20 dead good albums from the year 2016

While not a vintage year for single releases, this might be the best year for albums in a long time. Some honourable mentions before we jump into my 20 faves of 2016: Joe Jonas and his band DNCE for their self-titled, Busted’s Night Driver, DJ Khaled’s collaboration fest Major Key, the long awaited We Are King by KING, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service the final album from A Tribe Called Quest and ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP. Thank you for the music everyone.

lady gaga joanne
I’ve come to terms with the fact that my relationship with Lady Gaga is always gonna be contentious, but irrespective of my feelings about Gaga as an artist and public figure, taken on face value, Joanne is a decent album. Yes, it’s a little too “real music” for words at times, she over sings in places, ‘Perfect Illusion’ is still laughable… but as a body of work, there’s plenty to like. ‘Ayo’ is a bop, ‘Hey Girl’ is a schmaltzy vocal triumph of a duet with Florence Welch, ‘Million Reasons’ is a warm and evocative piano balld and ‘Dancin’ In Circles’ is another masturbation banger to add to the Self Love Hall of Fame next to Britney Spears – ‘Touch Of My Hand’, Tweet’s ‘Oops (Oh My)’ and ‘Love Myself’ by Hailee Steinfeld. There’s ample misses too: ‘John Wayne’ and ‘Come To Mama’ are worthy of no more discourse than a dismissive “hot garbage” while ‘Angel Down’, an alleged tribute to Trayvon Martin, is typical of Gaga’s overstepping into issues and causes that don’t belong to her to service her own ego – a disingenuous and hollow song. The biggest problem with Joanne is that in a year where Gaga’s contemporaries and peers were crafting game-changing material on intelligent and innovative levels, this record doesn’t feel like so much of a bad piece of work as a pointless one… which in some ways is worse than being downright terrible. Still, Gaga is to be commended for doing as she damn pleases – this Fleetwood Mac vibe wasn’t what I wanted or asked for, but I’m not completely mad about it.
BEST SONG: ‘Dancin’ In Circles’

all saints red flag
How infuriating is it, to listen to this excellent All Saints album in the year two thousand and sixteen of our lord, when if it wasn’t for a fortuitous leak on Christmas Eve we’d never have heard the MKS album, or knowing that it was the Spice Girls 20th anniversary this year and all we got was GEM, yet it was All Saints who had the messiest break up out of both these girlbands? That’s not to say I’m ungrateful or disappointed. Red Flag is probably the most cohesive and accomplished album of All Saints’ career and a testament to how artistry can flourish without interference from people who aren’t creatives; there was no label on board with the project until it was completed. With plenty of angst to mine from Nicole’s divorce from Liam Gallagher, Shaznay covers the bulk of the songwriting on a record absolutely lush with melodies, particularly resplendent on lead single ‘One Strike’, ‘One Woman Man’ and the LGBT solidarity anthem that never was ‘This Is A War’. All Saints’ strength was always their effortless “cool” and Red Flag is their strongest display ever.
BEST SONG: ‘This Is A War’

childish gambino awaken my love
When Childish Gambino, after a long period of radio silence, returned to twitter to announce a new album I would never in a million years have expected it to sound like “Awaken, My Love!” Even the lead single ‘Me And Your Mama’ didn’t clue me in to the fact that far from the hip hop sound of his last two studio albums and every mixtape and EP in between, this was going to be a soul/funk record more in the style of D’Angelo than his usual rap lane. A surprise, yes, but a pleasant one. “Awaken, My Love!”  is a sharp image turn and a bold sonic move, revealing that Gambino also has a fairly impressive singing voice, at at its best when its sounding sweet and smooth on ‘Stand Tall’. While criticisms of the almost gimmicky pastiche vibe of the record are not completely unfounded, Gambino’s Prince impression is a lot stronger than say The Weeknd’s continued efforts to cement status as Michael Jackson tribute acts, and his references far less heavy handed than Bruno Mars on 24K Magic.  The perfect “self-care night in” album, if you want to immerse yourself in something luxurious, it has to be “Awaken, My Love!”.
BEST SONG: ‘Redbone’

jojo mad love
There isn’t time to get into how JoJo’s career trajectory is another sad fucking story of an artist prohibited from creating freely due to label bullshit and any speculation about what might have been had Blackground Records not kept her in limbo would be just that – speculation. To put a golden sheen on a terrible set of circumstances though, perhaps the decade between JoJo’s second studio album The High Road (released when she was just 15) and Mad Love. was some kind of blessing. While lead single ‘Fuck Apologies’ with Wiz Khalifa was a bit of a misfire – it’s easily the weakest song on the album – it’s impossible to find any other duds on the tracklisting. A duet with Alessia Cara and a feature from Remy Ma provide standout moments, but it’s JoJo’s flawless vocal serving for the gods that holds everything together. While not the commercial success of her previous releases, Mad Love. is an album to be proud of and if JoJo gets the opportunity to fully rebuild her profile, Ariana Grande should be rightfully shook.
BEST SONG: ‘Vibe.’

