The Tragedy and the Triumph
THE one thing people keep saying about this year is…
how much heartache and loss have defined it. Every time you switch on the news we are reminded of the conflict and hatred that is pervading society. Whether it is the continuing – slowing but still occurring – disruption and bloodshed in Aleppo; the strange rise of the bloated demagogue Donald Trump or the upset we see reported on the news- nary a day elapses without something sobering unfolding that reminds us how fragile and capricious humanity is. That is true of music that has seen its Grim Reaper equivalent be especially cruel and elitist. Many are saying there’s conspiracy afoot and a bad aura: the fact is, people die and it is a bad year. When musicians get to a certain age, there is always the risk they will die; diseases like cancer are still rife and take no prisoners when selecting its subjects. I am not sure why 2016 has been so ill-balanced and sadness-heavy but the one thing we can take from it is that 2017 will be a lot smoother and less fraught – that is the intention anyway. In terms of politics and separation; we have seen the worst of it this year; I cannot imagine a year quite as spectacular and world-changing as 2016 happening for a very long time. The reason I wanted to write this was to document the loss we have suffered in the music world whilst balancing it with the joy and pleasures.
I’ll start with the ‘bad’ side of thing: The Devil that has been hovering on the shoulders of the divine and making sure things are not as smooth and happy as they should be. Of course, we all remember how badly this year started. It is almost a year since David Bowie died: perhaps the starkest event that has afflicted music in 2016. I remember waking up to the news and not being able to comprehend or understand it at all – he wasn’t reported as being ill so how does he just die?! We all know the truth now – the fact Bowie was keeping his cancer fate hidden from the media – so it kind of seems explicable and rationale. Nobody expected David Bowie to leave us for a couple more decades at least so it seems like we have been robbed of many more years of music. Luckily, Blackstar was released days before his death and, many would argue, the biggest and most ambitious album of his career. Arriving from a man who knew there was nothing he could do to prolong his life: Blackstar is surprisingly brave, focused and accomplished – few of us, in the same situation, would retain the strength and fortitude to produce music; let alone anything as stunning. The album was recognised for a Mercury Prize and was met with huge critical acclaim. There has not been a Bowie album, since his last golden period of the 1980s, when there was such universal consensus: a work of genius and a startling insight into a human ailing and tackling mortality. The fact Bowie has gone should not cause sadness but remind us of what an artist we have – someone who, nearly a year after his death, has more music in the vaults for us.
Following Bowie’s death, nobody would have expected Prince to be the nex big musician to die. That news was perhaps even more of a shock: the fact Prince’s death was self-inflicted (albeit accidental) made it extra poignant and unexpected. Dying alone at his Paisley Park ranch/studio; overdosing on pain medication in a lift – such a harrowing and upsetting image. Again, we were delivered the news without warning and were forced to face a future without new Prince music. Like Bowie, Prince has delivered such an extraordinary body of work that will live in infamy. We must not ignore the influence and affect Prince has had on modern music. I’d say he is even more influential than Bowie when it comes to inspiring the new generation and leaving a mark. Despite not being a huge fan of either musician, I recognise their status and excellence: I have been retrospectively falling in love with their finest songs and realising, a bit too late, what mavericks and peerless leaders they were. Prince, like Bowie, was/is a hugely innovative and staggering musician that cannot be compared with any one human and created shockwaves around the world. It was not just David Bowie and Prince who died this year but Leonard Cohen too. In my view, the second-best songwriter the world has seen (behind Dylan) was also someone who kind of suspected he would not live too long. His final studio album, You Want It Darker, hints are death and mortality with unfiltered frankness and wit. Cohen knew he was in his final moments and, like the great Bowie, funnelled this into a career-high record. I will not speculate as to why this correlation occurs: it is no accident Leonard Cohen and David Bowie threw everything into their final word; impending demise focuses the mind in an alarming way, creatively. Cohen’s 2016 album is full of poetic brilliance and wonderful rich scenes. Being Leonard Cohen, there is humour and pathos in the same marriage bed; quotable lines and that gravelled, rich voice that will echo through the ages. With only a few days of this year remaining, let’s hope there will be no more casualties to add to the list of legends we have lost this year. Glenn Frey and Lemmy have gone; other, lesser artists – but no less important – and it has been such a cruel year for the industry.
Against the tragedy of 2016 has been a coexisting, paralleled triumphalism. Music has outstripped every other art form in terms of excellence and inspiration – maybe a biased view but no film, play or work of art can rival what the best of music has provided. There is a lot of debate surrounding this year’s biggest album: many critics opt for Beyoncé’s firecracker, Lemonade, whilst many plump for the likes of Frank Ocean and Bon Iver. The mainstream has been rather prolific and sensational this year I must admit. The past few years have seen some great albums but not the variation and mass one would hope. It is not just the ‘established’ and well-trodden artists that have produced immense work. New bands like Car Seat Headrest and Hooton Tennis Club have turned up the heat; age-old gods Paul Simon and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have provided us immense albums – I shall address the latter soon. New, vibrant artists Anderson Paak, Angel Olsen and Jenny Hval are all among 2016’s best: Frank Ocean, Solange and James Blake have to be in anyone’s top-twenty list; The 1975 and Chance the Rapper deserve the hearty nods the media are providing them. Even if once-reputable sources like NME have gone off the boil at the moment – 1975 are good but absolutely do not deserve to receive the Album of the Year accolade – is a minor kink. More lucid and sage sources seem to boil the best five albums down to Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table; David Bowe’s Blackstar and Frank Ocean’s Blonde – Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book usually get the fifth place. Of course, there have been many more terrific albums created. Two things I am noticing is the dominance of female artists and more politically-minded records being established.
From Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos – an album that should be on everyone’s list of 2016 greats – and Anohni’s Hopelessness; the male equivalents in the form of Skepta’s Konnichiwa and Kano’s Made in the Manor – two Grime albums that documented the realities of the street and the true state of modern Britain. The fact Skepta won the Mercury Prize not only shows how far genres like Grime and Hip-Hop (British) are assimilating into the mainstream: it is good to see black artists being given such respect. It may seem strange but against the tide of racism and discrimination in the wider world: music’s cosmopolitan, arms-together sensibilities are being seen. Sure, there is still racism and some discrimination in music but less than current years. Beyoncé and Solange (Rhianna and Laura Mvula too) have shown just how strong and inspiring they are – two black musicians that have crafted sublime albums. Kano and Skepta have put black British music firmly in the public consciousness whilst Frank Ocean and Kanye West have unleashed some of this year’s best albums – I would say, in a typical top-ten list, 40-50% of the albums included are from black artists. The boys of mainstream music have done well but it is their female equivalents that are making biggest leaps. Aside from the bold and brilliant artists like Solange and Beyoncé: more considered, more nuanced artists like Jenny Hval, Angel Olsen and Julia Jacklin should not be ignored. Jacklin’s Don’t Let the Kids Win ranks as one of my favourite albums of this year and pairs wonderful, heart-melting vocals with deep and mature lyricism into an album that begs for multiple listens. In addition to Anohni’s debut album and an especially satisfying album from PJ Harvey (The Hope Six Demolition Project); I feel female artists have outstripped their male counterparts – in terms of quality, boldness and range.
Not only has it been the upbeat and defiant albums that have struck a chord: the more reflective, solemn and stately records have played their part in 2016. The fact the tastemakers have accrued their end-of-year polls to reflect an optimist, energetic and hopeful sensibility: we mustn’t downplay the importance of albums whose heart beats slower and soul sings louder. I have mentioned David Bowie’s Blackstar and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker but there is a third one to be added to the list: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree. Like Bowie and Cohen: Nick Cave is one of those stalwarts who has been creating fine music for decades. Like his British-Canadian brothers, the Australian’s latest album was affected by personal tragedy and death. Skeleton Tree, for the most part, was inspired by the death of (Cave’s) young son, Arthur – who fell from a cliff in a tragic accident whilst out playing. The teenager’s passing occurred at a time when Cave was conceiving and recording the album. That shocking news not only shook the songwriter but changed the course/sound of the new L.P. Take Skeleton Tree on face value and you are awed by its potency and beauty; the incredibly gripping and immersive vocals in addition to the detailed, dark songwriting. A stunning album hard to define and distill in few words: Skeleton Tree is not just one of 2016’s finest albums but one of the best from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Not only have 2016’s experienced artists provided beautiful record but some brand-new artists are making their voices heard. Julia Jacklin, as explained, brought us the divine Don’t Let the Kids Win whilst our own Billie Marten, and my album of the year, gave us Writing of Blues and Yellows.
Vaults are another new group who defy expectations and worst instincts – a band that has their music used in a John Lewis Christmas campaign are usually written off – with Caught in Still Life. BBC has compiled their list of ones to watch next year – including Cabbage, Jorja Smith and The Amazons (photoed above). Whilst the BBC are not the most reliable divining rods for new artists: it should be treated with success and there are plenty of acts on their longlist who have the potential to make big noises in 2017. The abiding takeaway is that this year has seen upset and loss but is largely remembered for its extraordinary music and hopes for next year. The best albums of this year, as decided by the wise elders and collected voices, is a fine bunch whilst my ten best of 2016 – largely consistent with consensus – has a couple of outsiders in the high positions. I have not seen a year quite as exciting and memorable as 2016. So many wonderful albums and great new artists poking through. I always get depressed when, no huge offence to them, acts like Adele and Coldplay get awards and regarded as the best of the best. Even the least fussy and discriminating music connoisseurs would not include those two in the best of the year – to me, rather bland and mediocre. What this year has shown is tastes and changing as grittier, more realistic sounds are being proffered. Urban acts and street-wise prophets are finding leverage; bands that stray from the predictable and deliver something sharp and original; acts who are addressing the concerns of the people and turning away from avenues of love and self-obsession – tides are turning and there is a detectable rise in quality. Who knows what next year holds but we all hope for a smoother, less morbid year than the one just past. I am sure that will be true but I know music will continue to grow and burgeon. Those newly-tipped musicians will start laying down their debut albums and others will gain strength and focus from the acclaim they have received in 2016. I cannot wait to see how 2017 pans out and the artists who will shine and intrigue. No matter what, few can deny just how unusual and anomalistic 2016 has been. Against the sense of loss and displacement many have felt, music has played its role and shown just how…
PHOTO CREDIT: Jimmy King
MUCH beauty and wonder there is in the world.