My ten favourite albums of 2016.
10. Paul Dempsey – Strange Loop
Something for Kate’s frontman, lyricist, singer and lead guitarist Paul Dempsey quietly released his first solo album in 2009, Everything is True. I would be one of the few SFK fans who digs that record more than anything he’s put out with his bandmates. That’s not to disrespect the band, who are yet to release a mediocre album (Echolalia holds a special place in my heart as the document that introduced me to alternative rock). Just that, on his own, he reveals an uncanny knack for quality, engaging, memorable songwriting. Whether that’s because a one-person democracy acutely focuses his ideas or working solo provides a sense of freedom that SFK does not, I’m not sure. But this year’s Strange Loop, whilst not the singer-songwriter touchstone that I hold to be Everything is True, adds an array of terrific songs to Paul’s already deep, vast and varied catalogue. Things kick off with “The True Sea”, which clocks in at seven-and-a-half minutes, his longest ever song. Its melancholia, in Paul’s world-weary vocals and the guitar’s malcontent tone, are comforting – Strange Loop doesn’t attempt to alter what we’ve grown to love about Paul Dempsey’s music, but it does expand on it. “Idiot Oracle” is from the same playbook as “Out the Airlock” with its hushed acoustic guitar and wistful lyricism – “I got a suitcase full of happy-ever-afters”, “a beginner’s guide to when a perfect stranger didn’t seem so hard to find”. Few artists manage to convey life’s anxieties in a convivial way as well. Lifetime Supply features terrific guitar playing reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s epic “Echoes” and the album’s back half has all the hallmarks of a record produced at Wilco’s The Loft – the lovely “Iris Black” has a slow, moving country twang to it, as does the slightly drunken closer “Nobody’s Trying to Tell Me Something”, which opens with the stellar line “about the only thing time will tell / is you to go fuck yourself”. And it’s small tidbits such as these which Strange Loop is full of, that keep you coming back, and that differentiate Paul Dempsey from the millions of boring singer-songwriters with nothing worthwhile to say. Strange Loop is a thoroughly enjoyable record that will continue to grow on you, much greater than the sum of its parts.
9. Kendrick Lamar – untitled. unmastered.
Shortly before the release of his hip-hop jazz fusion masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick Lamar took the odd step of appearing on The Colbert Report to play not his recently-released “i” nor any tracks from the then-forthcoming album; instead playing an untitled track with bass wizard Thundercat that blew everyone away. In March 2015, four months after that Colbert performance, TPAB dropped to great acclaim, yet still some of us felt a tinge of sadness that the track that had come to be known as “untitled 2” was nowhere to be seen. Then, out of nowhere almost exactly a year later, he gave us another album, and here it was, alongside the other untitled tracks he performed live on television. Unfortunately the studio recording of “untitled 2” – now called “untitled 3 | 05.28.2013” – is very sedate compared to the Colbert performance. That’s probably more a testament to Kendrick’s live prowess than anything, though. It’s still a punchy, catchy-as-hell slice of funk that explores the way that white Americans have sought to profit off the art of black Americans. “He put a price on my talent, I hit the bank and withdraw” a defiant Kendrick raps, and that’s the aesthetic of untitled unmastered: this is Kendrick the artist, no compromise. There’s no track titles, there’s barely a cover, but the album still has substance in droves. “untitled 5” is my favourite, its jazzy production laying an incredible platform for Kendrick’s impassioned rapping. That’s one of the darker, heavier tracks though, on an album that provides some happier counterpoints to its predecessor, even if the lyrical content remains firmly grounded in reality. There’s the aforementioned “untitled 3”, the summery, Cee-Lo-featuring jam “untitled 6” which shows off the tightness of the live band Kendrick’s backed himself with, and the closer “untitled 8”, a brilliant funk stomper. It all adds up to this: with due respect, fuck the perceived “golden age” of hip-hop. We’re living in one right now, and Kendrick Lamar sits assuredly at the top.
