2016 was a shit bag of a year but with it came some truly great records, too many to even fit our countdown. Special shout-outs to Danny Brown who produced some serious bangers; Margaret Glaspy who made heartbreak sound beautiful; Doe who proved that punk is as cathartic as you can get and of course Radiohead who continue to prove they’re one of the most inventive bands around. Also soz Skepta, but we thought you’d be okay with your Mercury Music Prize.
15. She Makes War – Direction Of Travel
When Laura Kidd released her third studio album Direction Of Travel, it was the next chapter to her already established songwriting and musicianship. However, what made this release exceptionally good was the level of creativity involved. Hand-picked collaborations, crafted instrumentation and vivid stories created something honest, empowering and heartfelt.
No matter the situation, She Makes War will always find a way to push what she does further, whether online, acoustically or live on stage. She continues to reinvent herself in ways worth cherishing.
14. Savages – Adore Life
A real punk band, with real punk songs and – this year – a true punk album. With so many shows now under their belt, including an infamous set at Banksy’s Dismaland, a measure of the atmosphere found on their debut was eschewed for yet further relentless, ovaries-out post-punk.
Adore Life thrust this particular sound in front of the masses (let alone women) more effectively than any band for quite some time, earning them their second Mercury nomination and plenty of fresh victims for Jehnny Beth’s infamous mosh-pit death-stare.
13. Solange – A Seat At The Table
Producing political pop gems with a soulful, enriching stance, Solange truly came into her own on A Seat At The Table.
Gorgeous harmonies, electronic rhythms and badass basslines were teamed with powerful interludes to make this an LP that will stand the test of time.
12. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
Honed through countless Bandcamp releases, the first full-length album from bedroom slacker Will Toledo examined the fractured, disengaged mind of modern man through an album’s worth of rambling epics while reimagining bands like Pavement and quoting Dido.
It’s an album in which you discover a new funny, self-deprecating lyric with every listen. Witty while simultaneously depressing, slack while somehow urgent, it all hinges on the Seattle artist’s beautiful, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and his ability to numb the deepest of feelings and dramatise the mundane.
11. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
A third album from Bon Iver was never guaranteed to happen, and that uncertainty makes 22, A Million all the more intense and vital for simply existing.
Ridiculous song titles aside, it’s a continuation and progression from one of the world’s most consistently fascinating artists.
10. Beyoncé – Lemonade
You can’t discuss 2016 without mentioning QueenB. Arguably breaking the internet when she released her visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé reminded us all once again why her creative artistry deserves its rightful place on the throne.
It was also her most emotional and powerful work to date. From the heart-wounded ‘Pray You Can Hear Me’ and ‘All Night’ to ‘Hold Up’ and the devastating ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, we felt every heartache, every tear and cheered on every comeback. Lemonade was both fearless and vulnerable.
9. Oliver Wilde – Long Hold Star An Infinite Abduction
Bristol’s Oliver Wilde surprised us with a summer release that was a delightful, emotive treat.
Long Hold Star An Infinite Abduction was a bridge between old and new, showing glimpses of his original bedroom pop sequences but shining into newer territory that is potent, mysterious and refreshing.
8. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
What could secure Antony Hegarty’s place as a downright national treasure better than her re-birth as ANOHNI and this perfect album. While best-known by most for her depictions of dysphoria and its associated personal pitfalls, Hopelessness tackled global issues head-on amidst brave production and her usual lyrical poise.
From asymmetric warfare on ‘Drone Bomb Me’ and climate change on ‘4 DEGREES’, to online privacy on ‘Watch Me’, it’s a tour of hot-button issues in 2016, but with each opportunity for preachiness or cheese replaced instead with a deep irony.
7. Shura – Nothing’s Real
Who knew an album all about crippling anxiety and lost loves would be one of the most life-affirming and dancefloor-ready records of the year. Stepping out of the shadow of her 2014 viral hit ‘Touch’, Shura proved her pop credibility with hits ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ and ‘2Shy’.
Playful synths and hooks-a-plenty, Nothing’s Real was truly an all-killer, no-filler affair that when teamed with personal childhood recordings and candid lyricism is a perfect example of how 2016 saw pop take on a new meaning.
6. David Bowie – Blackstar
The perfect swansong for a man like no other, Black Star saw Bowie perfecting his artistry up until his very last moments.
Exploring existentialism at its rawest, it was an LP that looks to the future with wit and a musicality that extends beyond genre. An everlasting gift.
5. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake
What started out as a project to help founders Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich get over the break-up of both their band Smith Westerns and with their girlfriends, there’s a woeful core to Whitney’s debut LP.
However, with its soulful, alt-country approach, the band were able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and guitar flairs and shuffling rhythms get heads swaying in no time. Producing beautifully sun-kissed tracks like ‘No Woman’ and ‘Golden Days’, Light Upon The Lake is an utterly life-affirming listen.
4. Daughter – Not To Disappear
This follow-up to Daughter’s debut album saw them break free of their quiet, emotive band shell and into something beautiful and dynamic.
Certainly more structured and balanced in terms of sound, while being lyrically hard-hitting as ever, Not To Disappear showed Daughter at their very best.
3. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Considering that Frank Ocean’s second album was probably one of the most eagerly-anticipated albums of the last decade, it felt like there was no way he’d be able to hit the heights expected of him.
Blonde presented a rawer version of the singer we knew before, mixing beautiful production with off-the-cuff vocals to make something unlike anything R&B has seen before. If we thought Ocean had bared his soul to us before, we were mistaken; Blonde is his snapshot of self-exile.
2. Mitski – Puberty 2
‘Your Best American Girl’, the first single from Mitski‘s second album Puberty 2, is maybe the biggest musical statement of the year. A painstaking tale of not quite fitting in in your adopted homeland, its chorus is the most visceral release of energy, transmitted via screeching, distorted guitars.
Mitski’s painfully honest songwriting, set over musical palettes that range from scratchy lo-fi guitars to delicate synths, paints a picture of an artist that is, above all, committed to transmitting the truth and nothing but the truth.
1. Pinegrove – Cardinal
Beneath Cardinal’s pleasant instrumentation is an intense, focussed work that brings beauty in grief; the loss of friends, the loss of yourself and the loss of life’s previous constant stability. Songwriter Evan Stephens Hall makes the transient nature of things sound like poetry, rectifying previous mistakes through sorrowful, colourful narratives that resonate with our own internal battles.
The journey towards clarity dips and dives through a cathartic undertaking, seamlessly creating imagery from our own memories; its dynamics conjuring up deep-seated, existential thoughts. As introspective as Cardinal is, a hopeful aspect arises – by addressing these regrets, Hall is helping us to do the same and move forward with our lives. It encourages us to fight solipsism but to never lose who you are and, most notably, it tells us to care.
Listen to our favourite tracks from our albums of the year below.