Best Records of 2016
I thought this list would be bigger because I remember constantly thinking to myself that this year was incredible for music, and it was, but I’m now realising those thoughts probably repeated themselves halfway through the year. I started back at uni in September so I kind of lost touch with all the new releases from that point onwards. Having said that, you’re never going to get around to every noticeable album released in the year so the ones you do get around to and invest time in are the ones you were probably going to really like anyway, and place on an arbitrary list.
Apparently vinyl sales took over digital sales this year. The implications of this are interesting. Does this mean vinyl isn’t cool anymore? Has my stupid, pretentious hobby been breached? Was it ever cool? I don’t know, but I reckon I’m singlehandedly responsible because I bought more records this year than I have in all the years before (though only four released this year, so far). The domination of music streaming services is changing the game too, with some artists releasing albums only on streaming platforms (Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book), and others releasing them exclusively to one streaming service (Beyoncé’s Lemonade), so the aggressive resurgence of vinyl exists alongside the new digital giants of Spotify, Tidal, etc. Strange times, but what I’m really getting at is that I wish Beyoncé would release Lemonade on vinyl already. A yellow one, specifically.
Below are the albums I enjoyed most over the course of the year (not ranked; I tried and failed), but I’ve included another list of stuff I’ve heard only recently and would like to revisit.
Anohni – Hopelessness
Never has anger sounded so graceful and delicate. This is the power of Anohni’s incredible, deep crooning voice. A voice which asks to be blown away by drone bombs (‘Blow my head off / Explode my crystal guts’), to see the earth crumble before ecological catastrophe (‘I wanna see this world / I wanna see it boil’), to be observed at all times by the intensified surveillance technology threatening our privacy (‘Watch me watching pornography / Watch me talking to my friends and family’). All delivered with bitter irony, Anohni’s voice is the one of someone resigning to the fact that all these horrors will go on and on unless some kind of cataclysmic force of opposition brings about the possibility for change. This all sounds terribly grim, and it is, but it’s all rendered through the grandiose bombast of pop. Co-produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never (the latter’s Garden of Delete record was one of my favourites from last year), the sound of this record is massive, with brooding bass, glittering synths, intrusions of acoustic instrumentation, booming industrial percussion. It’s a protest record that matches big ideas with a big sound; I’ve found myself in the strange situation of bobbing my head joyously to a song about capital punishment. The music videos accompanying some of these songs are really disturbing, even though it’s always just a woman (young, old, black, white) looking at the camera and lip-syncing the lyrics. Maybe it’s because it feels like they’re singing from the point after the world has been defeated by us, a kind of post-apocalyptic appraisal.
I only discovered Anohni when my girlfriend sent me a link about an article because it mentioned Radiohead. It was an article about the resurgence of music dealing with green issues, and Radiohead were certainly mentioned, but it was mostly about Anohni. Chance encounters are the best.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead have been one of my favourite bands since I was a stupid teenager. Though at that time the crown was worn by Muse, and I hate to bring up that old and meaningless comparison, but I remember telling a friend that ‘I like Radiohead, but they aren’t as heavy as Muse!’ In many ways this was to predict the trajectory of both bands in my music listening life. While Muse pursued their flamboyant, grand sound to the point of self-parody, Radiohead were busy experimenting with new landscapes of sound, incorporating the fragmented, syncopated beats and swirling synths of electronic music, making experimental but tight records like Kid A and Amnesiac. This new sound reached its peak with In Rainbows, and though The King of Limbs was seen as a disappointment by many, I think of it as the softer, introspective brother of the former.
