Fearless Music from a Fearful Year

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When David Bowie died on January 10th few could have predicted it would presage a year of ostensibly endless mourning.

Throughout a twelve-month mire of bitterness, division and disaster – as political leaders and would-be leaders turned the air toxic, as commentators played on prejudice and fear, and as the daily news scrambled to try and make sense of it all – many listened for the culturally progressive voices that had so often given solace only to hear they’d been silenced too soon.

The rituals of public grief can often bring out the most generous and inclusive tendencies in people, offering some kind of communal respite from more everyday grievances; nevertheless, the cull of artists from Prince to George Michael, from Leon Russell to Leonard Cohen, assumed for many onlookers a cumulative significance as a gradual extinction of the hopes and values that these forward-thinking, free-speaking artists stood for. It almost felt as if 2016 was taking with one hand and then taking some more with the other.

David Bowie Remembered

If the prospect of no longer having Bowie around set an ominous tone, then his final gift to fans was a defiant statement that popular music would prevail and flourish in challenging times. Bowie’s twenty-fifth album ★, released on his birthday just two days before his death, was no nostalgia trip or victory lap. The morphing textures, skittish beats and stabbing horns all evidenced an artist very much pushing on into new territory, an artist who could at once imbibe influences from Scott Walker to Kendrick Lamar and then mix his own distinct cocktail. The album was garnering rapturous reviews before the news of both Bowie’s long-term illness and his death hit simultaneously and inevitably recontextualised the record’s play of light and shade, its weirdly phantom frequency.

The fearlessness of ★ set the tone for artists rising to the challenge. Whilst many in politics looked backwards for simple answers to complex and urgent problems, music in 2016 looked forward. It’s true that new things can be glimpsed through the lens of nostalgia, as proven by Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam on their gorgeous, yearning, shape-shifting set titled I Had a Dream That You Were Mine. Yet 2016 was a year of artists dramatically repurposing raw materials into strange and daring shapes – and perhaps in no field so much as in RnB.

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Arguably the year’s two most impeccably produced albums came from Solange and Frank Ocean. The former’s A Seat at the Table emerged from the shadow of her sister’s all-conquering Lemonade to reel in listeners with a subtler and slower dive down into issues of black identity, esteem, and survival. The breadth of styles and instrumentation – from watery synths to warm snares and glam piano – is remarkable and yet the whole record sounds so together, every piece indivisible from the larger artistic statement. Spoken word interludes and recurring motifs bind the more experimental cuts into a narrative of creative and cultural evolution; even the transitions between tracks (the jump-cut from ‘This Moment’ to ‘Where Do We Go’; the effortless slide from ‘I Got So Much Magic…’ to ‘Junie’) are calibrated perfectly to alternately shock and lull, keeping the listener locked in a fraught push-pull as Solange demonstrates complete control of her artistry.

With the long-awaited Blonde, Frank Ocean delivered a follow-up to 2012’s seminal Channel Orange that defied expectations. Much like Solange, he eschewed the easy pay-offs of radio-ready choruses and playlist-worthy beats to deliver an album less concerned with stand-alone songs than with constantly shifting grooves. His interest in texture and tone above all else gave this album a woozy atmosphere that on its first few plays could be mistaken for incoherence, yet Ocean’s commitment to contrasting barely-there beats with piercing moments of clarity brought his lyrical themes (of longing, confession, and confusion) to life in new ways and developed a sound that, after the magpie tendencies of his previous full-length, is now unmistakably his own.

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2016 was the year of the solo artist and a year in which guitar-toting songwriters broke free of indie rock’s conventional confines through sheer force of personality. Will Toledo, aka Car Seat Headrest, beefed up his overdriven guitar-pop attack on Teens of Denial and circumvented the many pitfalls of reedy mope-rock by mastering long-form songwriting, delivering massive choruses, and taking his slacker storytelling somewhere bordering on the heroic. Throughout, a sense of humour and self-awareness was key.

Angel Olsen has hardly been regarded as a-laugh-a-minute, yet her acclaimed new record MY WOMAN with its promotional trailer, all-caps title, and spiky lead single added a sly new edge to her deceptively jagged persona. It was a joy to see her don a silver wig and rollerskates in her self-directed video for the knowingly unhinged glam-stomp of breakout anthem ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’. The kitschy stagecraft of her performance with full besuited band on The Late Show was an added treat from an artist bored of being typecast as ‘this sad cartoon country girl singer’. High on delivering her most confident-sounding record yet – one that variously invokes Sky Ferreira, Fleetwood Mac, and Crazy Horse – Olsen was clearly ready to have some fun.

