Culturedarm’s Albums of the Year 2016

35. M.I.A. – AIM  |  34. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face LP  |  33. How To Dress Well – Care  |  32. Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing  |  31. Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions – Until the Hunter  |  30. Kedr Livanskiy – January Sun  |  29. Aristophanes – No Rush To Leave Dreams  |  28. Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom  |  27. Noname – Telefone  |  26. Angel Olsen – My Woman  |  25. Vince Staples – Prima Donna  |  24. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS  |  23. Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book  |  22. Arca – Entrañas  |  21. Young Thug – Jeffery

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20. Tink – Winter’s Diary 4

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19. David Bowie – Blackstar

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18. Solange – A Seat at the Table

Less a moment than a process – a few of these songs, notably ‘Rise’ and ‘Cranes in the Sky’, stretch back years – A Seat at the Table is a living monument, a tangible exhalation, a handsome and timely devotional in the name of healing and self-worth. Solange emanates from the centre of these soul figures, kaleidoscopic, even psychedelic, but steadily clearing the view.

While she moves effortlessly and breaks down the delineations between the private and public spheres, the most explicitly political content is to be found in the interludes: Solange’s father Mathew Knowles recalling the racial discrimination of his childhood, Master P expounding on community and belonging, Black entrepreneurship and ambition, pain and value in an imperfect world, and Solange’s mother Tina Lawson extolling Black beauty and expressing pride in her cultural heritage, which does lead directly into the subject of the sensitive and tactile ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’.

Yet the interludes don’t exist to make Solange’s point for her, captions to explain her conceptual art or merely adding volume to her silky soprano and spacious beats. Rather they reflect and reverberate through what is an intensely and intimately personal record, deepening the sense of lived experience. Even ‘Mad’ gestures towards reconciliation with self, realising that righteous anger too can be owned, passionately felt and forcefully expressed and adroitly and lovingly for the sake of love let go.

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17. Olga Bell – Tempo

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16. Brian Eno – The Ship

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15. Tanya Tagaq – Retribution

One of the best and boldest of the steady spurt of acclaimed protest albums to be released in 2016 – many with overlapping concerns, specifically environmentalism, LGBT activism, feminism, and Black or Indigenous rights – Retribution takes its rhythms from the frenzy of accusation and the claustrophobia of anger, resentment, and distrust. With an all-encompassing palette running the gamut from folk and orchestral music to grunge and black metal, Tanya Tagaq’s fourth album is her fiercest yet.

The sounds the Inuk throat singer makes can be loosely described with reference to physiological processes: guttural growls, ominous gargling, panting at once animalistic which falters and protracts and becomes more recognisably human even if we remain transfixed hearing them hyperventilate. But Tagaq is almost overcoming her own body in order to make these noises, and the cumulative effect is impossible to translate.

The opening track ‘Ajaaja’ sounds like the spectre of youth, in tenuous dialogue with her ancestors even as their words unravel on the wind. On a couple of occasions Tagaq makes her warnings explicit, as on the eight-minute-long title track, which snaps ‘When mother grows angry, retribution will be swift’, and more beguilingly on ‘Cold Wind’, where half-tauntingly and half-teasingly, she explains ‘Gaia likes it cold’. But mostly Retribution is a frontal assault, full of impermeable percussion and pulled-apart strings, which gradually song by song strives to turn the tables, luring aggressors helplessly even if it is to a shared fate. On ‘Summoning’, the record’s nine-minute centrepiece which finds Tagaq reliably backed by Toronto’s Element Choir, she sounds at times pained, at others in the throes of ecstasy, and still at other moments surprisingly and not altogether sinisterly coy.

As Canada struggles more than ever with its history of Indigenous abuse, the title Retribution markedly contrasts with the name of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established to investigate the role of old Indian residential schools. This network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples saw children removed from their parents and forcibly assimilated into the Christian mainstream. Over a hundred years, 150,000 children were placed in residential schools across Canada, leaving a legacy of alienation and exploitation, not to mention thousands of early deaths. Some of those who endured the system have spoken about recurring illnesses, of being thrown into cold showers every night, sometimes after being raped. Tagaq – who has suffered multiple sexual assaults and considers hydraulic fracturing ‘like earth rape’ – makes these intersections blisteringly apparent on ‘Cold Wind’ and her closing cover of Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’, which she gives a slow and steadfast, whispering and lingering rendition.

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14. Rihanna – Anti

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13. Matmos – Ultimate Care II

Crafty and quietly subversive, Matmos’ tenth studio album – following in the tradition of earlier works like A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, which sampled medical procedures such as plastic surgeries, liposuctions, hearing tests, and orthopaedic bonesaws, and The Marriage of True Minds, which saw the duo drawing out the psychic visions of subjects put into sensory deprivation – is comprised solely of sounds produced with a Whirlpool washing machine.

