A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles worked on A Seat at the Table in fits and starts through the eight years preceding its completion, and consequently, there’s a lot to unpack in the finished product. “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” she makes clear early on, and the tensions and injustices she has felt and witnessed as a black woman propel the entire album. And yet, her anger is channelled into a search for redemption rather than aggressive diatribes: a calm flipside to her sister’s Lemonade, and a moving celebration of black lives and culture that argues for belonging above all else. A Seat at the Table is a fitting title for a record that sounds so inviting: it welcomes its audience to the discussion, its anecdotes and manifestos detailed with grace and patience.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is the kind of protest song that resembles an open palm rather than a clenched fist, its force radiating without the need for dramatics. The same goes for its peers: ‘Cranes in the Sky’ and ‘F.U.B.U.’ firmly push against the bigotry and hypocrisy Solange and so many others are victims to, while remaining admirably open-hearted and generous in spirit. The sound is absolutely wonderful: laced with tasteful touches of Motown and soft funk, A Seat at the Table is heaped with earworms that flutter and snap alongside these celebrations of the self. Solange pitches her tone with fine precision, balancing her steely proclamations with joyous forays into liberating movement – not least on the effervescent ‘Junie’. There’s a lot to be proud about, too: when her mother venerates “the beauty of being black” during one interlude, her plainspoken honesty gets to the warmth at the core of her daughter’s album.
“I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down.”
For several years, Angel Olsen’s talent has been in bloom for all to hear, but My Woman is undoubtedly a significant leap forward. No longer the preserve of alt-rock magpies, she has delivered the vigorous pop record that her music previously hinted towards, but seemed to shy away from. She hasn’t abandoned her signatures in compromise, but rather has embellished and fortified them further: the emotional charge is ramped up rather than watered down, and her zeal fills every note, whether her voice is trembling with vulnerability or raw with intensity. Olsen shows more of herself than ever before as both singer and songwriter: whether she’s howling through ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ or crooning dreamily as she does in the blissful ‘Those Were the Days’, her presence is generously multifaceted.
On an album that merges her folk and grunge trademarks with soulful deliveries and country pep, Olsen’s nous is apparent through the smoothness of the whole. Intentionally sequenced as an album of two halves, My Woman fits together perfectly, the winding jams of the latter side sounding like the natural comedown after the emotional expenditure of the album’s opening salvo. Her techniques as a songwriter are consistent, but she employs them to admirably inventive effect: where the guitar crescendos on ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ forcibly burst out of the song’s fabric, on the spectacular ‘Sister’, the build is akin to seeing fireworks launched in slow-motion: a revelatory moment of wide-eyed wonder that suits Olsen’s own ascension.
“All my life I thought I’d change.”
Channel Orange was far from simple in its constitution, but Blonde is thick with content to such a degree that a full analysis could easily fill a book. There is so much to be derived from its density that it invites patience and investment, coaxing its listeners into blurry, headier places than Frank Ocean’s previous full-lengths. Even if this less straightforward approach makes for a less gratifying listen than the slicker R&B of old, Ocean’s supreme knack for melody keeps Blonde welcoming. ‘Pink + White’, ‘Godspeed’, ‘Self Control’, ‘White Ferrari’: these tracks aren’t always forthright in their hooks, but the care of construction has yielded handsome results that make repeat plays appealing. ‘Solo’ is as rich in meaning as any other cut, but Ocean’s grasp and control of melody and flow elevate the song into a heavenly experience. Even based around minimal tools, ‘Nights’ sounds like a full feast of ideas; an impressive transformation from an anthemic montage of “everyday shit” to a coda of lounge soul, via a sequence of videogame guitar licks.
