2016 has been one for the history books, for all the wrong reasons. But, there have been musical highlights aplenty. Some of the world’s most successful artists have released highly anticipated comebacks, with some being more successful than others. Here are my top 10 albums of 2016…
10. Gwen Stefani – This Is What The Truth Feels Like
You really can’t beat a breakup album. Especially one that pokes a little bit of fun at the usual woe-is-me emotion of the genre. On her third album, Gwen Stefani eschews theatrics for honesty and vulnerability. As much as it’s a breakup album, it has a happy ending – reflecting Stefani’s split from Gavin Rossdale and subsequent relationship with The Voice co-judge, country superstar Blake Shelton. Thankfully, Stefani leaves country well alone and sticks to her tried and tested dance-pop roots, with a dash of disco, hip-hop and dancehall livening up proceedings. A real return to form from an artist that has always seemed like she has the potential for greatness.
9. Rihanna – ANTI
Rihanna’s eight album, and her first since Rated R that gave the impression she had something to say as an artist. Rather than repeating her usual pattern of an album of filler sold by a couple of bought-in producer-of-the-moment bangers, Rihanna took a break and made one hell of a comeback. On ANTI Her voice has never sounded better, and it’s clear these songs were written by her, for her, and her alone. The album goes a step further by subverting everything we’ve come to expect from her, it’s shockingly unguarded and uncommercial.
8. Alicia Keys – HERE
Alicia Keys might be used to more commercial success – usually propelled by an anthemic lead single. But on HERE she seems happy to focus on making music that seems heartfelt and genuine, without needing to cater to radio. Lead single ‘In Common’ may not have made an impact commercially, but it is the strongest and most self-assured Keys has sounded in almost a decade. Both ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Blended Family (What You Do For Love)’ didn’t connect with the public at large, but remain some of the most interesting and honest cuts in Keys’ catalogue. With moments of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation soul, and a touch of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On socio-political awareness, Alicia Keys has never sounded more relevant.
7. Britney Spears – Glory
Undoubtedly a return to form, and containing some of the most fun, carefree music she’s released in years, Britney was back on form in 2016. ‘Make Me’ was a great lead single, and ‘Slumber Party’ featuring “Tinasha” is an absolute bop. And while the ‘Make Me’ video debacle let the single down, the video for ‘Slumber Party’, with it’s Eyes Wide Shut vibe, knocked it out of the park. It’s not an album I come back to listen to much, but if I’m ever in doubt at the gym, Glory is my go-to collection of bangers to guarantee a good workout. [Read my review in full.]
6. Melanie C – Version Of Me
Version Of Me contains some of the best vocal performances and insightful lyrics of Melanie C’s career. The album might lack the huge singles of Northern Star, or the rich orchestral arrangements of The Sea, but it absolutely holds its own in her now-extensive back catalogue. It’s testament to Melanie’s artistry, humility and intelligence that, at this point in her career, she still has so much to say, and that she can say it so well. [Read my review in full.]
5. Lady Gaga – Joanne
Most people had written off Lady Gaga’s fifth album before they’d even heard it, which is a real shame as there’s quite a lot to enjoy on Joanne. There’s no doubting the production quality of the music, and the musicianship on display. Gaga has selected only the best to craft the sound she desired for her fourth album.
The thing that’s clear to me is, Lady “Call Me Joanne” Gaga is creating the same form of art she always has, just using a different set of tools. Where as on previous albums, she’s grabbed the listener from the outset and dragged them along for the ride of their life; on Joanne she seems to have learned the art of restraint. The problem being that restraint isn’t something people expect, or want, from her.
The outlandish costumes that made Gaga a household name are gone, but the real question is whether we’re now seeing the real person, or just another incarnation in the continued reinvention on a pop star attempting to stay relevant. Either way, the album is destined to underperform. But I’d wager that in years to come, people will look back at Joanne and wonder why they didn’t appreciate it at the time. [Read my review in full.]
4. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Beyoncé has grown so much as an artist, even in the last 5 years. It’s hard to believe that the woman who created Beyoncé and Lemonade came up with the (pretty weak) ‘concept album’ I Am… Sasha Fierce. Carving out a niche for herself by both surprise dropping albums and pioneering the visual album as a widely recognised format shows how smart a businesswoman, and marketeer, she is.
Lemonade was a marked improvement on Beyoncé and is evidence of an artist hitting their creative stride. Launched with an incredible performance of ‘Formation‘ at Super Bowl, elevating Coldplay’s fun, but albeit meaningless, performance and spitting some of the most political lyrics, filled with black empowerment, to ever be blasted into 119 million homes.
Grounding Lemonade in reality with its overarching theme of infidelity, Beyoncé created the kind of hype guaranteed to deliver dozens of inches of press coverage. But smartly, in the subtext, Lemonade was as much an album filled with anger, betrayal and hope about the state of the relationship between America and its citizens.
Ultimately a pop album, Beyoncé borrows from a range of genres to make her point, switching from abstract electronica, (‘Forward’) to country (‘Daddy Lessons’) to future R&B (‘Sorry’) and reggae-lite (‘All Night’). Despite hopping from genre-to-genre, Lemonade never sounds imbalanced or inconsistent. Beyoncé sounds confident, self-assured and in her element.
Standouts: ‘Hold Up’, ‘All Night’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Formation’.
3. David Bowie – Blackstar
My love for David Bowie began as a small child, along with an obsession with a film called Labyrinth. I howled for hours at the little red creatures pulling off each others’ heads and danced around the living room to ‘Magic Dance’. As an adult, the film continued to be a part of my life. I laughed with friends, high on god knows what, doing impressions of the little worm (“Who, me? Nah, I’m just a worm”) and repeating, “you remind me of the babe”, “what babe?” lines as catchphrases.
