411’s Top 200 Albums Of 2016 (25-1)
It’s time to conclude our countdown and reveal the best of album of 2016 and I for one cannot wait to read all the crass and creative ways you’ll find to tell us just how wrong we are in the comment section (in all seriousness, thanks for bearing with us).
25. Modern Country by William Tyler
The 411: When it comes to album of the year lists they are often populated by instrumental LPs: a dash of cutting edge EDM here, some eerie electronica there, just a smidge of ambient music (some Eno perhaps?) and of course a breakthrough from the “world music” category (a horrible label I know). What we don’t so often see is a standalone piece of guitar, country or rock music devoid of lyrics making the cut. Sure, once in a while a legend (say a Beck or Yngwie) will drop an ultra-technical showcase, but rarely do we hear a piece of flash free, slow burning instrumental music rich in feeling and evocative of both landscape and hardship. William Tyler provides just that, lyricless music rich in phrasing that manages to saunter across the American continent inspiring awe with a heavy heart. In other moments, Tyler picks up the pace and is almost playful – his music could depict and optimist leaving his old stomping grounds in search of new work and new frontiers, or it could be the jaunt of a barroom or the sound of lovers lost together in the arid wilderness at night. It might sound mawkish to say it, but this distinctively American album triumphs because it allows the listener’s imagination to run wild. Tyler merely sets the scene – and that is a rarity: an instrumental LP so unconcerned with grabbing its audience’s attention with virtuosity that it leaves everyone free to just kick back and take flight.
The Critics Say: “Figuring out how the past plays into our understanding of the present, he’s an Americana archivist trading in complex guitar compositions.” Spin
24. Applewood Road by Applewood Road
The 411: When you step foot inside Nashville’s Welcome To 1979 studio modernity is never the aim, hell it’s not even on the table. The place is a repository for vintage brews, where not only the sound, but the aura and air of country classicism is bottled and preserved in all its analogue glory. That’s not to say that you can simply walk in with your iPhone and walk out an Everly Brother – if there’s nothing distinct about you, you’ll walk in a pretender and walk out a shoddy sounding phony. Mercifully, the three female friends who form Applewood Road not only come load with arresting, winsome voices and soul-puncturing-harmonies, but years of songwriting experience under-their-belt. If I were one of their collaborators, I’d be fuming mad they kept these 13 bare and achingly beautiful songs to themselves, but as a fan I’m overjoyed. The blend of vocals and skelton strums captures perfectly the image of the sweetest sounds and the rawest feelings drifting into the night sky atop a cool breaze.
What The Critics Say: “They savour each note until it melts in the mouth” The Telegraph
23. Front Row Seat To The Earth by Weyes Blood
The 411: Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, has a rich and elegant formal singing voice that should erect ornate and resplendent walls between artist and audience. She is withdrawn, like a performer born to observed like an artifact or a piece of finery, and yet, Mering’s compositions and control of vocal tone are so painfully pristine they inexplicable tap into reservoirs of warmth and pathos. “Used To Be” is the first the breakthrough: a work of crippling beauty destined to crumple listeners in its wake. Soon Front Row Seat To The Earth, for all its overblown narratives, becomes essential: like a bloody beating heart – it’s both gruesome and magnificently intricate. The agony may be blown out of all proportion – Mering’s ache drifts across the surface of the great lakes and whistles over the tree tops – but it’s rooted around mundane and feebly intimate exchanges: “I tried to do the best I could”. Resplendent is the word for Weyes Blood, but don’t let the formality fool you, Front Row Seat To The Earth is a wonderfully organic listen that speaks to the cosmos and an eerie empty household simultaneously.
The Critics Say: “It’s beautiful, unsettling and wholly compelling.” The Guardian
22. We Got It From Here… Thank You For Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
The 411: Recorded before Phife Dawg’s death, A Tribe Called Quest’s first album since 1998 might have appeared timely, but it wasn’t necessary a slam-dunk. The irreverent conscious rappers seem like natural fit alongside the high minded Kendrick Lamar and the expansive Anderson .Paak, but the (then) four piece could also be too flippant, too prone to tangents and too airy for these unmistakably dark times. Equally, a legacy act returning with Elton John, Jack White, Busta Rhymes, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and Kanye West (among others) in toe wreaked of a cash in at best, and an all star clusterfuck at worst. Mercifully, We Got It From Here… was no such thing, instead it’s a very easily definable: this is a A Tribe Called Quest record, plain and simple. The rap scenes ultimate sidesteppers pick up exactly where they left off, passing the mic with ease and creating posse cuts that jut and dart with a scatterbrained brilliance. It’s a pleasure to be in Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s presence as they survey the planet in their block rocking satellite. Considering oppression of all stripes colors much of We Got It From Here… the overriding sensation that the album actually exudes is freedom. Any subject and any sound are fair game, from golden age rap to avant-gardge alien rock. This might just be the biggest shock: sure A Tribe Called Quest can put smiles on faces and deep thoughts in your cranium, but for the 90s posse to sound this modern and this alien in 2016 is bewildering. Veteran rap isn’t supposed to sound vital, daring or weird. Nostalgia is at play here, but it sure as hell ain’t rosy.
