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Here Today’s Albums of the Year of 2016

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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:

Angel Olsen Live in Copenhagen

Angel Olsen
MY WOMAN
[Jagjaguwar]

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

Puce Mary (photo by Morten Aagaard Krogh)

Puce Mary
The Spiral
[Posh Isolation]

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

Mitski live Copenhagen Loppen

Mitski
Puberty 2
[Dead Oceans]

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

Kanye West
The Life of Pablo
[GOOD]

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 live

Cate Le Bon
Crab Day
[Drag City]

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 performing live at Loppen (photo: Morten Aagaard Krogh)

Fat White Family
Songs for Our Mothers
[Fat Possum]

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

Jenny Hval
Blood Bitch
[Sacred Bones]

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.

— CC

PJ Harvey
The Hope Six Demolition Project
[Island Recordings]

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.

Honorable Mentions

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

LIVE REVIEW: Cate Le Bon, Jazzhouse, 09.11.2016

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Cate Le Bon live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

We were charmed when we first saw Cate Le Bon live at Roskilde this summer. But her show at Jazzhouse was the performance we really wanted from her. If that initial set left us wanting, it became clear that it was only ever a matter of translation.

As distinctive as Cate Le Bon’s ramshackle indie rock is — in particular her tuneful, quirky approach to Nico’s iconic vocal delivery — she’s not a very flashy performer. As a headliner, however, her personality comes through clearly. It’s in small touches, like the yelp at the end of “Duke” or the way the guitar outro on “How Do You Know?” deteriorates into an imprecise grind before springing directly into “I Can’t Help You.” It’s obviously well-rehearsed, but it’s a thrilling shot in the arm all the same.

Cate Le Bon live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh

Because mostly what was lost in translation from the Roskilde performance was a question of energy. Cate Le Bon is understated in her performance, and her energy translates much better in Jazzhouse than on a Roskilde stage, where her little head tosses and subtle steps backward as she leans into a chord are lost to scale. And if we couldn’t infer that on our own, if we couldn’t see how much more comfortable she clearly is, she makes it pretty clear when she relates how pleased she and her band were when they arrived at Jazzhouse and saw the small stage near the bar upstairs. They were disappointed (or “terrified,” in Cate’s words) upon realizing they were playing in the main room.

But for this innate shyness, you can see the would-be rockstar, the guitarist who enjoys playing a solo. The frayed outro of “What’s Not Mine,” which unravels over the course of minutes, might not send her into spasms or even shake her from where she stands, but her absorption in clear. The details you can’t see from a festival stage that you can see from a few feet away in a tiny club is a reminder to us that the setting is an integral part of the experience. You can’t feel like you’re in on a secret when you’re standing in a field.

LIVE REVIEW: Jackie Lynn, Jazzhouse, 8.11.16

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Jackie Lynn

Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh (mortenkrogh.com)

Behind iridescent projections of cityscapes stands a still figure with a guitar and cowboy hat. Dressed in gear that could have been purloined from Gram Parsons’ wardrobe, Jackie Lynn might be looking out into the candle-lit tables of Jazzhouse with a slight nod of approval. Hers is very intentionally loner, dive-bar music, a hybrid of lumpen proletariat country and Suicide-esque electronic minimalism.

We should be more precise: Jackie Lynn is in fact the avatar of singer-songwriter Haley Fohr, until recently best known for her doom-laden folk act, Circuits des Yeux. There is still plenty of darkness to Jackie Lynn, and Fohr’s distinctive low vibrato cannot be masked, but there is also an unmistakable playfulness to the very concept of this project. Accompanied by a carpet of lofi drum machines and bleepy synths, provided by members of the gloriously-named Bitchin Bajas, Jackie Lynn strums her guitar and tells her tale of love, coke dealing, and “jocks and their tiny cocks.”

For what sounds like a conceptually overwrought mix of country and electronics, the Jackie Lynn project manages to sound perfectly natural, a glimpse of an alternate world, a micro-culture just barely out of reach of the internet. The briefness of the album, under half an hour, adds to the mystery, but the real power of Fohr’s persona is felt when she is there before you, almost, but not quite, accessible.

Jackie Lynn live at Jazzhouse
Jackie Lynn live at Jazzhouse

LIVE REVIEW: Tim Hecker / Tyondai Braxton, Jazzhouse, 01.11.16

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Not too long ago, ‘being a fan of ambient music’ would be classified at around 7.8 on the Social Dysfunction scale, just below ‘owning seven cats and two human skulls’, or ‘commenting on news websites’. But these days ambient is rougher, darker, and louder than its predecessors. If it looks to Brian Eno at all, it is the twisted Eno that makes up much of Adam Curtis’s soundtracks, rather than the one who composes lullabies for air passengers. Ambient is also, it would appear, much more popular now. At least enough that one of its main ambassadors, Tim Hecker, can quickly sell out a medium-sized venue like Jazzhouse.

