We’re not going to spend time talking about what a brutal year 2016 was for music lovers. Regardless of what genre you favor, 2016 was a year that took someone away from you. And while that might be the most immediately enduring sentiment about the past year, it’s necessary to take strength in the incredible music that was released this year. In the past 12 months, we’ve been blown away by newcomers and watched artists we’ve been rooting for all along come into their own. We’ve welcomed back old friends and received beautiful goodbyes from heroes. It’s because it’s been such an extraordinarily, musically rich year that we’ve made it through at all. These are our favorites:
It’s two short years ago that Angel Olsen first captured our hears, but she’s come a long way from her minimalist, finger-picked solo guitar tracks. On MY WOMAN, Angel builds out her dreamiest moments into vast washes of rumbling guitar with vague memories of folk somewhere in the distance. This hasn’t stopped her from writing snappy pop songs or experimenting with synthesizers. Her vocals are just as moving as ever, but where quiet whispers were once her stock and trade, there is real evidence that Angel could be a leading rock vocalist of her generation.
And that’s what is so exciting about both Angel and this record: On MY WOMAN, she shows not only that an understanding of what she does so well, but that her own potential is limitless. More to the point, we can see now that she’s ambitious enough to follow that potential it wherever it takes her. — AF
When Puce Mary released The Spiral, her third LP, she played a release concert at Mayhem, and the performance she gave is a serious contender to being the most intense of 2016. Stripped of the insane decibels, Puce Mary’s confrontational yet trance-like stage appearance, the lights and the smoke, The Spiral is still a captivating experience. The eight tracks on the album are very distinct, yet they blend together forming a whole that sucks you in as it progresses. Puce Mary is a master of contrasts, her music is brutal yet subtle, even fragile, and even though compositions are industrial, her music feels alive like an organism.
Last but not least: It sounds amazing. The noise, the textures, the strange field recordings, the distorted vocals. The Spiral is an intense and demanding record, but also truly inspiring and in it’s own, complex way beautiful. — MAK
While it seemed as though she appeared from nowhere to make us get in touch with our feelings, Mitski has been toiling away for years now. Her fourth album, Puberty 2, perfectly combines her prolific efforts with a youthful perspective and energy and just enough life experience to make you believe her. The album is full of subtle bleeps and horn flourishes, but watching her play stripped back versions of the album was a highlight of the year.
It takes a good amount of self-awareness to call your album Puberty 2, and so much of its charm is her unabashed willingness to be awkward — which somehow also makes her the coolest girl in the room. You will feel like Mitski just gets you, and you’re probably giving yourself too much credit. We definitely understand the impulse, though. — AF
The Life of Pablo
The Life of Pablo is a tricky, slippery thing of an album. Less of an album, really, than a saga, an half year long event tracking the evolution of an album. But really, it’s just a collection of some very good tracks by a producer who, whatever else he might be, is also touched by genius. From Nina Simone and Arthur Russel, via Chicago house, to Frank Ocean and Desiigner, Kanye’s sample palette is as diverse, crazy and unique as ever.
In 2013 Kanye West marked the death of physical media with the cover of Yeesus, an “open casket to CDs”. That was an album full of energy joyous destruction. It seems fitting that with The Life of Pablo, Ye confronts us with the direct evidence of the technical and emotional demands of the new dominant technology. Keep it loopy. — CC
Cate Le Bon
There is a feeling of kinship that runs through Cate Le Bon’s music, that if you yourself have ever toed the line between interesting and just strange leads her to sound identifiable even in her most abstract images. Le Bon is a master of oddball pop songs, with her ramshackle style of guitar playing and many unique turns of phrase.
Crab Day demonstrates the same dry vocal delivery that has always set her apart and given her music so much personality, but this time she’s pushed herself and her sound to new depths. She’s stretch her vocal range and brought a new emotional connection to her songs, which is emphasized in her commitment to her visual lyrics. She’s also introduced some legitimate guitar solos to her work. Album closer “What’s Not Mine” stretches to seven minutes of everything we find charmingly off kilter about Cate Le Bon’s music, which is to say, it’s perfect. — AF
Fat White Family
Songs for Our Mothers
Few bands are able to channel hatred with the pure intensity and conviction of the Fat White Family. If this is their “difficult second album”, the difficulty lies more in their own physiological limitations, rather than in a lack of ideas or direction. Songs for Our Mothers promised to “dance to the beat of human hatred”, but little did we know back in January the degree to which that emotion would imprint itself in 2016.
