The 50 best albums of 2016
There's no point in sugar-coating it; 2016 was pretty rough.
It all started when we lost Bowie in early January. By the end of the year there were weird social and political rifts and a veritable laundry list of legends who'd joined Bowie in the afterlife (Prince, Leonard Cohen, Phife Dawg, George Martin, to name just a few).
But, through it all, incredible music was still being made. Artists all across the planet took steps to cement themselves in the same league as the legends who had passed. Some blew our mind with fresh new sounds, others just kept doing what they've always done and some acts completely reinvented themselves.
As always, narrowing this list down to just 50 records was impossibly difficult. We've left out some wonderful music (pour one out for Paul Kelly, Parquet Courts and Bob Evans). As always, we encourage you to share your favourite records of 2016 with us through Facebook and/or Twitter.
But we had to draw a line somewhere. So, here are the 50 best records of 2016.
50. Plutonic Lab – Deep Above the Noise
Largely an instrumental hip hop offering, Plutonic Lab's Deep Above the Noise is big on crisp textures and penetrating atmospheres. You only need to check ‘Flex The Complex’ and ’Sirens’ for sound collages that simulate how music can massage and bathe your frontal lobes.
Great as Guilty Simpson, Miles Bonny and MoMO’s vocals are, the beat is always the star of the show. The only exception is the absolute jam that Canadian outfit Notes To Self BBRC ride out on ‘Sliced Bread’.
There’s a minimalist philosophy that underlines this record and a belief that a few key ingredients in experienced hands make for the type of dish you keep coming back to. In hip hop, it always comes back to the beauty of the beat and depth of the rhythm, of which there’s an abundance here. – Caroline Tran
49. Bernard Fanning – Civil Dusk
Bernard Fanning offered no surprises on solo album number three. It’s more folk inflected pop with big hooks and classic rock swagger. But just because the songs aren't challenging, doesn't mean they're bad.
Civil Dusk shows that his already revered songwriting talents are becoming even more refined as the years roll on.
It’s another gorgeous sounding record; the warmth of every tone the perfect complement to Fanning's beloved, iconic voice.
From the strings to the weird synths, the guitars to the backing vocals, everything sounds lush, natural and in its right place. – Dan Condon
48. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter shows Margo Price to be a true country star. Like the outlaw troubadours of old, this is a record made by a songwriter of obvious substance.
From battles with the booze in ‘Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)’, to standing by your man, and then not, on ‘Four Years of Chances’, all the way through to a cynical take on the industry behind the country music capital in ‘This Town Gets Around’, this is a record with a tilt of the hat to classic country songwriting, but taken to all the places you want it to go.
Straddling decades, this album sounds like it was done in a golden age of country music, decades ago. But it somehow retains a modern potency.
A truly stunning opening gambit in what is bound to be a long career. – Henry Wagons
47. Common – Black America Again
This will be the sleeper record of 2016. The record you’ll wonder how you missed when you finally hear it. Common is in better form than ever as a rapper and a writer, but he’s angrier than ever too.
He’s taking a stand for his people on this record. He’s demanding justice. Demanding an end to violence. Demanding we take heed of Martin Luther King’s teachings
Musically, the record is dark, challenging, engaging and the perfect match for both Common’s political rhymes and stunning guest showings from the likes of Bilal, John Legend and even the great Stevie Wonder. The music ranges from jazz to orchestral, piano ballads to psychedelic soul and takes on a cinematic feel throughout.
Black America Again is a record we will look back on with wonder. We will definitely be in wonder at the quality of Common’s music after 11 albums, but here’s hoping we’ll also wonder why there was a need for this kind of protest music at all. – Dan Condon
46. Savages – Adore Life
It would be difficult for any band to recapture the buzz that surrounded Savages’ abrasive first album Silence Yourself. But they’ve managed to by following up with an even louder effort, with an added dash of emotional vulnerability.
There are some killer tracks bursting with Savages’ trademark angular, aggressive, ever-churning sound ('The Answer', 'Sad Person'), but also a couple of intriguing slow burners.
While they turn the intensity up to 11, Savages still manage to engage in some deep reflection on themes of love, lust, sex, power, boredom, control. This is a powerful, noisy record with some serious business to attend to. – Myf Warhurst
45. Junior Boys – Big Black Coat
On their first album in five years, Canadian duo Junior Boys take electronic dance music back to a time and (mind)space when big clubs felt small. When house was served minus the acid and what you wore mattered more than how little.
