No Frank Ocean. No James Blake. No Radiohead. So what did make the cut in our rundown of the greatest album releases of 2016? From euphoric rap to vampiric avant-pop, this year’s list is proof that while 2016 was mostly a garbage fire of epic proportions, musically speaking, we were treated to some of the boldest, most innovative and downright fucking fun music we’ve heard in years.
Lil Uzi Vert
Lil Uzi Vert vs the World
Lil Uzi Vert – 'Money Longer'
Lil Uzi Vert's purple dreads may have annoyed Chief Keef, but they’re an integral part of the Philly rapper’s cartoonish, otherworldly aesthetic. He paints this outsider identity with colorful brushstrokes on Lil Uzi Vert vs. The World, taking his cue from Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s graphic novel Scott Pilgrim in the mixtape’s cover art and on nonchalant love song 'Scott & Ramona'. Lil Uzi comes off as a 2016 hybrid of rock star, romantic crooner and adolescent upstart, inspired as much by his undying love for muse and girlfriend Brittany Byrd as his penchant for Nickelodeon cartoons and graphic novels. Backed by production firepower from Don Cannon, Metro Boomin, Maaly Raw and Wondagurl, he addresses love and infidelity with half-sung, half-rapped honesty (“You was right, I was wrong / Ya, I should've never ever took her home”), climaxing with a heavy ballad in tribute to his Ramona: “I can’t go a day without talking to my baby”. ACW
Serpentwithfeet – ‘Blisters'
In a year littered with allusions to gospel music, Josiah White, aka serpentwithfeet, released one of the best pieces of music indebted to the Holy Ghost. blisters, co-produced by Tri Angle labelmate The Haxan Cloak, is pagan poetry that dabbles in White’s background in classical music and church-going. Short but affecting, the five-song collection delves into queer identity, romantic misery and a perennial longing to have what you want. And that voice? We haven’t heard one that carries this level of emotion since Whitney. CL
Things Our Bodies Used To Have
Good Willsmith – 'Not Your Kids'
In addition to tending the fertile slopes of Hausu Mountain, the label home to their numerous and excellent solo releases this year, the Chicago noise-sorcery-improv trio of Natalie Chami, Doug Kaplan and Maxwell Allison dropped their most song-like suite of live explorations yet as Good Willsmith. Bookended by mournful, churchy keys from Chami, everything in between is freeform but not entirely chaotic: Allison plays time traveler with looping cassettes on ‘A Disease You’ve Probably Never Heard of Is Killing Your Kids’, while Kaplan shreds a rock ‘n’ roll fantasia on ’Not Your Kids’. On the sprawling B-side, arcing synth lines wind round each other like rope for a dirgey finale. Improvisation is all down to chemistry, and Good Willsmith have found their equation. CR
Airport Music For Black Folk
Chino Amobi – 'Milan'
As an artist born to Nigerian immigrants living in Virginia, NON Worldwide co-founder Chino Amobi has long been interested in the feeling of being caught between two cultures. On Airport Music For Black Folk he examines what it means to be a black man travelling through the airports of Europe while claiming these spaces as his own, and not feeling, as he says, “like Western culture has superiority over you.” Amobi’s thought-provoking concept is complemented by his musical language, using robotic vocals, gunshot snares, repeated phrases and uniform electronic textures to reflect the sterility of departure lounges and duty free shops. The title and concept riff on Brian Eno’s ambient classic Music For Airports, but the listening experience is more confrontational than the name would have you believe. SW
Cousin Stizz – '500 Horses'
Boston’s Cousin Stizz shows encouraging progression on his second mixtape MONDA, revealing an attention to detail that most rappers take decades to master, if they master it at all. Everything on the record is meticulously thought out, from the introspective rhymes that balance his Dorchester street tales with his newfound fame to the sizzlingly on-point beats supplied by Cardo (who makes multiple appearances on this list), Tee WaTT, Dumdrumz, Lil Rich and others. Stizz’s secret weapon is balance. He doesn’t ignore the East Coast entirely when he reaches for the ubiquitous Atlanta sound - instead he folds in the dusty sampling and complex verbosity that characterized both New York City and Boston over the decades to create a style that’s both current and curiously respectful. And there’s still a feeling that the best is yet to come. JT
Klara Lewis – ‘Too'
Klara Lewis’s debut album Ett, released in 2014, was an underrated gem, fusing processed field recordings with fractured rhythmic elements in a way that felt fresh and intuitive. Too is a bolder, deeper record that shows an artist in rapid growth. Everything here is zoomed in and refocused: rhythms are brought to the surface, noise is heightened and the field recordings that sit at the foundation of Lewis’s tracks are twisted beyond recognition. “Ambient” music and its surrounding set of micro-genres may have plateaued in recent years thanks to a glut of mediocre releases from scene tourists; Too makes it clear that the genre can still nurture innovation and beauty. JT
The Human Pet
Elon Katz - ‘The Human Pet’
It’s no understatement to call The Human Pet one of the year’s most singular electronic records – there’s just nothing else out there quite like it. Former White Car member Elon Katz has built something so dense and disorienting that it’s hard to believe you’ve digested only six tracks in 25 minutes. Blinding digital surfaces are torn and shredded into pop from a parallel universe, one where DAF, 0PN and David Byrne are bigger than the Beatles, and molded into catchy choruses through Katz’s mangled metallic vocals. He calls it “citric pop” – accurate, maybe, but we’ll just go for “complete genius". CR
Mozzy - 'Round and Round'
