Friday 27 January 2017

The 50 Best Songs of 2016

This will probably be the last of my fifty-best lists.

When I started writing these, five years ago, most of the bands I was into had either broken up or were well past the period of their best material. I was hungry for stuff I could get excited about, and making a list was simply a way of recording everything I’d found while ferreting about various streaming services – a way of reminding myself how much good new stuff was out there.

But that isn’t really how I’ve been listening to music this year. I’ve had massive re-listens to Bowie and REM’s back-catalogues. I’ve got heavily into the Hamilton soundtrack. I’ve had the first Whiplash-inspired stirrings of a desire to get into Big Band Jazz (Count Basie just might be the answer to all your questions). I’ve seen more live music this year than I ever have before – I’ve seen Springsteen, Regina Spektor, Bellowhead, Frightened Rabbit, plus everyone I saw at Oxford Folk Weekend, Oxjam Oxford and Latitude Festival, plus everyone my band supported.  And this year was the first year I’ve seen a West End musical, or a ballet.

But I haven’t really been hunting down new music. At least not instinctively. Gathering the songs for this list has felt like a duty, sometimes like a slog. And the lack of real new-ness can be seen from the fact that around half of these songs are by artists who have shown up in my lists before, in some form or another.

But none of this should detract from how excellent the music below is. I can’t think of another year when there has been quite so much great stuff lingering just outside the top fifty (apologies to Al Scorch, GoGo Penguin, Brian Eno, Bellows, Keaton Henson, Steve Mason, Afro Celt Sound System, My Bubba, Mogwai, Wilco, The Gloaming and Emmy The Great – you’re all awesome and none of you quite made it).

Which I think brings us to the central lesson of all of these lists. There is always, always, so much good music being made. You can have a problem with the way that the music industry is structured now, or with the ways that music is distributed, or the ways that musicians are remunerated, but if you think that there’s a problem with the music being made now, you aren’t looking hard enough.

Anyway – the usual rules apply (everything had to be released this year, one song per artist, and nothing by anyone I know) and the Spotify playlist is here:

And on with the songs.

50. Doing the Right Thing – Daughter
There isn’t anything by The National on the list this year – usually I find something to crowbar in even if they haven’t released an album – but here’s something that creates the same warm cave of melancholy precision. An oddly detached singer glides across uncomfortable metaphors while waves of guitar wash underneath.

49. East Virginia Blues – Dawg Yawp
A trad country song with – for some reason – a sitar as the lead instrument. There’s so much charm in the sitar break, about two and a half minutes in, when the song briefly flies away from its comfortable harmonies and structures, and owns up to its strangeness.

48. High / Aflame - Knifeworld
A propulsive piece of retro-prog, drawing influence from the rougher, nastier parts of the genre’s more psychedelic edges. There’s a smooth assault of saxophone and bassoon snaking through here too. Dense and mechanical and unrelenting.

47. Meet me in the Twilight – Seth Lakeman
Every now and then (about twice an album at this point), Lakeman hits on a melody which lunges straight for the heart. Everything that his band and voice are doing is very simple - there’s none of the fiddle pyrotechnics with which he’s most associated here, and there’s a smooth accessibility you won’t often find in traditional folk. But sometimes it’s enough to put the tune on display and let everything else stand back.

46. Invention – Anderson/Stolt
Roine Stolt was the man behind the Flower Kings, a band who pastiched 70s progressive rock with admirable accuracy, but never had tight-enough structures, strong enough melodies, or good enough vocals to pull it off. Jon Anderson was lead singer with Yes on every Yes album worth caring about, but it has been years since he’s been able to access the kind of production his writing or voice deserved. Stolt solves Anderson’s problem just as Anderson solves Stolt’s. We get a swirling ten minutes of unironic hippyish positivity, with all the dense intricacy we could ask for.

45. Towerblock – Frost*
Frost* is the third and final retro prog band to be hanging around at the lower reaches of the top fifty, this one headed by a man who used to write songs for Atomic Kitten. Eventually it degenerates into what sounds like broken, polyrhythmic dubstep featuring Rick Wakeman. If the sound of that makes you want to run a mile, then fair enough, but you’re missing one of the weirdest parties you’ve ever been invited to.