The Critics Say: “Sounding like nothing else out there, distinct even from Tribe’s previous work, We Got It From Here is political without being preachy, fun without being unintelligent and next level out while being street corner down. A superb swansong.” The Wire
21. The Ascension of Slow Dakota by Slow Dakota
Genre: Art Pop
The 411: Album reviewers have been bending over backwards to perceptively ruminate on the complexities and astonishing array of reference points served up by Ivy Leaguer and bedroom whiz kid Slow Dakota. The scope, the variety and ambition are all there: Slow Dakota is actively inviting his audience to obsess over this product of feverish obsession and control. From the spoken word sections (read aloud by professors and poets alike) to the literary references, this restrained and gorgeous album is gaudy, far fetched but unashamed. It coaxes you in, insisting on intellectual evaluation with a gravity of tone, but The Ascension Of Slow Dakota functions better as a mere curio. A strange object or artifact, knocking around in a batter antique shop or thrift store: a dusty oddity, too ornate and overstuffed to be a genuine find, but far too alluring to be a factory made fabrication. Like a mad man’s manifesto left on the shelves of a library, The Ascension Of Slow Dakota is a glimpse into something personal: one man’s imagination and very specific headspace. Don’t waste your time on Google, don’t uncover its every secret, leave that to Slow Dakota himself, instead sit back, press play and admire the beauty of the music itself. The sound is glorious, sorrowful, undeniably thin in places and all the better for it. Forget all the obfuscation, forget the valuations and lineage, slap your $5 down on the table and pop this peculiar, somewhat ungainly objet d’art on your shelf and just admire it for what it is.
The Critics Say: “There is a haunting finality in The Ascension—a resignation that seems to wave goodbye. He’s going somewhere where we aren’t meant to follow” PopMatters
20. Magma by Gojira
The 411: Gojira have taken a monumental risk with Magma: they’ve done exactly what more metal bands need to do, but that so many loyal followers bend over backwards to decry. The Bayonne metallers have streamlined and stiffened their sound. The wild (and undeniably thrilling) diversions of old have been jettisoned and what’s left is a crushingly immediate and utterly accessible listen that few could have predicted. So far it seems the Frenchmen have avoided the cries of “this isn’t proper Gojira” or simply “we want the old stuff” (although they have had some of that backlash already in their career) likely because the band have earned the trust of their audience so thoroughly in years past. As someone who thinks From Mars To Sirius was the band’s absolute pinnacle, I should be primed to reject Magma, but I cannot deny its rhythms. For 40 minutes Gojira unleash their ferocious rhythm section and unload a series of bombastic, chugging grooves that land metronomically like Amanda Nunes jab-jab-overhand combos to Ronda Rousey’s unguarded face (sorry). The simplicity of this assault, combined with vocals that are perhaps surprisingly clean and catchy, means that when a ultra-tight solo emerges it catches the listener wholly off guard (“Silvera”). A death in the family may inform Magma thematically, but this is a record that feels wholly alive. This is most certainly not a work proggy experimentation: this is a sludgey onslaught that satisfies deep down in the gut. Whisper it, Gojira have made a rock record – a weird one, but one that would have earned them legendary status in the 1990s and that deserves to be celebrated (and headbanged along to) in 2016.
The Critics Say: “On the leaner, extraordinarily concise Magma, you hear Gojira becoming even more fully realized.” Spin
19. Coloring Book by Chance The Rapper
The 411: ***this blurb was lost so this is an extremely abridged version*** The second the familiar fanfare erupts a smile begins to form of faces of listeners the world over, because Chance The Rapper is about to bring the joy and the light of hope to a wearisome existence. Chance doesn’t run from the brutality of the streets (his streets in Chicago), but on Coloring Book his vibrancy ensures that even America’s murder capital doesn’t succumb to despair. Every inch of this LP snaps, flits and an bounces with an optimism that is almost delusional and quite possibly more an article of faith than a reflection on reality: “we know we got it, music is all we got”. It sounds spiritual, like Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam” has illuminated all of Chicago, but listen carefully and you’ll realize this is no time to smile, no matter how earnestly Chance compels you to do so. Sometimes the most devastating misery is found in the most carefree and cheerful places (or, in this case, people).
The Critics Say: “While Coloring Book successfully channels the musical conventions of African-American church tradition without sounding dated or pastiche, the album also subtly chronicles black history and uses it as inspiration for artistic freedom.” Consequence Of Sound
18. Hunted by Khemmis
The 411: There’s always a moment when (to speak directly for a moment) I press play on a Khemmis record and I hesitate. The vocals always feel a little too controlled and a touch contrived, like the product of a studio session (which they of course are)…but then, a mere fifteen seconds later, my concerns are obliterated by the sound of most glorious metal being made anywhere in the world. Far from having to swallow my trepidation, I’ve come to love Khemmis wholeheartedly. They are making bold, modern music that is complex in its structures, rich in its grooves and hugely satisfying in its vocal bravery. There is nowhere to hide: this is music that is direct and, despite its artistic indulgences, is incredible accessible. The vocals made me flinch at first, because I’d become accustom to a generation of worthy metal albums that bury their vocals beneath guttural howls and feral emoting. What makes Khemmis stand out from the crowd is that, from the lyric sheet to guitar solos, they want you to hear and truly listen to every note and each syllable. This is a darkness and a rage that festers, stews and billows forth. When their impenetrable death growls begin to consume the surrounding landscape (as they do at “Candlelight’s” conclusion), you can rest assured in the knowledge that they’ve earned it.