Not that this is all Hecker’s doing. The evening is a double bill with an altogether more eclectic character, Tyondai Braxton. Formerly of Battles, Braxton is the cerebral experimenter to Hecker’s romanticism. The difference is as much visual as it is audible: the projections behind Braxton glitch and fragment, the everyday nightmare visions of garbled technologies; Tim Hecker is instead surrounded by rather ecclesiastical rows of pastel-coloured LEDs.

But for all their care in creating compelling visuals to reflect their music, both acts appear to inherently question the need for us as an audience to be standing like this, all facing the stage as if expecting interaction or entertainment. The intermingling tracks from Hecker’s latest LP, Love Streams, positively pour from the speakers, reverberating through bodies and rattling the fillings of teeth. You’d do as well to swim through this than absorb it standing. It is the much-discussed vocal elements of Hecker’s recent work that add a little light to what would otherwise be an unremitting textural piece, and perhaps he is aware enough of the side effects to cut things short: after a pedantically-precise 60 minutes, the lights go up, and those of us who forgot our earplugs began to regret our life choices.

 

LIVE REVIEW: Holly Golightly, Lille Vega, 01.11.2016

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Musician Holly Golightly live in Copenhagen

Lille Vega is a nice venue: It’s a comfortable size, the sound is decent, and the décor is at the least completely inoffensive. According to Holly Golightly, the venue is also quite “grown up.” It’s hard to say exactly what she means by that — perhaps she’s never outgrown her scrappy punk years with Thee Headcoatees — but it’s a term she comes back to again and again.

It’s a positivity that comes in handy when the room is only about a third full. And it’s reflected back from the crowd; though blues and country-inspired rock songs aren’t the most obvious songs to dance to, people are dancing (or “jigging around,” as Holly prefers). But because there are so few people in the room, there’s plenty of space for it, and it’s nice to see couples busting out the moves they learned in that one dance class they took together when they first started dating.

At times the evening has the feeling of an elaborate pub gig, not least because Holly has spent most of the last 15 years subtly shifting through different, adjacent genres. And through the evening her songs traverse predominantly blues tracks into Americana and, on the stripped down “My Love Is,” a bossa nova-flecked jazz. Though Holly has long since stepped away from her noisy, garage rock beginnings, there i still a girlish, cheeky quality to her vocals, and she is adept at choosing styles that suit her voice.

And given that these styles are less raucous than her earliest projects, it’s a bit surprising when, late in the evening, she once again cites the grown-up nature of Vega and says,“Usually people are throwing things by now.” It’s possible that Copenhageners are especially polite, or it could be that the fight doesn’t go out of a performer just because she turns the volume down.

LIVE REVIEW: Jenny Hval, Jazzhouse, 29.10.2016

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Jenny Hval live at Jazzhouse in Copenhagen

Some artists have projections rolling behind them when they play live. Jenny Hval has a woman in a body suit rolling suggestively on top of an inflatable kiddie pool, drinking wine.

This isn’t shocking or perplexing for even a second. When you sign up to see Jenny Hval, you look forward to something a little weird. This time around at Jazzhouse, things are lower-budget, no video screens, only one backing dancer doing whatever it is she’s doing, and the sole video cued up on a laptop that definitely can’t be seen from the back of the room. But what’s great about it is that as serious as the tone of the music is — and Jenny’s latest, Blood Bitch, has a number of tense moments — the performance itself clearly isn’t. Everyone in the room is in on the joke. Jenny herself knows how absurd the plastic kiddie pool, the squashed up fruit, the strewn flower pedals that land in people’s drinks look, and that’s why it’s fun instead of uncomfortable.

The truth is that musically speaking, Jenny Hval’s live performance would be a one-to-one interpretation from her albums. It’s a function of her music being primarily electronic and her voice being solid and reliable. But she’s aware of this lack of variation in her sound and translates it to what could fairly be described as batshit crazy art school nonsense for her visuals.

There is more spontaneity on this tour, perhaps because it’s not so seamlessly scripted as when she toured Apocalypse, Girl. There’s more conversation with the audience about the songs and the props. There are explanations for the back row when Jenny and her companion sit pants-less in the pool with sunglasses on, rubbing their hands and legs with red dye. During “That Battle is Over,” the pool is flipped over Jenny, delighting the young children in the front row who peer through its translucent sides and wave at her (what parent thought it was a good idea to bring their children to this show, I can’t explain, but at least her visuals are on the side of suggestive that to an innocent mind would just be silly).

As the evening winds down and a lyric from “Kingsize” is teased before devolving into the cacophony of “Plague.” The kiddie pool, meanwhile, has been cast out into the crowd, with the backing dancer looking on in distress and trying to call it back. When it does make it back to the stage, they deflate it together.