tove lo lady wood
From the title, to the vagina logo, to the short film Fairy Dust that accompanied the campaign… everything about Tove Lo’s second album was refreshing, especially for someone beginning to age out of the teen-pop demographic (some might say should have aged out of it long ago). Tove Lo’s appeal, to me personally, is that she is a popstar of approximately the same age as me, writing songs about experiences that ring true to my own, in language that I relate to. Tove Lo is the master of taking the narrative of fucked up people trying to connect with each other and not making it sound futile, and this album is a continuation of the story she began on her debut album Queen Of The Clouds. But Lady Wood has more of an acerbic, cynical vibe than Queen Of The Clouds. Indeed, the two “chapters” of the record illustrate this perfectly, with ‘Fairy Dust’ full of the kind of messy, narcotic, libido driven fun that characterised the first album and ‘Fire Fade’ dealing with the come down and the fall out.

terror jr bop city
Is the mysterious “Lisa”, lead vocalist of new pop group Terror Jr, actually the alias of Kylie Jenner – youngest of the Kardashian-Jenner clan and the only person the group follows on twitter? An ASCAP registering of first single ‘Three Strikes’ – the very song featured in the Glosses video Kylie used to launch her make up brand – lists her as the performer, but she took to Snapchat to adamantly deny her involvement. We live in a post-truth world now, so really the only question is: does anything matter but what I choose to believe? And if I choose to believe Terror Jr is Kylie Jenner’s popstar outing, what an outing it is. Bop City, produced by Felix Snow and ex-Cataracs member David Benjamin Singer-Vine, with Lisa/Kylie/whoever on vocals, is a dream pop trip for the internet audience – with a runtime of 25 minutes across 9 songs it’s a welcome antidote to the frankly over-indulgent meanderings of many top tier artists. Attention spans ain’t what they used to be. Bop City also manages to tap into the disillusioned anxiety of the youth psyche, the side that feels a little more dangerous in its relatability than tweets from the Common White Girl account. If The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers had a soundtrack baby, it would be this album.

tegan and sara love you to death
It’s interesting how so many artists of the mid-to-late noughties who occupied a distinctly “scene” niche have grown into something unmistakably more pop in the 2010s. Fall Out Boy are probably the most noticeably different and also the most successful in their pop resurgence, but Paramore, Panic At The Disco and Simple Plan also spring to mind when thinking of acts that could arguably be accused by their original fanbases of “selling out”. Tegan and Sara are of little interest to me in their original indie/folk form but 2013’s Heartthrob album was an excellent work of synthpop (ranked at #12 in my end of year round up). In some ways Love You To Death is better than Heartthrob – singles ‘Boyfriend’ and ’Stop Desire’ are the sweetest pop confectionary – but whereas Heartthrob retained some authentic spirit, Love You To Death feels impersonal in the way that albums which are more of a triumph of production than songwriting can sometimes be. The Tegan and Sara/Greg Kurstin partnership is a fruitful one regardless however, and there’s a lot that shimmers on this record.
BEST SONG: ’Stop Desire’ / ‘U-Turn’

zayn mind of mine
The publicity drive for Mind Of Mine was sadly thwarted by Zayn’s anxiety – cancelled performances and TV appearances stopped the album dead in its tracks shortly after release, and while it still sold 1.5 million copies worldwide, you have to wonder where Zayn’s star would have ascended to had he benefited from a blitz of say… early-One Direction style exposure. Not that the sales affect the music of course, and this is a solid debut, if one lacking in real identity. Zayn’s departure from the biggest boyband in the world was ostensibly prompted by his desire to be a normal 22-year-old, but as Mind Of Mine proves, was more realistically because his R&B sensibilities were not simpatico with the band’s increasingly 70s dad rock leanings. On Mind Of Mine, smash hit ‘PILLOWTALK’, the beautiful urdu interlude ‘fLoWer’, Kehlani collaboration ‘wRoNg’ and slow jam ‘BoRdErZ’ showcase Zayn’s potential, while ‘LIKE I WOULD’ is the closest he gets to a true “Timberlake moment” breakout banger. I live in hope that Zayn can find a way to make his mental health issues more manageable as he really is just one massive performance moment away from being an A-list popstar.

