectations at bay, ditching hip hop tropes for samples and features galore (everyone from Frank Ocean to experimental post-punks Section 25 got a look in). Kanye’s construction of all these seemingly disparate elements showcased a steady-handed attention to detail that even the most hardened neurosurgeon would give their left arm for.
One Kanye opened up the toolbox once more, ‘The Life Of Pablo’ took on countless new lives. To this day, there’s no telling when he might let loose a new version – don’t put it past him to whack some jingle bells on ‘Highlights’ and make a bid for Christmas number one. Few managed to grab headlines quite like Kanye West this year. A musical extension of the man himself, ‘The Life Of Pablo’ stood tall as one of the most defining works of these equally erratic 12 months. (Tom Connick)
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
At this stage in their career, Radiohead could tweet a picture of a minion and it would set the Internet alight. But for their ninth album, they still decided to have some fun in the build-up. Yes, the ‘fade to blank’ move applied to their social media accounts was a little #blackmirror, but it was further proof that Thom Yorke and co. know how to stir excitement. A mixture of old and new gestures (fans were sent witch hunt posters before anyone had heard a song) further showed just how adept these old timers are at keeping up with the times.
The record itself took a similar approach. Referring back to their first steps by recording beloved rarity ‘True Love Waits’, they also applied strange twists to established sounds, like how Jonny Greenwood’s trademark, stabbing strings envelop the otherwise routine ‘Burn the Witch’. Everything sounded familiar, but not to the extent that Radiohead were simply hitting autopilot. And let’s not forget, the mere prospect of a break-up album from these guys wasn’t remotely on the cards. (Jamie Milton)
Savages - Adore Life
With ‘Silence Yourself’, Savages cemented themselves as a ferocious force of nature; notoriously unforgiving onstage, and tautly locked in on record. All this brutal sonic impact came with a trade-off, however, and in their early days, Savages were a bit of a frightening prospect being honest; a group of black-clad punks holding their audience away with a steely void of detachment.
With ‘Adore Life’ came an unpredictable shift, and a welcome gust of warmth considering 2016’s backdrop. Once a glaring, intimidating presence, this year saw Jehnny Beth cracking jokes and clambering across shoulders instead, fuelled by the zest and ambition of Savages’ second album. ‘Adore Life’ is a cracking record for many reasons, but its greatest achievement is revealing extra facets to a band that already seemed fully-realised. On this album, Savages not only double their sprawling ambitions, they open the door on (whisper it) a wicked sense of humour, too. Somehow, the band pull off ostentatious rock opera vibes, pogoing doubled-vocals, and the choice threat; “you’ll dry out like a raisin in the sun,” all on one record, and tackle the weighty subject of love - with plenty of nuance - while they’re at it. A couple of years ago, Savages wouldn’t have touched such things with a barge pole, but ‘Adore Life’ sees them reinventing and pushing all the boundaries. (El Hunt)
Photo: Mike Massaro.
Skepta - Konnichiwa
Last year, the Mercury Prize was criticised for completely ignoring the rise of grime, and the #BritsSoWhite hashtag took off after the awards were as pale as the most delicate of snowflakes (and featured a whole bunch of artists who were just as wishy washy). But make no mistake: Skepta winning 2016’s Mercury Prize for ‘Konnichiwa’ wasn’t a token gesture. It won because it was a genuinely storming album that helped bring grime further into the mainstream without ever having to sell out.
Distributed from his own front room (just one sign that Skepta won’t be beholden to anyone), ‘Konnichiwa’ was painted with vibrant samples, and was sometimes filled with bravado, especially on the likes of ‘Shutdown’. But beyond the swag, there was a human heart and a rapper who continually stayed true to himself. For proof that Skepta is never pretending to be something he’s not, you’ve only got to hear ‘That’s Not Me’, where he proudly says “I used to wear Gucci/ I put it all in the bin because that’s not me”. Uncompromising, bold, and refreshingly honest, ‘Konnichiwa’ was – quite literally – the album we’d be waiting years for. (Eugenie Johnson)
Spring King - Tell Me If You Like To
There’s a side to Spring King rarely exposed beyond the mayhem, or the dynamic Tarek Musa and his pack proudly sport. ‘Tell Me If You Like To’ helps bring it out. The Manchester group’s fully-charged frustration stems from real situations, and there’s a sense of fear and paranoia running through this first work. You wouldn’t guess it from the glee they play with, but the underlying darkness will help pave the way for their next steps. ‘Tell Me If You Like To’ is the making of a very special band.