Their fifth album is built on a foundation of '80s synth-heavy electro yet they manage to give it a polished, modern feel. It’s a feat other contemporary artists struggle to pull off, often finding it easier to subvert with a wink and a daggy suit. Its sophisticated feel is helped in large part by Jeremy Greenspan’s soulful vocal delivery.
Big Black Coat is a fine choice for a late night groove. And no-one should care how daggy that sounds. – Dorothy Markek
44. De La Soul – And The Anonymous Nobody
A 12-year wait, the obliteration of a crowdfunding record and the finest list of guest appearances in recent memory. De La Soul’s eighth record had a pretty great narrative, but none of that meant anything when we finally heard And The Anonymous Nobody.
Nope, the only thing that mattered was Posdnuos, Dave and Maseo, still together and still on top of their game.
They don’t shy away from the classic hip hop they helped pioneer, it’s in those classic moments that they are at their best. Their best rhymes here are smooth, smart and easy to relate to. Throw on 'Nosed Up', 'Royalty Capes' and 'Pain' and let the power of quality, feel-good hip hop take hold. – Dan Condon
43. NO ZU – Afterlife
Since NO ZU formed in 2007, the eight-piece ensemble have built a reputation as a cracking live band, bringing the party to any stage. Afterlife, their second album, brings that party home.
NO ZU describe their music as ‘heat beat’ and it’s certainly hot. Those polyrhythms recall an influence from afro-beat, disco-funk, early electro and New York new wave. NO ZU took a great big pot and poured it all in, and it makes you wanna dance and shout.
‘Ui Yia Uia’ is a dizzyingly funky slow jam while ‘Spirit Beat’ is begging for a breakdance. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find reflections on Australia’s post-colonial identity and the treatment of indigenous people.
This is high-gloss city music, anchored in rhythm and reflecting a vibrant trans-cultural, trans-global world that invites you to think with your feet. If you’ve found 2016 a bit of a rough ride, Afterlife is the perfect antidote. – Karen Leng
42. Descendents – Hypercaffium Spazzinate
Honestly, Hypercaffium Spazzinate sounds just like you’d imagine Descendents would sound in 2016. The songs are heavy, melodic and catchy as all get-out. They not quite as immature as they used to be, but they’re still not taking themselves too seriously.
For a bunch of dudes in their 50s, these guys still play punk rock as fast and of as high a quality as anyone.
Who are we kidding, they’re still better than everyone and here’s hoping the reported new lease on life the band has manifests in more records, more tours, more unforgettable hits and more of that constant quest for ALL. – Dan Condon
41. Mark Pritchard – Under The Sun
Sydney-based English-born producer Mark Pritchard has been releasing records for over 25 years. In that time he's dabbled in techno, experimental music, house, drum'n'bass, jungle, grime, hip hop and much more, under a variety of pseudonyms.
This year he released the first full-length album under his own name in three years. When viewed from most angles, it’s an ambient folk record. It’s a rich reflection on Pritchard's love of English folk revivalists like Pentangle, as well as the region he comes from.
It features turns from bona-fide folk royalty like Linda Perhacs alongside some of his electronic/folk contemporaries like Thom Yorke and Bibio.
Under The Sun is a beautiful album for contemplation. Best enjoy it as given Pritchard’s track record, the next record is unlikely to sound anything like it. – Tim Shiel
40. Cass McCombs – Mangy Love
From the oh-so-smooth opening of its first track ‘Bum Bum Bum’, Cass McCombs’ Mangy Love delivers some of the esteemed songwriter’s finest musical moments yet.
The music is rich throughout. There’s the smooth, jazzy soft-rock of ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’ and the Angel Olsen-featuring ‘Opposite House’, the vicious, bluesy dirge of ‘Rancid Girl’, the brilliantly soaring folk of ‘Low Flyin’ Bird’, the propulsive ‘Run Sister Run’ and the searing attitude of ‘Cry’.
His lyrics are as on-point as ever, taking a unique look at fame (not his own), misogyny, racism and mental illness, but framed in the kind of music that makes everything seem better than it really is.
In a career that has given us some pretty stellar records, Mangy Love truly sits up there as one of Cass McCombs’ finest. Here’s hoping he continues to release whatever the hell kind of records he wants to. Just so long as we get one as brilliant as Mangy Love in a while. – Dan Condon
39. Melody Pool – Deep Dark Savage Heart
Melody Pool's Deep Dark Savage Heart is brutally honest and personal. Yet, at the same time, it's a fully orchestrated grand-scale production.
