The top 10 albums of 2016

Some of music’s finest have died this year, but there has still been a fine array of records on release. Ed Power picks his favourites

1 Frank Ocean, Blonde

There aren’t any choruses and the lyrics are frequently indecipherable. And yet, Blonde — a long-anticipated follow up to 2010’s Agent Orange — cast an irresistible spell. Ocean spilled his heart out as beats flutters and sighed.

Frank Ocean

It was an extraordinary return from an artist who, faced with the impossible task of topping his previous record, simply rewrote the rules and started over.

2 Solange, A Seat At The Table

Funny…you wait years and years for a pop star to bring us a provocative, yet-nuanced, rumination on race in America and then two come along in the space of a few months — and from members of the same family.

But where Beyonce’s Lemonade used relationship angst as springboard for a think-piece on diversity in the United States, younger sister Solange has crafted a comparatively conventional, yet ultimately more satisfying, foray into avant-garde r’n b. Couched in shuffling beats, A Seat At The Table was a hard-knuckled editorial on minority rights in the United States that doubled as a sublime pop odyssey.

3 Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

Cohen shuffled into the beyond with a cool dignity. But he also left us an album released less than a month before his passing at age 83. “I’m ready, my lord,” he crooned on the title track of this extraordinary farewell and it truly sounded as if he was.

Co-produced with his son Adam, You Want It Darker will go down as one of the great swan songs – an LP of grace and beauty that yields deeper truths the longer you listen.

4 David Bowie, Blackstar

When Bowie’s 25th studio album was released on Friday January 8, fans proclaimed this mash-up of jazz and experimental electronica a late hour masterpiece from an artist enjoying an unexpected rebirth.

Three days later, Blackstar’s darker subtexts were made horribly clear as it was announced the Thin White Duke (right) had succumbed to cancer at 69. A record mired in mystery suddenly become an open book. Amid the textured jazz rhythms (from respected New York player Donny McCaslin) and call-backs to his late Seventies Berlin period, Blackstar thus functioned as an act of final letting go from an artist about to drift into the beyond. It made for uneasy – yet mesmerising – listening.

5 Beyonce, Lemonade

Beyonce’s celebrity is an impenetrable forcefield: we know the basic facts of her personal life yet have almost no insight as to what she is like as a private individual. So it was jolting to hear her pour her heart out on Lemonade, widely interpreted as scathing commentary on the state of her marriage to Jay Z.

What elevated the record beyondmere screed was Beyonce’s weaving of her personal issues into the wider tapestry of social injustice in the United States — in particular, the historical lack of African-American women in the music industry. To this was added an ever-morphing palette of sounds and styles, with Bey sampling Animal Collective and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and collaborating with Mercury winner dub-step producer James Blake.

6 Radiohead, A Moon-Shaped Pool

Seven months on, the band’s ninth studio album continues to prove an elusive listen. One of Radiohead’s most understated releases, the largely piano-steeped collection reveals its charms slowly and cautiously.

Initially there seemed little to grab on to, aside from the jagged string section on single ‘Burn The Witch’. It’s when you stop insisting that Moon-Shaped Pool sit up and entertain that the record begins to make sense.

7 Anohni, Hopelessness

The sometime Anthony and the Johnsons leader returned with his most surprising excursion yet, in which his quavering voice was paired with stripped down beats by minimalists Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke.

The record’s warning against the perils of environmental degradation will have struck many as cliched upon release – but, in the looming Age of Trump, Hopelessness has acquired a retroactive urgency.

8 Bon Iver, 22, A Million

Yes, the elusive folkie sometimes sounds on the brink of the scariest ever cover of Phil Collins’s ‘In The Air Tonight’. But what’s wrong with a terrifying cover of ‘In The Air Tonight’? For his third record, Justin Vernon set out to vaporise the sad campfire crooner persona he had established with his previous work. Songs drifted, the lyrics were indecipherable, the track titles were written an obscure font… How thrilling and odd.

9 James Vincent McMorrow, We Move

With Bon Iver no longer interested in arty/accessible folk-pop, the mantel was taken up by Ireland’s James Vincent McMorrow, whose third record blended confessional songwriting with pared-down hip-hop beats cooked up with producer Nineteen85. A testament to just how far McMorrow has departed from his coffee-house songwriter origins is his presence (albeit in sampled form) on Drake’s Views, one of the juggernaut LPs of 2016.

10 Angel Olsen, My Woman

The year’s outstanding country record is courtesy of a softly spoken American midwesterner, whose ballads tip-toe through personal traumas and observational angst.

If that makes My Woman sound a bit of a downer — well frankly that’s what it is, albeit one strip-lit with shimmering guitars and Olsen’s plaintive folky style. In a difficult year, it was good to know you weren’t the only one feeling miserable.

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