the best albums of 2016
Here it is, our comprehensive list of the best albums of 2016, the Top Of The Fopps, as voted for by staff in all of our nine stores, compiled here in all its glory.
You can read about our favourite albums and films in more depth in this month’s Best of 2016 special edition of The Fopp List – available for FREE in all of our stores, right up until the end of January.
1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Much of the Bad Seeds’ 16th album was written before Arthur Cave’s fatal fall at Ovingdean Gap in July 2015; and yet Skeleton Tree is deeply infused with the horror of that event, and the effect it has had on his family. Nick Cave has often dealt with dark themes in his work over the years – murder, heartbreak, fire-and-brimstone justice – but none of it proves as blankly chilling as Skeleton Tree, Cave’s deepest masterpiece.
“I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world in a slumber ’til you crumbled [and] were absorbed into the earth,” he sings on Girl In Amber. “Well, I don’t think that anymore.” Here, as on the seven others, Cave sounds broken, his voice infused with none of the drama he often invokes – as a result, listening in is overwhelming and uncomfortable.
Underneath his voice are layers, some sparse, some dense, of warm piano and strings, and cold electronics. Some of Skeleton Tree’s songs are almost ambient, in fact: Magneto is anchored by bass groans, echoed guitar and strange synth tones. “The urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming,” mutters Cave. At times, all five of the Bad Seeds are barely there, a testament to their sensitivity and feel for restraint. It’s a stunning, bruising combination.
With the last two songs, some kind of dawn breaks – it’s not redemption exactly, more survival or endurance. On the closing title track, Cave actually sings, showing a tenderness that the numb, despairing earlier songs lack. It all ends with Cave standing at the sea and calling out, even though “the echo comes back empty”. Make no mistake; this is a difficult album, both in its subject matter, its sound and the effect it has on the listener. As a reaction to a tragedy and as a bona fide work of art, however, Skeleton Tree is peerless.
2. David Bowie – Blackstar
Viewed from a distance, it is of course impossible to separate David Bowie’s death from his final studio album, Blackstar – released days before the artist succumbed to cancer. It is certain that for years to come, listeners will pore avidly over the music searching for clues that, somehow, the album was effectively Bowie’s last will and testament: not just a record but a stunning coup de theatre that may never be equaled.
What we know for certain is that the roots of Blackstar lie in the 2014 single Bowie recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra – Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime). A seven-minute post-modern jazz experiment, the song found Bowie operating in an unfamiliar idiom with a new set of musicians drawn from New York’s vibrant contemporary jazz scene. Clearly inspired by these sessions, Bowie conscripted Sue… saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s muscular reed-playing to act as bandleader on Blackstar.
Of course, it’s not a totally new Bowie that emerges from all this. There are subtle resonances of his previous personae throughout the album. The cryptic, fragmented lyrics of Girl Loves Me have been created with cut-up techniques similar to the ones he used on Diamond Dogs. Blackstar itself shares a dark theatrical atmosphere with Aladdin Sane while the song’s sudden and transfixing detour into soul where McCaslin’s sax rolling and swooping ire recalls the euphoric brass swells on Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) from Diamond Dogs.
Lazarus glides along with the same sumptuous, melancholic grace as Heathen’s grand centrepiece, Slip Away. And while Blackstar and ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore feature some Scott Walker-ish mannerisms, Bowie’s warm, soulful timbre on I Can’t Give Everything Away echoes A Word On Wing or perhaps a less operatic take on Wild Is The Wind.
Bowie elects to close Blackstar with two relatively straightforward songs. They are a strong reminder, perhaps, that despite giving free reign to his experimental tendencies, he remains very capable of classic songcraft. An elegant, relaxed and rather touching end, all things considered.
3. Christine And The Queens – Chaleur Humaine
Héloïse Letissier – better known by her nom de plume, Christine and the Queens – is a mainstream pop star in her native France. It says much, perhaps, about the progressive mindset of our European cousins: Letissier is a brilliant, provocative artist who has admitted to being “obsessed with the idea of having a dick and being a man” and who only turned to music after being co-opted by a group of London drag queens.
Arguably, it might prove a more difficult task for her to find room for her endlessly brilliant, envelope pushing music in a UK chart dominated by more conservative pop musicians. Nevertheless, Christine & The Queens is bold, empowering music. Originally released in 2014 as Chaleur Humaine, it showcases not only Letissier’s idiosyncratic brand of synth-pop but also critically it explores the nuances of her queer identity and what that means in private and public spheres. Striking and intoxicating.
