#15. The Colour in Anything by James Blake
James Blake is something of a singularly unique figure in music – despite being lauded by critics, roped in by some of the biggest musicians on the planet to collaborate with, and with a dedicated cult following, it’s almost unnerving how he maintains his insularity. Despite The Colour in Anything being, by all accounts, his most collaborative work yet – Frank Ocean, Justin Vernon and more appear in the credits throughout – this is still very much a one-man show. The mood Blake has perfected in his previous albums, of terrifying loneliness, pervasive melancholy and an eternal struggle against the personal battles of life, remains just as stunningly effective here. The music is beautiful, despite its inherent sorrow, with the glacial electronica and keys providing the perfect soundscape for Blake’s chilling voice, one dripping in emotion that isn’t captured by any of his contemporaries nearly as truly. The solitude remains the central theme for nearly the entire 17-track running time, but the true beauty of this album, as it is with all of James Blake’s music, is the acceptance that this pain and heartbreak is an essential part of life. It’s difficult – there is no way you come out of this album without feeling broken. But it isn’t dreary – in its own weird way, this is an album that meditates on sorrow thoughtfully. It is human – and as with everything human, it’s incredibly compelling.
#14. 22, A Million by Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, is a work of detached beauty. The album is possibly the most challenging of Bon Iver’s discography, with a lexicon that communicates emotions and moments beyond the pedestrian, in words – existent and invented – that appear carefully pruned to strike the right chord at the right moment, yet maintain the enigma. The electronic elements and distortion that finds its way into the production is a departure from their acoustic stylings, and the lyrics have become even more esoteric. However, the core of the album is still very much Bon Iver, with the music delivering the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer, rendered in the haunting, layered voice of Justin Vernon.The listener is thus left to decipher an intricately woven, highly conceptual exploration of Justin Vernon’s psyche, a narrative wrought of creative exhaustion and anxiety, the soul of the sagacious recluse laid bare. 22, A Million, is a layered, intelligent but heavy record. It’s also deeply emotive. And in that dichotomy, lies Bon Iver’s genius.
#13. Blackstar by David Bowie
Did David Bowie know Blackstar was going to be the last gift he’d give to music? If he did, it sure doesn’t sound like it. The album is brimming with experimental instrumentation, with elements of jazz, funk, rock’n’roll, and even the occasional hip-hop, his songwriting is as wonderfully esoteric as ever, and the record as a whole sounds like the work of a man invested in absolute creativity, not one 25 albums in. And therein lies Bowie’s genius; here was a man dedicated to pushing the envelope of music till his last breath, forcing his contemporaries to play catch up even as time was catching up with him. The centrepiece of the album, Lazarus, swirls in a lush mix of saxophone, rolling drums and startlingly distinct guitar riffs. This runs consistently through the tight runtime, with an energy that never lets up, yet never becomes chaotic. And as the soaring music crescendos in the final track, there’s a sense that David Bowie has given all he is to his music. The man may have lived his turn, but the music will never truly die. RIP, Ziggy Stardust.
#12. We’re All Gonna Die by Dawes
Don’t let that album title fool you: this isn’t a hopelessly nihilistic record. Matter of fact, this might be one of the cleverest musical dissections of the human condition to come out this year. The indie-folk rock of this album is nuanced, with philosophical musings on several existentialist themes, as well as on ideas closer to the realities of our lives. The songs move from restrained to anthemic with ease, with huge, extremely catchy choruses. The instrumentation moves far enough to standard indie tropes to be deemed experimental, but there’s still something comfortable and familiar about it. Everybody’s Gonna Die feels like a wise older brother, with years on the road, the smell of whisky and cigarettes on his breath, telling you about the years of wisdom he’s acquired in a manner that merely feels like he’s revealing to you what you’ve already known in your heart, albeit in the most pleasant form possible. This is a big, meaningful record. The proclamation might be of death, but its contents focus on the journey of life. Its success lies in the fact that it helps the listener appreciate the wonderment of that journey a little more.
#11. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson is that sort of genre-bending singer-songwriter that can extract the finest from each facet of music he touches on, creating a lush, evocative ode to the journey of life itself. Sturgill’s deep, rustic voice with its country twang guides the listener through personal musings, thoughts collated with everyman lyricality, as he relates his paths of discovery – of self and to the world – to his family. The instrumentation, appropriately, sounds like the soundtrack to the meditative lulling of a vessel swaying in the waters of time. This is an earnest, honest exploration of the truths of life; it’s a deeply thought-out album, one that is carried by Sturgill’s rich vocals and eloquent songwriting into the realm of the heavenly, yet tethered to the beating heart of humanity.