The 20 best albums of 2016

From the curative sounds of Solange’s A Seat at the Table to Nicolas Jaar’s gorgeous and graceful Sirens, we pick the most unforgettable full-lengths of the year

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Solange Seat At The Table
Solange’s A Seat At The Table

2016 saw some of music’s biggest stars really embrace ‘the album’, with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Frank Ocean and other A-listers all releasing records that felt like real statements. In a year of intense social upheaval, where the old order was increasingly weakened and the far right had its biggest victories in recent memory, it’s perhaps no surprise that the best of these albums were explicitly political. Considering so many of music’s biggest icons died this year, it’s more important than ever that these artists are embracing their influence on pop culture and using it to positive effect.

Still, it wasn’t all about big names: artists like Anohni returned sounding passionate and forceful, innovative new artists like Gaika emerged in the underground, and a number of black musicians released projects unequivocally about blackness that were careful, considered, soulful and sensual. We’ve rounded up our favourite full-lengths of 2016, attempting the incredibly tough task of narrowing our choices down to our top 20 releases.

20. NICOLAS JAAR – SIRENS

Nicolas Jaar fans waited long and patiently for the follow-up to his 2011 debut Space Is Only Noise, and when Sirens arrived in September it saw the electronic composer swap the more familiar downtempo house sounds of his debut for a five-track soundscape that was by turns gorgeous, graceful, jarring and dissonant. Besides being one of the year’s most sonically impressive releases, Jaar’s balance of topics both personal and political in nature also made it one of the most vital. (Saoirse O’Leary)

19. GAIKA – SECURITY

Gaika was one of the most exciting artists to emerge in 2016, starting the year as a relatively little-known vocalist/producer and ending it signed to pioneering electronic label Warp. Security, his second mixtape, was a blistering release that demonstrated his crystal-clear vision, and marked the moment he came into his own. Gaika was born in Brixton, and on Security he channels the musical language of inner-city London, presenting a gothic take on dancehall, dub and grime as he tells a story of a city crushed by capital, falling in on itself. (Selim Bulut)

18. ELYSIA CRAMPTON – ELYSIA CRAMPTON PRESENTS: DEMON CITY

Elysia Crampton describes Demon City as an “epic poem” that documents a music style dubbed ‘severo’, a collision of electronic club music sounds and Latin-American music styles like cumbia and huayño. As the title suggests, Demon City is hellish – it’s violent, it’s loud, and it’s filled with dread – but it’s not necessarily oppressive. Instead, Crampton works with like-minded producers (including Texas industrial-club producer Rabit and NON Records co-founder Chino Amobi) to find a common source of catharsis. (Selim Bulut)

17. MYKKI BLANCO – MYKKI

After years on the underground scene, 2016 saw Mykki Blanco come through with his self-titled debut album. Blanco has been pigeonholed as a ‘queer rapper’ in the past, but Mykki is all about breaking expectations: whether it’s in the newfound emotional frankness of his lyrics, the way he approaches deeply personal subjects, the embrace of pop songwriting forms, or the warmth of Woodkid’s string arrangements, Mykki marks a thrilling new chapter in Blanco’s story. (Selim Bulut)

16. YOUNG THUG – JEFFERY

Every track on JEFFERY is apparently named after one of Young Thug’s heroes – “Kanye West”, “RiRi” and “Wyclef Jean” are all on here – but there’s also an instantly dated reference to “Harambe”, too. The throwaway nature of those titles could suggest that very little effort went into the tracks here – and for all we know, that could be true. Yet even if JEFFERY was a cobbled-together collection of bangers, it speaks volumes about Thugger’s talents that it was still one of 2016’s best full-lengths: he can conjure a chorus out of thin air and work a hook like few others. Alongside its distinctive artwork, JEFFERY was proof that there’s still no one else like Young Thug out there. (Selim Bulut)

15. KAMAIYAH – A GOOD NIGHT IN THE GHETTO

Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape was one of 2016’s most carefree releases. The Oakland rap newcomer’s buoyant and breezy take on classic west-coast rap made a refreshing change to the increasing nihilism of mainstream rap, but it was the honesty of her storytelling that gave A Good Night in the Ghetto its staying power. Kamaiyah’s tales of life in the Bay Area range from humorous to uplifting, but they’re always truthful – she’s as genuine talking about smoking weed as she is talking about the deaths of two of her best friends. (Selim Bulut)

14. MITSKI – PUBERTY 2

Rock music can often be too enamoured with its own past to meaningfully engage with issues of the present, but 2016 saw a slew of guitar bands emerge with a refreshingly forward-facing outlook. One of the best examples of the genre’s renewed sense of purpose was Mitski Miyawaki’s fourth album Puberty 2, a record of self-examination that tackles the various anxieties and insecurities of being a young adult in 2016. While it explores what it’s like to be in a state of arrested development and precarity, it’s not a totally introspective album: Mitski’s driving guitars, pop harmonies and slack grooves are passionate and forceful. (Selim Bulut)