When we dubbed Mozzy a rapper to watch in 2016, we couldn’t have predicted how much he’d give us to pay attention to. Within his prolific output of solo and collaborative releases was his full-length tape Mandatory Check, a standout in spite of some shakiness because it solidified his commitment to sincerity. The Sacramento rapper tells it like it is — tough topics are greeted with apprehension, remorse, and a certain introspection that calls back to fellow California resident 2Pac. A lot of ink is spilled about the SoCal renaissance, but what Kendrick Lamar and YG do separately, Mozzy has synthesized into his own brand of reflective street rap. Mandatory Check is an angst-ridden listen, a clear-throated declaration that the new generation of rappers are multidimensional — whether it’s about style or how they process their own internal and external lives. CL
Will Long - 'Pigs (Excerpt)'
Will Long seemed to spring from nowhere when he released a trio of the year’s best house EPs - all of which are collected on Long Trax - without any fanfare. In fact he’s been active for years, producing billowing drones under a variety of monikers, the most acclaimed of which is Celer. His move into deep house territory is as apt as it is surprising, and is perfectly positioned on Terre Thaemlitz’s reliable Comatonse imprint. Thaemlitz even takes the time to add her own personal touches, as DJ Sprinkles, to each track, padding out Long’s euphoric, minimal compositions with her unmistakable square wave bass lines and clipped percussive elements. But it’s Long’s originals that have the biggest impact – while the DJ Sprinkles edits work perfectly in a club setting, his tracks are masterfully restrained, the incremental changes only making sense after repeat listens. It’s serious lights-down, eyes-shut material that recalls another era of deep house - nobody mention Disclosure. JT
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani - 'Closed Circuit'
Too many people, and too many hopes and ideas, died in 2016. Modular synth pioneer Don Buchla passed away in September leaving behind a legacy that his student Suzanne Ciani – an innovator in her own right – implemented in collaboration with fellow modular synth champion Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. The bi-generational Sunergy, released two days after Buchla died, isn’t just an accidental tribute to the inventor – in its own way, it’s a testament to finding inspiration in nature, a grouping of electronic hymns dedicated to environmental preservation, and an unfortunately timed paean to something we are at risk of losing. What first seemed like one of the most exciting consortiums of electronic music this year became a capsule of things we lost. But like the star it is named after, Sunergy shines big and bright. CL
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Botany - ‘Burning From the Edges Inward'
Honestly, this album shouldn’t have worked. Reading the press release, it would be easy to be suspicious: a beat scene guy using free jazz and Popol Vuh influences to make an album with an awkward, slightly jokey Hindi title? There aren’t enough eye-rolling gifs in the world. But once you listen, damn - that hyped description is actually apt. Popol Vuh’s devotional cosmic exploration does indeed sit at the center of Deepak Verbera, but it’s augmented with techniques more often seen in hip-hop. Austin Spencer Stephenson doesn’t mangle his source sounds into post-Madlib sample quilts; instead he bricks up a transcendent wall of sound, conjuring up memories of private press synth records and spiritual free jazz odysseys in the process. It’s a respectful and surprising album that does a great service to its influences - fancy that. JT
Hyper Light Drifter
“I don't long for the past,” Richard Vreeland has said about his score for Hyper Light Drifter, an RPG inspired in part by classic video games such as The Legend of Zelda and Diablo. “It's influenced by the past, sure, but i'm always trying to look forward.” Vreeland’s refusal to pander to rose-tinted ‘80s nostalgia is what has made each of his video game scores so essential, spinning out the sonic signifiers of vintage 8-bit music to create much more expansive soundscapes. Hyper Light Drifter takes inspiration from Debussy and Ravel to evoke the game’s dying world through bittersweet piano interludes, blackened drones and wilting melodies. One of the year’s best scores, in any medium. SW
Second Woman - '700358bc5'
It wasn’t just Autechre and Aphex Twin reviving the atom-splitting beats and wonky melodies of IDM in 2016. Second Woman’s obtuse numeric track titles and mathematical rhythms owe a considerable debt to the work of several pioneering Warp and Planet Mu artists from the ‘90s and beyond, but the New Orlean’s duo’s self-titled debut takes the familiar formula and gives it a high-definition re-rub. More than any other album this year, Second Woman’s collection of molecular dub techno and elasticated electronics is about sheer auditory pleasure; allowing its ASMR-inducing sonics to wash over you is as invigorating as an Indian head massage. SW
Abra - 'Crybaby'
You didn’t need to look hard on Princess, Atlanta singer-producer-composer Abra’s 2016 dose of smoky bedroom pop, for signs of growing confidence. Pinballing from damaged ‘80s chart R&B (‘Vegas’) and chilly choral experiments (‘Thinking Of U’) to slowed smears of minimalist rap (Tommy Genesis collab ‘Big Boi’), the Awful Records alumna turned in six tracks that expanded the sound of last year’s debut album Rose without losing its raw, soul-baring DIY feel (like last time out, Princess was largely recorded alone in her bedroom closet). Bankrolled by a bigger label in New York’s True Panther, many rising artists would have been tempted to go for gloss. Abra’s magic trick on Princess was simply sticking to her guns. AH
Seven Psychotropic Sinewave Palindromes
Jake Meginsky - ‘Seven Psychotropic Sinewave Palindromes (Excerpt)’
There’s nothing like a strict set of constraints to force out the best ideas, and on his brilliantly titled release for NNA Tapes, Massachusetts’ Jake Meginsky (also known as Vapor Gourds) makes minimalist magic from just four simple elements: sine waves, square waves, white noise and an 808 kick drum. Punchy, tactile and disorienting, it’s especially spooky on headphones, and positively psychotropic at full volume. CR
Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Stranger Things Vol. 1 and 2
