The List 2016
At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.
- Deftones — Gore
Deftones topped 2012’s List with Koi No Yokan after a stretch of three albums in ten years that didn’t live up to the promise of 2000’s career-defining White Pony. Four years later I’m happy to find Gore again hitting all of the right notes and innovating a little further sonically to keep them where they belong (as pretty much the only heavy rock act I pay attention to any more). Gore is the first album to be released since the death of original bassist Chi Cheng in 2013 (following the car crash in 2008 that left him in a coma). As such it is necessarily coloured (particularly lyrically) by Chino Moreno dealing with the final loss of his friend and bandmate. As with much of Deftones’ previous work, there is an expert blending of darkness & anger with lighter, more emotionally nuanced elements that allow the band to access a lot of places that other acts in the same space can’t or don’t. There’s a finesse to their art, with Moreno’s voice still setting the tone, and the instrumentation as adept as ever in supporting the emotional direction(s) of the songs.
Following Cheng’s death there has been talk of releasing the now legendary Eros, the album that was near-complete at the time of his accident. It would be very interesting to know what a Deftones album recorded in 2008 would sound like were it released now. As it is, I’m just happy that the band are still making new music of this standard.
- Honeyblood — Babes Never Die
After a swelling intro, the title track establishes quickly exactly what kind of record Honeyblood have made: post-bubblegum garage pop, and throughout a dozen tracks it’s delivered here in excellent form. Album high-point ‘Ready for the Magic’ has detuned bass, handclaps, and a chorus to die for or dance to (take your pick). There are a couple of down-tempo moments (such as the Melvins-meet-Breeders dirge of ‘Love is a Disease’), but the main vibe is a kind of slant coyness, showcased in various attitudes from the sweeping ‘Gangs’ to the low thrum of ‘Walking at Midnight’. Honeyblood know how to craft a bridge, and at 39 minutes they also know how to get in and get out having delivered a few body blows.
- Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Spoilers: you’re not going to find Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo on this list. That record is overly long, very self-indulgent (as you might expect), occasionally transcendently masterful, but often frustratingly pedestrian or confused. As events surrounding its release may have hinted, and events since have confirmed, Kanye isn’t in a great place right now, and personally I think that contributed to …Pablo being a bit of a mess.
Chance’s Coloring Book is the record I wish Kanye still feels he could make. It’s the record that Late Registration-era Kanye could have put together in two weeks, but its relaxed attitude, sunny vibes, and good humour now seem (temporarily at least) beyond Chicago’s first son of rap; that baton has been passed, and Chance is running with it. Perhaps ironically it picks up precisely where Chance’s contribution to Kanye’s best track of 2016 — ‘Ultralight Beam’ — left off, and from there it soars through bouncy floor-fillers and relaxed summer jams, rarely pausing to take a breath. With ‘Blessings’ Chance has fashioned perhaps what amounts to a sonic calling card: humble, not overworked, relaxed, and fairly glowing right out the speakers.
- Thao & The Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
30 seconds or so into album opener ‘Astonished Man’ one thinks ‘this sounds kinda like tUnE-yArDs’, and one is not wrong: produced by Merrill Garbus, this set of quirky dark-pop belays her ear for space and gain, for fuzz and weird editing choices and for simple, driving percussion that holds down something otherwise less grounded. (‘Astonished Man’ was also the subject of an excellent episode of Song Exploder this year, which reveals the song’s deeply-personal roots.) Thao’s voice is an instrument perfectly-suited to switching from conversational to plaintive to innocent and sing-songy. It’s in particularly good form somersaulting all over the Pixies-ish ‘The Evening’, which just about loses out on album-highlight honours in favour of the catchy moodswing of ‘Nobody Dies’, which is possessed of the kind of chorus you’ll sing the first time, hum for days, and then just bellow out the next time you hear it. Every part of the band gets a moment to shine on A Man Alive, but I found that my favourite moments were often the Regina Spektor-esque confessional moments, such as on ‘Guts’ (the second-best song with that title in 2016). Come for the pop, stay for the barrage of interesting ideas and left- of-centre hooks.