13. KEVIN ABSTRACT – AMERICAN BOYFRIEND: A SUBURBAN LOVE STORY

Kevin Abstract is the de facto leader of Brockhampton, a hip hop collective based in Texas who describe themselves as a ‘boyband’. That word has been chosen deliberately: Abstract’s latest album American Boyfriend is concerned with masculinity, and where masculinity intersects with sexuality and race. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally sincere listen, but it’s a lot of fun musically too, traversing leftfield rap and giddy alt-pop across its running time. (Selim Bulut)

12. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST – WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE

A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg was just one of many musical heroes to pass away in 2016, yet the pioneering hip hop group’s sixth and final studio album couldn’t be a better way to honour his memory. We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service brings friends like Busta Rhymes and new faces like Anderson .Paak into the band’s orbit but stays true to their witty, referential and sample-heavy aesthetic. The album leans heavier than ever on patois and dancehall sounds while continuing to look back on black identity and heritage, but it explores contemporary concerns of immigration, racism and bigotry, too. (Saoirse O’Leary)

11. BABYFATHER – BBF: HOSTED BY DJ ESCROW

Dean Blunt’s work raises questions without always offering answers. For the London experimental musician’s latest project Babyfather (the trio of Blunt, DJ Escrow and Gassman D, though BBF also features collaborations with Arca and Mica Levi), he explores notions of British identity through hip hop, dub and grime; hazy atmospherics; and an evocative-yet hard-to-navigate labyrinth of pop-culture metaphors. What makes Blunt, a black man in the UK, feel “proud to be British”, as an obnoxious looped voice intones throughout the album? (The voice seems like it’s from a speech at the 2012 Olympics – but it takes on a new meaning when you learn it’s actually Craig David, speaking at the Mobos.) What does it mean in light of the EU referendum and the narrow win of the leave vote, which took place two months after the album’s release? (Selim Bulut)

10. YG – STILL BRAZY

The catalyst for Still Brazy, the second album from Compton gangster rapper YG, was the gunshot wound he suffered in 2015. The album addresses this early on with “Who Shot Me” and the suspicion rarely relents across the record, with YG delivering paranoid bars over G-funk beats so hot the album feels like it could boil over at any moment. But what made Still Brazy stand out was the way that YG turned hood tales, grounded in his immediate reality, into parables for the greater psychosis afflicting America in 2016. (Selim Bulut)

09. BEYONCÉ – LEMONADE

It’s hard to imagine that Beyoncé could ever release a bad album, but nonetheless Lemonade deserved all the praise – and debate – that it received. When she wasn’t calling out Jay Z’s god complex or threatening to wear the skin of ‘Becky with the good hair’, she was bringing together the mothers affected by police brutality and unapologetically celebrating blackness right down to the “Jackson 5 nostrils” of her afro-haired baby girl, Blue. But all seems to be well with the Carter-Knowles family now, as the album ends on a poignant note: “True love breathes salvation back into me / With every tear came redemption / And my torturer became my remedy.(Kemi Alemoru)

08. JESSY LANZA – OH NO

Canadian singer Jessy Lanza’s second album Oh No was born during an intensely hot summer. In the studio she channelled a mixture of pent-up frustration and some boredom into the music she was making, and the result was a collision of pop songwriting and underground styles (including synth pop, 80s electro, modern R&B and Shangaan electro) that sounded slicker, more ethereal and delightfully dancier than her debut. Oh No doesn’t rely on any gimmicks to sell itself – it’s simply full of unique, unpretentious and effortlessly cool pop songs. (Saoirse O’Leary)

07. BLOOD ORANGE – FREETOWN SOUND

For his third Blood Orange album, Dev Hynes meticulously weaves together the grooves of 80s funk, shimmery R&B and an uninhibited protest voice filling the pews of a gospel hall and the intersections of New York City. In an Instagram post prior to its release, Hynes wrote that Freetown Sound was a clapback for “everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way, the underappreciated”. Scavenging one’s identity on the dazzling “Best To You” with Empress Of, Hynes drops a sonic lament for Paris Is Burning’s Venus Xtravaganza. Meanwhile, poet Ashlee Haze joins to rail against misogynoir and “Augustine” pulls a broken America’s soul out from its lips. Freetown Sound holds a blazing candle for all the contributions black people have made to the modern music we’re blessed with today. (Anna Cafolla)

