2016 x WTF

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IT’S been a shit year for everyone. Get over it.

Yes, it’s been a fantastic time for the idiots, charlatans and nutters of the world but they only have money, guns and bombs on their side. We have love, soul and passion. Where they have hatred and intolerance, we have compassion and generosity.

They don’t stand a chance.

Some truly awful things happened around the world this year. The supposedly black and white certainties of the past evaporated a long time ago but the confusing miasma of disinformation and bullshit and lies became so much denser and more impenetrable in 2016. We don’t live in a post-truth world. There was never any truth in the first place.

It turns out there are no good guys or bad guys, no good or evil, no right or wrong. None of those things ever existed. We’re all just people. Some people do ‘good’ things, while some do ‘shitty’ things, and others simply do nothing.

Music provided some respite from the insanity but finding five albums that were released in 2016 and worth talking about isn’t as easy as you might expect considering we live in times when banal, tinkling muzak, with no bottom end to speak of, emanates from every platform and device imaginable.

We’re awash with music, drowning in it, choking on it. Most of it is utter fucking shite, of course. You don’t even have to listen to it to know this. Simply close your ears, condemn the lot as dreary, derivative, philistine nonsense and make exceptions for worthwhile stuff as and when it forces its way into your consciousness. It’s okay. Everyone has the capacity for change. And nobody gives a shit what you think anyway.

I discount loads of contemporary stuff out of hand. Who really wants to listen to some listless student wankers going on about equations, or tediously-acquisitive shitheads attempting – and failing – to stretch their miserable and mediocre talents out over the best part of an hour? Life’s too short. I’m not a teenager. Neither are you. Grow up.

Graingerboy’s Enemy Forward album is probably the most grown up thing I’ve listened to all year. But I still like it.

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Grainger put Enemy Forward together as he recovered from serious illness. As you might expect, Enemy Forward has its melancholy moments, but it’s much more about the contemplative reflections of a man gradually getting his life back than any kind of morose musical pity party, and while the whole thing seems almost fragile at times, there’s a quietly celebratory feel throughout, a feeling that we should enjoy love and life and music while we still can.

This former member of Balearic stormtroopers of love A Man Called Adam has a deep and abiding love for Kylie, the Pet Shop Boys and New Order – he probably had a Smash Hits subscription when he was a kid – and this lineage shows in this album of delicate post-rave lovebombs, insistent slo-mo house and warm and optimistic electronic lullabies. This kind of stuff used to be called synth pop in the days of yore.

There is toytown techno, there are bouncing, vulcanised basslines, there is a hint of Ultravox and Neil Tenant in those ever-so-English vocals and gliding synth sounds. There’s even one that starts off like Pete Doherty fronting OMD – I shit you not – before there’s a euphoric uplift, courtesy of an enormous sun-kissed Ibiza piano riff, halfway through.

Grainger is no slouch as a lyricist. Phrases leap out at you: “Give me mine, cos I’ve had three” – is he subverting the rave cliché of conspicuous overconsumption or is he talking about actual prescribed medication? And while “Can I photograph your touch?” is a lovely sentiment, it seems to imply departure and separation.

Saturnine is a genuine pop hit waiting to happen. Shadow Former Self comes on like the superlative yacht-rock ballad, seemingly purpose written for the X Factor’s live final, with a clearly vulnerable Grainger questioning his ability to carry on dealing with all this shit. Maybe, with all its talk of crumbling, falling and breaking down, Shadow Former Self could be our post-Brexit Eurovision swangsong? Nil point would not be an option.

Perhaps the album’s finest moments come during the exuberant electro of Lushlife: “So much music in my head that you can’t get me back into bed …” sings Grainger, summing up the admirable way in which he has taken a negative and made it into a positive throughout the album. We could do worse than follow his example.

Buy Enemy Forward here.

Meanwhile, Róisín Murphy remained much more interesting than practically anyone else in the musical firmament in 2016.

She released her Take Her Up to Monto album in July. It’s less a companion piece to her previous album Hairless Toys than a collection of offcuts from the sessions for that album, ie stuff that didn’t fit in with her agenda at that time.

