Here are the 30 best albums of 2016 so far

It’s been a weird year. We guess all years are weird when you’re in the midst of them. There have been devastating atrocities, massive shifts in the geopolitical landscape, an Australian election campaign where nothing interesting has really happened, and a terrible rate of musical legends leaving our mortal coil. Among the madness, there have been some mint albums gifted to the world – a great mix of releases from a vast array of musical generations, including a departing gift from one of those lost legends, plus some bright beacons that will shine well into the future.

We’ve ranked the 30 best albums of 2016 so far. It’s a tough task, even when dealing with only six months’ worth of releases. There will surely be some that didn’t make the cut here, but will slow burn into the musical consciousness. Here are the 30 best albums of 2016 so far. We promise we won’t do a Kanye and tweak the ranking as we go on. We’ll save that for the end of year list.

30. PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

After the wilfully insular Let England Shake PJ Harvey looked outwards, travelled the world and reported back with an album that resembles one of those collections of haunting black-and-white photojournalism from war-torn countries and city slums. The research trips that fuelled The Hope Six Demolition Project were in fact undertaken with a war photographer, the same one Harvey collaborated with on a book combining his images with her words, but on this album Harvey makes the images herself and they’re no less potent. – Jody Macgregor

29. The Kills – Ash & Ice

Apparently an injury to Jamie Hince’s hand moved him further towards a production role on The Kills’ latest album – worried he’d never play guitar again he focused on the other half of their sound, which has always been about combining sharp guitar with programmed beats. It brings out the best in Alison Mosshart, especially in the party-march to the grave of ‘Doing It To Death’ where she sounds stuck in a closing hour that never ends. – Jody Macgregor

28. Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Parquet Courts’ latest album is their most polished, although that doesn’t mean they’ve gone pop. It’s still ramshackle indie rock, but now it’s ramshackle indie rock with a recording budget. Human Performance is still all about razor-sharp observational lyrics and the stumbling-home-drunk-together guitar and drums of songs like ‘I Was Just Here’, LCD Soundsystem if James Murphy was a rock man. – Jody Macgregor

27. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit

We said: Bottomless Pit is evil, sure – but more than that, it’s manic. It’s one unstoppable high: a face being beaten against a wall. A hand balling into a fist. A mouth failing to keep up with a mind. But more than anything, it is significant – a jagged obelisk pointing straight up, unavoidably present. Real. After all, in the words of Jameson “madness carves its own reality.”

26. Ngaiire – Blastoma

Blastoma isn’t an entire album of bangers like ‘Diggin”, it’s a much more personal exploration named after the childhood cancer Ngaiire survived. At times it trades her soulful R&B sounds for something more simple and spare, like in the haunting ‘I Can’t Hear God Anymore’ or the downtempo but still hooky ‘Once’. It can be confronting, but that doesn’t stop it from also being beautiful. – Jody Macgregor

25. Anderson .Paak – Malibu

We said: “This reflects .Paak’s attitude toward music – he filters golden age soul through contemporary hip hop in an effortless fashion. Having endured the deep water, he’s now earned the right to enjoy the shallows.”

24. James Blake – The Colour In Anything

We said:  “The Colour in Anything is a work of restless invention, standing as Blake’s most creative collection to date. His first two albums are mere sketches of what’s on exhibit here: this is James Blake fully-formed. “Music can’t be everything,” he croons on ‘Meet You in the Maze,’ the last song on the record. But when it scales its most dizzying peaks, Colour comes startlingly close to convincing you that music is, indeed, everything.”

23. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

We said: “If this is Iggy’s last album, as is being reported, then there couldn’t have been a better way for him to go out. In Paul Trynka’s biography of the singer, he notes that the young Jim Osterberg was fascinated by tales of the Old West. Here, he realises his dream of becoming a cowboy, riding into the sunset with two middle fingers hoisted proudly in the air, raving like a lunatic.”

 22. The Jezabels – Synthia

The Jezabels’ Hayley Mary said: “It was a rebirth, a survival, and a re-embracing of life. We all hit rock bottom during The Brink for personal reasons that I’m not really at liberty to discuss at this moment and I hit rock bottom for my own personal reasons because of a family history with depression. And we just overcame it. When we had a break I overcame depression and wanted to write music again. I was happy – not vacuous happy, but I saw the beauty in the world again. So it was just falling in love with life again was the spirit behind the album for me.”

21. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect

We said: “The thing is, all this rich, thick silliness is what makes the album great. For Turner, The Last Shadow Puppets is a flamboyant alter ego, a place where he can spread his peacock feathers and channel a river of rock ‘n’ roll history into bolshy, beautiful, epically charming tunes. And the music is the perfect expression of Kane and Turner’s relationship, a natural extension of their aesthetic project. Everything You’ve Come to Expect is stylish, self-satisfied, smug, sleazy, cocky and confident. It is completely over the top and that’s just where these boys want to be.”

20. Mitski – Puberty 2

We said: “Puberty 2 represents an emotional growth spurt for Miyawaki, who now sings of acceptance, of melancholy, feelings of isolation, and of lost endeavours in love. Puberty 2 captures the sense of frustration, resignation and self-awareness that can only come from years of grappling with emotional demons: now, she holds her vulnerability with confidence, in anthemic and improbably striking songs, for all to see.”

19. Flume – Skin

Inthemix said: Tiny Cities is really interesting. To end an album with a collaboration with Beck, when the core audiences of both artists don’t really overlap. (Have Beck’s older fans even heard of Flume?) It doesn’t seem like a cynical marketing ploy; sounds like they were honestly just having fun working together. And it’s actually a really haunting and lovely way to end it.”

