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The best albums of 2016: the full list

 

Our countdown of Guardian music’s favourite albums of the year is complete, topped by a jaw-dropping work of passion and originality

Wednesday 30 November 2016

1

Lemonade – Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s Lemonade was a jaw-dropping audiovisual work, in which the theme of infidelity knocked boots with a host of vivid tropes: of the resilience and resourcefulness of generations of black women, of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the daughters. With this sumptuously produced visual album, Beyoncé once again pulled the rug out from under the idea of what a pop R&B record could be – 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.

Even if it is all an elaborate hoax, dreamed up by a pair of cackling Illuminati, Lemonade is still magnificent. If listeners cannot cope with a little light fictionalisation in the medium of the pop song, in some degree of verisimilitude in their cultural products, then they are going to have trouble consuming art of any kind. Read more

Beyoncé Formation

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2

Blonde – Frank Ocean

Four years in the making and 17 tracks long, Blonde was high-stakes stuff. You needed to invest energy in it. For some fans, who found their hardbodied ennui so prettily articulated by Ocean’s previous album Channel Orange, it might have been a step too far. But to regard a more difficult record as a less successful one would be a shame; as brilliant as Channel Orange was, Blonde is more adventurous, more vividly authored. Read more

3

Blackstar – David Bowie

Blackstar is an inky labyrinth of human cruelty and frailty shot through with moments of grace and transcendence, and obsessed with different kinds of transformation. And it’s another record on which each song carves out its own unique space, with no room for repetitions or redundancies. Even Bowie’s voice never does the same thing twice. It’s haunted, wired, seductive, menacing, mischievous, kind: a final, multi-faceted performance from pop’s great actor. Read more

Bowie Blackstar video still

4

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Kanye delivered a piece of work that was as true to him as it was to what appeared to be the spirit of 2016: volatile, unexpected and era-defining. The Life of Pablo wasn’t West’s most influential record (808s & Heartbreak), nor his most coherent (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) or innovative (Yeezus), but it was as close to a perfect compendium of his career there has been to date: an endlessly appealing hot mess, casually and frequently scattered with genius. Read more

5

Solange – A Seat at the Table

Solange’s most political release to date earned her first number 1 slot on the US Billboard 200 albums chart and put to bed the idea that pop-R&B can’t both have a message and sell. Self-assured and raw, A Seat at the Table felt more like a meditation; a healing balm that was undeniably her voice and her story. Read more

6

Anohni – Hopelessness

The artist formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons made her name with nimble piano torch songs, but for her first album as Anohni, she emerged as a velvet-voiced harbinger of doom, her anguish at drone warfare, climate change, Guantánamo, the Obama administration and humanity at large set to an exuberant electronic soundtrack. If that suggested an uneasy listen then that was the point. Complex, rich and formidable, Anohni’s masterwork proved that political music in 2016 could be galvanising and confrontational. Read more

Hopelessness - ANOHNI

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7

Rihanna – Anti

Unlike the clarity of her early material, Rihanna’s songs on Anti were often intimate and unusual. The production could be rough, distorted or stoned. It was the first album on which she successfully aligned her music with her true rebelliousness. Here Rihanna morphed from cowboy to gangster to the world’s most accomplished lover, maintaining throughout her status as pop’s greatest rock star. Read more

8

Christine and the Queens – Chaleur Humaine

In the year of David Bowie’s death, Chaleur Humaine was a salutary reminder that pop can be inspirational and comforting, that it need not be the preserve of the gimlet-eyed careerists or the glum exponents of authenticity. Like Bowie’s 1970s albums, it was the sound of someone using pop as a vehicle for self-realisation, and discovering that the commercial, experimental and personal could combine in such a way that they struck chords with an awful lot of other people. Read more

Heloise Letissier aka Christine and the Queens photographed at Observer studio

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9

Skepta – Konnichiwa

Full of simmering beats and swaggering vocals, Konnichiwa reached No 2 in the charts and won the Mercury prize, but these achievements seem small fry compared to how the album managed to sell grime to a new generation of fans. With this long-delayed debut album, Skepta managed to do something simple but impressive with it: make British music cool again. Read more

10

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Contained within A Moon Shaped Pool was a warning about the state of the world. Burn the Witch’s McCarthyist overtones came at a time when one of Yorke’s biggest fears – the rise of far-right ideology – is becoming a reality. While Hail to the Thief skewered the Bush-Blair era, it’s possible A Moon Shaped Pool will provide the accidental soundtrack to the time of Trump. Read more

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke

11

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Here is an album on which grief is served several different ways: raw, spatchcocked, fermented, brined, grief sous-vide. The tracks that make up Skeleton Tree often unfurl in an elliptical and allegorical way, rather than naked confessions; the album was in train before the untimely death of Cave’s teenage son Arthur in 2015. Read a full review

