As another year ends, it’s time for another best-of list. 2016 proved an interesting year from which to cull together a ranking of notable albums, with many of my perennial favorites not releasing new music this year. But despite an absence of darling divas like Alison Moyet, Jessie Ware, Annie Lennox, and Lisa Stansfield, and being too soon for new material from favorite fellas like Brandon Flowers, Rob Thomas, and Jimmy Somerville, delayed sophomore releases from promising newcomers from lists past like Sam Smith, and (sadly) the untimely death of still other longtime favorite, George Michael, my ears were graced this year by an eclectic collection of artists – some new, some returning, some charting comebacks – whose albums ran the gamut from pop and EDM to alternative and classic rock.
So, without further prelude, following is my list of top ten albums from the past year.
#10 – Shura / Nothing’s Real
London singer/songwriter Shura debuted midyear with this polished set of EDM, heavily influenced by mid-to-late 1980s dance-pop. Her ambient synthpop soundscape impressively manages to feel simultaneously retro – calling to mind Madonna, Debbie Gibson, and Janet Jackson at various early career points – and fresh. What sets Nothing’s Real apart from the competition is its authenticity and a painstaking attention to detail. Shura never sets out to mimic the aesthetic of a past musical era – she’s creating quality pop songs with a keen appreciation for their influences while remaining mindful of their place within a modern context. Her uncomplicated lyrical genuineness is complimented by the deeply infectious hooks among the many glorious pop confections here, like the “Holiday”-esque “Indecision”, “Touch”, “Tongue Tied”, “What Happened to Us?”, and the disco-infused title track.
#9 – Pretenders / Alone
Chrissie Hynde, at 65, remains the unapologetic focal point of the classic rock outfit Pretenders and – on the band’s tenth studio album – it’s clear why. Her distinctive voice has become the connective tissue between the band’s ever-changing roster, the one consistent that makes you wonder how – as sole proprietress of the Pretenders franchise – she decides which musical output gets categorized as solo versus band effort. Crediting concerns aside, Alone is a worthy follow-up to Hynde’s 2014 solo album Stockholm. Alternating between gritty toughness and sentimental sweetness, the 12-track effort produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach never forgets that Chrissie Hynde is the Pretenders and plays to her iconoclastic rank among the male-dominated world of rock-and-roll as a fiercely independent woman. Her trademark slurry sultriness remains the vocal equivalent of a swagger, especially on tracks like “I Hate Myself”. Other quintessential Pretenders tracks represented here include: “Gotta Wait”, “Holy Commotion”, “Death Is Not Enough”, and “Never Be Together”.
#8 – St. Lucia / Matter
Easily the most unabashedly joyful album of the year, St. Lucia’s Matter wears its 80s-era new romanticism influences proudly. The Brooklyn-based pop outfit – fronted by South African singer and musician Jean-Philip Grobler – crafts an irresistibly danceable collection of swirling synthpop filled with a grandiose sense of sunniness in every propulsive keyboard loop. Musical hedonism for the soul. Standout tracks include: “Physical”, “The Winds of Change” and midtempo “Love Somebody”.
#7 – Birdy / Beautiful Lies
It’s hard to believe that Birdy (aka Jasmine Lucilla Elizabeth Jennifer van den Bogaerde) is already on her third album at the tender age of 20 or that it’s only been five years since the one-time music competition winner released a cover version of Bon Iver's song "Skinny Love" that first introduced the world to her extraordinary talent. On Beautiful Lies, the prodigious wunderkind presents her most accomplished and commercially-accessible effort to date, with a welcome evolution from acoustic covers to alternative pop. While the singer’s signature silky piano ballads are well represented here, it’s her stepping out on a handful of uptempo gems like the anthemic “Wild Horses”, “Lifted”, and the rousing “Keeping Your Head Up” that now put her in league with contemporaries like Lorde and Florence Welch. Gorgeous from start to finish. Standouts include: “Shadow”, “Take My Heart”, and the gorgeous “Silhouette”.
#6 – Grace / FMA (Forgive My Attitude)
This 20-year-old Aussie whose full name is Grace Sewell cements herself as a frontrunner in fill the musical void left by the late Amy Winehouse with this exceptional debut album. Like the UK’s Paloma Faith, Grace has a sultry, full-throttle voice that’s set against a polished set of neo-soul, pop, and R&B, which she also penned. You’ve likely already heard Grace, her superb reworking of the Lesley Gore classic “You Don’t Own Me” featured prominently in the trailer to the film The Suicide Squad. Other standouts include: “Church on Sunday” and the achingly sparse “How to Love Me”.
