Continuing our Albums of 2016... So Far is Stephen Barrett, with his picks even including a little genre tag from him. Neat, right? He also asked very nicely if he could include a few EPs, since some of his stand-out music from the year wasn't released in album format, and God knows I can't say no to him. Three of his singles are from SoundCloud as the artists seem not to like Spotify all that much, but we've listed those tracks next to the genre since the SoundCloud player isn't quite so pretty.
Blackstar – David Bowie – 8th January
No one was expecting David Bowie to release such a solid album so far into his career, let alone release perhaps the most extraordinary concept album of all time – one which even stands up to the works he released at his peak. And yet he defied this by releasing the album Blackstar or ‘★’ just days before his death. The album is an art-rock genre-blend, strongly incorporating elements of jazz, but also taking components from electronic music, industrial and hip-hop. Upon release, Blackstar was a largely enjoyable set of dark and moody songs, and whilst they had a cohesive feel to them, the album wasn’t yet complete. It was his death which provided context to the album, and transformed it from a great album into something truly special. The entire dynamic of the album was flipped, the context shed light on the true depth of Blackstar’s intricacies, providing a sombre, yet exciting wholly new listening experience. Every lyric, arrangement, and music video was imbued with new meaning to be found.
DAZE – Brood Ma – 19th February
It feels impossible to just slap a genre label on DAZE: it’s electronic, it’s loud, it’s uncompromising, it’s harsh and murky, even disorienting at times. It’s a journey through some very interesting and experimental sound design. Joining a number of other forward-thinking, ambitious electronic producers, Brood Ma recently signed to Tri Angle Records, perfect for an album like DAZE to be released on, with its bass-heavy mash of frenzied, asphyxiating industrial compositions. The album feels like a continuous flow of consecutive motifs and ideas; none of them stick around for very long, allowing him to jump between them before outstaying their welcome. DAZE is so ridiculously concentrated with discordant sound that it can oftentimes wind up feeling disagreeable, but when you are in the mood, it’s thoroughly intoxicating.
untitled unmastered. – Kendrick Lamar – 4th March
Not quite a year later and Kendrick had already returned to us out of nowhere with a new release. Despite consisting of a number of previously unreleased demos that didn’t make the cut for To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled unmastered. is surprisingly consistent, arranged in such a way that the project doesn’t have too much of a disjointed flow to it. The politically charged nature of To Pimp a Butterfly continues throughout this album, as he raps over beats heavily influenced by funk, soul, and avant-garde jazz with lyrics loaded with social commentary. To brush this aside as a collection of substandard, leftover tracks would be to neglect some of Kendrick Lamar’s best music.
West Coast Hip-Hop
Imperial – Denzel Curry – 9th March
Imperial goes to show the extent of which Denzel Curry has developed as an MC. The mixtape is packed with more professional sounding, simply better produced beats, topped with far more focused rapping. Imperial demonstrates more competence in piecing together a more mature and coherent project. Denzel comes in on a lot of these beats with a fast-paced, fierce, relentless flow; he sounds distinct, delivering a consistently impressive performance. The beats are dark and intricate with some great hooks throughout, the aggressiveness of the first half lets up slightly in the second as Denzel gives more of an introspective approach to the tracks, yet the quality doesn’t falter at any moment.
Trap Rap – Single: ULT
“BBF” Hosted By DJ Escrow – Babyfather – 1st April
Dean Blunt returns again to continue his steady stream of output, but this time under his persona ‘Babyfather’, as he releases the particularly polarising “BBF” Hosted By DJ Escrow. If you can look past the painfully horrible album artwork and the over-patriotic and repetitive vocal-loop intro track which may be too nauseating for some, you’ve got yourself a fantastic album filled with dark, lo-fi hip-hop loops, littered with distortions and gritty sound effects. The album almost feels thrown together and is presented in the format of a pirate radio station, hosted by the mysterious ‘DJ Escrow’, seemingly a parody of a London MC. He tends to ramble through the centre of many of the songs on here, providing not only entertainment, but also a vessel for conveying much of the album’s political and social commentary. Dean Blunt’s material has always been unpolished, imperfect, and all the while fascinating; this project is no exception.
Sleep Cycle – Deakin – 6th April
Sleep Cycle, the long awaited debut from Animal Collective band member Deakin, was finally released this year. The album is reverb-heavy, dancing with noisy psychedelic elements. The songs sound dense, packed with churning mixtures of bright synths, muddy reverb and organic sounding live instrumentation. You can read my previous review of Sleep Cycle here.
