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Seren’s Top 15 Albums of 2016

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15. Eagulls Ullages

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2016’s post-punk output left an abundance of fruits for my picking. I could’ve went with Preoccupations and Exploded View’s self-titled LPs, perhaps the acclaimed works of Savages’ Adore Life or The Drones’ Feelin Kinda Free. However, when Ullages peaks, it convulses with an overwhelmingly textured downpour of dense, muggy guitar bliss.

Eagulls lift the heavyweight fog from their debut which, whilst aggressive, was instilled with a creeping menace. Ullages trades those vicious instrumentals for a more cynically sweet sonic experience, going a long way in accentuating the vocal performance of frontman, George Mitchell.

Though, make no mistake. That familiar menace is ever-present, made increasingly sinister by a resounding lyrical causticness: “Painting the pain in the frames of our hearts/As tears dripping out of our face become art.”

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14. Parquet Courts – Human Performance

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Back in April, I gave this record a 9 after only a few listens. 8 months on and it’s still evident that Human Performance needs listens. It’s fuzzy multi-layered rock ‘n’ roll which, after several spins, becomes as absorbing as it is askew.

Engrained with a hypnotic, anxious sensation, for me, it’s an emphatic – possibly inadvertent – homage to the likes of The Velvet Underground.

Essentially, of course, this is guitar music. But at its core, I’d argue, are a collective of pop-esque influences. It’s just not instantly discernible. As most of these hooks have been drowned in bristly but riveting guitar work.

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13. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial

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Teens Of Denial sees a euphoric incongruity between angst-ridden anthems and a DIY, grunge-tinted production style. Will Toledo not only spearheads this raw indie-rock revolt, but expresses genuine meaning in the process.

Toledo’s lo-fi sound occupies the extinguished teenage resentment inside us all, reigniting it in a blaze of incensed contempt for our emotionally dormant society. After listening to Teens of Denial, you’ll be disgusted for allowing yourself to grow up.

Above all, it’s a record packed with composed, memorable hooks. Even in tracks like The Ballad of Costa Concordia, where Toledo calls upon longstanding prog-rock subtleties in an 11 minute melodic combustion.

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12. Weyes Blood – Front Row Seat To Earth

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Natalie Mering leaves the door to her soul wide open in a tentative chamber-pop record decorated in a flourish of grand brass and antique folk intricacy.

At points, Front Row Seat To Earth, plunges into ambiguity through complex and, often obscured instrumentation, only to coil back in a gust of flowing ballad-like chorale. The latter stages of Do You Need My Love epitomise this. Chaotic phrases of tangled strings and haphazard piano build towards harmonies that border on angelic.

Undoubtedly, what drives this album is an accomplished vocal performance. Mering balances dominance with faintness whilst swinging neatly from note to note in effortless fashion.

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11. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

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You know the man is thoroughly deserving of the title King Kendrick when a collation of B-sides are pure A list. Lamar’s lavish jazz-rap charm continues in a compilation of demos unfeatured on his seismic hip-hop altering 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly.

untitled unmastered. features a similar exertion of Lamar’s political perspective and a despairing observation of imbalance within our iniquitous, conflicted planet. Right from the opening track, Kendrick makes his position apparent: “No more running from world wars/No more discriminating the poor.”

I’ll concede, it doesn’t have the eloquent, fascinating narrative of its predecessor. But, after all, this is a Kendrick Lamar album. On lyricism, songwriting and general artistry, Lamar blitzes all other millennial rappers who – since To Pimp A Butterfly – have noticeably been forced to up their game.

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10. Mitski – Puberty 2

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Through abrupt indie-rock riffs bursts the tortured, visceral voice of Mitski. Who confronts the sensitivity of her emotions in a fleeting 30-minute sweep of warped vocals steeped in vulnerability.

Puberty 2, whilst openly confessional, is interestingly transparent. Mitski divulges in lyrical themes deep-rooted in personal experience. Many artists dread to reveal the connotations beneath their music, let alone be as sincere as Mitski: “One morning this sadness will fossilize/And I will forget how to cry.”

Puberty 2 is a tense balance between restful acoustic melodies and distorted guitars. The eventual amalgamation of these two approaches on Your Best American Girl is the most stirring point on the album. As soft synths pacify you into a state of ease, a wave of gritty instrumentation seizes what was previously unblemished harmony.

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9. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

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Sun out. Windows down. Wind in your hair. Light Upon The Lake is a loveable summery indie-folk album suitable to accompany any road trip in the late July twilight.