Blonde presents an opus of life’s makeup through fast years and rough hours. There are narcoleptic hazes (“skipping showers and switching socks / Sleeping good and long”), sudden jitters and outbursts (as nailed by André 3000), stark poetry (“weed crumbles into glitter”) and eloquently-expressed pangs of very modern fear and exhaustion. Ocean acknowledges that he is expected to be a spokesman, but Blonde connects with its broad span of followers by withdrawing into the intensely personal, as in Ocean’s reference to Trayvon Martin. It’s a tiny glimpse at an individual reaction: a haunting gut-punch rather than a polemic.
So often on Blonde, Ocean works magic by hitching deeply complex thoughts to the most mellifluous tunes. His formidable hit-rate would make such accomplishments seem effortless, were it not for the four-year gestation that alludes to the hard graft at this music’s core. This album presents a challenge to Ocean’s peers and listeners alike to match the ambition of his own creativity: a demand that we all raise our game to suit works of this intricacy and power.
“Want to see nirvana but don’t want to die yet.”
Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
Whoever you are, if you’re in your twenties – or at the very least, can recall those hard knots of bewilderment and confusion that pierced (and possibly defined) your twenties – then you absolutely need this album. It’s essential. Coming across as a short story collection written with wit and candour, it’s a painfully acute opus set to subtly inventive lo-fi thrills. Will Toledo is no guitar hero, but his second major label album with Car Seat Headrest is thoroughly inspiring. The basic struts of garage rock are present and correct, but they’re dismantled and reassembled with dynamism belying the slacker-band languor Car Seat Headrest are audibly in thrall to. In seventy minutes, not a single hook fails to land.
But it’s Toledo who takes precedence, surrendering feelings towards himself from the very start: “if I was split in two, I would just take my fists / So I could beat up the rest of me”. From this sunny opening, Toledo eloquently stumbles from one ill-fated scenario to another: sobbing after a shakedown with some cops, screaming through an onset of social anxiety during a gig, trying not to piss his pants during a disappointing drug trip. Teens of Denial is brimful of honesty, hilarity, bewilderment and pathos, bound up in these unfortunate anecdotes that are joyous to hear. Toledo may shrug his way through some of these commentaries, but the lion’s share of them contain genuinely profound observations that stick as fast as the riffery. More ambitious and balanced than 2015’s Teens of Style, Teens of Denial lives up to its delightful song titles and then some. “You haven’t tried hard enough to like it”? It’s impossible to adore this album enough.
“Good people give good advice / Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out.”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave’s sixteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds is an unequivocal masterpiece. It’s a wrenchingly sad, haunting, and courageous work from a veteran who revealed a whole new depth of personal and artistic mettle in its creation. Questions regarding what aspects of Skeleton Tree were completed before and after Arthur Cave’s death are hard to dispel, but ultimately, they are rendered irrelevant by a work throughout which the weight of grief, pain and loss is articulated with devastating potency.
On these eight songs, Cave peers into the inky blackness of his imagination, sifting through lurid memories and conjuring surrealist imagery of slow-moving dread. The stalwart Bad Seeds match the desolate subject matter with brooding and eerie soundscapes, on which conventional choruses are few and far between. These songs unspool in oppressive clouds of rumbling distortion and disquieting flickers of noise. ‘Rings of Saturn’ hints towards gorgeousness but consistently retreats, the singer “too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain”. The trembles in his voice contribute to the effect of the whole: the stony tone he adopts suggests his deeper anguish is shelled away, but there are times when this protective layer cracks and the monstrous emotional flood begins to pour out. The album’s final stretch is equally agonising and delicate. ‘I Need You’ is almost impossible to stomach as Cave’s relentless refrains become choked with yearning: his wail of “I will miss you when you’re gone” must have been unbearable to witness in the studio. Yet ‘Distant Sky’ and the title track combine to form a touchingly human coda to the sorrows that came before: pleas to let go of the suffering while nurturing the love that we are able to carry further.
