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Favourite albums of 2016

I’ve always been skeptical about suggesting albums — in my experience, people’s tastes in music differ far more widely than for books or movies.  While you can guess that a friend who likes thrillers will probably enjoy House of Cards, the fact that she likes Kraftwerk doesn’t mean that she will enjoy Daft Punk; or if she does, she might get her kicks out of different albums from you (Homework rather than Discovery, or their soundtrack for Tron: Legacy).

I suspect that individual tastes in music derive in part from perception: nothing proves that what you hear is the same as what I hear. Besides, our understanding of music is intimately rooted in our own bodies. Major chords, for example, derive from the imperfection of our vocal cords: we can’t produce pure notes. When you sing a C (the root note), your soft tissues also resonate in E (major third) and G (perfect fifth). And if what defines a “correct” or a “wrong” chord is linked for us to the human voice, one might wonder if proprioception (in this case, how you hear your own voice) plays a role too.

Besides, people don’t all enjoy music in the same way: some listen to it to dance; some love the harmonics, some prefer the rhythms; one might just want a background noise. I personally listen to music when I write and work, which means that I’m looking for music I can think and feel to — and this may not be what you are looking for. With those caveats, here are my top 10 picks for 2016:

Natalie Prass: without any hesitation, the prettiest album I listened to in 2016 (and for a few years before). With moving grace, contagious energy — and even humor — Natalie Prass tells the story of all the phases of a breakup. The sometimes minimal, sometimes luxurious musical arrangements are also perfectly balanced. I believe it is an instant classic, which I wouldn’t be surprised to hear everywhere (in movies, for instance) in years to come.

Cardan, by Agar Agar: more of an EP rather than a full album, but packed with good things and very promising. The synthesizers are highly reminiscent of the 1980s, but the singer’s voice and lyrics add an ironic (and oniric) twist to them. Cuidado, Peligro, Eclipse (below), in particular, manages to be both danceable, nonsensical, and to evoke old and ambitious 8-bit games, like Total Eclipse or Dark Side, among the first to use 3D.

Orphée, by Jóhann Jóhannson: in a few years, Jóhannson has imposed himself as a rising star among composers of movie scores. You may have heard his music in Denis Villeneuve’s recent Arrival (one of my favorite movies in 2016), for example. He brings a modern sensibility, not afraid of using synthesizers and haunting, crackly sound samples, but also acknowledging the influence of contemporary composers like Györgi Ligeti (and is it a coincidence if Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 certainly contributed to Ligeti’s fame?). Orphée is his latest solo album, released by Deutsche Grammophon, which seems to have taken a keen interest to electronica over the past few years, cue Max Richter’s Sleep for example. Among other influences/resemblances, I detect some of Craig Armstrong’s collaborations with Massive Attack, and possibly some parts of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack — a good sign for the forthcoming Blade Runner: 2049, directed by Villeneuve… on a score composed by Jóhannson.

The Bride, by Bats for Lashes: Natasha Khan’s fourth album tells the story of a bride abandoned by her groom — because he died in a car crash, on his way to church. The bride consequently goes from joyous expectation (I Do) to heartbreaking realization, then through all the stages of grief. It allows Khan to explore many different ambiances, like scare and dread (In God’s House), emptiness and loss of self (Honeymooning Alone, very Lynch-ian), and finally quiet, mesmerising confidence (I Will Love Again).

Soft Machines, by Rocky: effective and hearty groove tunes. The fact that they’re from my hometown may or may not be irrelevant.

 

 

How to Be a Human Being, by Glass Animals: an album about life, focusing on a series of eccentrics, each singular in his or her own way. Appropriately for the subject, the music is inventive, using sounds, effects and rhythms from many different genres, and blending them in a (good) weird and exhilarating way.

Free, by Guillaume Perret: electro-jazz full of fascinating experiments, with echoes of Bach, Amon Tobin, and also (a leitmotiv this year!) of the Blade Runner soundtrack.

 

 

Ici le jour (a tout enseveli), by Feu ! Chatterton: I don’t usually listen to French bands — few things can make me cringe as much as poor rhymes. Not so with Feu ! Chatterton: is this jazz, is this rock, is this poetry? It’s unclear — but it doesn’t matter.  The singer’s voice, raspy, theatrical — almost Sinatra-like –, is hypnotic; the lyrics don’t bother with easy rhymes and go straight for actual messages, observations about life — real poetry.  There are echoes of PJ Harvey’s first albums (To Bring You My Love), Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Higelin — not a bad thing at all…

Love & Hate, by Michael Kiwanuka: an anthems-rich, beautiful album from someone who has been compared to Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, with good reasons.

 

 

Mount Ninji and da Nice Time Kid, by die Antwoord: mind-blowing energy and fun, in a record that takes no prisoners. “I like my coffee dark, like my soul…”

 

 

Also worth mentioning:

  • You Want It Darker, by Leonard Cohen: the singer/poet’s final album, a deliberate farewell, with some very haunting songs.
  • Amorine, by Harleighblu & Starkiller.

  • Currents, by Tame Impala.
  • Mémoires Vives, by Grand Blanc: French 1980s-revival electro, which sound a bit like what would have happened if John Carpenter had turned his movie soundtracks into dance tunes.
  • Goon, by Tobias Jesso Jr.: while Natalie Prass reminds of the songwriters of the 1960s, Tobias Jesso evokes the folk rock of the 1970s — big, wholesome stories of love and friendship with minimal instrumentation.
  • Foreverland, by The Divine Comedy: beautiful orchestrations, with deceivingly innocent and playful lyrics, like on Catherine the Great: “She looked so great on a horse / They couldn’t wait for her to invade…”
  • Recto Verso, by Paradis: minimalist arrangements, for very classy dance tunes.

What about you? Which were your favorite albums in 2016?