12

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

Featuring contributions by mainstream icons including Kanye West and Justin Bieber to cult hip-hop heroes new and old (Young Thug, Lil Yachty, Jay Electronica), Coloring Book melds genres to widescreen effect. Jazz melodies and gospel motifs also shine through prominently on songs such as How Great and Blessings. Read a full story

Chance The Rapper Performs at Brixton Academy

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13

Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

The snaggle-toothed Detroit rapper has previously dabbled in grime, ghettotech and other esoteric styles, but he goes further still on Atrocity Exhibition, sketching out uncharted territory for hip-hop with the gonzo musical penmanship of Robert Crumb or Ralph Steadman. Really Doe and Pneumonia show Brown can do hook-filled hits, but there’s also stuff here that no other MC is attempting. Read a full review

14

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

22, A Million isn’t quite the baffling non sequitur it seems. For all the perception of Justin Vernon as a doughty craftsman of earnest Americana, his music has always had what you might call its Kid A side. His third album represents the point where those more experimental ideas take over his music completely. Read a full review

15

Avalanches – Wildflower

Meditative, psychedelic and transcendent – Wildflower takes you on a joyous journey, from If I Was a Folkstar’s hippie reimagining of Daft Punk’s Face to Face to Sunshine’s heavenly orchestral soul. It is a testament to the power of their original vision that the music here still sounds so fresh. Read a full review

Avalanches

16

King – We Are King

On the LA soul trio’s full-length debut, escape is a big theme and the subject of love looms large. Stevie Wonder also looms large in King’s sound, but a utopian ambience and psychedelic nuances complete the picture of a band out of time. Every track putters and glides by so smoothly, that only gradually do you notice how complex this dream state is. Read a full review

17

Mitski – Puberty 2

The sheer candidness on Puberty 2 might make you wince: “I told him I’d do anything to have him stay with me,” sings the New Yorker on the album’s opening track, Happy, before a hollow tale unfolds of being discarded after sex. It may have been exhausting and painful for Mitski to put down on record, but listening to it is anything but. Read a full review

Mitski

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18

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

As striking as the sense that its themes are of a piece with the rest of Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre – the lyrics are as fascinating and conflicted as ever – is the sense of an artist willing to move forward. There are moments when You Want It Darker gently pushes Cohen’s sound to places it hasn’t gone before. Read a full review

19

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here … Thank You 4 Your Service

Jazzy, cheeky and often political, the New York band’s sixth album serves as the final chapter of their story and a clarion call for others to follow their path. It is full of nods to the past, with musical echoes of their most indelible songs, but takes on modern subjects from gentrification to the mis-sold dreams of African American youth. Read a full review

20

Drake – Views

One counterpoint to Drake’s woes is how fantastic the music he sets them to frequently is. Views is impressively diverse, taking in everything from the early 70s Isley Brothers to house music to dancehall and 90s R&B. It’s not perfect, but the album suggests his stardom is unassailable for the foreseeable future. Read a full review

Drake

21

Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen’s third album is immediately and enormously enjoyable, but also one that might take a long time to fully absorb. Its 10 songs are by turns beautiful, sad, funny, silly, obvious and oblique; relatively compact and upbeat in the album’s first half, but gradually exploring more expansive, torch-song territory in its second. Read a full review

22

Anderson .Paak – Malibu

Paak’s sound is a warm and hazy blend of styles – funk, jazz, New York house, reggae, trap, blaxploitation-era soul, a hint of psych-rock – anchored in R&B and hip-hop. Malibu is much deeper than his light-hearted first album, Venice, full of long-buried and painful childhood memories, transformed into bittersweet melodies and woozy, punch-drunk raps. Read a full story

23

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

There are plenty of absorbing, clever production touches here. Dev Hynes is good at twisting sounds that usually signify comforting familiarity until they start to feel uneasy. What seems like a chaotic demonstration of undeniable but insufficiently marshalled talent is anything but: on close inspection, it’s meticulously woven together, musical ideas and lyrical refrains reappearing in different songs. Read a full review

24

The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It

The real strength of the 1975’s second album is that is isn’t much different from their debut, their writers unencumbered by fear of melodic gaucheness. You’re left with an album that fancies itself as a challenging work of art, but turns out to be a collection of fantastic pop songs full of interesting, smart lyrics. Read a full review

The-1975

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25

Young Thug – Jeffery

The best moments on Jeffery come when Young Thug focuses on a hook and raps over an unconventional beat. Gucci Mane tribute Guwop is one of these moments, with a beat reminiscent of the ambient trap that Suicideyear specialises in; guest appearances by Young Scooter and Migos flesh it out. Read a full review

26

Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

Menstruation, death and uncontained desire are among the preoccupations of Hval’s fourth album under her own name. Given the title and themes, Blood Bitch is less operatic than you might expect. There are references to waking up in blood, and some shrieky Giallo-esque sound effects on The Plague, but Hval keeps things mostly quiet, hushing the weirdness and disorientation to a whisper. Read a full review

