Some Albums I Liked in 2016
I ended up missing out a lot when I did this last year.
The very different but equally superb debut albums of Misþyrming, Minami Deutsch and Courtney Barnett, Bell Witch’s devastating Four Phantoms, the simultaneous minimalism and intense pressure of My Disco’s aptly titled Severe, the warmth and variety of Jamie xx’s In Colour — these were all albums I simply didn’t get around to until this year. With that in mind I’ve tried to broaden my listening this time around, not miss anything I’m likely to regret missing later. (I’m sure I still missed plenty.) Having listened to more music, candidates for the list naturally became more numerous. Here I’ve narrowed them down to fifteen, beginning with…
15: Pleiades’ Dust — Gorguts
Gorguts’ latest, a half-hour EP consisting of a single long composition, goes places. It’s a chaotic, swirling piece of music that ricochets from one movement to another with wild abandon. The band’s well-established form of extremely technical, jagged and disorienting avant-gardism is on full display, with the more restrained sections proving just as unnerving as the blast beats and atonal guitars of the full-on death metal. The most memorable moment comes at the EP’s end, presumably constituting its final ‘movement’: the sheer frightening cacophony of the way this thing ends. Or, it doesn’t so much end as simply dissolve into chaos — which seems appropriate.
Highlights: Pleiades’ Dust
14: Adore Life — Savages
Savages have always managed to keep their severe, monochrome post-punk aesthetic interesting by the surprising variety of their compositions and the explosions of punk and noise rock energy that appear whenever a song threatens to become familiar or predictable. This album doesn’t disappoint in that regard. From the ferocious punk energy of ‘The Answer’ and ‘T.I.W.Y.G.’, through the warmth and fullness of the guitars on ‘Sad Person’, to the Swans-esque dogged, menacing patience of the album’s two slow-burners, ‘Adore’ and ‘Mechanics’ — Savages prove themselves again and again to be more than just the one-note 80s throwback they are sometimes painted as by critics. Not every experiment on the album works, but when Savages hit their stride, they are formidable.
13: Feed the Tape — Orson Hentschel
I’m not sure how to categorise this album exactly. It’s a sort of beat-driven minimalism that on account of this percussive focus it seems odd to describe as ambient music, noise or drone. I find myself wanting, though none of the genre really sounds like this, to call it techno. That’s the term that, for me, captures the really vital sense of repetitive movement in this music. The music is largely composed of percussive loops alongside ominous drones and bursts of noise, which are used sparingly, often coming in only after several minutes of unaccompanied percussion. What’s really striking is the sheer inhuman industrialism of the music. Orson Hentschel’s music has a violent power that is more than the sum of its stripped-down parts.
12: Rheia — Oathbreaker
Oathbreaker are one of those shoegaze/black metal/post-rock fusion bands whose particular genre has never really found a name that doesn’t grate (blackgaze? post-[black] metal?) — regardless, what Oathbreaker are doing here is a little different. Though they share with Deafheaven a common toolkit of light/heavy, folk/metal transitions, they aren’t, in their heavier moments, always striving for the formless, weightless, ecstatic liftoff that defines the climaxes of similar bands. Their ominous acoustic sections lead into explosions of noise that mine a long list of influences, from hardcore to sludge. Holding the whole thing together is multi-talented vocalist Caro Tanghe, whose clean vocals evoke Chelsea Wolfe, while during heavier moments she can scream with the best of them. There’s a raw ferocity often lacking in other modern black metal bands that Oathbreaker deliver in spades.
11: untitled unmastered — Kendrick Lamar
This is a weird one for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s ostensibly just a compilation of ‘unmastered’ outtakes from last year’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly. But this isn’t how the album comes across at all. Songs that ought to be little more than sketches are carefully put together, polished pieces of music complete with occasional high-profile guests who are put to good use. Even ostensibly improvised moments give the impression of being too perfect not to have been staged. Themes carry across the album in ways that suggest a significant level of thought. Much on the album leaves you wondering why it wasn’t incorporated into last year’s release, but what happened instead is equally interesting: this is a significant, conceptually sound record that stands independent of its parent album. The other strange thing here is that we’ve heard a couple of these songs before, in spectacular live performances. This is what leads to the release’s only real disappointments — this version of ‘untitled 03’ really can’t stand up to its live counterpart. But as problems go, an abundance of extant greatness is a good one to have.
10: Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love — Cultes des Ghoules
Given my tastes it’s surprising that I’ve never encountered an album claiming the status of black metal’s answer to the rock opera before, but here we are. Coven is a record composed of five vast compositions, each of which comprises countless individual movements which frequently take surprising left turns (take for example the unexpected prominence given to playful, almost jazz-tinged bass guitar in moments near the end of ‘Scene I’ and early in ‘Scene IV’, or the sludge metal chug of the latter’s middle section). The album’s overall aesthetic embraces a gleefully over-the-top gothic occultism which is at times difficult to take seriously (though easy to enjoy ironically) — but the sheer ambition and adventurousness of the music here, recalling Weakling’s Dead as Dreams, makes this album deeply worthwhile.
