On the morning of 10th January 2016, I woke up alone in a 12-bed hostel dorm in Prague. By the time I'd stumbled downstairs to breakfast, I already knew why there was nothing but David Bowie playing on the stereo. It seemed like the young year had slumped to an early, heartbreaking nadir. I didn't know then that it was just the tip of a nosedive, that the whole world was due a relentless live stream of hatred, disappointment, fear, anger, betrayal. That it would be a capitulation.
I know, I know: in 2016, we lost.
It would be sentimental to assume that the rest of the year's artistic output mirrored that sadness - each season bears its more or less equal share of mischief and melancholy - but perhaps those writers and storytellers who worked in shades of black found an audience who, for a long time, could see nothing else. Even Kanye put out an album riddled with prayer, paranoia, and self-doubt. Even Kanye, this year.
Lest we forget, that's what good music does: parties with us when we're high, cries with us when we're low, and crying-with-laughter-emojis with us when we barely know which fucking day it is, let alone how we're supposed to fix a path to the end. There were loads of great albums in 2016, and whittling this down from an initial top 30 was surprisingly tough; I'm still staring at this list in disbelief, wondering how I could have possibly left out A Trible Called Quest, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Bat For Lashes, Radiohead, Savages, PUP, The Hotelier, Martha, Big Thief, Shura, Julianna Barwick, Kate Tempest, Kendrick Lamar, De La Soul, and of course, Bowie's swan song... Anyway, I hope you found some records that helped you feel less alone amid the madness; please, let me know what they were. Here were mine.:
10// Pinegrove - Cardinal
Did you ever have an emo phase? Mine lasted from the age of 19 up to... 31? Oh, I guess I'm still in it.
What I loved about Pinegrove's Cardinal, though, was how utterly simple and stripped back it is, almost a country record in places. There are no fancy production techniques, nothing slick whatsoever, just a few solid musicians and Evan Stephen Hall's terrified yell beating a path over the din. In that way, for an album that seems to primarily focus on lost and corroded friendships, it feels utterly comforting, something to come home to that makes you feel a little warmer. I self-medicated Cardinal like a morphine drip this year, and nothing felt better than sequestering myself away with the sound of hope and desperation intertwined. "What if we could wake up in five years and things'd be feeling alright?" Fuck.:
9// Glass Animals - How to be a Human Being
Pretty sure not a week has gone by in the past four months without at least blasting out "Youth", if not the whole record, at the loudest volume my British sense of decorum will permit in an apartment building. Far and away the indie breakthrough of the year, Glass Animals' How to be a Human Being effortlessly hits the sweet spot between fun and sexy, the kind of album Wild Beasts have been trying to make since Present Tense, and Junior Boys haven't really nailed since So This Is Goodbye. Closing track "Agnes" even proved they can write world class heartbreakers. I can't wait to see what they do next.:
8// Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch
"I don't think anyone ever talked to me using the word desire at all" she says on closing track "Lorna", while crystalline keyboards shimmer in the background, looped in from some abandoned chaos emerald bonus stage. After all the noise and excitement, and the ambitious lyrical palette that came before ("Like capitalism, it works like unrequited love, it never rests..."), it's a crushingly straightforward statement that lays bare the essence of her work. Jenny Hval is not a trickster. If she does make us uncomfortable, it's through naked honesty, a commitment to touch and examine the human body in its quietest, most vulnerable places, and to love them. And in that respect, on her own terms, Blood Bitch represents the finest accomplishment of her already impressive legacy.
(Read my full review here.):
7// Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Nearly every winter, one record pops up in January or February to convince me that nothing else will eclipse it all year. This year it was Malibu. Not content with that, .Paak spent the year showing off on other projects, from providing the vocals for "Glowed Up", the standout track on Kaytranada's already standout LP 99.9%, to collaborating with Knxwledge for equally impressive side-effort NxWorries. But oh, Malibu! Soul-kissed California hip-hop at its mighty finest.:
6// Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
Around the time I was regularly drilling number three on this list, I realised that there was one common factor on that record's divinest moments (SPOILER: I'm thinking of "Ultralight Beam" and "Waves" here), and that was Chance the Rapper's fingerprints all over them. Among all the big talk, Chance brought a level of soul and playfulness back into mainstream hip-hop, and when he finally put out a mixtape that brought nothing else, it was a revelation. "All We Got" provided its own dramatic, gospel-tinged intro track; "No Problems" was the party crush of the summer. Even "Juke Jam" conspired to make Justin Bieber sound like a credible guest recording artist. That's talent.:
5// Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
"Upside down and inside out and on all eights, you're like a funnel-web, like a black fly on the ceiling; skinny, white haunches high in the sky, and a black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything..." You probably already know the back story: this was the first album since Arthur Cave, Nick's 15 year old son, fell to his death from a cliff face after a reputed LSD trip.