Harold Shipman, Ike Turner, Goebbels: the gleeful offensiveness of the cast goes hand in hand with a deeper moral outrage, as the Family wrap themselves further and further in darkness, with only their humour and some wicked riffs for support. There’s no knowing what the next year will bring, but we can only hope the Fat White Family will be around, in some form, to rage against it. — CC
On the face of it, this is a synthpop album about female vampires. But anyone approaching Jenny Hval’s latest album with the expectation of a thematically-coherent concept album clearly hasn’t been paying attention. Jenny’s dark and aloof sense of humour are present in all her work, and particularly on stage, and this year’s effort manages to be a lot stranger than it promised to be.
Though there are undeniably some very lush synth pieces on this record, particularly in its two singles, “Female Vampire” and “Conceptual Romance”, we don’t necessarily rush to Jenny for her tunes, but rather for the oddities that surround them. A moment of creepy melancholy in “Untamed Region” (I told you she was funny) is punctuated by a clip of documentarian Adam Curtis talking about the helpless confusion that seems to characterise our era. Jenny Hval isn’t pretending to guide us out of that confusion, but what she builds upon it well worth the listen.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
The Hope Six Demolition Project is the follow up to the Mercury Prize winning album Let England Shake, and PJ Harvey continues along the same lines collaborating with Mick Harvey, John Parish, Flood and documentary photographer/filmaker Seamus Murphy. But this time she has taken a more conceptual approach and adopted a role as a sort of singer/songwriter journalist reporting from her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. This also applies to the recording process, that was framed as a performance open to the public. While some critics have expressed skepticism about the mix of music and reporting, we applaud her exploration of music as vehicle for change, and together with the albums distinct sound, musical quality and her impressive live performance this earns her a place on our list.
Marissa Nadler – Strangers
Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Tindersticks – The Waiting Room
Danny Brown – Antrocity Exhibition
Lambchop – Fotus
Frank Ocean – Blonde
Factory Floor – 2525
Holy Fuck – Congrats
Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
The first time we saw Angel Olsen, we knew she was something special. Seeing her play solo songs on smaller stages now feels like a privileged view to the past, a moment that we’ll tell people, “We saw her when,” but catching Angel at Studie 2 of Koncerthuset with a full band or wailing over a keyboard as she does for “Intern” and “Woman” is not less intimate or less touching.
She’s filling bigger stages in a physical sense with more band members — two guitarists in addition to her own playing, a backing singer, plus rhythm section — all of whom are wearing matching grey suits and bolo ties. Her once stripped-back performance is significantly richer for the added musicians; the night is dominated by songs from her new album, MY WOMAN, but “Hi Five,” “Forgiven/Forgotten,” and “Sweet Dreams” all make an appearance with fleshed out arrangements.
Without the high production values of the studio, the new songs have a decidedly more country feel to them, and they can be heard as made up of discernible parts rather than just atmospherics. In other words, there’s more slide guitar than you’d realize, and it’s a very good thing. This grounding effect also changes the emotional projection of some of the songs; “Sister,” for example, has a new energy that makes it sound less tragic than the album version. When she sings, “My Life has slowly changed,” it might even be a positive thing.
While there is still a seriousness in her overall demeanor, Olsen has given up on the stony sternness that once set the tenor of her performances. She’s working on her stage banter, which she sometimes gives up mid-sentence (and she knows it’s funny when she does), and smiles break through just rarely enough to be rewarding.
But for these charismatic flashes, the reason you go to see Angel Olsen is because her voice is so dynamic. It’s sweet, it’s affecting, and it’s powerful. The build up to “Not Gonna Kill You” — in its live incarnation, a fully-fledged rock song — proves that she could end up being one of the great rock frontwomen of a generation.
Or she could be the next June Carter Cash. It all depends on where she wants to take her songwriting, and since she’s busted out the synths for the new album, that could really be anywhere. Perhaps by the time she’s playing the main room at Koncerthuset (and she’s destined for such audiences) we’ll have a complete picture. But if Angel Olsen is in it for the long haul, we guarantee we’ll be right there with her.
