It’s 2016 - almost 2017 - and it's that time of year. End-of-year Top 10 List time. How old hat, I hear you squeal. Well ya know what’s more old hat than an end-of-year Top 10 list? Whingeing about end-of-year Top 10 lists and how it’s soooo hard to make a Top 10 list and how lists are not valid because you can’t rank music yadda yadda yadda.
It’s not that hard! Look, I’ll do one right now.
(Granted, I still haven't even listened to the Tribe album, or the Chance album, or the Frank Ocean album, or a billion other albums. But for what it's worth, here's a bunch that both sucked me in and kept me coming back).
10. Terry - HQ
Even though I knew I would love this album, I held off on listening to it until the tail end of the year. I guess maybe subconsciously I wanted to give myself something to look forward to?
Terry’s HQ brings together the most fun elements of two of Al Montford’s other bands - Total Control and Dick Diver - whether that be witty shambolic pop, wonky new wave or blistering punk. Terry also features Total Control’s Zephyr Pavey, Mick Harvey collaborator Xanthe Waite, and Amy Hill. This album is so much fun it’s easy to forget the searing social commentary that comes with it; you get lines like “what’s a war without the poor?” (Moscow on Thames) and “he won’t say sorry ‘cause They don’t say sorry, why would you say sorry for that?” (Don’t Say Sorry). The album’s concise, funny, charmingly nonchalant but also totally earnest - all up, pretty much perfect.
9. Lucy Roleff - This Paradise
I’ve already written a lengthy review of this record over here. But suffice to say, I’m still drawn to it even at the year’s end - an understated but truly wonderful, inexhaustible release.
8. Noname - Telefone
There’s no Youtube video I’ve watched more this year than the one that contains Noname’s album Telefone. I mean, it’s not really a video, it’s just a stream of the album with the nicely painted, lavender-hued cover art in the background. But that’s all I want.
As with Anderson .Paak and Solange (below - spoilers!), Noname’s 2016 album leant into the smoother tendencies of contemporary hip-hop and R&B - but lost none of its oomph or gravitas in the process. From the warbling ‘Diddy Bop’ to the jazzy languor of ‘All I Need’ or the choppy doo-wop of ‘Sunny Duet,’ Noname sings and rapid-fire raps us through countless neighbourhood scenes, memories and exchanges, navigating sadness, pain and wistful optimism. Just a really, really good album that stands out in a bumper year for female MC output (see also: Kate Tempest, Princess Nokia, Nadia Rose, Little Simz, Kamaiyah).
7. PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
Like several other records on this list, Polly Jean Harvey’s ninth studio album married thematic bleakness with instantly lovable songcraft: big guitar riffs, rattling drums, crisp clean vocal melodies and a healthy splash of horns, percussion and other flourishes. There’s plenty of careening voodoo-blues, svelte garage rock and tasteful sound collage. A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down has been a favoured 2016 tactic, often yielding great results; in any case it seems many of us were already feeling too raw to embrace stuff that sounded truly ugly. PJ granted us an unabating treat for the ears.
This album’s title references the razing of public housing to establish new, shinier communities, making gentrification its intriguing (if not very rock and roll) departure point. Elsewhere, the album is influenced by trips to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington DC - war, inequality and apathy being recurring ideas. It’s a record whose politics are ambiguous at best (it’s not clear what agenda PJ is pushing or resisting overall), and questionable at worst (“The Community of Hope” attracted scorn for describing homeless drug addicts as “zombies,” albeit with tongue arguably in cheek). But these same can be said of some of modern music’s most acclaimed records; here, I’m reminded of Radiohead’s Ok Computer. In both albums, lyrics comprise fragments of the confusing global discourse in which the song’s author moves and survives. Sometimes these are just “found objects”: echoes of disembodied jargon or unfinished thoughts. It’s not a manifesto, but it’s very real and familiar. It’s okay not to have the answers. Especially when your songs sound this good.
6. Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Malibu might not quite be a masterpiece, but it’s about as masterly as you can get while retaining the quirks and flaws that frequently make the album format so interesting.
Lovingly hewn by the drumming/rapping/singing Brandon Anderson himself, plus a team of impressive collaborators including Madlib, Schoolboy Q and Hi-Tek, this album enveloped you like a lush fantasy world you could wander around in all day. Heavily laden with earthly funk, cosmic psychedelia and carnal soul, it boasts a consistent audiophilic attention-to-detail: every single sound is rendered perfectly.
