Neal's Musical Express - Round-Up of 2016

It is around 5.30pm on 21 April 2016. I am at a London restaurant preparing notes for that evening's Matter of Taste event. In a spare moment I check the BBC News homepage to see what is happening in this godforsaken world and stagger back in disbelief when I read the breaking news headline. Prince is dead. The Minneapolis maestro that changed the musical landscape through the 1980s, soundtracked my life and played the most awe-inspiring concerts I have witnessed was immortal, wasn't he?  I steadied myself and sat down, head spinning. Could I go ahead with the tasting? Hmm...citing the passing of Prince might not go down well with the expectant and thirsty audience though I am sure they would understand by my stricken face. Later on whilst explaining the minutiae of Alex Moreau's vineyards, at the back of my mind I was contemplating life without Prince: a slightly darker life, however banal that sounds. Something had been extinguished. It was never coming back.

To be honest, at that time I was still acclimatizing to life without Bowie. My two musical heroes snuffed out within weeks of each other. Over the following months, 2016 became a year when a day did not pass without news of some beloved national treasure or musical icon's passing. Apart from Bowie and Prince: Lemmy (at the tail-end of 2015 admittedly), Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, George Martin, Phife Dawg, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell, Pete Burns, Scotty Moore, Bobby Vee, Merle Haggard, Maurice White, Otis Clay—I mean, tell me when to pass the anti-depressants and we can start listing the comedians and film stars.

As terrible as it has been - we have to get used to it.

Stop and think about how many musical icons are in their twilight years. If there are no Rolling Stones by this time next year, they would still have surpassed average life expectancy; miraculous given Keith Richards intake of drugs. In 2017, bet you we'll be mourning another tranche of stars who fulfilled the Grim Reaper's expanded quota. Death? That's part of life. I suppose the question is how dignified we depart. Bowie's was a masterclass, though we should remember that he died after the brilliant, funereal "Blackstar" rather than in the middle of 1987s dreadful "Glass Spider" tour. Prince? He should have spontaneously combusted at the end of an electrifying guitar solo, not found slumped alone in a lift.  

(Above - Prince & the Revolation in all their pomp and glory performing Purple Rain back in 1985 at the American Music Awards. Now, that's what you call a guitar solo. Kind of makes every other award ceremony performance look a bit...lame.)

On the other hand, looking back, 2016 has been a stellar one for music. It's as if recognizing that all artists have a shelf life, music resolved to fight back with the new generation of musicians making astonishing music. Of course, what they do not have is the cultural impact enjoyed by Bowie and Prince, since nowadays there are no tribal movements of young people. There exist too many splintered forms of entertainment that means music is no longer the central pillar of growing up. Part of the reason is that through streaming platforms such as Spotify and Tidal, music is accessible by the click of a button, therefore rendered instantly disposable. There is no ritual of buying your first 7-inch vinyl record. There no concept of paying for the pleasure. No feeling of ownership, either individual or communal. Modern day music is in danger of drifting through the ether: background sound that means little. 

That is the most depressing scenario but the reality is different and I for one, am more optimistic. Forget the constant circuit of nostalgia tours and go and see a new young band playing in some sweaty club for peanuts and you'll see it means the same to them and their audience as it did to those at the dawn of rock 'n roll. Teenagers will look back and remember the first time that they heard the songs of 2016, cherish them as much as their parents and grandparents. All they won't be able to do is hold that memory in their hands. Maybe that partly explains the resurgence of vinyl, although I feel that is stymied by the exorbitant prices being charged by record companies. Didn't they ever learn from the payback after years over-charging for CDs?

So here are my albums of the year. They are all bona fide great albums spanning and straddling different genres, with one standout at the top.

Albums of the Year

1) Solange - A Seat At The Table - Beyoncé's sister created an astonishing fusion of soul, R&B and jazz that refuses to shy away from the issues of today, and let's face it, there are a lot of issues. It is remarkable how global pop stars such as Solange and Beyoncé had been unafraid to court controversy, ask questions, put their political views forward in such a compelling and deft manner, whilst earnest indie guitar bands barely raised a ripple on what had been a tumultuous year. Where are the Bob Dylans, Sex Pistols, The Smiths or Nirvana? It's been left to artists such as Solange to make music matter beyond what it sounds like. That she has done it with such a sublime piece of work makes the message even more powerful. [Post-script: kudos to Pitchfork for also nominating this as the album of the year.]

