2016: The Year In Music

TOP 100 TRACKS (25-1)
TOP 100 TRACKS (50-26)
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TOP 100 TRACKS 100-76

This image posted in a web page owned by Paul Darling has circulated in social media around the world. A tweet containing it sent by Cambodian film director Rithy Panh cached our attention. Nothing has summarised better the ghastly vibe of 2016.

A year that begins with the dead of one of the most iconic popular culture artists of all time does not forecast anything good, and David Bowie passing away was a devastating first taste of things to come, making us more aware of the ones who followed him over the course of the last twelve months. Prince; Leonard Cohen; A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg; Sharon Jones; Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns; This Mortal Coil’s Carolyn Crawley; Alan Vega; P.M. Dawn’s Prince Be; Vanity; Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White; Colin Vearncombe aka Black and many others have formed a long black list that leaves the sour impression of having arrived to the end an era whose cultural achievements no one seems able to better, not even repeat.

Politically, the rise of populism came in many shapes, from the repetition of the Spanish general elections and subsequent negotiations concluding with the same, corrupt popular party and leader in power; to the vaguely surprising “Yes” Brexit vote in the UK, leaving the country in a muddling situation the new formed crisis government doesn’t seem to know how to deal with. Yet it was all crowned in the autumn by the US referendum, when against all odds billionaire Donald Trump won, using bigotry and other repugnant strategies to manipulate the prejudices of a growing percentage of disenfranchised population.

Describing 2016 in music as the year of Death, Loss and Hopelessness may seem a bit exaggerated, but death and suffering were the present themes in most of the year’s best music. The many spontaneous fan and industry tributes to David Bowie not only brought a mournful tone to 2016, later replicated with those ones to Prince, whose shocking and premature passing away did not allow him to give us a farewell record, and in the autumn with Leonard Cohen who did offered us his best work in at least a decade with the sombre ‘You Want It Darker.’Even A Tribe Called Quest, whose unexpected recording sessions for their remarkable comeback were affected by the dead of founding member Phife Dawg, which fortunately did not prevent it from being one of the most terrific records of the year.

The undeniably quality of ‘Blackstar‘ also gave a sense of popular music having peaked at the very beginning of the year. Luckily, 2016 has turned out to be a vintage year in which gender, racial and sexual diversity have also been recurrent themes, bringing a rich and eclectic sonic palette with them, albeit most of its standout moments shared that bleak outlook of the dramatic events occurring through it. Anonhi‘s electronic transformation was as astonishing as strong her exploration of yoday’s many causes for ‘Hopelessness‘; Nick Cave shared the pain of his son’s tragic loss in ‘Skeleton Key‘, the most devastating album we have heard since Lou Reed‘s ‘Magic And Loss‘ and PJ Harvery expanded the scope and ambition of `Let England Shake´ to several conflicting zones around the globe in ´The Hope Six Demolition Project.

Another of the year’s biggest surprises was Lambchop‘s return to form with an album infused in minimal electronica that refreshed Kurt Wagner‘s intimate Americana and brought him closer to the sounds of Bon Iver or James Blake, both also returning with excellent works.

As streaming finally surpassed digital downloads as the prevailing format, Urban music in both its R&B and hip-hop strands reigned supreme, with such a range of brand new and establishing talents on display that it felt like the only genre driving popular music forward. Leading the pack the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange. Their latest opuses’ cultural impact will be remembered for years to come. Beyoncé merged the boundaries of music, film and style in her second video album ‘Lemonade,’ whose streaming exclusive for her husband’s troubled platform TIDAL was not an obstacle for the collection to become one of the best selling of the year. Solange made a 70’s rooted, confesional soul album. And talking about soul no one shone brighter than Frank Ocean, who managed to break all ties with the industry and went his own way, finding and exploring his own voice in the process. The hip-hop world gave us the madness of King Kanye; the histrionics of Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar confirming he is in a league of his own with an album of discarded tracks from the sessions of his latest masterpiece.

Two of the best newcomers of the year were also the most ubiquitous. Rapper Anderson.Paak impressed with his solo debut ‘Malibu‘; teamed up with Knxledge in the cool jazzy outfit NxWorries and found time to guest in every rap album worth its salt. In the electronica arena, the star-studded debut of Canadian producer Kaytranada, sharing also a big jazzy influence, provided the latest sound “du jour,” soundtrack of many a hipsters’ dance floor. The mixtape format jumped into the mainstream, with such renowned artists as Chance The Rapper; Kamaiyah or Young Thug, sticking to its immediacy without bothering to release “proper” albums.

The repeated attempts by a new generation of bands to revisit the 90’s guitar sounds on both sides of the Atlantic began timidly to produce notable results. The shadow of Pavement planed over Car Seat Headrest‘s sophomore effort ‘Teens Of Denial,’ whereas indie punk and britpop were the key ingredients in UK band Martha‘s invigorating second record. Both adding their personal takes to their original references, differentiating themselves from the legions of mere copycats the blogosphere has been pushing for years. Also on that front, Courtney Barnett’s enormous success last year has prompted the record industry to search for more young female rockers with first-timer Mitski and the more established Angel Olsen, being major beneficiaries of such growing interest.

2016 should have been declared the year of the not-so-difficult second album; with The Avalanches, who took decades to shape a worthy follow-up to their iconic debut, and self-described krautrock-psych-punk French band La Femme being prime examples. Other surprises were the consolidation of veteran US rockers Drive-By Truckers and singer/songwriter Cass McCombs who perhaps delivered the most accomplished albums of their respective careers; Thee Oh Sees carried on taking garage rock to new heights and the overlooked collaboration between three of the most singular female alt. songwriters Neko Case, k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs.

Altogether they have shaped a fantastic year of music.