I bring up this comparison because not only are Radiohead refusing to stagnate, but they don’t let Thom Yorke’s politics become preachy. Matt Bellamy, on the other hand, well, one of Muse’s songs from Drones (the album’s actually called Drones) repeats the refrain ‘killed by drones’ in a cover of a hymn written in the Renaissance. Sigh. All of which is to say that Radiohead’s new record A Moon Shaped Pool is an exercise in understatement, both musically and lyrically. ‘Burn the Witch’ could easily have been another ‘Bodysnatchers’ with distorted guitar riffs but instead they choose to use an army of screeching strings smacking the strings with bows. Alright, that’s not the best example of being understated, but it’s nonetheless an experimental way to approach a song that could easily have been a more conventional, but no less powerful, opener. It’s also about McCarthyism but doesn’t repeat ‘killed by lynching’ throughout the whole song. ‘The Numbers’ touches on Yorke’s preoccupation with environmentalism, rallying the masses, but in the most poetic way (‘The numbers don’t decide / The system is a lie / A river running dry’). It’s hard to even focus on the lyrics in this song because of Jonny Greenwood’s distracting, beautiful yet erratic string arrangement. The centrepiece of the album, at least for me, is ‘Ful Stop’. Using a mean bass groove as a foundation, other sounds build upon it until it feels like it’s reaching boiling point and then Yorke meets the crescendo with a high-pitched refrain of ‘All the good times’. It’s a special moment, and I interpret the lyrics similarly to what Anohni is doing with this kind of distant retrospective look at what’s happened (‘You really messed up everything / If you could take it all back again’). The closer, ‘True Love Awaits’, is a dreamy rendition of a song that first appeared in live performances way back in the 90s. Some prefer the live version, saying it’s more raw and expressive when it’s just Thom and his acoustic guitar. I love both, the new one only adds to the fragility and melancholy of the original.
So, A Moon Shaped Pool is worth a listen, even if you don’t like all the weird directions they’ve taken before.
David Bowie – Blackstar
David Bowie has been one of my wee heroes since I started really listening to him when I was, I dunno, 16? 17? I remember way earlier than that when I saw the music video for Space Oddity, I think, on one of those now defunct music video channels on TV. I was a little freaked out, I didn’t know if he was a man or a woman, I couldn’t slot him into comprehension, so I switched over the channel or something. Of course, that’s precisely the point with Bowie, breaking boundaries, complicating borders, aggressively interrogating the self. 16 or 17 year old me was probably having some teenage identity crisis, maybe along the lines of ‘my hair’s too big, now my hair’s too short, my hair’s too big again, now it’s too short again; who am I?’, and Bowie was there to comfort, to say ‘your hair’s shit either way, enjoy life!’ or something. The point is, he looked weird, acted weirder, made music appropriating several different genres, made careers for others, and so was something of an inspiration to me. When he died, it was the first time I’d ever experienced genuine shock at a celebrity death, the man who fell to earth left it, but did so with the most beautiful farewell.
Blackstar was released two days before his death, so everyone started to see these morbid hints in the lyrics. ‘Look up here / I’m in heaven’ from ‘Lazarus’. ‘On the day of execution’ from ‘Blackstar’. ‘I’m trying to / I’m dying to’ in ‘Dollar Days’. Death permeates the record, it was all so obvious. But what a way to go out. It’s easily one of the most accomplished Bowie recordings in his whole career. The brooding 10-minute opener is a sinister, troubling dirge with a bridge so unexpectedly and wonderfully funky you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s another song. The sombre, melancholic beauty of Lazarus, with its lamenting strings and horns, or the frenetic bursts of the two newly arranged versions of the songs ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’ and ‘Tis a Pit She Was a Whore’. It’s a jazz club in the middle of a desert in hell, and I visit it quite regularly. You should too.
Mitski – Puberty 2
Mitski popped up in one of my Discover Weekly playlists on Spotify. The song was ‘Happy’, where the singer muses about unhappiness by personifying happiness (‘Happy came to visit me, he bought cookies on the way / I poured him tea and he told me it’ll be all okay’). So far, so depressive. And with song titles like ‘I Bet on Losing Dogs’ and ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’ you’d be forgiven for not wanting to listen to it. But though Mitski’s confronting bleak and vulnerable emotions, the music isn’t as downhearted as that might suggest. It’s part shoegaze, part dream pop/rock, and on ‘My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars’, flat out punk. Her voice is both tender and urgent, you need only listen to the great grunge anthem ‘Your Best American Girl’ to confirm that. It’s instrumental makeup is sparse with electronic and acoustic guitars dominating, with the occasional synth layer in the background, and a saxophone at the end of ‘Happy’. But it’s a compact, tuneful and often beautiful 30 minutes.
