See, it’s not all bad! Here’s my playlist of 2016:
Radiohead – Decks Dark/Identikit
It was not always inevitable that the band that shaped my musical awakening in 2000 would lead the pack sixteen years later, but Radiohead isn’t every band. With Burn the witch, Radiohead made me aware of col legno, where you purposefully make a screechy sound by smashing away at your strings with a cheap bow. Burn the witch wasn’t the highlight of A Moon Shaped Pool, but it was a stunning attention grabber. The album is by some distance the most subtle thing Radiohead has ever produced, and it is absolutely gorgeous. I would be a fool to say that I prefer Decks Dark over anything else on the album, but it really a very special piece of music. So is Identikit, which easily boasts the most thrilling section of a song this year, when a choir starts to sing “broken hearts make it rain” as the EQ of the track slowly but surely becomes more treble than bass and the dub sounds of the track buckle under the thunder of the drums. Thom arrives back on the scene singing with a Thom army mumbling in the distance. Moments later a muddy but spectacularly Eno-esque guitar solo kicks in. Both of these tracks have been on near-constant rotation since May and for good reason. There’s been nothing nearly as affective or touching all year.
PJ Harvey – The Ministry of Social Affairs
At Field Day 2016 the sun was setting over London’s Victoria Park and PJ Harvey came on stage, like some jazz witch. In absolute control, she eschewed anything like traditional behaviour and barely spoke to the crowd at any point. And she needn’t even bother because she bought her new album The Hope Six Demolition Project with her. The Ministry of Social Affairs is not the most immediate of the albums charms, but it’s the most exciting. It is fitting that she followed this up at the live show with 50 ft Queenie, which may be the most exciting thing PJ has ever done. These two songs might seem to have little in common but both are perversely thrilling in how they showcase PJ’s incredible talent.
David Bowie – Lazarus
What can be said? The death of David Bowie was a devastating loss to the world. He was once-in-a-lifetime genius, a man so in control of his legacy he fought cancer while making a clutch of new songs that left us all wanting so much more. Lazarus is a masterpiece of misdirection, with the opening lyrics “Look up here, I’m in heaven” suddenly making literal sense two days later. I recall someone saying that instead of mourning the death of Bowie, think how lucky we were to be alive at the same time as him.
Röyksopp – Never Ever
Though no pop song has come close to the near-perfection of Marina and the Diamond’s Froot from 2015, this is a stand-out of 2016. Röyksopp change the fundamentals of their sound with every album, veering from pop to dark grooves. Here, they channel vintage Madonna and use the wonderful Susanne Sundfør as their muse. Evil rumours swirl the universe suggesting Röyksopp have decided to stop making albums. On the strength of this single, let’s hope they don’t give up music altogether.
Imarhan – Imarhan
In April I visited Algeria, a fascinating mixture of exotic and exciting. The people were warm and hospitable, time didn’t run by clocks, but more by some mysterious ability of things to be where you need them when you needed them. This was a holiday where we were not in control of events, but wonderful events happened nonetheless. When we were invited to a wedding, we were welcomed like honoured guests. It was a day i’ll never forget. I was also struck by the music played at the wedding. The urgency of the beats was hypnotic and one of my tasks when I got home was to find out more about Algerian music. Imarhan hail from deep inside the Algerian Sahara, in a town called Tamanrasset. They play music derived from the Tuareg traditions, but add elements of rock, blues and jazz to appeal to the new generation shaping Algeria. It sounds familiar yet evidently foreign. The music coasts along on the exciting beats of the music I heard in Algeria, giving me a chance to remember what an exhilarating place it was to visit.
Metronomy – Old Skool
After the slow-burning charms of Love Letters, Metronomy came back, but just in the form of Joseph Mount. Old Skool features cow bells and some record scratching, so it’s already onto a winner. The video features Sharon Horgan hosting an old school swingers party, which only improves things further. This is the sound of being at a twisted disco.
Wild Beasts – Big Cat
Wild Beasts discovered the simple joys of sex on Boy King. They’ve never been shy about coital matters in the past, but the world of 2016 is not able to deal with subtlety. Out go the beautifully crafted mini-operas and in come straight-forward stomping bangers. This is both a sad thing and a fantastic thing – a band can’t evolve without some of the best ingredients being thrown out for new ones. If Boy King was an album, it’d have some serious shoulder pads on, and it’d be dancing wildly in a neon-lit club. Big Cat still features the dual vocals of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming, but Hayden’s soaring falsetto is used more sparingly, choosing to sing close to the mic so every breath is part of the fabric of the song.
