The Skinny's Albums of 2016: Mid-year report
In need of some cheery news? Look no further – from Anna Meredith's blindsiding debut to Matmos' ecstatic love-letter to the washing machine, ten writers on LPs that have rocked our domes so far in 2016.
Anna Meredith – Varmints (Moshi Moshi)
When the vistas of pop and contemporary classical overlap the interaction tends to be on the former’s terms. If it’s not AOR stalwarts declaring they have a symphony in them, it’s pop taking a daytrip, returning with its Day-Glo charabanc stuffed with ‘borrowed’ motifs and cadences – even when serious classical types engage with this other form (the Bowie reinterpretations of Philip Glass, say), the suspicion that it’s pop’s prestige being puffed tends to linger.
Hence one of the joys behind Anna Meredith’s long play foray into the maw of left-field electropop; an artist beholden to orchestral composition (her CV includes a stint as composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), yet instead of trailing behind pop’s prissy rules, she warps them to her own way of thinking.
Playfully erudite, Varmints reveals an acute confidence in how sound sits together. Yes, the building, arpeggio-driven single Taken is immediately arresting, but elsewhere its patterns are akin to architectural sketches. The ziggurat brass timbres of opener Nautilus; the fluted arcs of electro-ballad Something Helpful; R-Type, all shimmering surfaces amidst the sunlight. And as with many a great building, neither is this a record afraid to take ideas from elsewhere and position them at different angles, the ‘80’s feel discernible yet constantly shifting in texture. A fascinating, surprising listen (and deservedly making the Scottish Album of the Year shortlist), Varmints genuinely sounds like nothing else. [Duncan Harman]
Beth Orton – Kidsticks (ANTI-)
More layers than your average onion, frenetic drumbeats, looped to high heaven, reverb-heavy and driven by flickering guitar and synths: Snow is a blistering introduction to what is a blistering return from Beth Orton. This is album number seven, and while the middle three were pleasant (there were moments of real beauty on 2012’s Sugaring Season), they didn’t excite the listener in the manner of Trailer Park or Central Reservation.
Now, teaming up with Fuck Button Andrew Hung, it’s easy to remember Orton as the enfant terrible who popped Es into William Orbit’s mouth and produced some of the finest records of the late 90s. Orton’s vocals are simple, often mantra-like, chopped and stratified to coalesce beautifully with the fine bed of electronica, and it works a treat. Lead single Moon cries out to be remixed, while 1973 – perhaps the straightest song here – is disco-tinged gold. This is an album swimming with inventiveness, quality and variety: it’s good to have her back. [Finbarr Bermingham]
Beyoncé – Lemonade (Parkwood)
“I tried to be softer, prettier, less awake.” This had been coming. But 2013’s Beyoncé had, in hindsight, only hinted at where the world’s greatest pop star would go next. Not just a final sloughing of the constraints of R'n'B norms, but, in how it so ruthlessly dismisses the mainstream’s demands and expectations, a staggering subversion of mode. A stinging rebuke to the societal and political apparatus that, still, is happier when people of colour – and women in particular – know their place. A tipping point. Beyoncé’s ‘what does this button do?’ album.
The Beyoncé who once had the good grace to allow the X Factor's Alexandra Burke to have a go at singing with her on her hyperballad Listen is no more. In her place: a fearless creative, a fire-breathing protagonist, a feminist icon like no other. “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman”: Malcolm X’s words act as foundation for a celebration of the women in Beyoncé’s life as she sets about shaming the weak, disloyal men. With unflinching candour, Lemonade documents a marriage in crisis and a father-daughter relationship beyond dysfunctional.
