Editor's Pick: James' Top 10 Albums of 2016
For many of us, 2016 hasn’t been a year to look back on with much fondness. We’ve waved our goodbyes to some true greats with deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Phife Dawg and Leonard Cohen, to name just a handful of this year’s casualties, and that’s before we even mention the twin nightmares of Brexit and President Trump.
But in a year full of shocks and surprises, we’ve had some pleasant ones too. Against all expectations, 2016 has delivered some brilliant albums and compiling a list of the 10 best of these was harder than you might think. Honourable mentions go to Chance the Rapper for Coloring Book, easily the best album you’ll get for free this year as he still doggedly refuses to sign a recording contract, while The Weeknd and The 1975 have produced two of the year’s best pop albums and Frank Ocean finally returned with his long-awaited follow-up to channel ORANGE.
DJ Shadow was another who made a triumphant return with The Mountain Will Fall, while Radiohead and Nick Cave also returned with some of their best work in years and Leonard Cohen left us with a final chapter in a career that marks him out as one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century.
In the end though a choice has to be made, so here are my top 10 albums of 2016…
10. Cassius – Ibifornia
The French house pioneers Philippe Zdar and Boom Bass were key players in the 'French Touch' scene that emerged in the mid-1990s and along with their Parisian counterparts Daft Punk and Etienne de Crecy, the duo had a big hand in bringing dance music out of the clubs and onto mainstream radio. It had been a full decade since their last album together and their return in 2016 with Ibifornia didn't disappoint. Featuring contributions from Cat Power, The Beastie Boys' Mike D, One Republic's Ryan Tedder and Pharrell Williams, this a a proper party album that has done countless loops around the turntable since it arrived back in August.
9. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
The unexpected arrival of a fifth and final studio album from A Tribe Called Quest has been one of the more pleasant surprises 2016 has had to offer, not least in the wake of the announcement back in March that founding member Phife Dawg had died at the age of just 45, the result of complications arising from his long-running problems with diabetes. What most of us didn’t know at the time was that Phife had been back in the studio with the other members crafting a final farewell statement from one of hip-hop’s most important groups. The result is an album that is timely and prescient in its lyrical sentiments, adding a fresh take on the group’s signature sound and leaving us a thrilling final chapter in A Tribe Called Quest’s story before closing the book forever.
8. Deerhoof – The Magic
Upset the Rhythm
For nearly 20 years now, the San Francisco outfit have been churning out their own unique brand of frenetic, playful, chaotic and often beautiful blend of post-punk and erratic pop, winning themselves some celebrity fans in the process. Deerhoof have always been a difficult band to categorise and they can be a challenge to get your head around for some, which perhaps explains why they don’t get as much airplay or sell as many records as they deserve to, but they are never, ever boring. After some patchy albums in recent years, The Magic is a return to something very close to their best form. It doesn’t quite hit the heights of the excellent Runner’s Four or Friend Opportunity, but this is still one of the most exciting things anyone wielding a guitar has done this year.
7. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
The poet, playwright and spoken word artist had already earned herself a Mercury Prize nomination for her excellent debut album Everybody Down, but this year’s follow-up Let Them Eat Chaos takes her to new creative heights and combines her skills to present a piece of work that’s part concept album, part auditory theatre. Based around one moment in the lives of several different characters living on the same street, Tempest weaves a narrative that highlights our similarities in the face of societal divisions. Dan Carey’s production provides a fresh and original backdrop to Tempest’s tour de force performance and if you’ve yet to witness her live, go have a look at her performance of the album on BBC2 before it disappears from iPlayer.
6. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Sony Music CMG
Beyonce may have released one of the year’s biggest albums in Lemonade, but while her big sister has been enjoying the lion’s share of the limelight, the younger sibling in the Knowles family quietly slipped out one of the year’s best albums. Released late in the year without warning and to little fanfare, with A Seat at the Table Solange and her co-producer Rafael Saadiq have crafted a statement on being black in America that takes in soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop and plenty more besides. It has been a while since her last album and Solange has clearly been on something of a creative journey in the meantime, but she’s emerged with an album that feels like she’s really found her own voice and this really is a leap forward.
5. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Bon Iver was another of this year’s unexpected returns to action, with mainman Justin Vernon still in the midst of an indefinite hiatus on the new music front, but some live appearances earlier this year heralded the beginnings of a comeback and the new album 22, A Million is both familiar and very, very different. All the elements that make up the core sound of Bon Iver’s previous two albums are still here, but in this year’s incarnation they are augmented, enhanced and sometimes downright mangled in layers of experimental production. It takes a few listens, but it doesn’t take long to seep into your subconscious and start demanding you play it just once more…
4. De La Soul - …and the Anonymous Nobody
A Tribe Called Quest weren’t the only members of the Native Tongues collective to return this year and while it’s difficult to compare the two groups, De La Soul’s return has brought with it one of the best albums of the year. Originally recorded and produced under their own steam without a record label, the launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for marketing and distributing the album, but they raised so much more than their targeted total that they ploughed the excess funds back into the record. As a result, the De La Soul of 2016 is one that comes armed with a full orchestra. The template remains the same, but on tracks like ‘Pain’ it’s obvious that this is still a group that takes its own path, but is never out of step with everything around them.
3. Field Music – Commontime
Sunderland-born brothers Peter and David Brewis have been around for years now, dabbling in various side projects, solo albums and even film soundtracks, but it’s their work together as Field Music that has won them the most plaudits and with their latest album they’ve finally begin to earn the kind of widespread recognition they deserve, even inspiring Prince to retweet one of their videos. Lyrically, much of Commontime deals with the trials of becoming a father – something both brothers have experienced since their last record – but musically it’s a mixture of rock, funk and shimmering pop that takes their work to new heights. If there’s a funkier album about being a dad than this, I’ve yet to hear it.
2. David Bowie – Blackstar
Of all the shocks this year has provided, the death of David Bowie just days after the release of Blackstar has been one of the most deeply felt. But as a parting gift, they don’t come much better than this. Filled with riddles and hidden messages, Blackstar is something pretty extraordinary in almost every sense. It may be just seven songs and a little over 40 minutes in length, but every moment on Blackstar feels deliberate, coordinated and measured, taking in every style of music you could imagine and sounding like nothing else you’ve ever heard. It’s a dark and often mournful album, but it’s also beautiful and deeply affecting. Right up until the end, Bowie was an artist like no other and even amongst a back catalogue that includes too many great albums to list, this is one of his finest.
1. The Avalanches – Wildflower
For years now, fans of the Avalanches have been daring to hope for a follow-up to the masterpiece that is their debut album, Since I Left You, a tapestry of more than 3000 samples weaved into a swansong that seemed to set an impossibly high watermark. It’s no wonder it took 16 years to create Wildflower, but when it finally arrived this year it was everything I’d hoped for and more. It isn’t ‘as good’ as Since I Left You, it is - dare I say it - even better. Many of the original members have lost patience and left over the last decade and a half, and the ones who stayed have suffered for their art. Robbie Chater was hospitalised mid-way through the making of the album, putting him out of action for nearly three years, and both he and Tony Di Blasi, the group’s core members, have said that they nearly lost their minds on several occasions while working on Wildflower, but the end result is a thing of beauty and wonder. If it takes another 16 years to produce a third album that’s even half as good as this, I’ll be happy to wait for it.