Country music had an excellent 2016 and with songwriters as easy to love as Brandy Clark. Songs like Three Kids, No Husband and Since You’ve Gone To Heaven tell honest heartfelt stories of the sort that Clark in renowned for, while Girl Next Door and Daughter have a dangerous spark. Highlight Love Can Go To Hell manages to be the most radio friendly track of Clark’s career, but it’s the singalong of the title track that’s the claims centre of this album. Each song gives you a brief glimpse into the lives of people in a ‘town’ that’s Brandy Clark realises through relatable songwriting.
Little Big Town recording an entire album of songs with Pharrell Williams shouldn’t work. The guy who wrote Blurred Lines with the group who sang Girl Crush? Miracle recalls Motown, C’mon wouldn’t be out of place on a Tim McGraw album; Wanderlust is all over the place. It comes together somehow and fast became one of the most memorable albums of the year for me. The most apparent thing across these 8 tracks is the love of music from everyone involved. Just like all of us fans, Pharrell knows that it’s all about harmonies with LBT and the magic heard on Work and One Dance (An unfortunate naming coincidence that has nothing to do with Drake) is undeniable. It takes guts to take a risk like Little Big Town did here and while you may never hear them slip one of these tracks into their gigs, the music itself was worth the risk.
2016 saw a few ‘EP’s recieve the sort of attention that is usually reserved for full albums. Kendrick Lamar managed to get a Billboard #1 from his companion to last year’s To Pimp A Butterfly. But on sheer track for track joy Emotion Side B is hard to argue with. First Time is full of the same poppy magic that made Call Me Maybe a song of the decade, while The One and Fever manage to outclass even the main Emotion album for earworm hooks. This ‘offcuts’ album sounds fresher and more tighter than most other full Pop records. Can you imagine how good her third album proper will sound?
In a year full of baffling comebacks (Rick Astley anyone?) KT Tunstall managed to recapture the fevered adoration I held for her over a decade ago. By far her most pop leaning release since then KIN is full of her Scottish charm and shows an encouraging resilience for her sound over its 11 tracks. Roping in James Bay for expansive duet Two Way is an excellent fit, while standout It Took Me so Long to Get Here, But Here I Am rockets along to an almighty climax. Evil Eye and Maybe It’s A Good Thing are her most radio friendly hooks since Eye to the Telescope too and their underpeformance is baffling. I’ve always enjoyed KT Tunstall’s voice, I own every other album she has released on CD and KIN is probably my favourite yet.
Joanne isn’t the best Lady Gaga album. It probably isn’t the worst Lady Gaga album. There’s some excellent moments here, opener Diamond Heart is the perfect introduction to ‘Gaga with a guitar’. John Wayne and A-Yo are country baiting pop stompers, while A Million Reasons and Joanne are the most heartfelt ballads of her career. Sinner’s Prayer is basically Gaga pretending to be Johnny Cash, while Hey Girl works much better than you would think a duet with Florence Welch would. Genre talk aside, Gaga knows her way around a great song and much like everything else she’s put her name to, there are some brilliant songs here.
Equal parts Peter Gabriel and 808s era Kanye, Francis and the Lights was one of 2016’s most unique talents. Vocodored vocals gives the production a cold, metallic feel, making the emotive soulful moments that bit more effective. It’s Alright To Cry is an masterclass in autotune, while Can I Have This Dance is pure 80s Peter Gabriel. There’s flickers of genres here and there, I Want You To Shake is the closest thing to a dance record here, while there’s elements of dancehall across many tracks. Friends makes an obvious climax, it’s like Justin Vernon has been listening and enjoying the rest of the album and finally chooses to join in for a massive finale. A surprising album that made this year another great one for new music.
I’ll remember 2016 as the year of bloated albums and there’s no album more bloated than this 70 minute beast from The 1975. It’s not just the creepy name that needs a trim, this album honestly had the potential to be at #1 in this list. The standouts are some of the best tracks of the year, Somebody Else is a glorious synthy ballad; The Sound is the stadium anthem of the year; She’s American is the perfect development of the funk on the band’s debut album. The more I listen to the best tracks here the more I wonder if I should just ignore the rest? (I’ve already pushed the album up a fair few spots on this list while writing). The sticking point for me is that it just doesn’t work as an album. Do we really need near on 10 minutes of instrumental in Please Be Naked and Lostmyhead right after the enjoyable, but lengthy If I Believe You? Why is there another 6 minute instrumental title track? I’m all for creative ‘journey’ albums, but if all they do is make me wish I was listening to the next track, what’s the point? This could have been a modern calssic, but as it stands its just 2016’s biggest missed opportunity.
