The 20 Best Albums Of 2016

From Bon Iver to DJ Shadow, the tracks you've been humming for the past 12 months - and some you may have missed

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2016 was a year of tragedy for music lovers as far too many icons left us for the great studio in the sky... there was compensation, however, in the stunning farewell contributions some of them left behind (Bowie, Cohen) as well as releases from bands that had been in hiding for too long (Bon Iver, Radiohead). Along with some promising debuts (Julia Jacklin, Jack Garratt) there was, against the odds, plenty to be happy about in the music world of the past 12 months. Here are 20 of the best.

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Let Them Eat Chaos - Kate Tempest

From the lacerating, state-of-the-nation jeremiad of 'Europe Of Lost' to the loopy shoulder shrug towards hedonism 'Whoops', Kate Tempest's tale of lonely Londoners was stuffed full of wit, wisdom and beauty - as you might expect from an award-winning playwright and poet who also happens to have some awesome tunes. Let Them Eat Chaos confirmed Kate Tempest as the worthy successor to Mike Skinner as Britain's most astute and sensitive chronicler of everyday life. The definition of an album that rewards repeat listens it is, lyrically at least, the best album to come out anywhere in 2016.

Lemonade - Beyoncé

Billed as a "visual concept album" with an accompanying 60 minute film, the music on Beyoncé's sixth record could easily have suffered under the weight of such grand aims, but was instead an out-and-out triumph.

The 12 tracks on the release include collaborations with James Blake on the reverberating and haunting 'Pray You Catch Me' and Kendrick Lamar in the trippy anthemic 'Freedom' which dealt with civil unrest in America ("I'm a riot through your borders call me bulletproof"). This, plus the bouncy power-pop tracks like 'Hold Up' and 'All Night' make Lemonade a perfectly balanced delight. 

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The Colour In Anything - James Blake

It is apparent, listening to The Colour In Anything, that one-time dubstep darling James Blake took his time over this release. Clocking in at 17 tracks and 76 minutes, you might ask if he could have cut to the point a little. But despite his habit of maudlin self-pity, singles like the collaboration with Frank Ocean 'My Willing Heart' lie in that great space between ambient and electronic where he remains unequalled.

'Forever' shows the strength he has with his voice and a piano alone and remind you of that old 'Limit to Your Love' cover. It may not be a huge departure from previous work, but then it didn't need to be.

Blackstar - David Bowie

For a man who wanted to be remembered for vitality not infirmity, Blackstar was intended as a parting gift from Bowie to his fans. The benchmark for reinvention right until the end, Ziggy Stardust said his last release was influenced by Kendrick Lamar and features percussion from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy.

'Girl Loves Me' with the repeated refrain of "Where the fuck did Monday go?" is a busy collection of percussion and his vocals in closing track 'I Can't Give Everything Away' talk to you with painful directness. A master to the very end.

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A Moon Shaped Pool - Radiohead

Determined, as ever, to eschew conventional marketing practices, Radiohead didn't promote their new album until a week before it was released. But what is intended to look slung together is in fact a painstakingly thought out and executed collection from Thom Yorke's quintet.  

Lead single 'Burn The Witch' was in the works for the band as far back as 2000 but the anti-authoritarian track appears proper now, perfected with rising percussive strings at the centre of the song. Whilst 'Daydreaming' doesn't feel like more than exactly that, both 'Present Tense' and 'Glass Eyes' drift through you with morbid lyrics and delicate trills of piano keys and guitar strings. The album doesn't fit together perfectly, but that's just as they intended.

You Want It Darker - Leonard Cohen

Another great musical mind claimed by 2016, Leonard Cohen also left a parting gift to fans. You Want It Darker is as lyrically dense and philosophical as Cohen's most poetic music with stirring lyrics like "Your crazy fragrance all around, your secrets all in view" and "They ought to give my heart a medal, for letting go of you" in the warming, folky 'On The Level'. The title track is more foreboding, with husky Biblical vocals from Cohen who mutters, poignantly it turned out, "I'm ready, my lord." 

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AIM - MIA

Hypnotic, heavy production and seductively tuneless vocals rightly keeps MIA among today's most daring and original musicians. There's the love song "Ali r u OK", a paean to a lover who's too busy to hang out: "Ali, I haven't even seen you since we left Calais…" Oh wait. Well, there's the ode to bezzies, "Foreign Friend": "I'm gonna be your foreign friend, all the way to the end". Maybe not. 

Even the zany "Bird Song", which namedrops cuckoos, eagles, turkeys and more, breaks down into a menacing chant of "Watch the sky", so the metaphorical subtext of overhead observation and warfare becomes clear. AIM is a smart and provocative record, and if it has saccharine tendencies, there's a clever aftertaste of arsenic.


The Mountain Will Fall - DJ Shadow

Of course the new DJ Shadow album begins with what seems like a sample: a chipper, echoing "Hi!", backed by stylus-on-vinyl scratches. DJ Shadow himself begins and ends with sampling. Shadow's greatest skill aside from mining old music is turning a song on a sixpence brilliantly, changing mood and genre, in such a way the switch is surprising yet perfect. 

The near-instrumental "Three Ralphs" is a beautiful stereo head-mash, and "Bergschrund" has huge beats over the industrial-classical trademark of guest artist, German producer Nils Frahm. But, this album, despite its many disparate elements, is unmistakably the work of one man.

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Don't Let the Kids Win - Julia Jacklin

Jacklin has a voice made for alt-country music — she can coo like a turtle dove and trill like a lark — and used to sing in an indie-Appalachian folk band. Don't Let the Kids Win has further nods to US culture: notably the end-of-the-prom lull of singles "Pool Party" and "Leadlight". 

But where the album really shows its strength is in the subtle experiments with genre and sound: the driving indie-pop of "Coming of Age" contrasts beautifully with the drowsy reverb on the title track. 

Familiar Touch - DIANA

It has been three years since the Canadian synth-pop trio first made waves with their critically acclaimed LP Perpetual Surrender, and much to our delight, they're back and sounding better than ever.

Their second album, Familiar Touch, transcends boxy genre-constraints with a shimmering blend of Eighties style alt-pop and soul, and features songs that wouldn't be out of place on a John Hughes soundtrack.