Because I haven’t covered the charts at all this year, I don’t feel like I am qualified to do the same year-end lists. I have however, listened to a lot (and I mean a lot) of albums; it is a by-product of the Oxford workload and the hours spent in the library. So, in the spirit of bringing the year to an end, here are my favourite albums of 2016.
Lemonade by Beyoncé
For me, this was the album of 2016. The surprise release and the visual component all were similar to Beyoncé’s self-titled album from 2013. However, while that album had its problems (especially in some of the lyrical framing, production, and some of the guest artists turning in some sub-par verses), Lemonade is near-perfection. Dealing with themes of loss, heartbreak, infidelity, female identity, and the lives of African-Americans today, this album is richly textured, with excellent production and lyrics. These are also some of Beyoncé’s best vocal performances, especially on songs like “Sandcastles” where she really shows the vulnerable side of her voice which we really have never heard in this way from Beyoncé. Her featured artists (Jack White, The Weeknd, James Blake, Kendrick Lamar) all bring their best and match Beyoncé on each track. I’m sure you’ve all heard people wax lyrically about how good this album is, but it really lives up to the hype and is easily Beyoncé’s best so far.
Favourite tracks – “6 Inch” (ft. The Weeknd), “Sandcastles”, “All Night”, “Freedom” (ft. Kendrick Lamar), “Sorry”.
Ruins/Adfeilion by The Gentle Good
I loved Y Bardd Anfarwol, the last album from Gareth Bonello (stage name The Gentle Good), so I was excited for his new album. Ruins/Adfeilion is closer to his earlier material, as the Chinese influenced music of Y Bardd Anfarwol is replaced with a more neo-traditional folk sound. Ruins is still an excellent album though. The album has songs in both Welsh and English, but please don’t let that put you off, non-Welsh speakers! The emotion still carries despite the language barrier. Sharp lyrics (with one song even poignantly tackling the situation of refugees in the Mediterranean), lush instrumentation, and production that does not hide any of the constituent parts of the music. This album is a piece of beautifully crafted folk music, which can be both powerful and moving at the same time.
Favourite tracks – “Bound for Lampedusa”, “The Fisherman”, “Un i Sain Ffagan”, “Pen Draw’r Byd”
EMOTION SIDE B by Carly Rae Jepsen
If you saw my “Should Have Been Hits” list last year, you know that I put Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” at No. 1, a decision I fully stand by (the song is still awesome). Her album from 2015, EMOTION, is also brilliant and I highly recommend it. EMOTION SIDE B is the tracks that didn’t quite make it onto the first album. My question is, why not? This EP is a brilliant blast of synth pop with some well-crafted songs about heart break, lust, being friends, and euphoric ecstasy. In a year where some albums had 17 songs on the standard edition and could have really used an edit (I’m looking at you, The 1975), it’s great to see that some artists have “B” material that is still amazing and really should have made it onto the main album.
Favourite tracks – “Body Language”, “Higher”, “First Time”, “Cry”
Joanne by Lady Gaga
I’ve already written an Earworms about how good this album is, but it bears repeating. This is Gaga’s best work since The Fame Monster (an album that I think may be one of the greatest of the 21st century so far). Great production frames Lady Gaga’s voice brilliantly, while she gives some of the rawest performances of her career. Some people hate parts of this album, such as the key change in “Perfect Illusion”, but I think it just makes it even better and displays that she has musical range and knowledge of how to employ these musical devices effectively. Joanne shows that Lady Gaga still has it, and isn’t going anywhere soon.
Favourite tracks – “John Wayne”, “Diamond Heart”, “Hey Girl” (ft. Florence Welch), “Grigio Girls”, “Perfect Illusion”
Phase by Jack Garratt
I pre-warn you, this album is weird. It’s musically jarring, awkward, with synth-tones that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen. Yet, Jack Garratt makes it work. I can’t put my finger on what made me keep coming back to this album, but it’s just too interesting to ignore. I love how the tone of a song will suddenly shift with the tone of a song, especially on tracks like “Chemical”. Phase is an album that needs a few listens to get into, but is well worth it.
Favourite tracks – “Coalesce (Synaesthesia Pt. II)”, “Surprise Yourself”, “Chemical”, “Breathe Life”
Chaleur Humaine by Christine and the Queens
Recently, I’ve really got back into synth pop. Bands like CHVRCHES have fuelled my love for it, and Christine and the Queens (stage name for French singer Héloïse Letissier) offer a bilingual gem with Chaleur Humaine. The production could have been lifted straight from the 80s and the whole album has a welcome tone to it. Even when it switches from English to French, the music still is brilliant. There also some odd interpolations, with the track “Paradis Perdus” using the lyrics to Kanye West’s “Heartless”. It’s an odd combination, but all works brilliantly. Like Phase, it takes a few listens to get into, but is well worth it.
Favourite tracks – “Paradis Perdus”, “Science Fiction”, “Jonathan” (ft. Perfume Genius), “iT”
Blackstar by David Bowie
2016 has been a year when so many celebrities have died, and we have lost some truly great people and some influential and important artists. Prince, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher were just a few from this year. However, one of the first and one of the biggest celebrity deaths was that of David Bowie in January. Blackstar is his final musical moment. The album fuses synths with experimental jazz and rock, with Bowie’s lyrics being as poetic as ever. This is especially true on “Lazarus”, where he deals with his own mortality and his legacy. While none of this album reaches my all-time favourite David Bowie songs (my favourite probably being “The Man Who Sold The World”), Blackstar is a testament to his musical talent and why he will be sorely missed.
Favourite tracks – “Lazarus”, “Blackstar”, “Dollar Days”, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
This is the music that I have loved in 2016. Give it a listen or a re-listen if you want, they are all well worth your time.