Albums of the Year 2016: #12 Solange – A Seat at the Table, #11 Swans – The Glowing Man

#12 Solange – A Seat at the Table

Beyonce’s younger sister came into her own in 2016 with the fantastic A Seat at the Table, a varied and very confident album that pulled from a number of R&B styles. The tunes on this album were of such a high quality that any one of them could have been its lead single, from the slinky ‘Cranes in the Sky’ to the electronica-tinged ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ or the melancholy funk of ‘Where Do We Go From Here’. Solange’s singing was fantastic throughout, and the instrumentation backing her up was always full of ideas. The interview-interludes laced throughout the album also gave it a nice sense of structure, with Master P and Solange’s parents both weighing in on issues of race, gender, music, money, and self-empowerment. All this combined for a powerful and provocative suite of songs that ranked among the years best.

#11 Swans – The Glowing Man

Following up the monolithic To Be Kind, my favourite album of 2014, experimental rock band Swans returned in 2016 with The Glowing Man. The album was the final part in a trilogy of enormous double albums that saw the band pushing rock music to the limits of raw power and volume, and was a fitting sign off. Although The Glowing Man wasn’t quite as consistent as the two albums that preceded it, the highlights of this record rank among the bands best work. There was the terrifying slow chug of album opener ‘Cloud of Forgetting’, and the haunting ‘When Will I Return?’, which featured frontman Michael Gira’s wife Jennifer recounting an experience of sexual abuse over mournful strings and guitars.

Then there was the albums crown jewel, the epic, 21-minute long ‘Frankie M’ – Gira’s ode to a friend either dead or dying of a heroin overdose. Overtaking the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ as the best song ever written about the drug, ‘Frankie M’ is what I imagine the experience of heroin withdrawal and rush would sound like translated into sound. Beginning with ten minutes of pained, dissonant noise ebbing in and out on waves of rolling drums, it builds and builds into an unbearable cacophony of addiction, then explodes at the ten minute mark into an enormous, cathartic rush: the sound of heroin flooding into the bloodstream. The climax of this song is utterly, utterly huge and was possibly the most awe-inspiring musical moment of 2016.

Anyone who appreciates heavy rock music and is willing to approach this album with an open mind and a bit of patience will be floored by it: The Glowing Man is another excellent album from one of the most boundary-pushing rock bands on the planet.

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Albums of the Year 2016: #14 Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

Aesop Rock has always been a rapper I felt like I should love: his wordy, surreal and disjointed lyrics are just the kind of weird that I usually adore in hip-hop, and the old school boom bap production on a lot of his music isn’t too far away from artists like Deltron 3030 or Cannibal Ox, who put together some of my favourite hip-hop albums of all time. But it wasn’t until The Impossible Kid released earlier this year that I actually found myself loving the guy’s music.

Lyrically, previous Aesop Rock albums have walked a thin line between obtuse and nonsensical: Aes likes to throw together lines filled with dense multi-rhymes and a lot of imagery, but for every time his lyrical overload comes across as inspired, theres another moment where a line feels forced to fit a scheme or just a bit corny. On this album, though, Aes toned down some of his more esoteric word-salad lyricism and put together a personal album, one that deals with relatable issues and lets us see who Ian Matthias Bavitz, the man behind the mic, really is.

Bavitz turned 40 this year, and there are a few songs on The Impossible Kid that deal with getting older. ‘Lotta Years’ is a pretty funny anecdotal tune in which Aes tells us a story about a girl who works down at his local juice place. She has dreadlocks that she cuts off and reattaches any time she wants to, which causes Aes to muse: ‘My mind is fucking blown / The future is amazing / I feel so fucking old / I bet you clone your pets and ride a hoverboard to work / I used to fold a map to find the juice place in the first’.

‘Rings’ is another revealing tune, this one about how Aes used to be a visual artist but over the years lost his passion and enthusiasm for something that used to be very important to him. Over a boom-bap beat filled with hazy synthesizers, he captures the creative rush of drawing fantastically: You can’t imagine the stars that align / When a forearm starts foreshortening right / Or a torso hung on a warping spine / In proportion reads as warm and alive’. But these skills, he tells us later in the song, have deteriorated as he has gotten older, and his other pursuits have taken over his attention.

Aes’ drawing skills might have deteriorated, but his ability to capture the minutiae of his life in a vivid and imaginative way is still as strong as ever in his rhymes. ‘Shrunk’ is a hilarious and bleak rendition of a trip to his psychiatrist’s office, in which he expresses both how beaten down and in need of help he feels, but also how sceptical he is of his psychiatrist, who is ‘a quarter mil in debt’ and gives him less guidance than his barber.