Swans – To Be Kind
After thirteen studio albums, Swans have not diluted their power or talent one bit. But somehow, since their rekindling in 2010, they have become more popular. To Be Kind is just as provocative and challenging as Swans’ early material, with half-an-hour-long songs like “Bring the Sun/Touissant Overture” and off-kilter oddities like “A Little God in My Hand”, but the sound and instrumentation has matured, becomings both less distorted and somehow more dissonant. As we witnessed in November, Swans are still a brutally loud and relentless live band, a constant provocation to audience and peers, and much loved because of it. – CC
MØ – NoMythologies To Follow
Karen Marie Ørsted is my hero. My braid swinging, ex-punk rocker, stage diving hero. I remember the first time I listened to one of MØ’s tracks, loading up Spotify and finding myself blasting ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Let The Youth Go Mad’ for hours on end and wondering how one individual could contain quite so much effortless cool. She was the Danish alternative pop princess I’d been waiting for, ready to join a royal court populated by Björk, Kate Bush and Lana Del Rey. I waited for No Mythologies To Follow for over a year, as singles like ‘Glass’ and ‘XXX 88’ trickled out from MØ HQ. I was delighted to find that the debut album did not disappoint, as Ørsted shared something that was exciting, thematic, beautiful and most importantly, sounds fucking fantastic. From the first time I heard it, I knew that No Mythologies… was my album of the year. – HT
How To Dress Well – What Is This Heart?
Tom Krell’s third album What Is This Heart touches on lighter subjects than his previous two albums Total Loss (2012) and Love Remains (2010). Not one to shy away from touching personal matters, the album starts off with ‘2 Years On (Shame Dream)’ and leads you softly into a journey that expands an extremely vivid personal dream about his family. ‘Face Again’ the stand out single along with ‘Repeat Pleasure’ work in his signature indie R&B coupled with stunning falsetto which leave you questioning how these tracks aren’t further up the charts. WITH takes a turn with grand orchestral ‘Pour Cyril’ before leading into cute power pop ballads ‘Very Best Friend’ and ‘Precious Love’ proving key changes are making a come back! – TS
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness
The most immediately striking thing about Angel Olsen is her voice, a voice that could easily croon country hits but instead lopes over scruffy, dampened guitars. Her voice alone should earn her and Burn Your Fire for No Witness a place in hearts and best-of lists, but what really makes Burn Your Fire… so special is that it’s wholly intuitive. Olsen’s second full length album is her first with a full band, and it’s the album her debut hinted she was capable of making. She hasn’t abandoned minimalist solo tracks, but she balances them against full-band arrangements. And it’s not just the range of her voice that’s striking but it’s incredible malleability; that it’s raw yet gentle, that it jumps from disaffected to emotive from one line to another, that it rasps and twangs with equal affect. And while she’s not too proud to pay homage to the ‘90s on “Forgiven/Forgotten” and “High and Wild,” these frazzled moments give way easily to stark folk ballads. The album comes down so slowly that by the time you’ve reached the hushed conclusion of “Windows” there’s a sense of catharsis. Burn Your Fire… doesn’t just leave you feeling satisfied, but completed. – AF
Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Somewhere in Tennessee there is apparently an ex-boyfriend of Sharon Van Etten who, during their relationship, kept telling her that her music was terrible. There is a lesson to be learned here.
“Are We There” is one of those records that grows on you. There is something extremely vulnerable and honest about Sharon Van Etten’s song writing and performance on stage. Her voice has depth which is completed by the unique vocal harmonies with Heather Woods Broderick. As Sharon Van Etten told The New York Times when she released her previous album “Tramp”, she does not really consider them harmonies: “I just hear two notes at once — I just hear two melodies.” – MK
6) East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
7) Iceage – Plowing Into The Fields Of Love
8) Scott Walker and SunnO))) – Soused
9) Tune-yards – Nikki Nack
10) The War On Drugs – Lost In A Dream
11) Future Islands – Singles
12) Sleep Party People – Floating
13) FKA Twigs – LP1
14) Eagulls – Eagulls
15) St. Vincent – St. Vincent
16) Alt-J – This Is All Yours
17) Wild Beasts – Present Tense
18) Mac DeMarco – Salad Days
19) Ice Cream Cathedral – Sudden Anatomy
20) Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
21) Get Your Gun – The Worrying Kind
22) Spoon – They Want My Soul
23) Warpaint – Warpaint
24) Shiny Darkly – Little Earth
25) Beyoncé – Beyoncé