In a year which saw political and cultural differences deepen, global events defy expectation, and social media’s influence reach a disorienting level, the only certainty is that 2016 saw some damn fine music. With that in mind, I present my Top 10 Albums of 2016, a totally subjective and (loosely) structured list which attempts to apply logic and order to at least one aspect of the past twelve months.
This list is entirely my own opinion, based on how much I enjoyed these albums, which ones I kept coming back to, and which ones I thought were the strongest musically. I also considered factors like ambition, innovation, and their importance in the careers of each respective artist/group. Of course, it’s subjective, and you may disagree with my choices, but that’s okay. You might agree completely, and that’s okay too.
10) Dance Gavin Dance – Mothership
Highlights: “Young Robot”, “Deception”, “Betrayed by the Game”
Verdict: Following last year’s Instant Gratification, 2016 saw the Californian five-piece deliver a new album of energetic, in-your-face post-hardcore anthems. Busy instrumentals populated by inventive, clean guitar parts and a unique blend of sung, rapped, and screamed vocals (courtesy of clean vocalist Tilian Pearson and unclean vocalist Jon Mess) provide non-stop ear candy, and an excellent backing to playful and provocative lyrics, leaving few dull moments in its 13-song run.
9) Twelve Foot Ninja – Outlier
Highlights: “One Hand Killing”, “Collateral”, “Point Of You”
Verdict: Australia’s premier up-and-comers in metal, Twelve Foot Ninja cram more genres and influences into their grandiose second album than most bands manage in their entire careers. Building on an intensely catchy and eclectic debut, Outlier features didgeridoo (“Sick”), flamenco-funk (“Post Mortem”), and snippets of lounge jazz (“Adios”), while never being gimmicky or cluttered. On top of that, add caustic lyrics, falsetto backing vocals, and some genuinely heavy riffs, and the result is an endlessly entertaining album.
8) Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Highlights: “You Want It Darker”, “Treaty”, “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”
Verdict: 2016 saw the passing of many revered and beloved artists, but few had the influence and noted songwriting genius of Leonard Cohen. His final album showcases his nuanced, spiritual lyricism, tinged with religious imagery, as well as themes of mortality and lost love. Cohen’s every line is delivered by his dusky yet melodic baritone against a backdrop of church organs, gospel choirs, and waltzing rhythms, making this final album an occasionally-gloomy but otherwise divine listen.
7) Periphery – Periphery III: Select Difficulty
Highlights: “Marigold”, “The Way The News Goes…”, “Prayer Position”
Verdict: Bringing just as much knife-edge intensity and intricate compositional ability as Periphery fans expect, the djent pioneers’ fifth full-length effort is defined just as clearly by its technical, challenging instrumentals, as it is by the lyrics and savage vocal delivery of frontman Spencer Sotelo. The delicate glimmer of “The Way The News Goes…” and anthemic metalcore groove of “Remain Indoors” are contrasted by the downtuned, dissonant brutality of “Motormouth” and “Habitual Line-Stepper”, indulging both sides of Periphery’s sound and making one, very satisfying effort.
6) Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Highlights: “The Bird”, “The Season/Carry Me”, “Without You”
Verdict: Fusing West Coast hip-hop with laidback neo-soul, Anderson .Paak struck gold with 2016’s Malibu, garnering critical claim for its updated R&B sound and eclectic range of sun-drenched slow jams. Anderson’s vocals range from politically-motivated backbeat rap verses – “if cash ain’t king, it’s damn sure the incentive” (“The Season/Carry Me”) – to the kind of tuneful, ice-cool melodicism heard on last year’s Compton, the Dr Dre blockbuster which put .Paak’s unique voice to good use. Based on the success of Malibu, we’re certain to hear a lot more of him.
5) Catfish and the Bottlemen – The Ride
Highlights: “7”, “Postpone”, “Outside”
Verdict: Fuelled by adolescent anecdotalism about alcohol abuse, romance, and “every Monday I called in sick” (“Twice”), while packing almost as many instant crowd-pleasers as the group’s preceding debut, The Ride is a fitting sequel to 2014’s The Balcony. Each song brandishes uncomplicated indie-rock sensibilities and a stadium-friendly anthemic quality, which heralds a true potential that may yet be seen from the Llandudno four-piece, given the less-than-advanced age of vocalist and songwriter Van McCann.
4) Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Highlights: “Break Into Your Heart”, “Sunday”, “Paraguay”
Verdict: Delivering the kind of all-star quality usually found in a Hollywood blockbuster, and supplying enough winning tunes to back up the identities of the glamorous personnel involved (Josh Homme, Dean Fertita, Matt Helders), Post Pop Depression shows industry veteran Iggy at his most strident, creative, and uninhibited. The familiar desert rock sound beloved by fans of Queens of the Stone Age matches perfectly with Pop’s vocal and lyrical sensibilities to create a range of vastly different sounds, all of which demand attention and respect in equal measure.
3) Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Highlights: “Ultralight Beam”, “Feedback”, “No More Parties In LA”
Verdict: With Pablo, a divisive artist, who has nothing and everything left to prove, continued his bid to produce hip-hop that’s as innovative and challenging as possible. While it likely won’t chime with those who “miss the old Kanye”, it remains a fascinating piece for those at all intrigued in the direction rap may take in the coming years, and those willing to accept the constantly-changing face of West’s artistry – Ye even changed the album title a few times before releasing.