frank ocean blonde
Remember that day we all sat and watched Frank Ocean sawing wood for hours? I can’t believe we were all so parched for music from this guy that we collectively did that… and then he didn’t even drop a record at the end of the stream! It was torture, a cruel extension of the excruciating dripfeed of non-info since 2012’s channel ORANGE. And was Blonde worth the wait…? Well, yes and no. As an album, I prefer Blonde to channel ORANGE – it’s a more complete listen, nothing is unworthy enough to be skipped (except for that god awful ‘Facebook Story’ interlude) and it’s a beautiful, emotive piece of work from start to finish, with appearances from Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan and André 3000 among others. That said, nothing on Blonde comes close to the highest highs of channel ORANGE – there’s no ‘Thinkin Bout You’ or ‘Bad Religion’ moments of exceptional excellence. That that said, will I still be getting my weepy, elated life as I sway under the hot sun to Frank’s set at Lovebox? You betcha.
BEST SONG: ‘Pink & White’

solange a seat at the table
It’s always the songs and albums I rank at #11 I agonise over the most, and this was particularly difficult when it comes to A Seat At The Table, as I genuinely to believe it to be one of the most important albums released in the past decade. The only criticism I have of this record, the one that kept it from placing in the Top 10, is that whereas you can listen to the next ten albums out of sync, piecemeal and playlist songs alongside others, A Seat At The Table demands to be listened to in full, the way the artist intended, with no distractions. Some might say this is an argument for the top spot and I wouldn’t labour the point, but I just can’t make that level of commitment to an album – I’m a Sagittarius. I don’t wanna waste all these words justifying my ranking, it doesn’t matter where I place it – if you’ve heard this album you know it’s perfect. Not one wasted beat or melody or lyric; even the interludes (a notorious album ruining device) service the art perfectly, and in some ways are what take this record from being a 10/10 to a classic. In a pivotal year for world history, A Seat At The Table reminds, reminds, reminds… but still offers hope. It’s not over yet.

rae sremmurd sremmlife 2
One of my most anticipated records of the year, when it finally dropped this summer, brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi delivered on the relentless party vibe of of the first Sremmlife and then some. The hip hop duo from trap music’s geographical home of Atlanta completely embodied the spirit of the genre, filling it out with more detail on this sequel. From the opening track ‘Start A Party’ – “this is how you start a party!” – to the anthem for maximum relaxation ‘Do Yoga’ this album is designed to appeal entirely to the id, but to also bring everyone you know along for the ride. And I can’t not mention the success of ‘Black Beatles’, the early standout of this record for me from first listen, and the hook to hang one of this year’s most enduring memes.
BEST SONG: ‘By Chance’ / ‘Black Beatles’ / ‘Set The Roof’ / ‘Do Yoga’ / ‘Over Here’

chance the rapper coloring book
How did we manage to luck out and live at the same time as Chance? Coloring Book is one of the most good feeling albums I’ve ever listened to in my life; there’s just abundant joy oozing from the speakers when it plays. I’m vehemently opposed to organised religion, but boy do I feel the spirit when I put this record on. Chance’s ebullient nature is entrenched in this piece of work, an album that straddles pop, hip hop and gospel expertly. Chance is at his best on this album when his group The Social Experiment take the lead on production, but the Francis and the Lights collaboration ‘Summer Friends’ also shines out as a spectacular moment nestled within a whole bunch of spectacular moments. Coloring Book is another example of how creativity and artistry blossoms without label interference – Chance is notoriously independent – and even though it’s kinda wanky to say it, Coloring Book is just so pure. Did a good ass job, didn’t have to sell it, hopefully smashes the Grammys. Goals.
BEST SONG: ‘No Problem’ / ‘Summer Friends’ / ’Blessings’ / ‘Angels’

