iTunes threatened to kill albums and then Spotify came along and once again nearly made the album extinct but it’s fought back. 2016 has albums prove their worth better than in any year since The Guardian declared the album dead.
In 2016, they weren’t just a collection of tracks. There were records that begged to be listened to from start to finish, presenting narratives that couldn’t be devoured properly in chunks. You couldn’t pluck songs in isolation because their bookends were just as important as the song itself.
These are the albums that argued the above point for us.
Illustrations by Bianca Bosso.
SAFIA – Internal
SAFIAs debut album came with what felt like very real and heavy expectation, following a steady stream of hits from the Canberra electro-instrumental outfit over the past few years. The mainstay and most clearly defining feature of their music has always been Ben Woolners inimitable vocals and particularly his incredible use of falsetto – and although some may have expected this to be used more as a centrepiece on the album, there was still plenty to wrap your ears around.
From the sprawling instrumental opener Zion to more radio-friendly hits like Fake It Til The Sunrise, there was plenty of exploration of the SAFIA sound on this album. Although none of the new material really surpassed the already released Embracing Me and Make Them Wheels Roll, SAFIAs debut was a strong one and really showed off their incredible ability to consolidate an unpredictably diverse range of ideas within an album that works brilliantly as a whole. – Zanda Wilson
Lido – Everything
TMHTF feels like a final blow in an incredible fight where Im left exhausted. This song needs to be played at absolute peak volume and screamed along to until your neighbours begin banging on your walls. Astrid S ends the album with a surprisingly sweet and hopeful melody alluding to the fact that perhaps our favourite Norwegian is ready to move on. – Meshell Webb
Read her review of all of the tracks here.
Skepta – Konnichiwa
“Skepta does more than enough to show why he is such a prominent name in the genre of grime, and prove himself worthy of the mainstream recognition he is now beginning to have. On face value, it might seem that Skepta has taken more cues from Drake than the latter has from Skepta, but if considered close enough the opposite may well be true. Suck on that one, fam!” – James Schofield
Shura – Nothings Real
Funnily enough, Nothings Real is so successful because everythings real. Nothings forced, overthought or sugar-coated. Its difficult to imagine what more you could ask for from a debut record. Shes expanded on her early sound without abandoning it and effortlessly explored light and shade without detouring far from her comfort zone. Without having ever met Shura, this album makes you feel otherwise. To critique its lyrics or sonic direction would almost be like critiquing Shuras own personality. And luckily theres barely a flaw to be seen on Nothings Real.
Shes not breaking new ground here but theres a skill in making comfortable music exciting and thats exactly what this is familiar without being safe. – Sam Murphy
Read the full review here.
The Range – Potential
Throughout Potential there are detours into grime and British electronic music, but for the most part Hinton isnt occupying any particular space of electronic music. Hes not trying to create something for others to follow or attempting to be intricate for the sake of ostracising people who arent true musicians. Potential is just an expertly crafted record that comes unfiltered from a creator who is emotional, technical and inquisitive. By using voices plucked from YouTube those hes taken his own complicated feelings and made them universal. Thats why the record is so easy to connect to and its what will keep you coming back to it too. – Sam Murphy
Read the full review here.
Tkay Maidza – TKAY
Id be lying if I didnt say that Tkay Maidzas debut album is something Ive been hanging out for since I first started listening to her back in 2014. Tkays ability to create fresh, fun-loving tracks with singsong melodies is only further exhibited in her self-titled, debut album TKAY. It oozes with the young, 21 year-old, artists fiery, confident personality, each song is packed with the same amount of energy the pocket rocket gives at her live shows, creating an album full of dance floor ready hits.
Stand out tracks include; Always Been, Tennies, Monochrome, Drum Sticks No Guns, Follow Me and the absolute banger Simulation, where Tkay unleashes her inner pop queen whilst showcasing just how strong her vocals are. The album as a whole jumps and dives between pop, hip hop and dance hits leading to a collection of songs that never hit a dull moment. Its the perfect album to chuck on at a party as the eclectic mix of tracks means everyone will find a track to jam too.