Do you like smokey dance floor smoothness with handclaps, cowbell and a punchy half-time rap verse? Of course you do, and to scratch that itch you’ve got ‘Am I Wrong.’ Glistening bluesy slow jams? See: ‘The Bird.’ Propulsive wonky funk a la Flying Lotus x Thundercat? ‘Lite Weight’ will meet your needs.
Malibu didn’t necessarily connect with me on an emotional level as much as other records on this list. But as a polychrome jigsaw of performances, moods and sounds, it’s a joy to behold.
5. Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos
Kate Tempest is the outrageous high achiever who still manages to exude the charisma, grit and steely determination of an underdog. She’s an acclaimed novelist and playwright, award-winning poet and prodigious rapper: it’s the latter that interests us here, though Let Them Eat Chaos nonchalantly dissolves the boundaries between novelistic prose, performance poetry and hip-hop.
Thanks go out to CPN big banana Andrew for introducing me to Kate Tempest via his radio show. It only took one listen and I was hooked, and I’d venture you’ll feel the same if you lend your ears to huge tunes like ‘Ketamine For Breakfast,’ ‘Europe is Lost’ and ‘Don’t Fall In,’ which just as readily recall Yeats or TS Eliot as Jehst or the Wu-Tang Clan. The album’s mostly dark, polemical and dense - perhaps not one for daily listening. But its squelchy, shuddering, timeless beats and expertly delivered, vivid portraits of contemporary youth and working-class life make it totally indispensable.
4. The Avalances - Wildflower
I’m not sure that there’s too much to say about The Avalanche’s fiendishly-anticipated return, except that I frothed on it. It’s as colourful and ornate as the title suggests, but that doesn’t even go part way to suggesting its rambunctious eccentricity.
The group re-emerged out of the blocks with a suitably bizarre offering: the still-puzzling ‘Frankie Sinatra,’ which set two freaky rap megastars (Danny Brown and MF Doom) against an arbitrary calypso sample and some kind of oompah-electro-swing beat, interrupted by ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music of all things. Other gambits were more trendy and frictionless, like the Toro Y Moi-featuring ‘If I Was A Folkstar’; ‘Subways’ recalled the classic Avalanches plunderphonics boogie approach, and ‘Colours’ plumbed the popular aesthetic of modulated, retro, vaguely hushed lo-fi pop. But as soon as you thought you could follow a stylistic direction, the Avalanches flipped it on its head. There are literally hundreds of samples and therefore hundreds of tiny sound-worlds here - it’s a phantasmagorical trip of the most delightful variety. One of my favourite things about music (though this also applies to other media) is how it can only reveal itself in piecemeal, over time, and thus to listen is an experiential passage, an exponentially meaningful sequence of signs, not just an immanent perception. When you’re listening to a team of outrageous humans pack 16 years’ worth of creative energy into that listening sequence, you’re in for quite an adventure.
3. Ermine Coat - Faulty Landscape
This one nearly snuck past me ‘cause in my head it was released last year. But no, March 2016! Incredible record (only Perth album on this list as it turns out). Once again, I’ve written about this one at length already, over here, but have since confirmed that Ermine Coat does not endorse Robin Thicke in any way.
2. Solange - A Seat at the Table
Despite immense achievements throughout the last decade or two, Solange Knowles’ work has long hinted at an unrealised potential. Her artistic ambition and individuality, evident in the musical and conceptual streaks of albums Solo Star, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams and EP True, always felt somehow hindered.
Solo Star functioned (functionally) within the confines of the era’s pop R&B stylings; Sol-Angel repurposed motown and soul tropes. True did the same with ‘80s new wave and, don’t get me wrong, I listened to that EP a silly amount of times but it only had one truly great song (the brilliant ‘Losing You.’)
So it was thrilling to finally hear Solange totally flex, and unleash an intricately artful, unapologetically political record. One which not only crystallised her various approaches to date, but improved upon every thread therein. It’s a unique listen, punctuated by spoken word interpolations reflecting on black rights and pride; it features contributions from members of Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend, Outkast and beyond. Its tunes are alternately bold and melodic, or gestural, skeletal, wispy. Across twenty compelling tracks, there are plenty of standouts - the sanguine gospel-funk of ‘Junie,’ the simmering soul of ‘Weary,’ and the muscular, defiant jazz-hop of ‘F.U.B.U.’ But nothing quite transcends the genius of lead single, ‘Cranes in the Sky,’ in which Solange stunningly croons a relatable confessional about escapism over a sparing palette of syncopated drums, slinky bass, inventive piano and elastic, undulating string quartet. I’m listening to it right now and, even on the hundredth listen, it gives me goosebumps. Those high vocal notes at the end! The hiss of that cymbal at the start of each bar! It’s probably my song of the year, the crowning achievement in a thoroughly resolved album that invites you to explore its details over and over again.
