1. Christine and the Queens
No emerging pop star created more of a stir in Ireland in 2016 than slink-pop chanteuse Christine and the Queens.
Her debut album, Chaleur Humaine, which had been released in 2014 in her native France, was retooled and released in Ireland in 2016, where it soared to the top of the charts, off the back of scintillating appearances on Jools Holland and The Graham Norton Show. On both shows, Christine and her Queens – a selection of incredible dancers – delivered mesmerising performances that subsequently chalked up millions of views on YouTube.
Her clean, fresh and feather-elegant pop album is full of crisply hooky standout tracks – check out Tilted, Science Fiction and Narcissus is Back – while her vulnerable, probing lyrics explore her complicated and thoughtful take on gender and identity.
2. The 1975
I Like it When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
This Mercury Prize-shortlisted outing from British upstarts The 1975 is beautifully true to itself, trading in vintage analogue synths, warm electronica and the occasional pure pop chart nugget from swaggering frontman Matt Healy. An early standout comes in the shape of Somebody Else, a song so nostalgic and dreamy it seems to float towards you on a bed of petals. The downbeat A Change of Heart is almost as good, a feat of tender-voiced sincerity with lyrics that conjure up the vagaries of modern-day living. Despite the awkward title, this second album is a feat of sonic luminescence that recalls the 1980s while also bringing something new to the party. Gorgeous.
The message of Lemonade? Don’t mess with Beyoncé. On her sixth solo outing, the former Destiny’s Child member is furious, and she has reason to be. In Lemonade, she melds the domestic and the political; at home, the character in her songs has a cheating husband (“Becky with the good hair” the seeming threat).
At a wider level, Beyoncé sings powerfully about what it means to be a black woman in the US of today, winding in history, her roots and her right to deliver an album that is a powerful statement of colour. There are moments of light relief – the honeyed vocals of Sorry hint at a cuter note, and The Weeknd and Jack White deliver complementary vocals. But this is a landmark Beyoncé album: strident, impassioned and climactic. As she says: “Ashes to ashes, dust to side-chicks.” Jay-Z, take note.
Barbara, Barbara, We Face a Shining Future
Underworld might be old hands at the pop-electronica game by this point – it’s been two decades since Born Slippy thrilled on the Trainspotting soundtrack – but they have lost none of their energy or dedication to their exemplary songwriting craft. On their first official studio outing in half a decade, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith deliver some of the most genuinely mesmerising electronica of 2016. Sure, oddly named songs like Ova Nova or If Rah slip up on you quietly, but both have immense staying power: Underworld have a brilliantly labyrinthine approach to structure – vocal lines slip in and out of songs, rhythms build and dissipate, folding the listener into a warm and heartfelt embrace. If you love electronica, this is an essential listen.
5. David Bowie
Blackstar is an angry, subversive, grand and dark record, full of barbed-wire rhythms and the agitated melancholia of one who understands that his time on his earth is winding to a close. At 69, Bowie was too young to be taken from this world. But more than that, Bowie never seemed to belong on this earth to be removed in the first place. “Where the f*ck did Monday go?” he barks on Girl Loves Me, and you can hear his disorientation bleeding through the song. Blackstar isn’t always easy listening (Lazarus and I Can’t Give Everything Away are the most accessible tracks), but its scorched earth grandeur makes it a visceral, emotional experience. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” Bowie sings, commanding us still, albeit from a new stage.
6. All Tvvins
All Tvvins are masters of compression: they don’t do long songs, they don’t have lots of members and if they had a songwriting motto, it’d be simply: ‘All killer, no filler’. On their debut album, Conor Adams and Lar Kaye deliver ten tracks, many of which – from Book to Thank You – are earworms of the kind that’ll make you wear down the rewind button on your car stereo. The Dublin-based pair trade in tightly honed, addictive pop tunes with synth influences and anthemic choruses, courtesy of Adams’s power-pop baritone. If IIVV doesn’t win the Choice Music Prize, the judges will need to seriously consider getting their ears syringed.
7. Iggy Pop
Post Pop Depression
Despite the straggly hair, crazy-eyed stare and chest-baring activities, these days a new record by Iggy Pop makes for a surprisingly comforting listen. Post Pop Depression is a ruminative, richly dappled and intriguing affair, full of well-tooled rock tracks that growl menacingly, like an old lion delivering a warning shot in the African bush. Co-written and recorded with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, these nine songs trade in sludgy undercurrents, bracing vocals and occasionally a ripple of synth, such as on the wonderfully lush, shoegaze-orientated Gardenia. Iggy Pop might be drawing down that bus pass – he’s 69, the same age as his late, lamented comrade David Bowie – but even if he has yet to put his shirt on, he’s managing a maturity on this record that’s both fascinating and commendable.