Deeply individual, but also wide in scope. A record by an Australian songwriter, but on a world-class scale.
It is a fully realised and articulate exposition of the hardships of the world of romance. It is able to transparently, powerfully and beautifully express it, uncensored and glorious.
Songs ‘Richard’ and ‘Love, She Loves Me’ encapsulate the album’s incredible journey. – Henry Wagons
38. White Denim – Stiff
Austin Jenkins and Josh Block recently left White Denim to focus on their work with the great Leon Bridges (who Jenkins discovered). Thankfully, in the hands of frontman James Petralli, White Denim is not just safe, but continuing to thrive.
Stiff is a tight nine tracks of music that skirts the edges of soul, rock, psych and funk but would still comfortably sit next to most of today's indie rock.
It's a little dirtier than your average blue-eyed soul record, a little cleaner than most southern rock and a bit weirder than most indie rock records, such is the spin the band so gleefully put on their favourite styles.
White Denim aren't reinventing genres, they're just updating them and making sure no one gets bored. They've always been great at doing that and it's no exception here. – Dan Condon
37. The Kills – Ash & Ice
A whole lot of life happened in the years leading up to Ash & Ice and you can hear how it’s affected The Kills.
Guitarist Jamie Hince almost lost his hand, which meant he had to find new ways of playing the guitar. This led to greater use of synthesizers on this record. He’s also endured a very public and painful marriage breakdown.
On past releases, The Kills embraced jagged, gritty indie rock over a cool, sneering toughness. But for Ash & Ice, there’s a sleekness that’s crept into their sound and an emotional vulnerability in the lyrics.
It feels like the edges and spikiness of their songs have been more rounded off. But this is most definitely the handiwork of The Kills. A duo who still find fresh ways to ignite that very identifiable spark between the them. – Caz Tran
36. Jim James – Eternally Even
Jim James uses his second solo record away from Louisville alt-country rockers My Morning Jacket to remind us you can’t build love out of guns, blood and sorrow. You gotta give peace a chance, remember?
On Eternally Even, his quest for equality and understanding comes wrapped in sedate grooves, his voice often just a muffled croon through the cosmic fog. The basslines are greasy, the synths and strings are made of stardust.
Across nine fuzzy jams he wonders why we’re blind to the empty promises peddled by politicians, religions and corporations (on album highlight ‘Same Old Lie’), and why we choose war and divisive attitudes over peace and love (‘We Ain't Getting Any Younger Pt. 2’).
These are soulful and spiritual tunes that ask the right questions about humanity, our own mortality and the future of our traumatised world. – Ryan Egan
35. Rosie Lowe – Control
Just when it seemed like the post-James Blake, minimal, R&B electronica sound had been rinsed for all it's worth, 26-year old Rosie Lowe turns around with this breath of fresh air.
She enlisted star producer Dave Okumu (Jessie Ware, Amy Winehouse) to assist. But make no mistake, Control is definitely her own uncompromising musical vision. She intertwines lyrical themes of personal emotional catharsis ('Who's That Girl?'), feminism ('Woman') and mental illness.
My late night studio hangs often end up with friends competing to raise the bar by playing the song that will truly 'blow your mind'. Whenever I pull out Rosie Lowe's 'Worry Bout Us' all bets are off. – Lance Ferguson
34. Big Smoke – Time is Golden
How sad it is that this is the first and last Big Smoke album we’ll get to hear. Despite this, Time Is Golden stands triumphant, suspended within its own short glimpse. This is so clearly an album made by a young, powerful band in full flight, with an open creative horizon.
Much of the album was created after singer/songwriter Adrian Slattery was already diagnosed with terminal illness, but instead of Big Smoke buckling over in defeat, they have left us with songs that create pause, then leave us with cause to celebrate life.
In particular, ‘Best of You’ and ‘Honey, I’ build to epic moments that far transcend the tragic context in which the album was made. – Henry Wagons
33. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS
It’s been a joy to see Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith come to the front of the class this year, taking her position as one of electronic music’s most prominent champions of modular synthesis.
Ears is a tour de force. On tracks with gooey names like ‘Wetlands’ and ‘Arthropoda’, Smith leans on her composition chops and leads her modular orchestra through a vibrant celebration of nature, accompanied by layers of her own vocals.
