Themes of racial politics, female empowerment and mortality feature heavily in music critics’ favourite albums of 2016.
The BBC looked at 25 of the “best of 2016” lists in music’s most influential publications – including the NME, Rolling Stone, Vice, Billboard and Q Magazine – to discover the highest-ranked albums of the year.
Read about the top 10, and what the critics had to say about each of them, below.
10) Mitski – Puberty 2
As a teenager, you’re often told the torrent of emotional ups and downs is “just hormones” and once puberty ends, life will sort itself out. But what if that’s not true?
On her fourth album, 26-year-old indie-pop artist Mitski Miyawaki confronts that head on – exploring her anxiety, depression, happiness and everything in between. The songs mirror her turmoil, veering from the hushed sincerity of Once More To See You to the squalling punk of My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.
- “One of the decade’s most emotionally vivid rock albums, and the breakout of a singular voice in 21st-century indie.” [Billboard]
- Watch the video for Happy [YouTube]
9) Angel Olsen – My Woman
A darling of America’s lo-fi folk-rock scene, Missouri-born Angel Olsen got playful on her fourth album. Inspired by David Bowie, she experimented with different styles, new singing voices and, in the video for Intern, a bright silver tinsel wig.
The record is divided into two halves – an upbeat, pop-infused “side A”, followed by a more introspective B-side, hinged around the cathartic, seven-minute fuzz-rock ballad Woman, in which she sings: “I dare you to understand/What makes me a woman.”
- “It’s on that second half that Olsen really shines: She meditates on femininity and nostalgia, and imbues every new note with trembling intensity.” [Time Magazine]
- Watch Angel Olsen perform Give It Up for BBC 6 Music [YouTube]
8) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead rekindled their relationship with melody on their ninth album, the beautiful and serene A Moon Shaped Pool.
Thom Yorke’s break-up from his long-term partner Rachel Owen (who sadly died this week) pervades the album, adding a layer of melancholy to many of the songs – not least the closing track, True Love Waits, written at the start of their relationship in 1995 but uncompleted until this year.
- “Radiohead at their least bloodthirsty and most accessible.” [The Telegraph]
- Listen to an exclusive interview with guitarist Jonny Greenwood [BBC 6 Music]
7) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Recorded in secret before rapper Phife Dawg’s death from diabetes in March, A Tribe Called Quest’s first album in 18 years was an unexpected return to form.
Lead single We The People addresses the rise in right-wing supremacism (“Muslims and gays?/Boy, we hate your ways,” raps Q-Tip sardonically), while the Musical Youth-sampling Dis Generation is a salute to the rappers inspired by the Tribe’s brand of socially-conscious hip-hop.
- “[Q-Tip’s] rhymes are absolute stuntman level at times.” [Rolling Stone]
- Watch the video for We The People [YouTube]
6) Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo
Hyperactive, ambitious and never truly finished, The Life Of Pablo gave an unprecedented glimpse into Kanye West’s creative process – not to mention the psyche of the “38-year-old eight year old”.
Initially available as a streaming exclusive on Tidal, it was tweaked and updated several times, and while much of it remains infuriatingly unfocused, West’s lack of respect for musical boundaries makes for a compelling listen.
- “Odd, sure. But also oh so very Kanye.” [NME]
- Listen to Kanye West interviewed by Annie Mac. [BBC Radio 1]
5) Solange – A Seat At The Table
A year ago, Solange Knowles published an essay detailing the prejudice and hostility she has encountered in schools, airports and concert venues, simply for being a black woman.
It prompted a year of musical soul searching, in which she moved to Louisiana (where her grandparents lived until a Molotov cocktail was thrown into their home) and recorded a graceful, restrained album that addresses segregation, reverse racism, police brutality, cultural theft and black pride.
- “In 2016, when it still seems like a radical act to release a record that catalogues the nuances of black womanhood, she has done so with stunning candor.” [Pitchfork]
- Hear Solange interviewed by Annie Mac. [BBC Radio 1]
4) Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
Inspired by the birth of his son and brimming with gospel influences, Chance The Rapper’s third album effortlessly shakes off the self-obsessed nihilism of modern hip-hop for something altogether more joyful.
