This article was written by Tobias Berchtold
2016 has been a difficult and troubling year for the world, but it has also produced some absolutely outstanding music so I wanted to renew my best of review for the year just passed. (https://wallofsoundmagazine.com/2016/01/01/my-favourite-15-albums-of-2015/).
As much as I wanted to keep it short, there was just way too many amazing projects to whittle it down to a sensible number. Behold, my top 30 of 2016:
30. The Colour in Anything – James Blake
James Blake’s third album follows on from his previous projects nicely, it is very similar in mood to those two however there are some very subtle but effective tonal changes. He has become known for a minimal and moody aesthetic, underlined by precise and layered production, however with this project Blake has seemingly tried to shift from a minimal approach to a more maximalist one. The production is once again absolutely stellar and the swelling instrumentals throughout lend a beautiful atmosphere to the album. The only real issue I have with the album is that it’s just too long, clocking in at 76 minutes, so it can be a bit tricky to stay engaged the whole way through.
- ArtScience – The Robert Glasper Experiment
For years, Robert Glasper has been the gold standard of jazz fused into all sorts of different genres. With his Experiment band, Glasper seems to refuse to be pegged into one genre – even exclaiming it at the start of the album (“So why should I just confine myself to one? We want to explore them all.”) In my opinion it’s the group’s best project yet, in big part due to the fact that they decided to do all the vocals themselves instead of relying on outside artists – by doing this I feel like they succeeded in cementing their own vibe, more so than in their previous attempts.
- Konnichiwa – Skepta
Skepta has been amongst the forerunners of the UK grime movement in recent years. It’s been 5 years since his previous album, and the long wait (with many delays) was thoroughly worth it. It’s packed with anti-establishment sentiment, and the lead single That’s Not Me is a good example of the content of the rest of the album. It’s a big middle finger to the press, the police and the government. All around it’s a great trailblazer for the grime genre, a genre that doesn’t usually feature albums but more often than not consists of singles and mixtapes.
- Epoch – Tycho
Tycho is back with another excellent downtempo album. All of the songs on the album bear his unmistakable style that he forged with his previous albums Awake and Dive, with very precise and deliberate instrumental melodies. This album is probably his most energetic yet, with some vocal samples added in, which Scott Hansen hadn’t really used much in the past. While it would be difficult to argue that this album is anything new, it’s probably one of my favourite Tycho projects yet – and with it he has cemented himself at the very top of my exam time playlists.
- 22, A Million – Bon Iver
It’s been a loooong time since we got a release from Justin Vernon and it really didn’t disappoint. It’s a difficult listen, which in general is nothing new from Bon Iver – but on this album he seems to explore, and play with, the strange and the uncertain. There is a great existential angst to the subject matter of this record, with Vernon resorting to a lot of religious imagery to try to explain his anxiety about the uncertainty of existence and his use of distorted vocals just adds to the theme. Its aesthetic is very high brow and experimental, and it works beautifully well as a reminder that Bon Iver is one of the best contemporary artists around nowadays.
- Freetown Sound – Blood Orange
“My album is for everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way… it’s a clapback.”
I think I kind of want to be Dev Hynes. His activism for black rights is immensely powerful and it is the overarching theme of this album, the racial context of this album imbues it with so much meaning. It was released during the time when there were weekly/daily occurrences of police brutality towards black teens. It’s a celebration of everyone who is told they’re not good enough and the music does the theme justice – I found there were a lot of similarities between this album and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, both in style and substance. In a year like the one we just had, music like this is so incredibly important in conveying a message.
- Coloring Book – Chance The Rapper
Chance’s third mixtape had a lot of expectation placed on it, after the widespread success of the 2013 release of Acid Rap. Since then he has teased an built hype through some excellent features, in fact in my opinion he had the best feature of 2016 (on Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam). The album is filled to the brim with gospel singers and excellent features, but that’s also my biggest issue with the album. The gospel and the features add a great dimension but it hits a point of diminishing returns and I just wish there was a little bit more Chance. There are some spots on the album The best song in my eyes is Same Drugs, which is a beautiful Peter Pan metaphor of two people growing apart. Noticeably on that song there is mainly background gospel and no features.
