Best albums of 2016: top 10

Here we go. The top 10. Every one of these albums is a veritable buffet of sounds and sensations. There’s love, there’s soul, there’s rhythms and words to help you reach higher.

A special mention must go to Xylaroo for their debut album, Sweetooth, which appears to be the best 2016 album practically no one has heard.

What have your albums of the year been? Tweet me with your thoughts via @aarnlee.

10. Xylaroo – Sweetooth
9. Skepta – Konnichiwa
8. Nao – For All We Know
7. Frank Ocean – Blonde
6. Shura – Nothing’s Real
5. Billie Marten – Writing of Blues and Yellows
4. Alicia Keys – Here
3. Solange – A Seat at the Table
2. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
1. Anderson Paak – Malibu

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

10. Xylaroo – Sweetooth
My view: “Xylaroo are Holly and Coco Chant: two sisters making marvellously imaginative music which draws from an exotic cocktail of musical influences. The Chant sisters’ harmonious voices are the top layer of this potent mixture. They’re voices remain in complete sync with one another, like a mirror image (think First Aid Kit or Ibeyi). Sweetooth is awash with percussive melodies (‘Sunshine’) and compositions that feel far more mature (‘Set Me on Fire and Send Me to Canada’) and instinctive (‘Narwhal’) than one might expect from the 20-something sisters. Xylaroo’s debut album is truly something. It’s campfire folk which upends the genre with a melting pot of musical flavourings. Joyous, cheeky, beguiling – it’s sublime in every respect.”

Read my review of Sweetooth.

9. Skepta – Konnichiwa
My view: “Skepta’s Konnichiwa is a stonker that puts you in the mood to skank and flex like there’s no tomorrow… What really make this album special is Skepta’s unfathomable ability to twist familiar sights and sayings in his verses, giving them that memorable quality. This comes through on the rebellious ‘Corn on the Curb (feat. Wiley & Chip)’, the reflective ‘Text Me Be’, and the Drake-esque ‘Ladies Hit Squad (feat. D Double E & ASAP Nast)’… Then, there’s the greatest holy trinity of ‘Man’, ‘Shutdown’ and ‘That’s Not Me (feat. Jme)’. These tracks come with lyrical fire and grimy, invigorating beats that are impossible to deny. As a beatmaker and wordsmith, Skepta has affirmed his place at the top table.”

Read my review of Konnichiwa.

8. Nao – For All We Know
My view: “Nao’s FAWK is unusual and intentionally awkward, but its own blend of R&B and “wonky funk” leaves a spectrum of colours imprinted on your mind. Nao has a voice that moves between featherweight and faintly gritty in a heartbeat. On ‘Inhale Exhale’, the controlled strain in her voice rises and falls in sway with the rhythm like churning waves… The wonky bass cycles of ‘DYWM’ are another high, before you are washed up on the psychedelic beaches of ‘Fool to Love’. The end result is stimulating. Nao and her “wonky funk” is one of the sounds for the summer. For All We Know’s marriage of opposites may perplex at first, but its mood – its imaginative future-past – is wonderful.”

Read my review of For All We Know.

7. Frank Ocean – Blonde
My view: “For better and worse, Ocean’s second album is the product of personal struggle under the weight of intense expectation. It doesn’t reach the dizzying perfection of his 2012 debut, but it is a profound listen nonetheless. Blonde feels like a relationship breakdown perpetually sweeping between hot (‘Nikes’) and cold (‘Solo’) hues. It’s sweet and sour melancholy – and nobody does it quite like Ocean. The stupendous ‘Pink + White’ is hands down one of the most beautiful pieces of music period. Equally as bedazzling is the melodic, future-past of ‘White Ferrari’, and ‘Seigfried’ which is up there with David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ for the amount of genre-surfing it does. Blonde can delight as much as it can disappoint, and it will leave you wondering just what Ocean will do next.”

Read my review of Blonde.