The colourful, bouncy production will leave you guessing what Tkay has in store for you next as you jump from track to track, whilst the infectious synths and hard-hitting instrumentals will leave you wanting more. Maidza takes us on a journey from high-school student to superstar crafting an album for the younger generation, full of relatable lyrics that will resonate with anyone making the shift from adolescent to adult. Its a triumph of a debut album for an artist only just beginning her journey in the spotlight. – Gabrielle Clement
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
“The Present Tense is a journey of pure excitement and joy being suffocated by Thom’s blatant depression dripping throughout the lyrics.”
I wrote that earlier in the year, and since sitting with the rest of the album for 6 more months or so, its come to be the whole album drips the same way, now as the news of Thom Yorke’s wife dying has come, this album takes on an even sadder shape.
Radiohead are the true emotional roller coaster designers, this album manufactured soundscapes and vocals that turn heads from music lover to film buff, when Radiohead drop an album its always more than just aural, its an all 5 senses experience.
Songs like Daydreaming and the resurrected True Love Waits will leave you reconsidering every life choice you ever made. Thought on a lighter note the clip for Burn the Witch will make you want to watch postman pat, so there’s that. – Jack Cain
Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman
Bloody Hell. Ive said it before and Ill say it again: WHAT AN ALBUM.
Theres a decent chunk of tracks from this album which still cop at least one listen a week from me. Theres nothing I love more than a big, unashamedly pop moment, and Dangerous Woman has them in spades. Whether its the key change in the last chorus on Greedy, the house influences in Knew Better/Forever Boy or the la la las throughout Sometimes, Ariana (and friends!) set the benchmark for a big pop diva release in a way that honestly hasnt been seen this decade, let alone in 2016.
Im still holding out hope that Be Alright will get an official single release and fulfil all of my vogue-tastic dreams but Ill settle with Touch It or Everyday to close out the era if I absolutely must. – Matthew Fiacchi
Ngaiire – Blastoma
Blastoma is the best thing Ngaiires done but it’s also the best thing we heard locally this eyar. Even on an international scale this stands up to 2016s excellent soul releases like Gallants Ology and Anderson .Paaks Malibu. Without following any sonic trends, shes crafted an album that sounds like its built itself organically, coming straight from the heart. As obvious as that sounds, its hard to do when youre getting opinions from several different angles.
Ngaiires an old soul with a futuristic vision and on Blastoma, shes found a way to marry the two. – Sam Murphy
Read our full review here.
NAO – For All We Know
For All We Knows charm isnt forced, its subtle. Itll take repeat listens for Naos allure to fully grip you but theres something magical about that. She hasnt made a record that shoves her arrival in your face, rather shes been smart about crafting a multi-genre sound that feels classic already. When I drip my perfume on my pillowcase, thats when you know I was there, she sings, aptly describing her lasting presence on the record. You may not know it, but For All We Know will linger with you long after shes sung her last note. Listening is the only way you can consume it, obviously, but once its done the textures and flavours will lodge in your memory. Thats the mark of a long-lasting classic. One youll return to for years to come. – Sam Murphy
DAWN – Redemption
Theres so much to appreciate from a thematic point-of-view that its easy to under appreciate the forward-thinking sound of this project. On Blackheart she consistently pushed the boundaries production-wise but it didnt carry as much lyrical weight as Redemption. On Redemption shes managed to bring both and some of the production-choices are spectacular. Album highlight and opener Love Under Lights soars thanks to a pulsating tempo change that makes an already great song greater. Under anyone elses guidance Lazarus wouldve been a forgettable mid-tempo but with Machinedrum at the helm it becomes a dizzying, busy trip. Each song blends effortlessly into the next, making it easy to get to the end without realising that youve just devoured 15 songs.