If any album could define 2016 for most of the population it was The Life Of Pablo. It’s the sound of an artist frustrated by the world around him. The physical media he felt restricted by; the fans who wanted ‘old Kanye’; the fact he’s now in the most famous family in the world; politics, religion, whether his girl will get bleach on his t shirt; The Life of Pablo is all over the place. It manages to sum up one of music’s greatest talents, the messy release feeling like a ‘too many cooks’ situation; the credits may as well just say ‘Everyone’. It’s this lack of control that is simultaneously the best and worst thing a bout The Life of Pablo. You never feel like Kanye is really in control of each sudden change of direction the album takes, he’s just a passenger along for the ride. Pablo goes against just about everything we’ve come to expect from him, this isn’t the same visionary that crafted The College Dropout or even 808s and Heartbreak. As it stands though, moments like Ultralight Beam, Famous, Waves and the Panda sampling Father Stretch My Hands Pt1&2 make The Life of Pablo the year’s most worthwhile mess.
The Weeknd is yet to release a bad album. I don’t think anyone expected him to release an album so soon after a landmark breakthrough record like Beauty Behind The Madness. One listen of a song like Secrets and it’s easy to see why he didn’t hang around for a follow up. It sits side by side with last year’s album, the lines between dark brooding ballads and funky dance tracks blurring even more on songs like Rockin’ and A Lonely Night. The two Daft Punk features are as electrifying as each other, book-ending a lengthy run of solid tunes. Starboy could do with a few lessons in editing, there’s a bit of needless filler here, but the highlights here are probably the best songs of Abel’s career thus far. His transition into the mainstream is complete.
Anti could appear at either end of this list, no other album in 2016 has brought me as much pain, or as much joy as Rihanna’s 8th album. In short though, Anti is Rihanna’s most honest, daring work since Rated R, full of career best vocal performances like Love on the Brain and Close to You as well as some of her most divisive hits. Save for the newly crowned ‘Worst Rihanna Song of All Time’ Woo, everything here is a thrill to hear. Even her version of Tame Impala’s Same Ol’ Mistakes stands high as an unexpected triumph. I’ve never seen an album any artist be given so much expectation prior to release. The fact that Rihanna had the self confidence to release the most diverse, gritty album of her career following all of that is tremendous. Anti isn’t her best album, but it’s the first time Rihanna is truly in charge.
Drake has made a career with introspective Noah Shebib ’60’ productions and there’s plenty here in the form of Redemption and 9, but it’s the string of dancehall hits that made Views the year’s most popular new release. Controlla, Too Good, With You, Feel No Ways, With You and ‘Biggest Song of the Year’ One Dance are all knockout hits and the fact that Drake has dominated the year with an album’s worth of dance hits is bonkers. Of course 2016’s biggest release is also a beefy 81(!) minutes long, but for me there’s something in every one of these tracks that proves why Drake is THE artist of the year. The confidence that 40 and Drake have in each other shines through on across the most ambitious record of their careers.
Glory is the best Britney Spears album since Blackout.
It seems strange to be as surprised as I was at how good The Driver is. The first solo release from any of Lady Antebellum, it was sure to be little more than an enjoyable diversion while we await their next full album in a year or two. Instead The Driver is probably Charles Kelley’s most consistent release since Need You Now, stacked with excellent modern country music. His voice soars on standout Miranda Lambert duet I Wish You Were Here, while Stevie Nicks’ voice once again blends perfectly with Kelley’s on Southern Accents. Round In Circles is the best Lady Antebellum song we never got to hear, but overall Charles Kelley manages to create his own distinctive sound. It’s a mature, well paced set of 9 tracks and the sort of all killer no filler release that we rarely see from Country artists. The renewed creativity means amazing things are on the way in 2017 from one of my all time favourite groups.
In a year full of forward thinking pop music, full of political statements and 20 thousand word think pieces across the net, the fact that Ariana Grande released a straight up pop album containing a song about getting done so hard you can’t walk straight anymore was genuinely brilliant. Dangerous Woman is undoubtedly the strongest album of her career so far, full of ridiculous vocals and ridiculously catchy hooks. The run of songs from the title track through to slinky Lil Wayne collaboration Let Me Love You sums up just about everything that Ariana Grande excels at. Her overwrought vocals manage to work in her favour for the very first time, the breathy ad-libs on Be Alright recalling 90s House, while Into You is 2016’s best pop record. Even songs like Greedy sit with me much better than they would have a few years ago, they’ve really honed in on the ‘Ariana sound’ and Dangerous Woman is all the better for it.
For All We Know manages to sound like nothing else released in 2016 and yet is constantly familiar. It’s one of the year’s most promising debut albums thanks to Nao’s uncompromising self belief in her sound. It’s an album full of angst and aggression over ex-lovers and potential future beaus, but remains danceable and loose. Fool To Love‘s staccato hook jars against the throbbing synth, while Get To Know Ya is pure old school funk. We Don’t Give A opens with echoes of dissonance before exploding into pure disco, while Trophy has a rock feel at times. The glue that holds everything together is Nao’s distinctive soprano voice. It’s always the thing your ear is drawn to, slightly frantic at times, her performance is unlike anyone else currently recording. For All We Know holds together so as a complete experience, it’s a terrific introduction to one of 2016’s brightest new stars. I’m expecting huge things from Nao in the future.
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