The Critics Say: “It has everything that one would seek out in an essentially flawless record.” Metal Injection
17. Love & Hate by Michael Kiwanuka
The 411: 2016 might have to be titled “the revenge of the dinner party” – or, over here in the UK, the revenge of BBC Radio 2. So many artists who were waved off as talented, but too polite and a little dull, have returned with avengence with works that are simultaneously sumptuous and brazen. Laura Mvula and Michael Kiwanuka top this list, both seemed to have a job for life playing solid soul music to appreciative crowds and now, a single album later, they stand proudly as members of the vanguard. Proof, if ever that it was needed, that the first album really isn’t all that important. Talent can and will endure. Love & Hate is magnificent. The ghosts of a thousand heartbreaks seemingly haunt the show stopping ten minute album opener: “Cold Little Heart”. You can practically hear the very essence of every great 60s tear jerker condensed into this one airy arrangement and, when Kiwanuka’s vocal finally arrives, he twists the knife: optimism, agony, regret and stolidity smolder within his tender timber. By the time you’ve fetched your jaw from the floor and are ready to tackle the nine tracks that follow, one thing is clear: this is not nostalgia. Kiwanuka’s oozes impeccable taste. His arrangements do echo the past, but producer Danger Mouse injects a sense of streamlined modernity – as if these rustic sounds are surrounded by bleak modern haze. As a result, Love & Hate feels like an album out of time, which is perfect as Kiwanuaka sorrowfully serene vocal speaks to a sense of loss and dissolution: of a black man trying to find his place in a white world and of a lover endeavoring to trust in wake so many heartaches. “I’m moving on” is the album’s ethos: no matter how hard he’s pulled one way or the other, no matter what he has endured or is yet to endure, Michael Kiwanuka is determined to make his way in this world no matter what arrows fate (or history) manages to throw at him.
The Critics Say: “It’s intimate and sprawling, personal and universal, affectionate and daring. It’s also not background music. Sit down in front of your largest speakers, turn up the volume, push play, close your eyes and let Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate envelope your senses while taking you on a journey to the sonic expanses of your mind.” American Songwriter
16. American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story by Kevin Abstract
Genre: Art Pop/Hip Hop
The 411: “I think about you all the time, I’ve waited for you all my life, I need you right here by my side”, the words that bleed forth from “Empty” (the best single Kevin Abstract has ever released) and the themes that define and dominate American Boyfriend. Abstract might be stepping on Frank Ocean’s toes with his tales of Suburban despondency and homosexual love, but this obsessive up and comer comes wrapped in a naivety that speaks to a crisis in our collective extended adolescence. There are plenty of heartbreaking and perceptive moments to be found of this contorted, expressive jumble of LP, but Abstract never feels circumspect. He’s caught in the throws of emotions that are still in the process of scarring his psyche – there’s no room for reflection, like the best emo and indie records, this is reactionary music that flits between love struck highs, despondent lows and is distracted by new obsession (that hot body down the street) and old pains (an empty home). Like all his work to this point, American Boyfriend is colored by a blundering amateurism: handrails are dispensed with and there’s a sense that Abstract has more ideas than he does expertise – but that only lends this project a more of a post-punk, experimental feel. Kevin Abstract is feeling his way around in the bitter darkness, but rather than taking it slow and navigating a safe path, he’s content to crash and careen forwards – and that’s exhilarating and utterly endearing. This is a daring, vulnerable and shocking statement that throws our hidden wounds and unspoken neurosis out into the open. Blunt force trauma at its best. As Abstract says on “Miserable America”, he doesn’t fucking care anymore, he’s just going to say it for his own (and all of our collective) good: “my boyfriend hates me, won’t let me meet his parents, says my skin might scare ‘em…they love gays but hate niggas”. Ooof.
The Critics Say: “Kevin Abstract has been heading in this new direction for awhile, but he pulls everything together on American Boyfriend—marking a new chapter in his exciting young career.” Pigeons And Planes
15. Chaleur Humaine by Christine And The Queens
The 411: Chaluer Humaine is not a new album. Depending on which country you call home, this album may have been in your collection for up to three years, but as a resident of the UK I had to wait until 2016 for the English language version. It was a frustrating, but Chaluer Humaine was more than worth the wait. This album, inspired by Christine’s (aka Héloïse Letissier’s) time living in London with a host of drag queens (with whom she hasn’t met since, but contacts frequently online), is a magnificent double-edged sword. Cutting in one direction the album is a fascinating insight into gender politics, sexuality and orientation that comes out of the gate throwing haymakers (“I am a man now and there’s nothing you can do to stop it”). The otherside of the blade proves just as deadly: Christine’s pop nous is practically unparalleled. Atop an array of soft, seething synth pop arrangements she whispers in the listener’s ear and sings with the clarity of a chart topper (which she of course is in her native France). This combination (which is wonderfully tilted (sorry) by a coy avant garde posture) is masterfully deployed: whether it’s the politics, gender bending storytelling or pop hooks that draw blood, the other element will inevitably slip beneath the skin. Everything aspect of her sound is so natural and yet so off-kilter, that Chaleur Humaine becomes a marvel: seductive and heartbreaking, thoughtful but utterly instinctive – this is great, confounding pop music made by a woman in complete control of sound and aesthetic.
Note: This album may well have been in the Top 5 had the songs not been knocking around for so long, blunting the impact somewhat.
