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The Best Fit Fifty Essential Albums of 2016

14 December 2016, 08:00

In 2016 it seemed like the western world caught up with its own mortality.

If you loved music then that realisation became extra profound as lynchpins of modern pop culture seemed to fall, one by one, kicking off an endless domino effect. It's the end of the age of legends and the start of something much darker and suspect.

Of course in all the misery there's light: two of the year's most affecting records came from two of the year's greatest losses, reaffirming for many just how powerful an album can be - in one case as a physical object as much as a collection of songs. Music endures, songs endure and albums endure. it's just that simple.

Here are the fifty records that made 2016 a beautiful, sad, profound and memorable year for us.

Slugger by Sad 13

The fact that Sadie (Speedy Ortiz) Dupuis emerged this year as a pastel-trussed popster named Sad13 shouldn’t be much of a shock to anyone. Openly speaking of her Nicki Minaj idolatry, collaborating on a track with Lizzo, and penning Speedy Ortiz’s Kelis moment, the thumping “Puffer”, from last year’s excellent Foil Deer LP, Dupuis has built a discernible bridge to this point over the past year.

In her own words, Dupuis sought to use Slugger as an affront to the male-originated, wolf-on-the-prowl construct of sexual politics, but also as a reframing of the woman’s perspective of the same in response to the Britney and Xtina-led pop of Dupuis’s formative years. Lead single, “Get A Yes,” is the prime vehicle for Dupuis’s thesis – and, indeed, her and her album’s mission statement where the woman initiates and takes control of a relationship’s sexual progression and, in non-manipulative, non-mysterious or any other non-guy’s-lame-excuse-why-he-can’t-“figure out”-women way clearly and fairly pilots the proceedings based on her consent.

Dupuis’s credo on Slugger is so simply, yet still colourfully as expected, stated and essential that flash-drive copies of Slugger should accompany all high school freshman Health class textbooks.

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Blank Face by Schoolboy Q

Blank Face is a clear upgrade from Schoolboy Q’s major label debut, Oxymoron. While the latter had plenty of quality tracks it was also lengthy and at times sonically redundant. Even at 17 songs, the record feels lean and meticulously sequenced. It’s the kind of album where you put on one cut and wind up listening to the next three without even realizing.

What sets Q apart from a lot of similar rappers is the underlying nihilism of his lyrics. Sure, he enjoys sex and drugs and money and clothes, but it’s all brazenly temporary. “You can fuck my bitch/You can have my ho”, he genially offers on the chorus of “By Any Means”, a phenomenal shadowy hustler’s anthem that stands as one of his best track’s ever.

Q is as distinct and powerful a voice in hip-hop as Kendrick, and he manages to bring the likes of Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, Anderson .Paak, and Vince Staples to Figg St. on one of the year’s best rap albums.

Blank Face LP

Introducing by Karl Blau

Introducing is the sound of singer/songwriter Karl Blau smartening up his act and shooting for the big leagues. Tasteful without being too conservative, you still can't help but wonder just how straight he's really playing it.

Not unlike Bowie's mid-seventies excursion into smooth Philly R&B, Blau's latest tackles a new genre head-on. Comprised of ten reverentially performed covers of songs written by country legends like Waylon Jennings and Tom T Hall, Introducing finds Blau backed by a crack cast of seasoned sessioneers and guest vocalists like Jim James and Laura Veirs to get the tone just right. If Young Americans was was Bowie's "plastic soul" era, this album heralds the birth of Karl Blau, the plastic cowboy.

All of this would be cause for concern if the album weren't so damn good. As if from nowhere, Blau has revealed himself as being in possession of a melifluous country croon worthy of The Nashville Greats. Yet, it still sounds like he's doing country his way. They don't make 'em like this anymore, and nor will Blau - a more raw, garagey new LP is already in the can.

Introducing Karl Blau

Made in the Manor by Kano

It’s a sign of the times that the recent grime ‘revival’ has brought plenty of brilliant songs, but, as yet, no classic albums. Kane Robinson certainly knows a thing or two about classic grime records. Over a decade ago he released Home Sweet Home, and recent rowdy anniversary gigs showed it influenced a generation, and hasn’t aged a bit. Made In The Manor is its equal.

"Flow Of The Year", "3 Wheels Up", "This Is England" and "Garage Skank" match "Ps & Qs" and "Typical Me" for energy and bravado, and with the more reflective songs Kano, now 30, is more perceptive than nearly any other UK rapper around.

Across the album Kano drops wonderfully British references like Wagon Wheels, fish ’n’ chips and, er, TOWIE. They’re lines that would sound forced delivered, say, by Lethal Bizzle or Giggs, but bundles of charm and that flow mean the lyrics work on Made in the Manor.

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I, Gemini by Let’s Eat Grandma

There’s a school of thought that it’s no longer possible to create anything original with pop music. With their debut I, Gemini, Let’s Eat Grandma make nonsense of such an idea. Over its ten songs teenagers Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton create a world entirely of their own making. What’s also remarkable is that whilst the music is constantly expansive - they sound like they’re backed by an orchestra at times - the pair played all of the instruments, including brass, woodwind, keys, drums and guitars, themselves.