The appliance’s name gives the album its title, and Ultimate Care II broadly covers the whirring and sloshing, the occasional blips and beeps of a full washing cycle, one thirty-eight minute track divided into nine excerpts. Sometimes – for instance for the duration of excerpt seven – they leave the machine more or less to its own devices, other times they rub, stroke, and drum upon its surfaces, using transducers to feed it with samples, aided by guest contributors including Dan Deacon, Max Eilbacher and Sam Haberman of Horse Lords, Jason Willett of Half Japanese, and Duncan Moore of Needle Gun.

From such a conceit within the first minute Matmos conjure the most vivid landscapes, dense vegetation, tribal drums, and gushing streams. It’s a trick, an animating act, which they repeat throughout the record, from burgeoning wildernesses to droning dystopias their music humming with life. Even excerpts which feel more domestic, like the oiling and tinkering which characterises the onset of excerpt five, is interrupted and remoulded by incessant, insistent barks. M. C. Schmidt tumbled upon the concept lost one day in the Whirlpool’s rhythms, noting ‘It was a self-contained, very simple idea, but once you start examining anything, it gives and gives and gives. The shit writes itself as soon as you’re actually paying attention’.

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12. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

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11. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

On Atrocity Exhibition the most distinctive and offbeat voice in rap doubles down – and hard – on feelings of loneliness and paranoia, trapped in a cycle of wanton sex and addiction to cocaine. Featuring credits from Petite Noir, Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Earl Sweatshirt, and Kelela add brief levity, moments of buoyancy and braggadocio, which are certainly not provided by the production, helmed by Paul White, incorporating Evian Christ, Black Milk, and The Alchemist, and abounding in jagged punk, loping ghettotech, and menacing shards of noise.

Brown often sounds like a buzzsaw, frenzied and up on his feet atop a hot floor, but he can switch in a second to something deeper and more combative, and as he spits even the darkest of rhymes with lilting precision, could pass for the robotised future in meditation or self-help. Atrocity Exhibition more than dabbles in nihilism and yet – as he makes plain on ‘Lost’, with the line ‘Lost in the sauce but a nigga still dipping’, or on album closer ‘Hell for It’ – Danny Brown is writhing ferociously against the void.

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10. Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression

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9. Ian William Craig – Centres

A single voice in a vast cathedral, light refracting on four sides through stained glass, the shrug and hum of a submersible, the muffled rhythm of a steadily beating heart, Ian William Craig’s Centres is sometimes baroque, or monastic and cloistered, or like the strings and sinews of popular forms stretched out and carefully pressed, plucked, rubbed, or cut. Occasionally it veers towards folk or singer-songwriter territory, always graceful, but mostly sounds like a cross between Craig’s FatCat/130701 labelmate Max Richter, under flowing water, and John Cale’s Paris 1919 wrapped in layers of gauze.

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8. Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

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7. Mitski – Puberty 2

Mitski lingers beyond the confines of classification, her immediate palette drawn from the sounds of 60s and 70s New York punk and proto-punk giving way to a modern indie sensibility, with surf and slacker rock and traces of sultry late-night soul and R&B pushing through a wistful electronic filter. She carries the same visceral raw power and do-it-yourself attitude as some of her near contemporaries like Waxahatchee and Frankie Cosmos, yet her remarkable voice is mellifluous and sometimes even cosseted by the surrounding noise, forceful and emotional and at moments teetering on the edge of operatic but at the same time always carrying with it a certain restraint.

On Puberty 2, her fourth and lushest album, she explores the transitory nature of happiness, the bubbling fixity of depression, cultural clashes, shame, desire, bodily sundering, and forbidden and forsaken and unrequited love. Against fuzzy feedback and thunder and rain – both literal and metaphorical – her vocal shifts show a dynamic mastery of soft-loud. ‘Fireworks’ and ‘Your Best American Girl’ demonstrate that amid all the fumbling and humiliating and ultimately failed gropes towards validation, beneath the charred surface something solid, valiant, even triumphant remains. ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’ skewers yet validates the grandiosity and pomposity of youth.

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5. Animal Collective – Painting With

A few days before the release of the record’s sweaty and squelching first single ‘FloriDada’, Animal Collective premiered Painting With through the speakers of Baltimore-Washington International, looping the slightly surreal and hitherto unspecified music – best heard through the building’s bathrooms, pre-security observation areas, and post-security lounge – until 6 pm in the late afternoon.

The band have called Painting With their ‘Ramones record’, ‘short songs with a homogenous energy […] something where the first song revs up the engine, and it kind of just cruises after that’. But while the comparison is apt it could just as well be today’s Music for Airports, ‘able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular’, ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’.

The relentless onrush of overlapping voices, spouting and sloshing synthesizers, and buzzing and hiccuping beats can be by turns disorientating, fist-pumping, or strikingly danceable, but they’re not without uncertainty or doubt, and in the right mood and with the right atmosphere, the whole thing coheres to provide a certain still. Perhaps more than any other Animal Collective record Painting With harks back to The Beach Boys, The Velvet Underground, and even 60s and 70s singer-songwriter influences, yet it feels completely of the moment, finding balance amid busyness and bombardment, sensuously and with a sense of fun attuned to modern life.