From what i’ve just said it sounds like I didn’t like this album at all but that’s not the case – it just left me wanting more from Chance because I think he’s one of the most exciting talents in hip hop right now. I can’t wait for his first official album release.
- Bottomless Pit – Death Grips
Don’t really know how to describe this one. It’s taken me a good two years to wrap my head around what Death Grips do, and to be honest I think anyone that says they understand their vision is a liar. That being said this project is probably their most cohesive yet, and is what has led me to explore deeper into their discography. Their mix of hip hop with heavy, experimental rock is abrasive and crass but this is probably their most accessible effort yet due to a renewed focus on songcraft instead of shock value.
- Lemonade – Beyoncé
Before this album I wasn’t really a Beyoncé fan at all, I thought her songs were disappointing when you took into account her vast amounts of raw talent. This is a complete departure from her usual style of music, and it’s almost as though this album was born out of a desire to make an artistic statement rather than for financial gain which is what always irked me about her music. The overarching theme of marital troubles with Jay-Z (real or not) add a really nice dimension to the album and is very engaging. We see Beyoncé flit between several genres, even including a country song Daddy Lessons which ended up being my favourite on the album. Beyoncé took a lot of risks with this album and for me they all paid off.
- Emily’s D+Evolution – Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding is an upright bassist and singer who gained fame by beating Justin Bieber to the 2011 Best New Music Grammy, but she never seemed to crave this kind of attention and a few years later she took some time off from the music industry to reevaluate her position within it. For her return she came through with a really nice funk album that is highlighted with elements of rock music. Straddling the lines between several genres, Spalding seemed to create this album with the freedom that comes from being out of the limelight. If you haven’t heard this album yet I would warmly recommend it, it’s an incredibly rewarding listen.
- Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing – Lost Under Heaven
Born out of the ashes of WU LYF (RIP), Ellery Roberts’s new project has much of the same charm that drew me in the first time round. Ellery’s visceral, raw voice is coupled with that of visual artist Ebony Hoorn and he carries a similar message to the one he did with WU LYF. Blaring anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, anti-everything lyrics is Ellery’s speciality and the mixture of this and grandiose instrumentation makes this a really euphoric listen.
- Blank Face LP – Schoolboy Q
This is Schoolboy Q’s first album after beating a horrible addiction to lean and he seems to be on track to become a force in hip hop. This album is almost like a TDE poster child as it is absolutely littered with features but not once does it lose its way – Schoolboy Q is always front and centre of each song without getting overshadowed by anyone. Combining raw and emotional portrayals of a past life with a straightforward and down to earth manner make this a very enjoyable listen start to finish. The focus of this album is very clearly on the rapping which put a lot of pressure on Q to hold the attention for a full hour, but he does so seemingly with ease, with regular tone and tempo shifts that really work in his favour.
- The Sun’s Tirade – Isaiah Rashad
Isaiah Rashad’s second album is another stellar output from the TDE label. The Tennessee based rapper’s bars are laced with anxieties regarding maturing and moving past addiction and in doing so he comes across as very human and brutally honest. Fitting with the theme the album ebbs and flows between manic highs and sluggish lows, much like life with addiction does. It is a moving account of facing demons and coming out of the other side better than before.
- HOPELESSNESS – ANOHNI
On her fifth album, ANOHNI teamed up with producers Hudson Mohawk and Oneohtrix Point Never to create an absolutely outstanding protest album. As ever, she sings about difficult political themes and challenges things like pop culture’s obsession with image, drone warfare and even the Arab Spring. She paints a bleak picture of despair and struggle, but coupled with bombastic songs and production from HudMo and OPN this album is truly great, and that seems to fit 2016 perfectly.
- 99.9% – KAYTRANADA
Kaytranada first made his name as a Soundcloud producer and dance DJ, and his first commercial effort is a statement that shows he’s going to stick around for a while. Specialising in samples and Madlib-style crate digging, Kaytranada’s production is funky and upbeat and enlisting the help of some high-profile collaborators (like Anderson .Paak) makes this a really refreshing experience. He accredits his style to his Haitian roots, and the percussion-heavy beats with help of drummers like Karriem Riggins back this up. A pleasure to listen to all-round.