8. James Blake
The Colour in Anything
James Blake might have won the Mercury Prize for his 2013 album Overgrown, but he released The Colour in Anything in May to an initially more muted reception. Perhaps that’s not surprising: this is a solemn listen, full of quiet melancholia, echoing synths and soughed, multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals. The talent on the record is formidable: half the album was co-produced by industry veteran Rick Rubin, with Frank Ocean and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on contributing duties. As an album, it’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon, post-party dive into a melodic minor-key haze, with notes of urgency provided by album standouts Timeless and Love Me in Whatever Way. It grows a little repetitive towards the end of its 17 tracks, but for its creation of mood and atmosphere, there were few better records this year.
9. The Gloaming
The Gloaming 2
Thank goodness for The Gloaming. Someone needed to come along and figure out how to fuse trad music with classical and rock rhythms to make it cool again, and the five iconic presences who make up The Gloaming have done exactly that. Their second album, the follow-up to their Choice Prize-winning debut, offers a textured approach, with Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh offering perfect stringed counterpoint to Iarla Ó Lionáird’s tender vocals, Thomas Bartlett’s delicately played piano and Dennis Cahill’s warm acoustic guitar. You can hear all the musicians listening to each other, and patiently weaving together a tapestry of folk, sean-nós and classical that is influenced by the past, but also clears a pathway into the future.
10. Leonard Cohen
You Want it Darker
You listen to Leonard Cohen for the voice and the lyrics – and on his 14th album, Cohen has rarely sounded better, delivering a record full of reflections on his impending death – in the Year of the Reaper, Cohen passed away in November at the age of 82 – but also containing lyrics that remind you of the joy he took in life. “You smiled at me like I was young/It took my breath away,” he sings, and you can hear the sense of marvel in his voice. A calm and reflective record, full of elegant piano, gauzy Greek chorus-style backing vocals and the wistful throb of the bass guitar, You Want it Darker is a fitting conclusion to a thoughtful career, a masterclass in the art of powerful understatement.
A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead’s place in music history is assured – Thom Yorke and his crew have over decades made the kind of music that other bands strive to emulate. On their ninth outing, A Moon Shaped Pool, there’s a sense that Radiohead are no longer trying for any audience other than themselves. You won’t find the majesty of a Karma Police or (whisper it) a Creep here, but there are plenty of hypnotic rhythms in which to lose yourself: the slow acoustica of Desert Island Disk, the quivering panic of first single Burn the Witch. Yorke’s voice remains a powerful instrument: melancholic, yearning and warm. At times, I can’t help but wish they’d lift their eyes to the crowd and re-harness their old ambition; it’s telling that some of these songs have been hanging in the Radiohead closet for years. But still, they are Radiohead – and they burn brighter than almost all the rest, even when absorbed in their own introversion.
Not to Disappear
There’s a schism at the heart of the second indie rock opus from British outfit Daughter – lead singer Elena Tonra and her bandmate Igor Haefeli abandoned their romantic relationship prior to the recording of the album. You can hear that pain buried in tracks like No Care, a furious ode to being on your own again. “We are like broken instruments/Twisted up,” Tonra sings, the pain in her haunting voice coiled like a spring. While the record must have been difficult to make, Daughter are never less than elegant in their execution, and there’s an orchestral grandeur and sonic expansiveness in the production from Brooklyn’s Nicolas Vernhes that enchants.
13. Michael Kiwanuka
Love & Hate
If you love Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, but want to update your music collection with a fresh new soul artist, look no further than Michael Kiwanuka. Having won the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll, and received a Mercury Prize nomination for his debut album, Kiwanuka has returned with a record that pays homage to 1960s and 1970s soul, but still delivers a contemporary feel. Black Man In A White World is a perfect pop-soul nugget – against handclaps and a light bluesy guitar, Kiwanuka sings almost jauntily about his unequal status in the world, backed by gospel singers. As a route to chronicling racial disparity, it’s a Trojan horse of a tune – and Kiwanuka will steal his way into your heart just as easily.
