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I won’t caveat this list with the usual ‘2016 was terrible’, we all know it was. Check out the 10 Worst Songs of the Year, for instance.
Instead, we might choose to focus on something positive – this year has been one of the best for albums in the decade so far. What follows is a list of 10, just 10, of the best albums of 2016, from their political influence, technical experimental, to a few excellent return-to-forms. Carefully chosen by HeadStuff’s knowledgeable music section, here are the 10 best albums of 2016.
10 | Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
In a year in which music was so grimly besotted with reminders of our mortality, Chance The Rapper was 2016’s bright, hopeful spark. Sure, his universal likeability is comparable to that of the most cheer-inducing puppy gif, but it’s Chancellor Bennet’s vibrant talent that earns him a place in this top 10. His latest mixtape is evidence that hip hop, a genre once so wrongly maligned for cheerless exploitation, can bring colour in the greyest of times. This is a kaleidoscopic, breath-taking work that manages to channel the energy of a gospel-driven Sunday service into exhilarating rap beats.
Our cracked voice conductor, however, is an inclusive sermoniser who weaves tales of childhood innocence in tough surroundings (‘Summer time friends’), anthems of musical independence (‘No Problem’) and endearing, atypical love songs (‘Smoke Break’). Coloring Book is the neon-lit call for unity we did not know we needed until the year was out. Mark Conroy
9 | Hamilton Leithauser & Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
Certainly one of the ‘pleasant surprises’ of the year, Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam’s first full collaborative effort was as erratic as it was stunning. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine blends the vocal virtuosity of the former Walkmen vocalist with Rostam Batmanglij’s penchant for experimental production techniques and haunting melodic runs.
‘Sick as a Dog’, ‘In a Blackout’ and the stunning ‘A 1000 Times’ are highlights here, but one would be hard pressed to find a moment on this record that isn’t in some way moving. Heartbreak, the delta blues, Americana, it’s all here and more; this is indeed a very special record. Andrea Cleary
8 | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Some albums take a number of listens to reveal their charms while others knock you out first time round: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ Skeleton Tree belongs firmly in the latter camp. Released in the aftermath of unspeakable personal tragedy, the album captures a tone of solemn despair and grief via Cave’s usual unblinking lyrics and his band’s use of eerie basslines and icy synths. With a discography that contains 16 previous studio albums, Skeleton Tree still manages to mark itself out as singular and proves itself to be amongst Cave’s most emotionally devastating recordings thus far. Robert Higgins
7 | Rusangano Family – Let The Dead Bury The Dead
The lazy approach would be to call this the best hip-hop album this country has ever produced; closer to the truth is describing this record as something akin to a vital document of 2016 Ireland. The Shannonside trio were hotly tipped, but few could have anticipated such an engrossing effort out of the gate; MCs God Knows and MuRli reflecting on issues of immigration and identity, family and friends, all on top of consistently persuasive beats from MynameisJohn. Is it the best LP of 2016? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the much-bandied-about tag of ‘must listen’? No album is more deserving than this. Colm O’Regan
6 | Nx Worries – Yes Lawd!
Anderson .Paak, 2016’s musical Midas’ touch, had a year. You should spare a
thought for Knxwledge, however, his unsung partner in crime. Paak may take over most of the vocal duties on the duo’s criminally funky Yes Lawd!, but the voice of his proficiently rhythmic producer is just as present. No other album in recent memory marries hip hop with the sultrier sides of urban music (neo-soul, R’n’B) quite like this one.
Genres flow into each other effortlessly like a painter who expertly blends complementary colours for his ensuing masterpiece. The result is soulful, body inhabiting music that plays as well on the dancefloor as it does out of car radio during a midnight, street-lit drive. Mark Conroy
5 | Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Why did A Moon Shaped Pool drop to the softest fanfare for a Radiohead record that I can remember? It’s the band’s best album in almost a decade and second best post-Amnesiac (behind In Rainbows). Maybe we’re too flippant in our expectation of greatness from them. And A Moon Shaped Pool is way, way Radiohead-y in its sonic ethos.
