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The Best Fit Fifty Essential Albums of 2016

14 December 2016, 08:00

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.

Will by Julianna Barwick

Julianna Barwick, who hails from Louisiana and got her early musical training in a rural church choir, has always had a phenomenal gift for manipulating and layering her voice. On Will she showcases that same touch with richer instrumentation, fleshing out the skeletons of tracks with emotive piano and string arrangements.

As with fellow ambient artists like Arca or Tim Hecker, much of the power of Barwick’s work comes from the ability of listeners to project their own thoughts and feelings onto the soundscapes. She is particularly skilled at this, creating spaces and pockets in her music for the audience to stop and reflect, but without ever coming off as generic or crafting too blank of a canvas.

Barwick recorded Will in relative isolation, and it’s surely going to inspire plenty of moments of quiet, internal reflection in its listeners. It’s an emotional record first and an ambient record second, and one that will resonate even with those who typically aren’t fans of the niche genre.

Julianna Barwick Will

Changes by Charles Bradley

On third album Changes, we still get plenty of those moments of raw pain revealed on the tear-jerking 2011 documentary Soul of America but the Charles Bradley of 2016 is now the returning hero, triumphant and grateful, after charming audiences across the globe and establishing himself as a leading voice of the soul revival.

The stand-out moment on the record comes on the title-track, a cover of Black Sabbath’s 1972 strung-out ballad. Bradley turns Ozzy’s stark, elegiac despair into a gospel slow jam full of pit-of-the-stomach heartache and tear-stained memories. The bare intimacy builds to a climax of Hammond organs and brass howls, with Bradley recalling the death of mother and all those years of pain, and letting out the cry - “It took so long to realise/I can still hear her last goodbyes/And now all my days are filled with tears/Wish I could go back and change these years.”

Ultimately the Screaming Eagle of Soul continues to soar, and despite all of the changes, the reasons to fall for Charles Bradley remain constant.

Charles Bradley Changes

Chaleur Humaine by Christine & the Queens

Héloïse Letissie's androgynous alter ego in Christine and the Queens was conceptually conceived to allow her “to be more daring, to be stronger, more out of the box”. Having been schooled by the drag queens of Soho’s Madame JoJo’s in 2010, she launched herself into a successful career at home in France, and since then has won a variety of national awards celebrating her particular strain of pop.

On Chaleur Humaine - which originally debuted in 2004 in a French version - Letissier wants you to dance, whatever the subject matter,and her seemingly endless amount of electronic swishes and splashes will take you there. It’s a truly enjoyable record, a durable collection of interesting and exciting pop music.

Christine and the Queens Chaleur Humaine

Paintings of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

Much of Painting of a Panic Attack, Frightened Rabbit’s fifth album, is inspired by Scott Hutchison’s recent move from Scotland to LA, a real shift in scenery if ever there was one. It deals with the anxiety of leaving friends (and fellow band members) back home to explore a new place he discovered he wasn’t particularly fond of. That detachment is ever present throughout the album and brought to life with Hutchison’s particular lyrical mastery.

Though Hutchison’s talent for crafting beautifully dark stories hasn’t changed much, Frightened Rabbit’s sound most definitely has, thanks in part to The National’s Aaron Dessner behind the mixing desk. The usual aching melancholy that has the capability to flip to captivating exuberance at a moment’s notice is ever present but Dessner’s experience with The National gives a whole new, often gloomy, depth to their sound. It’s a shot in the arm that makes the record their emotionally mature and rich release to date.

Painting of a Panic Attack

The Sun’s Tirade by Isaiah Rashad

In the two years since he released his debut album Cilvia Demo, 25-year-old Isaiah Rashad was recovering from addictions to alcohol and Xanax that had escalated during his worldwide tour with labelmate ScHoolboy Q in 2014 and these naturally loom large over The Sun’s Tirade.

Addiction’s a life-long battle and it’s on Rashad’s mind throughout along with a sense of desperate dependency. Seldom has the nut-busting masculinity that overrides contemporary hip-hop been so open with regards to emotional weakness and vulnerability.

The unsettling irony is that it the record is mellow as hell with Rashad’s raspy-suave flow floating over subtle jazz-inflected beats, sounding like Vince Staples hotboxing a Cadillac. The Sun’s Tirade is never boastful or bloated, generally tending to stray from ubiquitous hip-hop debauchery. Rashad manages to sound as calm as an ocean’s gentle waves throughout.