4. Mogwai – Atomic
Mogwai’s Atomic is composed of reworked versions of the music recorded for the soundtrack to director Mark Cousin’s acclaimed documentary Atomic: Living In Dread And Promise, which first aired on BBC Four last summer.
Constructed entirely of archive film, Atomic is an impressionistic kaleidoscope of the horrors of our nuclear times – protest marches, Cold War sabre-rattling, Chernobyl and Fukishima – but also the sublime beauty of the atomic world, and how x-rays and MRI scans have improved human lives. Mogwai’s soundtrack encapsulates the nightmare of the nuclear age, but also its dreamlike qualities too. It is the latest in the band’s series of impressive soundtracks and scores, following acclaimed albums Les Revenants (The Returned) and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.
5. Bat For Lashes – The Bride
Characters have always been important in Natasha Khan’s art – from Sarah and Prescilla on Bat For Lashes’ debut and the alter-egos of 2009’s Two Suns, right up to Laura and Marilyn on 2012’s The Haunted Man. Yet Khan’s fourth album is her first that seems truly cinematic.
The Bride is a bona fide concept album, telling the story of a woman whose fiancé is killed on the way to their wedding. A little like Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black remade by David Lynch, it’s noir-ish, romantic and unsettling, from its Western guitar tones, Angelo Badalamenti-esque electric piano and the early ’90s production feel. Even the call of “fire, fire, fire” that ends In God’s House, Khan’s voice vaulting octaves and wreathed in digital reverb, seems like something Lynch would approve of.
The tale is told through varied textures: “Honeymooning Alone” starts with the sound of a car crash, and soon moves into acidic chords and jazzy drums reminiscent of Portishead; Sunday Love, powered by a motorik beat, is the most accessible moment here, while the following lament, Never Forgive The Angels, could be an ancient, droning folk melody. “Nightmares come but they don’t go,” Khan intones. “I will never forgive the angels for that.”
Strings become more prominent as the album draws to its final third, and the story of the bride’s mourning and subsequent salvation comes to a close. Widow’s Peak, a spoken-word piece, contains references to Twin Peaks – “a portrait of him, a picture of her, a keyhole in a Douglas fir…”
By the time Khan reaches I Will Love Again, the bride is hopeful for the future once again, vowing that she will “turn it back around/I’ll be homeward bound”. Unsurprisingly, Khan has ambitions to direct films, but it’s hard to imagine how a movie could be much more evocative than this Technicolor record.
6. Brian Eno – The Ship
The casual listener might associate Brian Eno’s ambient work with the beatific, blissed-out stillness of 1978’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports; and yet, there’s always been a darker current running through the conceptual pioneer’s work. Take 1982’s Ambient 4: On Land, for example, and Lantern Marsh, brackish, overcast and churning.
Eno recaptures this moodier style on The Ship, his first proper solo album since 2012’s Lux (an atmospheric work which was itself something of a sister LP to Music For Airports). More significantly, The Ship sees Eno match his sonorous vocals to ambient textures for the first time. The 21-minute title track opens the record with disembodied tones, before a hypnotic vocal line emerges, like some futuristic folk tune, from the deep. “We are as the undefined,” Eno intones, as distant speech gradually intrudes – a likely reference to avant-garde composer Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking Of The Titanic, first released on Eno’s own Obscure label in the mid-70s.
We enter more dystopian latitudes with the 18-minute Fickle Sun (i), where violent brass stabs echo Scott Walker’s apocalyptic work of the last few decades: “There’s no-one rowing anymore,” Eno sings, “abandoned far from any shore.” Peter Serafinowicz appears on Fickle Sun (ii), sternly reading a computer-manipulated poem that hints at the horrors of the First World War, before a stately cover of The Velvet Underground’s I’m Set Free closes the record. Though it does break the gloomy atmosphere conjured up by the previous 42 minutes, it’s a beautiful, uplifting version, with multi-tracked Enos in fine voice over gentle percussion, spangled guitar, ebbing synth pads and drifts of strings. It’s heartening to hear Brian Eno, after decades of making music, still breaking down his own barriers and creating such gripping, dramatic music.
7. Field Music – Commontime
Sunderland-bred brothers Peter and David Brewis have somehow managed to become acclaimed cult artists while ploughing some very overlooked furrows; most likely because their mix of nervy prog, spindly post-punk and jazz-inflected funk is usually paired with the most robust, infectious melodies.
