Here are the 100 greatest LPs of 2016, according to Crack Magazine. Visit 2016.crackmagazine.net for more end of year coverage over the coming weeks.
KAITLYN AURELIA SMITHEars Western Vinyl
Glittering, opalescent and enchanting, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s cosmic opus EARS landed as if from another star in April. Cloaked in a velvety swathe of Smith’s universal, unintelligible language, EARS was deftly funnelled through the mess of wires that populate Smith’s Buchla Music Easel and into glorious sonic Technicolor. It was easy to imagine as a soundtrack to an electric ecosystem yet to be discovered: strange shivers of woodwind bubble against purrs of chattering synths, before repeatedly returning to irresistible loops of hypnotic horn. The album glowed from the outside in: a magical excursion into a limitless world of swirling celestial possibilities.
ANGEL OLSENMy Woman Jagjaguwar
Angel Olsen’s third full-length, My Woman, was a lesson in self-possession. Using streaks of pop, soul, rock and Motown, Olsen owned every inch of her elastic voice, and showcased a kaleidoscope of emotion via an upbeat A-side, and a more lo-tempo, but no less captivating, B-side. Defiance, depth, heartbreak and humour spun convincing webs over each track. “I dare you to understand what makes me a woman,” she challenged on Sister, a heart-achingly powerful torch song. My Woman only illustrated that what makes a woman is far too much to know.
KENDRICK LAMARuntitled unmastered. TDE / Aftermath / Interscope
With its modest presentation, many assumed untitled unmastered. to be something of an extended footnote to last year’s epic To Pimp A Butterfly album, yet this material was far too special to be denounced as demos. Showcasing the stranger side of Kendrick Lamar’s style, here his battle cries were tenebrous, producing some of the most avant-garde music to be released for the hip-hop mainstream. And on untitled unmastered., Kendrick sounded truly free to be whatever he wanted to be.
BLOOD ORANGEFreetown Sound Domino
In Manhattan, Donald Trump received less than eight percent of the vote. New Yorkers know a phony when they see one. Dev Hynes, the Londoner who has made his home here, is not a phony, and with Freetown Sound, his latest as Blood Orange, he has delivered one of the most buoyant albums of the year, overflowing with gauzy, mid-tempo percussion, synths and strings, earthy jazz, and subtle nods to mother Africa. In addition to Hynes’s signature grooves, Freetown is teeming with ideas about identity. But this is not a political album. Hynes is not a polemicist. This is art. Americans need more of it.
DAVID BOWIEBlackstar RCA / Columbia / Sony
David Bowie’s death at the beginning of the year was a tragedy of popular culture, yet the enduring celebrations of his spectacular legacy prove that he won’t be forgotten. Blackstar was Bowie’s incredible parting gift to the world. Released on his 69th birthday, the immediate response was of fascination. Following his departure two days later, the record took on a deeply haunting force, presenting itself as less of an album and more of a last will and testament. A truly bewitching record with enough nuances to warrant a thousand listens.
SHOW ME THE BODYBody War Letter Racer
Body War is barbarous and lawless. It is the embodiment of nonconformity; the sound of rabid dogs grinding their canines. Show Me The Body’s rasping sounds rip at the veins of hardcore punk, hip-hop and the blues, and the New York trio are spiked with hostility towards the piggish nature of America’s ethically skewed law enforcement. Julian Cashwan Pratt’s ferocious distorted banjo and shrill bark wrestle with an agile and ferocious rhythm section, resulting in an explosive concoction which makes Body War one of the most original and urgent punk albums in years.
ANOHNIHopelessness Rough Trade
Hopelessness was 2016’s most outwardly political pop, tackling major social issues with an unflinching stare. Against a backdrop of apocalyptic late-capitalism, drone warfare, mass surveillance, climate change, Anohni’s unsettlingly elegant croons, alongside the sleek bombast of its framework created by co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, forcefully confronted our disbelief at the state of the world.
With track titles like Drone Bomb Me and Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?, at the point of its release it turned the feedback loop of a decade’s toxic news into a profoundly melancholy piece of art. At the end of 2016, its dissection of the American dream couldn’t feel more vital. It was by no means a perfect political statement, but in denying us escapism it offered something else entirely. It was the sound of an artist committing gut-wrenching desperation to song in a way that’s seldom been explored before. For all its depictions of death and destruction, it was underpinned by the much-needed tonic of warmth and raw, human emotion. A soaring battle cry; an urgent embrace.
