With a couple of weeks to go until the new year, a number of significant records still teeter on the edge of an unannounced drop in 2017. Rihanna, for one, loves a fourth-quarter release; and Frank Ocean has hinted tantalisingly that he did make his promised five albums before he turned 30 at the end of October – he just hasn’t released one of them.
But the past 11 and a bit months have already seen more than enough melodrama: heartache and soap operatics, lawsuits and moral victories, and everywhere a political climate that was impossible to outrun. There were albums that engaged explicitly, from Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator to Joey Bada$$’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$.
There were albums that tried but failed to communicate their ideas about how we live now: Arcade Fire’s overegged Everything Now found the Montreal band reportedly playing to half-empty arenas. Most disappointing of all, there were the albums that back-pedalled hard. Miley Cyrus went from the insouciant metropolitan R&B of Bangerz to the calculated country pop of Younger Now, handing back her metaphorical ghetto pass and showing, perhaps, her true colours.
Few albums fell out of a clear blue sky as they did in 2016. Swedish electronic hero Karin Dreijer landed an arresting comeback as Fever Ray, but the most important records of the year – Kendrick Lamar’s Damn, Taylor’s Swift’s Reputation, for two – all had long strategic build-ups. Damn was yet another masterpiece from this generation’s foremost rapper, combining jaw-dropping personal stories with tirades against Fox News and pugnacious mainstream sounds.
Swift’s ear-popping Reputation was another absolutely essential listen, as pop’s reigning potentate took on all comers – KimYe, various exes and (in the courts) a radio DJ who groped her, in a huge victory against institutional sexism in the music industry that dovetailed with the changes sweeping the entertainment world following the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Conspicuously missing from Swift’s infamous blacklist, though, were the vocal US neo-Nazis who in 2016 declared Swift “an Aryan goddess”.
Behind the scenes, the producer pantheon welcomed as a major player bespectacled Jack Antonoff, who had a hand not only in Reputation, but in St Vincent’s Masseduction, his own album as Bleachers and Lorde’s Melodrama, in which the extraordinary New Zealand singer finally made good on her early promise.
Another major melodrama came to a thrilling close. When three artists – Jay-Z, Beyoncé and her sister Solange Knowles – fatefully entered a lift one night in 2014, no one could have foreseen they would go on to produce three outstanding albums: Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Solange’s A Seat at the Table and, this year, Jay Z’s 4:44. On it, the veteran rapper achieved a level of wise contrition previously unimaginable for hip-hop in one of the finest of his latter-day works, and outed his mother in the process. There’s a new power couple in town, though. Hip-hop’s latest female force, Cardi B, arrived in no little style with her breakout single Bodak Yellow, and got engaged to rapper Offset, one third of Atlantan trio Migos, whose groundbreaking Culture album was released back in January.
Albums about love took in all shapes and predilections, however – including No Shape, an orchestral pop tour de force from Perfume Genius, and Aromanticism, the debut by the compelling Moses Sumney, who examined singledom from an unhackneyed perspective.
As big stars dim, new ones arrive. We saluted artists such as Tom Petty, Chuck Berry and Sharon Jones for the last time, with a special 21 guns for AC/DC’s Malcolm Young. But compelling debut albums just kept coming. Sampha’s lovely Process deservedly won the Mercury prize. On the other side of the Atlantic, Khalid’s American Teen scored five Grammy nominations for good reason. Here was a pop R&B record that cast teens – black, white and any other hue – as just teens, juggling the travails of text relationships, of living with your parents, of being Young, Dumb & Broke.
Top 10 albums
Kendrick Lamar Damn
Both an expression of disbelief and a passing of judgment on America’s sins, Damn found rapper Lamar at the top of his game.
St Vincent Masseduction
Art-pop queen Annie Clark went big budget, with striking results that burrowed deep in the ear.
LCD Soundsystem American Dream
Coming out of retirement has rarely sounded so urgent and vital as LCD’s heroic coda.
Aldous Harding Party
Haunted and haunting, Harding’s second record spoke of passions and regrets with a truly arresting new voice.
Vince Staples Big Fish Theory
The Compton rapper who cannot be overlooked, Staples’s Big Fish Theory was packed with bangers and anger.
Lorde’s long-awaited second album proved she’s in pop for the long haul.
Father John Misty Pure Comedy
Josh Tillman’s audacious takedown of the human condition had everything: bitterness, hope, bewilderment and gravitas.
Moses Sumney Aromanticism
The lack of love is a common trope, but Sumney’s beautiful debut provided a fresh take on an age-old situation.
Ron Gallo Heavy Meta
The most fun album of the year, this blazing garage rock recalled the early White Stripes for snide wisdom and coruscating guitar.
Miley Cyrus Younger Now
Nice tunes, but a timid pivot away from R&B.