Lyrically sharp and fiercely independent, the Chicago-born musician shunned major label deals to release the album as a streaming exclusive on Apple Music. It duly became the first record to top the US charts without ever being sold.
- “Driven by celestial horns and gospel melodies, Coloring Book is a testimony of abundance and gratitude, of pure joy.” [AV Club]
- Watch Chance The Rapper in the BBC’s Live Lounge. [BBC Radio 1Xtra]
3) Frank Ocean – Blonde
With all the punctuality of Southern Trains, Frank Ocean’s second album arrived four years late, one morning in August. It was worth the wait.
Hazy and meandering, its 17 tracks glide in and out of focus like a fever dream, as Ocean ponders on love, loss and reality itself. Difficult to digest at first, it rewards the repeat listener with richly-detailed sonic secrets.
- “Frank Ocean presented something calm in a tumultuous world, and forced us to do one thing: Pause.” [Consequence Of Sound]
- Listen to Blonde [Apple Music]
2) David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie’s death in January was all the more shocking because he sounded so creatively invigorated on Blackstar.
Retrospectively recognised as his “parting gift”, it finds the star coming to terms with his own mortality (the title itself implies a light flickering out) while the music, recorded with a New York jazz band, suggests a journey into the unknown.
- “An ending that could have been a new beginning.” [Q Magazine]
- Watch the video for Blackstar [YouTube]
1) Beyonce – Lemonade
From the moment she performed at the Super Bowl dressed in Black Panther gear, it was clear Beyonce had something to get off her chest.
Two months later, she let us have it – a fierce, densely-layered album that uses Jay Z’s (alleged) infidelity as the framing device for a meditation on black history, female identity, betrayal, resilience and redemption.
Sumptuously produced, the record also sees Beyonce spread her musical wings: she flaunts her Texas roots on the country ballad Daddy Lessons; while the Jack White-assisted Don’t Hurt Yourself has been nominated for best rock performance at next year’s Grammys.
But more than that, Lemonade is a window into the soul of a performer who has often seemed remote and untouchable. On Sandcastles, as she furiously scratches Jay Z’s face off a photograph, her flawless vocals suddenly falter and fall apart.
But, this being Beyonce, the album ends with reconciliation: “With every tear came redemption and my torturer became my remedy,” she says in a spoken-word interlude. “So we’re gonna heal, we’re gonna start again.”
By association, she’s telling marginalised women everywhere they can reclaim their lives through strength and forgiveness. And being a badass.
- “It’s hard to think of a pop star who has travelled further from bumping and grinding out Top 40 fodder, to this politicised avenging angel.” [The Guardian]
- Watch the video for Hold Up [YouTube]
The 25 “best of lists surveyed appeared in: The Atlantic, The AV Club, Billboard magazine, Consequence of Sound, Cosmopolitan, Digital Spy, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, The i Newspaper, Mojo, NME, NPR, Paste, Pitchfork, Q Magazine, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Stereogum, The Times, Time Magazine, Time Out London, Time Out New York, Uncut and Vice.
The full top 20 looked like this:
|Best albums of 2016 – poll of polls|
|Artist||Album||Score (out of 500)|
|2) David Bowie||Blackstar||341|
|3) Frank Ocean||Blonde||309|
|4) Chance The Rapper||Coloring Book||278|
|5) Solange||A Seat At The Table||256|
|6) Kanye West||Life Of Pablo||204|
|7) A Tribe Called Quest||We Got It From Here||192|
|8) Radiohead||A Moon Shaped Pool||191|
|9) Angel Olsen||My Woman||188|
|10) Mitski||Puberty 2||169|
|11) Leonard Cohen||You Want It Darker||163|
|13) Anderson .Paak||Malibu||116|
|14) Bon Iver||22, A Million||101|
|15) The 1975||I Like It When You Sleep…||94|
|17) Car Seat Headrest||Teens of Denial||84|
|18) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds||Skeleton Tree||83|
|19) Christine & The Queens||Chaleur Humaine||81|