- Telefone – Noname
I first heard of Noname (fka Noname Gypsy) through features with artists like Mick Jenkins and Chance the Rapper, and had been looking forward to this album for a while and in no way did it disappoint. This is a rich, satisfying and intimate hip hop album which documents Noname’s experience growing up as an introvert and finally blossoming into adulthood. The album is framed around transformative phone conversations in her life, with upbeat and playful bars underlining this as the best album by a female rapper this year.
- MY WOMAN – Angel Olsen
With her previous three albums Angel Olsen has crafted a powerful identity, her name being synonymous with her voice and her storytelling. On this, her fourth attempt, she has pushed both of these to their highest heights yet. This album is a haunting and beautiful recital of sadness, hope and love. There is a mix of sounds and styles, and there is a constant maze of self-discovery present throughout the songs on the album – even the brightest of songs are twinged with ideas of impermanence, that none of the feelings she is feeling can last forever.
- A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
I’ve personally never been that enamoured with Radiohead, and consistently found that I preferred their more expansive and airy music. In particular I loved Thom Yorke’s solo project with Atoms for Peace, which is why I was so satisfied with this album – it has a very similar tone. The album is a bit of a grower, it’s a midnight sort of listen and it signals a return to a more conventional type of songcraft . There is a palpable sense of loss which is likely born out of Thom Yorke’s separation from his long time partner – but it would be a disservice to call this a breakup album. It’s lofty, vast, and encompasses all of the things I love about Radiohead. I can’t wait to see them headline Glastonbury.
- Yes Lawd! – NxWorries
Anderson .Paak’s meteoric rise seems to know no bounds and album only serves to confirm that. Having teamed up with producer Knxwledge this is a beat tape first and foremost, with all of the songs hovering around the 3-minute mark. Paak has seemingly mastered his vocal range and uses it to full effect on this album, all the while maintaining an infectiously upbeat mood. The production by Knxwledge is immaculate, channeling greats like Dilla and Madlib.
Livvin’ is probably the epitome of the feeling of this album, which is basically an exclamation of the triumphs in .Paak’s recent history. Hopefully he can keep going from strength to strength.
- In My Mind – BJ The Chicago Kid
This is a modern update on Chicago soul, and BJ delivers a beautifully tender and soulful approach to the classic genre. Its lyrics are very on the nose about sexual experiences, but the way BJ sings them makes them is absolutely perfect. He excels at his brand of love song, and the only time where this album falls a bit flat is when he strays from this concept. The features he enlists on this album are also excellent, with appearances from Kendrick, Chance and Big KRIT complementing his voice expertly.
- Awaken, My Love! – Childish Gambino
It’s been a great year for Donald Glover – his new show Atlanta landed him a Best Comedy Actor Golden Glob, and he’s been cast as the young Lando Calrissian in the forthcoming Star Wars movie. I’ve loved him as an actor for a while but I have never been particularly enamoured with his rapping. It piqued my interest when I heard that he had ditch rapping for more of a funk sound and this is easily my favourite project of his so far. The production is majestic, Glover’s singing is better than ever and this project is so unique and unexpected that I’m struggling to find things to compare it to. I have to say that Redbone is up there as one of my favourite songs of this year – it is so smooth and serene that I could listen to it on a loop for hours.
- Malibu – Anderson .Paak
I mentioned earlier how good a year Anderson .Paak has had, and this is the centrepiece of his many successes. Behind his success there is a difficult story (as explained on the opener The Birds) – his mother was a farmer from South Korea and his father was an Air Force mechanic that was imprisoned for beating the former. Mixed in with the fresh and new sounds of Anderson .Paak are several old heads, including features from Schoolboy Q, Rapsody, The Game and Talib Kweli. This is another important, empowering album with the overarching message being that anyone can achieve anything, regardless of where you’ve started or what colour your skin is.
- A Seat at the Table – Solange
Most of the time the significance of an album doesn’t really hit me until the third or fourth listen through, but with this album I realised about halfway through about its importance in the world today. Specifically on Interlude: Tina Taught Me where we hear Solange’s (& Beyoncé’s) mother talk about her pride in her culture and heritage and seems to get very emotional about the fact that that is often not accepted by other cultures. This seamlessly flows into the incedibly powerful Don’t Touch My Hair which epitomises the message that this album tries to convey. It is an incredibly meaningful account of black womanhood in modern America, and is complemented by some beautiful singing and excellent production.