Redemption isnt going to take over the charts but its probably the best alternative for those who crave the melody of a pop hit but are fed up with the copy/paste aesthetic that the radio beams out. None of these songs are word-heavy, in fact repetition is key on a number of the songs, but DAWN goes for quality not quantity, meaning what she does say hits hard. That combined with the intentionally futuristic sonic-backdrop makes Redemption a record that stands alone in 2016. It analyses the past and the present but only so that it can deduce a euphoric alternative for the future. – Sam Murphy
Tourist – U
There were many incredible debut records this year, but for us one of the picks of the bunch came from Tourist with U. At the its core, U is really just classy dance music. In a sense that if you are after a banger or a piece of high octane electro-house than you best leave and go elsewhere because what Tourist has captured in U is modern day dance marvel. Packed with emotion, its filled with euphoric anthems that command the dance floor. The record is so much more than its hits Run and To Have You Back. With tracks like For Sarah, Waves and title track U its no wonder this Grammy award winning producer is now in the upper echelon of electronic music producers. Heres to hoping William Phillips you can keep this flair, whilst continuing to push the dance music boundaries because hell, electronic dance music needs it right now. – Harrison Kefford
Francis And The Lights – Farewell, Starlite
Our love for one of 2016s most buzzed about artists continues to grow, and Farewell, Starlite! was and still is a triumph. The best thing about this record is that it offered a fresh perspective from an artist who has been born again, so to speak. The name Francis and the Lights wasnt on the radar of mainstream music culture, but it sure is now. Through his Bon Iver & Kanye West collab Friends, as well as his work on Chance The Rappers Summer Friends, Mr Starlite did an incredible job at making sure he stayed on our radar. Although this record has its bonafide hit in Friends, Farewell, Starlite! is so so so much more with other offerings like Thats Just Life (See Her Out) and My Citys Gone making this record one of the best and most dynamic sounding of 2016. – Harrison Kefford
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank U 4 Ur Service
ATCQ have always challenged the sonic palette. From their debut albums dizzying displays of multi-textured samples and subliminal lyrics, the group were always the most cohesive members of the Native Tongues movement, whether their fans went along with the journey or not. Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement were ATCQs most misunderstood projects that would, thanks to hindsight, lay the foundations for Neo Soul, indie RnB and the Beat scenes that emerged after their break-up in 1998.
Its therefor wonderful that ATCQ can re-emerge at their most challenging, both stylistically and from a content perspective in 2016 and be so adored for it. Never have they been so political (its very anti-Trump); courting an over-cooked disaster with so many chefs in the kitchen and the expectations of what everyone knows would be their final statement thanks to the death of founding member Phife Dawg in March. They have arisen triumphantly and WGIFHTY4YS solidifies the group as one of the most important voices in contemporary Music History. – Huwston
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Kaytranadas Boiler Room set from Montreal at the end of 2013 is one of my favourite videos on YouTube. As the Canadian producer cuts and scratches, theres fervour of movement that engulfs the rest of the frame: A woman in pastel shirt contorts and dances without abandon for the almost the whole set. A guy with a patchy beard obnoxiously creeps on every woman and gets swatted away every time. A stoner in a Warren Sapp jersey has an existential awakening as he stands at the DJ booth. All the while Kaytranada, decked out in his dorkiest Karieem Riggins t-shirt, remains laser-focused. The room around him becomes an engrossing spectacle of people reacting to his music.
That scene is translated to wax remarkably well on 99.9%. Kaytranda remains a reserved protagonist, supplying the thumping, steady heartbeat that guides the groove of the album whilst the guests fill out the frame. Craig David and Phonte are cool uncles, watching the young bucks Vic Mensa and GoldLink wild out. Aluna Francis and Yukimi Nagano are the fashionable girls everyones dying to be friends with as Anderson .Paak saunters through like he owns the place. Syd from the Internet literally owns the place.
It all compiles to make 99.9% the soundtrack for the best house party well never be invited to. For one hour, Kaytranada leaves the gate unlatched, letting us sneak in and stand square in the middle, just as he did in Montreal, watching all the madness unfold around us. – Reece Hooker
James Blake – The Colour In Anything
James Blake‘s third album The Colour In Anything is a heavy, difficult record to consume. At 17 tracks, for most artists it would be definitely too long. Drake and The Weeknd both suffered this year at the hands of over-stuffed records but Blake doesn’t suffer the same fate. Each song on The Colour In Anything has a place. Each is emotionally profound and uncovers another dimension to Blake’s complicated personality giving a directness to his songwriting that he’s previously never shown us.