- Beyonce — Lemonade
To this point Beyonce hasn’t been an album artist for me. There have been a handful of singles through the years that have lit up my radar and caught in my mind, but it hasn’t been enough to convince me to spend an hour with her music. The 65 minute music video that accompanied the release of Lemonade was more than enough to change my mind: beautiful, inventive, and extraordinarily accomplished, the first watch of that film remains one of my cultural high-points of 2016. It also serves as an excellent showcase of what a diverse collection of music is to be found on the album itself. Hip-hop, R&B, soul-flavours, a little country on ‘Daddy Lessons’, a pure-bred ballad like ‘Sandcastles’, whatever garage rock-vibed thing Jack White’s helping bring forth on ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’… there’s a lot here. And it’s all delivered with energy to spare and immaculately produced. There’s also the much- publicised matter of the album’s central subject: her husband’s infidelity. It’s a theme that provides the emotional fuel for all of the music here, and keeps it feeling honest, and it’s also the joining thread that runs through what otherwise may have felt like a disparate collection of tracks. It should also be noted that ‘Freedom’ is top 5 songs of the year material, and felt increasingly prophetic and necessary as 2016 wore on.
- Olafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm — Trance Frendz
Arnalds’s solo record …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness places 12th on my List in 2010, and represents both my serious introduction to his work and the reason I’ve followed him since. Nils Frahm took a deserved 12th spot with Solo last year (a record given some new life this year by the release of a kind of director’s cut edition: Solo Remains). Their working together is the kind of partnership that seems so inevitable that it must surely have been a case of when as opposed to whether. Pleasingly, the fruits of the partnership, whilst familiar-sounding, are different enough that they seem unlikely to have ever emerged from one or other of the artists alone. Spare and delicate in composition as they both are they have taken obvious care not to do too much here, and to facilitate one another where it would have been easy for toes to be trodden upon. An ill-fitting title (it would have been incredible if they’d made a trance record though), inscrutable track names, and an album cover that looks like something they decided wasn’t quite interesting enough to go on Instagram, is all par for the course, and all meaningless once ‘20:17’ begins and you can forget everything else in the world for three-quarters of an hour. Beautiful stuff.
- Flume — Skin
The last few years I’ve seemingly latched on to at least one album of bright, warm electronica that stays on heavy rotation for months. Fort Romeau’s Insides played the role last year, and it was SBTRKT’s sublime Wonder Where We’ll Land in 2014; this year the task falls to Flume. Similarly to that SBTRKT record this is a set of songs that benefit from a host of guest vocalists lending distinct flavours to a number of tracks throughout, but it’s all underpinned with the a softly undulating blanket of pastel-coloured warmth that ebbs and flows to its own hypnotising rhythm. Album-opener ‘Helix’ crests with a minute to go, and sets the relaxed tempo, then picked up by highlight track ‘Never Be Like You’. Raekwon makes a notable appearance, and the record closes on a mellow high with Beck lending vocals to ‘Tiny Cities’, but what kept this playing for me was the soundscape that Flume conjures throughout.
- Submerse — Awake
Submerse took 5th spot in 2014 with the wonderful Slow Waves, and whilst I enjoyed the follow-up (2015’s Stay Home) it just missed out on last year’s list. Awake finds Submerse back on The List and further securing his place as one of my desert island artists. Ethereal opener ‘Too Late, They’re Already Here’ is transportive, and gives way to perhaps my favourite Submerse track, ‘Sidequests’: a shimmering pool of muted pops, shining chimes, and a mellow synth are met by a minimal refrain in a climbing register. Like many of his tracks, it blends the electronic and the acoustic seamlessly into something unique-feeling and oddly alive. I listened to this set of tracks dozens of times this year and found new things on each play through. At this point it would be a shock if the next Submerse release sounded dramatically different to this, since his recent output is all quite similar, but I’m excited for it regardless. This is a sonic space I’ll happily return to time and time again.