2) Anohni - Hopelessness - Like Solange, Anohni's incredible album "Hopelessness" is not just about music. Formerly "Anthony" of Mercury-award winning Anthony and the Johnsons, she broaches subjects such as global warming and war in the Middle East with such conviction and with such visceral, disconcerting intensity, that the listener is left reeling. Listen to the pedal to the floor opener of "Four Degrees" or the spectral beauty of "Marrow" or the imagery conveyed by "Drone Bomb Me" (from the perspective of an Afghan girl after her family has been wiped out by a drone bomb). They should all have been number ones. They were in my book.

3) Radiohead - A Moon-Shaped Pool - Twenty-four years after seeing the Oxford quintet play at my university, Radiohead have not only been the most innovative band of the last two decades, but are still producing some of their greatest music. Forever restless and pushing boundaries, A Moon-Shaped Pool will stand as one of their best albums, even if lyrically this was one of their less opaque. Strangely, the only tracks I am not keen on is supposedly the classic "True Love Waits" that feels out of place. I'm probably alone in that opinion.

4) Frank Ocean - Blonde - One of the most important stars of this decade, there is a restlessness and vulnerability that marks Ocean out. Music that does not sound like anything else. I loved this but could not get into Kanye's Life of Pablo.

5) David Bowie "Blackstar" - I had two days to admire one of the Dame's greatest albums before I heard the news that turned "Blackstar" into a magnificent runic epitaph, a final act in a career that will never be equaled.

6) Kaytranada - 99.9% - Whereby the Haitian-born, Montreal-raised DJ-cum-producer mashes up countless musical genres and produces both an instant classic and the best thing renaissance man Craig David has ever sung. 

7) Angel Olsen - My Woman - I put her previous album "Burn Your Fire" as W-J album of the month when Angel was much less known. "My Woman" builds on that promise, shunting the trad singer-songwriter should could have fallen into. This is more visceral and harder, more devastating and yet you can still sing along to it.

8) Diiv - Is the Is Are - I actually first heard Diiv driving through Bordeaux on NOVA FM. Psych-tinged alt-guitar music of the highest order.

9) Slaves - Take Control - Two lads, one sings and plays a drum. One thrashes away on guitar. Like Nirvana and The White Stripes the result is more than a sum of its parts. Simple and effective.

10) M83 - Junk - I thought Junk was dismissed far too easily by music cognoscenti (apart from Q magazine that rightly have it a rare 5-star review). The first four songs are so impeccable that Anthony Gonzalez could not keep it up. Still, I just love the joie-de-vivre of this album.

11) Jamie T- Trick -  Jamie T follows 2014's "Carry On the Grudge" with a piece of work that might be even more impressive. I love the beginning of Tescoland (see Playlist below).

12) Beyoncé - Lemonade - Bey bestrides the world. The more successful she becomes as an artist, the more interesting she becomes. That she is taking chances and pushing buttons with a nous and daring that nobody could have predicted. In any other career she should be singing Celine Dion-lite ballads and have turned into a 21st century Whitney Houston. Instead she is as radical as any other artist.

13) Skepta - Konnichiwa - Stunning UK grime courtesy of its godfather. 

14) Blood Orange - Freetown Sound - I thought this deserved more acclaim than it received. Dev Hynes gorgeously produced an album that like so many on this list, fluidly splices musical genres to create something that sounds new. 

15) Underworld - Barbara, Barbara, we face a shining future - Karl Hyde & co. release Underworld's strongest album since the mid-1990s. 

16) Let's Eat Grandma - I, Gemini - Apart from unquestionably the best group name in years, I, Gemini was the kind of weird electro-psych album you expected two 17-year-old girls to make. 

17) Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book - Simply one of the best albums of the year. 

18) Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression - Kind of a clever title given that Iggy forewarned that it might be his farewell album. Well, if it's as good as this, then yes, I will be depressed. Armed with a crack band including Josh Homme, Iggy sounds as "now" as when he did in the late 1960s.