It wasn’t until ashamedly later in life, as a music student, that I came to truly appreciate David Bowie as an artist and delved into his rich back catalogue. There are so many songs that I didn’t even realise were written and performed by him. So when I heard that Bowie had surprise released a new album, I text my mum – also a big fan – that morning and gave the album my undivided attention as soon as I could. Two days later, Bowie was dead.
Blackstar opens with the line, “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” setting the tone for what is an incredibly introspective and reflective record. It was clear from the first listen that the album was was written by a man facing mortality – a natural state of mind of a man reaching 70. It wasn’t until he’d died, and on repeated listens, that the introspection took on a much darker tone. Songs like ‘Lazarus’ and ‘I Can’t Give Anything Away’ – some of his best work since the late eighties – take on a whole new meaning.
One of the most interesting things about Blackstar is that Bowie – a rock artist – purposely avoided the genre and embraced elements of jazz, hip-hop, trip-hop and pop – said to be inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, in particularly Kendrick’s choice to experiment with what hip-hop can be.
Blackstar is an album written by an artist who knew it would be his final creation, and it is all the more powerful because of that. A truly great album to bookend the phenomenal career of one of the greatest British musicians of all time.
2. Solange – A Seat At The Table
‘I Decided’ was my song of the summer in 2008, and like most, I absolutely loved ‘Losing You’ when it was released four years later. Another four years later and Solange released an album incredibly close to taking my number-one spot this year – A Seat At The Table.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the video for ‘Cranes In The Sky’ was the most beautiful released this year. The overall aesthetic, the styling, the celebration of unapologetic black women and stylised choreography all demonstrate a determined artist with a singular vision.
A Seat At The Table never rises above mid-tempo and doesn’t make any attempt to change lanes in an effort to appeal to as many people as possible. A straight up neo-soul album, with flashes of funk and R&B, it is absolutely the most cohesive of the year. The spoken interludes from Tina (‘Tina Taught Me‘) and Matthew Knowles (‘Dad Was Mad‘) on black identity and experience during the civil rights movement are incredibly powerful and add valuable context to an album that ultimately just feels honest. Solange is a product of her parents, their resilience and their success – it is to her credit that she has chosen to speak out on how the fight is still not over for black women, and men, in modern America.
Solange pulled together a team of legendary collaborators in Master P, Raphael Sadiq, Lil Wayne, Tweet and Sampha to assist in bringing her musical vision to life. With A Seat At The Table she has taken the sound crafted with Dev Hynes on the True EP and packaged it along with her fear, anger, loneliness and strength to create an album that is incredibly important in 2016.
1. All Saints – Red Flag
This album came out of nowhere. In a year that should have been defined by the 20th anniversary of the Spice Girls, All Saints crept up on the outside and blindsided us with the nineties reunion nobody expected. And not only did they announce a series of comeback gigs, they announced an unprecedented new album, preceded by a lead single that was better than it had any right to be, ‘One Strike‘.
After their 2006 reunion album – the unjustly maligned Studio 1 – it seemed that the band were dead in the water. Lead single ‘Rock Steady‘ was a moderate hit, but second single ‘Chick Fit‘ failed to chart – despite being excellent – and the band were promptly dropped.
Fast forward to January 2016 and everything changed. The band seemed rejuvenated as they announced their comeback through their social channels. A series of well-placed interviews positioned them as Cool Britannia pop royalty, and reaffirmed that they were a genuine act, not manufactured like most of their nineties rivals. The drama that had surrounded their break-up seemed well and truly over, and the girls that had argued and bickered for years had matured into confident, assured women who had their priorities right and truly cared for one another – friendship, for All Saints at least, never ends.
‘One Strike’ was an example of everything that All Saints did so well. Huge pop hooks, incredible harmonies, genuine emotional lyrics, over mid-tempo R&B beats. Nicole Appleton told i-D magazine that “the phrase ‘one strike’ is about how your life can change in an instant.” Speaking about her recent divorce she went on to say, “It’s about the moment I found out what [Liam Gallagher] did to me.”
Second single, ‘This Is A War’ is another perfect example of the great music All Saints can produce when they’re firing on all cyclinders. Heavy strings, military beats, minor key piano chords and dramatic harmonies build to an emotional crescendo as the band sings of their determination to receive meaningful and true love.
‘Who Hurt Who’ is a beautiful ballad that tells the story of how the band came to put their differences aside and learn to love one another. The sparse production lets the vocals lead, focussing on the meaning behind the song. A rendition of the song brought the band (and me) to tears at Brixton Academy, before a rapturous applause greeted their encore of ‘One Strike’ and ‘Pure Shores‘.
‘Puppet On A String‘ is probably the most 2016 track on the album. All hi-hats and 808 beats with chopped vocals and synth-bass parts. Despite not being the music that made them, they’re cool enough to pull it off sounding confident.
‘Ratchet Behaviour‘ is the only misstep. Nicole & Natalie should never rap again, ever. But the way the song segues into the title track is a great production touch. ‘Red Flag‘ is another great track and fits perfectly into that classic All Saints sonic palette with its sparse hand clap backing track, surrounded by rising and falling synth flourishes.
I understand if you think Red Flag isn’t the best collection of songs released by an artist this year. You’re most likely right, but this album made me happier than any other. The chance to see your teenage idols in concert, celebrating their old hits, their success, reconciliation and top it all off, releasing new music, made this more of an event for me than any other album this year.