(Lakeshore / Invada)
When Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things became the year’s best-loved and most talked-about TV show this summer, critics unloaded thousands of thinkpieces speculating on what made it chime so spectacularly with audiences. Maybe the show’s nostalgia nosedive into 1980s pop culture was the perfect distraction from looming political catastrophes on both sides of the Atlantic. Maybe its nods to The Goonies and other ‘80s family movies made for a happy break from the all the bad shit from that era being revived for those in Tory Britain, from brutal welfare cuts to Phil Collins. Or maybe the show’s pulsing soundtrack was what tipped it into a full-on phenomenon: the warm, analogue textures courtesy of Austin band S U R V I V E are the perfect accompaniment to the series’ intrigue, excitement, darkness and drama. We know which we’d point to – no need for a curiosity door there. AH
(Empire/OBE/Steel Wool/Art Club)
Anderson. Paak – ‘The Bird’
Remember Bishop Lamont? How about Dawaun Parker? Neither ringing any bells? That’s because for every Snoop, Eminem and Kendrick Lamar that Dr. Dre nurtured into a hip-hop world-beater, there are two or three more protégés who never made the grade. Eighteen months after signing to the 2001 master’s Aftermath imprint, appearing on Dre’s comeback album Compton a few months later, California’s Anderson .Paak has proved beyond doubt which of these camps he belongs in. 2016 was a phenomenal year for the singer and MC, who could feasibly have appeared twice on this list – in addition to the intensely smooth Malibu, he also released a collaborative album full of stoned charisma with Stones Throw producer Knxwledge under the guise Nx Worries. It’s Malibu that truly demands inclusion here, though: an inventive soul whirlwind heavy on live instruments and even heavier on infectious block party joy. AH
(Styles Upon Styles)
Ohal - ‘Acid Park'
Billed as an “eight movement suite for synthesizers, samplers, and voice,” Acid Park is nothing if not ambitious. Israel-born, Brooklyn-based Ohal obsessively pieced the record together using various complicated, long-winded processes - a refreshing thought in an era of quick fixes - and the result is beguiling, neither straight pop nor bewilderingly avant-garde. Rather, it’s a smart blend of the two, with memorable hooks billowing out over tape-distorted synthesizers and electronic pulses. Acid Park is what happens when good ideas are developed and taken to an actual conclusion, rather than aborted mid-way through the process. JT
Ragga Preservation Society
Seekersinternational - 'Ragga Preservation Society'
It’s hard to get excited about jungle revivalism when many young producers are using the amen break as a nostalgic gesture without really considering the context. Honestly, there’s enough great jungle out there already - the last thing we need is another Special Request. But Ragga Preservation Society is just a little different – a little more sincere. Apparently pieced together from "London pirate radio transmissions, Filipino-Canadian mobile DJ crew gatherings and new age music meditation communes," it’s ragged, rough and raw. It’s also magnificently short, and most of all it’s fucking good fun. If you want to experience what jungle actually felt like, Ragga Preservation Society is as close as we’ve come since Zomby’s actually-very-good Where Were U in ’92. All that’s missing is a smoky back room, a can of Red Stripe and an eighth. Maybe those memberberries aren’t so bad after all. JT
On her third full-length My Woman, North Carolina songwriter Angel Olsen swapped lo-fi folk for ‘60s girl group-inspired torch songs, sung with bite. The follow-up to 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness spans eight-minute sprawls of shimmering country sorrow (‘Sister’), Angelo Badalamenti-tinged synth ballads (‘Intern’) and playful garage-pop hits (‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, complete with self-directed video shot in Olsen’s local rollerskating rink). On Burn Your Fire… we sensed a spellbinding songwriter on the rise; on the remarkable My Woman, she hit true excellence. AH
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Powell – 'Her Face'
Between the billboard stunts, melon smashing and branded wetsuits, it’s easy to forget that Powell is much more than a canny self-promoter - he makes great music too. His debut album was five years in the making, but on Sport his muscular, gristly take on dance music is fizzier and more colorful than ever, as he constructs one of the year’s most unlikely pop albums out of vocals, riffs, breaks and feedback from a stack of old rock records. As he told FACT this year, he “wanted to find a way of making potentially difficult sounds feel not simply ‘accessible’ but actually quite fun,” and Sport delivers that in spades, blending an anarchic punk attitude with the spirit of the best rave you’ve ever been to. SW
If I Can't Handle Me…
Helena Celle - 'Distributed Denial of Reality'
Anxiety bassist and synth scientist Kay Logan surprised us with her dystopian techno project Helena Celle through her dread-filled debut If I Can’t Handle Me…. The tape is a come-as-you-are affair: an MC303 Groovebox amplified to shit with no overdubs, just the artistic confidence that whatever she chose was right — and it is. What’s left to chance here also speaks to some of her ominous yet sarcastic views on our technological future, as on ‘Streaming Music For Biometrics’. If I Can’t Handle Me… sounds almost exhausted by itself, chugging through the fun produced by the MC303 even though the party has long been over and whatever happens at sunrise won’t be pretty. It’s a parable for the future, and some of the most foreboding pre-Brexit and Trump music released this year. CL
From Patterns To Details
Following Oliver Peryman’s trajectory as FIS is hearing one of the late-2000s best purveyors of bass music slide deeper than ever into abstraction, but while From Patterns To Details sounds unrecognizable from his early bangers on the Duckdive EP, it achieves a sensuality like none of his music before. Though FIS’s music developed in the early 2010s in wake of two devastating, scene-destroying earthquakes in New Zealand, this is the first time Peryman’s music has sounded so in tune with nature. ‘SeaPR’ and ‘Sieve Stack’ feel as oceanic as Fennesz’s Endless Summer, but they boil and thunder with an untamed fervor. On the right soundsystem, it’s awe-inspiring. Just remember to brace for impact. MB