This album is like taking a slow bath in a muddy swamp, a meditation amongst the weeds, Smith’s sonic soil rubbing itself deep into your ears. After every listen I somehow feel more connected to the dirt, the water and the air, and that’s a wonderful and rare thing. – Tim Shiel
32. Paul Dempsey – Strange Loop
The orchestrated demos for Paul Dempsey’s accomplished second solo record came to life simply and quickly in Wilco’s ready-to roll The Loft studio in Chicago.
Strange Loop is bookended with two oft-dissected, but no more understood as a result, parts of the human condition.
‘The True Sea’ is a gorgeous meditation on the vagaries of love, while ‘Nobody’s Trying to Tell You Something’ calmly points out that none of us are immune to death, but that acceptance beats fear every time.
The unanswerable questions Dempsey continues to ask away from Something For Kate makes for a beautifully arranged, conventionless listen that demands further contemplation. – Tatjana Clancy
31. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Godfather of punk Iggy Pop has been delivering for almost 50 years. A month before his 68th birthday he gifted us with his 17th album, Post Pop Depression.
You can hear collaborator Josh Homme all over tracks like 'Gardenia', 'American Valhalla' and 'Sunday', while Iggy offers haunting, David Bowie-esque vocals, fierce monologues despairing at the state of the world and love serenades.
On its opening track Pop says, “I’m gonna break into your heart, I’m gonna crawl under your skin”. By the end of the record he well and truly has. – Gab Burke
30. Gawurra – Ratja Yaliyali
The title of this album, translated to Vine of Love, is where the key to its power is hidden. Stanley Gawurra Gaykamangu has created an exquisite debut that is a vine that binds old with new, his family with yours and the songs that link us to country.
Hailing from Milingimbi, Arnhem Land, Gawurra has deftly crafted an album that explores his songlines woven with the electronic production of Northern Territory producer Broadwing.
Ratja Yaliyali shares traditional and original songs that are immersive and rich and sung with a voice that will be regarded as a treasure for years to come. – Jacinta Parsons
29. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
The Hope Six Demolition Project is a potent storm. Perfect propaganda. I couldn’t think of a better way to communicate such powerful politics than encoding it in undeniable catchiness. Each of PJ Harvey's world-hardened tunes is driven with a primal swampiness.
Even though this album has her name emblazoned on the cover, in tunes such as ‘The Orange Monkey’ her voice is barely audible above the scrum. Her unflinching message stands over and above herself, the individual.
This is a beautiful example of a songwriter, seemingly at peace with who she is as an artist, looking outward. Shining a light on some dark corners of the world. – Henry Wagons
28. Agnes Obel – Citizen Of Glass
This record plays like glass; beautiful, delicate and fragile, with the ability to cut deep if you don’t tread lightly.
Gläserner Bürger is a German term describing a ‘glass citizen’ – someone so completely transparent that every private detail is known. It’s a trait increasingly demanded in our modern world, though not readily possible or ideal.
Berlin-based Dane Agnes Obel drew on the concept for her third record, her deepest and most ambitious work to date. Citizen Of Glass takes the contemporary classical and ambient style of her earlier work, adding a beguiling slice of dark menace which will enchant you. – Peta Waller-Bryant
27. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
It is a true gift when the world’s greatest poet of song has a chance to leave us with his own eulogy.
In the album’s title track, Leonard Cohen openly embraces his imminent death with the poise and accepting grace that he displayed throughout his incredible life. Songs such as ‘Treaty’ and ‘Steer Your Way’ show that the grand architect of the Tower Of Song retained his deft lyrical touch till the very end, at once shining a sage’s light on the workings of the world but also giving a deep personal insight into the author.
The production is austere and considered, creating a vortex to suck you straight into his incredible turn of phrase. – Henry Wagons
26. Teeth & Tongue – Give Up On Your Health
Melbourne singer Jess Cornelius is the brains trust behind the musical project Teeth & Tongue, and this, her fourth record, saw her move towards a more synth based sound.
The result is an album of songs that dwell heavily in the world of glorious, catchy electro pop.
Lyrically, it’s an exercise in deeply personal storytelling too, which adds much weight to the smooth exterior. There’s not a dud song on this record. Get on it. – Myf Warhurst
25. Frank Ocean – Blonde
It felt like we waited forever for Blonde. After so many false-starts, broken promises and spins of channelORANGE, we finally heard Frank Ocean’s latest masterpiece in August. And what a piece it is.