- The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
The birth of this album was a massive rollercoaster with delays, leaks, revisions and additions hampering it on its way. When it did come out, it ended up being the most perfect description of Kanye you could get. It’s bold, erratic, a bit bonkers and overall a great experience from start to finish. It seems as though this is the artistic vision that Kanye has wanted to put forward for a while now, and his ‘unique’ way of putting it out into the world seems to fit that theory. There is a good mix between the larger-than-life Yeezus Kanye and the introspective and damaged My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye. Some of Kanye’s best songs in my opinion are on this album – Ultralight Beam’s production is some of the best that Kanye has done, along with an incredible Chance the Rapper feature (as mentioned earlier, my favourite feature of the year). Real Friends is another that I am enamored with – Kanye is vulnerable, and laments his failures as a friend and as a person in a real and relatable way.
Since then, Kanye has cancelled shows and tours and has been hospitalised following a manic depressive episode. I hope he can stay stable in the future and that we get to hear more of his vision, because as much shit as he says and does, he really is a fantastic talent.
“Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
- Run The Jewels 3 – Run The Jewels
A surprise 2016 release that was initially slated for early 2017 but was brought forward and released as “A CHRISTMAS F***ING MIRACLE.” I’m really glad it was released early because it fit the theme of 2016 excellently, RTJ have become known for their defiant and political style and of course this album is no different. The third album in the RTJ series is a culmination of what made the previous two so great. They managed to maintain their sound while subtly developing it – yet this album is the most subtle and polished. Killer Mike is ridiculously good as ever, and El-P’s production is better than it has ever been. It’s a protest album with several riot anthems that may or may not be directed towards the Mango Mussolini that was inaugurated just a few days ago.
- untitled unmastered. – Kendrick Lamar
It’s a bit unfair really isn’t it. An album of 8 throwaways that weren’t quite good enough to fit into last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly, is still better than most of the music that has come out in this year. While it is obvious that a lot of the tracks on this EP are unfinished that doesn’t diminish the quality of this product at all. The songs are in a very similar vein to the songs on TPAB, however Kendrick has to be commended because I do agree with the fact that none of these songs would have added much to last year’s album. As a standalone project it is excellent, with catchy hooks and silky instrumentals (as ever) from people like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. It’s going to be interesting to see what Kendrick can do from here, it seems like everything he touches turns to gold.
- We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service – A Tribe Called Quest
18 years in the making, the swan song of the alternative hip hop pioneers was so much more than I thought it could ever be. I have to confess when I heard that there was a new ATCQ album in the works I was a bit sceptical. Halfway through the first song my doubts were blown out of the water – the opener The Space Program sets the tone by making clear that this isn’t a 1994 project that’s 20 years late, but is a refreshingly current attempt. The tragic death of MC Phife Dawg was covered by the fact that the band had recorded all of his vocals at Q-Tip’s studio earlier in the year, and you would never know that he wasn’t there.
This is another album on this is list that is incredibly timely. The songs are again very political, and We The People is the best example of this which clearly references the various unrests of 2016 – “All you black folks you must go/All you Mexicans you must go.” Even if they do get a bit blunt by naming one of the songs The Donald, overall it’s a very nuanced and effective commentary on the state of the world compared to how it was in ATCQ’s heyday.
- Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown
This album genuinely transcends explanation, it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before. If I were to compare it to something on this list I would say that the closest other thing is Bottomless Pit but even that isn’t really close. The beats are gritty and dark, and Danny’s abrasive, shrill voice over the top of it just works. I’m struggling to explain why it works but it just does, to tremendous effect. It’s a wild ride that documents the ups and downs of drug addiction, some songs are blurry and fuzzy and then there are others that almost sound like Danny is driving himself up into a fit. There isn’t a song on this album that I don’t like, but Ain’t it Funny is the standout track for me. The beat is outrageous and it doesn’t really make sense, the way Danny sings offbeat and just plays with the rhythm is so engaging and fun. There is also Really Doe which in my view is the best posse track of the year (however the Black Hippy THat Part remix runs it close). The track has Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt bouncing off each other perfectly as though it’s all they’ve been doing for years.