There's nothing left to be written about this album, but it's firmly established itself as my most beloved Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds record since The Boatman's Call. Divine.:
4// Childish Gambino - "Awaken, My Love!"
Because when Questlove phones D'Angelo at 4am to tell him he has to listen to this record right now - which actually happened - you know it's going to be one of the all-time sexiest albums ever made. As if already being a star in the wonderful Community (and probably the handsomest man in the world) wasn't enough. Now he's come out with one of the best albums of 2016. Frankly, it's obscene that so much talent could exist in one Donald Glover-shaped man. Lend some out, y'know?:
3// Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
The sheer, thrilling audacity of it all. I still can't stop listening to it.
2// ANOHNI - HOPELESSNESS
Let's make one thing clear: this project was the musical vision of Antony Hegarty, with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never collaborating on co-production duties. Gorgeous vocals and songwriting + maximalist trap beats + a bit of ambient drone thrown in for good measure? Frankly, I think an hour of Antony clearing her throat while HudMo fell asleep on a Kaoss Pad would have made my top ten, but that's just the kind of abominable hipster I am.
Regardless, HOPELESSNESS is much more than that. As an artist, Antony captured a painful new moment for humanity: the experience of an emotional reaction to the devastation being wrought upon our planet, and - crucially - the realisation that we are born into the world as part of the problem. It reminds us of our new original sin, an eschatological sin that compromises our every daily action, from the clothes that we wear to the food that we eat, all bound together by the language we choose to describe the events unfolding. "I tried to keep a focus on myself in terms of addressing my complicity in so many of these issues — as a taxpayer, as a consumer, as a passive participant," Antony said of the creative process. "I got to thinking perhaps as an artist, even as an artist with the best of intentions, that I was kind of a microcosm of the brokenness of the whole system. That within my body I contained the whole conflict." If HOPLESSNESS achieves anything, beyond its existence as a beautiful yet troubling piece of music, it should be to remember that the personal is political at every level.:
1// Mitski - Puberty 2
Like a childhood memory that comes rushing back, recalling the last time you felt a genuine sensation of joy - sunny-day mown grass, the end of school, the end of Streets of Rage II - the first time I heard "Your Best American Girl", it woke something inside me that had been sleeping for a long time, and I realised that it was precisely this: indie rock didn't have to be dull, it didn't have to be either an ironic or lazy pastiche of its own history; that the sound of an electric guitar could be the most thrilling thing in the world, and it could be Jailbreak, Doolittle, The Bends, or Live Through This, but right now it was Mitski's Puberty 2.
Of course she acknowledges the borrowed tropes, the nods to Orientalism, the male gaze, and so on. She understands that writers have to "decide on a theme" from which to hang their own ideas. She gets it. It's just that "Your Best American Girl" is a love song, and every reference to gender and race and nationality is a single drop of rain beating a path to the ocean of that person will not ever love you the way that you love them. It comes from a place of unadulterated hurt, the kind that you start to couch in terms of a bereavement, because the lexicon of love is too pitifully inane to capture its spread. It is not a calculated sleight against cultural mores...
The world doesn't need any more beard-stroking articles pontificating on the death of guitar music, or its glorious resurrection, and I have no intention of writing one. Besides, that would imply that Puberty 2 is part of a larger cultural movement, that it might somehow usher in a new wave of kids in leather jackets and Fenders writing rock's hagiographies of the future. In fact, it's just the opposite: an utterly stand-alone record, a bolt from the blue that cares nothing for fashion or consumer appetite.
(Read my full review here.)