14. Biffy Clyro
Watch out, Coldplay – Biffy Clyro have arrived to steal your throne. Although the Scottish rockers might look somewhat threatening, sporting long hair, bushy beards and a plethora of tattoos, they have hearts as soft as melted chocolate – listen to a track like Rearrange for proof, which offers up a love story as tender as anything Chris Martin has managed (“Listen to me when I say/Darling you’re my everything.”). But Biffy also deal in heavier riffs: there’s a satisfying chunkiness to the hook-laden Animal Style and Wolves of Winter. For fans of Foo Fighters, Snow Patrol and Coldplay, Biffy Clyro are the perfect antidote to any case of winter blues.
15. Lisa Hannigan
When Lisa Hannigan first emerged as the vocal companion to Damien Rice on his millions-selling opus O, it was immediately evident that she had an extraordinary voice. What was less apparent was whether – on her subsequent break-up with Rice – she would be able to forge a solo songwriting career that gave her vocals adequate room to shine.
If her 2008 debut was problematically cutesy, then At Swim sidesteps that weakness. Hannigan still refuses to deliver the bluesy, melodramatic roar that gave her partnership with Rice such intense charisma, but she has found something substantial to offer in its place, a marvellously deft and shimmering concoction of warmly hushed tunefulness that unfurls a little more with each listen, to reveal deep undercurrents. Slow and steady will win the race for Hannigan yet.
16. Bon Iver
22, A Million
Although Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon started as a fairly traditional singer-songwriter, on recent albums, he has moved towards more experimental arrangements, heavily processing his vocals so they burst into your ear, while still making you feel as though they have come to you through a veil of smoke, fog and twinkly, echo-laden synths. On 22, A Million, Vernon has fun with oddball song titles – they include 33 “God” and 8 (Circle) – even as his songs continue to stray down unusual byways, taking twists and turns, but retaining an emotional and intimate feel. This album won’t surprise anyone familiar with his songwriting approach, but it is a lovely record to envelope yourself in, as soothing and comforting as being wrapped in a blanket.
Anohni used to be known as Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, the art-pop outfit who won the Mercury Prize back in 2005. These days, the singer’s personal transformation extends towards her sonic reach – on this remarkable album, Anohni strikes with force, turning pop provocateur and chronicling our politically uneasy times, documenting realities from climate change to Guantanamo and drone warfare. Although the lyrics are stirring, the music is delicate and beautiful, an early highlight coming in the shape of the stunning track Execution. An impressively political record in an era when few artists dare to make such statements.
18. A Tribe Called Quest
We Got it From Here. . . Thank You 4 Your Service
This album comes to shops with a sad history: 2016 was the year in which Malik ‘Phife Dawg’ Taylor of A Tribe Called Quest passed away due to complications relating to his diabetes. Thankfully, despite the recriminations between band members over the years (as brilliantly documented in the 2011 documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest), A Tribe Called Quest managed to get it together in time to record their sixth and final album. For fans of 1991’s The Low End Theory, there’s plenty here to love – Q-Tip is in typically smooth voice, while Phife acts as the perfect inflammatory foil. A surprisingly strong finale from a group of artists who are part of hip-hop history.
19. Brendan Tiernan
Morning Lights Vol. 1
One of the joys of making music in the modern age is that you don’t need to pay for a fancy studio to record an album; with a laptop, a few instruments, and a good software programme, creativity is open to all. I know very little about Meath singer-songwriter Brendan Tiernan, other than that he posted me a copy of his album The Morning Lights Vol. 1 a couple of months ago, and it’s a gem.
Clocking in at 37 minutes over eight tracks, it’s a deeply melodic, guitar-led affair, strongly reminiscent of the work of Elliott Smith or Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, back when Vernon was making the likes of For Emma, Forever Ago.
Tiernan has virtually no media presence, but you can stream this album by going to Youtube.com – and searching under Tiernan’s name. A mystery, then, but a beautiful, haunting record.
Heads Up is the kind of indie rock record that you can easily lose yourself in, full of deep grooves that take up permanent residence in your brain. This is Los Angeles-based outfit Warpaint’s third album, and their first to take a turn more towards a pop direction – but this is pop Warpaint-style, so while tracks like New Song and So Good have hooks strong enough to hang your coat on, they still come coated in heavy smoke and atmospherics, while Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman’s vocals retain an edgy distance. Warpaint are still the hip girls smoking out the back, even if they’re gesturing more towards a commercial ethos. Recommended. ■