We all turn to music as a tool for escapism from our daily lives; be it on the commute into work, in the gym, cooking at home or whilst reading a book.
And in what has been a real stinker of a year for all kinds of reasons, it seems that in these trying times, the art form of the long player has never been more important than now.
Despite all of the misery that has been endured in 2016, it’s only now after looking back on the year as a whole that we can remind ourselves of just how many great records have been released over the last 12 months. The world may have decided to self-implode, but that hasn’t stopped some of our favourite artists from writing some career-defining music.
Here’s our top 20 that made the cut.
Contributions from: Angela Phillips, David Kane, Erica Karnes, Grace Wang, Holly Hollister, James Ernesto Lang, Lev Harris, Rory Foster.
20. Kaytranada – 99.9%
In 2014, Kaytranada had signed to XL, which he described as “a good label for people who are sort of lost”. Trapped by a back catalog of unofficial SoundCloud remixes and Dilla-style instrumentals, it wasn’t obvious where Montreal-based Celestin’s ear for a groove but relatively immature songwriting would take him. Queue two years in the tank with every collaborator you could dream of (Karriem Riggins, Little Dragon, Phonte, Syd, Anderson .Paak, and many more).
Initially it seemed though the pop route was a chosen path – first tracks released were the pop-heavy radio-hits Leave Me Alone and Drive Me Crazy. But upon unveiling of the album proper, it was Bus Ride selected to accompany its announcement – a swaggering slow-burner which harked back to Kaytra’s instrumental routes, whilst showing how far his sound had come. 99.9% spans 15 tracks in about an hour, but at no point does it ever feel uncomfortable as a debut. Kaytra didn’t sell out, nor did he box himself in; instead choosing to grow up. The result is fabulous, and he’s picked up a Polaris music prize for good measure too. RF
19. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
Had listeners ever assumed sheer devastation could sound so stunning, the release of ANOHNI’s Hopelessness may have had less shock-appeal upon release. That said, it still would have been hailed as an audio masterpiece, as well as the heart-breaking mirror to our current shit-storm of a civilization. Bridging the gap between Antony and the Johnsons’ melancholy, operatic chords, and Hercules and Love Affair’s forever disco dance-off, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness includes co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, and embodies an album that’s as furious as it is fascinating. Lyrics singe every topical wanna-be-elephant in the room. Drones and assault, capitalism and greed, warfare and ecocide, “mass graves” and “child molesters”—the list of modern-day ailments is truly endless. In Hopelessness, ANOHNI boldly calls out these shared traumas—all via gorgeous, sensual beats and ambient noise. EK
18. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
For his sophomore solo full-length album, Jaar manages to meld layers of crashes and clashes into a tangible soundtrack for the modern world’s state of unease. His tracks weave chaos and entropy with an undercurrent of urgency—chest-pounding beats speak of political restlessness, ugly power plays, hopelessness and an incurable, collective anxiety. Subtly highlighting personal moments as much as civil rights movements, Jaar samples snippets from Black Lives Matter and Ahmed Mohamed (the clock-making student who was suspected of toting a bomb to class), as well as his own father. And yet, between shattering mirrors and jittery drum fills, Jaar crafts pockets of apparent calm. Call it apathy, call it nihilism—the resounding lyrics of No spell out his take on the impending state of humanity: “You don’t have to see the future to know what’s coming.” EK
17. Noname – Telefone
Noname was introduced to the masses through her feature on Chance The Rapper’s Lost and later Israel and there’s just something about her tone that is distinctively hypnotising. This summer saw the release of her debut project Telefone and although, not technically classified as an album, the mixtape qualifies as one of the favourites for 2016.
Similarly to Solange’s A Seat at the Table and other female empowered artists this year, Noname – real name Fatimah Warner – is unapologetic in her subject matter. She rides effortlessly over jazz laden overtones with deep messages, how one can tell the stories of police brutality, abortion and gang violence with such soothing buttery soul, could be deemed as challenging to say the least. Yet Noname does it with articulation and grace. Equally, her parables of love and family connections take us on voyage of self discovery. A journey into her world in a language often reserved for the poetry slams of which she derived, strengthening her status as one to watch amongst the new crop of millennial talents to come out of Chi-Town. AP
16. Frank Ocean – Blonde
It’s been a big year for Frank Ocean. After the heat of his instant classic Channel Orange had died down, we heard little from him as he retreated from the spotlight for an extended period of time. Then came Endless, the visual album that was purported to be put out just to fulfil his contract with Def Jam, followed quickly and unexpectedly by Blonde, his biggest and boldest statement to date. Not as immediate and radio friendly as Channel Orange, Blond is a complex and conceptual work that along with Beyonce’s Lemonade, pushes the bar for r’n’b long players in 2016. As Bonafide reviewer Leke Sanusi put it: “Blonde plays like one long, plaintive battle-cry, with Ocean fighting his demons; the introverted 28-year-old finding strength in vulnerability by wearing his unabashedly thin skin like a shiny coat of armour.” LH
15. BadBadNotGood – IV
It’s not easy making a jazz album that can flex to Radio 1 airtime, 6 Music album of the year as well as finding a position on the Bonafide lists. But then again, it’s not been a straightforward trip for the BBNG boys up to this album either. The gulf in quality between iii and IV is huge, and that’s partly down to the band’s work that took place in between. A whole album with Ghostface Killah (the excellent Sour Soul) gave a band who had previously resisted major collaboration a taste for it, as well as the curation of a more defined sound and structure than their previous works.