6. Shura – Nothing’s Real
My view: “Nothing’s Real is a collision of 80s electro-pop, astral imagery, and adolescent affections. Think La Roux meets Heaven 17 meets the music and visuals of a Tetsuya Mizuguchi video game (Rez, Space Channel 5, Lumines): it’s an electrically-charged, sonic flight through the fabric of accepted reality, with the amplified romantic ecstasy of a cartoon (‘What’s It Gonna Be?’) and the tragic lows of a soap opera (‘2Shy’). You’re chaperoned, deftly, between the inquisitive oscillations of ‘Kidz ‘n’ Stuff’ and the 8-bit crunches and inverted ‘Holiday’-era Madonna groove of ‘Indecision’. Shura’s music is sparky, kinetic and transforms her melancholy reflections on love and loss into a dramatic war of hearts.”

Read my review of Nothing’s Real.

5. Billie Marten – Writing of Blues and Yellows
Billie Marten’s debut album is like sitting in a secluded patch of nature with a close friend, listening to them share thoughts about their life in succinct, but picturesque, detail. It is traditional acoustic folk with a deep-seated tenderness that’s hard to comprehend when you realise the Yorkshire singer isn’t even 18 yet. Marten’s ambiguous words tumble round the rhythmic patterns of songs such as ‘Unaware’ and ‘Milk & Honey’. She shares wishful yearnings (‘Lionhearted’), a warm respect for nature (‘Heavy Weather’), and a maturity towards life that sounds well beyond her youthful age (‘Teeth’). At a time when we’re all glued to screens at every hour of every day, Writing of Blues and Yellows is a comforting retreat from the nonstop madness of urban life. Quiet, contemplative and emotionally deep.

Read my review of Writing of Blues and Yellows.

4. Alicia Keys – Here
Alicia Key’s sixth album is a triumphant, courageous gift to the senses that exudes irresistible strength and compassion from its songs all the way through to the celebration of natural beauty on its cover art. Lots of records have had strong moods and messages running through them this year. But this album is gritty (‘The Gospel’), vulnerable (‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’), and impactful (‘She Don’t Really Care’) in ways that hold your attention as if it were a drama being performed live. Backed by the already excellent instrumentation, Keys lifts these songs even higher with her veracious tones. The acoustic guitar-backed solo ‘Kill Ya Mama’ see Keys striking the gut-wrenching honesty of Lauryn Hill’s ‘I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel)’. While her outpouring of emotion on the Roberta Flack-like ‘Illusion of Bliss’ is profound. Here is one of the most compassionate, creative, selfless albums of 2016, or any other year.

Read my review of Here.

3. Solange – A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles has always been more than simply “Beyoncé’s sister” to those who have listened to and appreciated her music for years. But 2016 was the year Solange showed her artistic excellence to those who had never acknowledged her before. A Seat at the Table is a frank and acutely touching expression of what it means to be black – or “othered”, for that matter – in society today. “I ran into this girl, I said, ‘I’m tired of explaining’ / Man, this shit is draining / But I’m not really allowed to be mad,” Solange sings on ‘Mad’. Low and slow basslines nod along smoothly as Solange delivers this graceful riposte to the view some hold that black people and minorities “don’t have anything to be mad about”. The whole album continues this harmonious foundation throughout, punctuating it with Solange’s well-considered thoughts, which range from her weariness with the world, to the importance of natural hair (‘Don’t Touch My Hair (feat. Sampha)’), to pushing away feelings that, as a black woman, she isn’t “enough” for society (‘Cranes in the Sky’) – not to mention the impactful comments from black folks who lived through the days of explicit discrimination in the 20th century. Expressing such feelings and empathy towards her black kin, and the disenfranchised in general, Solange’s A Seat at the Table is powerful, coherent and profoundly liberating.

Read my review of A Seat at the Table.

2. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
At the beginning of this year’s album of the year round-up, I described 2016 as “an exhausting struggle to carry on”. Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate is the sound of emancipation from that struggle. The album itself grew from Kiwanuka’s own struggle against anxiety and dissatisfaction with his songwriting while working Love & Hate’s now-discarded predecessor. In these songs, Kiwanuka exudes pain and frustration (‘Falling’), hope and desire (‘Rule the World’) with real nuance. On top of this, the deluge of negative events in 2016 has also given his songs profound social relevance. ‘Black Man in White World’ is an anthem of empathy to those that feel supressed. The lonely melancholy of ‘Place to Belong’ hits hard with its contemplations of “friends gone” and “time moving on”. While the deep blues and gospel of ‘Love & Hate’ expresses the dichotomy between those two forces with resilient grandeur. As tender as it is tortured, Kiwanuka’s songs have an emotional resonance to them that won’t just reverberate this year, or this decade, but for many more to come.

Read my review of Love & Hate.

1. Anderson Paak – Malibu
Anderson Paak’s Malibu is a marvel. It’s an album that dunks you, over and over, into buckets of inspired creations. When you wake up in the morning thinking: “What’s the point to anything? Why even bother creating when so much has already been done?”, this is an album that bites down hard on your pessimistic demons and gives you dozens of reason to do your thing – whatever that may be.

Malibu is brimming with ideas. Ideas that are executed with a finesse and control that can only come from discipline and rigorous practice, yet frequently feels spontaneous. Every chapter of this defiant tale of hardship and perseverance comes with a eureka-moment or three, packed into layers of effervescent Mile Davies-esque jazz and James Brown funk. This is Paak’s second album, and heralded a breakout year for the musician, which has also seen him release Yes Lawd! with Knxwledge.

From ‘Carry Me’ and the parallels it draws between slavery and struggle of Paak’s working-class family, with poetry so fine some won’t even realise it hitting them in the face, to the space-funk of ‘Am I Wrong (feat. Schoolboy Q)’ that just makes you want to shake your body, to the Marvin Gaye-meets-Stevie Wonder vibe that flows from songs like ‘Put Me Thru’ and ‘Parking Lot’, the entire experience is nothing short of mind-blowing.

Paak had help, of course. Many productions comes courteous of a cross-section of top-notch producers, including 9th Wonder, Pomo, DJ Khalil, Callum Connor, Kaytranada and Madlib. Plus, a sprinkling of meaningful guest spots from Talib Kweli (‘The Dreamer’), The Game (‘Room in Here’) and Rapsody (‘Without You’). But Malibu is the definition of an authored album: it simply wouldn’t exist without Paak to craft and shape it. After all, he is its primary songwriter and singer, not to mention a musician and producer in his own right.

This year has been a punishing, divisive, hate-filled struggle for survival. At a time when pessimism and hatred seem to be suffocating anyone who dares to take a stand against them, the most powerful music of all is that which empowers people to do just that. For some, that album could be Solange’s for its delicate gravitas, Alicia Key’s for its uplifting altruism, or Michael Kiwanuka’s for its timeless honesty.

But, for me in 2016, it has to be Anderson Paak, because no other album empowers you emotionally – and maybe even physically and spiritually – like Malibu. It’s a history of vaudeville. It’s a story of a hard-working hustler who couldn’t be more excited to present his carefully honed talent. It’s proof that wisdom and experience are priceless qualities. It’s an encouragement to pick yourself back up when you fall. It’s an excuse to pop open some champagne and make love. It’s fuel for the long, bitter road ahead. It’s a gift for all the dreamers.

It’s masterpiece that will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. Sometimes, that’s all you need to bring a little more love into this world.

Read my review of Malibu.

I hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on these albums and the artists behind them.

What have your albums of 2016 been? What did you think of my choices? And what have I missed out that is an absolute must-hear record?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below or via @aarnlee.

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

Images: collage (clockwise from top left) Phil Sharp/Polydor; RCA Records; Facebook/Anderson Paak; Polydor. Images and photos belong to respective parties

One thought on “Best albums of 2016: top 10

  1. Excellent reviews which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. So much music went past me this year. I’ll need to revisit your website to brush up on my musical knowledge. Thank you for putting all the good music in one spot. Bless

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