On their fifth album, and their first for four years, their influences are given room to breathe across a full, schizophrenic hour. At times, the rich contents are too much to take in – lead single and album opener The Noisy Days Are Over unravels over six and a half minutes, its taut funk bizarrely giving way to an eccentric, orchestrated ending straight off Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle. Similarly, I’m Glad mixes a 6/4 time signature with jerky guitars, analogue synths and an acoustic interlude – it hangs together in the air in a way it wouldn’t on paper.
Commontime is Field Music’s funkiest full-length yet: Don’t You Want To Know, It’s A Good Thing and Stay Awake are the slickest tracks here, combining Genesis’ dynamics with the wit of Steely Dan and Sly And The Family Stone’s syncopation. Yet, for the most part, this is awkward, nervous music, taking the exultation and liberation of funk and, like Bowie’s Station To Station, passing it through a more anxious, English filter to result in something much more interesting.
At times reminiscent of the ’80s feel of Peter Brewis’ The Week That Was side-project, Commontime’s production is uniformly excellent too, with the Brewis’ wiry guitars supplemented by blasts of brass, strings, pianos and synths. Field Music’s fifth is their most crafted and impressive yet, another milestone on their unique journey. A good thing, indeed.
8. King Creosote – Astronaut Meets Appleman
Kenny Anderson, the Fife-born singer-songwriter known as King Creosote, has always kept up an impressive work-rate – since 2014’s acclaimed From Scotland With Love alone, Anderson has put out three albums independently. The excellent Astronaut Meets Appleman doesn’t contain the conceptual framework of his last few records – 2011’s Diamond Mine, a collaboration with Jon Hopkins, and From Scotland…, a soundtrack to Virginia Heath’s documentary of the same name – Astronaut… succeeds through its bounty of affecting songs.
You Just Want is a brooding, seven-and-a-half-minute opener, incorporating circular acoustic guitar, strings and cut-up samples of harp and female backing vocals; it’s an appropriately intense backdrop to Anderson’s tale of desperate devotion, and sets the scene for much of Astronaut…. Elsewhere, Anderson raises the tempo, most successfully on the ska-influenced Wake Up To This, and Surface, a hymn to being ignored complete with saw-tooth synth tones and a motorik beat. On the latter, and the propulsive Melin Wynt, he enlists the chanter – a simpler version of the bagpipes – and it fits surprisingly well with the arrangements’ electronic elements.
What makes King Creosote so interesting is not just his songs, however, but his experimental leanings, and they’re certainly indulged on Astronaut…. The closing Rules Of Engagement begins as a dour look at arguments with a loved one, before transforming into an ambient, submarine coda of harp and electronics. Peter Rabbit Tea, meanwhile, mixes Anderson’s accordion, hand drums, cello & harp with a sample of a small child endlessly repeating the title, eerie & cute at the very same time.
With so many releases to his name, it might be tricky to pinpoint just one classic Creosote album, but Astronaut Meets Appleman is right up there among his greatest achievements.
9. Lambchop – Flotus
Kanye West has a lot to answer for. While Auto-Tune was brought to the mainstream’s attention by Cher’s Believe back in 1998, West used the vocal processing tool to enhance the mournful, melancholic mood of his fourth album 808s & Heartbreak, arguably inventing the likes of James Blake, Bon Iver and Drake in the process.
Now, eight years on, Kurt Wagner has taken on the mantle. It’s mildly surprising, but not shocking –after all, the singer and songwriter has continually pushed the boundaries with Lambchop, the Nashville alt.country group he’s led for almost 30 years. Although it sounds little like their best-known work, such as 2000’s Nixon, FLOTUS has some obvious antecedents – 2012’s Mr M was a slow, sparse, soulful record, while The Diet, the 2015 album by Wagner’s side-project HeCTA, dealt with similar electronic textures.
The album is bookended by two long, strangely static songs. Opener In Care Of 8675309 is like a cut from Mr M, but with Wagner squeezed through subtle Auto-Tune; The Hustle, meanwhile, closes the album with an 18-minute epic, more Kraftwerk than Kristofferson. “We’ll have sunshine,” calls out Wagner, his voice no longer processed. It’s not only one of Lambchop’s finest songs, it’s one of 2016’s best.
