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