Top 20 Albums of 2016
The RA staff pick the best full-lengths of the year.
The club is at the core of what we do here, but when it comes to the albums we cover, its influence can take on strange and ingenious forms. The club might simply be a compositional guide, the artist writing music for an imagined dance floor. A record could be rooted in the culture surrounding a club—pirate radio, for example, where clubs are the physical manifestation of a scene. Or an album might take the sounds of club music and shape them into something completely new and unrelated. This list also features records where the club would appear to be the furthest thing from the artist’s mind. Whichever role the club played in the creation of these albums, it’s obvious that these spaces are still a deep, deep well from which to draw inspiration.
If Gesloten Cirkel’s Submit X was the shout, VC-118A’s Shift Register is the echo. 2016 saw electro proliferate throughout dance music, influencing outsiders, emboldening diehards and inspiring newcomers. Amidst the resurgence, the long-serving Dutch producer Samuel Van Dijk went about his business, releasing a graceful second album as VC-118A. While most were enamoured with electro’s strength, Van Dijk refined its contours. What felt timid soon took on a sense of quiet majesty. Shift Register revealed itself through time and close listening.
Steven Julien, the London producer best known as Funkineven, went out on a limb with Fallen. He easily could have given us an album of the spiky drum tracks and edit-wise house he’s built a following around. Instead, he explored broken beat, jazz funk and ominous soundtrack-style ambience, all while telling the story of a long day’s journey into night. The concept album, which charts the downfall of an angel, isn’t without its bangers: “XL” is the year’s best beatdown house track, while “Jedi” is nasty, atmospheric and functional. As always, Julien’s tracks teem with an unmistakable London swagger.
During his sonically chaotic set at Unsound 2016, Yves Tumor spent as much time writhing around on the floor as he did on stage singing. Earlier this year, he’d released an untitled record as Bekelé Berhanu that sounded like a noise band playing in a wind tunnel, and, in an interview with Dazed, he cited Throbbing Gristle as a key influence. It may therefore seem surprising to say he was behind one of 2016’s most delicate and straightforwardly beautiful soul records. Serpent Music, which also had its dark side, marked Yves Tumor as one of 2016’s most complex and interesting emerging artists.
As teenagers, most of us never expected to be envied by our future selves. That bittersweet paradox is at the centre of From Joy, a collection of tracks Kyle Hall recorded in high school and dusted off last year. The bubbly rhythms, the sunny melodies, the uncomplicated sense that all is well, could only come from someone unfamiliar with the throes of adulthood. In that sense, this effervescent house LP embodies a sombre truth: you never know a good thing till it’s gone.
Boy Better Know
Skepta’s recent sold-out gig at Alexandra Palace, one of the UK’s most iconic concert spaces, capped a year he’d been building towards for most of his adult life. The hype and expectation leading up to Konnichiwa was immense. Skepta had generated serious momentum with the comeback singles “That’s Not Me” and “Shutdown,” while the grime scene around him had gone into overdrive. But in short, he delivered. The record somehow satisfied grime diehards, his newfound US fans and the Mercury Prize judging panel, fulfilling both his own potential and that of grime as a global force.
Like many modern electronic producers, Peder Mannerfelt seems in complete control of his powerful sound design. But unlike his doomsday-chasing contemporaries, he uses his powers for good, with a pacing and humour that makes Controlling Body far more than a pyrotechnic display of audio prowess. He combines Glasser’s serene vocal incantations, hints of rave, modular zaps and portentous minimalism into an uncompromising LP that somehow remains imminently digestible. It’s a rare balance to strike, and reflects a lucidity often lacking in experimental electronics.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
In a year defined by turmoil, EARS became a necessity. The third album by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, a composer and apprentice of Suzanne Ciani, is an immersive place of wonderment and escape. Crafted from a Buchla synth (her signature instrument), treated chants, airy orchestration and granular sound design, it illustrates a fantastical, free-flowing journey that begged revisiting. EARS is the distinctive expression of an artist coming into her own.
Motion Graphics’ debut album is a high-def synth pop record built on technical virtuosity and bright, original songwriting. The depth of his sound design is striking in its own right, with instruments that sound both familiar and deeply alien. But beyond the shiny textures, there’s a dense musicality influenced by Philip Glass, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Chicago footwork producers like DJ Nate. Taken together, it has a storytelling effect, transporting listeners to a dreamlike world of tomorrow.
Jungle, dub, techno and ambient with a twist of the occult—Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty have mined this sound since 2009, but with their latest LP, they brought it to something close to perfection. Combining the haunting auras of the Tryptych records with the club mutations of the Testpressing series, Wonderland is funky, twisted, sonically rich and unmistakably Demdike Stare.
“Fuck it, I’m just gonna go for this.” That’s the state of mind Jessy Lanza apparently had while making her second album, and it shows. Oh No features charging beats inspired by Shangaan electro and freestyle. Lanza’s voice, sometimes straight, sometimes twisted, has never sounded better, but the record still has the bashful charm that made her first album a classic.
House Of Dad
House Of Dad
House Of Dad
House Of Dad‘s cover has a photo of a wooden toilet seat, modelled in a kind of still-life pose. The album, Andy Wilson’s homage to his father, a plumber who lives in suburban Melbourne, is playful and even goofy—”Entrance To The Garage” ends with symphonic flatulence, “Stereo Dunnies” begins with the sound of a toilet flushing. But at its core, House Of Dad is a sincere, touching and musically rich tribute to a father from his son.
