In 2016 it seemed like the western world caught up with its own mortality.
If you loved music then that realisation became extra profound as lynchpins of modern pop culture seemed to fall, one by one, kicking off an endless domino effect. It's the end of the age of legends and the start of something much darker and suspect.
Of course in all the misery there's light: two of the year's most affecting records came from two of the year's greatest losses, reaffirming for many just how powerful an album can be - in one case as a physical object as much as a collection of songs. Music endures, songs endure and albums endure. it's just that simple.
Here are the fifty records that made 2016 a beautiful, sad, profound and memorable year for us.
On their debut album Ugly Cherries, NY genre-queer duo PWR BTTM make no statement. They don't have to. Instead, they've created a record that bares their character to a blatant degree. In exposing and addressing their own fears and worries, PWR BTTM create a sense of innate familiarity, sounds which cuts through any pretence and disarms to charm.
Loud and unruly, they sing with both naivety and experience. A voice of comfort whilst expressing their own issues, Ugly Cherries is as down to earth as they come. Condensing their larger-than-life dreams into a two and a half minute burst on "Dairy Queen", morning lost love on "West Texas", and looking for romance on "I Wanna Boi", the duo present themselves with all their insecurities in all their glory. Lighthearted and wild in places, intimate and revealing in others, Ugly Cherries is whatever you want it to be.
Glass Animals’ upswing from a mysterious glitched-out bunch of slug lovers to a rabble-rousing crew of pop pied-pipers is an astonishing sight. They broke America like a brittle twig. Australia, Europe, the UK – huge territories quickly turned into hotspots of peanut butter vibes.
They debut record ZABA was a jungle: claustrophobic, insular, secretive, cryptic, and frequently jaw-dropping. It rarely gave much away. How To Be A Human Being is demonstrably clearer – Glass Animals jumped into the daylight, toying with form and themes and never looking back.
The record's finest moment comes in its closing minutes. After a warped buildup of sordid tales and kooky manoeuvres, the band ready their final salvo, “Agnes”. It's undeniably huge and rousing, a lighters-in-the-air festival finale kind of track that tugs your heart in opposite directions – one second it's the saddest thing you've ever heard, the next it's true euphoria. It's so rich with emotion it makes you giddy and hysterical – all you can do is sing along.
On Nott a Hafsbotni, Icelandic eccentric dj. flugvél og geimskip waded away from the shores of her native Iceland and condemned herself to time alone in deep water, conceptually basing her writing around the marine. This makes for an unnerving, ungrounded venture that is everything but smooth.
Despite being made up of a plethora of warm transients and analogue instrumentation, the texture of Nott a Hafsbotni is unconventionally abrupt and irrational. "Gamli fjandi" - built on a four note, disarming and militant bass line, cut with samples and pitted against incisive synthesiser lines - feels very much like the Magna Carta to understanding the record. It self-references and surmises pedal points using layers of vocals and percussive melodies.
It's rare for a piece of art take you to the places of impotence and weariness that Nott a Hafsbotni does - and that's a perfect reason to listen.
The humble spawning of MMOTHS in the house of a teenage Jack Colleran many moons ago is a story that is shared by many bedroom producers from the late '00s chillwave revolution. Colleran’s musical endeavor has aged well and the resultant LP of his bedroom years is a full-bodied, and texturally intricate sonic treat.
Juxtaposed throughout, the over-arching narrative – when taken as a whole – is one that ebbs and flows to perfection, and paints a picture of a more complex, and often darker, musical soul. Sometimes that's all done in a single track - "Para Polaris"’, contains moments of disturbing and overcrowded angst, which seem even more so when paired with the more serene and sparse moments of Colleran’s now trademark expert production.
It’s hard to single out a standalone track from this impressive debut and this, in itself, is testament to the LP on the whole. For it’s only when considered in its full form that the true beauty, complexity, and intricacy of this coming-of-age debut can be fully appreciated – and that’s exactly what Luneworks is.
The artwork for Wild Beasts' fifth album is an incongruous array, jarring yet compelling, and pretty much a perfect image for a record that weds soulful pop to industrial grit, Justin Timberlake to the Berghein. No more the lilting arpeggios that characterised so much of Smother: Boy King punches more like Nine Inch Nails when Trent Reznor was still sexy, synths strafing and drums pounding like the outro to “Closer” teased out for forty minutes.
