2016 may not have been a great year (well let’s be honest, it was absolutely terrible), but there were plenty of great albums released. My ten favourites are listed below, but I’d also like to give shout outs to David Bowie, Cate Le Bon, Colin Stetson, Cross Record, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Anna Meredith, The Julie Ruin, Frankie Cosmos, Factory Floor, Mitski, Xam Duo, Diiv & Danny Brown who all released wonderful records this year but didn’t quite make the list
10. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
Lisa Hannigan’s first two albums were also excellent, but At Swim represents a new artistic peak for the Irish singer-songwriter. Her voice is as gorgeous as ever, but there is a new subtlety and depth to her songwriting, with songs managing to deliver immediate melodic hits yet still reveal new pleasures on each listen. The production from The National’s Aaron Dessner is also excellent, never do the arrangements overshadow the songs themselves, but the album is not afraid to step away from a standard folky palette to incorporate sounds from other genres (as in the electronica-influenced Undertow). An excellent album from an underappreciated artist.
9. Solange – A Seat at the Table
I knew little of Solange’s music before this year. If I thought of her at all, it was as Beyonce’s younger sister with a somewhat more experimental streak, having collaborated with Of Montreal amongst others. So when the rave reviews for ‘A Seat at the Table’ came flooding in I was a little cynical, not expecting too much. Not for the first time, I was very wrong. Normally with R&B/soul records, I’m all about the up tempo songs, not so much the ballads. A Seat at the Table is pretty much all ballads, but I still love it. These ballads are both deeply personal and deeply political, with a confessional quality matching the best singer-songwriters but also a sadness and anger about the state of the world. “I am weary of the ways of the world” sums up 2016 better than any line from any other record I’ve heard and the many spoken word interludes follow a theme of black empowerment. In both vocals and production it reminds of classic soul and funk albums, with just little nods to more modern or experimental production. The most pleasant musical surprise that 2016 has bought.
8. Claire M.Singer – Solas
When I wrote about Claire M. Singer’s track Wrangham back in July, I mentioned it was a type of music I knew so little of that it was a struggle for me to describe. I suppose I think of it as classical music, but of a modern, experimental variety. The three pieces on the album which make use of the organ from Islington’s Union Chapel (where Singer is the musical director) are especially exciting. The aforementioned Wrangham first drew me in with its’ blend of organ and electronics, but the astonishing 25 minute closing piece The Molendinar, all slow builds and shimmering menace, is the most unlike anything else I’ve heard before. Despite the unique quality of the organ-led tracks however, it is the dramatic opening cello piece ‘A Different Place’ which remains my highlight of a wonderful album.
7. Leonard Cohen – I Want it Darker
I think it would be entirely reasonable to be in a creative decline once you reach your eighties, but ‘I Want it Darker’, released just before Cohen’s death at the age of 82 is up there with the highlights of his career. The title track, in particular, is wonderful, in equal measures profound and funny. Both sonically and lyrically it could easily have fitted in to his early 90s album ‘The Future’. It’s the bluegrass-tinged ‘Steer Your Way though that is my personal favourite, showing Cohen was a man who never stopped trying new ideas. He will be missed.
6. Weyes Blood – Front Row Seat To Earth
A lot of the music I love tends towards the fragile, the scratchy, the lo-fi. Weyes Blood’s album is none of these things. It blends Laurel Canyon folk and Seventies soft rock, and is highly produced, polished, smooth even. But Weyes Blood (or Natalie Mering as she is otherwise known) is such an accomplished songwriter that I was won over despite my initial doubts. Almost every song here is instantly memorable, with the opener ‘Diary’ a particular favourite. It’s Mering’s powerful, soaring vocals that grab the attention most of all. No other voice that I have discovered this year has impressed me so much.
5. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
Perhaps the most exciting album released this year, if not quite my absolute favourite. I saw Hval play live lat last year, in support of previous album “Apocalypse, Girl’, and she mesmerised a small but packed room with a show that was somewhere between electro-duo and performance art troupe. On ‘Blood Bitch’, Hval showcases all sides of her music, from relatively poppy, direct numbers like ‘Female Vampire’ and ‘Conceptual Romance’, to avant garde pieces (The Plague), to spoken word tales of menstrual blood (Untamed Region). You’ll find within Blood Bitch electronica, bursts of noise, african drumming and samples from documentary maker Adam Curtis all held together by Hval’s melodic knack, always fascinating lyrics and astonishing vocal range. A superb talent from whom I expect more great things to come.
4. Tindersticks – The Waiting Room
I wrote about this album back in February, and don’t have a huge amount to add, other than to reiterate how wonderful it is to discover a band that you had previously dismissed for pretty spurious reasons are actually really, really good. This is a particularly joyous discovery when the band in question has a twenty year back catalogue to explore.
3. King Creosote – Astronaut Meets Appleman
It’s only a couple of months back that I wrote about how ace this album is, and my opinion has not changed since. I’ve always been a sucker for this man’s voice, his way with a melody and his wry lyrics on love and loss. This album showcases all those things at their absolute best. If you’ve ever been a King Creosote fan you’ll love this as much as anything he’s done. If not, then it would be an ideal place to start.
2. Anohni – Hopelessness
It has been hard, in 2016, not to despair at the direction the world appears to be heading in, and no album captures that that sense of despair like Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’, an apt title indeed. When Anohni was known as Antony, she performed beautiful, personal, introspective songs with a voice both totally compelling and unique. Now, the voice remains as powerful as ever, but the focus has been turned relentlessly outwards. There are songs dealing with climate change, surveillance, drone bombs and disappointment with Obama. If this sounds all very worthy, it is anything but. Even if I didn’t understand a word of this album, I would love it still. Electronic producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never craft the perfect accompaniments to Anohni’s astonishing voice, at time apocalyptic, at times hushed and sorrowful. Songs like ‘Four Degrees’ are genuinely catchy, memorable pop songs, that just happen to deal with atypical subject matter. And even though the lyrics are far from the only great thing about this record, it is still thrilling to hear someone address these subjects in such a direct, powerful manner. Close to being my favourite album of the year, but almost certainly the most important.
1. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Some years choosing my favourite album of the year is difficult. This was not one of those years. I wrote a long piece about the album and the tragic story behind its’ creation which you can find here. It remains as beautiful, harrowing, compelling & difficult to listen to as ever and I am simultaneously glad it exists and wish it never had to be made. For me the best album made, not only this year, but in the 3 years I’ve been writing this blog.
Listen to my albums of the year as a Spotify playlist below: