Nick Bollinger revisits – in no particular order - a few of the year’s standout releases.
Blackstar by David Bowie
Released just two days before the shocking and unexpected announcement of Bowie’s death, Blackstar is a challenging but rewarding album. It alternates spooky, abstracted atmospheres with roaring, raging pieces, where a band led by saxophone virtuoso Donny McCaslin weaves around Bowie’s vocals, pulling towards a futuristic bebop-funk fusion. It’s clear now that Bowie was aware his time was short, and he consciously crafted Blackstar as a final artistic statement. It might not be a comforting record, but it’s a remarkable one; as bold and creative as anything he ever did in his fifty-year career.
Blackstar is available on Columbia Records.
You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen
If Bowie’s swansong was 2016’s first great album, the year was virtually bookended by another extraordinary release that, in retrospect, can be heard as a calculated farewell. For his final album Leonard Cohen’s voice seems to have dropped even lower than usual. The great singing poet – who recorded in his home, where he was confined by illness – barely pushes it above a whisper. World-weariness is something Cohen mastered long ago, but what he gives us in this parting gift is something more rarefied. In these songs he’s not just singing of shedding worldly things; he even seems to paring back the language that was perhaps his one extravagance. These are some of the most economical songs he ever wrote, and all the more powerful for their apparent simplicity. The fact that there won’t be any more is just not easy to accept.
You Want It Darker is available on Columbia Records.
Lemonade by Beyonce
This age of streaming services hasn’t quite wiped out the blockbuster album as some predicted it would. But it might have contributed to the way the form has morphed into something new. The artist who revised the form in the most creative way – and justified the hype - has to be Beyonce. Lemonade was truly conceived across all platforms. Of course there was the music - and if she hadn’t had good songs or such finely measured vocal performances, the rest would hardly have mattered. But the songs were enhanced by a full visual album, taking the historic images of African American womanhood hinted sat in the songs, and creating a whole dialectic around them. Add in the black feminist poetry of Warsan Shire, which run through the film segments, and you’ve got a multi-media magnum opus.
Lemonade is available on Columbia/Parkwood.
A Seat at the Table by Solange
The year also saw an excellent album from Beyonce’s sister, Solange Knowles. Solange has never been the household name Beyonce is, and her album, A Seat At The Table, didn’t reinvent the form as ostentatiously as Lemonade did. Even musically it seems, initially, low-key. Yet it is every bit as powerful. Solange wrote many of the songs with Raphael Saadiq of the popular 80s R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone!, and the vintage soul vibe recalls Stevie Wonder and Syreeta Wright in their prime. But Solange has worked with less expected collaborators too, like David Longstreth, from rock experimentalists Dirty Projectors. Two strands run through the album; a personal one, in songs that deal with subjects like depression and identity, and a political one, concerned with the institutional racism African Americans face on a daily basis. By the end, the themes have become inseparable.
A Seat at the Table is available on Columbia/Saint.
A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead
In the years since their groundbreaking Kid A, which saw them leave their guitar-centic origins for the uncharted waters of electronica, Radiohead have evolved a style that challenges conventional notions of what a rock band is. Even when Thom Yorke delivers a relatively straightforward melody, the textures are constantly shifting around him, the song itself seems to be dissolving before your ears. It’s tempting to call Radiohead’s music ‘experimental’, only that would imply some uncertainty about what they are doing. But with its haunting melodies, abstract lyrics, surprising and infinitely detailed constructions of sound, A Moon Shaped Pool shows a band that has been doing this so long now they know exactly what they’re doing, and they do it beautifully. It’s just that no other band has done it.
A Moon Shaped Pool is available on XL Recordings.
Lovers and Leavers by Hayes Carll
If Radiohead set out to invent new forms, others are happy to work within the existing ones. Which doesn’t mean what they come up with can’t startle or stand out. One traditionalist who excels at his chosen form is Hayes Carll. He is a Texan, in a tradition of Lone Star storytellers that includes Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. He’s been making good albums for a while, but this year’s Lovers and Leavers was a cut above, largely on account of some wonderful songwriting. With a title cribbed from Van Zandt, ‘The Sake of the Song’ is one of the best songs ever written about songwriting. As a crowning touch, Carll put the production of Lovers and Leavers in the hands of Joe Henry, who didn’t give him the obvious country rock treatment, but treated his songs as something more fluid, filling them out with impressionistic, minimalist accompaniments.
