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
Reviews by Amanda Farah and Jesper Gaarskjær
Courtney Barnett — Avalon
If what you want is high energy rock music, it’s hard to do better than Courtney Barnett. Her blues-driven slacker rock with big choruses is perfect for jumping around and wailing along. You could take ready cue from her bassist, who spends much of the set flinging his body from side to side like Muppets are made to when they’re dancing. Add to the to that the background projects of weird but amusing cartoons and there’s the feeling of a subversive kids’ show for adults.
It’s also clear where Barnett’s comfort zone is. It’s well into her set before she says anything to the crowd, though this is a kind group who’ve heard “No One Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” on the radio a hundred times and are singing along to “Depreston,” a song about gentrification and property values. But when she plays a solo her body turns into a rubber band and she loses herself in something ecstatic.
It’s easy to imagine a day when Courtney Barnett will be headlining festivals. She has the songs and she has the energy. The ability to command a stage is still forthcoming, but you can see that she knows it’s something she has to work on. It’s growth we can look forward to seeing. — AF
PJ Harvey — Arena
PJ Harvey knows how to make an entrance. She walks out onto the Arena stage with her band in single file, including a mini drum procession, with her saxophone in hand and wearing an amazing black feather vest.
The Arena stage is filled from end to end with her band, no mean feat, and the crowd is spilling out from the tent. If Polly Jean doesn’t say much between songs, it’s because she has the sort of presence that allows her to get away with saying so little. The profundity of hearing songs like “Let England Shake” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” a week after the UK’s referendum is not lost, even if she doesn’t call direct attention to it.
It’s not as the PJ Harvey is someone you go to see for lightheartedness. The shift away from political drama to songs from To Bring You My Love, including the title track and “Down By the Water” fills the space with a dark energy.
She closes with “River Anacostia” from her latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. Slowly, her band join her in a perfect line, singing the final lines together in a communion that’s almost spiritual. Though the crowd lingers, cheering for more, it’s too perfect an ending to follow up. — AF
Tenacious D — Orange
We went out to see Tenacious D thinking it would be a laugh, and it absolutely was. Jack Black on stage is essentially the guy from School of Rock, and Kyle Gass is the guy who is not Jack Black, i.e. an excellent straight man who deals with Black’s over-the-top emoting. For goodness sake, there’s a guy in red body paint and pair of furry trousers playing the part of Satan.
It’s 10 years since the release of The Pick of Destiny, and the set features heavily from the record. A rare outing for “Master Exploder” turns into a somewhat elaborate Milli Vanilli joke, and the segment culminates in “Phoenix,” which acknowledges that sales for The Pick of Destiny were less than stellar. Even if it’s heavy handed in the way that only main stage acts can be, the display of performance is admirable (Black’s repeated mispronunciation of “mange tak” is less so, but points for trying).
Despite the duo’s best efforts not to be serious at all, the crowd is definitely taking them seriously. This is typified in the mass singalong of “Tribute,” which explicitly states that it’s not the greatest song in the world. But if you can’t get in on the joke, what’s the point? — AF
JÚNÍUS MEYVANT (IS), Pavilion
It starts with a resounding “HU!” from the crowd. These days there is something special about everything from Iceland thanks to their football teams’ success at the Euro 2016 and their now legendary HU!-cheer. This event is no exception. Júníus Meyvant, on stage preparing for the first song, seizes the opportunity and gets the whole tent to roar “HU!”, and so a pleasant afternoon begins in the best possible way.
Június Meyvant has brought quite an orchestra to the setup. Eight people in all, including three of them playing wind instruments, kicking off with a surprising instrumental take, indicating that Június Meyvant has much more to offer than the soft, folky tunes from his celebrated first EP. The likes of “Gold Laces” and “Color Decay”. We got those beauties, of course, but the red-bearded Icelander takes the audience new places from song to song. Hushed tunes, full-blown orchestral compositions and solo appearances with only Júníus Meyvant on stage with his guitar.
At the center of it all, his trademark voice, both smooth, raspy and raw, adding some edge to the folky softcore. In between the melodies — during the sometimes too long breaks — he entertains with a profound sarcasm that stands in contrast to the songs, many of them taken from his forthcoming debut album. After this afternoon, that also ended with a “HU!”, expectations are mile high. JG
BISSE (DK), Gloria
There really is no one like Bisse. He blew up Gloria with a high voltage performance, making a clear statement: he is one to watch in the next few years.
He enters the stage as colorful and powerful as his music would lead you to expect. Glitter on one cheek, painted oversized eyebrows on the other, red lipstick, red nails, circular sunglasses, and — when he took the glasses off — a determined, piercing stare under the blond hair. And backed by a tight, intense three-man-band he delivered his shouting, rattling songs; this blend of rage, light, darkness, tenderness, new-wave and punk, that is nowhere else to be heard.
Bisse shouts more than he sings, flitting around the stage, changing dress three times and dancing with a naked torso, sexy and edgy at the same time. And he has a lot to say to the world. He has released four albums in a single year, and though their quality can fluctuate a little, and though it often was hard to distinguish the words from each other in Gloria, he gives everything he has, an artist at his most beautiful, leaving the room breathless. Even when he announces that he is about to do some ballads, it takes only a few seconds before the first ballad turns into a raging roar.
Bisse, this highly gifted chameleon of emotions, attitude, chaos, sex and poetry, really makes the blood rush. JG
SAVAGES (UK), Avalon
I adore Savages. I adore lead singer Jehnny Beth, the black intensity in her eyes, her explosive moves and unbreakable voice, and this Thursday night she and her three bandmates underlined what has been obvious to the world the last three years: Savages is a ripping, gripping and ruthlessly beautiful live act.
Jehnny Beth is above all the mesmerizing star. Pitch-black backslick, red lipstick, pale skin and dark suit. When she stares or points, she leaves a mark of latent danger. She is known for her interaction with the crowd, crowdsurfing and crawling over them — I last experienced it this April in Boston, USA — but that dimension was unfortunately missing at Avalon.
That said, Savages lit the tent up with their energetic darkness and songs about anger and love turned bad, both in their ballads and in their tight punk explosions. JG