44. Calendar Boys – John McCusker [not on Spotify]
McCusker is obviously a magnificent fiddle player, but perhaps more significantly he’s a phenomenal writer of folk tunes - it’s incredibly hard not to sound soulful when playing one of his compositions. They dive down onto unexpected notes, or hop across unexpected syncopations, but never sound less than a beautiful, hummable whole. Bonus extra - the second tune here is Joe’s Tuxedo, one the finest jigs ever written.

43. Sunset Over Manaan – ATTLAS
From an album of electronica inspired by (and sampling various sound effects and dialogue from) Star Wars. A lot of it is as terrible as you’d expect, but occasionally you’ll get something like this - something that nails the romance of Star Wars - the deep longing and nostalgia that lets people - people like me - take space wizards and space pirates seriously, for at least as long as the illusion holds.

42. In Waves – Slow Club
As you can probably tell from the content of these lists, the music I’m drawn towards is usually flashy, self-conscious, deliberately seeking your attention. Sometimes, though, good songwriting cuts through. There’s a sober grace here, as a clean vocal melody glides across gentle feathering of guitars. There are also more tight hooks here than you’d notice on a first listen, the motors behind the charm and the poise.

41. Rosemary – Brian Fallon
I think I’ve had a habit of underrating Brian Fallon. Formerly lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem, he’s spent a decade writing earnest, straight-ahead guitar rock, always straining for poetic yearning and sometimes hitting it. After hearing so many albums of this material, I’ve started to forget that what he’s doing isn’t easy - that songwriting doesn’t have to be clever or witty or subversive, sometimes it just has to hit you with a big happy hammer.

40. I Wish I Was Sober – Frightened Rabbit
Speaking of yearning guitar rock, here come Frightened Rabbit, reminding you how much fun wallowing in your own misery can be. The bit at 1:17 when the rhythm section kicks in is key - somehow, they’ve converted self-pity into a communal joyous cleansing. It’s a song that straddles the gap between moody, introspective shadows and stadium lights.

39. untitled 03 05.28.2013 – Kendrick Lamar
I wouldn’t want try and analyse what Lamar is doing with his lyrics here - he seems to be constructing an anti-racist argument from racist stereotypes, and somehow it’s also about the music industry? But I’ve long realised that Lamar’s lyrics aren’t *for* me. Instead, this is on here for the sheer pleasure of listening to him rap, his words bouncing off and across rhythms with dizzying velocity.

38. The Ardlair Tuning Fork – Aidan O’Rourke
O’Rourke (best known for his work with Lau) is the finest folk fiddle player I know of. If you listen to the recordings that he made in the 90s with Tabache, you realise that by the time he was in his early twenties, he had already got as good as it was possible to get at playing Scottish folk tunes. The question became where he could go next. The Adlair Tuning Fork shows how many answers to that question there are: there’s folk fiddle here, but there’s also electronic music and contemporary classical music, flashing through odd, propulsive rhythms.

37. The Rising Sun – Leveret
The Rising Sun is the sort of coiled, angular tune that you can often find hanging around the corners of the English tradition - it’s easy to appreciate these tunes’ elegance, but trickier to hum along or lock into while playing. So it’s amazing how Leveret fill it with so many shafts of light, how it glows with warmth and triumph. Just listen to the way that Sam Sweeney’s fiddle smashes open the front door and lets the light in at 1:26.

36. Adore – Savages
The guitars sound like loping, muscled threats, awaiting explosions of violence, but violence never comes - just a couple of brief and startling modulations to the major in the choruses, which disappear as soon as they arrive. Even the song’s final crescendo sounds anything but triumphant - it’s more like a ratcheting of pre-existing tension than a release. But the song *isn’t* threatening the listener - it’s mapping out the singer’s psychology; a prison of doubt and self-restraint which, despite self-affirming mantras, never really goes away.