In many of these songs, Cave calls out beseechingly into the abyss, and receives no answer. By the album’s end, he hasn’t found peace, but has steadied himself enough to reach a resolution of sorts, albeit a fragile, irrevocably altered one. Skeleton Tree may be forever haunted by its shatteringly tragic context, but ultimately, the music herein is of such power that it is magisterial in of itself. It’s an album I won’t forget: its abstract articulations of pain and grief beyond imagining are profoundly disturbing, but that same despair bears forth a terribly unique beauty.
“You believe in God / But you get no special dispensation for this belief now.”
Christine and the Queens
Chaleur Humaine technically counts as an album of 2014, but Héloïse Letissier’s crossover into UK success seemed to come when we Brits needed it most, as if to prove that not every cultural trend in 2016 had to come loaded with shady subtext. Witnessing her accelerated rise to fame since the release of a translated edition of her début has been joyous, her refreshingly spacious take on dance- and synth-pop matched note-for-note by a thumping heartbeat. Chaleur Humaine is an album of self-appreciation beyond Letissier’s own pansexuality: these songs cohere around her own arc of embracing herself, while simultaneously reaching out and inviting others to do the same. Underpinning it all, these are slick and concise pop songs, written (and translated, with varying degrees of faithfulness) with care but without fussiness: the truths are presented clearly and coolly, without recourse to melodrama. This inclusive and unpretentious brand of music was a heartfelt delight for many this year, and only a stone-faced bastard would begrudge Letissier the acclaim she has received. “I am actually good” she presses on the now-ubiquitous ‘Tilted’, and she’s right in so many ways.
“I’m in my right place / Don’t be a downer.”
A Moon Shaped Pool
If you really do want to, you can go snooping through A Moon Shaped Pool – and everything in its orbit – in attempts to dredge up evidence to validate the recent gossip (is it their last? Does it hint at what’s coming next? What of Thom Yorke’s marriage?), but there are times when burrowing down rabbit-holes is a pointless exercise. With Radiohead albums, there has occasionally been the risk that the more obsessive fans can’t see the wood for the trees, and while I’m in no doubt that plenty of significance is buried within these eleven tracks, simply listening to them as they are makes for a gorgeous experience.
Really, the true appeal of A Moon Shaped Pool is the music itself: this haunting hodgepodge of tunes, many of which have finally found a home after years of floating about on the peripheries (rare live footage, muddy demos, general rumours from one album drop to the next). They may not sit alongside one another in a way that brings cohesion to the whole, but the collection has scooped up beautiful oddities like ‘Decks Dark’, and demonstrates the breadth of Radiohead’s forward-thinking prowess as it shifts from the throbbing intensity of ‘Ful Stop’ to the steely rallying cry of ‘The Numbers’. While the album largely laps in dreamlike opalescence, the overall sense one gathers from it is that of restlessness: the sound of a group still not settling into an easily-defined routine. Radiohead are as cryptic as ever, but amid the fog of A Moon Shaped Pool, beautiful shapes loom into view, and it’s a pleasure to drift into this album over and over again.
“Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”
Discovering that I loved this album was weird for me at first. I suppose I’m not in the main demographic for Lemonade: I’m a scrawny, speccy white guy who works in a bookshop and spent my teens bopping along to pleasantly anonymous indie-rock. I didn’t fully delve into a Beyoncé album until her surprise 2013 release, but it’s Lemonade which really stunned me into paying full attention, and it’s so outrageously good that there’s little to do beyond joining the rest of the universe in applauding it. No matter how much credence you give the dramatics behind the album’s release, Lemonade makes for a tremendous, tense, and hugely entertaining listen: a rallying cry with all the self-empowerment of Chaleur Humaine but thrice the gusto. Musically, it pushes the envelope of modern R&B by successfully assimilating almost every other genre under the sun, while its HBO release was a masterful demonstration of how albums can be presented and consumed through alternative means.
