2016 in Music


2016 has been an appalling year. I mean really, really appalling, to the point where it will eternally be the answer to pretty much any quiz question beginning: “in which year…”. Political turmoil, terrorism, tension, extremism, Brexit, Donald fucking Trump, and, of course, the deaths of an extraordinary amount of influential, important figures. The first, less than a fortnight into the year, was of course the legendary David Bowie.




2 days before his death, Bowie released his final album, ‘Blackstar’. In doing so, ahead of his imminent death, he kicked off an interesting year in music. From my perspective (and it is, of course, one limited by time constraints, my own tastes and the like), there have been a few notable themes in 2016, with Bowie acting as a representation of one: the brilliance of, shall we say, a few ‘veteran’ names in rock. To clarify, genres are fluid – they are bleeding into one another more and more all of the time, they are rather indefinable, and do these artists a disservice, but I will stick with “rock” for ease. Bowie, Radiohead, Nick Cave, Swans, and Leonard Cohen all delivered wonderful albums, able to stand proudly with the best of these great artists’ works.




Bowie displayed his extensive repertoire until the end, with a Kendrick Lamar, LCD Soundsystem, jazz influenced record. Some have said that it has not been judged objectively due to his death, and it is indeed hard to ignore the context, but the more pertinent question may be whether we should avoid the context when it has so clearly, and painfully, informed the music itself. An old platitude when it comes to new Bowie albums has been to deem it “his best since ‘Scary Monsters’”, but I actually think ‘Blackstar’ is the superior work, and is probably his best since the masterful Berlin Trilogy. Nick Cave, similarly to Bowie, delivered one of the most achingly beautiful albums of his long career in the face of tragedy (Cave had to cope with the heart-breaking loss of his son during recording), and Swans completed their brutal late-career trilogy with the exhausting, yet captivating, ‘The Glowing Man’. Leonard Cohen’s record shared ideas with those of Bowie and Cave, an elegiac, stunning rumination on old age and death. Cohen’s death hit me harder than any other I have experienced, his work has been a constant source of inspiration and comfort through my life, and like Bowie he ended with one of his greatest ever albums. Instead of pained and scared, both Bowie and Cohen sounded at ease with their situation, with Cohen continuing the idea expressed in interviews preceding his death, at 82, that he was ready to accept death with no sadness. With his goodbye album, he gave us some of the best work of his illustrious career. I have written about Radiohead’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, so won’t go into detail again, other than to say it is truly mesmeric. My initial review of the album can be found here:




Formed in 1985, with their first full-length release in 1993, Radiohead act as the babies of this group, with Bowie, Cave, Swans and Cohen releasing their debut albums in 1967, 1979, 1983 and 1967 respectively. With almost 200 years between them in the industry, they have remained musical titans, and though Bowie and Cohen have passed, they all continued/continue to lead the way into their later careers. It is difficult to assess whether it is a change in my own taste, an impact of the aforementioned bleeding into one another of genres, or a difficult period for rock music, but there seems to be a dearth in great guitar music at the moment, as indeed there has for a while. From the 4 artists that I have mentioned, it is only really Swans that still focus almost exclusively on guitars. Nick Cave’s last 2 albums have returned more to his piano-led work of the mid to late-90s, ‘Blackstar’ was often driven by percussion, strings and brass, and Radiohead have famously moved away from guitars in the past 20 years. Though they are still present in the work, it would be very tough to consider them a “guitar band” any more.


Parquet Courts, Drive-By Truckers and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard made three of the better albums in the genre (though marks may be docked for the latter’s ridiculous name), Exploding View’s eponymous album is a heady mixture of Sonic Youth, Shoegazing and Krautrock, and there was a promising debut from D. D. Dumbo, but none are the shot in the arm that rock music may need. There is a history of ground-breaking, influential albums that cause a shift in what can be achieved with the instrument and format: The Velvet Underground’s and The Modern Lovers’ pivotal debuts, Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’, The Jesus & Mary Chain’s ‘Psychocandy’, Pixies’ ‘Surfer Rosa’, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ – it feels like the instrument may need another.


One guitar-led album that has become a favourite of mine through the year is Car Seat Headrest’s ‘Teens of Denial’. Songwriter Will Toledo wears his influences on his sleeve (The Strokes, The Cars, Pavement) almost to the point of plagiarism at times, but he does so with dexterity. Indeed, the song ‘Not What I Needed’ originally contained a sample of The Cars’ track ‘Just What I Needed’, before a debacle in which Cars leader Ric Ocasek withdrew his approval prior to the album’s release. He treads the line skilfully, and what could have been a throwaway derivative album ends up being one of the most charming, addictive LPs of the year. It was one of the best singer/songwriter works of 2016, a year in which Jeff Rosenstock refined his sound and enhanced his reputation as one of his generation’s best songwriters with ‘WORRY.’, Kevin Morby impressed with the heavily Bob Dylan indebted ‘Singing Saw’, and Conor Oberst produced his best albums in years, the exceptionally beautiful ‘Ruminations’.


