The Mancunion’s favourite albums of the past year, lovingly compiled and illustrated by our contributors
2016 was like living through a fine disaster movie — terrible things are happening all around you, but at least the music isn’t half bad. In music, we may always remember this year as one in which we said farewell to a lot of established greats, but there’s cause for optimism too: many contemporary artists made their own bids for the canon with their greatest and most singular works yet, many of which are represented in this list.
And, although we lost a lot of greats this year, some of 2016’s most prominent releases harked back to when these dead stars were in their primes, when album releases were top-tier events. Beyoncé released Lemonade out of the view and in the format of a video album and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo was repeatedly tinkered with after its release. Both force us to reconsider our fixed ideas of what constitutes an album. The death of the album, so readily predicted in recent years, may have to be pushed back a little.
We may also look at 2016 as the year that popular music got political again: one year ago, who honestly would have expected Beyoncé to tackle black politics at the Superbowl, capped off with a Black Panther salute? The Life of Pablo may not have been explicitly political (perhaps, after West’s recent political interventions, it’s better that way) but it was certainly a grand statement of something or other. The 30 Days, 50 Songs project stimulated political interventions from all over the music industry, reminding us that, if little else, we can enjoy what will no doubt be a rich thread of outrage in our music for a few years forthcoming.
There’s a lot to process then. Accordingly, we millenials have turned to irony as a perfect refuge from having to take any of this seriously: our contributors have accompanied each entry in our top ten list with their original take on its artwork, filtered through the high production values and authenticity offered only by Microsoft Paint, all for your viewing pleasure. I’m not convinced that we’re karmically allowed to have another year of such exciting music without everything else we’ve put up with in the last twelve months, so read over our list of 2016’s best album releases and enjoy it – you’ve earned it.
– Joe Casson
10) Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Released 8th April via Rough Trade
Human Performance is the latest release in Parquet Courts’ fairly large body of work, and it is certainly their greatest to date. The album retains their distinctive guitar-based sound and witty lyrics, yet somehow is a step up from their previous work — it’s almost Parquet Courts 2.0. The perfect balance between emotional, meaningful vocals and catchy guitar and bass instrumentals has been struck — Human Performance is an album equally as pleasurable to sit and listen to as it is to dance (or sway) to. The opening instrumental to ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ is one of the best moments of the album, and the rest of the song follows suit. Other top songs on the album are ‘Dust’, ‘Captive of the Sun’ and ‘Human Performance’.
– Eliza Slawther
9) Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
Released 21st October via Columbia
The sad passing of Leonard Cohen this year was made only more poignant by his last album. A dark brooding record, You Want It Darker embodies much of what people think of when they think of Leonard Cohen: smooth and steady music with production to match, and evocative lyrics delivered in his deep, hoarse croak. An album of startling stylistic consistency, the music takes you to an underground blues bar in Manhattan, but the lyrics often feel like Mr Cohen is at the bar with you, speaking his mind. Engaging, sombre and unique, this album pleases both old fans and new.
– Christian Hurry
8) Solange – A Seat at The Table
Released 30th September via Saint/Columbia
In 2016, black artists issued politically-informed albums at will. Everything from Michael Kiwanuka bemoaning being a black man in a white world to Frank Ocean’s minor-yet-significant tribute to Trayvon Martin (“RIP…that nigga look just like me”). Nonpareil pop queen Beyoncé made Lemonade from the lemons of infidelity, feminine disempowerment and racial prejudice, her artier sister Solange delivered her state-of-the-nation address in the form of A Seat at the Table — its title alone imbued with meaning. It wasn’t lemons but limes hurled at her at a Kraftwerk gig that provoked her wrath. No less caustic with righteous anger and pain than Lemonade, A Seat at the Table was pointed, but never polemical, her angst and frustration offset by the soothing, undulating music on offer. “I got a lot to be mad about,” she sang rather sweetly on ‘Mad’, her rage cast behind warbling, gossamer production, her voice the embodiment of resolute calm in the face of adversity. A healing balm for a bruising year.
– Jacob Bernard-Banton
7) Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Released 30th September via Jagjaguwar
Since rising to fame with his gentle, woodsy folk album For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver has certainly come a long way. 22, A Million arrived after Justin Vernon’s five-year break from Bon Iver and anyone who has tracked his journey will be able to clearly distinguish its influences from artists with whom Vernon has collaborated during that time. Although the acoustic guitar has been swapped for samples, synths and sequencers, the intimate emotions expressed in Vernon’s work are still prevalent. The interspersed industrial clashing noises that appear in certain songs could be perceived as unnecessary but after a few listens, it’s hard to picture the album without them. Highly recommended tracks are ‘666 (Upsidedowncross)’ and ’33 “God”‘.
– Charlotte Ridout
6) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Released 9th September via Bad Seed Ltd.
Few albums are as indelibly coloured by their circumstances as Skeleton Tree, the latest offering from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. The death of Cave’s teenage son is skirted around and only alluded to in the abstract, but its presence dominates the record. Thankfully for the listening public, Cave poured his grief into his work and carried on, resulting in a gorgeous and thoroughly intrusive collection of eight songs that discard Cave’s malevolent, gothic brooding in favour of lush, magisterial soundscapes. Cave’s voice cracks and wavers, but it’s his numb horror that makes the work so startlingly resonant.