The Critics Say: “You never find yourself in the presence of music that sounds self-consciously clever. Everything flows easily, nothing jars.” The Guardian
14. Puberty 2 by Mitski
The 411: Mitski is not what she appears to be. On paper, Puberty 2 should be a tortured and severe collection to sit in the post-Joni Mitchell canon alongside the likes of Sharon Van Etten or PJ Harvey in her gravelly, early 90s pomp, but the paper lies. The aesthetics and lyric sheet may be unremittingly bleak – and by Puberty 2’s end you will worry about Mitski’s state of mind – but this record never sounds gloomy or uncomfortable. In fact, Mitski has managed to sculpt one of the 2016’s most gorgeous, understatedly alluring and richly inspiring LPs. This is clearly the work of someone who has listened to both The Pixies and the Elliot Smith’s of this world, but who has escaped dread and weightiness that could so have easily driven Puberty 2 into the dust. Even as the guitars form a torture chamber of sardonic faux-inspiring noise (“Your Best American Girl”), Mitski manages to soar and slyly swoon in the silent spaces that remain and, when the crescendo arrives, Mitski stands tall, raising her banner and letting forth an onslaught of vitriolic languor. The battle lines are clear drawn between the wallowing pits on one hand (she always bets on losing dogs, how’s that for a farcical downbeat metaphor?) and the melodic heights on the other. These contrasts create a heroic sense of an artist who has raised her hopes high enough to have them crushed over and over and over again. There’s a thrillingly sense of being off balance that underpins Puberty 2, Mitski flirts with being conventional, she knows both the pop and the fawning singer-songwriter tropes, but she always manages to ever so slightly dislocate her surroundings without feeling obtuse or contrived. Puberty 2 is therefore despondent and beautiful, but never beautifully despondent. “Glory, glory, glory to the night, it shows me who I am” – to bring things full circle – is a lyric that sounds so terribly teenage and moribund on paper, but boy do those words appear simultaneously delicate, majestic and resilient on record.
The Critics Say: “A visceral work that shares the immediacy of classic punk and confessional singer/songwriter fare at once, Puberty 2 takes listeners behind closed doors with the kind of no-holds-barred lyrics that are likely to leave a lasting impression.” AllMusic
13. Adieux Au Dancefloor by Marie Davidson
The 411: Spoken word poetry and sweat soaked club beats feels like awkward bedfellows: a recipe for novelty number one singles or a concept that might seem cool in a flashy sequence in the new Trainspotting sequel, but something that feels a little too contrived for a full LP. Well Marie Davidson turns this orthodoxy on its head with Adieux Au Dancefloor, a record that recalls Lindstrom & Christabelle’s Looking For What after doing a line of coke (the beat) and a half a Xanax (the vocals) for good measure. Marie won’t be the first nor will she be the last musician to be inspired by Berlin’s club scene, but the city has served to shoot her work into the stratosphere. The ambient, gothic pretensions are long gone, instead its her meditative flatness is set against thudding, insistent beats that have been flattened to within an inch of their life. There is funk and quirk to be found on this LP, but its subordinate to the frenzy of monotony: this is dancefloor hypnosis. Although I may very well be biased, Marie became the hero the second she uttered the words, “Is it that you feel superior behind a costume of indifference” and “you call me naïve, I’ll tell you what, I’m naïve to the bone”. In this light, Adieux Au Dancefloor is the most honest of love affairs. Marie might sound detached and too cool by half, but she’s not hiding her passion, her critical eye or her distaste – and that makes for one hell of a record. Adieux Au Dancefloor is the sound of a heartfelt love of the moment and a simultaneous dillusionment with everything that surrounds it.
The Critics Say: “The music here presents a criticism of the very place it is meant to live. What Davidson does here is not just a piece of music, or a set of poems, but a critical dialogue framed as a brooding electronic epic.” Pitchfork
12. A Seat At The Table by Solange
The 411: Those Knowles sisters sure had an incredible year – well that might not be a particularly telling statement considering that one is a global popstar and the other is a serene and respected indie artist, but few siblings are ever likely to release two such fascinating, divergent and powerful album as Lemonade and A Seat At The Table. Both are powerful statements, one about womanhood, victimhood and vengeance, both about blackness, but Solange’s output more overtly. Written in the wake of a string of panic attacks, the album is surprisingly resilient and resplendent. Solange is taking up the cause (both “Black Life Matters” and “Black Pride”), not by clenching her fist and taking to the streets, but by making sensuous music that speaks to a weight of oppression and societal anxiety. She is an artist seeking release and her music seeks to shatter the Us vs Them dichotomy, this isn’t black or white, it’s black as well as white. She talks about a history of denial and struggle, but insists (with some beautiful spoken interludes) that her goal is not retribution, but celebration, reclaimation and evolution. The key is not being told how to feel or how to react. A Seat At The Table, atop some of the most beautifully subdued arrangements, is all about finding the space to breathe: not apologizing, not being forced to conform, but also recognizing how extremely difficult it is to tip toe between these two idealized extremes that intersect with shocking regularity. Navigating so many pressures and pitfalls is clearly an exhausting experience and Solange routine expresses that she is tired or weary from the experience, but she has no choice to persist and – to her credit – as draining as the struggle may be, her voice remains beautifully light. “Don’t touch my hair, when it’s the feeling I wear…they don’t understand what it means to me”, the endnote is key – we don’t understand, but ultimately, A Seat At The Table helps both Solange and her multicolored audience move forward together.
