The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 50 Albums of 2016

  1. Anohni – Hopelessness (Secretly Canadian / Rough Trade)

anohni_hopelessnessThe singer formerly known as Antony Hegarty’s debut album as Anohni was a heavy, politically charged statement as well as being an accomplished and inventive musical experience. As a liberal, feminist and a trans woman, the singer takes a stand against omnipresent surveillance, drone warfare, climate change and the death penalty, amongst other issues. Her new sound clearly demonstrated a synth-pop influence as well as incorporating slow paced elements of electronica. But it is definitely Anohni’s distinct voice and harsh, fearless and straightforward lyrics that got her a Mercury Prize nomination (the second one in her career as a musician, after she won in 2005 with Antony & The Johnsons). As the artist herself noted, this is “an electronic record with some sharp teeth”. (EW) (LISTEN)

  1. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp Records)

danny_brown_atrocity_exhibitionAfter a decade in the American hip-hop scene, Danny Brown hardly needs to prove himself to anyone. But for those few who might not be totally convinced, Atrocity Exhibition dispelled any doubts they may have. The Detroit rapper’s fourth album is arguably his most spirited and experimental yet, full of totally wired anxiety redolent of grimy post-punk, shards of techno elements and distorted soul samples.

While some fans of Brown’s more commercial material may have initially recoiled at songs like ‘Ain’t It Funny’ and ‘When It Rain’, it’s a record that will undoubtedly solidify him as one of the most unique and consistently refreshing voices in the scene, and potentially the highest watermark for hip-hop in 2016. (WD) (LISTEN)

  1. James Blake – The Colour In Anything (Polydor)

james_blake_the_colour_in_anythingSince the start of the decade, British maestro James Blake has influenced the sound of much modern pop with his deconstructed, ultra-minimalist take on electronic music, re-casting it as something deeply emotional rather than hedonistic. Throwing the kitchen sink at his third album and then releasing it quietly online with just seven hours’ notice was a typically modest and perverse thing to do, but it resonated with what we already knew about this enigmatic genius.

Filled with many of his finest moments to date, including a haunting collaboration with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), it was a vulnerable and deeply intimate album dealing with themes of technology and communication, both universal and personal, The Colour In Anything was prescient and suitable for 2016. At a cathartic and emotionally draining 76 minutes in length, this was music as therapy, Blake’s vision blown up to cinematic proportions. It could come to be considered as his true masterpiece in years to come. (EB) (LISTEN)

  1. Skepta – Konnichiwa (Boy Better Know)

skepta_konnichiwaThis year’s Mercury Prize winner took many by surprise as Konnichiwa, a stylish and inventive record that housed the iconic hit ‘Shutdown’, stole the trophy many had predicted the late David Bowie would win with consummate ease. But the Mercurys are not about honouring dead rock legends: they’re about showcasing the best new music to the public, and the judges did the country a service.

Christian’s shout: I can’t give Skepta single handed credit for bringing grime to the forefront of the musical industry, but Konnichiwa is arguably the biggest landmark to the genre yet, and I will say Skepta has done more than anyone else in terms of globalising the genre. Winning the Mercury Prize isn’t an everyday feat for an ex-coke dealer. Konnichiwa was Skepta’s first album release in five years, though it features singles released from 2014 onwards. This album does feature a fair few commercialised songs, and frankly ‘That’s Not Me’ occasionally cloys. Despite this, as a Londoner I feel strongly about grime as a genre and think it’s unmatched in rawness, and I felt immense pride and a patriotic twinge hearing of Konnichiwa’s global success and critical acclaim. (CS) (LISTEN)

  1. Death Grips – Bottomless Pit (Third Worlds / Harvest)

death_grips_bottomless_pitFollowing their double album The Powers That B and the instrumental-video project Interview 2016, elusive Californian trio Death Grips unleashed their highly anticipated fifth album, Bottomless Pit, which further proved them to be unlike any other group in modern underground and experimental music, with a collection of songs that were as abrasive as they were masterful. Meshing together the DNA of hip-hop, noise rock, punk and industrial, MC Ride and co. produced what was one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of the year, and also one of the most memorable in their discography so far. (WD) (LISTEN)

  1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)

bon_iver_22_a_millionArriving in a flurry of lyric videos and incomprehensible song titles, Justin Vernon’s first artistic statement as Bon Iver in more than half a decade landed in late September. His damaged-angel vocals sounded as sighingly beautiful as ever, but musically speaking 22, A Million was a slightly different beast to its two predecessors.

Ellie’s shout: Trying to be avant-garde and still retain listenability is no small task; not losing the listener’s attention over roughly 34 minutes of disjointed sampling, cryptic lyrics and slow-paced songs, even more so. However, Justin Vernon manages to pull it off with his glitch-folk return on 22, A Million. While the album is sure to remain controversial amongst fans due to its experimental nature, those who took the time to delve deep analysing it found no shortage of beautifully stated insights on life, relationships and mortality. 22, A Million is an ethereal and moving experience, and if anyone thought ‘Holocene’ is hauntingly beautiful, try playing them songs like ‘666ʇ’. As it turns out, potentially pretentious artistic conceits can be executed well with enough talent. (EW) (LISTEN)

  1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

radiohead_a_moon_shaped_poolIn among the horrors of 2016 there was at least a crumb of comfort in the shape of a brand new Radiohead album. Proving themselves yet again to be the masters of social media with the cleverly constructed Instagram teaser campaign surrounding their ninth album, Thom Yorke and his band produced an album worthy of inclusion alongside their catalogue of previous greats.