I’m not really sure where Danny Brown is going to go next but he’s one of the few artists where I trust his vision, and I really look forward to whatever he can bring out next.
2. Blackstar – David Bowie
If I ordered this list to take historical significance into account then this would be a no-brainer at the number 1 slot. David Bowie’s last album before he lost his battle with cancer is the most perfect way he could have said goodbye. I thought it was an incredible album soon after it came out, as its songcraft and instrumentation is beautifully dark and sombre. However when Bowie died, the album took on a whole new shape and added countless layers of complexity and imagery. Even though it has transpired that Bowie may not have necessarily known that he was dying during the recording process, the idea that Bowie immortalised his views about death and mourning shortly before his own passing is so beautiful to me.
Lazarus is the key song on the album, it’s a superbly artistic statement – condensing the entire human narrative of birth, life and death into one single song that was released three days before his untimely death.
Doesn’t get much more Bowie than that.
“Every man has a black star
A black star over his shoulder
And when a man sees his black star
He knows his time, his time has come” – Elvis Presley
- Blonde – Frank Ocean
The hype around Frank Ocean had reached a boiling point, after the widespread success of his 2012 abum Channel Orange he just disappeared. Shortly after that release he came out on the internet, saying that his first love was a man. After that, he was gone. There was endless speculation and Channel Orange had taken on a sort of cult-like status until Frank posted on his Tumblr #ALBUM3 #JULY2015 #BOYSDONTCRY. July 2015 came and went and no sign of Frank, apart from the occasional feature on Odd Future tracks. His only 2016 feature was on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, as an add-on track to Wolves.
More and more speculation built up with photos and teases from people close to Frank, suggesting his third album Boys Don’t Cry would release in July 2016. Alas, no album. Yet early in August a cryptic livestream popped up which showed people woodworking in a whitewashed warehouse and the hype machine hit max.
On 19th August, finally, Frank released a visual album called Endless (which is also fantastic and well worth a listen/watch). But was this the full album? This wasn’t called Boys Don’t Cry? What?
The day later, 20th August, Blonde was released and an accompanying magazine called Boys Don’t Cry was announced.
And it is a masterpiece. I won’t have enough space here to convey just how much I love this album but I’ll give it a go. Compared to the relatively expansive and elaborate production on Channel Orange, Blonde is very minimal and stripped back. There is a very sparse use of percussion on the whole project, but where it does appear it adds a beautiful dimension – purely because of its absence previously. When Frank’s voice breaks through it’s almost as though the relative quietness and peace shines a spotlight on him and his words.
There isn’t a song on this album that I would remove or even change, every single word and note seems to have been placed very deliberately, which may explain the long drawn out release process that this album went through. The album is noticeably devoid of standalone bangers, unlike Channel Orange that had songs like Thinkin Bout You and Pyramids, but even then I think this is endlessly more listenable because of the different layers that you can unpick with every listen. Even Ivy, the song that is closest to being like those two, isn’t as massive or as instantly catchy, but is carried amazingly by only Frank’s voice and two guitar tracks. It’s probably the best example of the themes present on the album – a sort of nostalgic teenage heartbreak seen through reminiscing eyes – ‘I ain’t a kid no more/We’ll never be those kids again.’
This is easily my most played album of this year, and after hearing it for several months my favourite song changed almost after every listen – it flitted from Ivy to Nights to White Ferrari to Self Control to Seigfried. It’s a testament to how well put together the album is that I even enjoy listening to the (often criticised) interludes because they set up the following song really nicely. Be Yourself features a phone conversation from Frank’s mother saying that he shouldn’t rely on drugs or alcohol to be himself, and then in the next song Solo Frank sings about taking tabs of acid to be able to unravel himself and be ‘solo.’ Facebook Story features SebastiAn who talks about a relationship that broke up over his refusal to get involved with Facebook, and it flows into a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Close To You, which is heavily distorted and mechanical sounding – almost as though he’s trying to get close to someone but can’t break through the virtual barrier.
Overall, this album definitely worth the wait. I hope the next project comes a bit sooner but even if it takes another four years I’d be happy if the overall quality stays like this.