This album gives the impression of sounding universally irresistible (maybe not for Jay-Z, but let’s see how this whole saga pans out, hoax or not): its combination of Beyoncé’s no-fucks charisma and to-the-nines production is shocking and exuberant. There’s baseball bat swagger, tremulous vulnerability, and a levelling of blame and graciousness in equal measure. Knotty emotions are wrestled with even amid the fiercest cuts: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Freedom’ crack with visceral aggression while plunging into headspinning quandaries, never once deflated by simplification. By the time Beyoncé invites all ladies present to get in formation, there’s no doubting her regal prowess. From open to close, Lemonade dazzles.
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself back up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
Although there’s apparently little that’s original in the topics covered on Puberty 2 (the uncertainty of fledgling adulthood, relationship angst, the struggle to secure happiness on a long-term basis), what sets Mitski Miyawaki apart from her peers is that she absolutely nails the nuances beneath the blanket terms. The fears and insecurities that she purges over backdrops of fuzz guitar kick against simplification: in her writing she sidesteps the obvious and outlines the full weight of feeling behind each moment of (in)decision. The depression that plagues her is frustratingly nebulous: there are moments when she notices it like a knife in her leg, whereas during others she is fully conscious of being engulfed. This awareness she demonstrates gives significant heft to the songs on which she really lets rip, even as she staunchly avoids definitive catharsis: “I’d better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die!”
‘Happy’ and ‘Fireworks’ distill the fickle nature of contentment without recourse to patronising Mitski or her audience, the singer’s turns of phrase sharply constructed rather than overwrought. ‘Your Best American Girl’ lingers on the building doubts and quiet acceptance behind a breakup rather than the turmoil of heartache: the verses capture the fragility of late-night worry, while the towering chorus emerges emboldened by honesty (not to mention a wonderful eruption of noise). Each song clicks brilliantly even when the whole sounds deceptively simple: listeners need to look closely to see just how well executed the trick is. There may be no shortage of confused twentysomethings attempting to churn their plight into art, but few have accessed the level of honesty and empathy attained by Mitski on Puberty 2.
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”
22, A Million
(This article is leet-free, because I find it confusing and annoying to type.)
There’s a moment partway through 22, A Million which has lodged in my mind, and I’ve started to anticipate it with each play of the record. At the climax of the dizzyingly beautiful ‘33 “GOD”’, a distorted and barely perceptible voice croaks over the final piano notes: “why are you so far from saving me?” It’s an open question directly lifted from Psalms 22, and more than any one of the many cryptic phrases, declarations and entreaties scattered across the album’s length, this one feels integral to the whole project: the plea at the nexus of the emotional storm Justin Vernon weathered in the wake of the extensive touring for 2011’s Bon Iver.
Vernon is hardly a man forsaken, and when his situation is viewed in a broad perspective, he’s got to be pretty far down a Divine Entity’s prioritised list of people to save. And yet, his cries into apparent silence don’t rankle as first-world problems, but rather as a relatable and sympathetic crisis: the sound of a man whose uncertainties extend to what his own purpose is in life, and why it matters. He struggled through the past few years with writer’s block and panic attacks, recoiling against the rush of fame, and struggling to find adequate ways in which to communicate his fractured mindset to a now-huge audience.
22, A Million breaks down these matters in its form and content. The results frequently break away from the backwoods folk of old, and in place of catharsis, there are ellipses at every turn. Even when Vernon’s lyrics are at their most emotive and striking (“goddamn turn around now, you’re my A Team!”), they are rendered blurry by their context; a shuffled pack of surreal observations. But even if full understanding is out of reach, these songs remain touchingly accessible: once past the clattering abrasions of ’10 (Death Breast)’, the album is shot through with disarming beauty, not least on the gorgeous swells of ‘8 (Circle)’ and ‘#29 Strafford Apts’. It may not be handsome in a straightforward sense, but 22, A Million is a captivating and rewarding listen; an album to hold close in troubled times for the hard-won moments of solidarity it offers.
“I could go forward in the light / Well, I’d better fold my clothes.”