There’s the sparse guitar lines (‘Desert Island Disk’), symmetrical piano loops (‘Daydreaming’), flourishes of electronica, and Thom Yorke’s evergreen falsetto, giving the record a career-encapsulating feel broken only by their heavier use of strings (‘Glass Eyes’, ‘The Numbers’). Radiohead sound like themselves – the band whose palm prints can be heard all over Frank Ocean’s Blonde. This was another great record to add to their pile. Treasure it, not many of the greats make albums this good 25 years deep. Dean Van Nguyen
4 | Beyoncé – Lemonade
It’s no exaggeration to state that Lemonade is one of the most important albums of 2016. The visual album tackles head on historic and current civil rights issues in costuming, dance, the black female body, with socially and politically conscious lyrics. Before the release of her seventh studio album, Beyoncé’s career could be defined in terms of her overtly feminist message of financial and emotional independence for women. Her performance of feminism, and its reception, erred within certain classifications; class, gender, sexuality, and financial independance, but rarely was considered as a performance of black feminism.
Lemonade, deviating from this trajectory somewhat, asks straightforward questions about the treatment of black Americans following the New Orleans flooding, the role of black mothers in a racially biased environment, and aims to continue the conversation of police brutality championed by Black Lives Matter. Musically, it is certainly the most interesting work of her career, with highlights including ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, a brutal and hard hitting collaboration with Jack White, while Kendrick Lamar’s work on ‘Freedom’ is an emotive and passionate triumph.
Where Lemonade is unique, however, is in the active and decisive manner in which the ‘message’ of Beyonce’s music alters, as it grows to reflect cultural and political changes in civil rights matters. Beyoncé’s performance of ‘blackness’ extends far beyond race and ethnicity, to include representations of gender consistent with black feminist and womanist theories. Andrea Cleary
3 | Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Given its troublesome gestation, it makes sense that Justin Vernon’s third LP would display its share of scars, lurching across glitches, gaps and fissures that tell their own story. Those unorthodox features make for an undoubtedly challenging listen, but what’s remarkable is that they live and breathe in a collection of rare conviction and unrelenting quality.
What’s more, the daring abstinence from traditional form and structure somehow conjures a sense of coherence – and on an album that in the hands of anyone else could dissolve into a heaving mess. As innovative as it is inspired, the latest chapter of the Bon Iver story is the most engrossing twist yet. Colm O’Regan
2 | Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
A complete mess. A tiresome struggle. Ethically questionable. Dodgy interludes. Bleached assholes. Oh, and a great album. If indeed that title is referring to the infamous modernist painter, then it’s fitting. Like a cubist masterwork by Picasso, The Life of Pablo is a difficult piece of art made up of disparate elements, broken up then reassembled, to result in a whole that resists easy access but is impossible to ignore.
It is an album that manages to turn a skeletal production into an ebullient prayer that could convert any heathen (‘Ultralight Beam’), one that must irk house DJs the world over with genre tracks that a hip-hop producer shouldn’t be this good at (‘Fade’). A cluttered Kanye West is still better than the polished version of almost any other artist. Does it all work? Hell no. But the fact that 90% of it works this well is something of a miracle. Mark Conroy
1 | Frank Ocean – Blonde
How best to sum up a record like Blonde in about a hundred words or so? I could barely do it in around 1200 upon its release.
Blonde is many things; an artist doing things completely his way while elegantly addressing the core of his being in the process, a storybook narrative where the smallest details bring about the biggest impact, a rich collection of beautiful and strange songs that celebrate and lament innocence and youth, a deliberately indulgent work that’s just as likely to alienate as it is to intoxicate, and the kind of emotional experience you may well project more of yourself onto than you feel entirely comfortable with.
It takes a great artist to make exceptional art and in a year packed with compelling, adventurous, personal, bittersweet, life-affirming and just plain fun releases, Frank Ocean somehow stands tallest of all, having built another world in which we can escape to when the moment strikes. Okay that’s more than a hundred words, deal with it. Dave Hanratty