Often, turbulent times can produce the best art. Needless to say, 2016 has been an excellent year for music… Presenting Impact Music’s favourite albums (and mixtapes) of the past twelve months, as voted for by our writers and editors.
15. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing
“Is it cool when I don’t care?”, asks Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline. Here is an age-old question that has gone (and will go) unanswered for centuries. It’s also an example of Kline’s dreamy ability to verbalise the internal drama of adolescence.
Next Thing is largely composed of understated synth and guitar melodies, but don’t make the mistake of dismissing it as twee or insubstantial. This collection of indie-pop jingle-poems has endured the year, unscathed by my multiple plays. These melodies will burrow into your brain, with lyrics following close behind.
In ‘On the Lips’, Kline tackles a question that will be familiar to most of humanity: “where would I kiss ya/ If I could kiss ya?”. Elsewhere, she’s sleepily cryptic: “you know I’d love to/Rummage through/Your silky pink space cap”, or excruciatingly direct “goodbye, forever…/What the fuck?”.
Infatuation, insecurity and longing are the unfortunate prerequisites of youth. Next Thing captures them with precision and candour. Maybe I’m indulging the melodrama, but right now it feels like I’ll never get over Frankie Cosmos.
14. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
This album is filled with personal ’80s synth pop, ambient interludes, catchy guitar solos and songs which seem to be a continuation of The 1975’s debut album.
‘Love Me’ is very Bowie-esque. The lyrics refer to narcissism, confidence and criticise social media culture. ‘UGH’ is cheerful and catchy with a bass overdrive and funky sound, even though it points to the dark side of drug addiction in the chorus: “you’re the only thing that’s going on in my mind, taking over my life a second time”, therefore delivering an unpredictable melody to a dark song.
‘The Sound’ is probably the most festival-ready track by the band so far, once again delivering a catchy guitar solo and lyrics with a synth pop sound. ‘Somebody Else’ has beautiful and emotional lyrics, which seem genuinely personal, combined with Matt Healy’s smooth vocals and slow tempo synth pop sound.
Overall, this is an incredible album, one that is personal, honest and authentic. Read Impact’s full review here.
13. Parquet Courts – Human Performance
With Human Performance, Parquet Courts have entered a slightly more melodious territory than in previous offerings. Don’t panic; I said ‘slightly’. There are still plenty of jarring yelps and discordant riffs for those that want them.
The Brooklyn (via Texas) four-piece have taken lead from their experimental rock forerunners for Human Performance. Rattles of the Velvet Underground can be heard throughout and ‘One Man No City’ is almost a tribute to Talking Heads. These comparisons are not meant pejoratively – there is still room for musical experimentation from Parquet Courts themselves. Human Performance is certainly an original.
The narrator in the title track speaks from the midst of post-breakup heartache. Though there is poetry to be found across this record, here is where Max Savage’s lyricism is at its most starkly poignant. I’m having difficulty choosing one line to exemplify how expertly this track captures grief – perhaps the most morbid will work best: “It never leaves me/Just visits less often/It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften/Without a coffin. Merry Christmas! Read Impact’s full review here.
12. Kaytranada – 99.9%
Kaytranada doesn’t disappoint on any track on this LP. I admire the way he uses other instrumentalists to enhance his sound, for example on the track ‘WEIGHT OFF’ where he borrows BadBadNotGood to create a sinister, gritty, grimey piece, or on ‘BUS RIDE’ where he uses Karriem Riggins’ expertise to take the percussive side of the track to another level.
A lot of credit must go to Kaytranada’s production on ‘GLOWED UP’, which is rude, gritty and dirty. It’s very similar to the Vic Mensa track which takes advantage of Anderson .Paak’s versatility, allowing him to both sing and rap on the track.
All in all this is an extremely good album, that’s well put together with impeccable production that will be one to beat this year. For his debut solo album Kaytranada has knocked it out of the park. I cannot wait to see who he works with next. Adapted from Impact‘s full length review.
11. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
This album is both personal and political: Dev Hynes (the man behind Blood Orange) named it after Sierra Leone’s capital city, the birthplace of his father. He cryptically explores his own identity in terms of race, sexuality and gender. At the same time, Freetown Sound is a shared experience, both in its creation and its reception. Collaborations are frequent (and mostly female) including Debbie Harry and Empress Of. Nelly Furtado features on ‘Hadron Collider’, an album highlight.
In addition to black identity, Freetown Sound considers what it means to be female. ‘By Ourselves’ samples the voice of Ashlee Haze reading her poem ‘For Coloured Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)’. Projected through atmospheric vocals and sparse jazz, this makes for a deeply affecting opener.
Artistic exploration of today’s political landscape is both jarring and necessary. Filtered through ’80s-inspired pop, funk and soul, Freetown Sound is questioning; not preaching or probing. Hynes’ ability as a producer shines: velvety transitions provide a smooth and rapidly changing stream wherein these weighty themes can flow into the listener’s consciousness.