Adapting the title of an old Dubliners song referring to Dublin’s redlight district, Take Her Up to Monto is an enjoyably bonkers jaunt into Murphypotamia, a land where you simply do not give a flying fuck what other people think. Murphy seems to subscribe to the idea that you can be absolutely serious about what you do without taking yourself too seriously. She is absolutely unafraid of looking a bit daft. She can carry it off. You just need a bit of front. She excels at this.

Murphy was always worth listening to, even when she was doing her helium gremlin Exorcist girl vocal gymnastics thing in the early days of Moloko, but somehow, the girl with the freaky voice who turned out to be the girl with the wonderful voice has, somewhere along the line, sprouted another metaphorical head to become the girl with the spectacular voice who is also becoming a very accomplished lyricist. And filmmaker. And acrobat. And brain surgeon.

And our favourite musical-fashion hydra’s wild, all-over-the-place, out Sinatra-ing Sinatra phrasing is absolutely on point here. Or off point. You know what I mean.

The upshot is, not only can she really sing the shit out of this stuff, she can write it too.

Lip Service begins with a pre-set bossa nova beat from an old Bontempi organ and it is all the more wonderful, joyous and life affirming for it. It features a languid and heart-stoppingly beautiful vocal from la Murphy, and some great acoustic guitar from longtime collaborator Eddie Stephens.

She should do an entire album of this stuff. It would be fantastic. She could call it Róisín Goes to Rio. Or Murphy Goes Bananas. But nobody does bossa nova albums these days. Just ask Emma Bunton.

Ten Miles High is fast shaping up to be one of my favourite Róisín songs ever. “Let’s ride ten miles up just inside the stratosphere,” she sings. “More sky, more blue jets stream by, you’re going to love it here…”

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A truly great sleeve, where even the font of the lettering is just fantastic, is credited (“effing about with images & texts”) to the artiste herself and Ian Anderson of the Designers Republic. There’s a hyperreal, vivid but grainy texture to the imagery, like stills from a much recorded VHS, portraying Murphy mooching around building sites in the City, having swapped elegant Viktor & Rolf, Givenchy and Gareth Pugh designs for utilitarian hi-vis, donkey jacket and hardhat.

Of course, she rocks this new look. To the sky. And with a name like Murphy, what else is she going to do when times are hard but get on site with the lads?

Thrillingly, very much like the Human League’s Dignity of Labour 12 inch (featuring a flexi disc of the band talking about recording a flexi disc), except different, the sleeve has cut-up snatches of lyrics spliced with excerpts from emails about the process of assembling the album, whether certain tracks really need a remix for the radio plugger, how everything fits into her tightly structured live performances etc. Bill Burroughs would approve.

Buy the album here.

I don’t know much about Thatmanmonkz, apart from the fact that he lives near Sheffield, he’s really called Scott Moncrieff and he’s been doing house music for ages (although he apparently made his name doing straight-up soul). And he seems like a lovely bloke on Twitter. I first came across his singles on Delusions of Grandeur and his own Shadeleaf label in the racks at Piccadilly Records a couple of years ago. I liked them a lot.

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Collecting together a couple of singles and new material, Columbusing (the art of ‘discovering’ something that’s been around for ages) has a very soulful and playful, unhurried vibe throughout. It has plenty of stripped-back, pared-down, deep-as-heck house music – where the gaps between the elements are as important as the elements themselves – but it has melodies too.

In fact, at times, the album’s soft and comforting tones bring to mind the godlike genius of the mighty Mike Post. I can think of no higher praise.

Moncrieff has a habit of working with some decent singers and musicians too – most tracks seem to be collaborations with someone or other – and he has a real knack for combining the lot with great samples.

Opening up with the smouldering b-line soul of Air, featuring a big vocal from Khalil Anthony, the album showcases a diverse but very listenable collection of jazzy, deep house, smooth string-laden soul and disco interludes, and some genuinely charming beats-driven jams.

There’s a distinct emphasis on the male voice – apart from samples of someone who sounds very much like Loleatta Holloway on the dancefloor-orientated thump of Jus Anutha Wunna Deez – with some particularly fine performances from Erik Rico on Boogie Down and Dave Aju on Turn it Out.

The latter has a proper chorus and everything (“Watch us now, Gonna turn it out, Gonna shake our love, baby, upside down, until the change fall out ..”) and is a strong contender for my tune of the year. Jockeys of discs take note: 100% dancefloor devastation, guaranteed.

