Best English Albums of 2016

10. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

There’s a certain sense of finality in Leonard Cohen’s last work – as if he has come out of retirement one last time to give his fans something to be pleased about, and You Want It Darker gives precisely what it promises – a poetic view of the grim reality. ‘Hineni, hineni’ he speaks as he signals his arrival to the Lord – ‘Here I am’.

Cohen spent the last few months of his life in an apartment in Los Angeles, struggling with his health. He spoke into the microphone attached to a laptop by his son, too weak to go to a studio, his work keeping him going through the final days. The album is backed by Cohen Jr.’s guitar, as his father delivers one last summon onto his fans.

His spoken word is as good as ever, with his thick voice filled with a sense of understanding that the time has come. “I’m leaving the table/I’m outta the game,” Cohen growls, as he takes his leave from the troubles of this world.

You Want It Darker is a gift from Cohen to his fans to revel in his brilliance one last time, and kicks off our list at the tenth position.

09. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

“I called out, I called out/Right across the sea/But the echo comes back empty/And nothing is for free.” – sadness grips this album throughout, as Nick Cave denies the fact that his teenage son Arthur passed away in 2015 had anything to do with the album, but that hardly seems to be the case.

Grief and sadness has been the case for Cave’s albums before, but this one has an extra dimension to it – it is personal, and he’s mourning. You feel the pain in his voice as the instrumentation takes a back seat, which is at times a little discordant. I Need You is the standout track from the album, with hymnal vocals complemented by a melodious tune.

Nick Cave has always been a complex man, and he has added another piece to the jigsaw of his discography – an emotional and massively overwhelming piece. His excellent effort takes the ninth spot on our list.

08. Anderson .Paak – Malibu 

Anderson .Paak is quite comfortably one of the breakthrough artists of the year, and he has matured as a solo artist after featuring heavily in Dr. Dre’s album Compton.

Malibu is a work of mellow, resonant and smooth surfing music with .Paak’s groovy and effortless singing. The album coalesces hip-hop, neo-soul and old school R&B into one multilayered record filled with great tracks. The Bird is as easy a listen as they come, with Room in Here, Your Prime and The Dreamer other standout tracks.

Anderson .Paak has finally done justice to his undeniable talent and has raised expectations for his next work.

07. Bon Iver – 22, A Million 

The band was well aware of the anticipation for the release of their third full-length studio album, and built it up even further with a month long teasing on social media using cryptic pictures and twisted track names. It is safe to say then that they added to the burden that was already enormous to begin given the massive success of the first two releases. 22, A Million is something that nobody expected from the band that gave us a song like For Emma back in ’08. Even though they have maintained the old sounds, the signature Bon Iver element, there is a twist played on it. There are intentional glitches and breaks, but behind these cracks, one can quickly feel the deep emotion and uncertainty that has always been a USP of the band. The track 666 ʇ exhibits this the best.

This is one of the darker records of the year, and that is what makes it distinct. Clearly, Vernon has lost faith and is trying mighty hard to find it, but only ending up in the dark. The band has always been experimental in a sense, but this time they have taken it up a couple of notches and delivered something that is anything but ordinary.

(Sukanya Agrawal)

06. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Expected to be a political album thanks to the game-changing (well, not literally) Super Bowl half-time performance featuring the Black Panther dancers, Lemonade is anything but. Freedom still features on the album, but Beyoncé’s political bent takes a back seat to personal matters. Jay-Z has a lot to do with it, we suppose.

Her most emotionally extreme album till date, it talks about a woman’s pain at being cheated on by her husband, “Who the fuck do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy!”, Beyoncé is as defiant as ever. The first half of the album showcases this perfectly, as the raw and powerful vocals that define the album take control. The tail end of the album sees her reconciled with the man she still loves, perhaps as a little warning to Jay.

The album features a series of collaborations with artists like The Weeknd (6 Inch), James Blake (Forward), Jack White (Don’t Hurt Yourself) and Kendrick Lamar (Freedom) that make for gripping tracks. The Queen of Pop is at her ferocious best, taking the sixth spot in our list.

05. Frank Ocean – Blonde

If I could describe this album in one word, it would be addictive. Give me two, and it’d be strangely addictive. From the first listen, I’m hooked, and I don’t know why. The album is a sublime piece of art, the hazy atmospheric background given meaning by Frank’s seemingly surreal voice.