The Critics Say: “Weariness gives way to willingness as Solange unpacks and ultimately celebrates Blackness, from the politics of Black hair in Don’t Touch My Hair (featuring Sampha) to a reclamation of Black masculinity in Scales (featuring Kelela).” NOW
11. SKELETON TREE BY NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
The 411: “If your expecting a barrel of laughs – firstly, why are you even considering listening to a Nick Cave record? – secondly, be aware that the phenomenal Skelton Tree was produced in the wake of death of Cave’s 15-year-old son. The lyrics may have (largely) been written before hand, but the opaque nature of the words provides a haunting contrasting to the dark, ruminating agony of the music. Opener “Jesus Alone” doesn’t so much speak to loss, as the idea of being utterly lost. Somewhere between the frail hums and empty chimes lays some kind of truth, but good luck deciphering it. These eight songs are beautiful in their own right and utterly harrowing. When joy and wonder threatens to creep in, Cave cuts through any sense of cheer with a line so cripplingly brutal that it pollutes all positive experience. Skeleton Tree doesn’t so much snuff out color in favor of monochrome sobriety as claw and scratch against the darkness, before submitting to a trauma so inescapably bleak that it cannot be deny. Cave has succeeded in creating a record destined to deeply wound whoever hears it – that’s scant consolation for his loss, but is a considerable achievement nonetheless.”
The Critics Say: “From the first note to the last, you’re transported back to a time you lost someone close to you and then retrace the path you traveled as you dealt with it. I doubt this album inspires anyone to pick up a guitar or start a band and the experience it details is too personal to inspire other bands to make a similar album. But, if this isn’t a masterpiece… I don’t know what it is.” Punknews
10. The Dream Is Over by Pup
The 411: Imagine if Rivers Cuomo, during the Pinkerton sessions, decided to forgo internalized snark and replace it with a homicidal rage. If you can envision that fracturing at the seams sound, then you have some idea how PUP’s stunning LP The Dream Is Over sounds. The album starts with an, admittedly funny, declaration that the band are already at breaking point – “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” – and the band never really regain their composure. Mercifully, while the vocals may be fraught, the punk onslaught remains elastic as it teeters from one extreme to next. The music is feral and wildly enjoyable. The band have a knack for summoning a sense of disbelief in destitution that carries a not-remotely-overbearing emotional weight (“now that I’ve got nothing, you’re having doubts. What am I supposed to do now?”). As the The Dream Is Over expands the themes of despair and desolation begin to crystalize and, as if through the backdoor, this haymaker thrown in agit-punk frustration begins to take on a deeper resonance. Without sacrificing an ounce of excitement we arrive at “Pine Point”; a tale of a childhood lost to globalization. The perfect pop song for an year defined by Trump on oneside of the Atlantic and Brexit on the other. The Dream is Over is the year’s best straight rock album.
What The Critics Say: “Turning it up to eleven, PUP’s second album is a tongue-in-cheek rampage through everything that matters.”
9. Blackstar by David Bowie
The 411: ““Look up here, I’m in heaven” – the cheeky git, that’s right, pop’s greatest chameleon pulled the wool over our eyes one last time and produced a confoundingly poignant endnote. It’s a tribute to Bowie that Blackstar received rave reviews when critics were still trying to figure out if the Thin White Duke was discussing ISIS, Major Tom or some celebrity from an alternate reality. His death was the aha moment, suddenly these dense Jazzy odysseys made perfect sense and the avant-garde pleasure of the arrangements gained heartbreaking emotional heft. The obtuse clues are now painfully obvious and the tender tones, darkly sorrowful.
Better still, if 2013’s The Next Day saw Bowie looking back to Lodger (“Dirty Boys”), 90s rock (“The Stars Are Out Tonight”) and his own heyday (“Valentine’s Day”), then Blackstar feels utterly alien. This is bonkers Bowie, baring his soul and drifting off down a sonic rabbit hole where few (his past self included) would dare to tread. The album has its shakier moments of course, but three of Bowie’s finest songs (“Dollar Days”, “Blackstar” and “Lazarus”) tip this release over the edge. He said it himself, “just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me”, this is the freest Bowie has sounded since Scary Monsters. Not bad for a man on his death bed.”
What The Critics Said: “For all its jazz accents and solos, Blackstar ends up becoming a stage for the things that first made Bowie a pop star: his incessantly catchy melodies and elastic voice.” The A.V. Club
8. ATROCITY EXHIBITION BY DANNY BROWN
The 411: “Danny Brown sure ain’t kidding when he blurts, “I’m like Kubrik with two bricks”, on the trippy mid-album-marvel “Lost”. When is comes to coke rap, Brown is every inch the avant garde, psychedelic, provocateur (Stanley Kubrik) to Pusha T’s grounded and brutal Michael Mann. Atrocity Exhibition, the Detriot rapper’s fourth studio album, is not only a worthy successor to both Old and XXX, it is a throbbing, headrush masquerading as an album of the year contender. Starting with a spectacular run of, dare I say, conventional singles that range from street level paranoia (“Downward Spiral”) to poetic odes to life without handrails (“Rolling Stone”), the album catches flame and embarks on a narcotic fuelled adrenaline rush. From the magnificent melting walls of “Lost” to the alien trap of “Pneumonia”, Atrocity Exhibition gives the listener a taste of life spiraling out of control, driven forward by chemical reactions, fidgety impulses and the desire for dirty and diverse experiences. The album’s decidedly mellow coda can’t quite match the insanity of the opening two thirds, but it coolly and comedically brings this deliciously bad trip to a close. Brown might rely on his exuberant, hyper-stylized enunciation to force certain rhyme schemes (friends and sin rhyme according to Danny’s tongue) and his cheap shot at Iggy Azealia was frankly unnecessary, but these quibbles can’t undermined a thrilling onslaught of raw experience, not bothered by premeditation.