27

Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

Unlike his debut, Love & Hate never seems like an album screwing its eyes shut and trying to make believe that it’s 1971. The retro affectations are bound up with stuff that sounds very modern: ambient electronics, warped acoustic guitars and an almost short-circuiting distortion. It’s the work of an artist coming into his own. Read a full review

Michael Kiwanuka

28

James Blake – The Colour in Anything

Blake’s vocal style is magically evocative and, like Arthur Russell, he can summon a joyful sadness that seems to transcend the song. This album of digital anxiety and millennial unease is wrapped in something that feels wildly accomplished and heart-wrenchingly frail. Read a full review

29

Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony

At its core, Human Ceremony quakes with the hunger and excitement of three twentysomethings embarking on an adventure, in and out of bars, on and off the stage. Best of all is the lightness and nuance to Julia Cumming’s vocals – a quality that adds more texture and emotion than the dishevelled indie nonchalance of their predecessors. Read a full review

30

Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman

While Ariana Grande’s second album, 2014’s My Everything, was a commercial success, it also seemed as if she’d lost her musical identity. Dangerous Woman is a refinement of her sound, shifting from the low-slung groove of the title track and Moonlight’s jazzy refrain to the throbbing electro of new single Into You and the pulsating, Future-assisted Everyday. Read a full review

Ariana Grande

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31

Kano – Made in the Manor

Made in the Manor is a reflection on days gone by in east London: lyrics namecheck roads, postcodes and hairdressers. While the likes of Stormzy and Novelist have concentrated on harder, myopic tracks that reference their world and little else, here Kano offers more accessibility. As grime continues its ascent, Kano’s new approach might be catnip for those who want something more mature. Read a full review

32

Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

There’s an explicit debt here to predecessors such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, and it’s no surprise that the album has come out – a decade after Price starting playing around Nashville – on Jack White’s Third Man records. Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a record for which “authenticity” is crucial – and it’s all the better for it. Read a full review

Margo Price

33

Whitney – Light Upon the Lake

Light Upon the Lake merits superlatives. It’s a confident and effortless record that sounds as if it has always existed. Anyone who loves the strain of American pop that began when the Byrds started branching out in 1966 and 1967 should rush to hear this delightful confection. Read a full review

34

Lambchop – Flotus

The synths and effects never as if they’re the result of dabbling: Flotus still sounds like Kurt Wagner (below) and co of Lambchop, even when it sounds like nothing they have done before. Indeed, it plays out like a counterpoint to the wracked alienation of Bon Iver’s recent Auto-Tune-heavy record 22, A Million, and is filled with warmth, wistful nostalgia and soft, autumnal light. Read a full review

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop.

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35

Tegan and Sara – Love You to Death

For all Tegan and Sara’s adoption by queens of teen pop such as Katy Perry, Love You to Death feels like a distinctly grownup album, unafraid to explore nuanced, mature themes. There’s something unflinching about 100x’s description of a failed relationship, and there’s a disturbing darkness lurking around Dying to Know. Read a full review

36

Kaytranada – 99.9%

This debut by name-to-drop Montreal producer Kaytranada is a millennial collection that flares its nostrils at genre. The slightly disjointed 15 tracks provide ample evidence of 360-degree skills, of house and funk steals, often undercut with the clattery skip of bass music. It’s hard to keep up – but worth it. Read a full review

37

Case/lang/veirs – Case/lang/veirs

Case/lang/veirs have hit upon a sound that is gentle yet resonant, and wrestled out of three fiercely independent careers, an alt-country record of depth and scope. Lang initially imagined their collaboration as a “folk-punk girl-group thing”; it has travelled far further than that. Read a full review

Case/lang/veirs

38

Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

Despite the rock pedigree involved, this is not an exercise in raw power as per the Stooges album of 1973, but rather a vein of weathered chanson like that explored on 2009’s Préliminaires, where Iggy went highbrow. “When your love of life is an empty beach, don’t cry,” he sings on Chocolate Drops. The lyrics are as bare as Iggy’s legendary torso. Read a full review

39

Nao – For All We Know

For all the album’s sharp production, the song Trophy has an almost rock’n’roll swagger to it, and there’s an unmistakably 90s feel to the multilayered vocals. Throughout, Nao balances some very aerated sulking about unsatisfactory relationships with defiantly old-school touches. You can hear everyone from Janet Jackson to Aaliyah in this confident artist’s deceptively dreamy tones. Read the full review

40

Shura – Nothing’s Real

There’s emotional weight to the lyrics, the fizzing title track detailing a panic attack that landed Shura in hospital, while Indecision and Kidz ’n’ Stuff pinpoint the awkwardness of relationships in expert detail. Peppered throughout with snippets of audio from old home videos, Nothing’s Real feels like a properly curated album – and one of the year’s best. Read a full review

https://youtu.be/nJ4uBdmnKds?list=PLtSjxrThxTdunL-_Uq_63_DKoXhq4KC8W

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Listen to our YouTube playlist featuring music by our best-album artists

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/30/the-best-albums-of-2016

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