- Solange — A Seat at the Table
Here’s something I’ve struggled with a bit this year: a prevailing sense that some of the music I got the most enjoyment from is not intended for me. Whilst sensitive to cultural heritage I’m not a believer that such broad distinctions as ‘white music’ and ‘black music’ exist; I don’t subscribe to the reductive idea that entire genres of music are the province of one set of people or another. However, when an album like A Seat at the Table comes along, and speaks in large part about the black experience, there’s a reflexive guilt and fear of cultural appropriation that rises in me at claiming it as one of my favourite albums of the year. Oddly, this isn’t something that seems to translate to other media: I have no problem saying that Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me was one of the very best books I read this year, or that The Get Down and Atlanta were two of my favourite TV shows of 2016 - all exemplary pieces of art that deal directly, primarily with black cultural history. Still, in the final analysis it would be disingenuous of me to leave Solange off this list. A Seat at the Table is a collection of beautifully crafted, soul-infused R&B songs that mix the deeply personal with insightful social commentary like few records I’ve heard the last couple of years. It is bold and vital, and despite all the ways in which it’s not for me it gave me too much not to recognise the important role it played in my listening in 2016.
- Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN
What drew me to the (obligatorily fully capped-up) MY WOMAN in the first place was catching the track ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ being played on Beats1. Had the album been a wash that still would have been fine, since that one track — with it’s endearing mix of bokeh warmth and aching longing — ended up being probably my favourite song of 2016. Fortunately there are plenty of other treats in store on an album that puts garage pop-rock through its paces, whilst bending it to all of its intended purposes: exciting, yearning, commiserating, celebrating, and the painting of personal stories of loss and misunderstanding in love. Olsen’s voice is the right balance between emotionally affected and lackadaisical, and her guitar is usually found in a similar (Ben Kweller-esque) attitude, moving between relaxed strum and energised pounding of the three or four chords that make up each song.
This is an easygoing album full of memorable, hummable, sing-alongable songs. It spawned a couple of the year’s stickiest tracks as far as my inner ear was concerned, with ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ not the only song from the collection that continued spinning ad infinitum in my mind. (PS The roller-skating video to that song is also a lot of fun.)
- Ryo Fukui — Mellow Dream
I listened to a bit more jazz this year than has been the case the last couple, and whilst there have been a few records I’ve enjoyed (shouts to Takuya Kuroda’s Zigzagger and Shabaka & the Ancestors’ Wisdom of Elders) only one really got its hooks into me in a serious must-play-every-other-day kind of way. Mellow Dream is aptly titled, and I never got tired of closing my eyes and revisiting Fukui’s lively, colourful compositions. Some of the absolute best, most energetic and surprising piano playing I’ve heard in years over the top of a bass and percussion line that always knows just what’s required to keep each piece flowing. The title track / opener and follow-up ‘My Foolish Heart’ are light and breezy, where ‘Baron Potato Blues’ has a bit more of a swagger, and the closing rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine’ is a little sad and demure. Throughout it’s impossible not to be impressed by Fukui’s playing, but taken holistically the album is an equally impressive achievement.
- Gold Panda — Good Luck and Do Your Best
The charming friendliness of this album’s title is carried over into its welcoming ambience. Though occasionally employing some harder edges (such as on the haunting ‘Song for a Dead Friend’), the album’s overall vibe is of easygoing acceptance. Acoustic instruments layer upon drum patterns and sparingly-employed synth to make beautiful sculptures of sound like the meditative and hypnotic ‘Time Eater’, and the resigned, good-natured ‘Autumn Fall’. At the album’s centre is a track called ‘I Am Real Punk’ which despite its title displays a kind of measured grace; its a microcosm of this self- assured, slightly odd collection of electronica.
- Lone — Levitate
I find it difficult to believe now that Lone’s 2014 record Reality Testing didn’t make my top 20 for that year, but there you go: times change. Much like on that record Lone has here put together a dazzling set of breakbeats over and through which he weaves hard-edged synth in deeply rhythmic patterns. Very few tracks swung harder for me this year than ‘Backtail Was Heavy’, and it has a couple of nice counterpoints here in the frenetic ‘Triple Helix’ and the slowly imploding ‘Sleepwalkers’. Levitate is a record that finds that sweet spot: at 34 minutes (good portions of which push the BPMs) it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but it also never runs out of ideas. As the closing moments of ‘Hiraeth’ ebb away I almost always wanted to loop back to the start and take the journey again.
