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.
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
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
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
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Revisit our instant labelling of Views as a classic or flop here.
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
There’s a tension in the Deftones between their moody, downbeat, after-the-party comedown side and their riff-heavy monsters of metal side. It’s personified in the band by the conflict between frontman Chino Moreno and guitarist Stephen Carpenter and sometimes in the past it’s resulted in discordant albums – their 2006 release Saturday Night Wrist in particular – where they bounce from one sound to the other in a way that’s jarring and unsatisfying.
Gore is not one of those albums. Gore is a synthesis of those two opposed poles. There are still occasional extremes like the thundering ‘Doomed User’ and the gentle ‘Hearts/Wires’ but more often Gore finds a middle ground in songs that feel like comfortable combinations of both like ‘(L)MIRL’. And from that middle ground they then branch out into territory and influences they haven’t explored before, whether it’s the Iron Maiden-esque intro to ‘Pittura Infamante’ or finding space for a Jerry Cantrell guitar solo on ‘Phantom Bride’. – Jody Macgregor
We said: “The Drones treat Feelin Kinda Free as a prime chance to remake themselves. After all, they’re popular enough now that their fans will follow them pretty much everywhere. And so we get the strangest, most uncompromising album by a major Australian band that you’ll hear this year. You don’t so much unpack it over time as you expose yourself to it and embrace the radiation burn.
Itching madly for something beyond the kneejerk catharsis of rock songs, The Drones have scratched so hard that they’ve broken through to a raw new skin.”
We said: “Lemonade is Beyoncé’s gift to and from black womanhood, a story passed down from generations of mothers to their daughters. Her lesson is simple – no matter how flawless you are, you can be hurt. But no matter how broken you might feel, you can be healed. You can play the scorned woman, and you can stand by your man – as long as those are choicesyou make. Through her songs, Warsan Shire‘s poetry, and countless images of black women living their best selves, Beyoncé reflects their strength back at them. For all that black America’s suffered, there’s enough within black culture to heal their wounds. As for everyone else? We’re just blessed to have her.”
We said: “It’s the sound of a band at once vital, inspired and relentless on the attack; hungry for more despite a canon of work that would leave most bands in a state of complete creative exhaustion. One of the key problems with Quarters! was that it would waste a lot of its runtime in an aimless, meandering state. There are no such issues with Nonagon – it is a record that can safely be described as airtight. Now to see if they’ll ever attempt to play the whole thing live.”
It’s only been a year since friends Georgia Maq, Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and Sarah Thompson rehearsed for the first time and became Camp Cope. In the relatively short time that the band has been in existence they’ve released their first album, debuted at an impressive #36 on the ARIA charts and become three of the loudest voices on issues within the musical community. At it’s heart the album is a realistic portrayal of the challenges that come with everyday life, written with a sincerity that is both empowering and eye-opening. The passion behind Maq’s lyrics transfers into her commanding vocals which are accompanied by instrumentation that perfectly captures each song’s emotive power. Standout track ‘Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams’ comments on the nature of victim blaming and when played live is introduced with a request for all the women to come to the front of the crowd. Their fans mirror the band’s passion, singing along to every word not merely as an act of recitation but because they truly believe in Maq’s lyrics.
All that the band have achieved comes down to the fact that they’re three individuals who believe that music can be a positive force that leads to change. The band use this platform to educate and inspire, striving to make the music scene that has embraced them one that prioritises respect and safety. That they’re able to do all this through their music is remarkable and for this reason alone, Camp Cope’s debut deserves to be celebrated for many years to come. – Holly Pereria