Grime purists will scoff at choosing this most poppy and accessible of Kano’s output this year, and as much as I also like ‘3 Wheel-Ups’, this is the one that I enjoyed the most over the course of the year. As grime has enjoyed its flowering renaissance this year, and arguably its most successful and lucrative year ever, Kano has served as a returning hero, a sort of godfather figure. ‘Made in the Manor’ found crossover success too, including a Mercury nomination, and secured his status after a somewhat risky six year absence. This track is a sort of ‘State of the Game’ address, and actually provides quite a moving overview of how far Kano and his generation of British musicians have come.
Kendrick might be at the stage of his career now where he actually suffers from overhyping, but he does it to himself. Following on from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ last year, he has released an album that purports to be a collection of rejects and castoffs from those sessions, and it is a better record than most artists achieve in their careers. It is similarly daring with its genre dabbling, and if anything pushes the jazz connections even further than TPAB did. Anyone who wasn’t already on board with Kendrick is unlikely to have their mind changed by ‘Untitled Unmastered’ (a more meaningful title than it first seems), but for those enjoying the ride, this is just another 35mins of treasure to be explored, plundered and revelled in. I really could have picked any track – I particularly like the long version of ‘untitled 07’, with all of its meandering jazz odyssey vibes – but I’ve stuck with one of the most direct tracks here.
Every time a year has drawn to an end since about 2001, the New Years predictions have talked about the possible release of the second Avalanches album. Well lo and behold, this time the predictions were right. SIXTEEN years after ‘Since I Left You’, the Aussie mixmasters finally stopped tinkering and let ‘Wildflower’ loose on the world. After all the fuss, it actually seemed to get a little overlooked in the end – perhaps because of its length, or perhaps the wait was just too long for some. Nevertheless, it was a smash, and this highly addictive lead single has been rattling around my subconscious ever since.
A new DJ Shadow album always brightens the music world up a little, and this year’s ‘The Mountain Will Fall’ was arguably his best since his legendary 1996 debut. This lead single gave us the first indication that something special might be coming, opening with that descending guitar arpeggio that calls to mind Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ ‘Shakin’ All Over’. Managing to secure the services of RTJ was a masterstroke, and a testament to Shadow’s respect and sway in the industry. This track is great, the album is even better, don’t let it pass you by.
Anohni’s ‘Helplessness’ is one of the year’s most heralded and loved releases, and whilst I must admit that I did not connect with it as deeply as so many others did, few songs by any artist hooked me as tightly as this. Her voice has been one of music’s rarest experiences for years, dating at least as far back as the Mercury-winning Antony & The Johnsons days, through the brilliant collaborations with artists such as Hercules & Love Affair. The voice can soar gracefully through the record’s space like a cloud of starlings, or dart aggressively like a bird of prey, but it never slumps or relaxes. She knows all this of course, and wields her vocal chords with a judicious virtuosity.
One of the year’s most irresistible new stars was Heloise Letissier from Nantes, France, who goes by the name Christine & The Queens. For a number of years, she has been chipping away at the fringes of electro and pop music without catching a break, as evidenced by the storied history of this particular song. In its original form it went by the name ‘Cripple’, and it caused some inadvertent offence when performed live. She went back to the drawing board, restyled the song as ‘Christine’, and duly scored a significant hit across mainland Europe. It wasn’t until this year however, and the third rebrand, that she eventually gained traction in the mainstream, but once she got rolling she would not be stopped, in no small part to her extraordinary on stage presence.
Any Nick Cave album is an intense and emotionally rich occasion, but ‘Skeleton Tree’ cannot be compared to any other chapter in his remarkable career. Recorded in part as Cave and his family were grieving for the loss of his son Arthur, the songs take on an immensely powerful and disarmingly personal dimension. Alongside the moving film ‘One More Time With Feeling’, which saw a brief cinematic run ahead of the album’s release, Cave has elected to allow the listener into his private space at times, which for a figure that has often come across as stern and austere was a particularly striking move. It doesn’t feel right to single out one track from the record, or to include it amongst other more trivial songs, but it cannot be ignored.
Every year, there is a band that bursts into your life, and nobody how hard you try, the rest of the world just isn’t interested in joining you in admiration for them. Lionlimb are certainly that band for me in 2016 – the former bandmates of Angel Olsen released their debut album ‘Shoo’ this year, and made a better album that Olsen did this year in my opinion. The lazy, woozy, psych-tinged pop that they play is not rare in the internet-fuelled world of alternative music, but few write songs with such longing and desire as these Nashvillers. The Elliott Smith likeness to Stewart Bronaugh is an advantage rather than a curse, and ‘Turnstile’ for me is the best encapsulation of that distinctively warm and fuzzy glow that this band conjures.
I have been saying for a while now that this final phase of Laughing Lenny’s career has included his finest work, and now with ‘You Want It Darker’ bringing that phase to a mournful completion, I am more certain than ever. Encyclopaedias have been written about the retro-poignancy of Bowie’s final recorded words, but Cohen here is mining a similarly bottomless well of mortal contemplation. “I am leaving the table, I’m out of the game,” he sing-whispers throughout this typically wry track. He had been talking about death and the afterlife for fifty years, but he never seemed more at ease with his uncertainty as he did here. You cannot take on a mightier subject in a pop song, and you cannot deliver it with more powerful grace and timing.
This time last year, I would not have guessed that UK hip-hop would have had such a presence on this list as it does. I’ve already written about Skepta, Lady Leshurr, Trademark Blud and Kojey Radical, and now perhaps the most exciting prospect for the future – Loyle Carner (and there are still more to come!). The South Londoner is much more relatable to underground US rap than he is to grime, with an incredibly satisfying focus on intricate wordplay and rapid-fire delivery. He has been bubbling under the radar for a couple of years, including touring with Kate Tempest around her first album. 2017 very well might be his time, with his debut ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ due for release in January.