Best albums of 2016: 40 to 31

The countdown continues with shining albums from superstars including Drake and Beyoncé, sublime first-time releases from Ray Blk and Izzy Bizu, and a bold political album from independent musician, Anohni.

40. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
39. Ray Blk – Durt
38. Lady Wray – Queen Alone
37. Drake – Views
36. Wild Belle – Dreamland
35. Beyoncé – Lemonade
34. Anohni – Hopelessness
33. Izzy Bizu – A Moment of Madness
32. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
31. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

40. Kendrick Lamar – Untitled Unmastered
My view: “Lamar pulled no punches on TPAB, and he is equally as frank here, spitting a tirade against discrimination, abuse of the poor, corruption, and more. This tape is ambitious musically, too, with tracks ranging from sparse downtempo, to floaty jazz, to wavy trap (‘Untitled 07 2014 – 2016’). It also features guest vocals from Jay Rock, SZA, Anna Wise and Cee-Lo, the latter delivering a sterling performance on the standout sixth track. Witty words, vibrant funk, psychedelic electronica and rich guest performances make this mini-album better than many mixtapes or full albums. It’s a triumphant victory lap to his grandstanding second album.”

39. Ray Blk – Durt
My view: “Durt is a mini-album collecting seven tracks by Ray Blk that offer a taste of the no-holes-barred realness to her music. Ray is influenced by artists including Amy Winehouse, Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill. Her love for the latter comes across directly on ‘Hunny’, with an artful riff on Hill’s ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’, but it’s also present in her astute commentary on relationships (‘50/50’) and urban life (‘My Hood (feat. Stormzy)’) and in general. From the strength of Ray’s words to the thoroughness of the productions, Durt is a strident debut for this talented artist.”

38. Lady Wray – Queen Alone
My view: “If you’re familiar with Lee Fields & the Expressions, Myron & E, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, then you will adore Wray’s retro-soul sound. Just like the aforementioned artists, this is music made with live instruments, buckets of experience and good, old-fashioned heart. Wray’s peachy, American drawl has touches of Jean Knight (‘Underneath My Feet’) and Aretha Franklin (‘Make Me Over’). She bears her soul on story of a down-and-out, ‘They Won’t Hang Around’, hits you with stirring cries on ‘Do It Again’, and lifts you on up with Curtis Mayfield-like candour on ‘Let It Go’.”

37. Drake – Views
My view: “The core of Views is about bigging up his fam’ (‘Still Here’), slighting his haters (‘Pop Style’) and romancing women (‘Redemption’). It’s more of the same, really, but geed up thanks to superb beats by producers 40, Boi-1da and a two dozen others. There’s the woozy trap of ‘Faithful (feat. Pimp C & Dvsn)’, the melodic psych pop of friend-trouble soliloquy ‘Feel No Ways’, and the infectious dancehall-inspired rhythms of ‘Controlla’ and ‘One Dance (feat. Wizkid & Kyla)’, that were made for dabbing.”

36. Wild Belle – Dreamland
My view: “There’s a hypnotic quality to many of Dreamland’s songs about love falling apart. ‘Losing You’ is the sort of stare-at-the-ceiling song you play while wondering why your girl/boyfriend hasn’t called you in over a week. ‘Giving Up on You’ is a speedy, jazzy song with the vocal power of Paloma Faith or Sia. And, in the album’s latter half, the Caribbean-influenced ‘The One That Got Away’ squeezes in a calypso vibe that works surprisingly well. Conflict and tension have encouraged a more urge-sounding set of songs than Wild Belle’s comparatively chilled debut. The end result is a very convincing foray beyond their roots with delightfully unexpected results.”

35. Beyoncé – Lemonade
My view: “There is a scattering of charged, political moments in Lemonade, such as lead single ‘Formation’ and the pounding fury of ‘Freedom’, featuring Kendrick Lamar, which is unlike the Beyoncé anthems of old. The other side to Lemonade are its acrid, TMZ-fuelling songs that Queen B has been the victim of an alleged extramarital affair. The spectacular ‘Hold Up’, with its majestic rhythm and Beyoncé’s salvo of regal rhetoric and the damning ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, with Jack White, compel you to listen to them over and over. With its moreish productions (‘All Night’) and Beyoncé’s sweet-and-spicy vocals, Lemonade is an album you’ll want to squeeze every last drop from.”

34. Anohni – Hopelessness
My view: “The songs here could be directly transposed into a hit list of social activism campaigns: drone bombings (‘Drone Bomb Me’), genocide (‘Execution’), the destruction of animals from global warming (‘4 Degrees’) and our mistreatment of the planet in general (‘Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?’) are just some of the subjects Anohni muses about. Her androgynous voice brings singers such as Boy George and Benjamin Clementine to mind. There’s a surreal beauty to her pained cries, made more unusual by the droning electronic loops and sombre organ tones (‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’) that back them up.”

33. Izzy Bizu – A Moment of Madness
My view: “What Izzy Bizu’s debut album lacks in originality it makes up for in sheer sun-glazed pick-‘n’-mix pop. Bizu is the owner of a harmonious, fruity voice, and she tickles you with her scats and coos, bringing a singer like Syleena Johnson to mind. There’s synth-pop anthems to clap along to (‘White Tiger’), jazzy soul that’s like colliding the vocals of Cleopatra and Shanks & Bigfoot with the sunny rhythms of Bill Withers (‘Naïve Soul’, ‘I Know’), Adele-trialling percussive R&B (‘Give Me Love’) and the straight-up head-rush of fizzy pop, ‘Adam & Eve’… You can’t help but fall for Bizu’s soft-hearted charm.”

32. Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade
My view: “Considering the personal and professional struggles the Isaiah Rashad has since admitted he was facing during its creation, it’s a wonder that he finished The Sun’s Tirade at all – let alone to such a compelling level of quality. Rashid’s raps are chest-beating at times, self-deprecating at others… walking the blurry line between conscious lyricism (‘Dressed Like Rappers’) and thug rap (‘A Lot’). The Sun’s Triade oozes hazy treehouse trap (‘Brenda’) and wavy melancholy (‘Wat’s Wrong (feat. Zacari & Kendrick Lamar)’) reminiscent of ASAP Rocky, Earl Sweatshirt and OutKast. Surprisingly self-aware and unapologetic in its direction, it is an enthralling listen.”

31. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive
My view: “Delicate and emotional, yet ferocious and unorthodox, Thao Nguyen and her band, the agonistic-sounding the Get Down Stay Down, make eccentric folk-rock melds that refuse to conform to convention… There’s the electrified call to “fight for me in a modern day” (‘Departure’), a fast-paced, ferocious rap from Nguyen on ‘Meticulous Bird’, de tours of xylophones and choral vocals in the vein of The Go! Team, and an energetic crescendo of carefree folk-funk (‘Hand of God’)… Offering up a clash of styles and colours in unexpected, but highly rewarding ways, A Man Alive is a refreshing listening.”

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

See my entire albums of 2016 series.

Images: collage (clockwise from top left) Top Dawg, Epic/Sony Music, Columbia/Sony Music, Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia. Images and photos belong to respective parties

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