Best albums of 2016: 20 to 11

In my penultimate 2016 albums post we have David Bowie’s final album, crisp hip hop from Kano and Common, Bat for Lashes’s latest art piece, Kate Tempest’s thunderous spoken word epic, plus we two of best hidden gems in the form of Tall Black Guy’s second LP and the debut album from London jazz-hip hop collective, Fur.

20. David Bowie – Blackstar
19. Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers
18. Common – Black America Again
17. Fur – Soon at the Latest
16. Tall Black Guy – Let’s Take a Trip
15. Bat for Lashes – The Bride
14. Kano – Made in the Manor
13. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
12. White Denim – Stiff
11. BadBadNotGood – IV

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

20. David Bowie – Blackstar
My view: “Blackstar is melancholy and haunting, yet experimental and mesmeric at the same time. The title track alone is a genre-spanning, avant-garde masterpiece, opening the album with omission horns and rhythmic zaps reminiscent of an 80s arcade machine, before transforming into a guitar-backed harmony with Bowie painting vivid pictures with his words… Whether you delight at the sheer musicality and emotion on show or despair at the cold truth to some of Bowie’s words, Blackstar is nothing if not impactful… Bowie’s last studio album will be remembered as the final, spectacular work of art that it is. It’s vivid, mesmeric and extraordinary.”

19. Corinne Bailey Rae – The Heart Speaks in Whispers
My view: “The prevailing mood on Whispers is calmness: calm guitar chords, calm keys, calm strings, calm vocals – you get the idea. Naturally, calm overriding means that most of the tracks have slow, unhurried tempos… Still, Bailey Rae’s new, sunny outlook is expressed with deftness on ode to happiness ‘Caramel’, the astral ‘Been to the Moon’, and weightless serenade ‘Green Aphrodisiac’. Finally, there’s ‘Do You Ever Think of Me?’, an impossible lagoon of slow-poured emotion, and the enduring ‘Walk On’, two contemplative songs that will continue to floor you again and again.”

18. Common – Black America Again
My view: “Politics are the central theme here. Common puts people first, though, as heard on the powerful title track. Then, there’s ‘Pyramids’. Over a whirring patter, Common spits two verses of lyrical fire about the need to make hip hop for more than just “the 19-year-olds”. Though heated political tracks are a big part of Black America Again, there’s also a lot of love. Singers Marsha Ambrosius, Paris ‘PJ’ Jone, and Syd tha Kyd (‘Red Wine’) all make appearances, adding some exalted female gravity to proceedings… Common’s latest album is a serious piece of work. It’s powerful and progressive, intimate and uplifting.”

17. Fur – Soon at the Latest
My view: “Soon at the Latest is the debut album from Fur, an eight-piece hip hop-jazz collective from east London. Similar to the music of BadBadNotGood or El Michels Affair, this an album cramped with verdant instrumentals for late nights and crosstown journeys. Josh Solnick (aka Rap Man Josh) is Fur’s MC, and he is your loose-tongued guide through their heightened reality. Solnick’s descriptive verbs and phrases bring entire scenes alive, taking you down to the city streets to meet would-be lovers (‘Biannual Coffee Cups’), beneath the canopy of festival tent rap jams (‘Ultimately’), and sparring with the politico (‘Free’). It’s cheeky, it’s charming and it’s wildly refreshing.”

16. Tall Black Guy – Let’s Take a Trip
My view: “Let’s Take a Trip is the second album from Tall Black Guy, following 2013’s 8 Miles to Moenart. Once again, the sharp beatmaker has come through with a stimulating collection of instrumental and vocal hip hop that makes you feel better about yourself and your abilities. Tall Black Guy’s productions are distinctive. They’re hypnotic (‘Beware of the Groove (feat. Mario Sweet)’), cerebral (‘One Device, One Method, One Thing’) and confidence-boosting. Between his tinted vintage sound, socially conscious messages (‘Things Deeper Than My Skin’) and hypnotic neo-soul for lovers of Erykah Badu and Solange, Tall Black Guy takes you on a wonderfully satisfying journey.”

15. Bat for Lashes – The Bride
My view: “The Bride is a tale of macabre beauty and tragedy. Languid, ghostly movements possess these songs, which tell the story of a bride who is left at the alter when her husband-to-be dies while en route to the church. A succinct narrative – death (‘Honeymooning Alone’), mourning (‘Widow’s Peak’) and healing (‘I Will Love Again’) – is communicated to you through lucid, haunting lyrics… The Bride casts an unbroken spell over you with its contemplative sounds and poetic images of doomed romance. The real tragedy would be not to give yourself the chance to fall in love with this artistic virtuoso.”

14. Kano – Made in the Manor
My view: “On opening track ‘Hail’ alone, Kano spits rhymes faster, witter and with a broader set of inflections than some MCs manage in their whole careers… Nowhere else in the world will you find a song that references hip hop clashes, football and Peppa Pig in the same song (‘3 Wheels-Up (feat. Wiley & Giggs)’). You’d be hard pressed to find an album that captures a collage of modern London with verses as descriptive (‘Endz’) and accurate (‘This is England’) as this.  Presenting more sides of black British culture with witty lyricism and rave-ready beats, Kano has pushed his sound forwards in spectacular fashion.”

13. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
My view: “The best way to experience Let Them Eat Chaos is to hear it for yourself. As Tempest has said in interviews, words spoken aloud have a different power to those on the page. Briefly though, the album is centred on “seven perfect strangers”, and through the lens of these characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, Tempest delivers sad truths about our desires, our fears and our place on this small planet. ‘Europe is Lost’ and ‘Don’t Fall In’ are two profound pieces of performance poetry. Together, they encapsulate feelings of anxiety, disillusionment and confusion felt by individuals, and the masses at large, today.”

12. White Denim – Stiff
My view: “The funkified rock grooves alone on Stiff are enough to fuel a weekend-long party. But the lyrics elevate the album further still. There’s humour to be found in the juxtapositions and wild verses that singer James Petralli delivers with gleeful swagger (‘Had 2 Know (Personal)’). Stiff combines the best of The Black Keys, Primal Scream, early-era Kings of Leon, and a generous helping of funk into a vivid Austin festival to lose yourself in. It is the hip-thrusting, beer-drinking, good-time getaway that you never knew you always wanted.”

11. BadBadNotGood – IV
My view: “BBNG started out making jazz covers of hip hop and electronic songs by the likes of MF Doom and James Blake. Now only a few years into writing and recording their own compositions, their sound is becoming ever more distinctive. There’s the foot-tapping chill of ‘Cashmere’, the slow, romantic sway of sunset tune ‘Chompy’s Paradise’, and the tempo-blending smooth jazz of the title track. However, it’s the group’s collaborations with vocalists that give the album an added flourish… Charlotte Day Wilson steals the whole thing with her stirring, soulful voice on the supremely tender ‘In Your Eyes’. This is an LP filled with verve and emotion.”

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

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

Images: collage (clockwise from top left) Parlophone Records (images 1-2); Downtown Records; Virgin EMI Records. Images and photos belong to respective parties

Discuss...