Isolated Nation's Top Albums of 2016
2016 was an awful year by all accounts, but at least it gave us an abundance of good music to compensate. It was stacked with long-awaited (and just plain long) releases, nostalgic turns and exciting new sounds, and a heap of highly political statements to match the heated worldwide political climate. We at Isolated Nation have spent much time discussing and debating the numerous albums released this year, and while there were so many worthy releases that we had to miss out, we’re pretty pleased with the albums we have agreed upon.
36. Joyce Manor: Cody “Cody, Joyce Manor’s fourth album, finds its strength in embodying everything that makes pop punk great, while skirting from common pitfalls. The band demonstrate their enhanced sophistication while not straying far from what makes them an appealing act in the first place.”
35. Oathbreaker: Rheia Belgium's famous cobblestone laneways have inspired one of the most emotive and haunting metal songs of the year. The brilliant 'blackened hardcore' dubbel openers on Rheia '10:56' and 'Second Son of R.' set the tone for the rest of the album. Oathbreaker frontwoman Caro Tanghe blends abrasive screeching and slightly off-key vocals over the top of mental-metal instrumentals and the result is one of the best post-Deafheaven metal albums. Think Melbournians High Tension but less sludgy and more, European.
34. 2814: Rain Temple Dream Catalogue has conjured a sound which they have aptly coined “dream music” for only a couple of years now. 2814’s Rain Temple encapsulates the label’s direction immaculately, crafting lush and hypnotic soundscapes married with futuristic themes of ascension and first contact. Keep a keen cyborg eye on this producer if finessed hazy melodies with a heavy dose of sci-fi are your thing!
33. Nicolas Jaar: Sirens Chilean-American electronic artist Nicolas Jaar presents a politically motivated, eerie record that burrows under your skin and leaves you vaguely unsettled. Not to say that Sirens isn’t also a gorgeous album to listen to, with its hypnotising balance of silence and sound adding meaning to each individual decision.
32. Kanye West: The Life of Pablo There seems to be a direct correlation between Yeezy’s controversial public character and the quality of his music. This year the divisive hip-hop personality wrestled with rumours of psychosis, philosophical dialogues with the President-elect, and some sort of alien-based identity crisis. The Life of Pablo delivers a clever and cohesive album with a humorous and oftentimes vulnerable narrative circling around Kanye’s faith. Drop your judgments about his often disagreeable nature, and it will become glaringly evident why he has sustained his status as a hip-hop genius in both the rap and production fields since the genesis of the millennium.
31. Soda Island: A Trip to Soda Island Soda Island are a worldwide electronic collective that sound a lot like what’s advertised on the label: bubbly, sweet electronica filled with hooks and pop bliss. While maintaining a commendable cohesiveness, A Trip to Soda Island also gives each artist an opportunity to showcase their own talents; from jazzy cuts by WA’s own Spire (including highlight “Reverie”, featuring FAWNA) to the ambient bliss of Izzard (as on “Ghost Naps”) and bangers courtesy of Canada’s Ramzoid (“Coconut”). Soda Island sounds like a lovely place to visit.
30. Kendrick Lamar: Untitled Unmastered Kendrick's collection of songs apparently not fit for To Pimp A Butterfly would put almost any other artist to shame. Released haphazardly over live-performances over the past few years, the songs finally saw the light of day on a physical release. Mostly brilliant, however comparing to the live performances may leave you a little underwhelmed.
29. Savages: Adore Life On Adore Life, Savages improved upon their debut by tightening up their explosive post-punk sound. The tone has shifted also, offering a collection of meditations on all kinds of love that speaks to the modern age. The result is more focussed and less frenetic, but no less powerful… Or, for that matter, savage.
28. Chairlift: Moth Chairlift’s third album saw the duo tackle 80s synthpop with great success. While it seems just about every band nowadays have been turning to the cheesiest of eras for inspiration, Chairlift stand out from the pack for their hook-filled, unique take, filling space with intriguing sound effects and Caroline Polachek’s dynamic, soaring vocals.
27. Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial While drawing influence from the whole rock spectrum, Car Seat Headrest’s breakout thirteenth(!!) album Teens of Denial is held together by a unique sense of humour and artistry. Will Toledo sings with all the swagger of Julian Casablancas, only with a heightened sarcasm and self-deprecation. The newly presented full band compliment this wit with a plethora of hooks, leading to one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.
26. A Tribe Called Quest: We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service The rap legends finally dropped their long-awaited and oft-rumoured sixth album in November, and unlike certain other hyped albums released this year, it was 100% worth the wait. What fans got was a distinctly 2016 variant of their distinctive sound, commentating on numerous social and political issues (see: “We the People…”) and embracing all the best developments in the hip hop realm in recent years while remaining a uniquely ATCQ project.
25. BADBADNOTGOOD: IV This is the fourth record from the jazzy Toronto boys. The LP was consistent with their progressive-experimental-jazz sound and featured some banga guestos including Mick Jenkins, Kaytranada, Future Islands and Charlotte Day Wilson. I was lucky enough to have seen them live in Melbourne this year too. They have such an amazing energy and are hands down one of the best Canadian groups right now.
24. Deftones: Gore Gore is the most consistently satisfying album alt-metal titans Deftones have released since 2000’s White Pony. The band finally nail the balance between their heavy and atmospheric sides by marrying the two together rather than keeping them segregated. Deftones continue to expand the boundaries of their defining sound, and we all reap the benefits
23. Touché Amoré: Stage Four Lost Angeles post-hardcore band Touché Amoré delivered a rollercoaster of a fourth album, delving into the abundant emotions following the death of a loved one. It’s a challenging but cathartic release that sees the group at their most melodic and technical. We loved it when it came out, and we love it now.
22. Frankie Cosmos: Next Thing In a year of overblown releases, Frankie Cosmos stands out from the crowd for her short, smart statements. She knows what she wants so say, says it, and moves on. This doesn’t mean her music is shallow or surface level, however; her observation-based lyrics and catchy melodies makes this a poignant and enormously fun release full of opportunities to reflect and relate.
21. D.D Dumbo: Utopia Defeated D.D Dumbo’s long-awaited debut album does not disappoint, demonstrating the enigmatic Melbournian at his confounding best. Utopia Defeated is a densely layered project that both rewards repeated listens and hooks you instantly with its propulsive percussion and expert twelve-stringed-guitar licks.
20. Carla dal Forno: You Know What It's Like This LP resonated with me after hearing it at Dada Records. Originally from Melbourne, Dal Forno now calls Berlin home and continues her moody, sonic exploration through her solo work. This album is stylish, poetic, sparse and allows listeners to be woo-ed by the curious romanticism of its contents.
19. Mitski: Puberty 2 Puberty 2 is such a genuinely human rock album that you’re almost bound to feel something from it. It’s also the best realisation of Mitski Miyawaki’s unique vision to date, demonstrating all the characteristics that made previous releases enjoyable while refining and upscaling it all with great payoff. I’d say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime album, but something tells me Mitski has a lot more killer albums to go still.
18. Solange: A Seat at the Table Arguably, Solange Knowles' career has been hindered by the shadow of her diva sister, Beyonce's endeavours. But at last, her individuality and true potential have been unmasked in this stellar twenty track LP. All the tunes have a raison d'être whether it be for political or stylistic reasons. Notwithstanding there is an abundance of standouts - including the grand slam of 'Cranes in the Sky' which for me, is one of the best songs of 2016. Mamma mia, just thinking about this album! Good night and good luck.
17. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead stripped right back to the bare minimum on this release. It’s sparse, stark and introspective, rewarding the patient listener by burrowing under your skin. Throw in the overdue official release of some fan favourites and you have a winning formula.