Lyrically, it doesn’t shy away from the issues Ocean holds closest to his heart. For a man who comes across as so guarded, he lays it all on the line here. He sings about police violence, finding solace in music, finding fame, paranoia, unwanted pregnancy. His sharp emotional intellect is more refined than ever, and he’s not afraid to turn the lens on himself.
Its music is slinky, dissonant and always inventive. It pushes R&B to new places while retaining what makes pop music great. Hell, it even borrows from The Beatles, Gang Of Four, Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren and Elliott Smith. Much of the record is sparse, but somehow it feels as if there’s still plenty to unpack. So, when’s the next one? – Dan Condon
24. Jordie Lane & the Sleepers - Glassellland
Melbourne singer-songwriter Jordie Lane moved to America a few years ago to further his career (read: get famous). Settling in north east LA’s Glassell Park, the album title refers to a mysterious (and massive) sign that appeared on several hillsides in the area.
Co-produced with collaborator/partner Clare ‘Lollies’ Reynolds, they recorded Glassellland in several makeshift studios, one doubling as the kitchen. Lane’s confidence has grown, with more instruments in unexpected places. But he sings with the honesty and vulnerability that’s always been there.
While Jordie seems drawn to America’s Dream Big ethos, (‘Dreamin’ The Life’), he’s also confused about his place in that world (‘Out of State’). A perfect combination for some healthy cynicism (‘Better Not Go Outside’). At the end of it all there’s love for the person who supports that ambition (‘Rambling Mind’). He sings as a man with nothing holding him back and little to lose. – Dorothy Markek
23. Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
Adele is currently the biggest selling artist in the world, but there are other British women of soul – Emeli Sande, Florence Welch, Lianne La Havas – who’ve made deep connections through booming voices and big emotions. While Laura Mvula may be the newest member of the club, her second album shows her as the most fearless.
Mvula’s heavenly, impassioned voice soars as effortlessly over chamber pop (‘Show Me Love’) as on Nile Rodgers-endorsed funk (‘Overcome’). A less skilled, more calculated artist would have been caught out. Instead we latch on to Mvula’s determination to see through the worst, heal and come out the other side. As she sings on ‘Let Me Fall’; ‘No looking back, when hope is pushing forward”.
Of the current crop of singers, soul or otherwise, Mvula is the one most pushing forward. – Dorothy Markek
22. D.D. Dumbo – Utopia Defeated
The debut full-length release from Castlemaine native Oliver Hugh Perry a.k.a D.D. Dumbo, is an absolute stunner.
Utopia Defeated somehow manages to marry slick staccato production, driving percussion, African-inspired guitar lines, horn sections and a whole lot more. To put it simply, this is textured pop at its finest.
It’s one of those delicious musical offerings that has you discovering new elements with each listen. Through it all Perry’s lyricism depicts a connection with the natural world and an intense concern for our environmental demise.
Utopia Defeated is as much a journey of clashing musical genres and digitally manipulated instruments, as it is a philosophical meandering through Perry’s mind. And it all works. It’s one of the most striking and inventive albums of 2016. – Gabrielle Burke
21. Jordan Rakei – Cloak
Brisbane-born, London-residing Jordan Rakei is one of this country's finest young musical exports. He has lent his superlative vocals to artists such as Disclosure, Ta-Ku and Tom Misch and brought emotional warmth and subtlety to each performance.
His debut long-player Cloak is a multi-layered, deeply-nuanced collection of 21st century soul music that reveals the complexity of Rakei's vision with each listen. 'Talk To Me' washes over you in waves of harmonic richness. REMI guests on the sinewy tune 'Snitch' and 'Blame It On The Youth' shows Rakei is also not afraid to get down.
Cloak sounds like an artist who is in it for the long haul. Someone who is operating above and beyond flash-in-the-pan sonic trends and is already unafraid of being unabashedly themselves. I look forward to listening to the journey. – Lance Ferguson
20. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake
“I left drinking on the city train, to spend some time on the road”
From the opening bars of stellar single 'No Woman' Whitney’s debut album seems filled with longing. For new adventures, for love and perhaps warmth, given it was written in the depths of an especially brutal Chicago winter. It’s a back porch kind of ramble, intimate, casual yet crafted and imbued with golden late-afternoon sunshine.
Whitney formed as a duo from the ashes of Chicago's The Smith Westerns, with drummer Julien Ehrlich also taking on vocal duties. Who doesn’t love a singing drummer? Although written simply on acoustic guitar, the songs on Light Upon The Lake have been richly embellished with strings and horns throughout and beautifully produced by Jonathan Rado of Foxygen.