18. Kaytranada – 99.9%

We said: “The music of Montreal’s Kaytranada evokes a big night out on the turps, when one minute you’re in a state of pure bliss, and the next you’re vomiting up Jägerbombs in some piss-soaked alleyway. 99.9%, the Hatian-Canadian’s debut album, is an altered state unto itself, a heady brew of nocturnal beats and cosmopolitan appeal.”

17. Drake – Views

Revisit our instant labelling of Views as a classic or flop here.

16. NO ZU – Afterlife

We said: “The hereafter conceived by NO ZU is one in which loincloth-garbed deities participate in bodybuilding contests, and rough sex is simply de rigueur. The group traffic with a certain pagan zeal, a force which allows those who wield it to turn any discotheque into a sadomasochist pleasure-dome. Because – council regulations notwithstanding – isn’t that what every nightclub really aspires to be?”

15. Tegan & Sara – Love You To Death

We said: “The overarching feeling here is confidence – the result of a band that threw themselves off a cliff and found a net hanging just below. 10 years ago, the idea of Tegan & Sara being pop stars was one that wouldn’t have been entertained – but now the only surprising thing about their pop success is the total ease with which they have achieved it.”

14. Kanye West – The Life Of Pablo

We said: “You can say virtually anything you want about The Life of Pablo, and it’ll be true. He’s progressed musically, but not emotionally. He’s too misogynistic, too ironic, too earnest. He’s gone off the deep end; he’s more lucid than ever. He’s hyper-aware of his faults, but gives less of a shit about them. The purest version of this album would be an hour-long version of ‘I Love Kanye’, or a remake of Being John Malkovich where Kanye crawls into his own brain and sees an entire world of Kanyes looking back at him, saying “Kanye” repeatedly.”

13. Anohni – Hopelessness

We said: “Hopelessness is a response to the raging debate around diversity; it’s a shot across the bow to steadfast conservatives and ambivalent progressives alike. Anohni doesn’t just seek visibility – she demands it.”

12. David Bowie – Blackstar

We’ll never be able to listen to Blackstar again without the context of Bowie’s death framing it, twisting lyrics like “I’m dying to push their backs against the grain/and fool them all again and again” into something more poignant than they originally were. Those words come from ‘Dollar Days’, one of the only songs on Blackstar that isn’t marked by jazzy skronking – if Blackstar didn’t have the distinction of being Bowie’s last work it would be still be making lists, only instead we’d be remembering it as his return to experimental weirdness. It was a step back to oddities in a career that contained plenty of them, but few as strange yet endlessly fascinating as Blackstar, a hole you could fall down forever, drawn in by its strange gravitational pull. – Jody Macgregor

11. Rihanna – ANTI

We said: “ANTI is about feeling like a recluse, away from the outside world. Its only crowd-pleaser, the bubblegum stadium rock of ‘Kiss It Better’, is an instant classic – but otherwise, atmosphere rules over obvious hooks. As she confesses on ‘James Joint’, “I’d rather be smoking weed” – and that smoke seeps into everything. Moody alternative R&B dominates the album’s first half, and none of it’s built for the club. It’s as if the whole world is a bedroom with the curtains closed.”

10. Violent Soho – WACO

We said: WACO the album would certainly work in that situation: there are maybe 13 seconds of pleasant guitar twunking before ‘How To Taste’ kicks into gear with one of Luke Boerdam’s YEEEAAAAHHHH screams and only a couple of songs that go quiet after that. Violent Soho may have been influenced by the Pixies but where that band explored the quiet/loud dynamic Violent Soho are more comfortable with the loud/even louder dynamic.”

9. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

We said: Coloring Book shares much in common with the Kanye song: gospel choirs, religious themes, the guiding hand of Kanye himself, and, of course, a typically affable performance from Chance. Drawing on all the hallmarks of College Dropout-era Kanye, Coloring Book runs over with brass, chipmunk soul, rap devotionals, and oodles of joie de vivre.

8. Savages – Adore Life

We said: “From the menacing centrepiece of ‘Adore’, where Jehnny Beth asks “is it human to adore life?” over the heartbeat bass line and a gently curling guitar, to thundering ‘T.I.W.Y.G’, to the opener ‘The Answer’, where Beth offers that love, indeed, is the answer, it’s a controlled and confident examination of emotions. In a way, Beth has a far-flung kindred spirit with fellow Brit Laura Marling, whose own lyrics lean on the examination of the uncomfortable aspects of love.”

7. Kendrick Lamar – untitled, unmastered

We said: “It’s wrong to say Kendrick transcends rap. That’s something detractors say to denigrate and stereotype hip-hop. Whether it’s high or lowbrow, hip-hop is art. Kendrick comes from rap; he proudly reps Compton. He’s equally influenced by Tupac and Lil Wayne, N.W.A and Miles Davis. As Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said, “Rap is black America’s CNN“. Kendrick’s words are a little less straightforward, more abstract, but his concerns are ultimately the same.”

6. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

We said: “Radiohead haven’t made a leap as huge as this since 2000’s Kid A. Their sound has evolved through moonscapes and deathlands of anxious electronica and come to rest in this lush, deceptively warm pool of orchestral strings, acoustic guitars and pianos; godly choirs and subtle, jazzy beats. With musical touch points including sixties psychedelia, John William’s blockbuster themes and Bernard Herrmann’s swirling violins, their world is completely reordered on A Moon Shaped Pool. The strings have laid a blanket over Radiohead’s long-simmering existential dread, and I am completely adrift.”


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