It’s impossible to summarise such a multifaceted record in such few words. If you haven’t listened yet, you’d better get on with it.
10. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book
“Chancellor The Rapper, please say The Rapper” is back at it again with the dope mixtapes. The second track on Coloring Book is definitely one of my favourites from the project, with the introductory lines: “If one more label try to stop me, there’s gonna be some dread-head n***as in the lobby!” The attitude and aggression behind those words communicates Chance’s annoyance at the music industry, and he hints further in the mixtape that various labels have had issues with their artists contributing verses on Chance’s project for free.
In terms of singles, I loved ‘Angels’ when it was released earlier this year and I love it even more now. It contains great instrumentation, a fun chorus, beautiful ad-libs and a creative video to go with it. Chance’s choice of melody and flow on ‘Smoke Break’ is phenomenal, and he also did well with his choice of rhythm, regarding which pockets to slide his words in.
All in all this is definitely one of the better projects of this year, and holds its own against other artists’ albums; the fact that it is only a mixtape gives it that much more credibility. However, with a mixtape this good, there will be an immense amount of pressure on Chance to deliver an exceptional debut solo album.
9. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Mixed with some contemporary influences, this album offers the jazzy sound that A Tribe Called Quest is known for. ‘Ego’ returns to that OG 90s sound, whilst reggae influences are tapped into on ‘Whateva Will Be’ and ‘Black Spasmodic’. Digital synths, which appear prominently on ‘The Killing Season’ and ‘Conrad Tokyo’ on the second disc, are not out of place with the rest of the album’s production, appearing as innovative explorations of their classic sound. The Tribe prove that their iconic sound is still relevant and essential to hip-hop.
We Got It From Here… is a farewell album and a commitment to Phife Dawg’s legacy. His comrades give a heartfelt dedication to the original member in ‘Lost Somebody’, as Jarobi remembers Phife as having the “heart of the largest lion trapped inside the little dude”. A Tribe Called Quest have created a powerful, emotional and lasting record; as the last album that Phife wanted to make, a more fitting ending to A Tribe Called Quest’s career could not have been left. Adapted from Impact’s full length review.
8. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
If ever there was a year that left us dumbfounded and scratching our heads it was 2016… and if there was an album this year that epitomised that feeling it was The Life of Pablo.
An insight into Ye’s disturbed psyche, and released just months before his overly publicised breakdown, TLOP turns on its head numerous hip-hop mainstream trends in favour of a rough around the edges body of work. It is muddled, disturbing, glamorous, and a masterpiece.
Inconsistent as this album is in just about every aspect, its high points blow many of this year’s other hip-hop projects out of the water. Just take for example the chorally backed and Chance the Rapper-assisted track ‘Ultralight Beams’ that is as melodic and inspirational as any track of the genre can aspire to be, or ‘No More Parties in LA’ which features Ye’s masterful chopping up of samples and beats (with help from legendary underground producer Mad Lib) coupled with some of the sharpest lyricism the rapper has displayed in years.
Even in the cuts that aren’t as razor focused like ‘Freestyle 4’ or ‘Highlights’, the instrumentals are still moody and the lyrics disturbing enough to unsettle the listener and give them an insight into what makes Ye one of the most polarising, confusing, and in your face artists today. In other words, the 2016 of rappers. Read Impact’s full review here.
7. Cate le Bon – Crab Day
This thoroughly surrealist offering from the singular genius that is Cate le Bon has been criminally absent from a number of best-of-2016 lists.
Surely the fact that it features a (magnificent) track called ‘I’m A Dirty Attic’ is reason enough? Everything about Crab Day is a little bit off-kilter. The lyrics shouldn’t make sense, but they (sort of) do. “Speak your eyes to me on Crab Day”, le Bon commands in the opening track. Later, “I wanna cry in your mouth” feels like a reasonable request.
Unlike past albums, le Bon’s musical style on Crab Day is often jarring. The jabbing guitar on the title track borders on harsh, but give it time. The Welsh musician’s voice has a soft, eerie quality which offsets any severity without blunting its bite. At once restrained and explosive, lead single ‘Wonderful’ is chaos that has been methodically arranged. Le Bon’s ability to combine odd, dissonant incongruity with order, harmony and melody is unmatched. She is weird. Wonderfully so.
6. Beyoncé – Lemonade
Lemonade did incredibly well after its release back in April of this year. This could be thought to be a result of various factors.
Unlike Beyoncé’s previous albums, Lemonade addresses current social issues facing America, for example the Black Lives Matter movement. It also was a deeply personal LP. This album brought edge to the artist and felt extremely unapologetic, which went down well with critics.