– Callum Oliver
5) Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Released 14th February via GOOD
Kanye West’s “living, breathing, changing creative expression”, completed a full four months after its initial release, is a sprawling, twenty-track sonic outpouring. Mixing a myriad of production styles with West’s characteristic affinity for soulful samples and visceral one-liners, it’s as confessional as it is crass but above all compelling and stunningly current. The Life of Pablo is a hot mess. A mirror held to its creator, it’s both tumultuous and touching while also sees Kanye at his most self-aware. With his trademark modesty West took to Twitter to declare “This is not album of the year. This is album of the life.” Maybe it isn’t his best album, but it’s by far his most ‘Kanye’ to date, messy in places but all the better for it.
– Ben Lomax
4) Frank Ocean – Blonde
Released 20th August via Boys Don’t Cry
After what felt like an eternity of delays, Frank Ocean finally released his long-awaited sophomore album this summer. Ocean took a different approach to this album, utilising a minimalist, stripped-back production style whilst still employing his characteristically ingenious metaphors and introspective lyricism. In part, Blonde serves as a social commentary on society’s obsessions with masculinity, materialism and narcotics, with songs such as ‘Seigfried’ and ‘Nikes’ reflecting this. Ocean employs an impressive collection of features on the album, including the likes of Beyoncé (‘Pink & White’) and Kendrick Lamar (‘Skyline To’), yet their minimal contribution to Blonde highlights Ocean’s confidence in his own artistry and talents. After much anticipation, Frank Ocean didn’t disappoint, which is why Blonde places at a commendable #4 on our year-end list.
– Charlie Maudsley
3) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Released 11th November via Epic
We Got It… takes you on a journey through time and space. Futuristic yet classic, this album has a timeless flow: though they’re anything but monotonous, each song carries a tuneful ease that makes them instantly loveable. You’ll travel through the album noticing clever riffs, lyrics and samples, but also a nostalgic tone: ‘The Donald’ includes touching mentions of Tribe’s late vocalist Phife Dawg and childhood cartoons are sampled. Tying together a mishmash collection of cultures, periods and people into a cohesive package, the album is perfect for any mood and will get you moving in your seat, vibing in your living room or jumping in a crowd. Bringing the past and present together before launching into the future, We Got It… is one of 2016’s best releases.’
– Sophie Billington
2) David Bowie – Blackstar
Released 8th January via Columbia Records
There were only two days where it was wasn’t obvious what David Bowie’s Blackstar was about. Following his death, songs such as ‘Lazarus’ and ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ were painful to listen to. It was so transparent that Bowie was coming to terms with his impending death. Yet, the universal theme of life is combined with experimental jazz, making it his most experimental work since Station To Station and one of his most cryptic too. Overall, Blackstar acts as the perfect, reflective bookend to a truly exceptional career.
– Cassie Hyde
1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Released 8th May via XL
A Moon Shaped Pool ended Radiohead fans’ five-year wait for a ninth studio album. The wait was worth it though, as A Moon Shaped Pool delivered a continuation of the highly acclaimed art-rock style which Radiohead have perfected since 2000’s Kid A. Songs such as opener ‘Burn the Witch’ and album closer ‘True Love Waits’, which both originated in different forms in the early 2000s, structure the personal nature of the album. Through the recurring use of electronic elements and lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s choral arrangements, A Moon Shaped Pool provides an enchanting soundtrack to the narrative of love and regret told by Thom Yorke. Album highlights include second single ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Decks Dark’, in which Radiohead’s evolving style flourishes considerably. With a huge 2017 tour in wait, A Moon Shaped Pool provides yet more ammunition for the huge arsenal owned by one of British music’s finest creations.
– William Bain
Editor’s Pick: Mitski – Puberty 2
Released 17th June via Dead Oceans
In late spring, 26-year-old singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki released Puberty 2, a carefully-arranged, lucid and gruelling mind-map of the everyday search for happiness and stability. Mitski’s compositional chops have progressed in leaps and bounds, taking us in the record’s short-but-sour thirty-one minutes from rumbling drum machines and blaring horns in opener ‘Happy’ through a subversion of classic indie rock tropes underscoring the pains of a culture-clashing relationship in ‘Your Best American Girl’, a highlight of the album and the year. Lyrically, Mitski looks past narratives of heartbreak or love, instead she explores the complicated spaces in between, where ‘a loving feeling’ can still leave you feeling alone. “Happiness fucks you”, she writes in the liner notes. Direct but nuanced, sophisticated but heart-wrenching – Puberty 2 is Mitski’s best yet and one of the year’s finest too.
– Joe Casson
Editor’s Pick: Sia – This is Acting
Released 29th January via Inertia
If there’s a secret recipe for writing the ultimate pop hit, then Sia not only owns it but has perfected it. This Is Acting is an album almost entirely comprised of singles written for other artists — her most recent chart dominator, ‘Cheap Thrills’ was originally intended for Rihanna, whilst ‘Alive’ was rejected by Adele. And yet there is no one that should perform these songs other than Sia, who not only knows how to create a brilliantly catchy number one, but also brings something refreshingly edgy and exciting to pop music. There is something almost brutal about the way This Is Acting holds nothing back. Sia has torn her heart out, thrown it onto the floor and invited everyone to dance all over it. Executing each track with brilliant conviction, it is not just the intoxication of her music that makes you desperate to get up and dance, but the rawness that tinges her choruses that has made This Is Acting one of the most unforgettable albums of the year.
– Katie Shepherd