Don’t leave the accompanying long-form DVD in the case. The spoken word sections that link the visuals form a compelling soliloquy, and there is poetry in both the words (“Pull the sorrow from between my legs like silk, knot after knot”) and the images. Musically, not even a hint of filler. Every song is a new kind of essential: the fragile elegy of Sandcastles; Freedom, where Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar brew up a storm; Formation, as alien and revelatory as, ooh, Get Yr Freak On or When Doves Cry. The voice is still finding her voice. Lemonade is unique and peerless. Listen and learn. [Gary Kaill]
Deftones – Gore (Reprise)
The Sacramento survivors continue to evolve and compel in their 28th year. Deftones has always been about the sum of its accomplished parts, but the visceral push and pull between frontman Chino Moreno and guitarist Stephen Carpenter is front and centre on album number eight; if Moreno’s stargazing lyricism and ambient adventures on guitar evoke the ‘dream’ then Carpenter’s doomy low-end frequencies certainly pepper it with the ‘metal’. Gore is unquestionably weighted towards the former.
‘The record’s ours to break / the more we build / the crowd goes wild,’ Moreno howls on Rubicon, acutely aware that it’s time to wrestle with the blueprint. What subsequently unfolds is easily their most stylistically varied record since 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist; relentless twists that turn into reasons to press play.
Carpenter’s heavyweight licks are strategically placed, rendering the likes of Phantom Bride a delicate sway with a devastating finish in its dying seconds. His fleeting interplay with Jerry Cantrell's sprawling guest solo reaches past minor curiosity to become an essential encounter on a record with countless unfurling highlights. [Dave Kerr]
Flume – Skin (Mom & Pop)
Harley “Flume” Streten, prodigal Aussie producer and bedroom-to-big-name electronica maestro, holds a steely consistency with sophomore LP Skin. Spotted in 2011, then a mere 20 years old, and signed almost immediately by Future Classic, Flume turned heads with his self-titled debut a year later. Toying with synthpop, hip-hop, and trip-hop, he painted his cosmic, future bass textures with a dreamy and gauzelike palette.
Where Flume was fresh-faced, Skin is more reckless. Guest vocalists up the wazoo, sure (Little Dragon, Raekwon, even that loser Beck), but it has a scattered – almost scatty – personality, broadening his already broad tastes. Panpipes-flecked opener Helix falls somewhere between the opulent cinematics of HudMo’s Lantern and anything by Kavinsky; Never Be Like You and Say It have the kind of pop vibes Disclosure had with Eliza Doolittle; Lose It gives rapper Vic Mensa plenty of room to preach. But then you’re faced with the spliced syncopation of Wall Fuck, or the ambiance of When Everything Was New, and you’re taken back to the earnest incandescence of his debut.
Like any good house party, there are rooms for ravin’ and rooms for chillin’. The variety gives the record substance, and is the mark of a shrewd young talent on the rise. [George Sully]
Leon Vynehall – Rojus (Designed To Dance)
Leon Vynehall’s artistic intent for his April release Rojus is neatly encapsulated within track opener Beyond This… A beat-less, weightless composition of ambient synth and birdsong, it paints a sweeping picture of the alluring oasis the album’s title alludes to (rojus being the Lithuanian word for paradise).
From the second track onwards, Rojus then mounts a heady, addictive march towards the Arcadia it aspires too. Loaded with commanding basslines, textured beats and dreamy vocal samples, the British producer leans heavily on the bpms – and the result? A blissful eight-song collection of breezy, halcyon house music.
The gentle chime and taught, syncopated percussion of Paradisea make the track an album standout, whilst Blush’s euphoric vocals and sweeping synths speaks directly to dancefloor sensibilities. Then there’s the relentless jungle grove of Kiburu’s, before the reverie is brought to a close by the sparkling, percussive-driven ...There Is You.
Detractors may cite the record’s unfluctuating plane as a defect, but if anything, Rojus’s steady tone merely reinforces the record’s dreamlike mindset. A standout house release of the year to date, Rojus lives up to the promise of Leon Vynehall’s 2014 mini-LP Music For The Uninvited – and then some. [Claire Francis]
Matmos – Ultimate Care II (Thrill Jockey)
The ever-present danger with Matmos is that the concept supersedes the execution. How does a 38 minute album entirely comprised of sounds from a washing machine also turns out to be an exercise or critique in the obsession with obsolescence in dance music culture? Or is Matmos’ Ultimate Care II, named after the discontinued Whirlpool model, no more than the skilfully manipulated sounds of an everyday laundry spin?