35. The Noisy Eater – The Avalanches
Disneyland gone horribly wrong - a blazing, technicolour collage of sounds bouncing from one overwhelmingly kitsch idea to the next. Here’s a rap! Here’s a sudden children’s choir singing The Beatles! Any one of its elements could be charming. Together, they are a swirling mass of nightmare.

34. Regular – The Range
The Range finds scraps of music from old, barely-seen YouTube videos, and houses them in pristine storehouses of electronic sound, as if they were displayed upon an altar. Here, the voice of the unknown speaker is chopped up and repeated again and again, until the listener hears every catch of longing in his voice. From a few short sentences, we feel intimate with all the vulnerabilities of a stranger.

33. Melin Wynt – King Creosote
Bagpipes aren’t meant to be delicate, and they aren’t meant to appear in raw, heartfelt, indie-acoustic stuff. The first few times I heard the track I thought that they were tacky: gimmicky posturing; a way of making an ordinary song unusual. But the more I listened to it, the more I changed my mind. Bagpipes are as much about nostalgic haunts as they are about blaring assaults. Those long, slow notes are the cement that holds the song together.

32. There Will Be Time – Mumford & Sons
Mumford & Sons were always at their best when marrying the aesthetics of Irish and American folk to U2-sized shiny hooky pop-rock. They seemed increasingly aware that they had taken this idea as far as it would go, but simply ripping out the folk elements of their sound proved disastrous. The solution, it seemed, was broadening their definition of folk: here, working with musicians from Malawi, South Africa and Senegal, they’ve produced their best work yet. Yes, it’s still broad and commercial, and if you’ve always hated them this won’t change your mind, but There Will Be Time is a stomping, widescreen, joyous thing, anchored by Baaba Maal’s waterfall of a voice.

31. Noise Above Our Heads – James Blake
I still can’t connect to James Blake’s work on an instinctive or emotional level, but sometimes it’s enough to sit back and bask in technical precision. Blake’s voice is fluttering, sharp, and almost R&B-ish, and he lets it wander and settle in a glistening shadow-world.

30. To the Great Unknown – Cloud Cult
If you’re looking for sadness and grandeur and hope, Cloud Cult are a good place to go. There are no masks here, no irony, and very little subtlety -  just a river of unrestrained sincerity. And, as ever, my critical faculties get damaged whenever I’m brought face-to-face to face with a huge major-key horn section.

29. The Noisy Days are Over – Field Music
Swaggering in with all the dry funkiness of the 1980s’ cleverest pop, there are some air-punching moments here, but they’re held at a distance, as if the band are raising an eyebrow at the listener every time the listener falls for one of the band’s tricks. The whole thing is sleek, witty, stylish and fits like a new suit.

28. Left Handed Kisses – Andrew Bird (ft. Fiona Apple)
Andrew Bird sings a song, Fiona Apple explains why the song doesn’t work. It’s a love song and a duet, but it’s supremely unromantic, a deft portrait of a spark dissolving into bitterness. Bt for all that bitterness, it’s also a smart argument for unrestrained romance, and an exploration of the limits of archness and artifice - so often Bird’s default modes. Which makes the song sound like nothing more than a smart essay, but the cleverness of its ideas is matched by the elegance of its craftsmanship, with swooping violin lines and a melody that keeps twisting into unexpected corners.

27. John the Revelator – Tom Waits
Any scraps of material that Waits releases will end up on my lists. Because even if this cover of a Blind Willie Johnson song is a fairly minor work, when his voice shows up, you have to get out of the way. He sounds more like an oak tree than a human here - vast and ancient and cracked and indomitable.

26. White Ferrari – Frank Ocean
It’s startling how something that sounds so sparse and unguarded also sounds so audibly produced - it’s as if Ocean is standing alone with nothing except the quiet ghosts that flash behind him. All the expensive wizardry of modern pop production is being used not to overwhelm and thicken the sound, but to flicker and create intimacy.