IV is the first album to feature guest vocalists, but additionally, is a giant step forward in craft thanks to additional production touches such as strings and woodwind. The result is some timeless spots from vocalists Sam Herring and Charlotte Day Wilson, as well as instrumental tracks that are no less intriguing than on previous releases, but feel less like spontaneous experiments. From the ghostly And That, Too through to the gorgeously rich Cashmere, IV excels where BBNG had never excelled before – on craftsmanship, and has resulted in an album which will stand the test of time as one of their finest. RF
14. Shabaka and the Ancestors – Wisdom of Elders
The leading light responsible for ushering in a new vanguard of British jazz talent of the past couple of years is without doubt Shabaka Hutchings. One of the busiest artists around, he’s more than likely had a hand in one of the new releases that has graced our shelves this year. Playing on Yussef Kamaal’s Black Light, he’s also one third of The Comet Is Coming as well as playing in Melt Yourself Down and Sons of Kemet. His latest project for Brownswood was to gather a collection of South African musicians together, led by trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, for a day of recording. The end result was Wisdom of Elders, an epic work that channels the afrofuturism of Sun Ra with South Africa’s own vibrant musical tradition. LH
13. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Formerly elusive, interview-shy Beyoncé shattered 2016 with the release of her politically charged, emotionally provocative “visual album” Lemonade. Seemingly cycling through the five stages of grief—propped unforgivingly against an infidelity backdrop—the pop goddess’ sixth album brilliantly smears rage with despair, compassion with apathy, and speaks to the often unaddressed underbelly of “marital bliss.”
Summoning creative forces from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and James Blake, and directly lacing the album’s ignition to the wise words of her 90-year-old grandmother-in-law Hattie White (who turned life’s lemons into lemonade, mind you), Beyoncé flipped a brilliant, mind-blowing light on to issues spanning female empowerment, civil rights, examination of the self, and a collective endurance. EK
12. Injury Reserve – Floss
Up till now Arizona has had a modest impact on hip-hop, at best, but Injury Reserve might just be the group to put the south-western state on the rap map. Floss is the group’s sophomore album and Parker Corey’s production work is a constant surprise, one moment they are channelling Native Tongue-style jazzy beats, the next it’s industrial heaviness of Death Grips, often in the same song (Oh Shit!!!)
Rappers Steppa J. Groggs and Ritchie With A T are equally as versatile, from the frat-rap nihilism of All This Money through to All Quiet on the West Side, a sensitive song that flips the bird to cancer, white kids using the N-word and gun violence. While the MC duo also outshine their better-known guests, Cakes da Killa (What’s Goodie) and Vic Mensa on the saccharin trough, Keep on Slippin.
Injury Reserve’s various influences are worn quite easily throughout Gloss but never does the album sound derivative; instead they grant us an unexpected, contemporary and coherent effort that’s plenty of fun. DK
11. Gallant – Ology
Songwriting, production and falsetto makes for an outstanding triumvirate on Christopher Gallant’s debut full length. As much at home duetting with Sufjan Stevens as with Seal, Gallant has at times been reluctant to be pigeonholed as R&B or any other genre trope. Nonetheless, singles Weight In Gold then Bourbon marked out the arrival of a new and distinct voice in soul. The producers of Ology had their work cut out for them providing soundscapes grand enough to match the projection of the main vocal.
Ajay Bhattacharyya, aka Vancouver/Los Angeles based producer STiNT, is Gallant’s foil on Ology (the pair wrote the majority of the album as a collaborative process), engineering the majority of tracks with an eerie, bass and synth led sound which is complimented with guest production from Adrian Younge (on the lush Skipping Stones with Jhené Aiko) and occasional orchestral arrangements which give Gallant’s voice an even more cinematic platform. Episode could be an 80s bittersweet pop contender, but it’s the minor chord triumphs of Shotgun, Talking To Myself and the aforementioned singles that build up layers that demand repeated listening. The beginnings of a great talent. JEL
10. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
The Top Dawg Entertainment releases in 2016 have been rather impressive. From Kendrick’s untitled unmastered and ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP to the introduction of Lance Skiiiwalker. We had a significant offering from one that may have gone under the radar, as it has been a couple of years since Isaiah Rashad’s Cilivia Demo.
