Best of 2016

Essential albums

It might not have been a vintage year for glad tidings, but what 2016 lacked in LOLs it just about made up for in quality albums. From Bowie’s final masterpiece to a powerful protest record by Anohni –via Skepta’s Mercury Prize-winning comeback and a vibrant return from A Tribe Called Quest – check out the year’s best music below.

The Top 10

  • ANOHNI - HOPELESSNESS
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    If the prospect of an album critiquing ecocide, surveillance culture, US defence policy and the brutality of drone warfare doesn’t sound like the most joyous way to spend 40 minutes, we urge you to put your preconceptions aside: this is a beautiful, powerful and inexplicably uplifting protest record. Written in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Hopelessness is a far cry from the pastoral indie-folk of Anohni’s work with Antony and the Johnsons, and her previous collaborations with Hercules and Love Affair. And yet, the album’s elastic beats, doomy subs and euphoric synths prove the ideal vehicle for Anohni’s soulful melisma, and bring an added sense of urgency to her searing missives. Quite astonishingly brilliant.
  • When you’ve a back catalogue as peerless as David Bowie’s, you can be afforded the luxury of looking back a little. From its Heroes-referencing artwork to the stately art-rock within, his 2013 comeback LP, The Next Day, did just that. By contrast, this follow-up finds the 69-year-old reverting to trailblazing type with an unpredictable, pioneering set inspired by free jazz and Kendrick Lamar, and variously referencing John Ford, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and British cant slang Polari. Ably assisted by producer Tony Visconti, Grammy-nominated saxophonist Donny McCaslin and acclaimed drummer Mark Guiliana, Bowie creates a universe where jazz, industrial rock, drum n bass and glacial electronica co-exist in perfect harmony. Spellbinding stuff from start to finish.
  • Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition (Explicit)Contains explicit content
    Opening his fourth LP with the words, “I’m sweating like I’m in a rave / been in this room for three days”, Danny Brown wastes no time asserting that his hedonism hasn’t waned during his three years away. Yet amid tales of sex, drug-habits and dollar-bills, there’s an air of introspection to the Joy Division-inspired Atrocity Exhibition, as the Detroit-rapper picks up where he left off on 2013’s existential panic-laced Old. Combining innovative production – which ranges from stark guitar distortion (‘Downward Spiral’) to hyperactive horn loops (‘Ain’t It Funny’) – with superb guest verses from Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt and Kelela, Atrocity Exhibition is Brown’s most claustrophobic and compelling album yet, and one of 2016’s finest.
  • Skepta - Konnichiwa
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    Naming your solo debut ‘Greatest Hits’ might seem a tad hubristic but, as Skepta’s proved, if you’ve the talent to back-up your self-belief, things will pan out pretty sweetly. A decade on, the Boy Better Know-founder now finds himself at the forefront of the UK’s most vital music scene, with A-listers like Drake and Kanye clamouring for collaborations, and is now releasing a fourth album worthy of that greatest hits tag. Featuring the colossal singles ‘Man’, ‘Shutdown’ and ‘That’s Not Me’ – plus collaborations with Pharrell, Wiley and Jme – Konnichiwa is the sound of the Tottenham grime star operating at the peak of his powers. Believe the hype.
  • Laura Mvula - The Dreaming Room
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    “I feel lost and found at the same damn time... I got losing on my mind,” probably aren’t words you’d expect to hear on the second album by an artist who scored BRIT, Mercury Prize and Ivor Novello nominations for their debut. Written while grappling with excruciating anxiety attacks, divorce and the stress surrounding newfound fame, the fact that The Dreaming Room exists at all is something of a miracle. The fact it’s arguably even better than Sing To The Moon is testament to Laura Mvula’s significant talents. Prepare yourself for inventive arrangements, soaring melodies and soulful vocals throughout, plus a hard-earned note of defiance on energetic closer ‘Phenomenal Woman’.
  • A Tribe Called Quest - We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    Almost two decades since their last LP, and an entire quarter of a century on from The Low End Theory, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad reunite with original Tribe member Jarobi White to pay tribute to the late, great Phife Dawg, who passed away in March. We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service still bears Phife’s working title and rounds up the final recordings of the self-styled “Five Foot Assassin”. Filling in the gaps, you’ll find contributions from frequent collaborators Busta Rhymes and Consequence, plus an array of famous fans, including Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli and Anderson .Paak.
  • Babyfather - "BBF" Hosted By DJ Escrow
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    A few months ago, Dean Blunt uploaded a mixtape online, only to remove it moments later. While undoubtedly confusing to those unfamiliar with his prankster ways, the stunt was exactly what you’d expect from a man whose trolling of the NME Awards last year laid bare his apathetic approach toward the scene. Returning as Babyfather, the Hype Williams-mastermind tells the satirical tale of an aspiring grime MC, taking us deep into his Hackney hometurf, where sirens and domestic brawls play out above lo-fi beats and dub-inspired bass. Aided by Arca and Micachu, Blunt moves effortlessly from his krautrock-tinged Black Metal LP into hip-hop territory, continuing to carve out an inimitable identity within contemporary music, while remaining admirably unfazed by his growing reputation.
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
    Tempting as it is to join the dots between art and the context in which it was created, the relationship between the two is always much more complex than autobiographical readings allow for. And while it would be unwise to fully separate the follow-up to 2013’s Push The Sky Away from the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son, to suggest that Skeleton Tree is purely concerned with grief would be both reductive and untrue. Like all of Cave’s catalogue, his latest is rich in lyrical content, taking in everything from doomy, Old Testament-inspired imagery to themes of hope, lust and loss. It’s really the ravaged quality of some of Cave’s vocals that betrays the horrific circumstances in which the set was completed, but listening you come away incredibly thankful that he and his band persevered.
  • Christine and the Queens - Chaleur Humaine (Deluxe Edition)
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    Two years since Chaleur Humaine made Héloïse Letissier a huge star in her native France, it finally gets its long-overdue release on our shores. Revamped for the English market, her full-length debut now features translated versions of ‘Christine’ (now ‘Tilted’) and ‘Saint Claude’, plus superb new collaborations with Perfume Genius and Philadelphian rapper Tunji Ige. Happily, everything else here remains as it ever was. Assisted by Metronomy-producer Ash Workman and NZCA Lines’ Michael Lovett, Letissier sets musings on gender to sleek, kinetic synth-pop underpinned by crisp hip-hop beats, and often embellished by the swoon of strings. If a debut his flawless doesn’t catapult Letissier to stardom in the UK too, our nation simply doesn’t deserve nice things.
  • Solange - A Seat at the Table (Explicit)Contains explicit content
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    A full eight years since Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, and four since acclaimed EP True, Beyoncé’s younger sister finally unveils her third LP. By turns defiant, triumphant, moving and soothing, A Seat At The Table sees Solange deliver a deeply personal account of her experiences as a woman of colour that will doubtless resonate on a global scale. Featuring contributions from Kelela, Sampha, Q-Tip and Lil Wayne, her dreamy, often jazz-inspired strain of soul is interspersed with powerful spoken-word interludes, including her father revealing the racial discrimination he faced growing up, and her mother discussing the importance of celebrating black heritage. Culturally important and hugely absorbing, this is Knowles’ finest offering yet.

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