At this point, Sean Booth and Rob Brown can do whatever the hell they want. Roughly 30 years into their singular career, the duo have shed all limitations and surpassed all expectations. Those who worked through this four-hour digital collection were rewarded with some of the best Autechre music in recent memory. It was challenging, of course, but there was some generosity at the heart of the Max/MSP gauntlet, betrayed in streaks of glowing melody and pockets of Booth and Brown’s quintessential beats. elseq 1-5 is peak Autechre: undefinable, teeming with chaos and gilded with distant humanity.
Gerard Hanson went almost a decade without releasing a Convextion record, and then dropped three this year. 2845, which appeared suddenly on Discogs a day before it was released—a fittingly low-key move—is a reminder of why this Texan producer commands so much respect with such a sparse discography. It’s deep, Detroit-influenced music, full of gentle melodies and perfect drum programming, the rare techno album you can listen to from front to back, over and over again.
There’s a track on Nicolas Jaar’s second solo album called “No,” inspired by the referendum that knocked Chile’s brutal dictator out of power. “No”—it’s the kind of simple, firm message that Sirens is full of. Jaar deals with complicated political climates, past and present, and reconciles his own history and heritage in sometimes brutal language. By mixing these personal, powerful lyrics with the production wizardry of his recent work, Jaar made the strongest record of his career.
A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead has been around for as long as many of us can remember, their sound growing more haunting and lush over time, their lyrics obliquely reflecting countless events both personal and political. A Moon Shaped Pool marked a return to that sound, following the more off-piste The King Of Limbs. Poetic, cinematic and sonically rich as ever, it reminded us what a boon this peerless band has been over the last quarter-century.
Omar-S has long abandoned his post certifying parts for Ford Motor Company, but he applies the same quality control to every track he puts into the world. Calling his latest LP The Best, Alex O. Smith brashly stated the obvious—he’s the most consistent producer in modern house music. This time out, he was all over the shop, crafting dub techno (“Time Mo 1 (Norm Talley Mix)”), Detroit shout outs (“Seen Was Set (Norm Talley Mix – Big Strick Vocal)”) and singular vocal tracks harnessing the talents of Amp Fiddler (“Ah’Revolution”) and John FM (“Heard’Chew Single”). Naturally, there’s not a weak one in the bunch, but you already knew that, right?
For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
“Comfort is all around you,” reads DJ Python’s liner notes for Huerco S.’s second full-length. The Kansas-born producer drew inspiration from the beatless, loopy records he threw on to calm his nerves while touring—For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also For Those Who Have) has a similar effect, swaddling the listener in muted waves of emotion. Closer “The Sacred Dance” feels like watching the snow and the holiday lights from a lonely window. An unparalleled narcotic lullaby, this one is sad, beautiful and utterly addictive.
Ilian Tape is one of the few techno labels pushing a sound that suits the album format. This year we saw that best on Skee Mask’s Shred, a dense and beautifully evocative full-length that captured everything people love about Bavaria’s leading techno outlet. Crisp, stripped down and rhythmically dynamic, Shred expanded on the moody aesthetic of Skee Mask’s earlier 12-inches, pairing jungle-informed techno beats with sombre synths that seemed to be saying so many different things at once.
A dancehall album on Demdike Stare’s label was never going to be boring. Nor was it going to be dancehall, exactly. As you could guess from titles like “A Rabbit Spoke To Me When I Woke Up,” Bird Sound Power is anything but conventional. Its rhythms are delivered in modern, weightless arrangements, its tropical atmospheres smudged with dissonant chords and demented found sounds. As funky as it is surreal, Bird Sound Power shows a new audience the creative possibilities of this decades-old club sound.
BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow
It’s distorted patriotism. It’s immigrant identity. It’s numbness through repetition. It’s memes. It’s uncertainty. It’s the decision between engagement and detachment. It’s noisy, it’s tangled, it’s complicated. Dean Blunt, DJ Escrow and Gassman D’s debut album as Babyfather isn’t a direct commentary on the world’s collective headspace in 2016, but it feels like a reflection of it.
It’s also an incredibly sick hip-hop and digi-dub record. Blunt left behind the indie expressions of The Redeemer and Black Metal, his last two solo records, to pursue soundsystem pressure and weed-drenched bars. The album transmits like pirate radio, with DJ Escrow, voice pitched high, playing host. He guides us through post-Timbaland rollers (“Meditation”), Tubby-esque head-nodders (“Shook”) and emotional bangers (“Deep”). Arca and Micachu, two other visionary London-based artists, stop by the show for guest appearances. These tracks, and plenty of others, found Blunt in some of the best form of his career, and they gave the smoke-filled Babyfather live shows a bass-heavy centre of gravity. Escrow’s waspish presence at the centre of the record, along with several pure noise tracks and the album’s now infamous refrain—”This makes me proud to be British”—made BBF one of 2016’s most challenging and talked-about listens. Sure, you could edit out these bits in a playlist, but that would mean compressing this record’s rich identity and missing this:
“We’re all divided and that, there’s no unity and that… If we all linked up, we could do a big ting, you know… Man’s just trying to unify the ting, play a nice little rhythm… And then just take that attitude, that vibe, to man’s politics and man’s economics and that.”
This poll is decided by the votes of RA staff members and current contributors.