DVA [Hi:Emotions] – 'NOTU_URONLINEU'
DVA's [Hi:Emotions] guise isn't new - it's been the name he’s used for remixes of artists from Cooly G to Portico Quartet stretching back to 2010 - but NOTU_URONLINEU is the first of his own projects released under the name. Counter-intuitively, it marks a turn for the jagged and disjointed, from the processed sinogrime of ‘Suzhou’ to the scurrying rhythms of ‘B It’. DVA’s themes are nothing new - electronic artists have been preoccupied by the alienation of online life for years now - but his ideas still stand out, and the album’s finest moments are, tellingly, its most warm and human: the sly humour of portentous jingle-turned-film score ‘Dafuq’, the way the title track morphs into a jazz interlude, the voices of Roses Gabor and Rae Rae on ‘Almostu’. AM
Sophia Loizou – ‘Divine Interference'
It makes sense that sound artist Sophia Loizou is based in Bristol, of all places. The city has been home to some of British music’s most important developments, and on Singulacra, Loizou looks back on a distant era with respect and warmth. This isn’t a half-hearted tribute or dreary exercise in rave nostalgia; rather, Loizou takes familiar snippets and dissolves them in an acid bath of digital noise and sonic detritus. It’s almost like listening to a tape pack getting chomped by an in-car stereo system or hearing a pirate radio broadcast when you’re just outside the transmission zone - all static and occasional bursts of rhythm. The sounds are there, but decaying as fast as our unreliable human memories - it’s a disquieting experience. JT
The Life Of Pablo
Kanye West – ‘Famous’
A Kanye West album is never a mere snapshot in time of the artist Kanye West. Instead, they’re oil paintings with meanings that refract and refract again through the prism of whatever he does or says next. This was true before he began tinkering with his sprawling seventh studio album weeks after its release: Yeezus, for example, felt at the time like a black artist’s rage after hitting the glass ceiling put in his way by the overwhelmingly white fashion industry. But within months, he’d brokered a deal with Adidas and declared racism non-existent, recasting that album as rage against a different type of discrimination – discrimination against Kanye West.
Similarly, The Life of Pablo sounds very different since his claim that he “would have voted Trump” and his subsequent hospitalisation; the lyrics about his mood swings when he’s “off his Lexapro” feel particularly sad and pointed. But what hasn’t changed are the snatches of genius that make Pablo another vital entry in the modern rap canon, from the gloriously sunny, Metro-meme spawning ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1’ to the fizzing Kendrick collaboration ‘No More Parties In LA’. On the melancholy ‘Real Friends’, the weight of being Kanye West is most heavily felt, as he reveals how he paid a cousin $250,000 to give back his stolen laptop. It’s not perfect, pulling in too many directions at once to be completely cohesive. But the same could be said of its flawed, fantastic Rubik’s cube of a creator. AH
Negative Gemini – 'You Never Knew'
On her follow-up to Real Virtual Unison, one of our favourite Bandcamp releases of 2015, Queens-based producer Lyndsey French headed deeper into the club, coating half-forgotten rave memories in a 21st century gloss that pits effervescent synths against vintage breakbeats, flashes of hardstyle and four-to-the-floor kicks. Body Work is a club record for anyone content with dancing on their own. The album's standout, 'You Never Knew', glows white-hot with restless energy but looks out from a lonely outpost where “you only hate the ones you love,” French's voice bouncing around a cavernous empty space. She has an eye beyond the dancefloor, too, addressing street harassment on 'Don’t Worry Bout What The Fuck I’m Doing' with some of the prettiest synth work on the album and lyrics that cut through the bullshit: “I don’t care about your shit face / The street goes down two ways / Don’t worry ‘bout the way I’m going.” ACW
Nearly a year on from his unexpected, yet in hindsight so plainly signposted death, it’s consoling to be able to say that Blackstar really is one of David Bowie’s best. In a lifetime of disparate high points and chameleonic ch-changes, the coda of Bowie’s six-decade career ended up containing some of his most self-assured experimentation: the outré jazz arrangements calling back to his lifelong love of saxophone; the typically oblique lyrics that turned out to be so straightforward (“Look up here, I’m in heaven”); the always recognisable voice sounding almost spectral already. Too early, for sure, but there could have been no more fitting final curtain for the man who turned pop into pure theatre. CR
Demdike Stare – 'Sourcer'
As exciting as it was to hear Demdike Stare dive into grime and jungle on their Testpressing series of 12”s, it felt like a temporary excursion from their trademark sound, as dusty and creepy as an old ouija board. But on their surprise return, Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker proved they weren’t going to be haunted by their earlier work – so consider Wonderland an exorcism. Occasionally, as on opener ‘Curzon’, they revisit Demdike’s darkest depths – but the air is clearer, the sounds brighter, as they draw momentum from the aggression of the Testpressing 12”s. On ‘Animal Style’ and ‘Sourcer’ they find new ways to disorient us with jagged rhythms that fit together like a jigsaw, while ‘Hardnoise’ is a 10-minute techno funhouse of peaks and drops which has something even more unexpected lurking at the end: a hypnotic comedown. Wonderland proves Demdike Stare can apply endurance to momentum, and after so many years in operation they’re still casting new spells over us. MB
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
(Bad Seed Ltd.)
In Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece Wings Of Desire, a Bad Seeds show is visited by one of the film’s angels, invisible to humans but able to hear their thoughts and prayers. The frontman seems to be at an unhinged peak until we hear his weary internal plea: “Just one more song…” Nick Cave has played countless murderers and monsters in his albums, but it’s the character in Wenders’ film that he embodies most on the synth-washed stream-of-consciousness poetry within Skeleton Tree, a heartbreaking album released in the wake of his son’s death. In lyrics mostly written before this tragedy, Cave approaches his greatest themes, love and death, with a newfound expression over a delicate electronic framework. On ‘Rings Of Saturn’ – which could be about a sexual encounter, a birth or a loss of life – the subject of his tale disappears “over heaps of sleeping children” and “dangles herself like a child's dream from the rings of Saturn”. For all its intimacy and shades of autobiography, though, Skeleton Tree’s most powerful line is its most universal and simple: “It’s alright now.” And in that moment, whether he sees us or not, we’re as close to him as Wenders’ angel on the stage. MB
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
(Peder Mannerfelt Produktion)
Peder Mannerfelt – ‘Her Move'
From his Cthulu-inspired mask disguise to working behind the scenes as a pop songwriter (note his credit on Britney Spears' 'Toxic', incredibly), Peder Mannerfelt's work has often riffed on identity. With Controlling Body, the Swedish producer takes on machines, technology and dualism, asking: what even is a body, and how much control do we have over it? To answer this he draws on “the communicative power of the human voice, even its barest form,” sampling various records to build up a library of voices, as he told FACT. Cameron Mesirow, aka Glasser, recorded vowels and vocalisations for him to weave into Dada-esque collages of noise, from the sputtering one-word loops on 'Limit to Growth' and 'Perspectives' to the flesh-and-blood of finale 'I Love You', a scratchy Björk-esque ballad. The low-budget horror mood of 'Abysmal' and its choir of zombies is a reminder of Mannerfelt's cinematic sensibilities, bridging the gap between gothic and sci-fi. Somebody give him a film to score, please. ACW
Young Thug – 'Floyd Mayweather'
Young Thug released three projects this year, but JEFFERY was the meatiest (and its cover art unquestionably helped push it to the front of the queue). Exploring his gift for vocal manipulation by employing no fewer than 35 different vocal techniques, his ability to reel off ad libs as easily as crystal-clear bars continued to set the ATL rapper apart from contemporaries like Future (a voice he also imitates perfectly on this album). As is usual with Thug, songs are named after celebrities or “idols”, with Wyclef, Gucci Mane and martyred gorilla Harambe joining the walk of fame on an album that secures his status as a bona fide pop star. And who else could give us a Rihanna-inspired rap with added sea lion barks? ACW
Bjarki – ‘Here It Comes Can You Feel It'
Last year, Iceland’s Bjarki delivered one of the year’s best techno tracks, the gloriously dumb ‘I Wanna Go Bang’. It stood out in a sea of self-consciously dark industrial tools because it didn’t take itself too seriously, and Б, his first album-length collection, succeeds for the same reason. Whether he’s breaking out the rave hoover on ‘Here It Comes’, channeling Plastikman on ‘Planet Earth Q94’ or going full hands-in-the-air trance on ‘As You Remember’, he doesn’t drop the ball once, reinventing ‘90s techno and rave in his own image. Bjarki refers to Б as a collection of tracks from his archive rather than a proper album, but if the music in his vault is this good, we can only imagine what his debut album proper will be like. SW
Konx-Om-Pax – 'Caramel'
A perfect album title. From the locked groove bliss of ‘Video Club,’ Caramel gets stuck into a zone of gooey euphoria that it doesn’t want to leave, its faded rave atmospheres glowing with a nostalgic vibe that brings to mind Boards of Canada and Casino Versus Japan. Rhythmic workouts like ‘Perc Rave’ and ‘Manhunter’ rattle along next to graceful comedowns like ‘Oren’s Theme’ and ‘Radiance’, brimming with a sleepy dream-logic. Despite its emotional range, peaking on the bracing title track and penultimate stunner ‘At The Lake’, Caramel feels uniform – every song sounds like it could have been the opening track. It’s really an album of beginnings. MB
The Outfit, TX
Green Lights: Everythang Goin
The Outfit, TX – 'Green Lights'
The Outfit, TX have been piecing together essential (and mostly overlooked) Southern Gothic tomes for some years now, but Green Lights marks a distinct shift in the group’s sound. It’s tighter and more focused - some might say more commercial - than its predecessors, but listen closely and you’ll find all the same hallmarks that made Down by the Trinity and Starships & Rockets so bracing. The Dallas trio sound refreshed on Green Lights as they dip into Three 6 Mafia territory, infusing their Memphis forebears’ grim atmospheres with energy, creativity and a lot of sex. Just flip to ‘Precedent’, ‘To The Room’ or ‘What I Like’ for evidence – this is hazy, narcotic music built around (for the most part) local production duo Stunt N Dozier’s chilling productions and carried forward by The Outfit’s stark, assertive raps. Green Lights is the most foreboding and uneasy rap album of the year, and should be celebrated accordingly. JT