There are tinges of smoky jazz and smooth soul and gentle country on a collection of songs that feel new but somehow instantly familiar. Perfect holiday listening. – Karen Leng
19. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
Listening to The Colour in Anything for the first time, all 76 minutes of it, was more than an emotional experience, it was a visceral one.
The genius in James Blake’s music is its ability to seep in. From the chest-throbbing bass of ‘Points’, to the spine-tingling piano ballad ‘The Colour in Anything’ and achingly beautiful harmonies on 'I Need a Forest Fire'.
Paired with heartbreaking lyrics, this album has all the hallmarks of classic Blake. On top of his signature metallic vocals and the spacious, luscious sounds we’ve come to love, this album traverses new emotional terrain. Perhaps it’s working with the likes of Rick Rubin, Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean. Or, as Blake himself cites, his new romantic relationship.
Either way, there’s a warmer texture and maturity to this record that makes it one of 2016’s true triumphs. – Samantha Lee
18. Solange – A Seat At The Table
A Seat at the Table is stunning and sprawling. Solange takes her innermost reflections and explodes them onto a rich canvas of musical exploration. On paper it’s dense, but every moment feels full of light. The overall mood is one of generosity – the hint is in the album title – it feels like an open invitation to sit, to listen, learn, and then continue the conversation.
I imagine conversation around Solange’s table is thoughtful, funny, but above all, calm. There is power in speaking quietly but from a place of truth and lived experience. A Seat at The Table fits in a lineage of quiet activism, coming from a place of wisdom and reflection rather than revolt and anger.
We all know someone who has the power to give powerful insight with a gentle touch, to explore pain and grief with love and softness. At a time when voices are rising, Solange’s soft and open tone feels essential. – Tim Shiel
17. The Peep Tempel – Joy
Sometimes hilariously apt and often full of grit, The Peep Tempel really know how to make brilliant punk that firmly hits home. Their third record is their most accessible, while also managing to be their most cerebral. Advancing on the darkness of second album Tales, the characters and themes in Joy have as much hope as they do cynicism.
The Melbourne band have this uncanny ability to have you laughing out loud one minute, only to get your hair standing on end the next. Frontman Blake Scott’s delivery tells more about their characters in a few minutes than you’d be able to get from a reading a novel on them.
Using songwriting as catharsis, these guys manage to channel their frustration and anxiety about Australia into a tangible reflection of some of our best and worst qualities. Hopefully, this is just the start of a long lesson in how we can do better according to The Peep Tempel. – Peta Waller-Bryant
16. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
South London rapper/performance poet Kate Tempest blew me away with her first album, Everybody Down, capturing the sound of London through her stories of disenfranchised young people living in an alienating world.
This, her second album is a far denser prospect. Her extremely well drawn characters still inhabit the songs and their personal struggles remain central to the narrative, but this time it’s all set against a backdrop of global crisis and a soundtrack of even more minimal beats provided by producer Dan Carey.
It’s a complex record, but one that reveals more with each listen. – Myf Warhurst
15. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your service
A Tribe Called Quest defied adversity to release one of the most vital, uncompromising and inventive hip hop albums of 2016.
After an 18 year hiatus, internal breakdowns between the group, and the untimely death of member Phife Dawg earlier this year, We got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your service arrived as much more than simply a gesturing farewell album.
It is the sound of one of the most influential hip hop acts of all time still pushing their own limits. Tracks like 'Dis Generation' and 'Movin' Backwards' are more than worthy musical additions to the legacy of a group that remain provoking and challenging us to the very last. Still dancing on the bleeding edge of creativity within a genre that they helped define. – Lance Ferguson
14. Julia Jacklin – Don’t Let The Kids Win
You wouldn’t know, listening to Don’t Let The Kids Win, that an 11-year-old Julia Jacklin was propelled on her musical journey by an existential crisis brought on by Britney Spears.
The story goes, after watching a doco on Spears, Jacklin realised Brits had achieved more in her 11 years than Jacklin had even imagined. Immediately, she requested singing lessons. Thankfully, those lessons nurtured a voice that articulates heartbreak while holding your hand.
Don’t Let The Kids Win is a debut album of expansive talent and showcases Jacklin’s lyrics with measures of wonder and pain. It will make you want to ask your crush for a slow dance at the prom. – Jacinta Parsons
13. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Certain albums have a way of intertwining themselves into your life. Listen by listen they wend and tiptoe into your world like musical creepers until one day you wake up and can't get by without them.
