Albums of 2016: Deputy Editor’s Pick

A still from the Mitski video for "Townie."On the morning of 10th January 2016, I woke up alone in a 12-bed hostel dorm in Prague. By the time I’d stumbled downstairs to breakfast, I already knew why there was nothing but David Bowie playing on the stereo. It seemed like the young year had slumped to an early, heartbreaking nadir. I didn’t know then that it was just the tip of a nosedive, that the whole world was due a relentless live stream of hatred, disappointment, fear, anger, betrayal. That it would be a capitulation.

I know, I know: in 2016, we lost.

It would be sentimental to assume that the rest of the year’s artistic output mirrored that sadness – each season bears its more or less equal share of mischief and melancholy – but perhaps those writers and storytellers who worked in shades of black found an audience who, for a long time, could see nothing else. Even Kanye put out an album riddled with prayer, paranoia, and self-doubt. Even Kanye, this year.

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Dragonette – Royal Blues

dragonetteroyalbluesv016-300x300“Are we cool?” she asks as the title track cascades to a close, and it’s not yet clear who’s doing the asking: is the song’s protagonist checking in with her new lover, or is Martina Solbara questioning Dragonette’s status in 2016? Like fellow Canadians Tegan & Sara, they’ve carved out a niche in modern electro pop by setting tales of romantic uncertainty to dizzying synth hooks, a style that manages to be retro (“Lonely Heart” and its cod reggae, Ace of Base feel) while also unmistakably modern (“Body 2 Body” and its “Sorry” tropical house keyboard presets). By the end of Royal Blues, their fourth album, it’s not entirely clear what kind of cool the band are chasing.

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Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

Blood Bitch

 

 

 

 

 

The last time I spoke to Jenny Hval, we broached the topic of how the Norwegian artist uses comfortable and uncomfortable sounds to manipulate the listener. I suggested that perhaps the more traditionally beautiful moments on her latest release (then 2015’s critically adored Apocalypse, girl) operated as a disruptive tool as much as the noise. She didn’t really agree. “I’m here to make you uncomfortable. But I don’t see the more harmonious parts of my work as lulling. I’m not a trickster. I truly believe that there is room for all kinds of elements together without them betraying one another.” Now back with another pleasantly challenging album, Blood Bitch, that statement feels truer than ever.

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Billie Marten – Writing of Blues and Yellows

billie-marten-writing-blues-yellows-cover-413x413

 

 

 

 

 

Billie Marten is a child of the gloaming, the afternoon unspooling behind her. She writes of yellows, certainly, and the blues arrive later; big, inky, blue-black blotches of melancholy that fall and then blossom on fading parchment paper. At her first performance, aged 12, she played a Joanna Newsom song, and then “Doll Parts” by Hole. She adores the amber haze of home, while yearning for the city. By the time “Live” arrives, her paean to an imagined California, an imagined Berlin, an imagined elsewhere wrapped up in home comforts, the only thing left to surprise the listener about Writings of Blues and Yellows is that she sat in one place long enough to learn the piano.

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Bear’s Den – Red Earth & Pouring Rain

Red Earth & Pouring Rain

Red Earth & Pouring Rain marks the return of Bear’s Den, British alt-folk’s heirs apparent, released on their founder’s imprint. If you’re not familiar with the name, Communion began life in 2006 as an “artist-led organisation”, the dream of multi-instrumentalist Kevin Jones, Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons), and producer Ian Grimble. In 2010, Communion Records was established, pressing the likes of Ben HowardDaughter, Matt Corby and Nathaniel Rateliff. Now, you should already have a few genre tropes fizzing through your mind: gently picked guitar chords thrumming with reverb; perhaps a man’s voice, nominally pruned from southern England, that somehow has a Californian twang to it. Most of all, if you’ve paid attention to the last decade’s banjo-rock explosion whatsoever, there should be one word on the tip of your tongue: dear.

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Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

Blisters in the Pit of My Heart

The events that make up Blisters in the Pit of My Heart primarily take place in transitory places: buses, shopping aisles, streets, school corridors, low-paid jobs, gender-neutral toilets. It’s a record that wonders where it is you’re supposed to be going, what you’re supposed to be waiting for, and when might be reasonable to expect its arrival. It’s a record that celebrates life’s sharp edges, while recognising that they’re often just four isolated incidents on an otherwise uninterrupted expanse of white photocopy paper. It’s a record that could only have been written by a group of vegan, straight-edge anarchists who genuinely hail from an old pitting village in County Durham called Pity Me. Which is to say, it could only belong to Martha.

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Interview: Johnny Foreigner

Spiralled out across temp jobs and club nights, the galaxy that Johnny Foreigner inhabits has always been one of immuteable uncertainty. It’s not unusual, of course, for the everyday life of the artist to filter into their work, often manifested in the bleeding heart, life-on-the-road complaint track. But nowhere else does the hard work feel like part of the reward; like few of their peers, the day-to-day grind of just making it work feels intimately stitched into the fabric of everything that Alexei, Kelly, Junior and Lewes create. “I’ve a confession,” Alexei begins on Mono No Aware, the Birmingham quartet’s fifth LP. “It stings to admit: I can’t foresee a day when we’ll buy speedboats from this.”

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Shura – Nothing’s Real

Nothing's Real

Shyness, as a young man once mused, is nice. It’s always a submissive play, and therefore a source of enormous power in any romantic encounter, regardless of whether it arrives as a conduit of blushing anxiety or professional coquetry. For Shura, another coy Mancunian, it’s the emotional bedrock of her work, stitched together from a young lifetime’s archive of rom-com cliché: hair nervously swept out of faces; stolen glances across classrooms and lockers; awkward smiles exchanged over the protagonist’s frankly bizarre refusal to carry her books in a goddamn bag like everyone else. Now she’s roped in pop ubiquity Greg Kurstin to co-write some bangers for her debut album, Nothing’s Real, is the 25-year-old about to start using her outside voice?

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Mitski – Puberty 2

Puberty 2

A few days after the plaudits started rolling in for “Your Best American Girl”, Mitski decided to post a little exposition of the song on Facebook. She’d noticed that a lot of reviews had “agreed on a narrative that “she wrote this song to stick it to ‘the white boy indie rock world’!” but I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing it…” Of course she acknowledges the borrowed tropes, the nods to Orientalism, the male gaze, and so on. She understands that writers have to “decide on a theme” from which to hang their own ideas. She gets it. It’s just that “Your Best American Girl” is a love song, and every reference to gender and race and nationality is a single drop of rain beating a path to the ocean of that person will not ever love you the way that you love them. It comes from a place of unadulterated hurt, the kind that you start to couch in terms of a bereavement, because the lexicon of love is too pitifully inane to capture its spread. It is not a calculated sleight against cultural mores. This is a useful primer for Puberty 2.

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Samaris – Black Lights

Black Lights

You know the drill by now: minimalist future pop three piece, comprising the tried and tested set up of anxious knob-twiddler (Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, aka ‘Doddi’), vocalist who sounds like Bjork riding the mother of all comedowns (Jófríður Ákadóttir), and clarinet (Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir). Together, they set lyrics from 19th century Icelandic poems to skittery jungle beats and the kind of terse electronica that lesser hacks would probably describe as ‘glacial’. Now they’re releasing their first album in English, Black Lights, recorded between Reykjavik, Berlin, and somewhere in Ireland. Yeah, Samaris are pretty run of the mill. Did I mention one of them plays clarinet in the band?

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