25. Had 2 Know (Personal) – White Denim
This one’s just a party. All the fun of distorted guitars and fiery urgency. There’s something slightly alt-country in its old-fashioned rough edges, and something slightly proggy about its flashing keyboard lines, but all of its mild oddnesses are in the service of fun.

24. The Winter Hymn – Pantha du Prince
Crystalline electronica, swooping through the clean and precise dreamscapes. There’s a vocal melody here, but the words have been distorted out of existence, leaving it feeling distant and sad, even as the song follows it through the dark.

23. Wolves – Kanye West
There comes a point where you wonder if being really into late-period Kanye West makes you complicit in his mental breakdown. The Life of Pablo is a messy, unpleasant, structureless album lit up by sudden moments of clarity. I'm not sure if Wolves counts as a moment of clarity: it's tense and nocturnal, fluctuating between anger and self loathing, and it seems to compare Kim Kardashian with the Virgin Mary. The listener is stuck at the crossroads between the slick precision of the production and the turmoil of the performance. As ever, what's so exciting about West is the appearance of something so jagged, confrontational and auteurist in a mainstream context.

22. Voice Crack – Tim Hecker
Electronic noise without a hint of a melody. Instead, flickering distorted signals (are some of them human voices manipulated into abstraction?) play across beds of synths that sometimes sound like choirs or sometimes like harps. It should be hard work, but it really isn’t - it’s just beautiful, in a very cold and alien way.

21. Little Birdie – Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble feat. Sarah Jarosz
Fetishising folk music for its unvarnished simplicity is a pretty limited way of understanding it. This is a bluegrass song performed by a bluegrass singer, but the arrangement is knotted and filigreed: Yo-Yo Ma’s company of fussy, precise musicians bringing in influences from a too many different world traditions to be able to clearly distinguish each one. They lean over the song together like practiced technicians.

20. Sugaree – Phosphorescent
I haven’t got to grips with the “Day of the Dead” compilation album yet - I’m not even sure if I’ve listened to every track. It’s a collection of Grateful Dead covers, curated by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, produced in order to raise money for AIDS charities. It’s also five and a half hours long, and contains a silly number of people I like (The National! Courtney Barnett! Wilco! This is the Kit!) With an undertaking so huge, it seems silly to pick the first track, but Phosphorescent’s contribution has such a warm, inviting bounce that it’s difficult to turn it away - it’s the lazy sound of an imagined 1960s Summer. There’s a lovely organ solo too.

19. The Suitcase – Martin Green
It starts with a monologue - a strange, atmospheric story which implies a much larger world than it actually describes. The song that follows pushes trad folk through a subterranean post-rocky tunnel. There are members of Lau, The Unthanks, Mogwai and Portishead here, twisting realist fiction into a vague and unsettling fantasy.

18. Cabinet Battle 3 – Lin-Manuel Miranda
Like every other member of liberal metropolitan elite, I got super into Hamilton this year. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, it’s a hip-hop musical about US founding father Alexander Hamilton, and it is dense with erudition, geeky wit, and boiling chunks of emotional heft. This year, “The Hamilton Mixtape” was released, which (among other things) contains demos of songs that were cut from the musical. The most interesting of these is Cabinet Battle 3: it’s full of the same West-Wing-But-Rhyming verbal dexterity of the political debates that made it into the musical, but here, all the joy of the fight is gone, as the characters debate slavery, and decide to do nothing about it. Everyone ends up morally compromised, and the song quietly shows how great evil can arise from political expediency.

17. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore – David Bowie
I bounced off Blackstar, mostly due to the ugly elusive rambling of its first track. But this is a beautifully twisted pop song. There’s something melancholy and poised here, but it’s sandwiched between those huge echoing drums and that greasy leaping saxophone. It’s also very funny, in the driest and most abstract way: “Man, she punched me like a dude” is a hell of an opening line, but it’s much improved by the world-weary theatricality of Bowie’s delivery.

