If you haven’t heard Kate’s 2016 album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ yet, then please put that right soon. I spent a lot of the year lamenting the fact that too few young artists had anything to say about the alarming chain of events that unfolded throughout the year, and I stand by that criticism. But, in October came this record. The album tells the story of one moment in the middle of one night in the lives of the inhabitants of a residential street in London in 2016. Telling their stories one by one, it is a blistering attack on everything that is wrong. A lot of the venom comes to a head on this track – the 3 minute tirade after the breakdown half way through is a Gil Scott-Heron-worthy tour de force of political fury. Thank god somebody is here to say it.
I’ve written extensively about this album, and indeed this track, elsewhere on this blog. Suffice to say, it’s my runaway album of the year, and at this point I believe a true contender for the best album that Bowie ever made. It feels arbitrary to single out one track over the others, but as I have said, this is the one that most poignantly and maturely expresses the central theme of the record, which is of course his imminent departure from this world. The sly references to his past work and the layers of meaning in several of the lines are just head scrambling. A real-life genius at work.
This is the surprise of the year for me. Esperanza Spalding is probably best known for beating Justin Bieber to the Grammy for Best New Act a few years back, and she’s released a string of highly respected modern jazz albums. This year, however, she took a diversion through the worlds of Joni Mitchell, Janelle Monae and Stevie Wonder with her album ‘Emily’s D+Evolution’. By writing through the character of Emily, she has unleashed her inner funk, folk and R&B queens, and in concert with her jazz background and boundless talent, the results are spectacular. The album careers from one genre to the next, regularly blending them together at once, as on this thrilling single.
Some of the songs near the top of this list deal with serious issues in the world, some are musical progressions to be excited about. This is a very straightforward injection of blissful fun. As I’ve written elsewhere, New York trio Sunflower Bean are not reinventing the wheel with ‘Easier Said’, they’re just bringing out a shiny new model. It is three minutes of indie rock crack cocaine. I listened to it more than any other single in 2016, and for me it belongs in the annals of great indie singles alongside Camera Obscura, Teenage Fanclub, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and so on.
Virginia songwriter Will Toledo had his breakthrough year in 2016, after toiling in the quagmire of Bandcamp self-releases for several years and some twelve album-length releases. After signing to Matador in 2015, his first full set of new material for the label was ‘Teens of Denial’, and is a landmark release for alternative rock music. Not in years has a new voice arrived with an outlook and philosophy so fully developed and rounded. His writing is at times disarmingly confessional, at others an incisive commentary on the reasons for his generation’s apathy, at others a primal cry of despair. It may call to mind Pavement, Modest Mouse, Parquet Courts, Minutemen and others, but this is a singular, thrillingly fresh perspective, and easily one of my favourite albums of the year.
Anderson .Paak’s ‘Malibu’ feels like an old release now, but it lit up the first quarter of 2016, and announced him as a major player in the R&B world for the next generation. When so many others were ploughing the alt-R&B, minimal electro soul that Frank Ocean, Solange, Blood Orange, James Blake and countless others are trending with at the moment, Paak went for a more organic, instrumental, in-the-room production. Some will label it as retro, and you can see why, but with this delivery it feels as vital and fresh as any other 2016 release.
Surely no explanation needed here. Two minutes of the best rap music of the year. Two minutes of the best club music of the year. Two minutes of one of the year’s best producers, Kaytranada. It’s what songs of the year lists were invented for. I wasn’t 100% sold on ‘Coloring Book’, and would stick by ‘Acid Rap’ as his best work so far, and I have a few qualms about his rep as the biggest independent artist in the world when his “mixtapes” are on Apple Music, but still there’s no knocking this track.
The shamelessly retrospective songwriting of precocious teenage New York siblings The Lemon Twigs will send some running, but it hits me right in a soft spot. The 70s melodic rock of ELO, Wings, Big Star, Badfinger and Todd Rundgren are the obvious touchstones for their music so far, and I could bask in it forever. ‘These Words’ could just have easily been this high on the list, but the antics at the climax of this one clinched it. They are music students, and they know exactly how to use and subvert songwriting traditions. Fans of Foxygen will be right at home here.
Beyoncé had her supernova in 2016, and for the first time in a long time, there is a megastar in the music industry that is also operating near the cutting edge. I didn’t love everything about ‘Lemonade’, but there were quite a few great songs on there, and this faithful reinvention of pre-electric gospel was my clear highlight. Naturally, some Kendrick stardust doesn’t hurt it.
The unignorable, irrepressible, won’t-give-a-fuck spirit of Sleaford Mods has given the music world a jump-start over the last year or two. It couldn’t be more simple, but would fail in any other hands. This on one hand is a love letter to the eponymous toy car set from the 70s, but this is Sleaford Mods, so it can’t resist the occasional (ok, repeated) stab at the shallow, status-obsessed popular culture of 2016. Throw in some Ena Sharples and Ray Reardon, and you have one of the singles of the year.