16. Kaytranada: 99.9% This LP has been worshipped and glorified, and justifiably so. It was a long time coming for the Montreal raised producer. He most certainly delivered on the promise of his early self-released EPs and remixes. 'Drive Me Crazy' with Vic Mensa and 'Leave Me Alone' with Shay Lia were obvious stand outs. The LP cemented his reputation and his swinging sound which can be compared to that of the late Dilla. So many have attested to his distinction, so we need not continue.
15. James Blake: The Colour in Anything The Colour in Anything is the sort of album that’s perfect for when the skies are as grey as on the album cover; it’s mostly subdued and contemplative, and goes well with coffee. Running at 17 tracks and 76 minutes, it’s also James Blake’s most ambitious project yet, seeing the producer broadening his horizons to great success. As we noted, it is not a tedious listen by any means, and its diversity is one of its many strengths. Another fantastic addition to a tremendous discography.
14. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: Nonagon Infinity As always, the prolific King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard attempted an ambitious concept with this new album. As always, they nailed it. It’s a full-steam-ahead rocker of a release, stuffed with all the psych rock riffs and pounding percussion you could ask for. It’s an album you’ll want to relisten to all over again once it’s done, and given that it literally picks up where it started, that’s made easy for you.
13. Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book Happy music is deceptively difficult to make. How does one manage to write music that is joyous and celebratory, while not making it overwhelmingly cheesy? On Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper achieves this fine balance by acknowledging that happiness cannot be felt without suffering to draw it out. On the surface, the music is chipper, seemingly designed for parties, but delve deeper and there’s an abundance of pain and complications underlying it all. Chance tells the audience that God and music will get you through it all. Coloring Book is filled with both, resulting in a grounded, human and genuinely upbeat experience for anyone to enjoy.
12. Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch When you discover something special, you need to bloody cherish it. No wonder Sacred Bones signed Hval! She is truly something out of the ordinary, and this LP is no exception. In Blood Bitch, Hval explores the trials, tribulations and wonders of menstruation in the most delicate and poetic way possible. Every track on the LP conveys a huge emotional force upon the listener. Her lucid approach to songwriting, certainly made me emotional in the second half of 2016.
11. David Bowie: Blackstar This one, I’ll admit, is completely unfair. Though sadly so many great artists have passed away this year, none have so eloquently faced their own mortality with such knowing grace. Contributing heartily to what might be the saddest year in music, Blackstar is a fitting send off to a man who fit in so well with every decade of his accomplished life.
10. Bon Iver: 22, A Million Bon Iver has always made music that grows on you, and this has never been more true than on his long-awaited third album 22, A Million. Justin Vernon introduces glitchy electronica into the mix, directing his sound into a more abstract route which manifests itself in everything, from the song titles to the artwork to the sound itself. Despite the evident experimentation, Bon Iver doesn’t skimp on the human aspects, so 22, A Million still offers insights into the mind of its creator, ensuring ample opportunity to relate to its themes and lyrics. A worthy addition to an exemplary catalogue.
9. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree “So basically this album is every bit as harrowing and melancholy as you would expect it to be. As the tremendous singer-songwriter-storyteller that he is, Nick Cave on his new album Skeleton Tree uses his plethora of sonic tools to paint a sorrowful picture with deep running concerns in loss and grief. Having tragically lost his son little over a year ago, with only part of this album in creation at the time, this album displays the shattering effect and resonations such an event has had.”
8. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition This album essentially collates all the aspects which makes Danny Brown such a unique and innovative artist and extends them. With dense, chaotic production to suite his anarchic style, Atrocity Exhibition is a ravaging and raving experience like no other this year.
7. Beyoncé: Lemonade The sound of this generation's greatest pop star at full power. Lemonade is a work of sheer brilliance, blending the political and personal with a keen sense of storytelling. Beyoncé's vocals are as flawless as ever, and the album touches on a plethora of sounds for a thrilling experience. It's clear that, in 2016, the album format is as strong as ever.