On his last two records, you got the feeling he was a producer first and foremost but on The Colour In Anything we’re introduced to Blake as a songwriter. His love for Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You is all over this LP in the way he finds simplistic beauty in moments on heartache. On the title track he sings, “And how I told you what I’d do/If one day I woke and couldn’t find the colour in anything,” and immediately every listener grabs for their heart. On closer Meet You In The Maze he concludes, “music can’t be everything.” It’s a nihilistic realisation and yet for the majority of the record, it’s as if music is everything. It’s therapeutic, euphoric and challenging all at once. Where else would Blake channel his heavy thoughts if not for his music?
Blake found a way to blend the producer and the songwriter this year and he did so masterfully. Amongst all the heavy thoughts, I Hope My Life stirs with a club-ready fury, Choose Me climbs a daunting mountain of synths and I Need A Forest Fire flickers with electronic distortion. Both his words and sounds give a window into his complicated mind and we’ve never been deeper in it than on The Colour In Anything. – Sam Murphy
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
“It might be over soon,” are the first words that flood your ears when you put this album on, and as a stand alone piece of music, this album is truly brilliant and great, but with context behind it, it’s one of the best of all time for me.
For any fan of Bon Iver, this album should, at least, mean a lot to you, it was essentially made for you, on purpose. Justin Vernon spoke about not understanding how people could be singing back lines to him about places they’ve never been or people and moments they don’t understand. This album is, for lack of better words a universal attempt, a unification on purpose rather than by accident.
The songs follow all kinds of narratives both lyrically and musically, channelling some of musics greats from past and present. There are easter eggs throughout this whole release in the music and in its truly, pun-intended, symbolic existence.
If you really want to dig into 22, A Million, read this first. – Jack Cain
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Enthusiasm bleeds out of Malibu, Anderson .Paak‘s first record since he fell into the public eye on Dre’s Compton. He’s such a bright and vivacious performer – perhaps the greatest live act this year – and yet you don’t even have to see him live to know that because Malibu shows you. It’s got a vibrancy to it that makes it feel as if it’s playing out live in front of you every time you press play.
Throughout the 16-track effort, we’re drip-fed the different aspects of Paak’s musical personality. Soulful opener The Bird draws you in gently, The Season / Carry Me poignantly tells the story of his childhood using Nikes as the centrepiece and Am I Wrong takes us direct to the dancefloor. All the while, he sets it in California, using retro soundbites to capture the old heart of Malibu. This would feel gimmicky on many records but Paak is an old soul. You only need to hear the howling, gravelly tones of Come Down to know that he’s got a piece of James Brown in there. – Sam Murphy
Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Coloring Book is happy. Its hopeful. Its the kind of gospel music Kanye West might have made if he didnt have access to Twitter and married Sumeke Rainey as he promised back in 2003. Its also incredibly clever: the ever-entertaining revolving doors of guests on Coloring Book are set up to succeed. Doing a song about the mire of record labels? Bring in expert witness Lil Wayne. Feeling alien in the rap game? Lil Yachty and Young Thug on hand to pass comment. And for a sensual candle-burner about a squeaky clean teenage crush? Justin Bieber, of course.
As creatively orchestrated Coloring Book is, the pulse of the project remains with the rapper, Chance. Looking down at his out-of-frame newborn on the cover, the album radiates with the glory of a young man ready to actually embrace his immense potential. Everything is taken up a notch: Same Drugs sounds like another in a long list of Chance songs about drugs, but the first to writhe with an understated pain as it creatively uses familiar language to speak in metaphor about tougher subject matter. Summer Friends is a tender look back that would never have made sense on Acid Rap.
The evolution of an artist is rarely linear, but Chance the Rapper may be the exception to the rule. He raised eyebrows with his unconventional style on 10 Day, he marked his territory as the next to blow on Acid Rap and then beat the hype on Coloring Book.