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Other solo artists drew on their increased powers as songwriters and performers to confront contemporary questions of alienation and arrested development amongst the young and disenfranchised. On the hilariously/terrifyingly titled Puberty 2, Mitski burned through such intimate epics as ‘Happy’, ‘Fireworks’, and (perhaps most notably) the slow-burning bruiser ‘Your Best American Girl’ with incandescent energy. The latter’s video clearly articulates her anxieties surrounding identity politics and exclusion even as it illustrates her standing defiantly, and brilliantly, apart from the crowd.

Meanwhile, lo-fi lowlife Jeff Rosenstock delivered WORRY., a lovingly crafted pop-punk paean to enjoying simple pleasures and small moments when seemingly surrounded by ageing friends, dead-end jobs, rising rents and a raft of regrets. If on paper that all sounds dangerously late-Green Day, then rest assured the results are endearingly short of pretence and long on reckless, ramshackle energy.

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Responding to high-profile acts of police brutality and an atmosphere of escalating racial tension, rap has been rising back to its late 80s/early 90s prominence as protest music for a good couple of years now but by any measure 2016 was vintage. Looking beyond the now-familiar debates about lyricism, or the lack thereof, in more chart-oriented fare, hip-hop artists produced some of the year’s most purposeful and uncompromising records. Despite being in many ways the headline act, only Kanye West disappointed when he finally ran out of album titles and launched The Life of Pablo, an indulgent and mean-spirited mess that too often paired inventive beats with straight-up bad lyrics; if only Yeezus could stay behind the boards and away from the mic, thus sparing us his thoughts on bleached assholes and the sexual availability of Taylor Swift. A far more pointed dispatch from the accusatory glare of the spotlight came from Vince Staples on the terse Prima Donna, which achieved more and hit harder in a third of the runtime.

This focus and ferocity was in evidence on many of the year’s best rap releases. Danny Brown travelled down into the depths on Atrocity Exhibition, a truly hedonistic headtrip of a record, whilst Run the Jewels left it late (or perhaps early, considering the original January 2017 release date) to indict Trump and incite listeners to revolution by dropping their third self-titled LP on Christmas Day. Elsewhere, across the Atlantic, the surprising resurgence of Skepta on the Mercury-winning Konnichiwa conspired with his 2015 Brits cameo and the viral success of Stormzy to barge grime back into the conversation.

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It would be wrong to suggest that only dark, doom-mongering records defined rap in 2016. Chance the Rapper, vying with the indefatigable Anderson .Paak for the accolade of busiest man in showbusiness, spread some much-needed joy with his third full-length mixtape, the infectious gospel-inflected Coloring Book, and seemingly turned everything he touched to gold with a string of scene-stealing-yet-generous features and appearances almost everywhere else.

But of all the heartening moments in music this year, the return of A Tribe Called Quest was perhaps the most inspiring. They too suffered a tragic loss this year when original member Phife Dawg passed away in March due to complications arising from diabetes; he was forty-five years old. Unbeknownst to the public, Q-Tip and co. had already recorded the lion’s share of a new (and final) album featuring verses from Phife, the existence of which was only announced in late October a few weeks prior to its release. Again, what could have been a victory lap or a crowd-pleasing rehash turned out to be so much more, an hour of densely packed sonics and wordplay that retooled their classic 90s jazz-rap sound ready for a new golden age of promoting positivity, love and tolerance.

By mixing features from established extended family members Consequence and Busta Rhymes with guest spots by Kendrick, Kanye, and .Paak, Tribe enacted a passing of the torch between generations and gave shout-outs to ‘Joey, Earl, Kendrick, and Cole, gatekeepers of flow’. Theirs was a message of hope, of irrepressible spirit and continuing creativity in the face of adversity. When Dave Chappelle, hosting the first Saturday Night Live to air after the US presidential election, introduced Tribe taking to the stage to perform lead single ‘We the People’, it was a moment of pure electricity. Imploring the audience to reach out to one another before unfurling a banner depicting the late Phife as his verse played, A Tribe Called Quest reminded the millions watching just how great artists can honour the past, seize the present, and face the future. Ω

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