Despite the album being exclusive to co-owned streaming site Tidal, fans still managed to support the artist. Over 1 million copies were sold. It was Beyoncé’s second visual album which could have added to its popularity and success globally. Read Impact’s full review here.
5. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.
For many people, regardless of their usual music taste, To Pimp A Butterfly was one of the best albums of 2015. Demos of songs which didn’t make the cut could have easily been bundled into a deluxe version, but instead they became a standalone release entitled untitled unmastered. Kendrick chose to perform some of these songs on TV during the TPAB promotional cycle rather than critically acclaimed tracks which had already been released, and his confidence in the quality of these songs is further demonstrated by presenting them here in an unfinished form.
This confidence is well placed. Lyrically, Kendrick is on top form, discussing serious political topics with absolute lucidity while weaving in carefully crafted internal rhymes. His delivery ranges from laid-back to intense, but always lands on the beat with perfect precision.
There’s plenty of variety musically, from the trap influences in ‘untitled 02’ and ‘untitled 07’, to deep funk grooves elsewhere, to the bleak, jazzy arrangement in ‘untitled 05’, which features a Thundercat bass line moving polymetrically against heavily compressed drums. One track features a low-quality recording of Kendrick and Thundercat jamming, which is a raw and fascinating insight into the creative process. Read Impact’s full review here.
4. Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!”
Departing from the rap roots of his past albums, Gambino stuns with a funk-infused, soulful and at times gospel-esque third album.
Tracks like ‘Redbone’ and the opener ‘Me and Your Mama’ exude a soulful ambience and realness that is hard to replicate. Combining harmonious melodies with rippling instrumentals in the opening track to create an ethereal lullaby turned raw jazz ballad shows that this era of new Gambino, despite being a very stark contrast to old Gambino, is equally innovative, if not more so. The smooth blend of visceral falsettos and soft, hypnotic melodies complement themes of all-consuming love and the fear and simultaneous joy of parenthood, albeit subtly; gone are the overt socio-political lyrics of previous works.
Leaving the bars behind and exploring a new genre has redefined Gambino’s position as a hip-hop artist, proving that he can venture outwards while remaining true to his hip hop sensibilities. Read Impact’s full review here.
3. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
It may have taken half a decade, but Bon Iver’s third offering was well worth the wait. What 22, A Million lacks in pronounceable song titles, it more than makes up for in sound and lyrical content.
In all respects, this record borders on the avant-garde. The vocals are highly distressed and processed in a way that is almost reminiscent of Kanye West’s work with autotune. Gospel undertones and religious imagery contrast with electronic elements resulting in the most satisfying discord. Though 22, A Million marks a clear departure from previous albums, it is just as beautifully melancholic.
Formal song conventions have been utterly shunned by Justin Vernon and it’s all so refreshing by comparison to a vast majority of popular music. It’s a brave album that reflects on the very uncertainty and impermanence of life. Read Impact’s full review here.
2. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
There is a reason I’d go as far as to call Radiohead the 21st century’s answer to The Beatles. From the early days of angst post-grunge, to the anti-Bush soundscapes, the band pioneered much of the alternative music that has since formed. And now they have brought fans another dimension.
A Moon Shaped Pool is a spiritual trip, an album of pure craftsmanship, philosophical lyric and melodies that hit the soul harder and harder, listen after listen. It has something for everyone, whether it’s the shimmering guitar arrangements, the poetry of the lyrics, the iconic Yorke falsetto, serene dream-state soundscapes or Johnny Greenwood’s orchestral ensembles; every note screams musicality, art, and most importantly, emotion.
I promise that if you listened once and didn’t like it, listen again closely, and you’ll feel it grow on you. Read Impact’s full review here.
1. Frank Ocean – Blonde
Frank Ocean had a lot to prove with this album. As soon as his debut Channel Orange exploded into the international consciousness in 2012, suspense began to build. We suffered four years of waiting, a million false promises and a next to zero media presence from the famously elusive artist.
Lo and behold, he delivered. Accompanied by a visual album (Endless) and a zine (Boys Don’t Cry), Blond(e) is a sensational piece of work and very much deserves its place at the top of our list. Channel Orange was a tough act to follow, but Ocean’s unique artistic vision has shone through once more.
Blond(e) is at once personal, introspective and critical of the world in which it was created. Opener ‘Nikes’ both explores the Black Lives Matter movement and investigates the issue of consumerism in the modern age. Conversely, ‘Pink + White’ takes a movingly nostalgic look at life, time and relationships.
In a world filled with mumble rap and autotune, it’s great to see an artist to show such lyricism and experimentation with sound. Adding innovation and originality has not prevented Ocean from producing some superlative pop music. Multiple listens will no doubt continue to reveal more. Blond(e) is definitely one for the history books. Read our full length review here.
Joshua Ogunmokun and Maddy Hay