To catch up, Chance started the year flexing on the Grammys (called them out on Ultralight Beam, they changed the rules, now hes nominated) and spent it winning every guest verse he appeared on (Girls @, Fool Wit It, Need to Know and the aforementioned ULB, for starters). Chance the Rapper is raps Russell Westbrook: entertaining, talented and the guy who does effortlessly does everything better than anyone else. – Reece Hooker
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Hynes doesn’t pretend to have all the answers on Freetown Sound but his astute, genuine and passionate observations make this record comforting to anybody who feels they don’t completely fit in a certain box. Hands Up is a protest song about police brutality but instead of delivering it with a punk-based anger, he approaches it gently, as if he’s gently comforting the victim rather than shouting at the perpetrator. “Are you okay? What’s in your way?” he sings over one of the most heart-breaking melodies of the whole record. He asks many questions on the album, always involving others in the conversation and/or simply comforting the subject of his stories.. After all, he ends the entire album with the question, “does it just feel better numb?”
Freetown Sound is Hynes’ best album to date. It’s beautifully pieced together and while it’s not always completely coherent, part of what makes it so interesting is the way you can jump through Hyne’s head and his many thoughts. While it may not answer many questions it reminds minorities that there’s always someone out there with a similar, worthwhile story to tell. “I will tell you that on the days I dont feel pretty/I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me,” Haze says on the album’s opener and perhaps this album will provide some with a similar comfort to what Missy did. – Sam Murphy
Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
The Life Of Pablo isnt Kanyes best album but its endlessly entertaining and so ambitious that its hard not to marvel at. Hes gathered together an all-star cast of producers (plus put a spotlight on newcomers like DJ Dogder Stadium) and, even when he takes a background role like on Ultralight Beam, he still remains the protagonist. A lot of the time its like hes simply saying, look what I can do, like when he slips a Frank Ocean verse in during the albums dying moments or adds a testimony that could either be directed towards God or Yeezy himself (I love him so much because hes done so much for me.) As much as his ego and genius statements can get exhausting, youd have to take this any day over an artist who is simply riding in between the lines. The Life Of Pablo is an edge-of-your-seat type of album. One that has you constantly questioning what hes going to do or say next and theres not enough music like that. The whole thing from the album hype-build to its eventual release has been a spectacle and its been addictive to watch. Hes mad as a meat axe but when has any ordinary person made something extraordinary? – Sam Murphy
Rihanna – ANTI
Fractured, messy, confusing – not the results you’d hope for after four year wait for an album. Rihanna‘s has always been a singles popstar. She’s never made anything cohesive nor has she really tried to because she’s survived (and thrived) of four or five singles. ANTI was her first attempt at making a memorable album. It came out of the gates with her least radio-friendly single yet Work and put a focus on mirroring RiRi’s public, no-fucks-given demeanour in her music.
At first it didn’t go well. TIDAL botched the release, Work wasn’t the first single people had hoped for after all this time and the album felt disjointed – spotted with brilliance but too patchy. At year’s end though, it’s proven itself to be 2016’s fine wine. It’s just got better and better. The messiness of the project, from the distorted beat-work of Consideration to the howling of Higher, is a direct representation of Rihanna behind closed doors and any 20-something for that matter. She’s in love and then she’s not. She’s confident and then she’s fragile. Too often, pop music tries to make complicated emotion black and white. On ANTI, Rihanna’s drunk-calling desperately in love (Higher) and then she’s playing the temptress (Needed Me) with a blunt or two in between. Nothing’s perfect and thank God we’ve got Rihanna to champion that.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Its hard to think of anyone who was under as intense pressure as Frank to release his album and whats immediately clear off the first listen is the music is basically unaffected by the pressure. It sounds focussed, insular and measured like its been made by a steady hand that was successfully blocking the outside pressure.
For starters, Blonde is no Channel Orange. Theres nothing as epic as Pyramids, no gospel anthem as grand as Bad Religion and nothing as urban as Super Rich Kids. Blonde is beautifully intimate. Its the work of a songwriter who has honed his craft so tightly that hes able to externalise his innermost thoughts and still maintain the fear, confusion and lust that swells within him. The follow-up to a massive album like Channel Orange often sees the artist use all their new tools available to them and depict a world much more extravagant than what they did on the predecessor. Sure, Franks used all the tools available to him Beyonce, Jonny Greenwood, Bowie but hes kept it personal to the point where hes able to deliver lines like, I will be honest, I wasnt devastated / But you couldve held my hand through this baby.