Moments like this are really endearing, and they pop up throughout The Impossible Kid. Where previous Aesop Rock albums might have told this story with inscrutable metaphors and symbolism, here Aes puts all his cards on the table, and lets us see into his life a bit more. Alongside some fantastic production, which has a boom-bap flavour but uses wobbly synths and guitars to great effect, this openness has resulted in Bavitz’ best album to date, and one of 2016s strongest hip-hop releases.

Albums of the Year 2016: #15 Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY

WORRY is a blast of melodic and hilarious pop punk from the former frontman of Bomb the Music Industry!, Jeff Rosenstock. Simultaneously channeling frustration with the bullshit of everyday life and the joy of his recent marriage, Jeff put together a passionate album full of scepticism and euphoria in equal measure. On WORRY he takes on police brutality, memes, love and capitalism, and does it all through short but sweet pop punk tunes that never outstay their welcome. The second half of this record is an ambitious medley of songs that all segway into each other almost imperceptibly, and there are roaring highlights throughout: internet anthem ‘To Be a Ghost…’, ‘Festival Song’, and the brilliantly titled ‘HELLLLHOOOOLE’. WORRY is an album that feels very of the moment, and is full of energy, aggression, and catharsis in equal measure. Highly recommended.

Albums of the Year: #16 Swain – The Long Dark Blue

I talked in my opening thoughts about innovation and forward-thinking music that was released in 2016, but we’re taking a bit of a detour from that with this one. Swain’s The Long Dark Blue is not an innovative record at all, but it is nevertheless a fantastic one. The album is an explosive mix of punk/grunge that feels like it dropped straight out of the mid 90s, and owes an obvious debt to bands like Nirvana, Fugazi and even a bit of Weezer. But that shouldn’t deter from its appeal. The Long Dark Blue is full of fantastic songs that show us the style can still be relevant in 2016, and is more than just a pastiche of the bands that came before it.

One of the record’s greatest strengths is in the way it counterpoints the melodic with the harsh, something that made albums like In Utero or The Argument really stand out. ‘Half Asleep / Half Awake’ and ‘Secrets Inside’ execute this contrast fantastically, with killer choruses that you could easily find yourself humming along to set against more dissonant moments in the verses. The vocal harmonies on this record are really stellar at points: ‘Kiss Me Hard’ and ‘Seen a Good Man (In a Bad Mood)’ are full of soaring, spine-tingling vocals that recall some of Guy Piccioto and Ian McKaye’s best moments. The latter song is my favourite from the album: it opens with a really moody, sinister tone but erupts into an epic chorus that’s a candidate for year’s best, with a fantastically sharp and snaky central riff.

The Long Dark Blue won’t win any awards for originality, but the songs on this album are easy to love and manage to be incredibly catchy despite the harshness of the bands grunge sound. If you want to get down like it’s 1993 with a blast of good old fashioned teenage angst, look no further.

Albums of the Year 2016: #17 Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion Side B

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Yes, really. Carly Rae Jepsen might be best known for ‘Call Me Maybe’, but a one hit wonder she certainly aint. I very hesitantly checked out her 2015 album Emotion after I’d finished writing up my favourite albums of last year, having seeing a lot of positive reviews and praise for it. And you know what? I grew to completely and unironically love that album.

The production was fantastic, each song was catchy and cheerful, and if I could re-do my list for last year I think it would have ranked surprisingly high. The album made me realize that all too often I’d been listening to dark or depressing music, and a bit of happy pop ear candy goes a long way sometimes.

So enter Emotion Side B, which seems to be a collection of leftover songs from that albums sessions, fleshed out and redone into a fairly substantial EP. And damn – she did it again. This EP is just as catchy, just as fantastically produced and passionately performed as the main album was, except this time the fat has been trimmed. A lot of the songs on the back half of Emotion were fairly lacklustre when compared to the first half, but here almost every song is great.

From the woozy EDM rush of ‘Higher’ to the darker synth-pop ‘Cry’ and the bouncy ‘Store’, each one of these songs has a killer chorus that could be stuck in your head all day, and just a lot of stylistic variety. Carly tries out a lot of different pop styles across Emotion and this EP, and almost every one is a success.

I wouldn’t have expected it from someone who rose to fame with a dumb one-hit-wonder song like ‘Call Me Maybe’, but Carly RJ has proven to be one of the most interesting and consistent musicians working in mainstream pop music right now. Hopefully she can keep up the streak of great releases.

