By ALEX LYALL and THE MAVERICKS.
Say what you like about 2016, but it’s been a phenomenal year for music.
It started with David Bowie’s final masterpiece and ended with Child Gambino’s first.
Along the way we’ve had a surprise follow-up from Kendrick Lamar, a rich magnum opus from Solange and Anderson .Paak bringing funk back with ferocity.
In a year fruitful with great music, it’s hard to know just where to start, so some of our wonderful team are sharing their favourite albums of this year. We’ve outlined what made our albums so great and why they’ll live on far beyond 2016.
The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It
The 1975 were back at it again this year, releasing a 17-track album filled with all sorts of eccentric hits. I think this album is one of the best releases this year because of how daring it is – a necessity when producing a sophomore record. You’ve got to show that your style is unique and very true to you, but also able to develop and offer more to the world.
You’d think this would be hard for a band who has made their place in the music world surrounded by a signature black and white alternative melodrama, but no. The title of the album I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It acts as the first punch, being unapologetically long and attempting to prepare you for what the band has created. The singles Love Me, UGH! and The Sound deliver a taste of what kind of experimentation with the pop genre has been created, and the rest of the album continues to express these powerful eclectic pop vibes, mixing together elements of chill wave, electronica, and funk.
The lyricism isn’t always relatable but it’s certainly ambitious, exploring the classic cathartic topics of love, fame, sex, drugs, and religion. Seems a bit all over the show, but flourished with a variety of pop lenses and punchy cinematic colours, and you’ve got an outlandish album, making headway for unapologetic pop music that’s ready to respond to critique when it comes.
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
No matter how far experimentation and innovation continues to take music, every half-decade needs it’s basic solid-rock band – extra points for songs about teenage angst, bad parties, etc. There’s just one problem. Recently they usually haven’t been very good. Enter Car Seat Headrest, the solo project in all but name of Seattle-based Will Toledo, who has released no less than 12 albums under this name on Bandcamp since 2010. However, this year’s Teens Of Denial, his major-label debut of new material, has been hailed as a moment of arrival artistically. And rightfully so.
This album is easily the most successful straightforward rock take on a teenage/early adult mindset in several years. Here, “straightforward” does not equate to unoriginal, mainly due to Toledo’s talent as a lyricist. His sad musings and insights (“They got a portrait by Van Gogh/On the Wikipedia page/For clinical depression/Well it helps to describe it”) are delivered in a tired worn-out Strokes-like murmur, and paint a strong cohesive picture throughout each of the album’s 12 tracks, uniting them all. This vocal style could be a turn-off for some listeners who have had to sit through endless similar deliveries in the 15 years since Is This It, but Toledo has the thematic material to back it up and match its character. The despairing late-night snapshots of (Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School) For Using Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t A Problem) display this best, a collection of aesthetically anti-poetic lyrical highlights.
The music shines in its use of dynamics, constantly moving us on towards the next release of energy and then exhausted rest. The vocals and lyrics engage the listener to a point that makes the massive, soaring power-chord choruses entirely passable and never as cheesy as they could easily be, instead coming off as a self-conscious release of themes in moments of extreme emotion and frustration, rather than cheaply designed hooks.
While the album is unflinchingly straightforward in its description of bad parties, bad cycles, social anxiety and awkward truths, Toledo is not proud, merely a realist. His descriptions and snapshots are permeated with a distinct sense of self-awareness and cynicism about these things (“I have become such a negative person”), a feeling of recognition and the hope of moving on. As he sings in The Cars-referencing Not What I Needed, “Good people give good advice/get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out/It’s a phase/It’s chemistry.” Well that’s good to know, I suppose, though I definitely hope this level of creative success isn’t also just a phase for Car Seat Headrest.
