Here are TQR’s favourite albums of the year. Find a spotify playlist at the bottom of the post. There were, of course, many other great albums this year. Hovering just outside this top ten are Leonard Cohen’s haunting swansong You Want It Darker, Frank Ocean’s emotionally subtle suite Blonde, Kevin Morby’s brilliantly addictive Singing Saw, the surprise return of The Avalanches with Wildflower, as well as excellent releases from TQR favourites like Tim Hecker, Julianna Barwick and Lambchop. But as fine as those records are, here are the ten I’m most vouching for…
10 • KAITLYN AURELIA SMITH • EARS
Much of Ears reminds me of evolution, of the fizzing, frothing, foaming soup at the beginning of time. But it also evokes human attempts to replicate evolution’s chemical concoctions, through things like the process artworks of Richard Serra and Morris Louis, or Pollock’s drips, or the randomly generated planets of No Man’s Sky. The criss-crossing wires of the Buchla synthesiser – a rare, impossibly complicated early electronic instrument, which Smith specialises in playing – look like a tangle of DNA strands, cross-pollinating and producing unexpected mutations and evolutions. Out of all these effervescent, electronic soapsuds come odd, unexpected bubbles of melody or song, often in the form of chant, as in ‘Arthropoda’ and ‘First Flight’, but sometimes in even more unexpected guises, as in what sounds like a flute appearing halfway through ‘Wetlands’, or a saxophone in ‘Rare Things Grow’. These song-bubbles sometimes resemble other artists – ‘Envelop’ reminds me of Julian Lynch, ‘Existence in the Unfurling’ of The Knife – but inevitably dissolve back into Smith’s unique potions.
9 • ANIMAL COLLECTIVE • PAINTING WITH
Animal Collective’s music seems to exist well outside the zeitgeist now. It seems funny, in retrospect, that they went through a period of being popular and adored at all. Merriweather Post Pavilion, their most critically-praised album, is just as weird, overstuffed, chaotic and repetitive to these ears as the extreme high-and-low frequencies of Here Comes the Indian (long before it) or the demented kid’s TV themes of Painting With (long after it). My point is, they’ve always made music for outsiders, for weirdos. They like to play with things that teeter on the verge of annoying: meowing like kittens on ‘Leaf House’ from Sung Tongs, repeatedly dismantling, in a discordant clash, the gorgeous swells of ‘Daffy Duck’ from Feels. On the verge of annoying but, for me, never quite tipping into it: that’s what makes them thrilling. Painting With is much the same: the repeated trick of Lennox and Portner alternating each syllable of the vocal lines, the squelchy, rubbery synth sounds that you feel in your body, the ‘Wipeout’ laugh and snatches of Golden Girls dialogue flitting around in the mix. You either love this stuff or hate it. The criticism that such playfulness is childish is surely offset by the lyrics, which read as humble attempts at tackling serious subject matter: the environment, gender, the internet. And just as previous albums have had their own distinct sense of landscape (a treehouse for Sung Tongs, a campfire for Campfire Songs) these feel like Florida songs, the sounds repeatedly recalling the state’s mangrove swamps, as when the last word of “so many ways” on ‘Hocus Pocus’ seems to melt in the heat. “Floridada, floridada…”
8 • JESSY LANZA • OH NO
This is infectious pop music, with an instrumental backdrop that is somehow both minimalist and stark, yet hugely varied in terms of its influences. Everything is polished and sharp and glittering, doing lots with little. Take ‘It Means I Love You’, which starts out with a house-y kick drum and some South African-sounding tabla, before drums straight out of a Chicago footwork track come in. And yet despite its variety of rhythms, the track is never cluttered, with Lanza’s hook cutting through everything like a knife through silk: “when you look into my eyes boy, it means I love you”. That seems a pretty strange thing to say: when you look at me, it means I love you. Does the singer just want someone to pay attention to them? Desire is perhaps the key theme here, treated subtly and complexly throughout. Her voice is also great throughout: I love the way it hiccups on the hook of ‘Going Somewhere’, the way it seductively draws you in on ‘New Ogi’ and then dismissively shrugs you off (“I say it to your face but it doesn’t mean a thing, no!”) on ‘VW Violence’. And yet, with characteristic subtlety, that last line could equally be read as insecure: as the singer worrying about being ignored. These moments of looking, of eye contact, appear throughout (“don’t look when you talk to me”) and always have an emotional tug to them. Also, great songs for dancing round the kitchen to.
7 • RADIOHEAD • A MOON SHAPED POOL
I already wrote a whole post about this, so don’t want to add too much here. It’s Radiohead. It has ‘True Love Waits’ on it, an absolutely gorgeous, heartbreakingly sad version of ‘True Love Waits’ on it. It’s very good.
6 • DAVID BOWIE • BLACKSTAR
A record which hung over the whole year, “at the centre of it all”. A final, burning goodbye, “in the villa of amen”. Indelibly linked, of course, to Bowie’s death just a few days after its release. He knew he was dying, he kept it a secret from almost everyone, and he channelled that secret knowledge into a record which looks death squarely in the face, a record which is ready for death, which dances with it. A record which is fierce in its experimentation, forward-thinking where one might expect it to be maudlin or nostalgic. Honestly, I can’t get over that title track. It’s by turns eerie and sad and funky and transcendent. And then ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’ comes rumbling out the gate, consisting for more almost a minute of nothing more than an insistent drum beat and some odd flecks of sax and noise. “Man, she punched me like a dude!” Oh, Bowie. You can’t give everything away, but you gave us this.