Ed Harcourt – Loup Garou
Ed Harcourt spoke for an eternity about an album’s worth of “evil songs” he was going to unveil to a horrified world. If Furnaces is evil, then the devil must have some excellent Spotify playlists. Harcourt is a mixture of sweetness and abrasiveness, bringing his trademark melodies and overwrought emotions. Loup Garou, about werewolves, is bristling with energy, from the restless percussion to the tumbling pianos, marching band drunks and Ed’s multi tracked vocals. Put this on when the apocalypse comes, if it already hasn’t.
Jamie T – Power over Men
Jamie T has never really lost what made him so interesting to begin with, but Trick is as slick as Jamie’s hair. Power Over Men is a calmer cut from Trick. Tinfoil Boy is a statement opener, featuring the angry young man stuff that comes across as fairly lazy to these ears. Drone Strike is a festival of skittering beats and rapping; allowing me to realise my music tastes don’t need this.
Warpaint – New Song
Like Wild Beasts, Warpaint have chosen to use 2016 to ditch the complex stuff and embrace the light. Well, maybe that overstates the case, but at the very least Warpaint is singing in a technicolour haze. New Song is a storming and danceable track a world away from earlier classics Billie Holiday which focused on breathy vocals, and Disco//very which still sounded like a band with guitars and a drum kit. New Song uses distorted vocals, a lightness of touch and a clearer sound palette. Their third album, Heads Up, doesn’t abandon their old sound entirely but they are offering an exciting path for where they are headed to next.
Anohni – Crisis
Tickets for the Anohni show in London may as well as sold out before they went on sale, such was the level of demand. And it’s no surprise. The album is completely gorgeous and Crisis is a prime cut, all atmospheric electronics, the beautiful vocals of Anohni and that nagging concern with the state of the world carrying on from the equally gorgeous single Drone Bomb Me.
Sia – Move your body
The world needs pop stars like Sia. She’s like a more fun version of Adele – she even wrote Alive for Adele, who turned it down for something presumably middle of the road. Her vocals are so explosive she is the karaoke enthusiasts worst nightmare. on Move your Body she tackles the dance floor in a song originally meant for Shakira. You can hear the latin influence in the marching drum beat, but despite the song being made for someone else, Sia stamps her authority on this with authority. It has a great chorus, a quiet bit that erupts with some booming drums and a general feeling of elation.
Yeasayer – I am Chemistry
Another comeback, another ticket I failed to get. Yeasayer shouldn’t be playing venues as tiny as Hackney’s Oslo, not with songs of this quality. I am Chemistry is a fantastic piece of music, where an entire band’s repertoire is crammed into five minutes. There’s guitar, there’s synths-a-plenty, a choir pop up. It’s all brilliant and never feels too OTT.
The Fall – All leave cancelled (X)
As each year passes, I become more amazed at the brilliance of The Fall. Mark E Smith may piss himself on stage and appear to be very much out of it, but he’s a tyrant in the studio and coaxes out tremendously tight performances from his band members. All Leave Cancelled (X) is a relatively subdued instrumental compared to the album track. There isn’t a particular thing this song does to warrant its inclusion here, it’s just somehow very good.
Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate
Goodness me, what a treat this was. I first heard this on 6 Music and thought it was some old gem from the 1970s, but I was delighted to find out this was a young Londoner in the modern world. While mournful, this is also soothing and is a quieter moment on this list, full of beauty.
Zayn – BeFoUr
It’s always the quiet ones. Zayn may have looked bored senseless when he was in One Direction, but he has also looked bored being a solo star. Thank goodness then that he has his voice, a thing of strength and beauty. On BefoUr his falsetto makes a grand appearance and the memories of One Direction fade away into the background as the sound of an artist coming into his own comes into view. It’d be silly to not mention Pillowtalk as another song of the year. It’s brilliant.
On Dead Waves – California
I love Polly Scattergood, and this off-shoot sounds pretty much like Polly Scattergood being all dark and mysterious. California sounds like she’s having a laugh, and the results are great, even if the lyrics include everyone being dead in California. And the band’s name hardly makes 2016 a more cheerful year. It’s a welcome respite from the gloom, in short.
Foxes – Money
You could argue Foxes really should be more well known and if this wasn’t the topsy-turvy world of 2016, you’d be right. Money is a magnificent pop tune, but if you listen to the Top 40, you’ll realise that quality isn’t a necessity to do well. This is a joyous torch song full of moments precision made to be danced to.
Porches – Be Apart
Kind of dreamy, kind of gloomy, Be Apart is a perfect Sunday afternoon song.