8. Chance the Rapper – Colouring Book
“He said let’s do a good-ass job with Chance 3”, Chance the Rapper raps on the opener to Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam”. Kanye returned the favour a few months later on Colouring Book, Chance’s third mixtape, drowned in autotune on “All We Got”. The fact that it would be the most at peace Kanye West sounded all year is a testament to the sheer positivity that Chance exudes. It’s difficult not to get caught up in it; even if you slept on Acid Rap and jumped on the bandwagon late, or straight-up hated his hyperactive adlibs, even if you think Colouring Book is far from perfect and hardly a masterpiece (quite true), no artist smiled through the year as much as Chance did. Literally: his joy in is utterly infectious and totally genuine – look how excited he gets when Lil Wayne riffs on Ryan Lochte during a barnstorming performance of “No Problem” on Ellen, or his tears while playing “Blessings” alongside four of his best friends on “Fallon” (probably the best moment of 2016). He completely lost his shit when Beyonce said hello to him, and he metamorphosed a fucking Kit Kat not once but twice. One could easily make the argument that 2016 was the year of Chance the Rapper, and he was certainly the first artist I turned to when I needed a lift. Colouring Book does have a few hit-and-miss tracks, but the when its best stuff – the live performances, “No Problem” (coincidentally the best thing Lil Wayne has done in a decade), the acceptance in the face of disappointment in the gorgeous “Same Drugs”, the summery jam “All Night”, the ensemble extraordinaire of “Finish Line / Drown”, – is that good, perfection has never mattered less. In 2016 Chance reminded us how to smile good.
7. Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
I decided to give Teens of Denial a spin mostly because Will Toledo, the 24-year-old man behind Car Seat Headrest, covered obscure Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead and David Bowie songs live. If his taste in music was that good then surely his own music would be too? A little like some Sufjan efforts Teens of Denial is way too long but goddamn the good is great. His style is informed by 90s indie rock, with nods here and there to the likes of Pavement, Guided By Voices, Sonic Youth. “Fill in the Blank” has that same lackadaisical appeal that many Pavement hits have: “I’m so sick of … / fill in the blank”. Lines like that – the very first on the album – elicit a wry smile and it’s Toledo’s humour that helps set him apart from the myriad indie rockers out there. Take “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs with Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”: “last Friday acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend / I felt like a walking piece of shit / in a stupid jacket”. That’s the hook that wins you over initially and then a killer chorus seals the deal. Toledo’s knack for a great chorus is demonstrated over and over, from “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales” to “Destroyed By Hippie Powers”. And if you can keep up the stamina the album’s back half is packed with great moments too, like the eight-minute slow-build epic “Cosmic Hero”. So whilst this album’s excesses are exhausting – there’s a 12-minute ode to the Costa Concordia here for fucks sake – it’s still a wild ride, and proof that those who ask where rock has gone are pretty bloody stupid.
6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Here’s an interesting one. I’m a ~somewhat~ atypical Bon Iver fan. I think his second, self-titled album wipes the floor with For Emma, Forever Ago: it’s a far more well-rounded effort, with an expansive sound that far outlasts the hushed acoustics of any of the tracks on the debut not named “Skinny Love”, “The Wolves” or “Re: Stacks”. I also don’t find electronic treatments to be anathema to folk music. So in theory I should have loved 22, a Million from the get go; instead I was faced with an inconsistent, deeply experimental album that showed Justin Vernon has little interest in making music for anyone other than himself. We should have seen it coming: opener “Over Soon” (I’m just gonna write the track titles as I’ve come used to calling them) features the same annoying use of repetition that hampered the 2015 standalone single “Heavenly Father”. Vernon’s strength when it comes to albums has always been sequencing, but the grinding, eventually excellent “Deathbreast” flows about as well out of “Over Soon” as oil does in water. There’s other flaws to be found but I think these mostly arise because Bon Iver has set such a standard that expectations are extreme. There’s a lot to be admired in Justin Vernon’s approach – he could very easily make a ho-hum, unchallenging indie folk album that sells millions and garners views in the billions on Youtube. He steadfastly refuses to be pigeonholed. And as it turns out the album is pretty damn good too. The heart-ripped-off-sleeve “715 Creeks” single-handedly destroys any argument that autotune doesn’t deserve its place in music. “Strafford APTS” is as pretty as Vernon has ever been. “666 t” pits Vernon’s captivating voice against thunderous drumming. On “8 circle” he’s more melancholy, surrounded by lovely horns and synths. So while 22, a Million may not be immediate, it does offer a lot to the keen listener. Whatever previous work of his haunts you, eventually, you’ll let 22, a Million in too.
