Best albums of 2016: 30 to 21

In the first third of my top 30, we have the return of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, two exceptional jazz albums, plus debut albums from newcomers Låpsley, Lion Babe and Christine and the Queens.

30. Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
29. Lion Babe – Begin
28. De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody
27. Låpsley – Long Way Home
26. Jordan Rakei – Cloak
25. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
24. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
23. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
22. Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine
21. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

30. Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
My view: “Much of Mvula’s first album contained songs that were a combination of classical music and jazz, such as ‘Can’t Live with the World’ and ‘Flying without You’. She gives us more of that goodness on the captivating and sensitive ‘Show Me Love’ and the undeniably refined ‘Bread’. But, seeking to expand her sound, she has also tapped the ever-busy Nile Rodgers for sideways funk track ‘Overcome’. These moments are varied and well executed. But the album is at its best when Mvula truly lets go, as on ‘Let Me Fall’. The Dreaming Room is a bold, mesmerising, wildly creativity turn by an exceptional musician.”

29. Lion Babe – Begin
My view: “Begin is a sizable album that shows off Lion Babe’s musical potential with wide-eyed gusto. In some ways it’s a classic debut from a talent that is still developing its sound: buzzing with ideas, but not quite shaping the mixture into a fresh and focused album. Still, Daft Punk’s Homework was practically a demo compared to follow-up, Discovery. Besides, Lion Babe’s debut has its heavy hitters, such as ‘Jump Hi (feat. Childish Gambino)’, ‘Treat Me Like Fire’ and the stupendous 80s energy of ‘Where Do We Go’, that will lure you back like a hungry bear to a honey-coated dance floor. Lion Babe’s debut is an energetic, finely-tuned pop record that deserves attention.”

28. De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody
My view: “This album is an invitation, a revival, and a proclamation that these hip-hop elders can still kick it. And they can. De La have always been rhyme kings whose lines inspire dozens of repeated listens before they give up all their layers. De La’s lyrical bite is alive and well in the Anonymous Nobody on songs about seizing the day, promiscuousness, young upstarts and the social media generation. ATAN gives fans what they wanted, and plenty of things they didn’t expect. It’s the sound of a creative trio let loose with a library of rare grooves and their favourite collaborators on speed dial.”

27. Låpsley – Long Way Home
My view: “Long Way Home is about a long distance relationship and the process of making this album – which took her from Liverpool to London to Los Angeles, and back again – Låpsley has said. You hear this in ‘Heartless’ and ‘Painter’, songs which are heavy on mood, but unspectacular in isolation. Yet, with the help of XL Recording’s in-house producer Rodaidh McDonald, Låpsley has crafted an evocative combination of piano, percussion and electronic loops into reasoned music that capture the trials (‘Cliff’) and troubles (‘Tell Me the Truth’) of young love.”

26. Jordan Rakei – Cloak
My view: “Rakei has a velvety timbre to his voice similar to Jamie Woon. He uses it to great effect on these songs, serenading (‘Midnight Mischief’), stimulating (‘The Light’) and coming part (‘Snitch (feat. Remi)’) with a tranquil cool. Backing up his words are an assortment of deliciously soulful jazz, funk and downtempo synthetic sounds. Be it the Rhye-esque, ethereal ‘Lost Myself’, the pearlescent bliss of ‘Talk to Me’ and ‘Toko’, or the D’Angelo-inspired vibe of ‘Blame It on the Youth’, Rakei’s productions wrap you in a blanket of discreet emotions… Cloak is a stirring success.”

25. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
My view: “It’s says a lot that there is barely a whiff of what’s commonly thought of as ‘traditional jazz’ on Esperanza Spalding’s third album till just over the halfway mark. And even then, it exists among a swirl of colourful sounds that have one true through-point: they are all wonderfully nonconformist. And nonconformity is the essence of Emily’s D+Evolution. Just like Janelle Monàe’s efforts, songs are adventurous (‘Good Lava’) and unusual (‘I Want It Now’), but they also happen to be highly musical (‘Judas’). Spalding’s delicate delivery of phrases, both sung and rapped, paint pictures of grace and, on the flip side, headstrong determination.”

24. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
My view: “We Got It from Here is layered with songs that make you want to turn up the volume. Opening scorcher ‘The Space Program’ sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is a solid blend of Quest’s prodigious talent for flavoursome sounds and their desire to deliver conscious messages… Quest have done a first-rate job of making sure the music is right for what they intend to convey… From the hypnotic synth plods of ‘Kids’, the moreish electronic threading of ‘Conrad Tokyo’, and the surreal, Jeff Wayne-esque undertone of standout track ‘Melatonin’. Boasting strong conscious lyricism, ace guest appearances and a range of delicious productions, it’s a powerful send-off for this pioneering hip hop group.”

23. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
My view: “A bizarre ride through Danny Brown’s mind that’s dark and raucous, but also adventurous and challenging. Similar to Kanye West and Tyler, The Creator, Paul White’s productions are rapid and frequently wild in a manner that would scare many MCs. But not Brown. In his signature chewy, Daffy Duck-tinged tone, he spars with the madcap wheezes and brass coughs of ‘Ain’t It Funny’ and shouts a relative dissertation of verses at you to keep up with the rebellious, relentless pace of ‘When It Rains’. It’s spectacular stuff… Grim through it may be, the unique productions and lyrical flows make this one of the most striking hip hop albums you’ll hear.”

22. Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine
My view: “Chaleur Humaine is the international debut album from French musician, Christine and the Queens. Both singer and producer behind this delicate electronic pop, Christine has a valiant self-assurance to her… Her tone lies somewhere between the soft tenderness of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano and Blackpool singer Rae Morris. From the slow, unfolding melody of ‘Night 52’, to the taut threat of ‘Narcissus is Back’, to the rhythmic, video game-like bloops of ‘Science Fiction’, there is a banquet of delights here. A beautiful album from an idiosyncratic and exceptionally individual artist.”

21. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits
My view: “Velvet Portraits is a record that oozes emotion. There’s Roy Ayers-style jazz (‘Valdez Off Crenshaw’), the cool funk of Isaac Hayes with a touch of big band (‘Push’), and a myriad of other styles. Meanwhile, vocalists Tiffany Gouche, Rose Gold and Lalah Hathaway are magnet, and Tone Trezure and Uncle Chucc hit you with deep, powerful gospel croons, reminiscent of Stevie Wonder and Bobby Womack, that you won’t soon forget. Martin’s Velvet Portraits is brilliant. Breathlessly brilliant. From its wonky funk and spacy, hypnotic jazz to its knockout vocal performances, it’s a sublime album from a creative genius.”

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

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

Images: collage (clockwise from top left) RCA Victor/Sony Music; XL; Misha Taylor; Warp. Images and photos belong to respective parties

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