Skeptical? We all were, but it doesn’t take long for the band to prove that the hard-left turn was absolutely the best of plans Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s vocals spar over a bed of writhing basslines and shredding riffs and insistent, siren beats, driving and compulsive and with little let-up until the album’s detumescent closer.
Wild Beasts have long done cerebral but on Boy King they hit the body hard and it’s difficult not to get up and respond.
On his final album You Want It Darker, the late Leonard Cohen frequently conjures haunting scenes where his singular presence is fading and his creative light is starting to dim. Melancholy lyrical ruminations on fatality are nothing new for Cohen, but on these nine new songs he showed both resignation and comfort that the end was near.
These songs have the funereal grace of David Bowie’s elegant final goodbyes as well as Bob Dylan’s trio of reflective, mournful albums that helped usher in – and bring some clarity to – the fractious start of this century But each of these paragons of modern pop have their own distinctive way of expressing how their respective journeys draw nearer to the end, as well as their own poetic manner of embracing, or brazenly refuting, the darkness that awaits us all.
Cohen spent his entire career illustrating both the fiery and fatal sides of love through his words and his music, and anyone who has listened to his songs has learned something true about themselves in the process. Even after death he remains a beacon of inspirational light in a world gradually consumed by vile intolerance and abhorrent characters, but through his music we can all join him in keeping darkness at bay for as long as we possibly can.
The Mercury Prize-nominated Channel The Spirits is primarily the spellbinding show of British saxophonist, composer and cosmic band leader Shabaka Hutchings.
It’s aptly-titled, as Hutchings blows the doors off the traditional swinging trio, leaving the kosmiche jazz funk of Can and astral investigations of free jazz pioneers such as Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane in the dust. It might be a bold claim but the raw beauty of this ambitious 42-minute album is a joy to behold. While Hutchings’ stellar and varied performance often denies his teammates oxygen, it’s such an inspired performance that you forgive the Sons of Kemet sax sensation for finally coming of (space) age.
Douglas Dare’s music is solitary, passionate and moving. In the stories he tells, the melodies he sings and the conviction he sings them with.
The most immediate difference between Dare’s second album album Aforger and his first Whelm is the production, which sees the piano shifted from the heavy lifting musical accomplice to one part of a more complex yet uncluttered arrangement. Despite this enriched production, Aforger still sounds distinctly Dare and an exceptionally consistent record. “Venus” is somewhat reminiscent of Radiohead's "Videotape"; not of huge surprise considering Dare is a self-confessed fan, who also happens to be making some of the most beautifully crafted melancholy since the golden era of Radiohead's grief (~'97-'03).
If Douglas Dare was hotly tipped before, Aforger makes him essential listening.
Nineteen-year-old Norwegian AURORA lives in the same world of magic realism as Franz Kafka and Angela Carter. In portraits and videos she surrounds herself with butterflies; symbols of freedom, carriers of dreams, the personification of a soul – living or dead. In her lyrics on debut album All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend she sings of a hunter’s moon, wolves, blood, dreams and running, escaping. You could land in the middle of any song here and and find imagery which none of AURORA’s contemporaries are dealing in, and the incredible thing is that it’s a fully-formed vision to which the listener can fully buy into.
On the record's cover we see her half-cocooned, half-ready to fly and that’s where we find the artist too. Torn between home and adventure, fantasy and reality, AURORA is looking for - and carving out - her own path out of the forest. Getting lost and angsty is part of a journey filled with leaps of faith and imagination. There could be further detours along the path, but she’s searching in her own singular, utterly beguiling way.
For an artist hailing from the Australian suburbs, you might not expect Julia Jacklin’s sound to be so imbued with the spirit of the American south, but debut album Don’t Let The Kids Win is exactly that. It’s an album that owns much more to Dolly Parton than it does to Courtney Barnett.
Jacklin’s approach is not so much one of appropriation, it’s more a genuine instinct for musical direction, which shines through in her undeniable knack for delivering sardonic one-liners enveloped in soft, touching pastoral melodies. It’s that good ol’ ozzy wit busting through that classic southern American sentimentality. And it’s an intoxicating mix.
She proves herself to be an unlikely alt.country heroine, delivering an impressive, if at times understated, album that shows she has enough wit and wisdom to fill up a canyon or two.