Woody’s shout: Five years after the release of their polarizing eighth album The King Of Limbs and what felt like endless months of fan anticipated and speculation, Radiohead made their return with their most compelling record in years: A Moon Shaped Pool. While stylistically and thematically it felt familiar to their Kid A / Amnesiac era, it was still a progressive step forward for the group that helped win back the hearts of those who turned their noses up at TKOL.

From the paranoid, orchestral ‘Burn The Witch’ to the nourishing, gentle ambience of ‘True Love Waits’, its message especially pertinent in the year of Brexit and Trump, it was an organic and patiently-written record that felt free of inhibitions and boundaries. Songs such as the beautifully hypnotic ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Glass Eyes’ showed Thom Yorke at his most intimate and gentle, using his music as a means to express the anguish of his surroundings, creating a haven to escape the anxiety of modern life.

Some have written off A Moon Shaped Pool as being ‘depressive’ – well, what’s new? – but if anything Radiohead are enduring proof that just because music sounds sad it doesn’t mean it can’t be rewarding, complex, profound or powerful. More than two decades into their career, they’re still producing music worthy of discussion and analysis that challenges their audience. (WD) (LISTEN)

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)

nick_cave_and_the_bad_seeds_skeleton_treeEd’s shout: Nick Cave’s 16th album with his ever-present musical foils The Bad Seeds came into existence in the context of unthinkable tragedy. In July 2015, the singer’s teenage son Arthur fell to his death from a cliff near Brighton. Cave had always used tragedy as a creative conceit throughout his 30-year career, but for many it was hard to imagine him countenancing the use of something so personal and airing it on one of his albums. Finishing sessions that had already commenced earlier in 2015, Skeleton Tree was what was eventually delivered: the sound of rock’s foremost authority on torment and destruction coming face to face with his own unimaginable grief.

Cave’s personal loss is never front-and-centre of the record – rather, it is a spectral presence that looms over the music and in its background, as wraithlike epics like ‘Jesus Alone’ and ‘Distant Sky’ uncoiled themselves in stately fashion. The Bad Seeds provided the most nebulous and unintrusive of accompaniments, as Cave’s writing skills were relied upon to do the heavy lifting, which it did with all the grace and insight you would expect from him. A striking and deeply poignant experience, Skeleton Tree was a masterclass in repose and dignity as well as arguably being Cave’s finest ever work. Given his enormously impressive back catalogue of incredible albums, this is no mean feat. (EB) (LISTEN)

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar (ISO / RCA / Columbia / Sony)

david_bowie_blackstarReleased just three days before his death from liver cancer, which came as a shock to the world back in early January, it was the fearless and peerless brilliance of Blackstar that made the loss of David Bowie even more visceral for so many. The moving video for the album’s second single, ‘Lazarus’, in particular, took on even greater meaning after his passing. But, in typical Bowie style, it meant that there seemed to be a sense of perfect theatrical timing about the whole thing – Blackstar had to have been intended as his parting gift to the world, right?

While it will always be associated with grief in the public consciousness, taken on its own musical terms Blackstar was an astonishing artistic triumph, with a man pushing into his seventies still intent on using his 25th album to challenge his audience.

Created in league with New York jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin as his bandleader, the record was centred around textural randomness that saw him stray further from ‘pop’ than he had at any other point in his lengthy career, even 1994’s challenging 1.Outside. Keeping up his life-long intention of re-inventing himself and breaking new ground right to the end, Blackstar was the most perfect valediction for Bowie’s influential life that could have been imagined. (EB) (LISTEN)

  1. Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)

frank-ocean-blondeThe subject of endless media speculation and plagued by delays, Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Channel Orange finally arrived in August. Accompanied by a visual album exclusive to Apple Music titled Endless, and assisted by a galaxy of producers (Jamie xx, Tyler The Creator, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Pharrell Williams and more) and guest vocalists (Beyonce, Andre 3000, James Blake), Blonde was the musical equivalent of the summer blockbuster of 2016.

John’s shout: Very, very occasionally, a record truly does live up to the hype. Blonde, the most anticipated record of 2014 (you read that correctly) finally arrived in 2016 and it really did deliver upon all the hopes that Frank Ocean’s rabid legions of millennial fans had projected upon it. Combining slacker-pop with R&B and hip-hop, and treating each with the same peculiar mix of reverence and iconoclasm, Blonde is superb from start to finish, an instant classic that boasts invention at every bewildering turn yet always strives for a listener-friendly experience. Of all the established superstars who unleashed huge albums – Kanye, Beyonce, Radiohead etc. – it was an introverted, bookish genius who beat them all.

Opening track ‘Nikes’ was a synth-led stream of consciousness with snares to support, while ‘Ivy’ was a marvel of digitised psychedelic pop. Perhaps the single best encapsulation of Blonde’s brilliance comes in the four minutes of ‘Pretty Sweet’; an energetic opening is swept away by a beautiful choric sound to provide a great insight into Ocean’s brilliant mind. Minimalism is a constant on a record which genre-hops like no other over the course of the year; a record magnetic in its use of psychedelia, rap, hip-hop and R&B. In the midst of the madness that was the summer of 2016, Frank Ocean released a modern masterpiece of enigmatic beauty and depth that is more than deserving of our Album of the Year title. (JT) (LISTEN)

Do you agree with our list? Anything we missed out? What would be your Album of 2016?

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