19) Blossoms - Blossoms - Great debut album that starts with a song called "Charlemagne," although I have no idea if they are singing about Corton-Charlemagne, but I'd like to think so. 

20) Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Denial - Will Toledo fills out his solo career with a band and the result is that affecting piece of indie-rock.

21) Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker - Another epitaph to a long career. How we'll miss his voice, but what a wow to bow out.

22) Christine & the Queens - Chaleur Humaine - Hélöise Letissier's wonderful debut effortlessly traversed pop and art. 

23) Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony - Kind of rock, goth, psyche, angsty music from the top drawer.

24) Aphex Twin - Cheetah - Still, nothing else sounds like Richard D. James

25) Whatever turned you on, dear reader...

Singles of the Year

I have to get something off my chest. Now, I like Keith Levenberg's writings on fermented grape juice, but in issue 11 of magazine "Noble Rot" he posited that in 300 years time, unlike JS Bach, nobody will be listening to Beyoncé since because...well, I won't bore you with the details, but basically Bach's fugues are ace and Beyoncé's artistry goes little beyond her repeating "I slay." It essentially boiled down to a member of an older generation moaning about modern day music because they just don't get it, ergo, it has no merit. His argument relied on taking "Formation," the best song of 2016, completely out of context; strip away everything to ridicule, most crucially the all-important video that was an intrinsic part of the message. It's like me denigrating Bach by smirking at the repetitive percussion. JS Bach? Sure, he could knock out a tune. But it says naff all about modern day America, "Black Lives Matter," the police, feminism, the New Orleans floods and moreover, you can't dance to it.  

So anyway, instead of creating a list from one to whatever, I have created a playlist of all the songs that have meant something to me throughout the year. I have ordered them so that it begins with a slew of indie-guitar/alt-rock artists from the old guard like Iggy Pop to some fantastic newcomers like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast (see below). I thought The Strokes "Drag EP" was perhaps the most underrated release of the year, one of the best they have ever released (this from someone who was never really into their über-cool louche schtick). I've also included Queen's fantastic fast version of "We Will Rock You" since it only came to light in 2016 and shows off the punkier side, which I would have loved to have seen more of. 

It then segues into dance music courtesy of my favorite dance track of the year by Tieks ft. Dan Harkna and The Weeknd's wonderful "Starboy" (shame the album is not quite up to that level). Through Underworld's euphoric "Nylon Strung" opus that closed their last album, we enter for more rap music with Chance the Rapper and Skepta, then bring it down with Solange's nigh-perfect "Cranes In the Sky" and Frank Ocean's woozy "Nikes."

Perhaps the most surprising addition to some might be The Monkees, the 1960s group that was put together to challenge the might of The Beatles. Most groups reform after many years to either trot out old hits or reproduce pale imitations of originals. Trust me, "Me & Magdalena" is one of the most beautiful, affecting songs this year and confirms Mike Nesmith's genius. Please listen. You'll thank me.

Now the final songs on this playlist are astonishing. But bloody hell, they are uniformly depressing. Nick Cave's "Distant Sky" will make you weep. Lisa Hannigan's voice in "Prayer for the Dying" is so vulnerable. The piano refrain of Radiohead's "Daydreaming" is drenched in sadness and if by this time you have not rushed out for more tissues or hung a noose, I had to finish with the final song of Bowie's final album, "I Can't Give Everything Away." There is a common theme of loss and death throughout these final songs, but even in these darkest hours, astonishing and yes, life-affirming music comes. That remains forever.

Spotify Playlist - Songs of 2016

(NB This will just be blank for those who do not have Spotify.)

Videos of the Year

I could not decide between two videos so I picked both. Firstly I love the stylised panache of Solange's "Don't Touch My Hair," especially the choreography, the fashion and the surrealist feel of the whole thing. You can't quite work it out. The visuals are amazing, as an amazing song should look. Secondly, I adore the video for "Japanese Breakfast" and "Everybody Wants To Love You," because on the one hand it's a funny video for an uplifting song and on the other, she wears the full Korean hanbok dress that actually belonged to her mother who died during the making of the album. 

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