1. Anohni - Hopelessness
If the word of the year wasn’t “post-truth” or “democracy sausage” it could very well be “hopelessness.” Few terms so concisely encapsulate 2016, in which the dreaded unthinkable has just kept happening: the success of Trump, the ruin of Syria, Brexit, the point of no return for cataclysmic climate change. Closer to home: the return of Pauline Hanson, Cory Bernardi wears a MAGA red-cap, Don Dale Detention Centre torture, the effective demise of the Great Barrier Reef, etc etc. In times of chaos and despair we readily turn to the arts; this year, many cultural icons were snatched by death - often too soon - which felt like especially cruel salt in the wound.
Anohni knows all this, is perhaps more attuned to the world’s myriad ills than most, yet she perseveres. Not unlike The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual in 2013, Hopelessness seems to ask - what does it mean to persevere in the face of planetary death? What does it mean to make art while staring down the four horsemen?
In response, compellingly enough, Anohni chose neither an elegiac nor cathartically aggressive musical direction. She recruited inventive party-starter Ross Matthew Birchard (Hudson Mohawke) and postmodern electronic eccentric Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) as production collaborators. And she wrote conventionally brilliant pop songs that spring into vivid hyperreality through their vanguard electronic flourishes. It’s easy to imagine the album sounding like a forced mashup of each artist’s distinctive style, but it doesn’t: it’s a magically cohesive thing, each approach seamlessly enfolded into the other.
Unlike PJ Harvey’s record, during which you can almost ignore the political motifs and simply enjoy the ride, Hopelessness hits hard, and often. The first song, and its first line, are ‘Drone Bomb Me’ - and things don’t get much brighter from there on in.
‘4 Degrees’ follows a similar logic of twisted, imagined violent desire: “I want to hear the dogs crying for water, I want to see the fish go belly up in the sea / and all those lemurs and all those tiny creatures, I want to see them burn / It’s only 4 degrees!” No song I’ve heard has launched such a savage attack on those who dismiss the perils of global warming, and certainly no such song has produced the uncanny awkwardness of being this damn enjoyable.
‘Watch Me’ creepily personifies the surveillance state as a paternal figure: “Daddy, daddy, watch me in a hotel room / Watch my outline as I move from city to city / Watch me watching pornography / watch me talking to my friends and family.” Anohni invokes the supposed justifications for such invasions: to protect the surveilled from evil, “terrorism,” and “child molesters.” Yet it invites a reading of this popular narrative as artificial, and forces you to confront what the tenuous promise of safety is worth.
The album continues in this vein: somehow forging songs that are simultaneously simple and complex, blunt yet poetic, devastating yet really fun to listen to. It’s not that the pop-song format refashions the apocalyptic vision as a kind of escapist horror movie. Rather, it creates a counterpoint, a kind of bittersweet joy on which to balance your distress. All the while, too, you’re marvelling at the creative prowess that’s gone into the record, which helps ease the discomfort entailed. But lines like “the rotten bodies threaded gold / the pitch of hair and sticky meat” or “now you’re cutting heads off innocent people on TV” were never exactly going to go down smooth.
But what does Anohni tell us with Hopelessness that we didn’t already know? As eloquent as these songs are, most of them aren’t imparting fresh information; they’re refracting tragedies we’re all too aware of. There’s certainly something to be said for humanising stories that we usually receive as cold news reportage, but there’s more to it than that. It seems the message is that we can’t let culture become merely a place of fantasy and escape. If we feel hopeless, we should confront that, work through it, and mobilise art - in all its potency - to help us figure out what to do next. The label adorning the Hopelessness LP reads “Don’t Shy Away!” Because however blissful it might feel right now, ignorance is where hopelessness truly comes to roost.
10 Honourable Mentions:
Beyoncé - Lemonade
No Zu - Afterlife
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Tourist Kid - A Circulation EP (could easily be in the top 10 but it’s not an “album” but then again who cares?)
Julia Jacklin - Don’t Let The Kids Win
David Bowie - Backstar
Tangents - Stateless
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani - Sunergy
Benjamin Witt - Future Reset
Wilson Tanner - 69