There were some hugely emotional and deeply poignant albums released in 2016. The crises that seemed to be overwhelming artists brought out some intense sounds which reflected the dense unease and dis-ease in the world, certainly in the UK and the US. The elephant in the room on this top ten is Dark Star which didn’t make it simply because Bowie’s music hasn’t touched me as much as some others. It is a potent album and a good last testament to an exceptional musician, just not a favourite for me.
1. Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Kobalt Label Services.
With Cave black is always a multi-hued colour, imbued with a vast range of subtle shades from deep indigo to the densest burgundy. In these songs of love and loss, belief and loss, love and endurance, belief and doubt, he has dredged new, heartfelt personal depths and created music that aches with pain, sorrow, stubborn fury and a genuine engagement with a divinity he has a very ambivalent relationship with. At the moment I think this is his best album so far.
2. You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen, Sony Music.
I could almost repeat the review for Cave and just insert Leonard Cohen’s name instead. Again, deeply personal, dialoguing with a deity with whom Cohen has a very tricksy relationship. On the surface the poetry is lightly structured, but underneath it sighs with intensity, which Cohen’s fragile voice brings right into the heart of the listener.
3. Adore Life, Savages, Matador.
Savages have been hanging out with Michael Gira and Swans, an association which has added more colour, more glowing violence, more nuanced noise to their sound. Savages songs are still swift, stabbing and skewed. I absolutely loved this album.
4. Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles, RCA.
What does it mean to be a black woman in America today? Solange Knowles explores the history of black lives in the US and how entrenched positions and prejudice still affect a woman such as her who is young, talented, rich and confident. There is anger and sadness as well as a kind of edgy serenity as Knowles rises above her racist detractors – diminishing them but not belittling the crushing impact of their casual hatred. This is not a genre of music that I listen to regularly, so it isn’t surprising that it reminds me of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and This is Jill Scott, with the mix of sketches and songs. The mix of politics and polished beats is potent and I’ve been playing this a great deal.
5. The Glowing Man, Swans, Young God Records.
It is Swans and I am a great fan, so I’m biased and this was bound to be amongst my best of the year. However, I’m sort of glad that this is the last album by this incarnation of the band, because the music, while still good, is falling prey to the law of diminishing returns. The all out assault of sound, curving and curling like minimalism on steroids is still forceful and freeing, but the lyrics are less coherent, the phrasal links jagged and blocked, the intensity of thought and sound has passed and while the band sound tight they are also beginning to almost feel a touch ordinary. The Seer is one of my top ten ever albums, To Be Kind was step down and The Glowing Man is another step away from greatness. Good compared with most new music but not at the level Swans can attain. The accompanying DVD gives a hint of that ferocious brilliance and the total immersion of a live experience of Swans.
6. Will, Juliana Barwick, Dead Oceans.
This has probably been the album I’ve played most this year, and have seen performed live. It carries through the trajectory of Nepenthe with Barwick producing music that relies on her creative weaving of dense textures to envelope the listener in her own distinctive soundscape. Her vocals are mainly wordless, an extra instrument, but they are an intimation, which I think you would pick up elsewhere in the music if you didn’t know it, that taps into a feminine connectivity with creation and technology, pushing ambient sound in a subtle and extremely pleasing direction.
7. Lady Wood, Tove Lo, Polydor Records.
Funny, fresh, feisty, this is my Scandi pick of the year. Witty, naughty, neatly crafted and yet deliciously messy at times, there are obvious connections with such as Lykke Li and Grimes, but Lo is very much her own woman and her music has is less darkly introspective and more noirish raunch.
8. Holy Science, Elder Ones, Northern Spy.
Confronting some of my pet hates – the saxophone and free jazz – head on I was at first intrigued and then drawn into the music of Amirtha Kidambi. The musicians she has gathered around her are stalwarts of New York’s experimental music scene, but the music is very much hers and she is in control. There is a Hindu influence to this music and I think it was the spiritual energy and the jazz fusion with the Indian drone tradition that kept me listening and, more than that, kept me enjoying this album even though at times there was too much saxophone and too much ‘jazz noodling’ for me to be entirely comfortable. There are many folk less biased than me who might find this extremely pleasurable and productive music to explore.
=9. Sunergy, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani, RVNG INTL.
=9. Ears, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Western Vinyl.
I came to both of these albums late in the year while trawling through reviews on Pitchfork for something new to listen to and so haven’t played them as much as some of the others on this list, but they are now firmly on my playlist and knocking Animal Collective’s Painting With off the tenth spot. Aurelia Smith creates synthesiser based soundscapes, preferring to use something called the Buchla Music Easel, which I think is vintage synth technology. Sunergy, her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani consists of three long tracks and sounds a little how I had imagined Tangerine Dream would sound if making music today (I know they are, but I haven’t heard them since the mid-eighties). It was simultaneously backwards and forwards looking, a strikingly pleasing sound that was quietly energising. Ears is a collection of short tracks and is more gently nuanced with layered vocals making it more personal with a wider sonic palette. Lush and luminous.
I suspect 2017’s musical round-up will consist of more historical than contemporary releases.