06. CHANCE THE RAPPER – COLORING BOOK

Coloring Book is two parts transcending into heaven, one part passionately throwing your phone across the dancefloor as you hit that ‘HUH, HUH’ in “No Problem”. Chance’s third full-length project features some of the dreamiest, most quiet but powerful collabs of the year – Kanye West, Jamila Woods, Raury and more – but the Chicago rapper takes centre stage with his feet firmly on the ground. The narrative is elastic and expansive, from under-the-sheets “Juke Jam” to the warm nostalgia of “Same Drugs”, hip caresser “Smoke Break”, and the angelic, whispering harmonies of “Blessings”. A conversation with God on recontextualising hip hop in 2016. (Anna Cafolla)

05. KANYE WEST – THE LIFE OF PABLO

Kanye West described his incredibly inventive The Life of Pablo as a “living breathing changing creative expression”. The statement referred to the constant revisions and updates that he was making to the album – a changed verse here, a new mix there – that quietly revolutionised the idea of an album as a static object. But as the year went on, its creator experienced drastic events in his personal life, each playing out on the public stage: fall-outs, feuds, divorce rumours, tour cancellations, public meltdowns, armed robberies, and hospitalisations (for any other public figure, these would seem seismic; for Kanye, the news cycle rendered them par for the course). While The Life of Pablo hasn’t been updated since June, its tracks have taken on newer, darker meanings in light of these events – even when they’re unchanged, they’re still living and breathing. (Selim Bulut)

04. CLAMS CASINO – 32 LEVELS

Clams Casino emerged in the early 2010s with a lo-fi, atmospheric take on hip hop. His three instrumental mixtapes would go on to be hugely influential in the underground, but despite his many imitators, six years later the New Jersey producer’s long-time-coming debut album, 32 Levels, still sounded totally fresh and totally singular. Sometimes blissful, sometimes bleak, the album acted not only as a showcase for Clams’ uniquely hazy and ambient style of beatmaking, but also his talents as a curator, enlisting A$AP Rocky, Vince Staples, Kelela, Lil B and more to provide vocals – and getting them to bring their A-games, too. (Selim Bulut)

03. NONAME – TELEFONE

Chicago poet-cum-rapper Noname (formerly Noname Gypsy) collaborated with Chance the Rapper on Acid Rap in 2013, but this year she finally dropped her own mixtape Telefone. Noname’s conversational style trips through each track, nonchalantly flitting between serious worries and joyful memories, whether that’s Chicago’s trouble with police brutality in “Casket Pretty” (“All of my niggas is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city / I hope you make it home / I hope to God that my tele' don't ring”) to her recollection of childhood on the streets in “Diddy Bop”. The tape is meant to feel like you’re talking to someone you like on the phone for first time, exploring their likes and dislikes, dreams and aspirations, and their ideas about the world around them – and in that way, Telefone is the world’s first full conversation with an artist with a bright future ahead of them. (Kemi Alemoru)

02. SOLANGE – A SEAT AT THE TABLE

Solange has existed very much on the fringes of pop and R&B for a while now, keeping a surprisingly low profile considering her obvious familial connection, but the well-timed release of A Seat at the Table has brought Solange success in her own right. Released during a tumultuous time in America’s social landscape, the therapeutic album became a rallying cry for frustrated listeners in the wake of the police killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. By declaring “this shit is for us” on “F.U.B.U.” and including her mother’s words in “Tina Taught Me”, the sentiment echoes through the whole album that being pro-black is not anti-white – an important distinction as the All Lives Matter brigade kicked into action. The album is sonically stunning, Solange’s choice of collaborators is intriguing, and the visuals that accompany the record are as quirky as we’ve come to expect, all in the name of reminding her fans of their place: “We come here as slaves, but we going out as royalty.(Kemi Alemoru)

01. FRANK OCEAN – BLONDE

RIP Trayvon.” Frank Ocean ventured out for the first time in four years with a careful, quiet opening track that honoured the 17-year-old boy with his hood pulled tight. But Blonde is not a political, high-voltage current: it’s a sorrowful, intimate exploration of everything we hold dear that swells without falling into the obtuse and self-fulfilling. It looks inwards, opens its chest and releases the dynamic “Solo”, a retrospective epic and tragedy about the single life, the bubbly “Nights”, the pining but dignified “White Ferrari”.

Where Channel Orange cast its net wide to paint the privileged Cali kids as a bored, narcotic-bloated generation, globe-spanning courtships and the enclaves of faraway places, Blonde is more introspective but effectively reaches with a wider wingspan. “Godspeed” champions real, complicated love, and “Pink + White” asks us to look for the beautiful in the familiar and lost. Andre 3000’s verse on “Solo (Reprise)” propels the album firmly into 2016, as he faces off with musical puppets who don’t write for themselves. Blonde taught us to toss our affair with instant gratification and fall in love again with humanistic nostalgia and the powerfully understated tribute, all with Ocean’s light-touch lyricism and scholarly-level sonic storytelling. (Anna Cafolla)

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