If 2016 proved anything in album terms, it’s that the format isn’t going anywhere. We had artists who we lost this year make some of their most complete work (Bowie, Cohen, Phife Dawg), we had black American artists see hate and respond with restraint and beauty (Solange), we had mainstream experimentalism (Bon Iver, Frank Ocean), we had joy (Chance), we had terror (Anohni), we had new artists reaching highs (Anderson .Paak, Rusangano Family, Kaytranada) and older artists finding new sounds (Radiohead; or in Cohen’s case new lows). 2016 sucked in many ways but recorded music wasn’t one of them.
In association with:
40. James Blake — The Colour In Anything
39. Trim – 1-800 Dinosaur
38. DD Dumbo – Utopia Defeated
37. The Avalanches – Wildflower
36. NAO – For All We Know
35. Underworld – Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
34. Junior Boys — Big Black Coat
33. NXWORRIES – Yes Lawd!
32. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
31. Nicolas Jaar – Sirens
30. Banks – The Altar
29. Romare – Love Songs Part 2
28. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
27. Angel Olsen – My Woman
26. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
25. The Gloaming – 2
24. Leon Vynehall – Rojus (Designed To Dance)
23. All Tvvins – llVV
22. WHITNEY – Light Upon the Lake
21. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Special Night
20. Shura – Nothing’s Real
19. James Vincent McMorrow – We Move
18. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
17. BadBadNotGood – IV
16. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
15. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
14. King – We Are King
13. Kaytranada – 99.9%
12. Roosevelt – Roosevelt
11. Rusangano Family – Let the Dead Bury The Dead
The urgent energy is what hits. This is Skepta’s album and he has something to prove. Not only does his lyrical athleticism bring the energy flash, the production largely made by Skepta himself reaches a streamlined level of impact.
That urgency is tangible. ‘Man’ which samples Queens Of Stone Age’s ‘Regular John’ is classic grime remade with learned experience. ‘Shutdown’ and ‘That’s Not Me’ (with Skepta’s brother JME) signalled Skepta’s renaissance and are still fervent highlights here. ‘Lyrics’, which features grime protegée Novelist and pelts along on a warped vocal sample, chiptune synths and percussive claps is one of the most exciting tunes I’ve heard in ages.
Skepta proved with hard work, belief and style, you could reignite a scene and bring it to the wider world.
A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead enacting, both in music and subject matter, the thing that makes them long-lasting, the move between the micro and macro, the suggestion of the personal and universal, without ever committing to anything but a trace of the real. This time, the reflection they leave us gives is them at their clearest.
A stated celebration of “the sacred and precious struggles of human insecurities through many windows of familiar musical forms,” A Mineral Love has a record collector’s ear to it drawing from back-of-the-crate inspirations in funk, lo-fi folk, electro and pop and everything in between.
The album works in a cohesive mixtape form in a varied palette that include fragile smudged funk, bright soundscapes, kaleidoscopic acoustics and pastoral song-writing with a beat producer’s ear.
A lush, rich jazz-inspired experimental rock album, it will hereafter be viewed as a poignant closing statement, which is how Bowie intended it to be. The signs were all there – on Blackstar he sings “something happened on the day he died,” On ‘Lazarus’ he sings “look up here, I’m in heaven.” The videos for the tracks point towards a final transformation, in a career defined by them.
On the album track ‘Dollar Days’, the melancholy consumes the song and Bowie hints at explicitly saying what we now know. “I’m dying to / Push their backs against the grain / And fool them all again and again.” That now reads as “I’m dying too.” Bowie was always chasing, always pushing, always seeking. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to / It’s nothing to me / It’s nothing to see,” he sings.
When artists release albums close to their death, the “late style” of the release adds extra resonance (J Dilla’s Donuts). On Blackstar, Bowie is aware of his imminent death. He spent 18 months with cancer before he lost, yet he remained in control of his own artistic destiny. Bowie remained a music maverick, the magician who orchestrated his final departure in his art.