skepta konnichiwa
Was anything more satisfying than Skepta crushing the Mercury Prize this year? Maybe the reaction from “real music” wankers who think the only art of note comes via the medium of white people strumming guitars came close, but it was the win itself that made my heart swell. Konnichiwa is an album that settled in my bones this year, no doubt because it feels perfectly streamlined – the tracklisting is notably shorter than most of the other records in this ranking. It’s a deliciously concise display of gold standard artistry, chockfull of quotable lyrics and instantly recognisable beats, with mainstream appeal that comes from the confidence of the star and the quality of the music despite being an “underground” sound. Crucially, of late it seems like homegrown pop music has majorly lost its way (only 3 acts in this ranking are from the UK) with America, Canada, Australia and Sweden thrashing our artists, songwriters and producers in terms of innovating the culture and releasing bonafide hits. While grime is not your typical top 40 listen, something to love about Skepta’s rise (or revival) this year, is how distinctly British it is. Here’s hoping grime turns into a truly global movement in the next few years.
BEST SONG: ‘Lyrics’ / ’It Ain’t Safe’ / ‘Man / ‘Shutdown / ‘That’s Not Me’

kanye west the life of pablo
People scoffed at Kanye’s proclamation that SWISH as the album was then titled (changed from So Help Me God) would be a gospel album, but when it dropped under the name of The Life Of Pablo, there was kinda no mistaking the statement. From the glory of ‘Ultralight Beam’ with vocals provided by Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price, to the hymn-like Low Lights and the reverence of ‘Waves’, The Life Of Pablo is the origin of a sound Chance The Rapper took to its conclusion on Coloring Book. An album campaign mired in drama, controversy and even a mutating tracklist, but there is so much to enjoy about Kanye’s seventh offering. The features are complementary, the samples expertly chosen, the production is tight and barring some questionable lyrics – the bleached asshole line just gets more crass on repeated listens – …Pablo is an interesting insight to ‘Ye’s erratic mindset of late. Another excellent body of work from the world’s greatest living rockstar.
BEST SONG: ‘Ultralight Beam’ / ‘Famous’ / ‘Waves’ / ‘Wolves’ / ‘No More Parties In LA’

ariana grande dangerous woman
2016, the Jenner calendar year of realising things. What did you realise? I realised that Ariana Grande is pop music’s one true hope, the one star with the profile, the voice and the songs to save us all. Dangerous Woman is Ariana’s first star outing, by my reckoning – her debut Yours Truly was a delight, but a complete pastiche of 90s R&B while follow up My Everything was frankly lazy and unremarkable. Dangerous Woman is lightyears ahead of both of those records, a mixture of frothy, sexy and camp, completely, unapologetically pop. Towards the end of 2015 and all through this year it seemed like every single big name pop artist was getting the same rinsed out Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter treatment – a great treatment, but one that was getting tired and homogeneous by the summer. Ariana went to the masters – the supreme Max Martin and the ever increasingly brilliant Savan Kotecha – for a batch of flawless pop songs that stood out and literally caused my body to have physical reactions (mostly breathlessness and tears). It’s a shame Ariana’s profile hasn’t felt quite so A-list of late, as this album should have been one of the biggest of the year.
BEST SONG: ‘Dangerous Woman’ / ’Into You’ / ‘Side To Side’ / ‘Greedy’ / ‘Everyday’ / ‘Bad Decisions’ / ’Touch It’

dragonette royal blues
I can’t believe that 2017 marks the 10th year of Dragonette being one of my favourite ever bands and they still haven’t achieved the global dominance that they deserve. I’m not sure what it is with Dragonette that’s missing, but it isn’t the music itself that’s for sure. Royal Blues might be their best record yet, sinking bop after bop after bop in a row (only ‘Lonely Heart’ slips). There’s euphoria, there’s sass, there’s heartache, there’s hope, there’s nostalgia, there’s sex, there’s love and there’s also ‘Darth Vader’, a song I heard as a demo maybe two years ago and never forgot. Not only is the song named after the greatest fictional villain of all time, it’s the biggest hit Katy Perry never had. Seriously, if this album had just been this one song it would still have been a better album than everything your faves released this year.
BEST SONG: ‘Let The Night Fall’ / ‘Sweet Poison’ / ‘Darth Vader’ / ‘High Five’ / ‘Detonate’