The Sun’s Tirade is the album that almost never was, well via TDE anyway. Rashad had spoken openly about almost being dropped from the label due to his well-documented issues with Xanax and alcohol, but thankfully it didn’t happen and this album has earned him a well-deserved place amongst his label mates. Inevitably his experiences would be translated throughout with lyrics from AA like “I was pillin’ in the back, I was chillin’ in the back, cause I always really wanna be that n**** in the back”, Rashad’s demons are a reoccurring theme throughout. Critics have said that Rashad’s lyrical style on this album lack dexterity and are even a tad lackadaisical, but it is this delivery that gives it its authenticity. Some dope collaborations with Kendrick and SZA were the obvious choice, but the favourite has to be the hauntingly beautiful Silkk Da Shocka featuring the Internet’s Syd that make for a solid debut. AP
9. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
The overwhelming majority of Atrocity Exhibition reunites the uncompromising production of British forward thinker Paul White with Detroit’s finest. By his own admission, White doesn’t tailor his beats to fit verses, which is probably why he’s such a great pairing with the nonconformity of Brown. As usual, Brown refuses to toe any commercially-dictated lines, finding himself with a little more breathing room following the hype leading up to the release of previous album Old.
Downward Spiral eases us in with tripped out guitars and drums before the John Carpenter-esque synths of Tell Me What I Don’t Know take us to the next level. Black Milk jumps in for production on the Kendrick Lamar-centred Really Doe and The Alchemist also joins the party midway though the album for the sludgy White Lines. However, the bizarre immediacy of Ain’t It Funny (White lifts the main hook from Nick Mason of Pink Floyd) unleashes Danny’s beast-mode at his most proficient tempo. Similarly, When It Rain is a particularly successful marriage of British experimentalism and no-holds-barred raps, a Delia Derbyshire sample transcending into a Motor City rave-up in a way only the combined might of White and Brown could deliver. Nods to post-punk, prog rock and the Radiophonic Workshop – the most British rap album from an American artist this year and surely one of the most unique. JEL
8. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
After years of strife, Anderson .Paak has done a magnificent job of showing the world his bravura in 2016. Ears pricked when Link Up & Suede first surfaced, a collaborative EP with his contemporary Knxwledge, then in January came his second solo project as Anderson .Paak, Malibu. In its entirety the album is brilliant, but each song is a perfectly formed, soul-filled singles in its own right.
Opening with a self-produced track, The Bird shows .Paak not only as dynamic vocalist and musician, but prepares you for his inimitable energy that continues throughout. Three songs in comes a production from the legendary Beat Konducta, Madlib which features fellow rising star, BJ the Chicago Kid. Am I Wrong is perhaps the highest peak of the album; cropping up in sets over the summer, it would instantly redirect the mix and bring a new lease of life into those dancing shoes. Released in January but with each play still as fresh and enjoyable as the first, Malibu is a soulful hip-hop masterpiece that broke though to the pop masses; effortlessly cool and uncontrollably catchy. HH
7. Chance the Rapper – Colouring Book
Aside from Kendrick Lamar, is there a more unique voice in US hip-hop than Chance the Rapper? Seemingly good friends with President Obama, Chance’s wild imagination and joyous energy is brought together on his latest mixtape, the aptly titled Colouring Book. Collaborators range from Kanye West to the Chicago Children’s Choir (Chance has always bene a proud patron of his home city), but the flow between songs is never anything less than Chance’s own vision. His positivity and playfulness shines through on tracks like No Problem and Angels – it would be churlish to call this his magnum opus as he’s still so early into his career, but with the kind of ambition and boundless creativity shown here, his discography could yet rival that of a certain Mr West. LH
6. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
When Kendrick came onto the Grammy’s stage in February doused in prison blues, his fists in chains, his feet in a lopsided march, his bandmates blaring horns from behind bars to the intro of The Blacker The Berry, the significance of To Pimp A Butterfly washes over millions of viewers around the world once again. On the night, three unreleased tracks helped deliver the album’s stories of life in Compton and messages of systemic institutionalisation and police brutality. After LeBron James tweeted Kendrick’s label exec (Top Dawg Entertainment ’s Anthony Tiffith) asking for the recordings, untitled unmastered. was released. Compiled as demos and by-products of the preceding album, the eight raw, poetic recordings are aftershocks of TPAB that leaves you just as shaken up. GW
5. Moodymann – DJ-Kicks
You never quite know what you’re going to get with Kenny Dixon Jr. – his sets can range from solid hip-hop joints to deep Detroit house via obscure adventures through the inner workings of his own complex mind – but what ever you get, you know it’s going to be worth your time. His contribution to the esteemed DJ-Kicks series doesn’t break this rule: a compilation of 30 tracks that have been meticulously selected and mastered to form a body of work that could have only been created by one person. The songs carry a theme; intricate, unique vocals over beautiful beats. With Tea Leaf Dancers by Flying Lotus, Can’t Hold Back by Rich Medina and El Ritmo De Mi Gente by Andres, he seems to be testing himself, finding as many songs as possible to fit into this mould before he fully indulges in the Detroit house and techno he is known for. The defiant pivot comes on the a Moodyman edit of Joeski’s How Do I Go On – from here on the album plays out in the same vein, holding onto the same theme but with eyes firmly set on the floor in true Moodymann style. HH
