Look past the losses of 2016 and what you’re left with is an otherwise stellar year for music. It speaks volumes, however, that so many of the year’s finest albums predicate on darker themes. But across albums that tackle topics as diverse as racism, sexism, age, death, tragedy, loneliness, what proves profoundly striking is the shared sense of fire, grit and perseverance that resonates through each. It has been a year in which so much of our music has dealt with despair and yet managed to deal out hope. Acceptance is perhaps the other big theme; self-acceptance, mainly. Whether it’s Angel Olsen’s defiant Woman, Chance’s celebratory Blessings, Bowie’s terminally beguiling Lazarus, or Solange’s soul-searching Cranes in the Sky. The mutual catharsis of this year’s best music seems to have given artists an urgency and vitality, a striking sense of relevance, that has allowed 2016 to become a year of music in which a Kanye West release can seem like only an afterthought.
1//Angel Olsen – My Woman
The most perfect album of the year. Angel’s growth from her compelling but sonically limited earlier releases is staggering. This album sounds so rich, so full of personality and character and energy that it has proven to be a source of ceaseless comfort in a year that might be most tactfully described as ‘long’. It balances dark and light, the blaze of sound and the slow burn, with a swagger and assertiveness that has been an antidote to a year in which many of this year’s most superlative music has also been suffocatingly sombre. Channeling surf, soul and seemingly whatever sound or mood she dare try, My Woman is the most comprehensively rewarding album of the year.
2//David Bowie – Blackstar
Regardless of where you stood in a year defined by division, the seemingly relentless tide of pop culture tragedy seemed to weigh heavy on everyone by the end of the year. But Bowie’s passing was different for me. For an artist that I have been a devoted follower of since my teens, Bowie’s death should have struck a deep blow; instead it felt right. Few people get the chance to define their death, but Bowie did. Leaving us with a final masterpiece, an album that demonstrated once more the astonishing abilities, and sheer daring, of the century’s greatest artistic chameleon. After the relatively conservative The Next Day, Bowie bowed out with a final challenge, a strange, sad, uncategorisable piece of work that only truly unfurled itself with his passing following its release.
3//A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
This year’s other final statement was no less powerful and no less fresh sounding than Bowie’s Blackstar. A Tribe Called Quest are a collective whose already colossal influence seems to expand with every passing year. Guest appearances from the likes of Anderson.Paak, Andre 3000 and Kendrick Lamar testify to the caliber of their descendents, but it’s the core group, plus frequent collaborators Consequence and the hyper-charged Busta Rhymes, who steal the show. Their final album outing, the end-point of a decade long touring reunion, and featuring posthumous performances from Phife Dawg, re-asserts just how relevant they remain. The year 2016 produced no finer three minutes than the explosive, defiant ‘We the People…’, and perhaps no finer side to an album than the opening eight tracks here. Music as intelligent and impassioned as this is rarely so compulsively listenable.
4//Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
It’s a rare thing to hear a record that can seem so necessary. Not in a societal sense, not in an aritstic sense, but in a deeply emotionally personal way for an artist. What we’re listening to here is music in its most purely expressive form. This is music that can feel like therapy, a slow, pained release of emotion. Skeleton Tree is an album that it seems strange to rate, never mind pay money for. What are you paying for? Nick Cave’s grief?
I imagine critical reception for this album washed right off Cave’s back. I also imagine critical reception for this album was never going to be anything less than laudatory. You can’t really pan an album as personal, as intrinsically heartfelt as this. Whatever form it was going to take it was going to be imbued with a special, spectral significance. But the real triumph of Skeleton Tree is its ability to transcend that grief, to signify through the intensity of its personal significance.
The story of the album is the death of Cave’s son, but that’s not really what it’s about. There is a redemptive core to this album that anyone can grab onto and make their own. It manages to be an album that communicates so much to the passing listener regardless of whether they even know the album’s tragic context. It takes the most deeply personal feelings and emotions of Cave and allows us to experience them, not just bear witness to them; to feel them and process them in our own way. You can sense Cave emerging from this album determined to push past despair, and that’s what he’s telling us too.
5//Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Preceded by the fantastically frenetic Burn the Witch, Radiohead’s latest was a strange, sad, thoughtful album when it finally emerged. A marked improvement over the anemic, fitfully inspired King of Limbs, A Moon Shaped Pool is the band’s slowest, quietest album, defined less by instant classic tracks and more by the sense of maturity and cohesion it carries. A thought I wrote down soon after its release was that, with its cold atmosphere and sparser sound, A Moon Shaped Pool seemed a bit like Kid A for people that don’t like Kid A. The difference is the familiarity of A Moon Shaped Pool – the conventionality of its piano and guitar driven sound, the nostalgia of bats in the attic like True Love Waits, and the reliable brilliance of Selway and Colin Greenwood. Jonny Greenwood’s strings send the band in new directions, but this is an album that seems tethered to the past and to dreamy, dusty reflection. Only Radiohead could make sleepwalking sound so special.