16. Mothers of the Sun – Black Mountain
Speaking of theatricality, this is built on one of those bludgeoning, crunching, and pure riffs that should have already been discovered and used at some point in the 1970s. A lot of the song is old-fashioned bluesy hard-rock, but it’s elevated by surprisingly long period of moody woozy synth build-up that helps you better appreciate the thunder when it finally arrives. I saw this band at Latitude when I was sitting in a camp chair and reading Clive James, which I’m pretty sure is not the usual way people experience them.

15. Present Tense – Radiohead
I guess Radiohead are part of the Classic Rock furniture now - one of those bands people’s dads like, whose old records get put up on pedestals, and whose new records are deemed unimportant. And yeah, when so much of the musical landscape was built in your image, it’s difficult to startle people or point to the future any more. But maybe this gives us the opportunity to see Radiohead not as innovators but as craftsmen and technicians. You won’t be surprised by Present Tense, and it won’t change the world, but its smoky, translucent chambers are wonderful places to settle down in.

14. Wristband – Paul Simon
Imagine that you’ve just met Paul Simon, and you’re getting on really well. You’re in a really nice bar, and you don’t need to worry about seeming overly fannish, because Paul Simon clearly respects you as a thinker and an artist. So you decide that it wouldn’t be embarrassing if you asked him if he had any good recent stories about being Paul Simon. He smiles - and suddenly, out of nowhere, this band shows up, and starts meandering around a cool, cool bassline. As the band play, Paul Simon tells you this anecdote. It’s maybe not the greatest anecdote in the world, and it’s a bit weird how he tries to claim it’s proof of some wider political point. But the way he tells it is so warm and witty and charming that you just want to be his friend. And also, you’re hanging out with Paul Simon! Isn’t that enough?

13. Vincent – Car Seat Headrest
Now this is from an album I haven’t spent nearly enough time with yet. It feels like it comes from the same tradition of scruffy intellectual rock as The Hold Steady, Courtney Barnett and Titus Andronicus, where all the wired cleverness only makes the clanging guitars hit harder. I love the moment at 2:15 where a trumpet ends its massive riff with two small vestigial notes that don’t seem to go anywhere - as if it had far more energy than could be contained within the boundaries of the song.

12. Tunnel Vision – Kate Tempest
It’s not like the arguments are new, but the delivery is so direct, controlled, taut and unignorable that they feel fresh. Tempest’s delivery comes as much from performance poetry as it does from hip hop, often flying free from the beat, the thoughts too expansive to hold down. The words stalk across a taut, restless wilderness of bass and synthesiser: it’s furious stuff, but never churns or froths with its fury. It never lets fireworks get in the way of its ideas.

The actual apocalypse. This is like a Florence and the Machine song shoved into a weird art-rock cathedral: there’s the same sense of riding and mastering an orchestral tidal wave. However, I’m not sure if Florence and the Machine would write a song describing a passionate, hedonistic longing to embrace the climate-change-derived death of the planet and all its inhabitants. This is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

10. Older and Taller – Regina Spektor
Spektor’s songwriting is varied and ambitious and stonkingly consistent, but she’s always best when her songs sound like warm hugs. You couldn’t produce something like this without a ton of wit and ambition, but that’s the scaffolding that gets removed once the song is complete - there’s so much density and wordplay in the lyrics, but you hardly notice them when the performance and melody feel so wise and comforting that any analysis feels like missing the point.

9. Just Lay Still – John Congleton and the Nighty Night
This is a scary, scary piece of music. Congleton is a producer before he’s a singer - have a look at his Wikipedia page for the ridiculously impressive list of artists he’s produced. It’s basically everyone who has ever received a good review from Pitchfork. And, yes there’s huge amounts of production here, crowding out and warping the structure of the song. There’s also a fist-punching anthem in there somewhere, one that’s difficult to resist, but the lyrics are nasty, dangerous, threatening - a blunt and ugly parody of every piece of pop desire ever recorded. If you can stomach the mess, it’s really quite something.