Equally great is the stately, soulful I Can Hardly Breathe, which seems to feature an uncredited but simply wonderful vocal by Sunburst Band singer and regular Thatmanmonkz collaborator Pete Simpson. Whoever it is, this is a thing of beauty.

Other highlights include an easy-going and genuinely charming little tune with Detroit hip hopper Tar’aach (A Fly New Tune), which prompted the missus to ask if it was the Fresh Prince. By contrast, For Bae is a sweet little paean to someone who has supported Moncrieff through thick and thin, which majors on a big piano-led Jersey sound, with another fantastic, uncredited and presumably sampled vocal.

There is even a killer dancehall number in the shape of the cautionary Vampires (but again, there is no indication of the singer’s identity).

Columbusing is a very listenable album that reveals more of its charms over time. My one reservation is that, for an album that relies so much on vocals, some of the lyrics can be a bit hit and miss – if there was a bad sex award for house music, Take U 2 My House would be a clear winner – but that aside, Columbusing consistently hits the spot. It’s just packed with great tunes for late nights and darkened rooms. What more can you ask?

Buy it here.

More housin’ high jinks this year came from Alexander (Lay-Far) Layfar’s second album, How I Communicate, which the Swedish jazzy house mafia at Local Talk split down the middle and released as two 12-inches, both of which are aimed very much at the dancefloor. Once again, it is heavy on collaborations, and Layfar says it’s not an album for purists. Their loss. The vinyl was glued to my turntables for the first half of the year.

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There are many, many highlights. The entire album is, in fact, one big highlight. It opens with my one of my favourite vocal tracks of 2016, Like The First Time, featuring the enchanting voice of Magic Number, some twinkly keys by the maestro from Moscow and an unstoppable bassline from Ross Hillard. Some bloke off the internet tells me it contains a sample from Bobbi Humphrey’s Baby’s Gone. Either way, it’s swoonsome.

The genuinely exhilarating Draw Your Bow Back is an all-star affair, featuring NZ keyboarderist Mark de Clive-Lowe, Phil Asher and singer Shea Soul. Its hypnotic, funky-as-fuck groove is predictably fantastic, and, like the rest of the album, it has a real vintage house sound that seems authentic and classic but absolutely contemporary at the same time.

Elsewhere, Layfar redefines the broken beats sound with help from Bristol producer Sean McCabe on Mystical Rhythms, reinvigorates early 80s jazz funk with Ashley Beedle and Darren Morris on Slope, and detonates what initially sounds like an authentic late 70s soul bomb with the help of featured singer Ann Weller on Drop the Time, before it morphs into something else entirely. It’s captivating stuff that draws as much on the past as it does the future.

Submerging is a pensive bumping, throbbing, string-laden slow burner, undercut with an icy acid pulse that brings to mind the landscapes of both Michigan and Siberia. Jump Higher, another one with Mark de Clive-Lowe, has a real swing to it, with the Kiwi keys wiz banging out the big chords and generally kicking out the jams.

As one particularly astute YouTube commenter put it: “That little breakdown with the keys at 3:08 made me melt like a little chocolate egg.”

How I Communicate has an agreeably light and playful air throughout, with big melodies, inescapable rhythms and memorable vocals a plenty. It has an intricate, crafted sound that perhaps comes from Layfar’s seemingly effortless ability to make sizeable tunes from slight, little sounds, with a lots of disparate elements drawn together to form one gorgeous and very likeable whole.

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The only other album that has had any kind of impact on me this year isn’t new. Aja by Steely Dan was released in 1977, punk rock year zero. I always confused Steely Dan with hairy folk freaks Steeleye Span, but eventually released there was a difference.

Either way, just like the Stones, Genesis, Fleetwood Mac and all the rest of the old, irrelevant dinosaur rockers, they were the enemy. They were certainly the opposite of punk rock.

Thanks to my wonderful, beautiful and very wise missus, I eventually saw the error of my ways, and bought Aja from King Bee halfway through the year. I’m not ashamed to say I lack the vocabulary to tell you how fantastic it is. This might give you some pointers.

Either way, it turns out we were all 100% wrong about Steely Dan.

What if we were wrong about Pink Floyd too?

[The image at the top is Oh America by Gee Vaucher]

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