beyonce lemonade
Lemonade topped just about every single end of year list going, so I’m sure Beyoncé won’t mind too much that she didn’t get to the top of mine. It’s splitting hairs really, considering how important Lemonade, and indeed Beyoncé herself has been this year, but without the visuals this album was packaged with, it doesn’t stand up to repeated listens quite so robustly as the three records I ranked ahead of it. But while it’s almost impossible to decontextualise Lemonade and examine just the music – context is half of the point of an album – in doing so we’re still left with a handful of some of Beyoncé’s best ever: the searing ‘Hold Up’, the savage ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, the sneering of ‘Sorry’, the defiance of ‘Freedom’, not to mention ‘Daddy Lessons’, the song that got white hick America shook all the way up. It’s the context though – both the personal and socio-political – that really gives this record it’s weight and meaning. I have admittedly never been a real Beyoncé fan, but Lemonade got to me in a big way. Finally it felt like the quality of the material matched the calibre of the superstar. She’s the GOAT right now.
BEST SONG: ‘Hold Up’ / ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ / ‘Sorry’ / ‘Freedom’ / ‘All Night’ / ‘Formation’

rihanna anti
It’s a straight tie between ANTI and The Life Of Pablo for “most exasperating album campaign” and Rihanna probably just pips Kanye to the post after her own label leaked the album on Tidal. But maybe they just couldn’t wait for us all to hear it, y’know? Back in 2012, the world had Rihanna fatigue, even Rihanna seemed sick of herself. But the four years she spent away completely revitalised her, and while ANTI isn’t the collection of dance-pop bangers most were expecting – thank god it isn’t! Her best album since Rated R, this is the type of record a star makes when they’re ready to start thinking legacy and artistry. Every track on ANTI is measured so that each track can work alone but never has Rihanna put out a body of work so consistent and harmonious. Her voice – distinctive, but never strong – has improved immeasurably, allowing her to come good on tracks like ‘Desperado’ and the astonishing ‘Love On The Brain’, while songs like ‘Consideration’ and ’Needed Me’ cement her status as the industry’s leading bad bitch. Most importantly, ANTI sounds like an album made with love and care and complete enthusiasm from the artist. This has been Rihanna’s most present year, and she looks like she’s enjoyed every minute of it. An outstanding record.
BEST SONG: ‘Consideration’ / ’Kiss It Better’ / ‘Work’ / ‘Needed Me’ / ‘Love On The Brain’ / ’Sex With Me’

britney spears glory
Unlike much of the Britney fandom, I wasn’t completely demoralised by Britney Jean, so my expectations for Glory were probably higher than most. Still, I’m not sure even I expected Britney to pull an album of this calibre out of the bag. At 18 tracks long, there was real danger of Glory feeling like a bloated listen, but there isn’t a single song I would rate below an 8/10 – even more contentious tracks like ‘Private Show’ and ‘Clumsy’ which have divided the fanbase I love, purely because literally no other artist could have released those songs. I know there’s always a clamour for a sequel to Blackout, but for me Britney is at her best when she’s playful – think In The Zone or Femme Fatale – and on Glory she sounds like she’s having so much fun. Bubbling, flirtatious, goofy and at times coy, just like the artist herself, Glory is 2016’s most effervescent album. Lesson learned? Never count the Princess of Pop out.
BEST SONG: ‘Man On The Moon’ / ‘Just Luv Me’ / ‘Do You Wanna Come Over?’ / ‘Slumber Party’ / ‘Liar’ / ‘If I’m Dancing’

the 1975 i like it when you sleep
Y’all must have seen this coming a mile away. 2016 was the year my love for The 1975 got out of control, but if you’ve listened to this album (and if you haven’t, you must) you know you can’t blame me. Self-professed culture vultures, The 1975 begged, borrowed and stole from their entire spectrum of reference – including their own work – to create an album that feels familiar but also entirely brand new, and like all of the best albums, while no song sounds the same, it’s still a perfectly cohesive collection of tracks. The bombast of ‘Love Me’, the twitch of ‘UGH!’, the neon pastel ‘She’s American’, the heart-aching ‘Somebody Else’, the self-realisation of ‘Loving Someone’, the blaze of ‘The Sound’, the gorgeous, 80s prom soundtracking of ‘This Must Be My Dream’, the tears induced by ‘Nana’ and the bone deep relatability of ‘She Lays Down’… this record has everything and more besides; a perfectly composed encapsulation of everything The 1975 represent at this time. And that’s not to mention the marketing of this record – a simple but wildly effective pink and white rebrand, music videos that remind you that music videos can still be an art form not just a means to more YouTube streams, and a live show that bested every single live show that wasn’t Beyoncé’s this year. The 1975 are probably the most exciting and important homegrown act we’ve seen in a long time and to sleep on them is to be ugly (yet so unaware of it). The gag is, they’re probably only going to get better.
BEST SONG: all of it, go listen to this album immediately or again or louder if it’s already playing

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