The beginner Nikes, opens like a wide-panned, distorted camera. It gradually zooms in and as soon as Franks voice hits were given a zoomed-in clarity. Thats where we remain for most of the album inside Franks head.
Its so personal and yet it addresses this overarching theme of masculinity so poignantly. The imagery of cars are used both in his lyrics and in the magazine and in his letter featured in the zine he says, Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. He takes something thats so ingrained in the idea of what it is to be a man and then pairs it alongside statements like, Im not brave. Boys dont cry but they should, Franks saying. Frank cries on Blonde. He also laughs, loves, hurts, smokes and celebrates. More uninhibited than Franks ever been before, Blonde is a deeply personal yet subtly universal record for anyone thats ever struggled with the idea of what they should be.
Beyoncé – Lemonade
Beyoncé is the biggest musician in the world. She’s a figure of strength, beauty and independence which is why it was so surprising to hear her begin her surprise album Lemonade singing, “You can taste the dishonesty, it’s all over your lips,” over a gentle piano. Bey has always delivered anthems for the masses. OneAt that promote self-worth and sexiness, activating the masses as their trusty leader. At the beginning of Lemonade she retires from that role though. The unthinkable has happened – Beyoncé’s been betrayed.
Whether it’s so believable because it actually happened or simply because Beyoncé is a powerful storyteller is beyond the point. Lemonade brings someone seen as mortal down to our level. She’s sad, crazy, jealous, angry and then forgiving, all through a soundscape that matches each emotion. She’s a savage on the Jack White-featuring Don’t Hurt Yourself, wickedly crazy on the island-flavoured Hold Up and painfully low on Sandcastles. It’s so personal that at times you feels as if you should quietly close the door and stop eaves-dropping.
And yet, despite it being so personal, bit by bit she becomes that independent leader once more. She gives power and confidence to anyone who feels like their self-worth is secondary, aiming her message particularly at black females. Freedom is a rally-cry and Formation is a middle finger to haters.
Sure, Beyoncé slays, but now it’s not just about her. She only slays if you all slay too. – Sam Murphy
Solange – A Seat At The Table
In 2016, you need a reason to listen to an album for start to finish.
While it may have only physically taken four year to make, A Seat At The Table took a lifetime. Like The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, this is an album that will adequately come to define Solange because it’s so autobiographical but also so universal.
A Seat At The Table proves that there’s still power left in the album format. “If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you,” Master P says on one of the many poignantly placed interludes on the record. If the journey Solange takes you on on this record doesn’t resonate or teach or move, this is not for you. It’s a story of her healing. She begins singing, “I’m weary of the weight of the world,” and ends by telling her son, “you’re a superstar.” That’s a pretty simple way of laying out the narrative of the record because it’s far more complex than that.
Throughout, she expertly weaves her story together with the influence of old school soul and R&B. Raphael Saadiq is a masterful guiding hand but he does nothing to dilute Solange’s work. This comes unfiltered, from her head from the sound right down to the visuals. There’s a directness to the lyrical work that hits you from the first listen. “I tried to drink it away,” she sings as she addresses her pain on Cranes In The Sky and she gives it too us straight on Don’t Touch My Hair, “You know this hair is my shit.”
A Seat At The Table is painful at times but through the words of others, pride is rightfully re-instilled in Solange. Her mother Tina Knowles’ interlude is one of the most powerful as she says, “It’s such beauty in black people, and it really saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride in being black.”
With a Trump-presidency looming and racial undertones coming to the surface in many political systems around the world (including Pauline Hanson here in Australia), A Seat At The Table couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s a personal and therapeutic record but there are also many important lessons to be taken for the listener, from the outside looking in. It’s a reminder to be proud and bold and also a lesson, that if you don’t understand – learn. For every moment of weariness for the under-appreciated, there are the proceeding loud, damning keys of Where Do We Go ready to give strength. – Sam Murphy