6. The Avalanches: Wildflower After 16 years, The Avalanches finally (FINALLY) dropped their long-awaited second album, and while it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for them in the process, Wildflower is nonetheless a fantastic statement. Upgrading their established sample-based approach with increasing focus on the lucid, Wildflower is a rollercoaster of an album in every sense of the word. Featuring hip-hop bangers 'Because I’m Me' and blissful psych-rock 'Colours' alike, the album retains a remarkable flow and appeal throughout. It’s so good to have them back.
5. Rihanna: ANTI Mamma mia, Rih Rih has certainly made her mark on 2016 and we thank her! ANTI - her very-long-awaited eighth LP was ambitious yet introspective. The masses were certainly confused by the lack of bangas so omnipresent on pop radio. From the distorted opener 'Consideration', she deliberately announced in her mesmerizing voice that she does things her own way (per example covering Perth bands!). This sense of empowerment orbited all the way through the ANTI solar system. Yet in tracks such as 'Never Ending', Rihanna exhibits a vulnerability which her fans have never really seen before. In the end, she delivered an absolute magnum opus which served as the soundtrack to boring days at work, countless late nights, adventures in new cities and days cleaning my house.
4. The Drones: Feelin' Kinda Free One of our early standouts, The Drones reign supreme on the seventh album of their formidable career. While frontman Gareth Liddiard has never been afraid of making grand statements lyrically or musically, he is particularly motor-mouthed this time around, and the band match this intensity with a blistering and experimental sound (including a brilliant turn at lead vocals from Fiona Kitschin on “Sometimes”). Feelin’ Kinda Free cements their place as one of the most indomitable voices in rock music, in Australia and the world.
3. Koi Child: Koi Child There's been a tonne of good album releases out of Perth this year, but none of them quite like Koi Child's self titled debut. A unique blend of jazz, rap and rock, Koi Child display excellence lyrically and musically. It's an ambitious and masterful release- with hopefully many to follow.
2. Frank Ocean: Blonde Channel Orange is inarguably a classic, pop enough to appeal to nearly everybody, whilst having depth and beauty in spades. With Blonde, Frank Ocean forgoes his catchier elements for a more spacious production paired with his stellar lyricism lending this album great emotional weight.
Blonde is certainly not an instantly gratifying album, which caught many off guard given the hype surrounding it (including some of our writers). However, after giving it time to let it grow on you, its wonders are well and truly revealed. Frank Ocean doesn’t so much explicitly convey emotions and ideas but subtly alludes to them, creating his unique atmosphere by carefully constructing impressionistic lyrics that, when combined with sparse instrumentation, result in a holistic experience. Despite a long list of collaborators and samples, the end product is something only a mind as brilliant as Ocean’s could dream up.
1. Camp Cope: Camp Cope While 2016 was packed with established acts blowing our minds, ultimately it was a Melbourne three-piece who have only been together as a band for just over a year that most captured our ears and hearts. Camp Cope is a wonderfully human album is every ways possible. It isn’t showy, but it’s superbly constructed. Frontwoman Georgia Maq sings with an irresistible perspective and expressive delivery and is backed up by a tight, complementive contribution from each of the other members. For a truly cathartic experience, look no further.
So, those are our favourites this year. With such a range of albums released this year, it was harder than ever to narrow down our list. With that, here are some other artists that released excellent albums this year that we think deserve an honourable mention:
Angel Olsen, Kuedo, Crystal Castles, Jamila Woods, A.B. Original, Gang of Youths, ANOHNI, Warpaint, Explosions in the Sky, Childish Gambino, Benjamin Witt, Jadu Heart, ScHoolboy Q, Bat for Lashes, The 1975, Francis and the Lights, The Hotelier, DMA’s, Preoccupations, Ball Park Music, Oddissee, Clams Casino, Violent Soho, Flume, Big Scary, Skepta, Into It. Over It., Leonard Cohen, Glass Animals, Blood Orange, Cub Sport, Anderson .Paak, Hideous Sun Demon, Pinegrove, Kevin Morby, Heart Beach and Gallant.
Bring on 2017!