Brown starts and finishes Atrocity Exhibition by stating that he lives his life without consideration and that he hopes, by jotting down his every thought and action in the form of art, he will find retrospective meaning (and, perhaps, justification). It’s a noble desire and one that gives the album a sense of gravity (even if it can’t match its predecessor’s narrative brilliance), Brown is living life at the absolute limit – maybe he’s a junkie, maybe he’s paranoid or just idiotically impulsive – but his rhymes are allowing the world to live an utterly unsustainable existence vicariously through him.”
The Critics Say: “A thematic sequel to 2011 breakout mixtape ‘XXX’, Danny Brown remains rap’s most unique force.” Mixmag
7. Dori Freeman by Dori Freeman
The 411: “When your not looking and the tables have all been turned, someone’ll steal your heart away and leave you like me to yearn”. Dori Freeman is acutely aware, but never ironic or post-modern. This is a rustic and magical country record that plays it 100% straight. Dori knows her tales of obsession and regret might sound like the stuff of old songs and classic films – and that’s precisely why she warns her audience so clearly: let your guard down and these old fashioned narratives will rip your life to shreds. This self-titled debut is pure and poignant. Dori Freeman strips away any distractions and sings in a plain nursery rhyme, folksy patter. There is no where to hide, no point could possibly be missed: you take her hand, place your hand on her hip and waltz around the living room, eyes locked on one another as Dori tells tales destined to break your heart. Her voice is a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not rangey or flashy in anyway, instead it proves impossible to read. She has a melodious and romantic air, but also a deadness that suggests she’s checked out, seen through your lies and won’t be fooled again. This dichotomy is devastating; she is both wholly in the moment and a shatter husk. The beauty in her music is obvious, but there is a strong sense of something missing, something that’s been stripped by these tales of rejection. “How am I supposed to go on loving?” is less a sorrowful lament and more of a threat; Dori is lost and resilient and whatever was done to her in her past will haunt her every subsequent relationship. There are of course up-beat moments (especially when classic country is fused with spritely 60s girl group pop), but this compositionally immaculately collection will forever be wrought with longing. Let’s not mince words: in Dori Freeman, a colossally talented songwriter has arrived.
The Critics Say: “Dori Freeman’s arrival is a blessing for us all.” No Regression
6. Blood Bitch by Jenny Hval
Genre: Art Pop
The 411: Jenny Hval’s stunning sixth studio album is desperately in need of a comma. What’s it all about? Blood, bitch. It’s that simple, but it’s also an ungodly complex album that introduces huge themes in both conversational streams-of-conscious and also with Hval’s piercing, strained vocal. Blood is the theme, but one that tos and fros between the starkly literal (the menstrual seepage that stains her sheets) and metaphoric (the fluid that sustains ancient vampires and, on which, the capitalist feeds). Blood Bitch is constantly sinking and surging between differing planes of comprehension. Hval’s tone holds the key. She can appear anodyne and soothing, taking the role of the narrator, removing all the tension in our bodies and inviting on whatever misery awaits us. Then, suddenly, she chatting with her girlfriend in an voyeuristic exchange or watching Adam Curtis on her Ipad while furiously masturbating (or is she hyperventilating or is she being is harshly fucked?), sending us all crashing back into reality – is she numb to it all, is she trying to escape, are we lost in the fog of her subconscious/memory or are we being pulled in and out of consciousness all together. Then there are her shrill cries. Vocals that cut sharply like a surgeon’s knife, but with a bitter twist: providing sharp critiques and stark detours. Blood Bitch is conceptual in the extreme and, despite the inherent needle that unwrites the project, the sonics are glorious. The blend of instrumentation is, like Hvals vocal, both tantalizingly submerged beneath the surface and pulled into focus – in a way that is unnerving and alluring in equal measure. The somber moments prove so beautiful and the pacier sections so terrifying, that Blood Bitch can’t help but confound. The album teeters on the verge of stillness, like an artwork that could be played in the halls of MOMA or Tate Modern, but there’s a shudder, a drone or a lurch that keeps even the most simplistic sections from truly sitting still. The talk of gender-fluid vampires and the schlocky 70s horror pastiches inject the album with a sense of humor that should uncut such a serious work, but by blunting the severity of it all, Hval only serves to humanize her work. She can appear overly self-involved, but knowingly so. She is in on the joke (““last night I took my birth control with rosé”), but not playing Blood Bitch for laughs. Considering the incredible balancing act she’s undertaken and the depths of nuance and thematic ambiguity that underpin every inch of this LP, it’s miraculous that Blood Bitch not only sounds divine, but strangely effortless and, ultimately, true.