In recent years, while rock has stagnated, the most interesting music has been coming out of other genres and areas of music. The seismic albums of the decade so far have often come from hip-hop and R&B – Kanye’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, Kendrick’s ‘Good Kid Maad City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’ – and this has continued into 2016. It is often the case that we find the greatest art in times of hardship and oppression, and this may be part of the reason that black America has again been the source of a lot of the year’s best music, as racial tensions increase in the US. The best record of 2015 was Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged, complex masterwork ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, and there have again been some fantastic hip-hop/R&B releases. Danny Brown and Frank Ocean made triumphant returns with the glorious ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ and ‘Blond’ respectively, Anderson. Paak impressed early in the year with ‘Malibu’, Solange built on works such as ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ with her documentation of personal history and black culture in ‘A Seat at the Table’, Chance the Rapper channelled gospel and soul influences on ‘Coloring Book’, Death Grips’ furious onslaught continued with ‘Bottomless Pit, clipping. delivered another interesting, experimental piece with ‘Splendor & Misery’, YG delivered some great West Coast G-Funk on ‘Still Brazy’, and Brooklyn rapper Ka expanded his Wu-Tang influenced sound in ‘Honor Killed the Samurai’. While not his best record, ‘The Life of Pablo’ added to Kanye West’s imposing discography, EPs by the sublime Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples whetted the appetite for future full-length works, and A Tribe Called Quest returned, in tragic circumstances after the death of member Phife Dawg, with the excellent ‘We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service’. Outside of the US, here in Britain Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, showed great progress with ‘Freetown Sound’, while Grime pioneers Kano and Skepta pushed the genre forward once more, and Michael Kiwanuka evoked Curtis Mayfield, Parliament-Funkadelic (particularly the guitar work of Eddie Hazel), and even at times Pink Floyd (notably the opening track) and latter-day Radiohead, in his genre-spanning ‘Love and Hate’.


The third trend this year has been the quantity, and quality, of brilliant female artists coming to the fore in a historically male dominated field. As I have mentioned, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade garnered huge critical acclaim*, her sister Solange released the best work of her career, with the political minded, gorgeous ‘A Seat at the Table’. Japanese born New Yorker Mitski blended deeply revealing lyrics with punk sensibilities and pop hooks on ‘Puberty 2’ (incidentally, it feels like if anyone is to shake up rock music, Mitski could be a good bet), Marissa Nadler produced possibly the most haunting, evocative album of the year with ‘Strangers’, which brought to mind one of the best records of last year – Julia Holter’s ‘Have You In My Wilderness – with its lush arrangements and frail, striking vocals, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding came into her own with the energetic, charismatic ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’, and we were treated to the dazzling ‘My Woman’ by Angel Olsen. This is before even mentioning the efforts of Bat for Lashes, Eleanor Friedberger, Jenny Hval, PJ Harvey (certainly not one of her best but still worth a listen), Elysia Crampton, and the debut album of Manchester-born artist Shura – the latter two part of another strong year for electronic music that included impressive and fascinating work by Ital Tek, Ian William Craig, Mark Pritchard, Nicolas Jaar, Tim Hecker, The Avalanches and others. As is common in recent years, electronic elements were prevalent in some of the most popular works by traditionally non-electronic artists, notably in Bon Iver’s lauded  ’22, a Million’, which saw his sound progress in a manner reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ shift with ‘The Age of Adz’.


One of the most infuriating clichés is that “music nowadays is rubbish”, the kind of trite nonsense that has been trotted out from time immemorial (and one that always reminds me of Principal Skinner’s musings in The Simpsons: “Am I so out of touch? No, it is the children who are wrong”). If one had the time or inclination to look for it, there was a wealth of brilliant music in 2016, as there is every year. It will be exciting to see any developments and shifts in 2017.


*Caveat: I have not yet listened to ‘Lemonade’.


A wider apology for my neglect of certain genres such as jazz, metal, and various strains of world music. Despite my best efforts (a 2 hour round trip to work every day helps), I can’t listen to everything. I’m just a man goddammit! I expect that the following list may change over the coming years, when I discover what else 2016 had to offer, as my own tastes develop, and as albums on this list either do not stand up to repeated listens, or reveal more and more brilliance as time goes on.