Love & Hate by London-based singer songwriter Michael Kiwanuka is one such album for me. Using the folk/soul artistry of Bill Withers and Terry Callier as a jump off point – he has created a sophomore album filled to the brim with both lush, evocative orchestrations and raw-to-the-bone vocal emotion.
'Fathers Child', 'One More Night' and the title track provide ample evidence that Kiwanuka is well down the road of forging his own unique voice. Love & Hate is one of those records you'll keep reaching for like a cherished old friend. – Lance Ferguson
12. Olympia – Self Talk
Years of honing her songwriting and performance styles has paid dividends for Olivia Bartley, aka Olympia. Self Talk is her debut album and it arrived fully-formed.
It’s atmospheric and infectious in equal measure. Whimsical and thoughtful all at once. Its beauty is matched by its ambition, the fact that she can balance those two vital elements so easily is astounding.
It feels like the chorus of ‘Smoke Signals’ may never leave your head, not that you’d ever want it to. The dark synth-pop of the title track is captivating in its simplicity and the sparse groove that drives ‘Different Cities’ is so sleek it threatens to take the spotlight from Bartley’s perfect vocal. But nothing can match that voice. – Dan Condon
11. Beyoncé – Lemonade
For too long her critics have dismissed Beyoncé as just a mainstream R&B/pop artist. This album changed everything. Lemonade is Beyoncé at her performative and conceptual best.
Simply, this album tells a tale of infidelity and redemption. But upon closer inspection, it’s so much more. This is a carefully curated pop masterpiece that tells of the black American woman’s experience. It's unapologetically political and, to top it off, contains some of the most killer tracks released this year.
She’s surrounded herself with a crack team of writers and producers, but ultimately, the binding element is Beyoncé. Her voice, her persona, her story.
Lemonade is an album that says Beyoncé's not waiting to be invited to the table, she’s sitting at the head of it. – Myf Warhurst
10. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 16th studio album had been written before the worst of personal tragedies and released when he and his family were still trying to make sense of what had happened. As if that were ever possible.
There’s a return to Cave’s eternal creative influences. A deep religious curiosity and restrained chaos steeped in gospel blues done differently. The banal every day is there, with Cave expressing despair in settings as mundane as the supermarket queue. There is no resolution. Just a commitment to push on despite naked discomfort.
It’s difficult not to retrofit loaded meaning onto tracks like ‘Jesus Alone’. The lyrics are too apt, the menace too close. An orchestra and Warren Ellis’ Theremin too ready to explode. But then tracks like ‘I Need You’ and ‘Distant Sky’ suggest a flickering hope amidst the darkness. – Tatjana Clancy
9. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
The alchemical and esoteric symbols on the cover, and the numerical and keyboard character dominating song titles gave visual indications that something very different was afoot from Bon Iver.
The attachment to places which permeated the self-titled release prior has been severed and a stark chill has settled in, summoned by highly processed vocals and a sparseness in the instrumentation.
But, instead of taking away the humanity in the singer’s voice, Justin Vernon achieves a different affect. He manages to transform and blur the divide between the synthetic and the natural, the strange and the familiar. He draws our ears and mind inward into a sonic worm hole.
Inside that space, it feels like it’s just you, him, and a joyous detachment. – Caz Tran
8. Angel Olsen – My Woman
There’s no mistaking that voice. It still croons and sways across some lonely terrain, but she is no longer just selling heartache. On My Woman Angel Olsen is yearning yet self-assured in front of her expanded band as well as moving further away from a folk aesthetic.
There’s pop brilliance in ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ (the self-directed video featuring a roller-skate clad Olsen in a Dolly Parton wig, no less) and then you’re hit with the languid slow burn desert-jam of ‘Sister’, a confident step towards the radio unfriendly eight-minute mark and arguably the record’s centrepiece.
Tracks like ‘Woman’ and ‘Intern’ hint that this could be the biggest feminist manifesto of the decade. Or it could just be the most crowd pleasing record you’ll be playing all summer. – Tatjana Clancy
7. Ngaiire – Blastoma
Blastoma takes its name from a type of cancer commonly found in children. It’s a strong and evocative word and it’s with good reason that it encapsulates this collection of songs, given Ngaiire’s very early encounter and struggle with the disease.