8. Air ‘Em Out – clipping
“Splendor & Misery” is a rap record which blends together a silly number of things I like. It’s a a science fiction concept-album prominently featuring Sea Shanties and Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs - so if I hadn’t come out enjoying it, I would have ended up seriously doubting my own tastes. And yes, its reach often exceeds its grasp, but so it should, or what’s space travel for? And at its best, the album comes out with stuff like this - a clattering, hooky piece of hip hop, which references a seriously classy selection of Science Fiction writers (Ursula Le Guin, M John Harrison and Octavia Butler can’t exactly be referred to as populist choices) with an aggressive cleverness.

7. Katie Catch – Fay Hield
It’s surprisingly difficult to write about traditional English folk music - especially surprising given that I spend so much time thinking about it and playing it. Sometimes something just works, and you can’t do anything but sit back and watch it click. This is laid-back, sun drenched contentment - happy to roll along without showiness, but given bounce and vigour through its crunching, percussive fiddle line.

6. 22 (OVER S∞∞N) – Bon Iver
Bon Iver has soared off into weird realms of sonic exploration, and there are all sorts of strange noises here: odd glitches, chipmunk vocals, sounds that flutter in and out of focus, and odd mutterings of saxophone. But it all adds up to something as fragile and direct as the acoustic folk songs he was producing nearly ten years ago. Something this eccentric shouldn’t be this warm, but Bon Iver has always been communicating the same stuff - this just uses a different set of tools to do the communicating.

5. I Didn’t Try Hard Enough – Kris Drever
I’ve got sort of a weird relationship with the “If Wishes Were Horses” album. My mum passed away in December 2015, and when this album came out, it was the first time after her death that I experienced any art that I felt absolutely certain - on a weird gut level - she would have loved, if she’d been there to see it. Which sort of ended up being a way into Kris Drever’s solo music. I’d always found him a bit difficult and austere when he wasn’t playing with Lau, but now I’m fairly convinced he’s a genius.

4. Fuck the Government, I Love You – The Burning Hell
Romance has never been so clever, cleverness has never been so romantic. A torrent of words, telling the story of a drunken flirtation at a party, the whole song is washed in the comforting embrace of booze and brass. (Which instrument is that? A trombone? If I’m writing music criticism, I really should be able to tell the difference between different brass instruments.) It’s very funny. It also has far more heart than you could have reasonably expected.

3. Distant Sky – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
I’ve written about this this song (and the rest of the Skeleton Tree album) pretty extensively elsewhere on this blog. It’s an extraordinary thing, even if it’s difficult to listen to. The album was mostly written before Cave’s teenage son unexpectedly passed away, but was mostly recorded afterwards. This song is the album at its rawest. As the lyrics seem to approach discussing the tragedy directly, Cave absents himself, and is replaced by the Danish soprano Else Torp. He returns, sounding shaken and broken, to sing the words “They told us our gods would outlive us/ They told us our dreams would outlive us/ They told us our gods would outlive us/ But they lied”.

2. You want it Darker – Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen meditating on his own approaching death: he mirrors the words of a Jewish mourner’s prayer; he repeats the Hebrew word that Abraham said when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac; he growls, repeatedly “I’m ready my lord.” It’s unsentimental, unflinching and magnetic. But there’s no wallowing here. The song is funny (“I struggled with some demons, they were middle class and tame”) and confrontational - when Cohen addresses God, it sounds as much like he’s picking a fight as accepting his mortality. And Cohen’s voice is extraordinary - so deep a bass that it barely hints at melody, rolling through the words with gritted, clear-eyed determination.

1. Call to Arms – Sturgill Simpson
Let’s end on a high. This is an angry song - a vital, muscular, anti-war song of the kind that people have been writing for centuries. But the anger is hardly the point: the point is the catharsis, the elation, the ability to explode. One would think that things were already at full-tilt, but My God the horn riff that kicks in at 2:10 - the planet may never recover. And after that the song twists and melts and extends, billowing into a huge, extended jam that  fluctuates between wild solos and the tightest possible grooves. None of the sonic elements of Call to Arms are new - the arrangement is a pretty standard mashup of soul, country and old fashioned guitar rock. But it shows off why these modes have always been vital, have always been alive. Sometimes music doesn’t have to be profound, or seek out new ways of doing things. Sometime it just has to soar.


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