The songs frequently clock in at over six minutes and whilst Let’s Eat Grandma write in the language of pop, they rarely adhere to the formula that dictates that the perfect pop song should last for three minutes - often the intros alone take that long. That’s not to say that they’re self-indulgent however, there’s so much going on with the music the ideas need room to unravel.

They’ve described their music as ‘experimental sludge pop’ but I, Gemini is rather more than that. It’s an album that’s in love with music and whether they’re creating space-rock symphonies or sea shanties, rapping or unleashing a huge pop chorus, the end result is consistently wonderful.

Lets Eat Grandma I Gemini

A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

A confrontation with reprieve and recovery amidst the aftershocks of sudden loss, Radiohead’s ninth full-length album, A Moon Shaped Pool, sees Thom Yorke opting for masterfully earnest self-therapy over silence, tearing up the floorboards of his recent split from his partner of 23 years to expose a realm haunted by the phantasm of fading memory. With such a crucially human impetus serving as its backbone, even a wilfully glib listen here reveals a band whose sheer elemental sorcery is at its most commanding once more.

A nigh on voyeuristic traipse through psychic acclimatisation, backwashed thoughts and lingering anxieties, there is a meditative restraint to A Moon Shaped Pool that feels borderline conceptual in its placid ebb and flow. Resisting the urge to stretch the frontiers of experimentalism even further, the ambient-acoustic minimalism that demarcates the album is conducive to the overarching melancholia that – whilst a well-worn seal of the band’s lure for many years – is at its most exquisite for quite some time. In choosing to bypass the madly exploratory; in perhaps entertaining the pure notion of an almost Nietzschean Eternal Return to tried-and-tested modus operandi, Radiohead tap into easily some of their finest material to date.


Light Upon the Lake by Whitney

Listening to Whitney’s breezy, soulful debut LP, you’d probably be surprised at their sheer industry pedigree. The band rose from the ashes of Smith Westerns, their album was recorded with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado helming the production, and frontman Julien Ehrlich also spent time in Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

Light Upon the Lake, with its intimate sound, DIY warmth and understated songwriting, brims with the same energy as fellow Chicago rising stars Twin Peaks, who grew up together as high school pals. The album is earnest and endearing, a blend of vintage country and shimmery indie rock that recalls acts like Wilco and Woods, and Ehrlich’s reedy falsetto is a relic in and of itself. Despite the band being seven members none of the songs come out overcooked or busy. That’s a testament to expert craftsmanship and a real understanding of how to employ space on a record.

Whitney light upon the lake

Blonde by Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean’s long-awaited second studio album Blonde is poetic, weird, complicated and quietly pertinent. It’s a record anchored in the same closed universe as Channel Orange and, to an extent, Nostalgia-Ultra: cars, drugs, pool parties, sex, love, loss, sunsets and moonlight; characters speeding through a blurred existence, unsure of where they’re heading, finding truth and meaning in only the most ephemeral and transitory highs.

Blonde is never didactic or instructional or overbearing; importantly, it never treats its listeners as stupid. Ocean shares our doubts and our anxieties – you can sense it in his writing, in its trepidation, in its ambivalence. Blonde’s not about telling us how to live - it allows its listeners to make their own minds up, and to take what they need from it. It’s a work of supreme confidence and assurance, one that bounds assertively between genres and styles. It sounds delightful.

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Babes Never Die by Honeyblood

Honeyblood's debut album was a sugar-rush of grunge-tinged, breezy indie-pop with a sharp tongue aimed squarely at losers who dared to play fast and loose with vocalist and guitarist Stina Tweeddale's affections. Yet for all its hell hath no fury like a woman scorned sing-a-longs, “Super Rat” and “Joey” were too cutesy to land lasting bruises. Babes Never Die takes aim at those same deadbeats, but here anger made way for fiery empowerment.

Elsewhere, the Glaswegians' shambling pop has been toughened up with defiant swagger while maintaining punchy earworm hooks. From the sunny grunge of “Sea Hearts” to the bitter-sweet fizz of “Sister Wolf”, Honeyblood’s second effort overflows with immediate choruses. It's an assured step forward in every sense for the band.

Honeyblood Babes Never Die

Suicide Songs by MONEY

MONEY’s second LP was born out of some serious personal turmoil, and both the title and the cover - featuring frontman Jamie Lee with a knife apparently puncturing his forehead - suggest that Lee’s chosen to face the demons behind the album’s inception head-on.

Lee’s voice, literally and figuratively, is at the centre of this record. His delivery is remarkable; there’s power and vulnerability, simultaneously, in his unvarnished approach and any temptation to bury the vocals in amongst reverb is resisted, lending the tracks real emotional heft that, while always a feature of their live shows, was frequently lacking on debut album The Shadow of Heaven.

The instrumental palette that Money paint with on Suicide Songs also feels considerably less refined than on its predecessor - that’s out of a desire for experimentation, maybe, or just a reflection of the less-than-stable circumstances in which it was conceived. They’ve swopped out elegance and a lightness of touch for something less polished and often brutal in its emotional delivery. Not an obvious next step, then, but certainly a compelling one.

Money Suicide Songs
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