Lloyd Gedye scans 2016’s musical landscape and, in between the grave-stones of David Bowie, Prince, Mandoza and Leonard Cohen, picks 21 albums that made the year just a little bit better. In alphabetical order:
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it from Here… Thank You for Your Service
Nobody had any right to expect A Tribe Called Quest to return after 18 years with a new album, never mind an album as good as We Got it from Here… Thank You for Your Service. From the jazz groove of The Space Program, which sees the crew pointing out that, “There ain’t a space progamme for niggaz,” to We The People, which sees Q-Tip satirically spitting about the state of racism in America (“All you black folks you must go / All You Mexicans you must go / All you poor folks must go / Muslims and gays / boy we hate your ways”) this is an exceptional return by the group. It feels like a direct response to the race-based fear-mongering that was at the heart of much of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. The soundtrack to my 2016/17 summer, for sure!
Anonhi – Hopelessness
Nothing could have prepared us for Hopelessness, which dropped in May. It was an angry, cold, metallic album about global politics that despite its bleak outlook had a charm that was hard to reconcile. Sinister co-production from Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never swelled behind Anonhi’s gorgeous voice, delivering razor-sharp lyrics about the traumatic state of the world. Lyrics so terrifying, you felt guilty for enjoying the sonic meal on offer.
Cass McCombs – Mangy Love
Cass McCombs has been a well-kept secret for a while now. He has been putting out exceptional literary albums of psychedelic folk and rock ever since his third album, 2007’s Dropping the Writ. But it was his new album Mangy Love that captured the attention of a much wider audience. Run Sister Run, which struts with a slight reggae lilt, is sung in solidarity with the woman of the world facing the unrelenting patriarchal assault, while Laughter is the Best Medicine is a delicate folk song set upon a rather quirky rhythm full of bounce and complimented by some beautiful flute work. The album highlight remains the circular, meandering Opposite House, which has a beautiful 70s jazz-fusion arrangement. Also check out the album Skifflin’ by the Skiffle Brothers, another 2016 release featuring McCombs.
The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits
Nominated for the 2016 Mercury Prize, this album emerged out of a collaboration between UK saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and Soccer96’s Betamax Killer and Danalogue the Conqueror. It’s a world, where electro, funk, hip-hop, Afro-beat and jazz are all interwoven into a psychedelic tapestry. Speaking about the collaboration, Betamax Killer said they began to notice a tall shadowy figure present at some of the Soccer96 gigs: “At some point he appeared at the side of the stage with his sax in hand. When he got up on stage to play with us it created an explosive shockwave of energy that stunned us all… A couple of weeks later King Shabaka rang me up and said ‘Hey let’s make a record’, so we booked three days in Total Refreshment Centre studios.”Hutchings has another great release in 2016. It’s called Wisdom of the Elders and was recorded with The Ancestors, a band featuring some of South Africa’s best young jazz musicians. Drummer Tumi Mogorosi, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene, alto-saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, The Brother Moves On vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu and Nduduzo Makhathini on Rhodes piano all join Hutchings in the ancestors. Whether it’s the Afro-beat groove of Natty or the Ethiopian jazz flavor of Obs, the album Wisdom of the Elders is a true gift.
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition
Detroit MC Danny Brown’s fourth album Atrocity Exhibition, dropped in September 2016, just short of three years after his much-celebrated last album Old. Atrocity Exhibition, which draws influence from Joy Division and Talking Heads according to Brown, is a major statement from the rapper. Wired like a toxic-psychosis hell-ride, Atrocity Exhibition sees Brown rapping over some of the illest avant-garde beats of the year and the production trickery doesn’t let up from opener Downward Spiral to closer Hell For It. For a large part of this year, the track Really Doe, which features Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Earl Sweatshirt, was my favourite song to blare in my car. “They say I’ve got the city on fire / I ain’t know man, that’s a goddamn lie” spits Brown. His collaboration with Petite Noir on Rolling Stone is another highlight taking things down a notch to a more narcotic groove. Atrocity Exhibition presents a dark, rather bleak cocaine-fuelled vision, but its one that you can’t tear your eyes or ears away from.
David Bowie – Blackstar
The worst way to start 2016 was hearing that David Bowie had died. I had listened to Blackstar once at that point. I was devastated with grief and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it for much of the first half of the year. But eventually I did slip it on, it was magical. What a last gift from the man. Danny Brown reckons so too. “Blackstar is definitely the biggest album to me this year,” he said. “That album is fucking creepy… It scares the shit out of me, and those videos, Fuck. I kind of relate to it, to him. “When you put that much of your life into music, can’t nobody ever take that — you can’t rate that. “You can’t review this, he died for this, this is his life right here… When people talk about the best albums of the year, I be like, ‘Y’all don’t realise Bowie’s album came out this year and he fucking died? What is y’all talking about?’ We should hands-down know what the best album of this year is, shouldn’t be talk of nothing else.” Do I need to say anything else? Another related album well worth checking out is saxophonist from Blackstar; Donny McCaslin’s new album Beyond Now, which features takes on Bowie’s A Small Plot of Land and Warszawa.