If you’ve made it this far and are completely perplexed, all we can say is that Jenny Hval has been confirmed for Roskilde 2017. This is your advance warning: Do not sleep on that.

LIVE REVIEW: Angel Olsen, DR Koncerthuset, 20.10.2016

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Angel Olsen Live in Copenhagen

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.

LIVE REVIEW: Le Butcherettes, Loppen, 25.09.2016

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le butcherettes live loppen copenhagen

There are so many references at play in Le Butcherettes’ set at Loppen. There’s an immediate shock of glam with glittery red fabric draped over the synth stands and every guitar shining with silver foil. There’s a militant punk jolt when frontwoman Teri Gender Bender struts out in front of the stage, yelling and thumping before jumping behind a synth, dressed in a fatigue-style jumpsuit with a red band painted across her eyes. There are moments of disco and camp and heavy hits and rock rage.

Le Butcherette’s set is a pageant, pure performance from beginning to end. It’s theatrical and fun, mostly led by Teri’s dizzying energy. She’s undeterred by little things like not having a mic when it will do just as well to bellow into the crowd, or the face paint that runs with sweat and gets smeared along the sides of her hands. No, she’s too busy bouncing around the stage, belting her heart out, stripping off her jumpsuit to reveal a sparkly red dress during — what else? — “Take My Dress Off.”

Teri’s what make the show, for sure, but she’s backed by a smart and sturdy band who can match her vibe. And when there’s scarcely a pause between songs, one suspects that they must match her energy as well, even if in more understated ways.

The set ends with Teri climbing off the stage the same way she came on. The end of the performance is fuzzy as she begins hugging audience members, slowly making her way to the back of the crowd. The room is still dark, the house music comes up, but it’s not until she makes it to the merch table that it becomes clear that the show is over.

LIVE REVIEW: Mitski, Loppen, 24.09.2016

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Mitski live Copenhagen Loppen

Mitski packs a lot of emotion into two-and-a-half minutes. Her songs channel a familiar heartbreak and frustration. But if you call your latest album Puberty 2, then you’ve got a pretty clear understanding of what vibe you’re projecting.

Still, the most immediate impression Mitski gives during her set at Loppen is of being calm. Her body is relatively still as she sings and plays bass. Her face often has a neutral expression, no matter how long she holds a note. With her band stripped back to just guitar/bass/drums, the evening begins by feeling more intimate than her albums, with space given to her lyrics and her voice and the delicate almost-yodel that sneaks in.

She’s not cut off from the audience however. She’s clearly surprised by the turn out, the genuine familiarity with her songs, and conveys a warm, if nervous, humor. She introduces a dark cover of “How Deep is Your Love” by saying, “This next song was written by someone much richer than me.” The cover, however, not only highlights how strangely creepy the lyrics are to that song, but also serves as the first real display of how powerful her voice can be.

“Francis Forever” is the point in the set where her guitarist turns the volume up on his amp and introduces noise fills that compete with Mitski’s voice. But this is a turning point for her vocals in the set — as the guitars get louder, so does she, still hitting every note perfectly with a ferocity that could knock you back on your heels.

She ends on “last words of a shooting star” solo, delicately strumming a guitar. Though the house music comes up quickly, the crowd continues to cheer until Mitski reluctantly reappears, still alone, and picks up the guitar again. She bashes through a furious version of “My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars” before once again giving a wave and a smile and walking off stage.

At 45 minutes, it’s a short set, especially considering that she has four albums of material to her name, but one that leaves your heart thumping out of your chest.

LIVE REVIEW: Eartheater, Loppen, 21.09.2016

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Photos by Victor Yakimov

On record, Eartheater is an eclectic mix of everything from spacey electronica to lo-fi freak folk. But live, Alexandra Drewchin’s solo persona is that of an uncompromising, confrontational noise artist. It starts with her reaching the stage by wading through the audience, towering above us in her 8″ Converse platforms. Some swift tapping on her laptop triggers an insistent low-frequency rumble, over which Drewchin performs a spoken-word piece, her voice drastically lowered by her trademark vocal effects.

Loppen is by no means packed out tonight, but if anything, this seems to work to Drewchin’s advantage. A significant proportion of her set is instrumental, aided by guitar retrofitted with a midi controller that triggers everything from pure white noise to the sounds of thunder, barking dogs and rainfall. Throughout this Drewchin wanders among the audience, staring them down one at a time, before drifting towards the bar, draping herself over it as if her spine were elastic. You sometimes hear of music being characterized as exploratory (typically standing for pot-induced jam sessions), but in this case the whole point of Eartheater is to test the space on a tactile level.

Eartheater 3

This sounds a little too facetious, the fault is mine. Drewchin is more than happy to cut the intensity of her set with moments of levity and self-effacement, and her physical contortions are as much joyful as they are pained. And as the set draws to a close, even the most bemused members of the audience look buoyed by the experience, or at the very least inspired to take up yoga.

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