You could easily confuse Blonde for a demo, an unfinished work, which is probably what makes it so good. More than half the songs are without drums or any percussion, but that’s what the album is about – the spotlight is on Frank, and that’s where it stays.

There is no particular agenda or theme to the album; it is just an unobstructed view into Ocean’s brilliance. He talks about Trayvon Martin, the Florida child who was shot in Nikes, while thoughts of a retirement plan dominate Seigfried – “two kids and a swimming pool”.

This album took four years in the making, and it was completely worth it. Quite simply, Blonde is a magnificent album and deservedly takes the number five position.

04. Solange – A Seat At The Table 

The lesser known of the two Knowles sisters, Solange has reminded the world of her undeniable talents with her latest album, A Seat at the Table. Fact – Solange and Beyonce Knowles have become the first sisters to reach the number 1 spot on the Billboard 200 with individual albums in a calendar year.

Solange’s third album brings into the foreground the struggles of black music, none so better demonstrated by than the track Don’t Touch My Hair. She brings together a fusion of psychedelic soul with R&B to release her most personal work yet – she delves into her family lineage and black history in general to document the struggles they have faced throughout history and has delivered a powerful message with a grace only the Knowles know how to.

One of the boldest albums of the year, A Seat At The Table takes the fourth position in our list.

03. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book 

Chance The Rapper is making headlines, and for all the right reasons – at just age 23, he has seven Grammy nominations to his name and is a favourite to win one.

Starting off his career at the music streaming website Soundcloud, Chancellor Benett made a name for himself with his 2013 album Acid Rap. He hates working with labels, and he has let the world know that – for the first time this year, Grammys have made streaming-only albums eligible for awards consideration, making Coloring Book the first streaming-only album to be nominated for the award. “If one more label try to stop me/ It’s gon’ be some dread-head niggas in ya lobby” is a warning that has been taken seriously.

Coloring Book is a gospel album that brings together elements of hip-hop and jazz with passionate and powerful vocals. Filled with choirs throughout, Chance combines the optimism and energy with fears, insecurities and hope for his beloved hometown, Chicago. Must-listen tracks from the include Angels, How Great and All We Got.

Hip-hop at its finest, Chance The Rapper has given us one of the biggest and most highly rated albums of the year, placed third in our list.

02. David Bowie – Blackstar

To have lost such a musical genius would have made this year so much harder had it not been for one last stroke of brilliance that we are so used to experiencing from Bowie. Released on his 69th birthday, this final act from him is as away from Pop as Bowie has ever been. Kendrick Lamar served as inspiration for this album as Bowie explored themes of Jazz and Experimental Rock. Be it the 10-minute epic title song, the hauntingly beautiful ballad Lazarus or the coming together of strings and synthetic beats with emotional vocals to hear him one last time on I Can’t Give Everything Away, this album is one of the best released this year, coming in at second place on our list thanks to the ever magnificent Bowie and being his one last masterpiece.

“Look up here, I’m in heaven; I’ve got scars that can’t be seen; I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen; Everybody knows me now” – these words from the song Lazarus sound almost prophetic as Blackstar brought down the curtain on a remarkable life and career. Thank you, David, thank you for everything.

01. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

It might have taken Radiohead a full five years to release an album after The King of Limbs, but it was worth the wait as they have hit the sweet spot with A Moon Shaped Pool. The album includes renditions of tracks that Radiohead have previously written, like True Love Waits (originally written in 1995 and a live favourite) and Burn the Witch, dating back to 2003, in addition to new tracks putting the final notes in the symphony of this album.

The tracks of the album are arranged in alphabetical order – something that was a coincidence, apparently. The smooth transition between songs won’t let you notice that though, the album gels perfectly – the crests and troughs of various emotions throughout the album balanced perfectly as Yorke’s dreamy voice fills the spaces created by the gorgeously orchestral piano and acoustic instrumentation. The lyrics discuss love, forgiveness and regret punctuated by political comments like Burn the Witch, ending with a plea “Don’t leave, don’t leave” on True Love Waits. Other standout tracks include Daydreaming, Identikit and Present Tense.

The days of Kid A and Amnesiac are over. Radiohead has gone beyond experimentation to deliver an album that delivers on all fronts. It is astounding and deservedly tops our list for 2016 as the Best Album of the Year.