- Holy Fuck — Congrats
Holy Fuck are one of those bands that I’ve been hearing about for years, and have never taken the time to get to know. When I finally saw too many recommendations for Congrats to ignore, and tuned in, I was immediately glad that I did. For one thing — speaking a bit reductively — in a year with no Liars LP and no Battles LP this helped fill a requirement for a particular type of over-energised, spiralling, de-tuned noise. Taken on its own merits though (as it should be) Congrats is raucous, sonically all-encompassing, and endlessly inventive: it keeps you off balance throughout in the same way the better Mars Volta records do. Album high point ‘House of Glass’ takes turns at being punishing, then jaunty, then punishing again as it unleashes a central bass-heavy refrain that sounds like a heart attack. There are certainly subtler moments, such as on the interlude ‘Shimmering’ and the rather poppier ‘Neon Dad’, but this isn’t pretending to be a pop album. It’s an odd thing, which challenges you to wrestle with it and in doing so dig out some hidden treasures. It’s well worth the effort.
- Tegan & Sara — Love You To Death
A new T&S album will likely always remain a landmark release for me purely on the strength of 2004’s near-flawless So Jealous. But it would be wrong to think of the Quins as still riding the wake of one great album as they’ve consistently found ways to experiment with their own sound in new and impressive ways. The Con (2007) managed to find a way out of So Jealous’s shadow by virtue of being odder, exhibiting rougher textures and sharper angles; Sainthood in 2009 took a larger step towards synth-based compositions, and Heartthrob doubled down on that in 2013. If anything I feel like I was a little behind the curve on those last two records, feeling a little disappointed by them in the first instance before being won over by their infectious charms. I felt more prepared for Love You To Death, and sure enough I was on board from Music’s first plays of ‘Boyfriend’, ‘100x’ and personal favourite ‘Stop Desire’ that preceded the albums release. 32 minutes, 10 tracks, not a bad one in sight (despite some occasionally questionable half-rhyme lyrics here and there) and this record takes its place amongst my top 5 Tegan & Sara albums. It’s testament to their enduring excellence that that is rare company to be in.
- Explosions in the Sky — The Wilderness
The short way to encapsulate how I feel about The Wilderness is to say that it’s EitS’s best LP since 2003’s The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place, which pretty much defined my personal understanding of post-rock. They’ve made very good albums since, but this is the first to light up my synapses like the album that introduced me to them. Built largely of the same stuff as previous albums — percussion that has the force of weather events, and great, snaking rivers of melody carving through canyon walls of guitar — this record also finds places to introduce some muted electronic elements; never in a way that radically alters the band’s now-signature sound, but certainly in ways that complement and tweak it in subtle ways, surely make long-term listeners to EitS prick up their ears. My favourite of the record’s tracks is a toss-up between the propulsive, evangelic currant of ‘Tangle Formations’, and the darker, Basinski-referencing first single ‘Disintegration Anxiety’. Nothing here is going to change anyone’s mind about the band (I wonder sometimes whether their rapturous live show might have the power to do so), but it is a welcome thing to find a band 17 years on from their formation still making compelling music that is very much their own.
- Bloc Party — Hymns
In some respects the most quietly revolutionary album of 2016. After a four year break following Intimacy it didn’t feel like a sure thing that we’d see another Bloc Party album. And even after the successes of Four (2012) the four year break that followed that album had a ring of finality about it. In some bands (even four-pieces) it would be no big thing to replace the drummer and bassist; not so with Bloc Party, where Matt Tong and Gordon Moakes’s contributions were always beyond the average. Sure enough Hymns isn’t showcase to the same kind of frenetic, self-perpetuating drum patterns as previous of the band’s albums, and there are perhaps fewer truly memorable bass lines. However, that is at least in part down to the way in which the band’s sound has reconfigured itself here. The tempos are often more forgiving (certainly than was the case on Four), there is greater emphasis on Kele’s voice (with which he seems to feel increasingly comfortable). What remains is songwriting split fairly evenly between confessional and social commentary, and equally strong at each. But the textures that are new to Bloc Party offer an opportunity to reach into new spaces: the unsettled oddness of ‘Different Drugs’; the romantic swell of ‘My True Name’ undercut by a haunting choral vocal; the proto-gospel euphoria of ‘Only He Can Heal Me’, which takes its place amongst the band’s best tracks. I remain happy just to have this band around, I’m always excited to see what Bloc Party do next, and for the first time I don’t really have a good idea what it might sound like.
