It’s almost common knowledge by now that music has been exceptional in 2016, even if everything else hasn’t. It’s been inspiring to see so much good music come out of uncertain and frightening times. There’s been a couple of major shifts in the industry too. Streaming continues its rise, artist exclusives continue to drop on platforms like Tidal and Spotify, and we hear the same stories about rock music dying and the music industry not having any money on an almost daily basis. Saying that, when the industry can’t drag itself into the 21st century, there’s a push for alternate ways of distributing and consuming music. Bandcamp and Soundcloud continue to offer alternatives, with some of the best music of the year being born on both. It’s unclear what the music industry will do to come to terms with this new divide, but it’s very clear that the quality of music refuses to drop.
Next Thing – Frankie Cosmos
Next Thing improved in almost every way upon its predecessor, Zentropy. It still clocks in at a punky 28 minutes and contains songs that barely break the minute mark, but that’s all in the charm. Frankie Cosmos albums are like collages, little snapshots of a much broader picture, that when it gets pieced together is a colourful combination of pure ectasy and uncertainty. To hear songs like ‘Embody’, where Greta Kline talks about the ‘grace and lightness’ in her friends, and the happiness of seeing her friends being friends, and hear no skepticism, or sarcasm, is refreshing and for a second, makes me think the world might be an ok place. It’s unashamedly sentimental, and the fact that I have to specify sentimentality as being shameful is pretty dreadful. There’s sad moments on Next Thing, but I find the most rewarding moments are when Kline feels strong and content by surrounding herself with people she loves.
Heads Up – Warpaint
Without a doubt Warpaint’s greatest moment yet. They’ve moved away from their more guitar-oriented sound, pared back to their strong bass and drums section and then built on top from there. What you get is a dance-inflected pop-rock album that casts off any sleepiness from their last album for a more immediate version. ‘New Song’ is possibly their best pop song yet and ‘So Good’ and ‘The Stall’ delve into hip-hop in a much better capacity than they attempted on Warpaint. Heads Up sounds like the title; less heads-down swaying, and more heads-up dancing.
MY WOMAN- Angel Olsen
Perfecting a sound, Angel Olsen traced over Burn Your Fire For No Witness in much bolder lines, filling in the folky elements with bluesy ballads and powerful pop like ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, one of the best singles this year. There had been crescendos from Angel Olsen before (see ‘Windows’), but when ‘Sister’ and ‘Woman’ come along, bearing fangs with classic rock soloing and Olsen declaring ‘I dare you to understand what makes me a woman’ with that voice, it’s goosebump-inducing. A bit like Warpaint, this album was like the one Olsen had been leading up to, to reach a peak in sound. But then again, why limit this album to her peak? She’s got much more to give.
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
There’s still much more to understand about A Moon Shaped Pool, and there’s constant fan interpretations of what Radiohead have offered this year and that’s Radiohead’s big trick. All they have to do is release an album, and there will be talk over the tiniest details. Is it about Thom Yorke’s breakup from his partner? Is it about the rise in nationalism (somewhat confirmed)? It’s probably about climate change too. Maybe there’s no grand arc. But the key to any mystery-shrouded band is giving the illusion that there might be. A Moon Shaped Pool is an unusual album, Radiohead take their time to look back for once in their career, and accept their influence. By doing that, this isn’t their ‘electronic’ album, or their ‘political’ album, but a collection of everything they’ve toyed with. This was their breath out.
Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds
If there was an album that perfectly captured 2016, it was Skeleton Tree. Nick Cave working through grief by song is nothing new to the Bad Seeds, but this time it was real. Cave spills his guts when he had no reason to, and there’s plenty of credit to be given for an artist that brings the pain of reality into the public sphere. He touches on the real and the surreal, car crashes and the rings of saturn, electrical storms on the bathroom floor and hyenas singing hymns. This was Nick Cave the poet on fine form. You could almost separate the music from the lyrics, but the subtle twitches and groans of the Bad Seeds are the ideal accompaniment to the album.
Leave Me Alone – Hinds
This album made a lot more sense in Summer. When I played it at the beginning of January, it seemed wrong to hear songs about dancing in the streets, going to the beach and a general sunniness that covered these songs from the Madrid band. Refreshingly different, born from equal parts love and sadness. Hinds are needed for indie music, not attached to any British or American ideas of coolness or what’s trendy, instead making music that they’d play at house parties for their friends. Close your eyes listening to this, and you can imagine being on a beach in Spain late at night, possibly a bit drunk.
2007-2011 – P.S. Eliot
I adore P.S. Eliot, so 50 of their songs being boxed together, complete with demos and barely audible recordings was like early Christmas. The album brings together everything the pre-Waxahatchee/Swearin’ bands, bursting with youthfulness, a DIY spirit and perfect rock songs. Personally, I’m more attached to the first album, Introverted Romance In Our Troubled Minds, which gets plenty of demo treatment, so hearing early versions of ‘Incoherent Love Songs’ minus the harmonica, or ‘Hail Mary’ is useful for connecting the dots between P.S. Eliot and Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee. I hope P.S. Eliot go down in history as one of those short-lived punk bands that everybody loves, and this is a pretty great place if you want to hear it all.
Human Performance – Parquet Courts
Great follow-up from Parquet Courts. They’ve shifted gears at exactly the right time, using their Parkay Quarts mini-LPs Content Nausea and Monastic Living as a template for a more americana-tinged sound. When Sunbathing Animal came out I was worried that the band had slipped into a comfort zone, so Human Performance is reassuring to hear that Parquet Courts can experiment on their main releases as well as their mini projects. I’m a huge fan of the more mid-paced songs like ‘Captive Of The Sun’ and ‘Berlin Got Blurry’.
How To Be A Human Being – Glass Animals
Glass Animals have a Vampire-Weekend-from-the-UK thing going on. A group of preppy students playing around with non-Western styles and making a pop dent at the same time. Dave Bayley is a hugely underrated lyricist, slotting in some truly weird imagery about cocaine on ‘Cane Shuga’ and drinking pork soda. There’s also a concept running throughout the album, where every character on the artwork is represented in a song. So what you get is a set of character studies about being a human being. High concept, but it doesn’t get lost in the story. ‘Life Itself’ and ‘Youth’ are some of the best singles this year.
Teens Of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
This seems like a big success for Will Toledo. It’s fairytale-like: Guy makes a couple of albums on Bandcamp, gets noticed by label, releases a hugely successful album and ends up on plenty of best-of-the-year lists. If that’s not punk then I don’t know what is. It’s been a long time coming for Toledo, and he didn’t simply repeat his lo-fi sound on a larger scale, he brought in a full band and made his mini-epics into actual epics like ‘The Ballad Of Costa Concordia’. I hope he doesn’t get tagged with the ‘depressing indie music’ stamp of death, because there’s a lot of humour in Teens Of Denial, it just comes with a lot of confusion and self-depreciation too.