The Critics Say: “There are so many ways into Blood Bitch that it’s dizzying: Chris Kraus, Nino Nardini, the synths, the immensely pillowy hooks, black metal, menstrala. The themes run from menstruation to vampires to capitalism to loneliness to pap smears, and any thread you pick can take you to the core. You have been invited in.” Tiny Mix Tapes
5. You Will Never Be One Of Us by Nails
The 411: Oxnard punks Nails are going to take it slow. They’re going to sit us down, patronizingly smile in our faces, pat us on the head and say, as clearly as can be, “you will never be one of us”. Yes, for 20 seconds, Nails are in no hurry, they want to unequivocally draw the line before they unleash 21 minutes of body hurling, windmill throwing, vomit spewing, sweat soaked bombast. You Will Never Be One Of Us is a shot of pure adrenaline, but one laced with acid ready to rot you from the inside out. The playing is utterly frenzied – it’s as if their manager walked into the studio and said: “lads, the earth will expire in 22 minutes, this is your last chance to lay down the album that will define your careers – so, you know, step on it!” Remarkably, despite operating at a pace that should obliterate nuance, Nails find so much scope for precision. The riffs might fly by like a barrage of bullets, but they prove remarkably memorable and wholly danceable – better still they duke gracefully in and out of these careless whirlwinds. The vocal work is equally impressive; You Will Never Be One Of Us is a wash with hooks. It’s tempting to draw a parallel with The Ramones. Where the proto-punks where sardonic, Nails are brutalistic, but both bands hid picture perfect pop music behind a daunting veneer. You Will Never Be One Of Us manages to have its cake and eat it too: this is uncompromisingly violent music best enjoyed in the heart of a mosh pit, but is also intricate, approachable and expansive. Fans of more textured and complex work will find plenty to enjoy here (the guitar work is full of surprises), but so will fans of straight ahead rock music – believe or not, Nails want you to enjoy their music. The sheer monstrous nature of the sound will scare off many a listener, but Nails are transcending hardcore with confounding brilliance. How You Will Never Be One Of Us can be so ambitious and yet so slight, without appearing muddled or joyless, is beyond me.
The Critics Say: “Nails constructs towers of noise tall enough to blot out the sun.” The A.V. Club
4. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest
Genre: Rap/Spoken Word
The 411: “Bradley’s got a good job, he works in PR…life seems simpler than it’s ever been/he’s doing well, he’s living the dream, he is paying the mortgage off…he doesn’t know why he’s not sleeping at night”. Kate Tempest’s latest is no barrel of laughs, but nor is it a macabre collection of exaggerated horror stories from the streets of Austerity (now Brexit) Britain; this is a razor eyed look at the pain behind the façade. Whether that’s the false lights and illusions of the high street, the tears behind male bravado or, in the case of Bradley and herself, the hallow feeling behind apparent success – there is one question that lingers on Let Them Eat Chaos: why aren’t we happy? “Is this all that’s ahead of me? I always thought that life would mean more to me eventually, I hate to think I’ll make it to 70”. These lines represented Let Them Eat Chaos’ bleakest moment of soul searching, but the album is choked full of wittily stacked and unflinchingly grim moments where the very mundane brutality of life pokes its head above the parapet. There are times when Let The Eat Chaos plays like a nightmare, but the terrifying chill of reality and the unmistakable ordinariness of these tales make this album more harrowing than any imagined apocalypse. Tempest is wise to use narrative and observation more than metaphor. This is the plain face, mythical “straight talk”, albeit with a crooked smile, and as much as we claim we want the truth; Let Them Eat Chaos suggests we’d rather look away. “The kids are alright, but the kids will get older” (what an incredibly forboding line) and there is this temptation to reply “it twas ever thus”, but as Kate points out: that’s simply not true, once upon a time a young person could buy a home of their own and hold savings. The silent sigh that invariable concludes that sentence, perfectly encapsulates the tragedy Let Them Eat Chaos so deftly explores..
The Critics Say: “Perhaps Tempest’s greatest achievement is not to fall prey to the pressure for unnecessary revolution; her work sits more comfortably in the tradition of perfecting the groove, not changing it. That perfection might be illusion, but its pursuit can produce wonderful work, as it has right here.” The Observer
3. Lemonade by Beyonce
The 411: “Brand Beyonce might still be going strong, but Lemonade is no commercial repositioning exercise, this is the realest and most powerful piece of music Queen Bey has ever produced. This is an album that could only have been delivered by a flawed, uncertain and angry human being and – as much as the world may cling to image of Empress Yonce – this vulnerable, paranoid and righteously vindictive woman is a far more thrilling artistic proposition. Lemonade isn’t out of this world or larger than life, it’s petty and it is real – so sorry Bono – but ain’t nothing better than the real thing.”
“The message reads loud and clear: thou shalt not fuck with Yonce. Seriously, it might be unpalatable to utter it, but couldn’t Beyonce have her heart broken more often? Because the artistically liberated Queen Bey, who emerged on 2013’s sublime eponymous LP – blending cutting edge electronics with a deft ear for vintage black sonics – now comes loaded with fire in her belly and acid on her tongue. If Lemonade’s second half is anything to go by, Yonce’s next album will be a fairy tale reconciliation, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which that could possible sound better than the psycho-sexual squelch of this avenging angel putting Jay-Z’s balls in a blender. Like Rumours before it, Lemonade is tipped over the edge by the fraught, soap opera level backdrop of Jay’s infidelity. But even without it, Bey has served up ferocious towering infernos (“Freedom”, “Don’t Hurt Yourself”), macabrely serene delights (“All Night”, “Pray You Catch Me”) and her own Frank Ocean rivalling amorphous epic (“6 Inch”). Unlike her past efforts, Lemonade doesn’t thrive on the strength of its stand alone highs, but as a satisfying start-to-finish listen, rich in narrative cohesion, that – however improbably – transforms Beyonce from an imperious brand into a flawed, hurting human being, worthy of our sympathy and support.”
