BEST & WORST 2016

Best and worst 2016: Albums

WESTERN

BEST

• A Moon Shaped Pool

By Radiohead

British band Radiohead's ninth album is their most poignant to date, with songs that are all too human and relatable.

Lush and moody pieces sit next to electronic glitches and krautrock-inspired rhythms as singer Thom Yorke sings about loss, longing and anxiety in songs that are as darkly tuneful as they are layered.
 

• Lemonade

By Beyonce

Great pop songs do not just entertain, but they also reflect the sign of the times. Lemonade is the visceral voice of a pop artist who addresses difficult issues head on, from her partner's alleged infidelity to the injustices perennially heaped upon black people.

In this visual album comprising a dozen songs and an hour-long filmlet, Queen B mashes up the personal and the political into a compelling mix of R&B and pop, brass/country hybrids, piano ballads and blues-rock.
 

• We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service

By A Tribe Called Quest

The final studio album by American hip-hop pioneers A Tribe Called Quest, is a potent farewell. The jazzy production is aurally rich and the raps are as cerebral as they are emotional, and politically and socially engaged. In the space ofa single song, they are able to construct a formidable and funky discourse that tackles seemingly disparate subjects from geometric theories to the social-media tool Instagram.
 

WORST

• Fitz And The Tantrums

By Fitz And The Tantrums

The third album by Californian band Fitz And The Tantrums is the sound of a band in artistic decline. The exhilarating neo-soul sounds of their early records have given way to radio-friendly pop mush lacking in depth and intricacy.

It is bad enough that the songs sound over-produced, the basic, lowest common denominator hooks and pop tropes also get annoying really fast.

The 11 tunes sound like they were made to be listened to in short clips, good for cheesy television commercials possibly, but not so great for an immersive listening experience.

Eddino Abdul Hadi


BEST

• Blonde

By Frank Ocean

In a year where rampant machismo trumps logic, Frank Ocean's second studio release Blond is the bright light for masculine vulnerability, gender equality and love for all communities.

Intimacy reigns in this ode to ex-partners, automobiles and general cruising for bruising. It is soulful, quizzical and individualistic in the way its down-tempo ballads turn and twist and ultimately cut your heart open. It subverts precepts of sexuality and song structures as the singer keens, multi-tracks and even Auto-Tunes his lovely voice into a brigade of Frank Oceans.
 

• Sirens

By Nicolas Jaar

Tracing Chilean history and his familial story, Chilean-American electronic whiz Nicolas Jaar goes personal and political in Sirens.

Its title invokes the eerie seductresses that lure unknowing sailors to a watery death as well as the constant alarms that go off in his hometown of New York City.

The music is jaw-droppingly inventive, ranging from avant-jazz to mutant doo-wop to percussive electro-rock, as the musician addresses thousands of refugees who drown in the Mediterranean, as well as the terrible price one pays for ignoring the lessons of the past.
 

• A Moon Shaped Pool

By Radiohead

Nobody does urban anomie better than Radiohead. They go for the jugular with the first song, Burn The Witch, a pizzicato-stringed anthem for the disunited states of the world. But the revelation is in such pliant, synthesizer dirges as Daydreaming and Glass Eyes, with their minor key ivories and lament for human disconnection.

It ends with the heart-stopper True Love Waits, taking on macabre overtones as singer Thom Yorke rues the recent ruins of his own marriage.
 

WORST

• This Is What The Truth Feels Like

By Gwen Stefani

Whatever happened to Gwen Stefani? The ska-punk sass of yore has been replaced by conniving, soul-crushingly dull pop piffle as she complains non-stop about ex-husband Gavin Rossdale, and then goes twinkly-eyed over a new paramour from a reality singing show. It is dispiritingly vanilla stuff.

Yeow Kai Chai


CLASSICAL

BEST

•The Classical Elements

Albert Tiu, Piano

The 20 piano pieces in this recital are inspired by the ancient concept of earth, air, wind and fire as the four pillars of the natural world. The Philippines- born and Singapore-based Albert Tiu has an exquisite and variegated touch in diverse works by Liszt, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Godowsky, Scriabin, Griffes, Ibert, Mompou and others - all of which are evocatively coloured.
 

•Zhou Long & Chen Yi: Symphony Humen 1839

New Zealand Symphony/Darrell Ang

Conductor Darrell Ang became Singapore's first Grammy nominee for classical music with this symphony, jointly composed by China-born couple Zhou Long and Chen Yi. The recording features Ang leading the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

The title track commemorates the public burning of more than 1,000 tonnes of opium in June 1839 in Humen, Guangdong, that sparked off the Opium War with British opium traders. The 2009 work is both patriotic and cathartic, heralding the ascent of China as a global superpower.
 

• J.S. Bach Mass In B Minor, Soloists with Concerto Copenhagen

Lars Ulrik Mortensen

This recording of Bach's classic choral work employs five soloists and just five ripieno voices (one voice a part) in the choral movements, accompanied by period instruments. The effect is one of lighter and more transparent textures without compromising on volume, depth or grandeur. A sitting will help redefine the words "divine" and "beautiful".
 

WORST

•Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Violin, MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis

Has there been an uglier recording of Tchaikovsky's popular Violin Concerto than this travesty? Russian-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja adopts a preening demeanour, deliberate extremes of dynamics, slashing and percussive bowing, and capped by a dry vitriolic tone, that makes for irritating repeated listening.

Simply perverse.

Chang Tou Liang


ASIAN

BEST

• Talk About Eve

By Eve Ai

The Sum Of Us from the album, Talk About Eve, is one of my favourite songs of the year. The ballad penned by Taiwanese singer-songwriter Eve Ai is quietly compelling and the lyrics poignantly sustain a metaphor about love and mathematics. There is a soulfulness to her singing that lifts even more conventional material such as Harmless Loneliness, turning it into another highlight here. This is an album that should get people talking about Ai.
 

• The River

By Wang Feng

Before he became better known as a singing contest judge and as actress Zhang Ziyi's husband, Wang Feng was already making waves with his songs and his ninth album is a reminder of his musical prowess.

It is a record made by a man at the crossroads of middle age and taking stock of life. He is defiant on the stirring ballad, Fleeting Time, What Can You Do To Me, and unbowed on the title track. There is more than navel-gazing here and he turns a critical eye on society in Full, juxtaposing to pointed effect things which are overflowing with an aching hollowness elsewhere.
 

• Progress Reports

By Eli Hsieh

This is the year's most compelling debut and Taiwan's Eli Hsieh was a deserving Golden Melody Award winner for Best New Artist.

The disc is intimate and ambitious. Conceptually, it was inspired by American writer Daniel Keyes' sci-fi short story, Flowers For Algernon, comprising progress reports by the protagonist as his low IQ is boosted via experimental surgery. At the same time, the singer-songwriter's pellucid voice evokes an honest portrait of a young man's emotional world. Life can be filled with uncertainty, but there are moments of grace on songs such as Roam.
 

WORST

• Journey

By Nicky Wu

Maybe there is a reason for the 19-year break between this album and his last, 1997's Hero. The Taiwanese might have been the best-looking of the boy band trio, Little Tigers, but he was not their strongest singer. The opening synthesizer strains of Lonely By Nature sound dated and the title track, which harks back to one of his best-known solo hits, Wish You A Smooth Journey, also fails to get things moving.

Boon Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Albums'. Print Edition | Subscribe