Fundamentally, Light Upon The Lake is a pop record. Whitney are concise in their craftsmanship, encrusting simple but impactful choruses with classy flaunts of horns and colourful guitar parts.

No Matter Where We Go is a track parading the full breadth of Light Upon The Lake’s majesty. Rushes of trumpet, swaggering riffs and infectious hooks all mingle together. It’s an immediate jangly singalong indicative of the entire record’s overall effect: catchiness.

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8. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service

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After an 18 year wait, the illustrious A Tribe Called Quest titivate their emblematic formula for hip-hop with fresh, luxurious instrumentation.

Too many moments encapsulate the pure poetry of this album. From a cosmic 4 rapper bar trade-off on Dis Generation to quirky Elton John samples on Solid Wall Of Sound.

The personal highlight has to be Consequences silky verse near the end of Whateva Will Be: “I just wanna feel as liberated as lions in Liberia/’Cause recently my heart turned cold as Siberia/’Cause everywhere I go, bein’ cold is the criteria.”

And whilst we’re here, R.I.P Phife Dawg. We got it from Here… showcases the veteran rapper’s slick flow for one last time, cementing his place in hip-hop legend indefinitely.

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 7. Holy Esque – At Hope’s Ravine

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Admittedly, this is a wildcard entry for the top 15. To my bewilderment, it’s a record that’s extraordinarily escaped a few critics. In fact, had At Hope’s Ravine been released last year, it’d probably be in my top 5.

Post-punk doesn’t validate the satiated, ethereal sound of Holy Esque. Nor does indie-rock account for the shrewd ripples of harrowing synth and eerie religious references. At Hope’s Ravine is problematic to place into a strict parameter. Then again, doing so wouldn’t do it justice either.

Hefty, devastating instrumentals skirmish with Pat Hynes’ distinctive screeching voice, which, is the likely deal breaker with At Hope’s Ravine. Hynes’ demonic cries are unescapable, they echo through the church of hopelessness.

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 6. D.D Dumbo – Utopia Defeated

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Oddball instrumentation gallivanting into art-pop melodies make Utopia Defeated an inevitably testing listen that, with diligence, becomes ultimately rewarding.

There’s an abundance of interesting songwriting themes to explore here but, for me, the most fascinating thing about this album is its constant reinvention of itself. Each track projects new soundscapes and, in turn, evokes new emotions.

Satan is a euphoric highlight. Glancing keys and slewing guitar work ride the rhythmic wave of the snare to perfection. Structurally, it’s undeniably tinged with an essence of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, diverting sonically in the form of what is seemingly an eccentric symmetry between pan pipes and Asian chimes.

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5. David Bowie – Blackstar

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Do I even need to justify this one?

Blackstar bears a paranormal aura. Each track bleeds the parting essence of Bowie with a sombre awareness of mortality. It’s a peaceful farewell composed from heaven. A last enchanted whisper from a spectral force; a creative spirit.

Instrumentally, everything is thrown into the mixer. The title track Blackstar features a particularly unconventional alliance between zany saxophone improvisations and rousing drum-and-bass inspired percussion. Quite honestly, it shouldn’t have worked. Not ever. Bowie’s genius is simply boundless.

Perhaps it’s also a subconscious remark on the banality of our music industry. As dosh-driven dispensable singers are backed by men in suits, Blackstar’s jazzy art-rock fusion goes platinum in 7 countries.  I can almost hear Bowie gibe from above: “Who’s your pop star now?”

Well, it’s not even Bowie, as he affirms: “I’m not a popstar/I’m a blackstar.” In what is the most interesting lyrical motif of the album. He’s accepting of his notoriety, but not on your terms. He’s a star, but a star of nothing. A sort of anti-hero.

Bowie the person is gone. That’s clear. But Blackstar is an embodiment of Bowie the artist; an imaginative soul – forever powerful, forever immortal.

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4. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

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22, A Million represents the dramatic reinvention of Bon Iver’s sound. Justin Vernon’s characteristic acoustic allure has been diced, rearranged and smeared into an erratic mixture of glitchy drums and anxiety plagued harmonies.

It’s quite the jump from adored 2008 single, Skinny Love, which encapsulated the globe in its indie-folk tenderness. However, don’t dismiss the elusive emotional qualities of 22, A Million. That familiar passion is still there, it’s inherent in Vernon’s songwriting. To uncover it, a jarring wilderness of electronic and organic musical elements stands in your way.