There’s no denying that Beyoncé’s Lemonade film was one of the most awe-inspiring creative projects of 2016. Referencing works like Julie Dash’s triumphant, underseen Daughters of the Dust and artist Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All installation, and employing London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire’s work throughout, the film is a wide-ranging syllabus of women’s art set to one of the most narratively intriguing albums of the year. Lemonade as an audio album feels much less tightly knit than its visual companion, but still boasts some of Beyoncé’s most interesting music. She reminds us that black women have always sat on rock ‘n’ roll’s high throne (‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’), crafts compelling kiss-offs and skews the sanctity of marriage (‘Sorry’, ‘All Night’) and makes some of the best protest music of the year (‘Formation’, ‘Freedom’). But in this format, it’s missing the through-line of the film or some of her other albums. Queen B will always come with the hits, but her outlook goes beyond pop music and she’s at her best when she isn’t confined. CL
YG – 'Still Brazy'
“Look at my life,” asks YG on Still Brazy, the follow-up to his massively acclaimed debut studio album My Krazy Life. A lot has happened since 2014 – the Compton rapper has been shot twice in suspected gang-related attacks, while at the same time securing his status as one of the West Coast’s strongest voices. On Still Brazy he gets to grips with his dual identity as gangster rapper and platinum-selling artist. How can he reconcile the two, he wants to know? And who shot him last year? Are his friends with him or against him? And “why everybody want a piece of my pie?” But the album isn't all inward-looking rhymes. G-funk anthems like Terrace Martin-produced standout 'Twist My Fingaz' and catchy-as-fuck 'Why You Always Hatin', featuring Kamaiyah and Drake, fed the clubs. There’s even room for politics on two of the year's most potent protest songs: ‘F.D.T’ and 'Police Get Away Wit Murder', where he lists the names of young black men killed by police. YG won't stop making party anthems, but the darkness of Still Brazy is just as compelling as the turn-up. ACW
The accepted narrative is that Anti’s gestation was a tortuous one. Between 2005 and 2012, Rihanna released seven albums in eight years (or eight albums if you count 2008's Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded, the reissue of the album that made her a megastar). And then… nothing. As generations of songwriters perished in Roc Nation battery farms for her, Badgalriri seemed content blessing us with her presence on Instagram rather than iTunes. Inevitably, when Anti arrived it sounded – just like every Rihanna album since Rated R – like it was thrown together in a fortnight anyway. And, also like every Rihanna album since Rated R, it was a hotchpotch of half-baked ideas (covering a Tame Impala song note for note, the ill-advised eardrum-shattering vocal on ‘Higher’) and pop of irresistibly blasé brilliance. Three-quarters of ‘Work’ is the banger of the year, Rihanna slipping and sliding across a pulsing dancehall riddim (shame about Drake's verse), and ‘Consideration’ is a sour, snappy declaration of restlessness. Best of all, though, is the magnificently cutting poetry of ‘Needed Me’, the perfect dismissive riposte to boys who mistake spilling their tedious emotions for profundity. AM
No One Deserves Happiness
When is a metal album not a metal album? When it’s The Body’s astounding No One Deserves Happiness, a record that owes as much to pop (and Beyoncé in particular) as it does to Darkthrone, Black Sabbath and Napalm Death. That’s not to say it loses any of metal’s impact, either. No One Deserves Happiness is heavier than osmium but offset by unexpected rhythms (the booming “trap” 808 kicks on ‘Two Snakes’, the sizzling hats on ‘Shelter is Illusory’) and Chrissy Wolpert’s ethereal vocals, which serve as the album’s focal point. It’s metal without grandstanding, without toxic masculinity and without the dull re-organizing of well-worn signifiers that has plagued the genre in recent years. This is innovative music. Chip King and Lee Buford aren’t afraid to get ragged when they need to, but they have no problem experimenting with the sublime, either. JT
Jessy Lanza – 'V V Violence'
“If I could say there’s any overarching theme for the record, it’s being rejected, or being afraid of not being able to survive rejection intact,” Jessy Lanza told FACT about her second album. That’s certainly the impression you get from the opening line of ‘VV Violence’: “I say it to your face but it doesn’t mean a thing, no!” she shouts, with all the feigned positivity of a cheerleader. Getting yourself up again when you’ve been knocked back is a well-worn topic in pop music, but on Oh No, Lanza makes it sound like the most joyous thing in the world, building on the smoky sounds of her debut with a backdrop of sparkling Yellow Magic Orchestra-inspired synth-pop. You won’t have seen these songs near the top of the charts, but Oh No is one of the year’s most perfectly formed pop albums. SW
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
A Seat The Table
Solange Knowles has long been the celebrity avatar of the #carefreeblackgirl, a non-conformist who followed her muse wherever it took her with no regard for the world's constraints. But the heart of A Seat At The Table is an immense, ground-down weariness that hangs from it like a weight - the specific fatigue, behind the carefree exterior, of being a black woman in America in 2016. It's an album that acknowledges and conveys depression like few others, particularly on masterful single ‘Cranes In The Sky’. But Solange's willingness to depict sadness, exhaustion and failure is why her album also feels like a salve: rather than building a front of triumphing over her setbacks, she forges bonds of solidarity and compassion out of them.