5. Solange – A Seat at the Table
“Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along / just be glad you got the whole wide world”. I admit to some comfort hearing that line, towards the end of “FUBU”. I’m about as white as they come – you have to go back to my great-grandparents to find someone in my lineage who wasn’t born in Australia. I sympathise with the issues faced by Black America but absolutely cannot empathise. So I’m not really in a place to write about A Seat at the Table’s cultural context – of course, there have been many great pieces written about that by female, Black American writers (and Solange wrote some pretext herself). So I’m just here to talk about why I dig the shit out of the album. Unlike albums by Beyonce, Kendrick, Common, D’Angelo and many more, its approach to the issues faced by Black America is softer, more meditative. And it’s Solange’s personal angle that opens up the album to listeners of all backgrounds. “Fall in your ways / so you can sleep at night”, begins the album, which immediately puts the listener at ease: do what you have to do to feel better. Same on album highlight “Cranes in the Sky” – “I tried to drink it away”, “I tried to dance it away”, “I tried to sex it away”. There’s no point making comparisons with her sister, Solange plays to her own strengths and it works an absolute treat. A Seat at the Table is extremely gentle, entirely genuine and preaches self-care. By the end of the year some were starting to find mirth in that concept but that shouldn’t detract from its potential. The soft, nurturing production provided all over this record by Raphael Saadiq perfectly matches with Solange’s truly heavenly vocals and while listening to this record even those who bought into the annus horribilis argument for 2016 could not argue that the year was without its bright spots.
4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
I’ve become a real arse-backwards Nick Cave fan. Prior to his excellent 2013 release Push the Sky Away I could count on one hand the Nick Cave songs I knew. Push the Sky Away was Cave’s 15th studio album and I adored it. And yet I am still to really dig into his catalogue (aside from No More Shall We Part, a great album). Skeleton Tree, his latest record with long-time partners-in-crime The Bad Seeds, continues in the manner of its predecessor – its music burbles away expertly, menacingly under the surface, leaving the worn vocals of Nick Cave as the focal point. Skeleton Tree is even better than Push the Sky Away, however (when it comes to Warracknabeal’s greatest export, I’m the opposite of ‘I prefer his older stuff’ snob cliche), thanks to a narrower focus and less dead weight. Cave’s youngest son died in July 2015, and while the writing for this record began before that dreadful incident, his spectre informs the record. But as a friend of mine succinctly pointed out, Skeleton Tree is less about that incident in particular than death, grief, depression in general. The album’s songs sound borne of exhaustion. “Jesus Alone” sets the tone remarkably well; its dark, hazy synths accurately portray the feeling you get when you’ve had no sleep and a million things on your mind, thanks to The Bad Seeds’ expert use of space and restraint. The haunting stretch of “Girl in Amber”, “Magneto” and “Anthrocene” is whisper quiet, the music playing accompaniment to Cave’s vocals only when and how it is needed. “I Need You” is the record’s emotional centrepiece. More than on any other track here Cave sounds broken – “nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”. He sounds tired, desperate, a man who can find solace only in his lover’s arms. Remarkably, however, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Rings of Saturn”, the album’s second song, features some really pretty synths that aren’t as incongruous as they first sound. “Distant Sky”, featuring Danish singer Else Torp in tandem with Cave, is as gorgeous as song as he has ever written and I wrote more about the beautiful closing title track here. Skeleton Tree is a terrific album that continually grows in my estimation. Try it when overtired and you’ll find some calm.
3. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
It’s really difficult to try to examine The Life of Pablo with any kind of objectivity. Music of course is entirely subjective, but more than most artists, Kanye West ensures that the art cannot easily be separated from the artist. Let’s do a quick roll call: the ridiculous album roll-out, the Cosby tweet, the TSwift fiasco (regardless of whether Taylor ~deserved it~ or not), mistreatment of models, the Trump shoutout. Then came the hospitalisation, reportedly due to acute exhaustion, something that wasn’t really a surprise for those of us who’ve followed him as blindly as myself since he bestowed upon us a masterpiece in 2010. In a moment I will separate the art from the artist, because I believe that’s a good thing to do – art would scarcely exist if we were constantly moralising. But TLOP has inextricable connections with Kanye West and his mindset. He raps about it honestly – “name one genius that ain’t crazy” on “Feedback”, “you ain’t seen nothin crazier than / this nigga when he off his Lexapro” on “FML”. For all the criticism that is levelled at Kanye, he is nothing if not honest. And he has always been brazenly honest, whether people are willing to accept that or not. He paved the way for emotion in mainstream hip-hop with 808s, and on the lead single from MBDTF he spent nine minutes excoriating no one else but himself. All this provides an interesting lens through which to view TLOP. The utterly depressing “FML” leads a three-song stretch (followed by “Real Friends” and “Wolves”) that is perhaps as good as he has ever done, and what makes it even better is that they are three songs in the same insular, paranoid, downtrodden mood; you won’t find 14 more harrowing minutes anywhere else in his catalogue. (Don’t sleep on the “I Love Kanye” skit either. He’s hella self-aware, I’m telling you.) I won’t argue that Kanye is beyond criticism or anything like that, he has many faults. But separate the art from the artist and TLOP is an album that offers so many fucking good songs and moments that’s it’s impossible not to love. I’ve written already about “Ultralight Beam”. “Famous” rocks and inspired a fucking amazing unofficial video from Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim. “Waves” (the reason for the album’s delay) rules, even in spite of Chris Brown. The best rapper in history pops in background vocals on the dope as hell “30 Hours”. Kanye manages to out-rap Kendrick Lamar on “No More Parties in LA”, a feat in itself. He even manages to do deep house on “Fade”, which featured the hottest video of 2016 (I’m so sorry Ariana if you’re reading). So yes, Kanye is a troubled dude who’s said and done some real crap shit. But The Life of Pablo is a fucking good album that proves that Kanye West is absolutely one of the greatest artists of our generation. I firmly believe those two facts can stand together.
2. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead are not like many artists. When they release a new album it is an event. Thanks to their standing as alternative rock demigods and their extremely passionate, nerdy fanbase, a new Radiohead album comes with a wave of emotions. The sheer excitement is the first thing. 2012’s The King of Limbs came out of nowhere and though 2016 promised to be a year of movement – recording for LP9 reportedly started in late 2014 and Christmas Day 2015 brought the mesmerising “Spectre”, the band’s submission for the latest James Bond film (the eventual choice was a terrible Sam Smith song) – the band’s methods of self-promotion remain as tight-lipped as ever. Finally, new single “Burn the Witch” dropped in May (set to a hellish Trumpton video) and sent us fans into a frenzy. One of their most urgent songs in years, it is built on vivacious strings (foreshadowing the orchestral arrangements that would appear all over A Moon Shaped Pool). Thom Yorke sounds more awake than he has in years, singing of the anxiety, paranoia and political darkness that the strings evoke. “This is a round up / this is a low-flying panic attack”. By the time “Burn the Witch” is over (following a savage string crescendo), the listener is pumped. Radiohead are back, with a visceral, energetic belter of a song that captures the mood of the times.
But “Burn the Witch” turns out to be a bit of a red herring. Following it is “Daydreaming”, as pretty a song as the band has made and which I wrote extensively about here. It brings the listener crashing back to earth, and there’s no getting back up. “Into your life there comes a darkness”, Thom sings on “Decks Dark”, a sequel of sorts to OK Computer standout “Subterranean Homesick Alien”. The band deserves so much of the credit on this album. “Decks Dark” takes a, well, dark turn in its final third, a cascading piano line sucking the listener down into a black hole. The barnstorming “Ful Stop” is a real highlight, its propulsive, rumbling rhythm giving way to a classic Radiohead moaning, chaotic, suffocating spiral to finish. “Identikit” closes with a stunning guitar solo. I save special mention for the band’s work on “Present Tense” (which would fit seamlessly on their best album, In Rainbows). There’s a moment about halfway through this song where Thom sings “as my world comes crashing down / I’ll be dancing, freaking out / deaf, dumb and blind” and there’s a barely-perceptible change in the music underneath him – the drums, guitar and synths all get a little louder and quicker and then, just as soon as Thom’s line finishes the music has shifted absolutely seamlessly into a new, slightly more hopeful sound. It is utter genius and I can’t fathom the talent that it takes to make such an amazing transition so subtle.
I could go on and on about this album’s highlights. Take “Glass Eyes”, the quietest and shortest song here, a heartbreakingly soft piano and string-led ode to anxiety with a stunning final line, “I feel this love to the core”. It reminds me a lot of “immerse your soul in love”, the final line from “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, because, taken in isolation, it’s somewhat positive; but hear Thom sing the line, and the music around it, and it feels soul-suckingly helpless.
Such lines have this power on AMSP because of Thom Yorke. As any Radiohead fan can tell you he has always been the master of sadness, but it’s hard to think of a more despairing Radiohead album than this one. He broke up with his partner and mother of his children Rachel Owen in 2015, which gave the album’s lyrics their gravitas. But a few months later it became magnitudes sadder: she died of cancer. It makes listening to the album closer “True Love Waits” – finally released after more than 20 years in existence – borderline impossible. “Just don’t leave / don’t leave”, he sings atop duelling piano lines. “I’m not living / I’m just killing time / your tiny hands / your crazy kitten smile”.
I admit that I had trouble getting into A Moon Shaped Pool; indeed I still find it somewhat impenetrable, probably because my current life situation means I can’t relate to the lyrics on a deep level. That’s a good thing, I guess, but it does make me a little sad, given how much this band means to me. It also has something to do with unrealistic expectations; the nature of my anxiety has always meant that if things aren’t as they ~should~ be, existential fear creeps in. Previous Radiohead albums have had a genial existential feel to them but A Moon Shaped Pool is a little different, more complex, more personal. Pitchfork writer Jeremy Larson described it as the record where “Radiohead finally let us in”. It’s a startling change that takes some getting used to and provokes some confronting introspection on the part of this listener. I’ve tried to write my thoughts on the album about a hundred times and always seemed to come up short. That might be because AMSP is the type of album that will continue to reveal itself over time. It might just be silly expectations. Whatever the case, having another brilliant Radiohead album to pour over provides a great deal of comfort in and of itself.