Between these two behemoths, FLOTUS is more manageable. Howe is the kind of melancholic slow jam that James Blake would kill to have written, Writer is echoey and sparse, reminiscent of Bill Callahan’s dub album Have Fun With God, while NIV is still tender despite Wagner’s voice being robotically warped out of all recognition.
FLOTUS could have been a disaster – a Nashville guy pushing 60 trying out the tropes of the young – but Wagner is too canny to fail like that. Instead, he’s borrowed someone else’s palette to paint his own, unique picture. Thanks, after all, Kanye.
10. Skepta – Konnichiwa
As an MC, producer and record label boss, Tottenham’s own Skepta has been one of the most influential figures in the UK music scene for over a decade. This year saw the release of his career defining record Konnichiwa via his own Boy Better Know label, the album features huge crossover anthems That’s Not Me, Shutdown, It Ain’t Safe and Man. A landmark record that features collaborations with the likes of Pharrell Williams, ASAP Nast, Young L.O.R.D., Wiley, Novelist, D Double E, Boy Better Know, Chip and Skepta’s brother JME, Konnichiwa recently went on to win the 2016 Hyundai Mercury Music Prize. Just like its creator – who will round of the year with a sold out, 10,000 capacity hometown show at London’s Alexandra Palace – Konnichiwa doesn’t compromise one inch, and is the soundtrack to Grime going truly global.
11. Pixies – Head Carrier
12. De La Soul – And The Anonymous Nobody
13. DJ Shadow – The Mountain Will Fall
14. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
15. Dexys – Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul
16. Teenage Fanclub – Here
17. Thee Oh Sees – A Weird Exists
18. Wilco – Schmilco
19. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
20. Charles Bradley – Changes
21. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
22. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
23. Agnes Obel – Citizen Of Glass
24. Steve Mason – Meet The Humans
25. James – Girl At The End Of The World
26. The Coral – Distance Inbetween
27. Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway
28. Suede – Night Thoughts
29. Moderat – III
30. Frightened Rabbit – Painting Of A Panic Attack
31. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
32. The Kills – Ash & Ice
33. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs
34. Beth Orton – kidsticks
35. M83 – Junk
36. Poliça – United Crushers
37. Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis
38. David Holmes – Late Night Tales
39. Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
40. Teleman – Brilliant Sanity
41. White Denim – Stiff
42. Metronomy – Summer ’08
43. Gold Panda – Good Luck And Do Your Best
44. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
45. Drive-by Truckers – American Band
46. School Of Seven Bells – SVIIB
47. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
48. The Divine Comedy – Foreverland
49. Richard Ashcroft – These People
50. The Courteeners – Mapping The Rendezvous
51. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
52. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
53. Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
54. Angel Olsen – My Woman
55. Savages – Adore Life
56. Avalanches – Wildflower
57. Dinosaur Jr. – Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not
58. Goat – Requiem
59. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
60. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
61. Van Morrison – Keep Me Singing
62. Lucinda Williams – The Ghosts Of Highway 20
63. Warpaint – Heads Up
64. Hinds – Leave Me Alone
65. Tindersticks – The Waiting Room
66. Paul Simon – Stranger To Stranger
67. Gregory Porter – Take Me To The Alley
68. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
69. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch
70. Fat White Family – Songs For Our Mothers
71. Swans – The Glowing Man
72. Deftones – Gore
73. Band Of Horses – Why Are You Ok
74. Cate Le Bon – Crab Day
75. Primal Scream – Chaosmosis
76. Emma Pollock – In Search Of Harperfield
77. Underworld – Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future
78. Pet Shop Boys – Super
79. Billy Bragg & Joe Henry – Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad
80. Joan As Police Woman & Benjamin Lazar Davis – Let It Be You
81. Explosions In The Sky – Wilderness
82. The Gloaming – 2
83. Minor Victories – Minor Victories
84. Eleanor Friedberger – New View
85. Cavern Of Anti-Matter – Void Beats / Invocation Trex
86. Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To
87. Anderson .Paak – Malibu
88. Death In Vegas – Transmission
89. The Comet Is Coming – Channel The Spirits
90. The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset
91. Bear’s Den – Red Earth & Pouring Rain
92. Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
93. Ólafur Arnalds – Late Night Tales
94. Wild Beasts – Boy King
95. Garbage – Strange Little Birds
96. Neil Young + Promise Of The Real – Earth
97. Toy – Clear Shot
98. Passenger – Young As The Morning Old As The Sea
99. Bloc Party – Hymns
100. Travis – Everything At Once