Xenio Rubinos – Black Terry Cat
Hip-hop, soul, funk, and R&B all collide in this wonderful album by Xenia Rubinos. Her voice is awe-inspiring, flying in all sorts of directions, whether its rhythmically whizzing by in a quasi-rap, or making its way through soaring high pitched patterns to lower drawls. This is an album whose focus is the playful possibilities of the voice. But that’s not to ignore the funk fuelled instrumentals in the background, simple yet quirky arrangements which do their job providing beats upon which Xenia plays her rhythmic games. The lyrics look at the experience of blackness, immigration, gender, and other important things all dissected by that formidable voice.
Beyonce – Lemonade
Alright, I need to approach this carefully. I don’t want to say something like, ‘Beyoncé finally releases something worth listening to, relinquishing the manufactured, dull R&B she’s known for’, because, well, I’ve not actually listened to all her albums before. But there’s certainly something about Lemonade that appeals to me more than any of the other stuff has. Maybe it’s the ‘visual film’ that originally accompanied it. I saw it floating around on Facebook and started watching it, for what I thought would be two minutes or something, but I couldn’t stop. I watched more than half of it before I had to assert my will and get on with whatever else I was doing. But it was entrancing, the visual splendour of it all, this woman who within the film felt like a mythological being. And, of course, the music. Inviting the assistance of many acclaimed producers and musicians (don’t get me started on the multiple stupid memes mourning the loss of the pure genius of the single person, Beck and Queen aren’t even that good), Beyoncé creates a dazzling collection of songs ranging from minimalist R&B to angry rock to grand pop anthem to country. Okay, the country song I can do without. But it shows the creative possibilities she was playing with when making this. I don’t want to go over the controversial context of the album’s release because you’re probably familiar with it anyway, and I don’t care whether any of it’s true or not; I just hope she has more projects like this planned for the future.
Cavern of Anti-Matter – void beats / invocation trex
If krautrock had a baby with electricity. I’ve not listened to Stereolab much, but maybe I should considering how much I love this record. Tim Gene’s new project creates a world of old synths and propelling percussion to pump out a groovy, strange, spacy sound. It feels like you’re in a detective film set on a different planet, but made in the 80s and destined to become a cult classic. It’s great fun and has some beautiful moments amongst all the frenzied grooves.
Vulfpeck – The Beautiful Game
Only discovered this band this year. They’re quite odd. At first, when I heard ‘Dean Town’, I thought they were just an instrumental group jamming out meaty funk. But they also make upbeat soul music, and it’s funky too. ‘Animal Spirits’ is a modern Jackson 5 tune, and ‘Conscious Club’ is probably the best alarm clock song you could pick – because it’s infectiously fun and happy and well, it’s called ‘Conscious Club’. It’s one of those ‘if you’re feeling crap, this might cheer you up’, or ‘if you’re already okay, this will make you ecstatic’ records. Something needed in these troubled, confusing times.
Brian Eno – The Ship
The king of ambient and other art noise things returns with a cool, meditative voyage (sorry) into dreamy, yet unsettling oceans of sound. I admire those who make ambient music because anyone who can make albums of droning sounds that can function both as background noise and as something interesting to actively listen to, those people are impressive. Despite what many think, making ambient music is not as simple as holding one button for an hour long (though that’s certainly one way to go about it). And Eno shows this once again on The Ship, where various different synths are placed carefully and delicately next to others, creating beautiful textures you could swim in. What’s unusual about this record is that Eno’s voice makes an appearance, a deep, somnolent bass guiding the other sounds. It’s a really interesting and unexpected addition to what Eno usually does, and I more than welcome it. It’s less like a voice than it is a didgeridoo at some points, so it’s really just another strange synth in a world of strange synths. Also, there’s a great cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Set Free’.
Rihanna – Anti
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN
Frankie Cosmos – Next Things
Dinosaur Jr. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
Mica Levi & Oliver Coates – Remain Calm