Complex ideas and emotions are framed with elegant production and Ngaiire’s beautifully malleable voice. She sings about bodies breaking, shaking, bruising as well as healing and a shedding of skin.
There’s signposts of life’s ephemerality throughout and the visual imagery is both troubling and captivating. This album is a testament to resilience, determination, and ultimately acceptance. – Caz Tran
6. The Avalanches – Wildflower
In 2016 The Avalanches released the most anticipated record of not just this year, but perhaps every year since their debut record dropped at the turn of the millennium.
Thankfully Wildflower is overflowing with intriguing collaborations and insanely creative ideas. It is magical realism as a hip hop soundscape. An exploding star of soul samples, trippy spoken word, warped rap and sidewalk disco.
So much is familiar, even more is seductively strange. Long forgotten calypso legends and teenage pop odd-bods bloom, drift into focus, and fade away. Kids sing The Beatles while Biz Markie burps and smacks his lips. Your mind melts, time stops.
It was worth the 16-year wait. And the mysterious world Wildflower creates might even satisfy us for 16 more. – Ryan Egan
5. Anohni – Hopelessness
Anohni has transformed into an electronic pop provocateur so completely that it’s difficult to remember what came before.
Listening to Hopelessness should make you uncomfortable. This is pop music intended as disruption. You should feel provoked. Stirred out of complacency into action on issues which shouldn’t need a protest album to get our attention. Climate change, drone warfare, state surveillance, institutionalised violence. These issues are urgent and Anohni is so relentlessly incisive that you wonder why anyone bothers writing songs about anything less important.
Hopelessness is provocative, direct and unapologetically manipulative. When you want to sing along but the line is “Drone bomb me, blow me from the side of the mountain” - it’s a trap, expertly laid, and now you’re complicit. Except, perhaps you already were. – Tim Shiel
4. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
Even if this album wasn’t so blindingly good, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard deserve a gold star for their unstoppable creativity. With four wondrously different albums in two years, you could forgive them for running out of puff. But Nonagon Infinity is a triumph.
Propulsive, inquisitive and super fun it charges along at breakneck speed. There's thrilling hard rock riffage, organ wig-outs, bluesy harp, flutes, and their familiar, trippy Eastern flourishes.
They regurgitate 50 years of rock into a bite size, nonstop, infinitely looping musical joyride. You best get on board or you'll end up as roadkill. – Karen Leng
3. The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free
On their exceptional seventh record The Drones have left any insecurity about how they can or should sound behind. Out: blues guitar. In: electronic squalls and beats. Mid-era hip hop gear is dusted off, providing throb and gristle. Spooky bass is a canvas for laser beam guitars. It’s 2016, of course it sounds like this. Rock'n'roll has failed to change the world, so let’s get weird.
Hear this: Gareth Liddiard told Double J that the time for semantics are over. He’s calling it as he sees it on 'Taman Shud'. A blunt object, obnoxious on purpose. A highlight among many. Imagine, a Drones record you can dance to while you weep at the banality of it all. Or rage against the arseholes. Perfectly timed. Possibly perfect. – Ryan Egan
2. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead’s ninth album is as ambitious as any in their catalogue. But rarely have they sounded as conspicuously accomplished as they do on A Moon Shaped Pool.
They have always sounded vital. Each album brims with electric energy as they zigzag their way through a universe of styles and sounds. A by-product of that exploratory process has been the odd timeless classic, like 'Pyramid Song' or 'Motion Picture Soundtrack'. Moments that feel like they transcend the band’s restless trajectory. On this album, Radiohead find that sweet spot and seem to inhabit it entirely.
A younger band couldn't have made this record. Not even a younger Radiohead. To hear the band’s formidable talents converge with such elegance is impossibly satisfying. And it might never be repeated. On A Moon Shaped Pool, everything is truly in it’s right place. – Tim Shiel
1. David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie’s final studio record Blackstar is his requiem. The giant of music passed only two days after its release in January from an illness kept secret from his fans. It's a haunting, magical parting gift that brings an unparalleled career of fearless experimentation and stunning art to a close.
Often, when such an artist dies, it’s a time to search through their archives. A time to study their relevance to the world today and examine what part they played in the music we now hear. With Bowie, it was immediately self-evident.
Blackstar has entered the world as its maker left it. It's an album that deftly mirrors influences new and old. It's as audacious as it is entrancing. And it resolutely addresses death in the face in a way only the Thin White Duke would dare. – Peta Waller-Bryant