2) The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
Highlights: “Aviation”, “Sweet Dreams, TN”, “The Dream Synopsis”
Verdict: Awash with the kind of instant appeal, effortless arrangement, and seductive songwriting to be expected from two of 21st-Century rock’s premier figures, playful lyrical cues and enthralling cinematic string arrangements afford the super-group’s second effort just as much louche glamour as the first. Everything… sees Turner and Kane polishing the formula to retain all of what made their 2008 debut so enticing, while expanding into new sonic directions and challenging the preconceptions many will have had about such a long-awaited album. Lyrically more deep than their previous offerings, and musically more crisp, Everything… made this summer feel like a 1970s beach party, in all the right ways (Read my full review here).
1) David Bowie – ★
Highlights: “★”, “Lazarus”, “Girl Loves Me”
Verdict: Considering the timing and context of what ★ represents – an epitaph but also a representation of an artist’s death translated directly into art – it makes Bowie’s final musical effort an easy choice for the top spot on my list.
Very few artists attain the kind of longevity, innovation, and admiration which Bowie garnered over the course of his life, and ★ is a fitting coda for someone truly defined his art, to the same extent that it defined him. Familiar and self-referential but also avant-garde and boundary-pushing, Bowie’s 7-song last album was released just days before his passing, and features some decidedly left-field instrumentals to accompany his damaged but defiant vocals. Lines like “Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside” (“★”), and “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to” (“Dollar Days”) seem to point towards his own battle with death, while the album’s theme seems to include a message of bold dismissal towards his own fate, embracing a pastiche of modern celebrity by declaring “I’m a blackstar, way up, on money, I’ve got game” (“★”).
The closing movement of ★’s eulogy, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, is as open-to-interpretation as everything Bowie’s released. To me it seems to hint that, given his lack of time, Bowie found himself unable to give any more music away to the world, making this his swan song. Its final verse, delivered over an upbeat, concise instrumental of drums, bass, guitar, synth and saxophone, is “I know something’s very wrong / The pulse returns the prodigal son / The blackout hearts, the flowered news / With skull designs upon my shoes”. It’s succinct and deliberate, but subtle enough to merely hint towards what was to come, tastefully dropping the curtain in impeccable style.
Bowie’s music and his life touched an innumerable number of people, and it’s safe to say that his death had the same effect. Released at the end of a ground-breaking, unrepeatable career, and only a few days into 2016, ★ is a poignant, touching, and summarising statement by an artist who, confronted with the end, chose to devote his time to producing a final album, bookending fifty-odd years of incredible songs with a parting gift to his family and fans. Even without the background and circumstance, ★ is 41 minutes of incredible music. With or without the context, it’s easily my Album of the Year.
To leave it at that would be a major oversight, considering the sheer number of excellent LPs released this year. I could easily have made this a Top 50 list, but the article would’ve been a mile long, so here’s the short version.
If this had been a list of EPs, Vroom Vroom by Charli XCX would definitely be on it, for its brash, bratty attitude and hostile take on contemporary pop, and The Strokes’ Future Present Past would also be there, reaffirming the New Yorkers’ strong grip on indie guitar-pop’s mantle. Savage Mode by 21 Savage would also be on that list, despite technically being 32 minutes long, and while we’re on the subject of hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered – brilliant, despite essentially being outtakes from last year’s breathtaking To Pimp A Butterfly – is also worth a mention. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown, featuring a choice feature from Lamar, was another luminary rap release, alongside The Impossible Kid by Aesop Rock, and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.
Metal reached into ever deeper and more experimental areas this year, seeing landmark releases from Architects, Gojira, Fallujah, and Ulcerate, while stalwarts like Meshuggah and Metallica continued lengthy reigns at the top of the pile. Newcomers such as Slice The Cake and post-rock outfit Black Peaks showed a lot of promise, Issues refined their sound with Headspace, and instrumental prog outfit Polyphia released Renaissance, which could be just that. I particularly enjoyed Swedish metal act Cult of Luna’s three-song EP Råångest, a collaboration with sludge-metal four-piece The Old Wind, which was released in January and could herald an interesting new direction in collaborative metal.
Daughter showed no signs of pushing their thoughtful, dreamy shoegaze too far with Not To Disappear, and The 1975 followed up their stylised debut with an ambitious but hit-and-miss second album, with a title I’m not bothered enough to type out in full. Angel Olsen expanded on her stellar earlier work with My Woman, and also in September, Pixies continued their well-received revival with Head Carrier.
Red Hot Chili Peppers released The Getaway this year, an experimental effort, but one which underuses Chad Smith’s undeniable talent and is lyrically weighed down by a few too many California references. Blossoms might just have shown the dimmest glimmer of promise with their first effort, while Kings of Leon, Radiohead, and Jake Bugg all took their own brands of rock in very different directions. A distinct mention goes to Viola Beach, whose debut release is both delightful and poignant in equal measure.
I think that just about does it for 2016. If this blog continues for another twelve months, I’ll be sure to round up 2017, since it already looks like a promising year.
Josh Will Eden