Navigating her way through A Seat At The Table, Solange's movements are careful and deliberate, as though picking her way across the thinnest of ice (though, as her sly breaking of the fourth wall to address white listeners on ‘F.U.B.U.’ demonstrates, don't mistake this for self-doubt). It's a plain-spoken and spare album, which means even the slightest shift in mood is magnified and granted greater depth: every word, emphasis, drum pattern and dapple of piano exists for a reason. In the week after the US election, A Seat At The Table was the only music that was bearable. It's music that comforts you when you want to give up because it's been there too - which is also its greatest restorative property. AM
In Drum Play
Pangaea – 'Bulb In Zinc'
Kevin McAuley’s career has so closely mirrored the past 10 years of UK club trends that it’s possible to trace its history through his discography. Dubstep, jungle, techno: he’s experimented with it all, but regardless of genre, his slanted grooves and speaker-blowing basslines have kept him ahead of the curve. In Drum Play is ostensibly a techno album, but it’s another example of McAuley taking a well-worn sound and making it feel fresh, blending the taut basslines of his classic tracks like ‘Memories’ and ‘Hex’ with UK funky’s bounce and the searing synth lines of Errorsmith and Fiedel’s cult club favorites MMM. Dropping a debut album nine years into your career comes with a lot of expectations, but In Drum Play confounds them at every twist and turn of the kick drum. SW
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Honestly, even the world’s biggest Tribe fan never imagined that their swansong – their first album in 18 years, longer than the group were even active in the first place – would be this damn good. With everyone on point, We Got It From Here… was the record we didn’t know we needed so badly until it dropped, with Q-Tip, Phife and Jarobi sounding prescient, political, world-weary and wise all at once. The production is earthy and solid rather than nostalgic, with samples molded like putty and unexpected touches found whenever you move in close. They get the best out of their collaborators, using Jack White’s restrained guitar licks and Elton John’s hoarse soul like raw colours and textures, and building a platform for Busta, Andre and Kendrick to shine bright on their verses – yet those practised scene-stealers never overshadow the main event. No player is bigger than the club in Tribe's world. We Got It From Here… is an unexpected gift we’re going to be unwrapping for many years to come. CR
Steve Hauschildt – 'Ketracel'
He may have pinpointed the rusting industrial flats of Cleveland, his hometown, as the inspiration for his fourth solo album, but as you coast across the pristine landscapes of Strands it’s hard to believe that Steve Hauschildt is even operating in the same earthly dimension. Returning to Kranky again, the former Emeralds member takes his synth devotion to new peaks, as tessellating arpeggios and shifting pads react to form a rarefied atmosphere that’s cool, flawless, and almost indulgently beautiful. ‘Same River Twice’ is like being dunked in a pool of liquid crystal, cold and chemical; on ‘Time We Have’, a four-note melody floats in on a breeze, pricked by fizzing banks of noise; while ‘Horizon of Appearances’ is pure fractal bliss. If you’re looking for it you can hear ‘90s IDM, ambient chillout, head shop new age and ‘70s German academia – but in its purism and clarity, Strands feels genuinely timeless. CR
A Good Night In The Ghetto
Kamaiyah – 'How Does It Feel'
Kamaiyah may have dropped her debut in March, before 2016’s shit really hit the fan, but that doesn't make its message any less valid. In as much as setting your own rules for living can be a powerful fuck-you to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, A Good Night In The Ghetto is a stark political statement that asks: “How does it feel to just live?” The Oakland rapper seizes the joy of living “every damn day like a Friday,” flitting between hard-boiled bars and seamless vocals backed by G-funk synths. The album is littered with '90s influences, paying tribute to Biggie on the Jeffrey Osborne-sampling 'Mo Money Mo Problems', while a love of TLC comes to the fore on 'Swing My Way'. With Kamaiyah’s own Big Money Gang thrown into the spotlight alongside Bay Area big-hitter YG, A Good Night in the Ghetto is a modern West Coast classic, one written by a 20-year-old with something to prove after her mother kicked her out of the house. It's about “thriving, living and having a good time,” as she’s said herself – and when the world around you is falling to pieces, a night in the company of your friends can be all you need to feel alive. ACW
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Mitski – ‘Your Best American Girl’
There is a line on Mitski’s 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek that works sort of like a mission statement for her music: “Wild women don’t get the blues, but I find lately I’ve been crying like a tall child.” That song, ‘First Love / Last Spring’, and so much of the emotional meat of this year’s Puberty 2, are about being a strong woman who feels weakened by something. Lead single ‘Your Best American Girl’ is about looking for your place in rigid confines — “You’re the sun, you’ve never seen the night / But you hear its song from the morning birds / Well, I’m not the moon, I’m not even a star / But awake at night, I’ll be singing to the birds” — an ambiguous otherness that anyone marginalized can find relatable.
Her lyrical fearlessness to wax on anxiety and depression, and to admit that sometimes satisfaction can be kind of a bummer, is what makes her one of the most vital voices in indie rock right now. As does her penchant for toying with genre: she plays with punk hooks on ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’, evokes Young Marble Giants on ‘Thursday Girl’ and ‘Happy’, and sounds almost as if she’s looking to jazz on ‘Crack Baby’.
