2016 might not have been a brilliant year in many ways, but it has been an excellent year for music. The artists featured here veer from tackling some of this year’s most contentious social and political issues to creating pure pop escapism. See this year out by listening to some of its greatest music albums, from philosophical pop-punk through to environmentally-conscious chamber pop and Mercury Music Prize winning grime.
Anohni - Hopelessness
For a year that felt slightly apocalyptic at times, Hopelessness was our soundtrack. In this debut album Anohni, who formerly performed as Anthony and the Johnsons, wryly and tragically comments on the world’s worst ills with her truly epic and penetrating vocal. Discussing surveillance, drone warfare and the environmental crisis, the album’s mastery comes from its radical subject matter and thought-provoking lyrics, accompanied by devastating strings, synths and thundering drums that make it impossible to ignore.
Best tracks: Drone Bomb Me, 4 Degrees
Skepta - Konnichiwa
The poster boy for grime, Konnichiwa earned Skepta the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, and for good reason. The album’s sharp, biting lyricism explores the tension between an image-driven, overwhelmingly white music industry and Skepta’s own fight to preserve his cultural identity and sense of self. Skepta raps about an unwillingness to compromise himself over pulsing grimes beats that will stick in your head.
Best tracks: Lyrics, Shutdown, That’s Not Me
Christine And The Queens - Chaleur Humaine
A huge star in her home country of France, Héloïse Letissier released the UK version of her debut album Chaleur Humaine (Human Warmth) this year. Written from the perspective of Héloïse’s androgynous alter ego Christine, the album deals with questions of gender identity and heartbreak in Héloïse’s own self-styled freak-pop format, incorporating warped synths alongside her impassioned vocal. The album’s subtle electronica and Héloïse’s small but impactful dance movements are truly the epitome of French sophistication.
Best tracks:IT, Tilted, Science Fiction, Half Ladies, Jonathan
Kaytranada - 99.9%
Canadian producer Kayatranada manages to both defy genre conventions and also take electronic music into a new dimension. Combining rap, electronica, funk, soul, hip hop and R&B, Kayatranada collaborates with a number of famous names on this album including Anderson Paak, AlunaGeorge and Craig David to create infectious, catchy and ridiculously cool music. Never a dull moment, this album has all the impact that its name suggests.
Best tracks: Got It Good, Together, Glowed Up
Solange - A Seat At The Table
Voices don’t have to be huge and boisterous to be affecting and moving, and Solange Knowles’ A Seat At The Table is testament to that. Imbued in Solange’s quiet, melodic and beautiful voice is a highly emotional account of the black experience, sung over psychedelic soul, funk and R&B. Don’t Wish Me Well and Don’t Touch My Hair make defiant declarations whilst expressing anger in softer tones, whilst Scales and Borderline encourage kindness to the self above all else. A Seat At The Table is truly masterful with its quiet, soulful empowerment.
Best tracks:Don’t Touch My Hair, Don’t Wish Me Well, Cranes in The Sky
The 1975 - I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
The name might inspire eyerolls, but there’s much more to The 1975 than great hair and pretentiousness. Their songs are clever and instantly catchy, bringing punk, pop, indie and electronica together into a brilliant contemporary sound. Their intelligent and sardonic lyrics integrate humorous word play ‘a simple Epicurean philosophy’ whilst commenting on love, loss and the excesses of fame. On this album they demonstrate their seamless eclecticism, apparent on everything from the pining synth-led ballad Somebody Else through to the funky guitars of UGH! and pop banger The Sound.
Best tracks:UGH! She’s American, The Sound, Somebody Else
Beyoncé - Lemonade
Beyoncé has a reputation for being perfect, but with this album she showed a more vulnerable and at times angrier side. Primarily a visual album, it describes her heartache after finding out about her lover’s infidelity. We’re taken along on a chronological narrative moving from pain and anger to love, resolution and empowerment. Incorporating rocky guitars on the furious Don’t Hurt Yourself and country on Daddy Lessons, Beyoncé experiments with different genres whilst also retaining her flawless choreography and infectious R&B beats. But what else did you expect?
Best tracks: Don’t Hurt Yourself, Sorry, Six-Inch Heels, Freedom
Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered
After his critically acclaimed 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar returned on a wave of glory so high he didn’t even need to give his next album a name. This isn’t just a B-Side album, rather it is an extension of some of the themes Kendrick explored in To Pimp A Butterfly; being a black man in an America that feels increasingly hostile towards you, and finding strength and hope despite that. With exceptional production, imaginative sampling and Kendrick’s own manipulated, often twisted voice, Kendrick Lamar once again establishes himself as one of the most innovative and talented rappers we have ever seen.
Best tracks: untitled 06.23.2014, 05.28.2013
Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos
With this album, Kate Tempest really feels like the narrator of modern-day Britain. ‘Europe, lost’ she laments as she describes how gentrification and the pursuit of money ultimately never makes you truly happy, and leaves everyone else on the fringes of society. Her tight vernacular rhymes layered over hip hop and synths always pack such a punch, zooming in on the individual stories of her characters as they navigate love, depression and drugs within London’s gloomy landscape.
Best tracks:Europe is Lost, Don’t Fall In, Ketamine for Breakfast
What have been your favourite albums of 2016 and why?