Either way, it’s a relentlessly thrilling, endlessly careering cycle of polyrhythmic drumming, flooding chambers and staggering conceptual flair. Accordingly, the album exists on its own terms as this coruscating collision of musique concrète and pounding dance music – so much so that the source of the sounds becomes obsolete in itself. [Colm McAuliffe]
Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)
Those that fell for Mitski's wonderful break-through album Bury Me At Makeout Creek might claim to have seen this one coming but, in reality, there won't be many that could have foreseen the dramatically powerful leap forward that she makes on new album Puberty 2.
Deep, dramatic, raw, and powerful, Mitski Miyawaki has always had a compelling way with words and a confounding way with composition, but her first album since making the leap to the Dead Oceans label takes all this to a new level. Informed by the sheer weight of self-preservation that it takes to make that full leap in to adulthood, Puberty 2 sways wildly between smart, intelligent guitar-pop and something far more imposing and primal.
Stand-out track Your Best American Girl is the glorious personification of the album's strength, swelling from a restrained opening in to a monumental chorus that flies in the face of adversity to deliver steely-eyed confessions – “Your mother wouldn't approve of how my mother raised me, but I do. I think I do" – like sermons spat in to the night sky. A thrilling, intoxicating ride that drags the listener along for every one of its brazenly important twists and turns. [Tom Johnson]
RM Hubbert – Telling the Trees (Chemikal Underground)
Telling the Trees marks something of a new chapter for RM Hubbert. His last album, Breaks & Bones, completed what’s now called his 'Ampersand trilogy'; three deeply personal records that channelled grief and depression into something singularly beautiful.
Now he’s moving on, but a new chapter doesn’t necessarily mean a clean break with the past. In fact, Hubby pitches Telling the Trees as a deliberate mirror image to the trilogy’s centrepiece Thirteen Lost & Found – a tantalising prospect given that album’s SAY-scooping form.
As before, his choice of collaborators is creatively rewarding. The opener sees author Anneliese Mackintosh spin a wryly apocalyptic tale enriched by rolling, groaning crescendos; next, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror interlinks Anneke Kampman’s vibrant vocals with Hubby’s crisp, percussive playing; and later, The Dog sets Kathryn Joseph’s devastating lyrics to the album’s simplest, most unadorned instrumentation. All in, it’s a diverse, bravura undertaking that sees Hubby not only moving on, but upwards as well. [Chris Buckle]
Tacocat – Lost Time (Hardly Art)
The punk scene is shifting. Dominated for so long by legions of boring bro-dudes with their PBR obsessions and their Chuck Ragan impressions, its horizons are broadening: the future is gender-free and anti-heteronormative. Its present, meanwhile, is quite clearly female.
Brilliantly illustrative of this new landscape are Seattle’s Tacocat, whose third album Lost Time is a neon-coloured explosion of glitter and melody that reels you in with instantly-hummable hooks before sucker-punching you with its pointed content. Equally capable of wry seriousness (the wry fuck-you of Men Explain Things To Me) as out-and-out silliness (Horse Girls is a riot), their exuberance and savvy songwriting positively demand repeat plays: truly vital stuff.
Still, any old band can throw out catchy tunes, and pop-punk’s built on ‘em. Two things make Tacocat stand out: their obvious intelligence when it comes to human interaction (whether fleeting and furious, drunken and difficult or just plain complicated), and the sheer range of their craft. No two songs sound alike; they play with rhythm as deftly as they’ll steal your heart. Besides, if a solitary listen to Emily Nokes’ cheery dismissal of 9-5ers on I Hate The Weekend – a bona fide contender for best pop song of 2016 – isn’t enough to seal the deal, you’re probably dead inside.
There will be grander albums released this year – more experimental, more textured, more worthy in their attempts to articulate something bigger than the music itself. But dammit, you’ll struggle to find one that’s anywhere near this much fun. [Will Fitzpatrick]
Do you agree with our top ten of 2016 so far? Or have we overlooked one of your favourites? Let us know in the comments.