The top 20 albums that defined 2016
From Beyoncé's masterful pop statement to Bowie's poignant farewell, our music critic listens back to the sounds of an unforgettable year
Back in February, during the Super Bowl half-time show, Beyoncé delivered a masterclass in supreme self-belief. She blew nominal headliners Coldplay off stage with a performance built around her ferocious new song 'Formation'. As a teaser for this, her sixth album, released suddenly and without fanfare two months later, it was something else.
And the album is quite something too - a masterful pop statement that felt remarkable on early listens, and really feels like a zeitgeist-defining work with much to say about America and celebrity. Few stars of the Texan's stature would deliver something as downright daring and provocative - and it isn't just the genre-hopping nature of the music, but the subject matter too. Much of it seems to be about serious marital problems she and Jay Z have experienced, tabloid spice made all the more juicy by the fact that she has done little to suggest that the songs are not autobiographical.
The gossip rags obsessed about the identity of "Becky with the good hair" from 'Sorry', while sociological commentators talked of the subtle racial undertone in such a simple line. If Beyoncé's marriage to Jay Z provided much of the inspiration, so, too, does the race-riven America of today. The personal and the political merge on this album like few others - much more so, certainly, than any other Beyoncé album.
2 DAVID BOWIE
This marvellous meditation on life and death seemed to suggest that Bowie's creativity had been fully charged having returned three years before with an acclaimed album - his first after a fallow decade. His death two days later didn't just rob us of an icon, but the prospect of more great music like this. And what music - Blackstar boasts seven sensational tracks, from the sprawling title song to the heart-rending closer 'I Can't Give Everything Away', which takes on enormous poignancy now that we know it was written and recorded when he was contemplating the end of his life.
3 CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS
An embryonic version of this album may have been released in her native France in 2014, but few had heard of Héloïse Letissier until this year, when this rebooted treasure touched down. It's as fully formed a pop debut as you could ever hope to hear and boasts some of the year's great tunes - 'Tilted' and 'Saint Claude' - as well as 'Paradis Perdus', which borrowed liberally from Kanye West's 'Heartless'. The pristine production, coupled with inspired guests like Perfume Genius and Tunji Ige, helped to elevate Chaleur Humaine (French for 'Human Warmth') above the competition, but Letissier's star quality shone bright.
A Moon Shaped Pool
Thom Yorke and friends released their ninth album after a brief teaser campaign and it signposted another superlative recording from the most vital British band of the past 20 years. It's an album suffused with anxiety - how very Radiohead, their detractors might say - but there's breathtaking beauty here too. From the frantic strings of 'Burn the Witch' to the fragile arrangements of 'True Love Waits', there's nary a dull moment. Quite how much of it was inspired by the break-up of Yorke's long-term relationship is anyone's guess, but it's hard not to feel that those lyrics look deep into his heart.
5 NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
Tragedy of the most devastating kind arrived halfway through recording sessions for this album, when Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur was killed in a freak accident. That loss informs much of this raw, angry and terribly sad album and there are moments where the Australian's care-worn vocals sound practically at breaking point. A funeral mood pervades, but there's a semblance of acceptance, too, especially on album standout, the extraordinary 'Distant Sky', which sees Cave collaborate with the Danish soprano Else Torp.
There are few voices as distinctive in modern song as Anohni, the transgender woman formerly known as Antony Hegarty, the voice of the wonderful Antony and the Johnsons. And those vocals are foregrounded on this bleak and beautiful protest album, which, in its own way, captures some of the despair in the year of Trump and Brexit. There's wonderful inventiveness to the electronic-steeped music which, when combined with Anohni's otherworldly singing, sounds like Nina Simone resurrected 100 years from now. Those who complain that all contemporary music sounds the same should listen to this.
7 ANGEL OLSEN
The Missouri native showed why she's one of the best of the new breed of American songwriters with this bewitching and deeply personal album, a stunning follow-up to the startling Burn Your Fire For No Witness from 2014. Whether it's arresting electronica, heart-felt ballads or rousing torch songs, Olsen's music is delightfully shape-shifting, yet she's in control at every turn. She writes love songs that stop you in your tracks and while lyrics like "heaven hits me when I see your face" might read as mawkish in print, they'll tug hard on your heartstrings when fashioned in song.
8 LEONARD COHEN
You Want It Darker
Another giant to depart us this year, but not before releasing his 14th studio album - a dark, funny and wise offering to stand proudly alongside his best work from a recording career that spanned almost 50 years. Age delivered an extra layer of magic to that gorgeous voice of his and the clean and simple arrangements are always at the service of those vocals. As with every Cohen album, You Want It Darker is notable for the perfection of his lyrics. This song-poet, inspired by Yeats and Whitman, could pen verse as good as any: "If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game/If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame".
9 KEVIN MORBY
Bob Dylan released an album, Fallen Angels, in a year in which he was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but the most Dylan-like album of 2016 came courtesy of this 28-year-old Texan, whose third album seemed to slip between the cracks. Make it your business to investigate it, because Singing Saw is quietly show-stopping from start to finish - and Morby's songcraft is the real deal, whether his subject matter concerns police brutality or the majesty of nature. His voice is sure and true and even though it's got something of Dylan's nasally twang, he's songs are very much his own.
10 CHANCE THE RAPPER
Chance seemed to be the guest of choice of numerous albums this year - everyone from Kanye to John Legend. But the Chicago rapper kept his best work for what he's calling his third 'mixtape' and this sprawling album is just the sort of hip-hop opus that so many of his more celebrated peers have failed to emulate. There's a strong spiritual dimension to his world view - a refreshing antidote to the girls, guns and bling preoccupations that pockmark the genre. He gets the most out of an eclectic array of guests, including Justin Bieber, Young Thug and, most memorably of all, the Chicago Children's Choir.
11 AGNES OBEL
Citizen of Glass
Another song-writing masterclass from the classically trained Danish experimentalist.
12 THE GLOAMING
The Gloaming 2
A second superlative album from the trad supergroup, who are unquestionably living up to the sum of their parts.
Black America Again
The great rapper's socially conscious music was much needed during a fraught year in the US.
Kurt Wagner has long ploughed his own furrow and this wilfully experimental album is a slow-burn delight.
15 A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
Released before the death of founding member Phife Dawg, this final album harks to the past while pointing a route to a possible hip-hop future.
16 LISA HANNIGAN
Understated and profound, this gentle rumination on life, love and death offers further proof of the Meath songsmith's rare gifts.
17 THE AVALANCHES
The sample-obsessed Aussies returned triumphant after a long hiatus and called on the help of Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue.
18 BON IVER
22, A Million
The sound of an acclaimed musician willing to take risks and try new things - and what beautiful results.
19 THE 1975
I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It
The guilty pleasure of 2016 from a band who don't care for subtlety, but know everything about writing unashamedly catchy arena hits.
20 OH PEP!
A giddy pop rush from the Australian female duo - one of the year's hidden gems.