Even then, 22, A Million is sometimes lyrically perplexing. Take no single word for granted, Vernon intends every little nuance. Majority of what’s expressed is aroused by theology, with constant mention of locusts, stables and praying. Also, you have track names like 666 ʇ or “33” GOD – 33 referring to the widely considered age of Jesus Christ’s death.

Though, there’s still some poetic tokens of knowledge littered throughout, like in 00000 Million: “What a river don’t know is: to climb out and heed a line/To slow among roses, or stay behind.” A river is forced into its path, leaving behind the beauty of the roses that Vernon describes. Moral of the story: don’t be a river.

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3. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

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For me, the most anticipated album of the year. Maybe that’s why it’s not quite worthy of the top spot. Those unexpected surprises are usually the best. Still, A Moon Shaped Pool didn’t underwhelm in what felt like an instinctive progression of Radiohead’s expansive, influential discography.

A Moon Shaped Pool is the natural culmination of a sound the band have been probing for the last 5 albums. The coldness of Kid A, the flirts of electronica in Amnesiac and The King of Limbs, the saintly reverb-awash vocals of Hail To The Thief, the direct zeal of In Rainbows – it’s all there.

As a Radiohead fan, I’m a tad worried. A Moon Shaped Pool appears the perfect album to bow out on. For the first time, the band have dropped this antagonised, siege mentality. Injustice is everywhere, it’s true. But Radiohead have ceased protesting. A Moon Shaped Pool is a more lamenting, intimate declaration with Yorke at the forefront – who, far from self-isolated, is as relatable as ever.

Identikit is right up there in the best songs Radiohead have written. An instantly clinching track with a galloping drum line and Yorke’s ghostly vocal mounting towards an atmospheric meeting of moody synths and scratchy guitar solos.

As usual, Radiohead remain an absolutely necessary artist in contemporary music.

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 2. Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

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MY WOMAN is sonically impressive. That’s unquestionable. Nonetheless, it’s an album which does something of further importance: positions Olsen as a vital female voice in music.

Naturally, Olsen is boisterous in stating the robustness of femininity – Shut Up Kiss Me’s punchy, shouted chorus epitomises this. But, integrally, it’s MY WOMAN’s wholly candid display of emotion that is profoundly empowering. Olsen’s not Madonna or Beyoncé – uncompromising. She can be tentative and still be comfortable in her own skin; a stark honesty which is so formidably bold but, also, thoroughly endearing.

On the actual voice itself. Super versatile. Packed with compassion. Olsen can shift from a brittle, sentimental purr to a fervent roar with ease. For example, Not Gonna Kill You just pops midway through the track. Don’t trust any softness for a second.

‘Indie-rock’ sells this record short. It’s far more courageous than an arbitrary tag. Olsen experiments with synths on Intern, a piano ballad blueprint on Pops, graceful, waiflike strings on Woman, even some oozing prog undertones on Sister. Swathing MY WOMAN, though, a scatty 60s rock ‘n’ roll jive which complements those nipping drums seamlessly.

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1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

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Take an introspective journey into the mechanics of love, loss and indescribable anguish. Frankly, Skeleton Tree is a crushing listen. Tackling bleak realities humankind would rather not engage with, but will inevitably face.

Nick Cave exemplifies the art of tragedy. Since losing his son following a cliff fall in 2015, it’s clear Skeleton Tree was required for Cave to thaw from his sorrowful state of paralysis. He needed to clamber from the rubble of grief, stare into the ugly face of death and depart with a glimmer of hope.

Skeleton Tree is the musical equivalent of floating through the void. Droning, atmospheric, dejected. Brutally simplistic arrangements which mirror the hollow heart of Cave. Words don’t really describe it. Lights off. Headphones on. Let it swell your headspace with mourning.

What’s so strikingly beautiful about Skeleton Tree is the lucid emotional arc which courses right through the album. On Anthrocene, Cave is dogged by the depths of despair: “It’s a long way back and I’m begging you please/To come home now, come home now.”

Distant Sky is Cave’s acknowledgement of loss: “Set out for the distant skies/Soon the children will be rising, will be rising.” Consolingly detailing the concept of his son ascending towards heaven.

Finally, closing track – and title track – Skeleton Tree broodingly repeats the phrase: “Sunday morning, skeleton tree/Oh, nothing is for free.” Cave recognises that with love comes the potential for pain. Everything has a cost. A cathartic, bittersweet conclusion to an astounding record.

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Finnian Shardlow

Music Editor 2015-17

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