The album also generated some of the year’s best music videos, the Maegan Houang-directed video for ‘Happy' functioning as an actual four-minute horror film about infidelity, murder and the burden of standing by your man. The video for ‘Your Best American Girl' illustrates disappointment oh-so-very literally: Mitski watches as her apparent crush makes out grotesquely with someone else. Puberty 2 considers so much, both aesthetically and in its laid-bare confessions. It looks toward places where someone else has told you that you don’t belong, even though anyone can. CL
Lorenzo Senni – 'Win In The Flat World'
There will always be a hardcore for whom Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ never fell out of favour, but if you’re wondering why trance is suddenly a buzzword again, we largely have Lorenzo Senni to thank. The Milan artist has been exploring the mechanics of the build-up since 2012’s Quantum Jelly, but his debut for Warp is his best work yet – the culmination of years spent observing club culture as a “rave voyeur” and searching for euphoria without a chemical high. But the Persona EP is far more than just an exercise in trance nostalgia: each of the six tracks are tightly woven pop symphonies that sound like a cross between the music of PC Music’s A.G. Cook and Ryuichi Sakamoto. SW
Danny Brown proclaimed himself a “murder music orchestrator” on Atrocity Exhibition lead single ‘When It Rain’ when it dropped in June. On the album that followed, though, he appeared too busy orchestrating his own demise to plot anyone else’s, grinding his teeth through a drug-led depression (“Chest like a furnace… nauseous, don’t know the last time I ate”) on opener ‘Downward Spiral’ and continuing in that direction for the rest. From his hyena howls about self-medicating to deal with “feeling like I’m not alive” on ‘Rolling Stone’ to the nose-bleed dizziness of ‘Dance In The Water’, the Detroit MC fashions an even more harrowing ride through the highs and grim lows of addiction than on Old and XXX, neither of which exactly flinched in their depictions of fucked-up drug dependence.
The result is Brown’s most ferocious album yet, and so nearly the best album of the year – 15 tracks which, inspired by everyone from Joy Division to System Of A Down, search far afield for musical inspiration, but lyrically delve inward, as Danny attempts to overcome his own tattered psyche. Throw into the mix arguably the year’s starriest posse cut, ‘Really Doe’, featuring Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, and a brilliant chemistry with producer Paul White – who provides nine of the 15 productions here, fogging the backdrop for Brown’s bars with near-choking murk – and we’re talking about an album by an artist at the peak of his game. Danny got at least one thing right on the stunning ‘When It Rain’ – you ain’t heard it like this before. AH
Bird Sound Power
Equiknoxx - 'Last of The Mohicans'
If 2016 was the year dancehall truly permeated mainstream pop, then it was prescient for Demdike Stare to tap Jamaican production outfit Equiknoxx for their DDS label, where they showed off the island’s most experimental urges. Bird Sound Power is an anthology of sorts, pieced together by Demdike’s Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker alongside Jon K from material that dates back as far 2009, but still sounds totally contemporary. The meeting of minds between Gavsborg, a studio veteran, and Time Cow, a young whizz-kid, sits at the center of the album, and while members Bobby Blackbird and Kofi Knoxx make appearances, it’s the interplay between youthful innovation and older dancehall expertise that makes these productions so essential.
Gavsborg hit the scene over a decade ago, producing Busy Signal’s 2005 hit ‘Step Out’, and he’s been in demand since, so his templates are fizzing with dancefloor energy, pulled to pieces by Time Cow’s innovative treatments and infused with a rough, unpredictable energy. Bizarrely, at times it’s not a million miles from Demdike Stare’s own productions or The Bug’s jagged dancehall reconstructions, but Equiknoxx eclipse their peers by never losing sight of the central lilt of dancehall. That bass and swing is present even on the album’s most challenging moments - proof that even the back room can bounce. JT
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Jenny Hval – ‘Female Vampire'
We often think of pop and avant-garde as opposing forces, but throughout this terrifying year they seemed to huddle together for warmth, as tragedy upstaged tragedy and heroes died all around us. Kanye rapped over Arthur Russell before a breakdown, David Bowie embraced free jazz to achieve one last rebirth, and Beyoncé confronted history in a film by turns emotional and abstract.
Our top album of 2016 fits this bracket – an experimental record with pop flourishes made as a celebration of spirit, flesh and (menstrual) blood. Norway's Jenny Hval faces her fever dreams on Blood Bitch, where vampiric fantasies and diaristic reflections blur together like shadow puppets projected inside her skull. With production assistance from noise artist Lasse Marhaug, Hval weaves motorik trances, musique concrète infernos and blushing synth-pop, blending the earthly misery of Throbbing Gristle to the astral grace of Arthur Russell with untold authority.
In a year when so many felt so alienated, when identity itself felt at risk, the intimacy, intellectualism and unflinching honesty of Blood Bitch was both a comfort and a challenge. Hval has always been a master of razor-sharp observations — of her surroundings, her body, her feelings and the language with which to express them — but never more so than in these needlepoint twists and turns. She hypnotizes us with them, blocking out the rest of the world until, as she murmurs on ‘Conceptual Romance,’ “it’s you and I.” It’s the same declaration Kate Bush made on 'Running Up That Hill', and rarely in three decades has an artist’s imagination better earned that comparison.
You could hear Hval edging toward auteur status on her last release, 2015’s apocalypse, girl, an album that credited characters from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona in the liner notes. Blood Bitch goes further, not only replicating the film’s most iconic shot for its album cover, but absorbing that film’s pioneering postmodern spirit. Just as Persona opens with a child staring curiously at us before touching the screen, blurring the line between observer and observed, Hval's opening line on ‘Ritual Awakening’ nods to how some people will likely be listening to Blood Bitch: “I clutch my phone with my sweaty palm in my hand”.
The album ends on a question with the elegiac ‘Lorna’, an ode to vulnerability, empathy and desire. “No one ever told me or taught me not to contain it," Hval sings of this desire. "It kept existing, but there was no language / Does anyone have any language for it? / Can we find it?” The answer to that final question is elusive, but the meditations before it offer a universe to search inside. MB
Written by Miles Bowe, Al Horner, Claire Lobenfeld, Alex Macpherson, Chal Ravens, John Twells, April Clare Welsh and Scott Wilson.