In these days of Spotify subscriptions and iTunes vouchers, giving the gift of music for Christmas has never been more easy and less personal. You can’t show a close friend or relative that you truly understand them with a gift card. For that reason, after a bumper year for great music here are several dozen of the finest album releases of 2016, divided into sub-sections according to who might appreciate them come December 25. At the very least, it should give you a better idea of what to seek out for yourself on Boxing Day.
The hip hop heads
Rap music on both sides of the Atlantic has been in superb shape – both creatively daring and commercially dominant. Kanye West pointed to the future of the album in the streaming era by calling The Life of Pablo “a living breathing changing creative expression” and continuing to fiddle with it even after its release. Meanwhile Chance the Rapper released Coloring Book – officially a mixtape rather than a proper album – only on streaming services and still sent it high in the charts. Older names were vital again: A Tribe Called Quest with We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, their first album since 1998, while over here, grime pioneers Kano and Skepta made a deserved dual crash into mainstream consciousness with the former’s eclectic Made in the Manor and the latter’s tense, focused, Mercury Prize-winning Konnichiwa. Further into leftfield, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition showed off a unique voice and Anderson .Paak’s slick Malibu made him a big name for the future. Plus Kendrick Lamar put out a collection of demos, Untitled Unmastered, that was as strong as any rivals.
The teen queens
Younger girls mostly spent 2016 screaming at The 1975, whose ludicrously titled I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It displayed spectacular confidence and a true pop ear. Those who recognised that Little Mix’s Glory Days made them the undisputed current queens of girl group pop, but longed for more depth, could turn to Shura’s Nothing’s Real – a John Hughes movie in 12-track form – or Love You to Death by Tegan and Sara, on which the Canadian twins continued their journey far from their indie rock early days. As the year drew to a close, The Weeknd cemented his claim to be the Michael Jackson of our times with his new R&B-pop blockbuster, Starboy.
The soul sisters
A growing trend – nerve-wracking for the critics, exciting for the rest of us – was the apearance of a new album with very little notice, sometimes with a visual element too. Lemonade was Beyonce’s greatest creative achievement, an album and film that got people gossiping about her husband’s possible infidelity but also took in the Black Lives Matter movement. Frank Ocean’s visual album, Endless, turned out to be a sneaky appetiser for the “real” album, Blonde, a day later. Looser and murkier than his extraordinary debut, Channel Orange, it was still a deeply beautiful work. Rihanna seemed like less of a robotic hit machine on the sparse, weird ANTI, but it made for a more satisfying album. Also worthy of investigation were Childish Gambino, incorporating virtually all of black music on his huge departure, Awaken, My Love! Plus, Beyonce’s little sister Solange, far from overshadowed on her stunning A Seat at the Table.
The indie kids
Indie rock was less spiky, more of a place to drift away this year. Both Brooklyn’s Sunflower Bean, who mixed male/female vocals with hazy textures on their fantastic debut, Human Ceremony, and London’s Daughter, who led the shoegazing revival on their second, Not to Disappear, found beauty in guitar strumming. Among the old-timers, the reformed Pixies returned with an album, Head Carrier, that at times approached their towering Nineties best. But the most poignant sound was the self-titled debut from Viola Beach, all four of whom had died in a road accident before they could see it released and Coldplay cover them at Glastonbury.
The rocking intellectuals
The brainy bunch were out in force. On A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead eased back on the electronics in favour of strings and piano and found an unexpected warmth on their most lovable album for some time. For PJ Harvey on The Hope Six Demolition Project, the focus was on her political lyrics rather than her return to rackety guitar rock. Angel Olsen moved in similar territory and rightly stepped up to the big league with My Woman. Keaton Henson was more sonically ambitious but as heartbroken as ever on the gripping Kindly Now, and Bon Iver continued to create incredible new sound worlds on his audacious third album 22, A Million.
The modern mums
Let’s put Christine and the Queens and her breakthrough album Chaleur Humaine in this section, uncategorisable as she is. In a year of regressive anti-Europe sentiment it was delicious to see a largely French language album with themes of gender ambiguity doing so well. Lady Gaga managed to ramp up her appeal, becoming less of a showpony and more of a sensitive songwriter on the understated (for her) Joanne. A newly divorced Emeli Sande understandably also headed for more downbeat territory on Long Live the Angels, the impressive follow-up to her multi-platinum debut. And even eight years after their last one, it was business as usual for The Pretenders, who sounded as bold as ever on Alone.
In the world of quieter sounds, Lisa Hannigan put a Seamus Heaney poem to music, one of many magical moments on At Swim, an album that found real depth after occasionally twee past work. Margo Price offered stark, autobiographical country music on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, while Overnight by Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker was the loveliest new take on the British folk sound. With just seven tracks of instrumental guitar picking, William Tyler mesmerised on his Modern Country, and there was even a supergroup of sorts in the field: Case/Lang/Veirs by Neko Case, KD Lang and Laura Veirs proved a marvellous union.
The computer geeks
Among the electronic producers, there was great excitement reserved for the return of Australia’s Avalanches with a second album, Wildflower, a ridiculous 16 years after their debut. Even more fun than their sample collages was Kaytranada’s 99.9% – a wild dance ride that won Canada’s prestigous Polaris Music Prize. On the other side of the world, Australia’s Flume was becoming a major star thanks to his second album Skin, a vital indication of where dance music could go next. Lastly, vocals were as important as the synths on both James Blake’s ghostly third album, The Colour in Anything, and the colourful Farewell, Starlite! by Kanye West and Bon Iver collaborator Francis and the Lights.
The dad dancers
Dad will have been pleased to see the giants still hard at work, such as on Iggy Pop’s raw comeback Post Pop Depression and Paul Simon’s impeccable Stranger to Stranger. But the younger imitators were doing fine things too. Max Jury’s mature self-titled debut summoned the feel of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. Chicago band Whitney sounded in the best possible way like a Neil Young tribute act on Light Upon the Lake, and Michael Kiwanuka did the vintage soul thing more impressively than ever on his supreme second, Love & Hate. Most remarkable was the charity compilation album Day of the Dead – 59 Grateful Dead cover versions by a veritable festival of alt-rock names including The National, Wilco and The War on Drugs.
It’s the most miserable time of the year
It would be entirely understandable that some of us would prefer to postpone Christmas this year and sit hunched under the stairs weeping at the unfairness of the world. Unfortunately that feeling can be soundtracked ably, too. Both David Bowie and Leonard Cohen brought home the mortality even of music’s greats by releasing Blackstar and You Want It Darker – wonderful albums both – and dying shortly afterwards. At least they seemed ready to go, whereas Nick Cave had to tackle the death of his teenage son alongside his usual big subjects on his extraordinary Skeleton Tree. But even all that sorrow was mild next to Hopelessness by Anohni, formerly Antony and the Johnsons, a dense electronic album essentially about the end of the world. Happy Christmas.