Photo: Amin Musa.
The 1975 - I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
No other album this year harboured as much ambition as ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ Hop-skipping from unashamed pop bangers like ‘The Sound’, through ambient and shoegaze-y passages, onto tender acoustic ballads and the spiky indie-rock The 1975 made their name on, no stone was left unturned. It took the shaky foundations of that debut album and built a shining palace atop them.
In frontman Matty Healy, ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ put forward a bonafide star. Finally filling that ever-spreading gulf between huge pop megastars and smaller groups in need of a leg-up, he’s living, chain smoking, wine-swigging proof that there’s life in the rockstar archetype. Love him, hate him, doesn’t matter – it all plays right into his jazz-hands.
An unavoidable festival force all summer long, ‘I Like It When You Sleep…’ shifted The 1975’s focus from spindly, style-over-substance pretence to pure pop – imagining what next year’s new material could hold is already keeping us up at night. (Tom Connick)
The Kills - Ash & Ice
The fact ‘Ash & Ice’ exists is somewhat of a miracle, such was the severity of Jamie Hince’s 2013 hand injury. And, whether thanks to the ensuing change in his guitar playing style, a reaction to that time spent travelling solo across Russia, bandmate Alison Mosshart’s success fronting The Dead Weather, or just the result of a band passing a decade of existence, May cover stars The Kills stepped well up on LP5. From the all-out ‘fuck you’ attitude of lead single ‘Doing It To Death’ to the soaring emotion-overload of ‘That Love’ - Alison’s crystal-clear vocals, as smoky and whiskey-soaked as ever demanding her the spotlight - ‘Ash & Ice’ is as assured a record as it is as gloriously skewed as their 2003 debut. And then there’s the full-band live tour, ensuring not a beat is lost in the now cavernous venues the duo dominate. (Emma Swann)
Photo: Mike Massaro.
Weaves - Weaves
Wonkier than a broken bar stool and bringing some much needed fun factor back into art-rock, Weaves’ self-titled album stands up as one of the year’s most accomplished and grin-inducing debuts. Live, though, it takes on a whole new life.
Deadpan, bare-footed guitarist Morgan Waters might steal the show at first, whooping and hollering into his guitar and twisting melodies out of the resultant feedback, but the whole gang bring something brilliantly bonkers to the table. Be it wunderkind bassist Zach Bines’ flower-adorned guitar, drummer Spencer Cole thwacking every available space on every surface of his kit or singer Jazz Burke’s ultimate sass-factor, Weaves’ debut album is a fun-filled platform that’s helped them become one of the year’s most unmissable live bands. (Tom Connick)
Photo: Mike Massaro
Yak - Alas Salvation
On the one hand, there’s nothing new about Yak. Frontman Oli Burslem’s Jagger looks don’t deceive. They make bolshy, brilliant noise impossible to contain. And their spur-of-the-moment shows are either happy accidents or absolute disasters. With that in mind, they share traits with yesterday’s heroes, rock relics who might be best forgotten in 2016. Why, then, does ‘Alas Salvation’ sound so vital? Why does it have the impact of a raging, bloodthirsty stampede instead of something passed its sell-by-date?
We gave Yak’s debut five stars when it came out, and it’s since become a glue for kids in the front row, flailing limbs with no final destination. Burslem leads the conversation, head permanently hunched over a disused organ or in the arms of a hundred rabid fans, but there’s something in Yak’s music that takes over, lending an uncontrollable urge to cause mischief. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s the year’s most exciting debut. (Jamie Milton)