Albums of the Year 2016: #18 Deakin – Sleep Cycle

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In a year where the rest of his band released the thoroughly uninteresting Painting With, Josh ‘Deakin’ Dibb stepped out from under the shadow of the Animal Collective in 2016 with a fantastic solo release, Sleep Cycle. The album provided us with a glimpse of perhaps the bands most overlooked member working alone, and allowed us to see exactly which elements of Animal Collective’s sound he has had his hand in over the years.

The five AnCo albums that Deakin has contributed to are, interestingly, both the bands quietest and their most frantic albums. He played on Campfire Songs and Feels, but was also present on records like Here Comes the Indian, Strawberry Jam and Centipede Hz. That duality is evident on Sleep Cycle, which is a swampy blend of warm, psychedelic folk and busy psych jams. The album calls back to different points of Animal Collective’s discography, but it never feels like it does so without bringing something new to the table.

Opening the record is the gorgeous ‘Golden Chords’, a sparse track that finds Deakin playing an acoustic guitar through heavy reverb against a backdrop of muted bongos and nature recordings. We can hear crickets chirping and the faint murmur of a car’s engine, providing an inviting and soporific backdrop to Deakin’s mellow playing and singing. Much like the other members of AnCo, Deakin is not the most technically gifted singer in the world, but what he lacks in technique he makes up for with personality. His vocals on Sleep Cycle are plaintive and soothing, and his lyrics are full of thought-provoking nuggets of wisdom that always catch my attention:

Please stop repeating your terror, you choose what you see
It’s always what if and why not, man – you gotta just be
Simplify, define your goals and watch them grow
Be your own true self, the you that I know

Sleep Cycle is an album that resulted from Deakin’s extended trip around Africa, and it feels in that way like a journey of self-discovery. I really get the sense from this album that Deakin is trying to figure out his place in the world, and I’m happy to be taken along as a passenger every time I put it on.

That isn’t to say this is a lengthy or conceptual album, though. The record clocks in at a modest thirty three minutes and six tracks, with two of those tracks being more like interludes than actual songs. It helps, then, that the four lengthy songs that make up the bulk of the album are of such a high quality. ‘Just Am’ is a swirling, neo-psych jam full of panning synthesizers, sitars and pianos with some really impressive production and sound design – the track sounds more like the effort of a full band working together than one man.

‘Footy’ is most akin to Strawberry Jam/Centipede Hz, and contains some frantic drumming and squelchy synths that constitute the albums loudest moment. And closer ‘Good House’ brings us back into psych-folk territory that recalls the second half of Feels, with some sticky drones and enveloping basslines that wrap around your ears wonderfully.

Sleep Cycle might not be a long album, but it is nevertheless full of highlights. While I think there was room for Deakin to expand on some of the ideas here to create a more substantial and cohesive record (and I think he could have cut out the interlude tracks, which don’t really add much), he has come out with a short but sweet release that reminds us what made early AnCo so strange and so vital. While the band at large seems to be heading into progressively more predictable musical territory, the Deak is pushing on into the psychedelic realm with conviction. I’m interested to see where it takes him next.

Albums of the Year 2016: #19 Kero Kero Bonito – Bonito Generation

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Bonito Generation – easily the most fun album of the year. This batshit insane record is a mashup of j-pop, PC Music-style bubblegum bass and a bit of UK garage in the vein of Disclosure. With a sense of humour and an abundance of childlike glee in hand, Kero Kero Bonito manage to make this pick ‘n’ mix of pop styles into a cohesive whole that is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The most immediately striking thing about the album is Sarah Bonito’s vocals, which are somewhere in the middle of j-pop idol and children’s cartoon narrator, delivered in an unusual half-spoken, half-sung style which flips freely between Japanese and London English. Album opener ‘Waking Up’ starts with a big fat yawn from Bonito while a trap horn acts as an alarm clock, before kicking into a song about how it’s, like, difficult to wake up in the morning. Other song topics across Bonito Generation include: graduating from university, pet fish, trampolines and selfies. One of the records greatest strengths is its ability to render the mundane and relatable stuff of adult life with the wide-eyed joy of a child encountering them for the first time. The hilarious ‘Try Me’ is a song about applying for jobs, but it might be the most fun (if one of the only) songs ever written about applying for jobs: ‘Try me! Try me! I bet I’ve got what you really need…I’m quick to learn and I can work with people in a team”. ‘Picture This’ is another highlight, full of shimmering synths and gurgling bass, while Sarah Bonito’s lyrics both celebrate and criticize the Facebook generations need to chronicle their whole lives in selfies. The song, like Bonito Generation as a whole, is simple without being stupid, endlessly catchy and just so much fun to listen to. If you like fun, go listen to this album right now.