5 • A TRIBE CALLED QUEST • WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE
Who knew we needed the Tribe back so badly? Hearing lead track ‘We the People’ for the first time was revelatory. Of all the comebacks this year, the Tribe’s felt like the most necessary. That instantly classic chorus – “all you black folks, you must go; all you Mexicans, you must go…” – will remind us for years to come of what it was like to be alive in this horrible year. Yet music like this is one potential antidote: ‘The Donald’ doubles as both a tribute to member Phife Dawg, who died from diabetes this year, and (without ever explicitly acknowledging it) a counter-narrative to another Donald trying to build his own self-aggrandising legend. The album somehow feels simultaneously like classic 90s ATCQ (IMW is a huge Low End Theory fan) and yet also completely current and relevant and necessary. Everyone is on top form, musically, vocally, lyrically. Like Wildflower by The Avalanches, it is startling that this album exists at all, and even more startling that it’s actually any good. But where Wildflower inevitably feels a little nostalgic, this feels bang up-to-date. Apparently, despite the large number of guests – Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Jack White – everything here was recorded in the same room, in Q-Tip’s house. You can feel that spirit of togetherness throughout. It feels much needed.
4 • IAN WILLIAM CRAIG • CENTRES
Like Lambchop’s Flotus, Craig uses vocal processing here in genuinely unexpected and creative ways. The record is bookended by two equally vital versions of the same song, ‘Contain’. The opening ‘Astoria Version’ sputters into life with a distorted drum pulse, which gives way to a distant squiggle of what sounds like the decayed corpse of a melody, something deep into one of William Basinski’s decay processes. And then Craig starts singing – in his astonishing, operatically trained voice – through heavy auto-tune. It’s unexpected even a dozen listens in and yet, as the song builds and builds into a ten-minute waterfall of noise and drone, it begins to make sense. Equally captivating, and equally unexpected after the hour-plus of experimental ambient music that has preceded it, is the closing ‘Cedar Version’, a tender, lo-fi ballad with strummed acoustic guitar. I guess expectations are all about context. Between those two bookends, the record dissolves into all kinds of shreds of emotive texture and tone. It is an album which uses the language of ambient music – that is, essentially, background music – in such a way that it utterly absorbs attention while listening. I don’t move, I just listen.
3 • ELZA SOARES • A MULHER DO FIM DO MUNDO
A record made by a woman with more life and grit and chutzpah than most artists a quarter of her age. A samba record that sounds nothing like you’d expect a samba record to sound like. A record by a 79-year old with a song called ‘Pra Fuder’, translation: ‘To Fuck’. A record which, like Beyonce’s and Solange’s, explored what it means to be a black woman in 2016. A record carried by incredible musicianship, but even more by that incredible, malleable, all natural force of Soares’s voice, a voice which, like Leonard Cohen’s on You Want It Darker, has gained layer upon layer of complexity and character as it has aged. A record which opened and closed with the raw acapella power of that voice. A record by a woman at the end of the world, do fim do mundo.
2 • NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS • SKELETON TREE
It just starts. Thwack: you’re hit with a wall of texture. These are songs built on what sound like great slabs of texture, cross-cuts through the surface of the earth, layers of sediment packed on top of each other, millions of years of accrual. And atop these huge, rich slices of instrumentation, mixed well above them like the voice of God, is Cave’s gravelly spoken poetry. It is impossible not to be moved by these songs – it is some of the darkest and most pain-wracked music I’ve ever heard. “You’re a young man waking covered in blood that isn’t yours.” Is that an image of birth, or death? Impossible to know. I’m trying not to mention Cave’s son’s death, but it is impossible – though much of this music was written beforehand, that horrible event has inevitably seeped its way into the album. The whole thing is a desperate prayer: “with my voice, I am calling you” goes the first track; “I called out, I called out, right across the sea” goes the last. The first five songs are overwhelmingly dark, almost hopeless, but cracks of light do appear towards the record’s end. Yet I almost find these songs – ‘I Need You’, ‘Distant Sky’ – even more difficult to listen to, the sound of a man trying to escape from his pain. And then, the soft catharsis (a strange oxymoron, but I don’t know how else to put it) of the closing title track: breath-taking.
1 • ANNA MEREDITH • VARMINTS
Opening with the astonishing alarm call that is ‘Nautilus’, everything about this album is surprising, thrilling, and constantly catches you off guard. Example: the opening track builds and builds, horns and synths locked in an increasingly intense battle in the air, and then finally, finally, almost three and a half minutes in, the drums kick in, and they seem to slow the track down. How does she do that? Like many others on this list, Meredith combines apparently disparate influences into something startling and new: classical, dance, pop, guitar rock, experimental noise, ambient. It’s all here, and yet it somehow (to use an old cliché) adds to more than the sum of its parts. My appreciation of this music deepened enormously after seeing it performed live in September: her joy in performing was palpable, and the musicianship involved in actually making this cacophony of sound was astonishing. Though there is certainly sadness and uncertainty and anxiety in this music – as on the yearning ‘Scrimshaw’, the pent up nervousness in ‘R-Type’, the freaked-out sideways-glancing of ‘The Vapours’ – the album repeatedly arrives at small moments of hope. It refuses to give up that little spark of hopefulness. In a year in which so many tongues were occupied with lies and slander and hate speech, in which overt racism and sexism has become more acceptable and widespread, in which many people preferred to make bitter jokes and snap judgements rather than trying to understand opposite points of view, Varmints dares us instead to “say something helpful”. And I think that is why I liked this record more than any other this year. I found it helpful. I found listening to it helpful. It was a light among so much darkness.