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead – 8th May
A Moon Shaped Pool is so strikingly subtle, with a soft and spacey approach to songwriting. Most of the songs are slow-moving, coated with a greyscale palette, not to say they’re dull or uninteresting, but certainly moody. Despite being sparse, the songs on A Moon Shaped Pool are complex enough to remain interesting and distinct, rather than descending into a homogeneous, sleep-inducing tangle. The melodies are memorable and the pacing and instrumentation across the record remain diverse enough to be extremely engaging throughout. A Moon Shaped Pool is an exceptional addition to Radiohead’s discography.
Oh No – Jessy Lanza – 13th May
This is the second album from Canadian electronic songwriter and vocalist Jessy Lanza. Oh No is a charming pop record, released on the label Hyperdub Records, which inevitably means there are strong UK Bass influences. Alongside these are tracks with a Chicago footwork feel to them, with jittering drum patterns, and much of the vocals holding a smooth and expressive tone, akin to an ‘FKA Twigs’ alternative-R&B kind of way. The production is just as sleek as Jessy’s vocals, with plenty of variation between slow ballads and straight up playful, fun dance-pop songs.
Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest – 20th May
Teens of Denial is the second major-label release (and first containing exclusively new material from ‘Car Seat Headrest’), the bizarrely named indie rock band, and Matador signee, fronted by Will Toledo. Initially, Car Seat Headrest consisted solely of Will, who would perform all the instruments on every track he made, before stitching the songs together – also by himself. On Teens of Denial however, he’s joined by a band with an outside producer, which noticeably shifts the dynamic of the project. He retains the lo-fi sound of his bedroom producing days, whilst introducing a more diverse set of instrumentation (such as the horn sections in the song Vincent). No boundaries are being pushed here on Teens of Denial, but what you do have is an enjoyable album full of well written, lax, easy-going, lo-fi indie tunes.
Cardinal – Pinegrove – 12th June
Cardinal is the country tinged indie-rock debut album from Pinegrove. It’s impressive that whilst not being the most original record, every song is a solid, incredibly well written track from production to performance, with a passionate and emotive frontman who isn’t afraid to leave himself open in his lyrics. Some of the songs are a perfect example of a successful genre fusion, alt-country with a Midwest emo spin, other songs, especially further into the album, are more inclined toward typical indie-rock, but all-totalled, Cardinal is an incredibly close-knit and concise set of songs. While at first it perhaps doesn’t stand out in terms of innovation, it doesn’t take long for it to stand out in its own right as an absolutely solid album – simple and cathartic.
Mr. Fingers 2016 – Mr. Fingers – 29th February
This release marks the return of Larry Heard, celebrated for pioneering the deep house movement that came from Chicago in the mid 80’s. Most notably, Larry Heard is known for his involvement with the group Fingers Inc. on tracks such as Can You Feel It? one of the first and most well-known deep house tracks of all time. Mr. Fingers 2016 is a truly graceful return, and with him being in his mid-50’s, it’s impressive that he’s able to come back with a release that only builds upon his legacy rather than damage it. 2016 is a skilfully composed set of atmospheric deep house tunes, each one as great as the next.
III 7” – SHEER MAG – 3rd March
This is a cool set of punky, lo-fi indie rock songs with some incredibly infectious guitar hooks and vocals, all of which sound like they’re coming through the speakers of an old beaten radio. Just shy of 14 minutes in length, it’s the perfect length for these four punchy, thoroughly enjoyable tracks.
Garage Rock – Single: CAN’T STOP FIGHTING
2 The Sky – DJ Metatron – 20th May
2 The Sky is the latest release from the German dance-music label, Giegling. It’s a stripped back and simplistic, sparse and spacey set of downtempo house tracks with a running spiritual theme. 2 The Sky is expressive and evocative, incorporating uplifting vocal cuts; a clear highlight being the absolutely remarkable 2 Bad on the B-side.
House – Single – Traumprinz: 2 Bad (Metatron’s What If Madness Is Our Only Relief Mix)
Images: XL Recordings; Deakin; Columbia Records; Top Dawg Entertainment; C9; Hyperdub; Run for Cover; Tri Angle; Matador Records; Alleviated Records; Giegling; Static Shock Records