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4. Jessy Lanza – Oh No

Tonally and atmospherically Oh No plays like the composite of decades’ worth of R&B, bolstered by beefier keys, strident electronic patches, wetter and splintering beats which push the palette in the direction of footwork and house, and Lanza’s voice, an arresting admixture of Japanese pop and new wave, replete with coquettish exclamations and inhalations and breathy groans. The synth patterns – with Lanza joined by Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys on production – threaten to run away with themselves, only for Lanza to lure them into step and ultimately bring them under her control. Shimmering, sad, perfect for summer, Oh No is precariously irresistible.

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3. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Even amid the hype and buzz around Boys Don’t Cry and potential due dates, in the heat of the summer with a boombox and workbenches, with orchestral grumblings and short industrial spurts, Frank Ocean turned the anticipation over his second studio album into something more resembling a slow burn. Blonde is emotionally dense and musically complex and not always riveting, but that’s precisely the point: as he sings on ‘White Ferrari’, one of the tracks of the year, ‘Basic takes its toll on me ‘ventually yes’, which is to say that the pressures of life – especially one lived openly – and romances unrequited or forestalled can make expression a struggle and each hour more wearying, but our bodies are still elegant and our thoughts lucid and free to roam.

The beats take a backseat on Blonde but bubble up to give life its momentum, as Ocean ruminates and allows his thoughts to meander against languid guitars and brooding synth sounds offset by the chirping and tweeting of birds. There’s a hazy atmosphere, a lushness to the music especially on the pivotal ‘Nights’, and the crackle of tape recordings which bring us usefully back down to earth. Ocean lingers on the threshold of love and reminisces on drug use and his youth, but never gets caught in the mire, casually yet concertedly conciliating and harmonising with the here and now. Blonde is a deep dive yet fresh as the morning.

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2. Samaris – Black Lights

An Icelandic trio making this sort of music can readily conjure local icons and images, alongside a keen and closely drawn if capricious sense of place: cold nights in padded overcoats against the swirling wind, Faxaflói bay providing the backdrop as busy lights hum dimly in the distance. It is a liminal space between trendy dance clubs and rawest nature, but on their third album Samaris sound fully formed, more than the sum of their influences, beyond the mere evocation of mood or atmosphere.

Vocalist Jófríður Ákadóttir – who has been cited by by Björk as one of her favourite current artists – clarinettist Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir and programmist Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, writing for the first time solely in English and recording between Reykjavik, Berlin, and Ireland, have made a record at once hypnotising and profoundly eloquent. Through the stuttering beats and ambient electronics emerge private anthems of loss and longing, beacons blinking out before home, bodies unfurling and dissipating beyond the reach of a warm touch. Black Lights tells of two people falling out of sync, and moving tentatively but resolutely while still hearing old echoes and seeing old shapes. There is room for hope too on tracks like ‘R4vin’ and ‘Gradient Sky’ – the latter the shortest track on the album as well as the standout – even where it resides in memories that will not soon be forgotten.

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1. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

In retrospect, it is tempting to see everything about The Life of Pablo – from the rambling prelude of GOOD Fridays and title changes, the tentative release of the record amid fashion shows and exclusivity disputes, the fragmentary series of updates which stretched until the addition of ‘Saint Pablo’ four months later, to the sprawling nature, cleaving soundscapes, and lyrical content of the music he produced – as a symbol or sign of Kanye West’s faltering health and excessively heightened mental state. Overworked as he committed to a one-of-a-kind tour between fashion launches and family crisis, struggling with the demons of fame and his own penchant for causing controversy – whether for the sake of publicity or in an artistic gesture borne from the need to feel freed from restraint – in November he was hospitalised and cancelled his remaining tour dates.

But his relatively brief period of hospitalisation was no more a culmination than the record itself. Some of its songs had a long gestation – ‘Wolves’ a notable example, howling plaintively in public for more than a year – and the changes wrought by West were always considered, and wound up giving much more than they took. This was an artist in a creative flourish, and in full control of his work. The sprawling nature of the record, as well as its staggered, sometimes swaggering, sometimes self-doubting release, not only reconfigured our sense of the album as something static and singular, but perfectly suited Kanye, who has made the embrace of life’s conflicts and contrasts his ethos.

It is a Joycean pursuit, collages with a dizzying array of textures and subtle and sudden tonal shifts, the putting together and repurposing of sacred texts and ephemera, willing portals out of mistakes. The Life of Pablo features the best moments and best runs of Kanye’s career, from the opening choral salvo of ‘Ultralight Beam’ to ‘Famous’, or as the placidity of ‘Waves’ ripples out through ‘FML’, ‘Real Friends’, and ‘Wolves’, a sequence full of defiance in the face of fear and regret. ‘Saint Pablo’ provides the record with a holy apostrophe. Nobody else can take us in the space of seconds from anal bleaching to a state of unfettered and helpless harmonic bliss.