The Critics Say: “Cynics will cry foul, that Beyoncé remains an entitled superstar, raging at a paper tiger. Those cynics will be ignoring one of this year’s finest albums.”
2. Hopelessness by Anohni
Genre: Art Pop
The 411: “Protecting me from evil, protecting me from terrorism, protecting me from child molesters”. There are so many shocking and galvanizing lines on Hopelessness that it was hard to pick just one to lead this blurb, but that sardonic and deeply sarcastic lyric from “Watch Me” captures Anohni’s state of mind. Elsewhere Anohni is plain spoken, naming names and drawing disgusting images that the listener can’t shake – she rallies against climate change deniers, capital punishment, drone bombing, governments of all stripes and brutal men respectively – but on that opening line she cuts to the heart of the matter: the greater good, the higher power. The wisdom that tells you who to hate, who to fear, how to react and who the real enemy is – all the while ensuring that the great protector, the “daddy” has an unlimited freedom to act as he or she wishes. Anohni employs her beautifully esoteric and tortured vocal to present images and narratives that cannot be ignored. Hopelessness is a shock to the system. A protest album that does not indulge in theory or well meaning lectures – it’s too late for that – this is the artist screaming “WAKE UP! LOOK AT THE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS!” Hudson Mohawke and Daniel Lopatin ensure that the avenging angel Anohni walks through an electronic hinterland as he pelts doorsteps and bed sheets with fish guts, animal blood and human limbs. Despite the grotesqueness of it all, Anohni’s vocal sounds more beautiful than it has at any prior point (and that’s quite the statement considering she once released “Hope There’s Someone”), blending seamlessly into her new avant-garde electronic surrounds. The hypnotic trance like drone of “Obama” is horrendously addictive, while the abhorrent apology “Crisis” is masterful work of faux-sincerity and “Drone Bomb Me” is the best/worst of all. Anthony takes the role of the victim, standing on a hillside in Pakistan, singing to seduce the drone bomber, hoping an anonymous missile will rain down and “blow my head off, explode my crystal guts, lay my purple on the grass”. It’s sexy and supremely uncomfortable and I, for one, have never heard pop or protest music quite like it. Hopelessness is a true one of a kind: a work of genius, unlikely to ever be repeated.
The Critics Say: “An extremely compelling, beautifully articulated, bonafide masterpiece.” Drowned In Sound
1. You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen
The 411: “I wish there was a treaty we could sign, between your love and mine”, Leonard Cohen’s 50 year career as a poet-turned-popstar has tragically come to an end and, somewhat implausibly, the carnally obsessed Bird On A Wire saved his greatest and most brutal lyrics for the very last. Inspired by his son to cut back on the heavy electronic production and release a stripped down work, Cohen delivered a hauntingly hoarse collection that sees his husk of a voice tackle finality itself. Despite the heavy use of religious and spiritual imagery, this is not an album overtly about impending death, instead You Want It Darker focuses on the act of letting go of that which you cherish the most (and that poisons you most cruelly). Cohen is travelling light, letting go of women he has earnestly loved, as he turns to face the road (and the reaper) he stands unburdened. The couplets, which are routinely devastating, are adult in a way that defies the very nature of pop music. Cohen is exploring the extremes of romanticism and all the pain that ensues, but, rather than rebelling or dwelling, he’s coming to accept the necessity of pain and of departure (angels he had to abandon to out run his demons and nagging obsessions that he can never forget, but must be consigned to memory).
“I don’t need a reason for what I became/I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired lame”, Cohen music proves so beautiful because he makes no attempt to save face or pull any punches (least of all those that land on his own chin). He’s content to waltz alone in the moonlight, high on the memory of wholehearted love – the fact that he’s now alone hardly matters. Cohen’s decision to take the long view on a life lived to its fullest is heartbreaking, but wholly rewarding. For Cohen’s fans this is a final chapter, for newcomers, a mystery to be unpicked in reverse. The notion of a flame (i.e. his libido) being extinguished is elegantly brought to life with a career spanning and defining metaphor: “the beast won’t go to sleep” (1988) leads inevitably to “the wretched beast is tame” (2016).
You Want It Darker is a confessional masterwork that was set to top this list long before Cohen left the table once and for all. These wonderful decaying waltzes tell the story of man who lived vicariously through his libido and was left in old age to reflect on what now remains. He’s still trudging onwards, chilled by ghosts he’s abandoned and warmed by an intimacy and tenderness that is now alien to him, but still stirs in his subconscious. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the long view: a songwriter writing perfect songs that don’t seek to justify, simple to accept the decisions made across 82 licentious years.
The Critics Say: “Leonard Cohen’s 14th studio album is a bleak masterpiece for hard times from pop’s longest-serving poet.” The Telegraph