Vektor – Terminal Redux
There’s a real minefield of hyperbole surrounding this album. As soon as this bad boy touched the shelves, the words “instant classic” starting getting thrown around en masse. This was simultaneously an exciting and toxic time for discussion in the metal community. For those sane people who choose not to don their waders and trudge into heated sub-genre discussions that you never would have guessed existed, suffice it to say that Vektor, the “saviours of thrash metal,” were the talk of the town, and not everybody was riding the hyperbole-bus to Valhalla to place Terminal Redux amongst the giants of metal.
Amid all of this hype and criticism, there is a simple truth about the album; Vektor created something special. That something special is a 73-minute sci-fi concept album, anchored by a virtuosic thrash metal performance, complete with recurring motifs, and a little genre experimentation. It may not be as heavy as SUMAC’s What One Becomes, have the effortless, slow-burning energy of Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas’s Mariner, or the off-kilter insanity of Chthe’ilist’s Le Dernier Crepuscule, but Vektor’s clinical, lengthy, yet never boring performance about an immortal military general who rises to power among the intergalactic Cygnus regime remains the most memorable metal release of the year.
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Raw, refreshing, realistic and relatable, Blonde is a musical highlight of the year because it’s not trying to be something it’s not. Frank Ocean is back with ease and although some are questioning why he took so long, no one’s questioning Oceans newfound presence.
His music is chilled, honest and, with the possible exception of Pretty Sweet, is easy to listen to. Nike, Ivy and White Ferrari are soothing and great go-to songs. Although they all share a sense of mellowness and reminiscence, they still feel good to listen to and are accompanied by great underlying tones and beats that make you feel good.
Songs like Solo with its background organ piano, Seigfried with its raw and emotional spoken word, and Self-Control with its acoustic-like guitar and Akon-like repeats, reflect Ocean’s variety and singing ability.
What seems at first a little random, Be Yourself, is a refreshing addition to the album. Although it is short, it adds a lot to the album and shapes the songs around it with a sense of relateability. Who can say no to upbeat Pink + White, featuring Beyoncé? Not to mention Nights and Skyline To, which provide their own uniqueness and are also great additions.
Good Guy is short, sad and reminiscent, and Godspeed takes us back to church and finishes with an angelic women’s voice.
Although at times it feels as though Ocean occasionally goes off-track, the entirety of the album is an experience; one which can take a little getting used to. With time, the simple and raw emotion, stripped-back beats and scant yet powerful lyrics offer a welcomed difference from Ocean’s counterparts.
Blonde proves good things don’t come often. Fingers crossed we won’t have to wait too long for Frank Ocean’s next album. No doubt, this album can last another four more years.
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
For those that thought the title Atrocity Exhibition seemed a bit dark, let me tell you: it’s supposed to be. The name comes from the opening track of post-punk band Joy Division’s final album Closer. It’s a brooding, guilt-ridden song with lyrics like “Asylums with doors open wide/Where people had paid to see inside/ For entertainment they watch his body twist/ Behind his eyes he says, “I still exist.”” The pounding, tribal drumming finds itself as a sample on Golddust, a track that without Danny Brown’s nasal and loose rhyming could easily be a Birthday Party cut.
Danny Brown has long cut his teeth on the indie collaborations. Purity Ring and Charli XCX both made appearances on 2013’s Old. Despite getting the idea that Danny Brown is one of those “indie” rappers, Atrocity Exhibion still surprises in its commitment to the sound. Ain’t it Funny is the best example of how he utilised the colourful sounds of post-punk. Decorated in brass honks, murky bass and a thumping drum beat, the track stands as the pinnacle of innovation in 2016. Importantly, it features genuinely great bars, and genuinely great lines like, “It’s a living nightmare that most of us might share/Inherited in our blood it’s why we stuck in the mud.” Like it, When it Rain compliments great lines with a background atmosphere sound that constantly builds. The album is, in fact, peak post-punk.
Had Atrocity Exhibition relied on its ‘hip-hop meets post-punk’ shtick it would have bombed hard. Fortunately it primarily acts as a great hip-hop album. Danny Brown spits as good as he has ever done, the difference this time is it will go off at the Kings Arms just as well as it would at Bar 101.