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Sundur by Pascal Pinon

In the case of Pascal Pinon, time has proved to be an unflinching dividing force. Following the release of second album Twosomeness, siblings Ásthildur and Jófríður Ákadóttir found themselves following different creative paths; Ásthildur taking up a degree in composition in Amsterdam and Jófríður developing and finding huge success with her other band Samaris and subsquently GANGLY and solo project JFDR. Not bad, considering the pair have only just entered their twenties.

The intervening three years since Pascal Pinon took their enforced hiatus doesn't seem to have dampened their creativity, nor their drive to come together to create music, and Sundur is a solid testament to this. Tellingly taking its name from the Icelandic proverb "sundur og saman" meaning "apart and together" this balance of loss, longing and reconciliation lies at the heart of the album but the major showcase here is Pascal Pinon's songwriting. The fact that the duo have chosen to deploy a stripped back approach to the album, and the fragile beauty this evokes, leaves little doubt that the pair are more than capable of weaving some seriously ethereal magic, even when they're miles apart.

Pascal pinon sundur

I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it by The 1975

I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is lengthy, equal parts earnest and awkward, and pretty different from anything you would expect. It’s an impressive step forward from The 1975’s synth-soaked self-titled debut, experimenting both with instrumentation and subject matter in new and exciting ways.

Not every moment of the record works perfectly, but it’s exhilarating to hear a band stretch past their comfort zone in so many different ways. There’s a reason that many bands who trafficked in the same pop sound as The 1975 back in 2013 aren’t particularly relevant names nowadays, so to hear Matt Healy and co pack their second album with as many different sounds and styles as they did is both a welcome sign of growth and perhaps a bit of a survival technique.

The 1975 I Like It When You Sleep

Lady Wood by Tove Lo

Tove Lo has always been an astonishingly candid writer. With her second record Lady Wood, she uses a stunning technicolour pop soundtrack to tackle the preposterous idea that women are here to be objectified by men and passive when it comes to sex.

Lady Wood doesn’t just deal with redressing the imbalance of the sexes however. Like her debut Queen of the Clouds, it charts the ups and downs of relationships and is split into chapters; Fairy Dust describes the initial euphoria of lust and Fire Fade is about when the excitement wears off.

The narratives woven through the albuym are universal; desire, love, sex, the thrill of the chase, the ups and downs of love and a demand for equality. It’s pop music of the highest calibre, music for the head, heart, feet and everywhere in between. In the battle against chauvinists at least we have artists like Lo writing brilliant pop songs that are endlessly inventive, intelligent and relatable

Lady Wood by Tove Lo

Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 2016 record was finished after the tragic, sudden loss of Cave’s teenage son, Arthur. That horrendous tragedy permeates every note of Skeleton Tree, an album brimming with loss, death, and ruminations on mortality, but also Cave’s inimitable character portraits and a chilling sonic palate.

“I Need You” is a true heartbreaker. Cave sounds absolutely distraught, and his delivery is wavering and raw, giving the song a stream of consciousness sensibility. “With your eyes on one, we love the ones we can / Cause nothing really matters when you're standing”, he reflects, invoking something like survivor’s guilt. A simple, snare-heavy drum line and some synth chords occupy the blank space, but the track might as well be Cave a capella.

With its minimalist soundscape there are aspects of Skeleton Tree that are enjoyed more on an intellectual level, but it’s a record that will have engaged listeners clinging to every word. Death and loss have always been topics mined by Cave, but this may be the most visceral and powerful portrait of those feelings he’s ever painted.

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Confessions by Nico Muhly & Teitur

At times, the collaboration between Faroese singer/songwriter Teitur and composer Nico Muhly begins to feel like an elaborate joke. Its lyrical content is lifted from YouTube, a patchwork of trimmings and offcuts salvaged from forgotten, digital landfill video or long-extinguished solar flare comments. And yet it hits a strange, euphoric accord between its YouTube material and musical accompaniment.

Muhly and Teitur have found some rough diamonds in these half-obscured perspectives and inquisitive depictions of the everyday. And Teitur, about whose voice there is something exposed and sincere, is perhaps the ideal candidate to demonstrate them. With the tactful musicianship of Holland Baroque thrown in for good measure, Confessions is a record of bottomless charm.

Nico Muhly Teitur Confessions
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