Lovers and Leavers is available on Thirty Tigers.
Modern Country by William Tyler
Nashville-based guitarist William Tyler played for a number of years with Lambchop. A phenomenal musician, he moves about the instrument in a variety of styles and tunings, from a deft clawhammer picking reminiscent of John Fahey to a gritty electric style in the manner of Ry Cooder. The title, Modern Country, might refer to Tyler’s Nashville home, the cradle of modern country music. But there’s a bigger landscape this music describes: the modern America that Tyler has been traversing since his teens. Tyler pulls motifs from old folk and country songs, and they hover behind these impressionistic pieces like ghosts of America’s past. Using layers and loops – and the percussion of Wilco drummer Glen Kotche – he builds compositions that might owe as much to ambient or contemporary classical music as they do to country. Modern Country is a sweeping, cinematic album – a concept album without lyrics – a road trip for your stereo.
Modern Country is available on Merge Records.
Spur by Jay Clarkson
For a landscape closer to home – though one that can seem every bit as haunted as William Tyler’s America – I can recommend this. Clarkson’s roots go back to the 80s, when she played in various Christchurch bands, reaching her highest profile when her group Breathing Cage won the brewery-sponsored Rheineck Rock Award. That provided the budget for Misericord, her most lavish release. Since then her albums have been more small-scale and solitary, but in many ways that suits her better. For much of Spur Clarkson plays solo, or is augmented by just a harmonica, slide guitar, or in one case a string quartet. Spur is not just a solo album, it’s an album about solitude; a series of linked vignettes that place two characters – both loners, it appears – in what feels like rural Southland. Just listening, you can feel the frost in the air and the clay on the ground. It’s low-key local triumph.
Spur is available on Bandcamp.
I’ll Forget 17 by Lontalius
Eddie Johnson, who records as Lontalius, was first noticed around the world a few years ago, when he started posting home recordings on Soundcloud: curiously intimate reinventions of hits by the likes of Drake, Pharrell, Beyonce. And a genuine love of R&B and hip-hop flows through to his original songs too, only it’s merged with the sensibilities of a sensitive bedsit singer-songwriter. In Lontalius’s music, old boundaries between strummy, introspective balladry and the beats-driven world of hip-hop and electronica have finally collapsed. Johnson doesn’t worry that an effect like Auto-Tune might undermine his emotional authenticity. And there’s no shortage of emotion in songs that seem to give a sound and form to those indescribable feelings of teenage longing. As for the title, I’ll Forget 17, it’s beautifully ironic, consigning these ballads of heartache and yearning to oblivion, while of course ensuring that, with this collection, they’ll be preserved forever.
I’ll Forget 17 is available on Partisan Records.
Brown Girl by Aaradhna
If you’re looking for Pasifika soul it doesn’t get better than this – though I think I said that about Aaradhna’s last album, Treble and Reverb. But if that album was a jukebox crammed with great lost 60s singles, this one has a different vibe. The title hints at a more serious statement, and that’s borne out in the song of the same name. Like her Stateside contemporaries, Aaradhna gets political here, speaking out about endemic racial prejudice. But though the song clearly reflects on a New Zealand childhood, Brown Girl was recorded in the US with Brooklyn-based producer Jeff Dynamite. He produced Aloe Blacc’s breakthrough album Good Things, and used many of the same musicians here. And there are audible similarities. That said, there’s a recognisably Pasifika flavour to a song like ‘I’m The One For You’ that starts with ukuleles before breaking into island reggae.
Brown Girl is available on Dawn Raid Records.
Blue and Lonesome by The Rolling Stones
Who would have thought we’d still be talking about The Rolling Stones in 2016? More than half a century after they started, they remain a huge live act, though it’s been decades since they have written anything like an essential new song. That hasn’t changed with their new album, which includes no original songs at all. Which doesn’t stop it from being the best thing they have done since Some Girls. The way they stomp through that tune by bluesman Little Walter sets the tone for an album that returns to the music they started with, way back in the early 60s: the Chicago blues. It’s rude and raw, but it puts you right there in the room with this bunch of gnarly old men as their muscle memory kicks in and they surprise even themselves as they reconnect with the music they first fell in love with.
Blue and Lonesome is available on Polydor Records.