Take a journey with us into the bowels of some of the year’s most underrated - and overrated - records as we unpick them to find the musical gems of the year you might have missed - or follow the whole list over on Spotify.
“Rape Me” – yes, that one – is the final moment on Nunavut singer Tanya Tagaq’s Retribution album and one that stands out against everything preceding it. Tagaq’s visceral throat-singing is a thing of wonder on an uncompromising record but on this Nirvana cover, made up of little other than an ominous drum beat, drone guitar and unsettling whispers, Tagaq delivers a subtly devastating vocal turn. As much about cultural genocide and environmental disasters as it is about the sexual assaults suffered by the singer and too many of her fellow indigenous women, it’s perhaps one of the most fearless pieces of music heard in 2016.
While we waited for her much-delayed second album Joyride, US R&B diva Tinashe chose to drop what’s probably the best mixtape of 2016 in the shape of Nightride. Criminally underrated, the 23-year-old singer makes a sort of ambient, atmospheric R&B that’s often dreamlike and transportative, eschewing bangers for mood pieces.
Nightride continues where debut Aquarius left off…but “Touch Pass”, part of the record’s slightly more muscular second half, is one of the more insistent pieces. A terrific drum pattern and in-your-face finger clicks make the track really move, a gorgeous piano sample adds lightness as Tinashe switches between urgent verses and a cooing falsetto chorus. As stop-gaps go, it’s pretty damn fine.
French pop-philosopher Petite Meller unleashed a deluge of vibrant noise with her surprise debut Lil Empire, and while many were familiar favourites already, there were a few hidden charmers to be lapped up. “Argentina” soothes to no end and “Geez” is a wonky, swoony heart-melter, but it's “America” that got me weakest at the knees. With its fist-pumping chorus and disco-laced grooves, it's the kind of sunny finale anthem that plays over big, smiley life moments and montages of sheer joy – Meller has an ABBA-esque talent for feel-good pop, but she outdoes herself here. This jam will have you up on tables flailing your arms in delirious glee.
The “epically sad” finale of the Oxford outfit's second LP How To Be A Human Being is a resounding triumph. Frontman Dave Bayley has been reticent about “Agnes”, in contrast to his usual candour when it comes to LP2, but back in September he divulged a little: “It was very hard to write... it still makes me sad to think about, and singing it during the recording I was tearing up. It came so easily though, writing it I mean. I put in a lot of references from my favourite novels and to biblical passages. Very sad for me.”
Despite the overt melancholia coursing through Bayley's voice, there's a momentous optimism in “Agnes”. It's a euphoric climax with overwhelming hope and trauma muddled into every bar – it's polarised bittersweetness with the harshest lows and giddiest highs. This final parting gift elevates the entire record to a new level, forcing you to hit repeat and begin the entire emotional process again.
A balladic two minute on ANTI, “Higher” is song that sounds brilliantly unfinished. A glorious, winding vocal workout agwithout any chorus, it was birthed from a session between Bibi Bourelly and Kanye West. Rihanna and producer James Fauntleroy later contributed and the track was cut while Fenty was on the booze in the early hours.
“We recorded that song at 4:00 in the morning,” she told Vogue. “4:00 to 5:00…. We just said, ‘You know what? Let’s just drink some whiskey and record this song.’ And when I heard the song, I envisioned a drunk voicemail. You know he’s wrong, and then you get drunk and you’re like, ‘I could forgive him. I could call him. I could make up with him.’”
The bonus edition of HYMNS, Bloc Party's divisive reinvention LP, contains a handful of tracks that in hindsight probably should've made the final cut proper. “Eden” is the best of these – it's a forward-thinking opus worlds away from the jagged acid of “Helicopter” et al., with Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack's creative partnership lunging into esoteric realms. The gnarled post-punk is very dead (not just a little bit dead), but this is humming, throbbing proof that they can still whip out innovative music with true bite. It's anxious, breathy, jittery, and propelled by an obsessive beat that hammers away at your mind and gnaws at your nerves. Staying still is not an option.
The debut album from The Anchoress saw Catherine Ann Daviesdeliver one of 2016's most affecting records - narrowly missing out on a place in our pick of 2016. It has every right to be there though: Confessions of a Romance Novelist is a collection of songs that sets a high bar for intense, soul-tearing pop music. "Bury Me" is one of the record's heavier piano ballads and is flush with emotion and a truly spectacular vocal turn from Davies.
In terms of honesty and emotional complexity, few pop albums came close to Shura’s debut. From the bubbly pop of “What’s It Going To Be” to the disco-infused title track “Nothing’s Real” (the best song about a panic attack since Courtney Barnett’s “Avant Gardener”), Shura wears her heart on her sleeve on every cut. Tucked in between two massive singles, “Kidz ’N’ Stuff” is a slow-burning breakup ballad infused with regret and longing. Every element of the track comes together to capture the heart-rending reality of a relationship ending; the gentle swell into the chorus supporting a plaintive refrain of “how can I not be everything that you need?”
As if that wasn’t enough, the track wraps up with a perfect segue into the familiar groove of single “Indecision”. An understated highlight of one of the year’s best albums.
I first heard this on the sometimes fascinating but often exasperating Song Exploder podcast, wherein Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo was delighted to detail at length his completely batshit crazy composition methods which involve anagrams, plagiarism and bona fide genius in equal measure. It results in this key changing, power chord chugging, fist pumping anthem that's more subtle and straight up brilliant than anything Weezer have done in ages (faint praise admittedly, but it's at least as good as "Photograph" or something like that).
Long Way Home came out back in March. The singles garnered a fair amount of radio play, and its omission from many end of year lists is somewhat baffling. Falling broadly under the pop umbrella, it’s been categorised under every label, from R&B to electronic. Regardless of genre, it seems as though Lapsley is unfamiliar with the concept of filler tracks - every cut on her record brings something intriguing, distinctive, and unique. Lacking the clout of “Operator”, and the yearning of “Hurt Me”, “Tell Me The Truth” sees a more detached Lapsley than her singles care to reveal. A piano ballad at heart, it’s beefed up with skittery percussion, bizarre wobbly bass, and deft vocal distortion on the chorus refrain. Still rewardingly minimal, it’s a perfect complement to some of her more extravagent tracks.