KANYE WESTThe Life of Pablo GOOD Music / Def Jam
Kanye West’s artistic identity, erratic and unpredictable, is driven by impulse. And with The Life of Pablo, West’s disregard for conventions was more prevalent than ever. With the music industry’s shift to streaming platforms, West spotted the opportunity to adjust the record post-release, to add gospel backing vocals, change lyrics, split tracks, to reject the concept of completion and declare The Life of Pablo a “living breathing changing creative expression”.
Since West first jammed an aux cable in his laptop to unveil the album to the world at its live-streamed Madison Square Garden launch in February, The Life of Pablo has stood the test of time despite the media’s hastily delivered criticism. From Chance The Rapper’s hair-raising devotions on opener Ultralight Beam, to the subzero stillness of Real Friends, the glorious crescendos of the Father Stretch… suite and Kanye and Kendrick’s charismatic back-and-forth on No More Parties in L.A, there are moments on Pablo which will reverberate for generations to come.
Harnessing together an enormous list of producers and guest vocalists, West’s unwavering confidence led to an album that is disparate and scattered, sometimes ugly, and often beautiful. West, who referred to himself here as a “38-year old 8-year-old”, is deeply connected to the idea of creativity as freedom, the feeling of being liberated, or at least wanting to be. As another Pablo wrote, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
SOLANGEA Seat At The Table Saint Heron
On a Friday evening in September 2016, Solange Knowles attended a Kraftwerk gig in New Orleans. While dancing, she was reportedly told to “sit down” by a group of white women, who proceeded to pelt her with half-eaten limes. In response to the incident, the artist penned a piece on her website Saint Heron entitled: And Do You Belong? – I Do.
Solange’s Saint Heron platform shares its name with a compilation album she released on her label, Saint Records, back in 2013. The intent of Saint Heron is to support the advancement of people of colour – specifically in the creative sectors. In the aforementioned post, she wrote of the instance at the concert and other similar experiences she’s faced as a black woman. Essentially, the sentiment behind many of her words can be summarised by this excerpt: “‘This is why many black people are uncomfortable being in predominately white spaces.’”
Carving out a space of her own, from the outset of her third album A Seat at the Table, Solange’s enduring desire to empower is clear. “Fall in your ways so you can wake up and rise,” she purrs on opening track Rise, while on follow-up track Weary, she repeats the telling statement: “I’m weary of the ways of the world.”
Musically, the album is an amalgamation of genres Solange is accustomed to – there’s no mistaking the elements of dreamy RnB and futuristic funk in its soft, meditative sway. The difference here though, is that there’s much more substance behind her signature harmonies than ever. Solange imbued this album with a narrative steeped in the experience of blackness in America as well as an engaging, deeply personal insight into her own identity. In a press release, Solange called the album a “project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing.” Her sister Beyoncé may have shown us what happens when life gives you lemons, and here Solange teaches us how to respond when life throws you limes.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDSSkeleton Tree Bad Seeds Ltd.
During an interview for French television in 1994, Nick Cave reflected on his life-affirming discovery of Leonard Cohen’s music, dismissing the criticism of his young friends who couldn’t understand the poignant power of Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate LP. “The sadness of Cohen was inspiring; it gave me a lot of energy,” Cave said. “I always remember this when someone says that my records are morbid or depressing.”
Cohen is among the list of incredible songwriters who have left us this year, but Nick Cave remains. And if Cave wasn’t born with the innate talent of his musical heroes, then he has earned it over many years, learning how to communicate lust, despair and everything in between with raw emotion and the dignity of good poetry. Once in a while an album comes along which proves that music can transcend its basic function as entertainment to become something much more vital. Skeleton Tree is one of those records.
The tragic passing of Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur influenced the creative process of Skeleton Tree, and it certainly influences the listener’s experience of it. This is an album about breaking down in the supermarket, the long black car that waits round the corner and the phone line that rings non-stop before it suddenly forgets you. And at times, it’s an album which feels almost too honest to bear.
But it’s important to recognise that Skeleton Tree is also an album about love. These songs could not have been conceived without Warren Ellis, who’s been developing a unique emotional and musical bond with Nick Cave for over two decades. Having given Cave the space he needs during album’s saddest moments with restrained, delicate musicianship, Ellis and the Bad Seeds return to the forefront with a warm chorus of backing vocals for the album’s heartbreaking centrepiece I Need You, supporting what is among the most emotive vocal performances of Cave’s entire career. And with the tender beauty of the album’s final two tracks, Cave’s words feel as if they’re grasping onto a sense of hope that seemed unimaginable earlier in the record. In 2016, Skeleton Tree was the album which taught us that, no matter how vast the darkness may seem, in the distance you’ll be able to see the morning sun rising once again.