My favourite 40 albums of 2016:


40) Parquet Courts – Human Performance

39) YG – Still Brazy

38) Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

37) King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity

36) Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate

35) PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

34) Xiu Xiu – Plays the Music of Twin Peaks

33) Shura – Nothing’s Real

32) The Avalanches – Wildflower

31) Tim Hecker – Love Streams

30) Deakin – Sleep Cycle

29) Kaytranada – 99.9%

28) Exploding View – Exploding View

27) Ian William Craig – Centres

26) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

25) Bat for Lashes – The Bride

24) Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

23) Ital Tek – Hollowed

22) Eleanor Friedberger – New View

21) Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

20) Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

19) Anna Meredith – Varmints

18) Swans – The Glowing Man

17) Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

16) Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

15) Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

14) Conor Oberst – Ruminations

13) Anderson. Paak – Malibu

12) Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution

11) Bon Iver – 22, a Million

10) Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

9) Mitski – Puberty 2

8) Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

7) Solange – A Seat at the Table

6) Frank Ocean – Blond

5) Angel Olsen – My Woman

4) Marissa Nadler – Strangers

3) Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

2) David Bowie – Blackstar

1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Leaving the Table

Leonard Cohen, Uncategorized

When David Bowie passed at the start of this year, one crumb of comfort was that I should not feel as despairing about the death of a famous person for a long time. It was as if another light could not be extinguished so soon after, there must be a way that these things balance out, we can’t lose greatness on a frequent basis. That was until this morning, when we learned of the death of Leonard Cohen. This has been a year so rotten it is difficult to know where to begin. The loss of someone as eloquent, intelligent, and brilliant as Leonard Cohen almost feels like a microcosm of recent events. He died on Monday, the day before the US election. His timing, as ever, was impeccable.


This is a difficult feeling to describe. This is not a man being cut down before his time, it is not a man who feared death. Cohen spoke with an extraordinary clarity about the topic earlier this year, when his muse Marianne Ihlen was on her deathbed. In a letter than now takes on extra poignancy, Cohen wrote:


Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.


It is extremely rare that someone can face their own mortality with such lucidity, yet it is just what we should have expected of a man who has affected so many with his wisdom, wit and character. On a personal level, Cohen’s music and poetry (he was a brilliant poet before he ever became a musician) has had a profound impact on my life. As a young teenager, Cohen’s music had an immediacy and beauty I could not easily find. While great novels unfurled over extensive periods, Cohen was able to condense remarkable tales and splendour into a few minutes. His voice, so effortlessly cool and wonderful (“I was born with this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice” as he sang, tongue firmly in cheek on ‘Tower of Song’), was a conduit for the most incredible poetry. While Dylan had a major influence on me when I was young, Cohen was unparalleled in his mastery of language, and his marrying of poetry with music. The great exponent of the couplet, his work made me realise the beauty of language, it was a huge inspiration in my choice to study English, and to write.


Cohen was able to tackle such disparate themes and styles with such dexterity. His lyrical prowess could express ideas in a unique way; he has been seen by many as a doom-monger, but there is so much that is wonderful about his work. He was able to convey love and passion with such creative, stunning language: “Hungry as an archway through which the troops have passed, I stand in ruins behind you with your winter clothes, your broken sandal straps. I love to see you naked over there especially from the back”; “thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes, I thought it was there for good so I never tried”; “lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, dance me to the end of love”; “We met when we were almost young deep in the green lilac park. You held on to me like I was a crucifix, as we went kneeling through the dark”.


Yes, his work was tinged with poignancy and often sadness, but there was tremendous wit in his lyrics. I saw him live in 2009, a 3 and a half hour gig that stands among the best I have ever seen, and what was clear was the humility and warmth of the man. In all interviews, you can see how genuinely nice and funny he was, and this comes across in his work. “If you want a lover I’ll do anything you ask me to, and if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you”; “Give me crack and anal sex, take the only tree that’s left, and stuff it up the hole in your culture”; “Everybody knows that you love me baby, everybody knows that you really do. Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful, give or take a night or two. Everybody knows that you’ve been discreet, but there were so many people you just had to meet without your clothes, and everybody knows”. Cohen paired his acerbic wit with the aforementioned eloquence about romance in the wonderful Chelsea Hotel No. 2, a song about a liaison he had with Janis Joplin. No one else could write lyrics like: “You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception. And clenching your fist for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said “well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music”.”


It is tempting to just list every lyric that Cohen ever wrote, and indeed it would be infinitely better than anything I can add, but I will just pick one more favourite. Cohen’s brilliance came from his inimitable style, the unmatched poetic nature of his lyrics, their slight obtuseness married with a strong sense of understanding and relatability. In Last Year’s Man, one of the great man’s greatest songs, we find the bizarrely evocative:


I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom,
Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
And Bethlehem inflamed us both
Like the shy one at some orgy.
And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside to see
The serpent eat its tail.


While he was undoubtedly a great, much overlooked, melodicist, it was this turn of phrase, this unique command of the intricacies of language, this detail, that separated Cohen from all others. This death hurts, this death really hurts the world, but what he has left behind is a body of work that will stand the test of time, and a body of work that has had a remarkable effect on so many people. Many focus on the depressive elements of his music, but far more important is the impact they have had in saving many depressive people.


The man was a genius, and he will be remembered as such. I spent the morning crying about what we have lost, but like Bowie, Cohen went out on his own terms. In his fantastic new album, he sings “I don’t need a reason for what I became, I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and lame. I don’t need a pardon, there’s no one left to blame, I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game”. In trying to remain positive in the midst of despair, we should remember what the man himself sang: “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”.


Now, someone wrap Brian Wilson, Joni Mitchell and others in cotton wool please.