#5 – Rick Astley / 50
In one of the most surprising and unlikely comebacks of the year, Rick Astley returned to music with an album masterfully executed to showcase his formidable pipes and – as evidenced by the plethora of rousing, hands-in-the-air choruses and spiritual imagery aplenty – a newfound sense of optimism. His baritone is just as rich as it was back in his heyday as the ginger poster boy for the house of Stock Aitken Waterman (SAW), with a seasoned rasp that now lends an emotional texture that was lacking in his earlier days of high-energy synthpop. And after years of being the butt of Internet jokes (rickrolling, anyone?), Astley has had the last laugh: 50 skyrocketed to the top of the UK music chart, earning him his first number-one album in 29 years. Among the many highlights of the album are “This Old House”, “I Like the Sun”, “Pray with Me”, and “Dance”.
#4 – Rebecca Ferguson / Superwoman
This one-time runner-up from the British edition of X Factor creates a deeply autobiographical collection of piano-driven ballads and mid-tempo R&B that showcases her stunningly soulful voice (Think: Macy Gray meets Amy Winehouse). On the British powerhouse’s fourth consecutive top ten studio album (in the UK), personal fortitude and hard-won female empowerment are on tap thematically, while the production is lush and sophisticated. Ferguson’s distinctive jazz-blues voice – put to such solid use on her album of Billie Holiday covers last year – is a raspy delight, capable of soaring effortlessly. The highlights here are lead single “Bones”, a cover of New Zealand artist Ginny Blackmore, the acoustic title track, and “Without a Woman”.
#3 – Selah Sue / Reason
Selah Sue (real name Sanne Putseys) is a Belgian singer-songwriter and music festival darling whose gravelly voice and real-deal musical sincerity have made her a known commodity in her native country, France, and Netherlands. If there is any justice, the twenty-seven-year-old will carve out a niche for herself outside those geographical borders with Reason, her long-awaited sophomore effort following 2011’s eponymous debut. There’s a chill urban sensibility to the collection that – when coupled with the singer’s powerhouse pipes and guttural delivery – hits the listener with an emotional depth that takes you off-guard. There’s an appealing fusion of soul, trip hop, reggae, and EDM to the album that somehow manages to establish cohesion despite its variant stylings. Standout tracks include “Fear Nothing”, “Alive”, “Right Where I Want You”, and “Alone”.
#2 – Robbie Williams / The Heavy Entertainment Show
There’s likely no modern pop star quite as entertaining or attention-deficit as the UK’s Robbie Williams. New album releases from the one-time boy band crooner and tabloid bad-boy are never predictable, and his latest (and 11th studio album) The Heavy Entertainment Show is no exception. This brilliantly eclectic 16-track collection is easily the year’s best pop album, boasting a superbly-crafted grab bag of pure pop confections that are at once instantly accessible without losing any of Williams’ penchant for musical bombast and lyrical chutzpah, evidenced here on tracks like “Party Like a Russian” and the hysterically catchy “Motherfucker” – both of which return Williams to the cocky-crass ringmaster shtick of earlier efforts. The gem here is “David’s Song”, a gut-wrenching weeper co-written by Jewel and Kara DioGuardi, that’s a tribute to Williams’ long-time manager and mentor David Enthoven who died of cancer last August at age 72. Other highlights include: The Killers-penned “Mixed Signals”, “Love My Life”, “Time on Earth”, “Sensitive”, and “Pretty Woman”.
#1 – Garbage / Strange Little BirdsThe sixth studio album by this deservedly revered Scottish-American alternative rock outfit fronted by the wildly magnetic Shirley Manson boasts a superlative collection of atmospheric electro-rock – jagged and ferocious in spots, contemplative and minimalist in others. After twenty-two years, Garbage somehow recycles and reinvents its signature confluence of 90s-grunge and trip-hop electronica, permeating Strange Little Birds with a refreshing confidence and maturity. Lyrically, the band’s trademark gothic romanticism remains largely intact, with healthy doses of angst and misery layered within sonic walls of industrial textures and distorted guitar scratches. Highlights of Strange Little Birds include “Empty”, “Night Drive Loneliness”, “Sometimes”, and “So We Can Stay Alive”.
Interested in how 2016 stacked up against 2015? Check out last year's favorites here.