4. NxWorries – Yes Lawd!
There’s always been a bit of a Jay and Silent Bob dynamic between Knxwledge and Anderson Paak – Paak is regularly seen beaming and jumping around with his wide eyed grin while Knxlwedge mopes around silently in the background, head down usually with a joint in his hand. Yet whilst they appear to have different personalities, stylistically they couldn’t be more in tune. The fruits of their work together was first previewed on the brief Link Up & Suede EP released on Stones Throw last year, before we got the main course that was Yes Lawd! this year, a sunny explosion of r’n’b, hip-hop and neo soul with Knxwledge’s blunted beats the perfect foil for Paak’s ecstatic yelps. Scared Money for track of the year too. LH
3. Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus
A collaborative effort of drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist/producer Kamaal Williams (Henry Wu), this album is an imprint of London’s emerging, house-influenced, grassroots jazz sound. Williams’ sliding Fender Rhodes brings to mind the wild keys of Herbie Hancock, while Dayes’ spatial, rhythmic drumming echoes the cosmic compositions of Pharaoh Sanders. In an interview with Bandcamp’s Andrew Jarvis, Williams explains how the album birthed from the duo jamming for a live session for Boiler Room, trying to create something different to the other projects they had been working on with no plans or expectations. “I think that’s why it was naturally able to grow,” he remarks, saying that they tried to approach jazz from a perspective of a beat maker. Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings and their celebration of live instrumentation seemed a perfect fit for the album. GW
2. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…… Thank You 4 Your Service
The morning of November 8th will be unforgettable to a lot us, as history ‘zigzagged’ from the first black US president, to potentially the first female US president to… well. We may have gone through the next few days in a haze, but the release of ATCQ’s sixth studio album reminded us that there’s more work to be done. Push it along. Listening to Whateva Will Be on repeat—the nostalgic boom bap as comforting as the album cover’s return of the Basquiat-like, red-green etch from Low End Theory — I was awakened by Q-Tip’s knowledge and insight into history’s cyclical nature: “Like a billionaire investing in a nigga’s dreams… Or a women with the wisdom who’s leading’ the way / The rarity is in the rear, but never today.” After Phife’s death earlier in the year, the collaborative, inclusive mentality ATCQ preached since the days of Zulu Nation was particularly needed, as well as hip-hop’s origins as an unapologetic voice of truth. Peanut Butter Wolf put it the best with thistweet. GW
1. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!
After a two-year break from making music Childish Gambino — aka polymath Donald Glover — returned with the triumphant Awaken, My Love! earlier this month. Produced by Glover, along with regular collaborator Ludwig Goransson, AML is musically ambitious, succeeding almost completely. The piano and choir arrangements on The Night Me and Your Mama Met (ft. Garry Clarke Jr.) would not be out of place on a David Axlerod record.
Moving further away from hip-hop, Glover’s Childish Gambino character has grown into something far more adventurous. On AML the psychedelic, sometimes paranoid funk of Funkadelic (Maggot Brain in particular) is a proud homage as exemplified on Boogieman, with its socio-commentary “But if he’s scared of me / How can we be free?” and throughout, like the freakishly chilling Zombies, “We’re eating you for profit / There is no way to stop it.”
Despite some retro styling and general absurdity the record has a knowing grounding in the modern day, as to be expected from an artist who named his last album Because the Internet. Whether this will perversely affect its long-term appeal remains (but hopefully not) to be seen. Some critics will point to a vocal range that sometimes struggles for the heights of the rich music but Awaken, My Love! is a glorious, technicolour trip more than worthy of Bonafide’s AOTY 2016. DK