9: No One Deserves Happiness — The Body
The Body are seriously committed to an aesthetic of pain. As you might assume from its title, No One Deserves Happiness, one of two excellent albums they released this year (the other a collaboration with grindcore act Full of Hell) maintains this aesthetic to devastating effect. Most songs on the album are made up of some combination of spacious sections guided by driving percussion and the powerful voice of long-time collaborator Chrissy Wolpert, alongside dense walls of noise pierced by harsh shrieks. It’s an intense and at times frightening listen, but perhaps its best moment comes on ‘The Fall and the Guilt’, a powerful vocal piece in its own right, backed up with mournful, discordant strings, over which a wall of static gradually rises until the ‘song’ part of the song is overwhelmed. It’s a stark reminder of the devastating impact this thoroughly unfriendly kind of music can still have.
8: Light Falls — Wrekmeister Harmonies
‘What if Godspeed You! Black Emperor were a doom metal band?’ is a question I had not asked, but was happy to have answered. Wrekmeister Harmonies have been doing something akin to that kind of apocalyptic classically informed post-rock for years now, but this time around actually enlisted members of Godspeed. The combination, it turns out, works. The album does what you’d expect, structurally, from this kind of thing — slow, quiet builds to tortured, beautiful crescendos, followed by hopeful, tentative codas. The album’s last two tracks, the crescendo and coda in question, are where the thing really shines. The emotional weight of JR Robinson’s rough, yelled, furious vocals (‘There is no god!’) paired with the mournful strings of Sophie Trudeau and Esther Shaw on ‘Some Were Saved, Some Drowned’ is matched only by the quieter beauty of closer ‘My Lovely Son Reprise’. It’s a climax as powerful as any in these musicians’ storied histories.
Highlights: ‘Light Falls II — The Light Burns Us All’, ‘Some Were Saved Some Drowned’, ‘My Lovely Son Reprise’
7: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages — SubRosa
Luckily for me, it turns out there was not one but two quite different, brilliant answers to ‘What if Godspeed did doom metal?’ this year. This one’s a concept album about Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal dystopian novel We, which is maybe a hard sell, by a band featuring not one but three female vocalists, a rare enough thing to hear in doom metal. None of this really matters; what matters is the weight of the guitars, the movement of the violins, the steady deliberation of the drums, the polyphonic interplay of the various vocalists — what amounts to the energy of these compositions, which turns out to be abundant, free-flowing and powerful.
6: We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service — A Tribe Called Quest
Listening to We got it from Here’s first moments, it’s hard not to feel a sense of relief wash over you. Something in the sheer, warmth, richness and quality of the production immediately lets you know: this is going to be worthwhile. Every new track brings another joyful, adventurous surprise (the sample of Can’s ‘Halleluhwah’ on ‘Lost Somebody’, that one tiny vocal sample structuring the whole of ‘Whateva Will Be’), and throughout the album there’s the constant impression of a real group of hip-hop legends bouncing off one another and creating something more than the sum of its parts. Far from the soulless cash-in reunion this could have been, it’s one of the most vibrantly alive records released this year. And those beats are irresistible.
Highlights: ‘The Space Program’, ‘Whateva Will Be’, ‘Solid Wall of Sound’, ‘Dis Generation’, ‘Kids…’, ‘Enough’, ‘Conrad Tokyo’
5: Preoccupations — Preoccupations
New name, same modus operandi. Preoccupations (FKA Viet Cong) add a few more synths this time around, but they haven’t lost any of their rough edges. Their second self-titled album has more of the texturally and structurally ambitious compositions and killer hooks that made their debut (another one of those albums I missed last year) such a treasure. The highlight of this album is in a way its answer to the debut’s astonishing ‘Death’ — ‘Memory’, another big, emotionally weighty song, implicitly divided into three movements, each more surprising than the last. This is the album’s big centrepiece, but the shorter songs, too, often take equally surprising left turns, like the unstoppable rhythm and bass in the last two minutes of ‘Stimulation’. Preoccupations isn’t quite the album its predecessor was, but the band have gained as much as they lost along the way.
4: A Moon Shaped Pool — Radiohead
Anxiety, ennui, and orchestral bombast, sometimes taking turns, sometimes coexisting — the dominating moods of this album were pretty in tune with those of the year of its release. The musical components that dominate the album, Johnny Greenwood’s evocative, cinematic string arrangements, do a large part of the legwork in creating this mood, along with Thom Yorke’s desperate voice, which you’ll know by now whether you love or hate (I love it).