- Elohim — Elohim
Elohim was the discovery of 2016 for me, and several months on this record remains just as alluring and confounding as when I first ran across it. Opener ‘Sensations’ is all you need in order to know whether this will be a record for you; it hooked me after a single verse and chorus and hasn’t let go since. Poppier than Bat for Lashes and less angular than Grimes, this is still defiantly odd alt-pop music and with a dark edge that’s reflected in the performer’s penchant for wearing masks onstage and in her videos. (It’s worth mentioning that one of Elohim’s strongest tracks from 2016 —’Hallucinations’ —isn’t on this album, but was released on a subsequent EP and is also accompanied by perhaps my favourite (single-track) music video of the year.) ‘She Talks Too Much’ is winking and a little giddy; ‘Xanax’ is aptly washed out and dreamlike, and feature’s one of 2016’s most memorable refrains (“every day of my day of my day of my life”); ‘Guts’, though, squeaks into the album-highlight spot by somehow channeling both Robyn and Jim Guthrie. Singular but all the more magnetic for it, I couldn’t get enough of this.
- Rihanna — ANTI
As I wrote above in relation to Beyoncé, despite a set of jewel-perfect singles I had not previously thought of Rihanna as an album artist. Like the rest of the world then (if for different reasons), I wasn’t prepared for ANTI. Long in coming though it has been, when the album finally arrived at the tail end of the kind of wilfully obfuscatory social-media marketing campaign that is seemingly now de rigueur (see also The Life of Pablo, Views, Lemonade, Blond(e)) the reaction from music press and listening public alike was a near- universal: ‘wha?’. I lost track of the number of times people pointed out there was no ‘Umbrella’ here, no ‘Take a Bow’ or ‘Only Girl’, as though a pop artist is expected to work to a quota of one banger per x number of other songs, with which they can do what they like. On ANTI Rihanna is plainly not interested in working to the one-for-me-one-for-the-dancefloor model. Instead she’s happy to be flirtatious and demanding on ‘Work’, coy on ‘Kiss it Better’, and somewhat terrifying on ‘Needed Me’, all the while delivering flawless vocal performances (seriously, ‘Higher’ alone remains near-unbelievable after 100+ listens) over the top of immaculate, captivating beats. If you need something else you can go listen to those Calvin Harris tracks that she makes into pop masterpieces just by showing up. I’ll be here swaying to ‘Love on the Brain’ or crying to ‘Close to You’.
- Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool
I honestly don’t know where to start when talking about Radiohead. Perhaps it’s enough to say that I’ve been on a quest for about 10 years to find anyone who makes music that sounds anything like theirs, and I haven’t come up with anything. Radiohead, at this point, is a one-band genre, but one that shifts and re-colours itself to always remain stunningly relevant and new-seeming. A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t so much an album of music as it is the latest dispatch in the cataloguing of the British liberal psyche: this is who we are at the moment, and how we feel, it seems to say. Still concerned about our lonelinesses and our failures, still preoccupied with finding a place in the world, but also increasingly overwhelmed by larger events, and frightened by the evanescence of hope.
Arcade Fire do voice and hope, and are similarly documentarian; Liars do complex and dense layers of confused feeling; Sigur Ros do rapture; Explosions in the Sky do overwhelm and exorcism… only Radiohead consistently find a way to put all of those components together, and always in beautiful new ways that continue to awe me. We’re so very lucky to have them.
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