Yes we realize this is long overdue but frankly you’re lucky to be reading it in March. All these things we mean to get done. Life’s just too busy. With the Chinese New Year period having now drawn to a close though, actually, it’s as good a time as any to look back and think about the amazing music the admittedly troubled year of 2016 fired our way. We decided to pick one album for each month.
January: David Bowie in true David Bowie type fashion gave us Blackstar at the beginning of the year, blew our minds, then shocked us with his sudden departure. What a hard act to follow and we’re not convinced anyone equaled this album, let alone bettered it. What made Bowie’s passing all the more difficult to cope with was how this record initially alluded to a really fascinating musical future. A future Bowie himself was apparently intent on pursuing before he finally succumbed to his illness. Blackstar is somehow distinctly Bowie yet utterly different. Yes you can hear familiar strands such as the use of saxophone and the flirtations with multiple genres, but the overall listening experience is positively otherworldly. How appropriate.
February: A toss-up between DIIV, Field Music, and Animal Collective for us. I’m going to go for DIIV just for the way the opening track ‘Out of Mind’ kicks off their, arguably slightly bloated album, ‘Is the Is Are‘. Dreamy, hypnotic, jangly, bouncy loveliness. Of course one good track does not an album make (take note Kanye) and other standout moments include ‘Bent (Roi’s Song)‘, which conjures up Sonic Youth, immediately followed by the catchy ‘Dopamine‘. At the start of the morning this album can, perhaps, start to drag a little bit, but late in the evening to close out the day with your intoxicant of choice, it’s a winner for all us losers.
March: We’re going to stay loyal to Hangzhou’s own music scene here and go for William Gray’s ‘Flounce’. Local bias? Definitely maybe. But we weren’t the only ones to like this album you see. No. In fact, Gray made his way onto a national playlist courtesy of Tom Robinson on BBC Radio 6. Not bad going for someone marooned all the way out here in the Middle Kingdom. Opening track ‘Child’s Play‘ is delightfully experimental but still retains the essence of a classic pop song, whilst title track ‘Flounce‘ sees the album really blasting off into some faraway reverb-laden, synth-heavy galaxy. Or something. Just give it a go.
April: We might be the only people on the planet not to really like ‘Lemonade’ by Beyonce all that much but it just didn’t do it for us. So we’re going for Yeasayer’s ‘Amen & Goodbye’. ‘Silly Me’ following ‘I am Chemistry’ gives the listener as catchy a couple of tunes as they could want and, generally speaking, the craft and production on show during this record is stupendously gratifying. The catchiness takes on new heights with the intro and repeated hook of ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’. There’s just an awful lot going on during this record. It’s wonderfully playful and it’s catchy. Did we mention it’s catchy?
May: If there’s another record which was released in 2016 to carry the same artistic weight as ‘Blackstar’ then for us it’s Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’. Benefiting from the co-production of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni is granted the minimalist and stark presentation such weighty topics songs such as ‘Drone Bomb Me’, ‘4 Degrees’, ‘Watch Me’, and ‘Obama’ encompass. If you ever hear anyone say gone are the artists who tackle the big issues of the day then shove this album in their ears. The song ‘Crisis’ is still as moving as the first time I heard it. Apologies to Car Seat Head Rest, if you’d released your album in June it would be in the next paragraph.
June: Can’t say we remember being that bowled over by much this month so the return of DJ Shadow is the obvious choice with ‘The Mountain Will Fall’. Perhaps not the best record to be released by DJ Shadow but you can’t argue with the Run the Jewels and Nils Frahm collaborations.
July: A simple way to decide which your favorite albums are over a set period of time is obviously to consider which ones you keep coming back to. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you just get the urge to listen to a record. Well ‘Freetown Sound’ by Blood Orange is one such record. A beautiful patchwork of recorded audio nestled betwixt cracking songwriting makes for one of those stream of consciousness type of LP experiences. A joy to partake in, and a defining record of its time released by a man seemingly enjoying something of a creative peak. And does anyone think ‘But You’ sounds just a tiny bit like Michael Jackson returning from beyond the grave – or is it just me?
August: This time we’re going to give in to the hype. In addition to Beyonce, Frank Ocean is the other artist critics were positively salivating over during 2016. Well we can just about see what the fuss is about with his record ‘Blonde’. For anyone unfamiliar with Ocean that is into more traditional types of genres this may prove a longwinded and difficult listen. But for me it’s one of those albums that, even if it leaves you a bit cold the first time you hear it, you want to come back for more and then you’re hooked. It’s appealing the way in which Ocean defies expectations by omitting beats from large portions of the record, and there’s a druggy kind of feel to proceedings which makes it a good headphone album for the escapists among us. And for those wanting big pop moments look no further than ‘Nights’ with its irresistible chopped up beats and spliced guitar sounds.
September: A difficult month to decide on this one, a cracking new Nick Cave album for one thing, not to mention Bon Iver. Well after repeated listens I just couldn’t get on with the Bon Iver one so that’s pushed to one side. Nick Cave has a rich back catalogue to draw from and I didn’t like this latest one quite as much as the one that preceded it. So, as flawed a decision-making process as this undoubtedly is, I’m going for the Solange Knowles‘ album. Let’s agree that 2016 is the year of the trailblazing R&B artist. And I never thought I’d find myself writing that due to the fact the only type of R&B I used to go for was the type made by Ray Charles and ripped off by The Rolling Stones. But that’s the thing about good music – it defies preconceptions. It doesn’t matter what genre it is if it connects. And ‘A Seat at the Table’ certainly does just that. Give it a spin. Once the lush opener ‘Rise’ has given way to the enticing groove of ‘Weary’ I challenge you not to be addicted.
October: October saw the return of the group American Football. Was it the worth the wait? We thought so. If you like your guitar music to be challenging rather than dirgey sometimes then this could be the record for you. Expertly knitted together with overarching melancholic refrains drifting in and out of focus, the sound of this group is all-enveloping. There’s a cleanness and crispness to the production which is really appealing on the headphones. Beautiful.
November: Another welcome return came in the form of A Tribe Called Quest. And if there was ever a time we needed this group then it’s now. The deft sampling. The grooves. The lyrical content. The whole package. Q-Tip‘s production is unassailable and this is one we’ll go back to again and again. And whilst the record will undoubtedly give Tribe fanatics what they want from a Tribe record, it doesn’t rest on its laurels. There’s a restlessness to the flow, that determination still there to create something genuinely forward-thinking and relevant to the now. Better each time you listen to it.
December: December? Fuck December. See you next time.