1. David Bowie – ★
For all the mythologising that’s been done about Blackstar – and all that’s to come – it actually does the year’s best album a great disservice to view it solely as a death tome. It’s hard not to, admittedly, as Bowie died two days after its release and its two singles featured morbid imagery both in the lyrics and in their videos. But before I get into that side of things, I wish to explore all the reasons that I think Blackstar is a truly remarkable album, divorced from its creator’s passing. I’m guilty of being a Bowie sycophant, but his work has not been infallible. His 1999 album ’hours…’ is awful, for example, and I won’t sing the praises of his 2013 return The Next Day; there remain good songs there but it very quickly outlived its novelty. But it did raise the question of what to expect from Bowie, now in his seventh decade, having done it all. There were three interim moments that got me excited (aside from blink-and-you’ll-miss-them features): the James Murphy remix of Love is Lost, then the two tracks he dropped out of nowhere, both of which would appear in altered form on Blackstar: “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)”. These two tracks were more exciting than anything The Next Day had to offer. They pointed to a fifth decade of great Bowie music.
And then bam: in December 2015 we had a brand new David Bowie song, “Blackstar”. Clocking in at 10 minutes, it was his longest effort since 1979’s “Station to Station”. None of us really knew what to make of it aside from to say that we loved it. There was live drums alongside electronic drums, tortured horns reminiscent of “Heroes” Side B, indecipherable lyrics. At the four-and-a-half minute mark a warm synth floats and Bowie’s voice completely softens, letting us in. But it doesn’t last long; the track sneers for a while and then the dread and paranoia return. In the context of the album “Blackstar” works even better, laying the foundation for the jazzy music to follow. “’Tis a Pity” has persistent, industrial drums, while the guitar line in “Sue” races along at a rate of knots. “Girl Loves Me” is batshit insane, featuring nonsensical lyrics inspired by A Clockwork Orange, its music taught and anxious, and delivering one of the album’s most memorable lines: “where the fuck did Monday go?!” The respite is short-lived however. I actually hadn’t heard the album prior to hearing about Bowie’s death. I couldn’t listen to it for a week, until I finally sat down with a bottle of red wine. You can sense the emotion coming as “Girl Loves Me” begins to break apart, leading into “Dollar Days”, which opens with soft, contemplative piano and horns before Bowie, sounding like a man who has to get his final thoughts written down, mournfully cries lines like “if I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see”. The band – Donny McCaslin (horns/woodwinds), Ben Monder (guitar), Jason Lindner (keys), Tim Lefebvre (bass) and Mark Guiliana (drums), champions on this record, providing the best music heard on a Bowie album in at least 20 years, if not more – play masterfully around a man withering away, “I’m falling down / don’t think for just one second I’m forgetting you / I’m trying to / I’m dying to…”
The music has a spiritual predecessor in his catalogue, 1995’s hideously underrated Outside. In the months before his death Bowie had been liaising with Brian Eno about revisiting that album. Sadly, that will never come to pass. Eno issued a heartfelt, heartbreaking statement upon learning of his long-time collaborator’s death, while Tony Visconti, producer of Blackstar and another long-time collaborator said he knew Blackstar was a “parting gift”.
Eno and Visconti were both heavily involved with the creation of 1977 high-watermark Low. This knowledge makes Blackstar’s final salvo all the more emotional, because we come, finally, to “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. I will probably write a thousands-words long article about this song alone one day. When I did finally listen to Blackstar, within five seconds of the closing track starting up, I was in a pool of my own tears. I cannot imagine a more fitting exit for David Bowie, honestly. He sounds faintly regretful, sorry, even, that he didn’t reveal his sickness to the wider world, but one cannot begrudge him upon hearing him sing the title line. He’s sure of himself. Its harmonica, played by Bowie, so clearly recalls the harmonica from my all-time favourite David Bowie song, “A New Career in a New Town”, off Low. If someone had come to me and told me to envisage Bowie’s final song, I would never have even dreamed something as special as “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. I am not religious and don’t believe in the afterlife, but if I’m wrong, I like to hope Bowie hasn’t died, but simply moved on to a new career, in a new town, somewhere else. Whatever it is, I will be eternally grateful that the greatest musician mankind has ever known left us with such an incredible goodbye.