This is most effectively displayed on the album’s opening tracks — which are also its lead singles — ‘Burn the Witch’ and ‘Daydreaming’. The former is a tight, tense composition, while the latter is slow, mournful and expansive. Both are texturally gorgeous, neither really clings to the pretense of being rock music— this is something Radiohead, at least in their studio recordings, largely abandoned some time ago. ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues the long-standing tradition of having Yorke try to be Nick Drake once per album. Elsewhere, things get weirder, with the ominous electronic buzz and Thom Yorke’s vocals seemingly attempting, with moderate success, to channel a sort of Scott Walker-esque weirdness. The album ends with a long-awaited studio version of ‘True Love Waits’, which, well let’s just say it’s one of a couple of songs to which I’ve spent a significant amount of time crying through this year. (Read on, attentive audience, for number two!!)
3: Skeleton Tree — Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
I’m not going to repeat the cliché about great art arising from great suffering. There’s not much left to be said about the astonishing achievement of this album under the circumstances. But it’s worth saying that the songs on this album would stand out regardless of the biographical context. It’s worth saying that the marriage of heartfelt yet enigmatic songwriting with sparse, unsettling and discordant instrumentation is, in its best moments, absolutely crushing on an emotional level. It’s worth saying, too, that ‘Distant Sky’ has never once failed to have me in tears.
2: Blackstar — David Bowie
Like the previous entry in the list, it’s difficult to write about this album and come across as impartial. I’m sure this thing has ended up on a couple of year-end lists it wouldn’t have were it not for its creator’s subsequent demise. Some go as far as to reinterpret songs like ‘Lazarus’ or ‘Dollar Days’ retrospectively through the lens of this apparently well-timed death. But I have to believe that the main effect of the circumstances was to make critics pay closer attention to a fairly short, fairly strange record by a musician in his twilight years. Because there’s a lot to merit serious attention here (you may notice my highlights below consist of all but two of the album’s seven songs — little is superfluous).
The title-track recalls Station to Station, and feels like the material for at least two separate, excellent songs intricately arranged into one composition. ‘Lazarus’ is a ballad with uncharacteristically harsh, unsettling instrumentation. ‘Sue’, one of the album’s two re-recordings of recent songs (both marked improvements on their originals), bounces with manic energy between jazz fusion and the kind of industrial/drum and bass experimentation Bowie delved into in the nineties. ‘Girl Loves Me’, the album’s weirdest moment, recalls latter-day Scott Walker in its horror-music songwriting, all violent exclamations and frightening strings. ‘Dollar Days’ returns to more conventional, slightly folk-y Bowie, but with an irresistible poignancy. The album, with its wild variety, its unity in weirdness, feels like a last reminder of the sheer breadth and adventurousness of the late Bowie’s talent.
1: blond — Frank Ocean
This is an album for dazed midnight walks home from ambivalent evenings. It’s a melancholic, dreamy album concerned with surreal impressions mixed in with heartfelt expressions of love, or heartbreak, or malaise, or any number of other things. This is what Channel Orange did too, but here, Ocean seems more low-key, less bombastic — vaguer, but in a positive sense.
Take ‘Skyline To’, a quiet, contemplative account of a romantic encounter which is taken over by keyboards a couple of minutes in and goes to a pretty magical place. Or album opener ‘Nikes’, the pitched-up vocals of which make way at the end for a powerfully sung coda in Ocean’s unmodified voice. Or ‘Solo’, which progresses lyrically from ‘Hand me a towel, I’m dirty dancing’ to ‘It’s hell on earth and the city’s on fire’. Or ‘White Ferrari’, a song that doesn’t so much have verses and choruses as it has a new refrain every minute, each better than the last. Or ‘Seigfried’, which has a moment of musical apocalypse in the middle (accomplished, again, by the dramatic flourish of Johnny Greenwood’s string arrangement) where a pitched-up voice can be heard repeating ‘this feels ironic’ as the strings create cataclysm around it. Or the album’s astonishing centrepiece ‘Nights’, which explodes into a jagged, repetitive, almost krautrock guitar figure halfway through, collapses, and then slowly works its way back to a reprise of the chorus from scratch. There’s barely a song on this thing that doesn’t take a surprising and rewarding left turn, often in the form of a powerful new refrain, before it ends.
The album is notably full of guest performers, but they are broadly unnoticeable if you don’t go looking for them (was Kendrick on this album? An enduring mystery). This is Frank’s album. It’s a great musical mind wandering and mourning and self-pitying and celebrating and regretting and imagining, and it’s a refreshingly exploratory, indulgent release in a year that has felt all too urgent.
Highlights: ‘Nikes’, ‘Ivy’, ‘Solo’, ‘Skyline To’, ‘Self Control’, ‘Nights’, ‘White Ferrari’, ‘Seigfried’