dBridge – Too Late EP, Trinity Ville / Dead Peak, Pleasure District 006
In August veteran drum ‘n bass producer dBridge released his first solo release on his critically lauded Exit Records in five years. It was called the Too Late EP and the gorgeous title track and remixes by Steve Spacek and Stray were gems that received a lot of rotation. On the same day on the Cyclon label dBridge dropped another release, Trinity Ville / Dead Peak. The two tracks were more dancehall/dub inspired than those on the Too Late EP, but also spectacular in their own right. dBridge wasn’t done and three days after the Too Late EP and Trinity Ville / Dead Peak dropped, the sixth EP in the Pleasure District series, featuring only dBridge productions, was unleashed. This more ambient series that Exit records put out is well worth a listen and Pleasure District 006 was no exception. Also check out other 2016 releases on the label like the Richie Brains album, Who is Richie Brains? and Chimpo’s Ram Dance EP.
Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
You can always count on experimental hip-hop crew Death Grips to deliver. And in 2016, they did indeed. They delivered us into their Bottomless Pit. From the front-loaded assault of Giving Bad People Good Ideas to the social media critique of Trash, Death Grips once again sounded visceral, innovative and terrifying. No more so than on Three Bedrooms In A Good Neighborhood, which sees the band spitting about the suburban fear of the home invasion. At one point this year we got a call from our neighbor to check if everything was okay next door she had heard some strange noises and was concerned, we had been playing Death Grips loud. However the Death Grips story plays out from here on out, I want a front row seat.
Demdike Stare – Wonderland
This album only dropped in the middle of November, but it took all of one listen to know that it will be with me long into 2017. Demdike Stare is the moniker for Manchester based duo of DJ Sean Canty and producer Miles Whittaker who came together in 2009. Wonderland is a whirlwind ride through the break beat continuum, which sees the duo combining elements of dub, dancehall, grime, ambient, jungle, hip-hop and techno, often within the same piece of music. Animal Style is a perfect example, switch-hitting between sections that resemble a dancehall riddim and an ambient industrial soundscape. If you are into experimental electronic music, this is one of 2016’s finest.
DJ Marfox – Chapa Quente EP
The city of Lisbon continued to be a vital source of banging club tunes, with DJ Marfox’s Chapa Quente EP probably the pick of the bunch. His B18 sounds like a marimba melody strutting through late 80s Detroit, while the slower Tarraxo Everyday was just too stunning for words. If there was a sexier tune to get down to in 2016, I never heard it. The EP dropped in June this year, but the label Principe Discos has been busy throughout 2016. Also check out their twenty-three-track compilation Mambos Levis D’outro Mundo and DJ Nervoso’s self-titled EP.
Eleanor Friedberger – New View
Ever since Eleanor Friedberger’s 2011 debut solo album My Mistakes, the former Fiery Furnaces singer has been on a roll. Her latest, titled New View, is a mesmerising collection of songs that she unleashed in January last year. Speaking about the album, Friedberger said, “I hope that this album just sounds like an adult woman who’s OK, as boring as that sounds! I don’t want to sound like I’m miserable, I’m angry, I’m hurt.” She nails it, but her offbeat delivery remains firmly intact. “I’m opening a tree museum / It’s my new hobby,” she sings on album highlight rocker Open Season. Friedberger is soaring, freed from the restraints of The Fiery Furnaces.
Equiknoxx – Bird Sound Power
I have to thank my friend Matthew for hipping me to Equiknoxx. Their 2016 album Bird Sound Power was one of those albums that just kept on giving. This Jamaican dancehall squad sound like nobody else you have ever heard, with Boomkat declaring Bird Sound Power, “the most striking riddim album you’ll hear in 2016”. Reviews referenced everything from King Jammy’s foundational digi-dub to Timbaland or The Neptunes. The set was collated by Jon K & Demdike Stare for the DDS label and features tracks the crew produced between 2009 and 2016. A must have for da riddim fiends.
Gallant – Ology
Christopher Gallant, or just Gallant to his fans, was one of my discoveries of 2016. His debut EP Zebra had been self-released as early as 2014, but April 2016 saw the release of his debut album Ology, which had The Guardian cooing that if “this is what R&B’s future looks like it’s brighter than ever”. Frank Ocean may have released the compelling Blonde this year and Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound definitely deserves a mention. But, for my money, Gallant had the finest R&B album in 2016.
Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
2013’s Sing to the Moon, was a bolt out of the blue, an album that captivated and enchanted, entrenching Laura Mvula as a serious talent. It’s gospel influenced pop, which featured delightful layered Beach Boys-esque harmonies and magical arrangements, made it one of the years best and most surprising albums. 2016 saw Mvula return with her second album, titled The Dreaming Room. Overcome, which featured Nile Rogers, saw Mvula embracing a disco sound, beneath her layers of vocals, while Phenomenal Woman saw Mvula embracing a funkier electro sound. It was clear that Mvula is determined not to be typecast. Well on the evidence of The Dreaming Room, there appears to be no threat of that.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
Released days before his death, You Want It Darker, was destined to be burdened through proximity. Of course Cohen on the title-track album opener, repeats the phrase, “I’m ready my lord,” playing right into the narrative that the album is a riposte from a poet facing death. However, thematically, the album fits snuggly into Cohen’s body of work, a continuation of the purple patch he found himself in since 2012’s Old Ideas. On The Level, the tender love song to the one that got away is an album highlight, while the mournful It Seemed the Better Way is dripping in disillusionment for organised religion. “It sounded like the truth, but it’s not the truth today,” whispers Cohen, sounding inches from the grave in his delivery, while a fantastic violin part swirls around. 2016 may be the year that Leonard Cohen is no longer with us, but it’s also a year where he delivered one last reminder as to why we have been paying attention for all this time.
PJ Harvey – Hope Six Demolition Project
It’s been five years since PJ Harvey’s last album Let England Shake, a career highlight for the Dorset-born musician, which scooped the much-coveted Mercury Prize of that year. So expectations for the new PJ Harvey were high. Not to worry, because she returned in style in April 2016 with the Hope Six Demolition Project. The album’s title was influenced by the Hope VI projects in the USA, where dilapidated public housing is demolished to build new housing, which is often much more expensive and results in residents being forced out of their neighbourhoods. Gentrification disguised as a social project. The album was recorded in sessions between January and February 2015 that doubled as public art performances, where audiences could watch Harvey create the album through one-way glass with producers Flood and John Parish.
Pussy Mothers – The Number 1 EP
The DJ Twitch-run Optimo Music provided one of my highlights of 2016. The delightful Pussy Mothers with The Number 1 EP. The Glasgow-based duo is made up of a native Scot, and an Australian and their EP was a corker. From the metallic-dub of Skirt to the electro-clash of Rap Machine, Pussy Mothers offered a lot to think about, and get down to, on the EP, suggesting they are indeed ones to watch going forward. If you want to see just how good they are, check out the latin-electro-jazz of Echo Party, what a groove.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead returned in 2016 with A Moon Shaped Pool. I’m still not prepared to make any declaratory statements about where their new albums sits amongst their body of work, but what I can say is that it has been a joy to me ever since it was released. It’s a moody, rather dark album, so sometimes I found myself dipping in and out, rather than listening to it all in one sitting. Although, there have been weeks where I listened to nothing else. However you consume it, there can be no doubt that it is one of the most beautiful listens from 2016. Current favourite track, Decks Dark.
Saul Williams – Martyr Loser King
This album dropped in January last year and I’m still listening to it. It feels like the album that Saul Williams has threatened to make his entire career; we just had to wait till 2016 for him to unleash it. Songs like the grizzly Think Like They Book Say and the poignant The Bear/Colton Is Cotton have been reverberating in my head all year. The album got a second release life in July through the it’s B-sides and remixes collection titled These Mthrfckrs. Banging production? Check. Killer Bars? Check. Social Activism? Check. One of the best albums of 2016? Check.
Skyjack – Skyjack
Live in the confines of the Afrikan Freedom Station, the multinational jazz band Skyjack was a revelation one Johannesburg evening in 2016. Featuring what is arguably South Africa’s premier rhythm section at the moment; Kesivan Naidoo (drums), Kyle Shepherd (piano) and Shane Cooper (bass), and a knock out Swiss horns duo, in saxophonist Marc Stuki and trombonist Andreas Tschopp, Skyjack are a young band of musicians, all band leaders in their own right, coming together to create a fusion of sounds. A consummate South African-Swiss fusion, one of the stand-outs is Stucki’s Granmere Dansant (Grandma’s Dance), which swings like it was born on South African shores.
Tumi Mogorosi & Gabi Motuba – Sanctum Sanctorium
Mogorosi and Motuba’s album is a collection of duets with the jazz musicians sharing compositional duties. Mogorosi said this album was sparked by the idea that humans live and create their lives in relation to their neighbours and takes aim at Eurocentric notions about how an individual gets divine inspiration. “It’s a communal accumulation of ideas and there is a need to move away from narcissistic self-indulgence,” he said. “Its important for me, not to be a singled out from here on forth, I want to co-create, I want to move beyond who it is and to what it’s saying.” Mogorosi and Motuba have picked some impressive collaborators, including Swiss pianist Malcolm Braff, Swiss cellist Andreas Plattner and German bassist Sebastian Schuster. The nine-minute opener Letter to Akani, feels plaintive, meditative at first, the cello carrying the melody alongside Motuba’s gorgeous voice. But listen deeper and you’ll start to hear the fantastic rhythmic interplay coming to the fore. Braff, Mogorosi and Schuster, like fireflies in the night sky, dart in and out of frame, whizzing past each other as they create a rhythmic bed for the composition, which becomes more complex and fascinating the longer they are at it. It’s clear that Mogorosi and Motuba, alongside their Swiss peers, have taken their craft to a whole new level.