Arts

2016 was a tough year – but the music lives on

With a year overshadowed by the loss of several titans, 2016 was a difficult 12 months for the music world. But despite the sadness, there was still plenty to be cheerful about, reflects Andy Welch

30 December, 2016 01:00

AT THE tail of 1992 the Queen delivered a speech reflecting on the previous 12 months, declaring that she wouldn't be looking back on that "annus horribilis". One could say the same of 2016. In fact, as terrible as it must have been for Her Majesty to see Fergie on the front pages having her feet kissed by John Bryan, and learning of Charles's affair with Camilla via a leaked phone conversation, even Liz would surely agree they couldn't hold a candle to the sheer misery inflicted by the past year.

In January the musical year looked as if it was going to get off to a flyer when David Bowie released Blackstar. Despite being the elusive artist's 25th album, it found him as ambitious, adventurous and untouchable as ever. Just two days later came the tragic news he'd died. Damn it, he was human after all, not the mysterious, genderless sex alien we'd all wanted to believe he was.

Since then, it feels as if there hasn't been a week pass by without the death of another big-name musician. Glenn Frey of The Eagles, Jimmy Bain of Rainbow and Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson of Jefferson Airplane all died within three weeks of Bowie.

Before spring kicked in, we'd also lost Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, Prince protege Vanity, Beatles producer George Martin, Keith Emerson and A Tribe Called Quest's Phife Dawg.

April was once again the cruellest month, with country outlaw Merle Haggard, Calypso king Lord Tanamo, Steeleye Span's Pete Zorn, Congolese star Papa Wemba, Billy Paul and, most notably, Prince slipping from this mortal coil. Prince's death, as with Bowie's, dominated the news for days and leaves a huge hole in the lives of fans. Even all these months on, their deaths still don't seem quite real.

Not to dwell on the topic too much more – but since April, Fairport Convention's Dave Swarbrick, Bernie Worrell of Parliament, Elvis band member Scotty Moore, Alan Vega of Suicide, reggae pioneer Prince Buster, songwriter supreme Rod Temperton, Leon Russell, soul star Sharon Jones, Greg Lake, jazz great Mose Allison and Leonard Cohen, among others, have also passed away.

Unfortunately, we better get used to these big celebrity deaths. That's not a threat. We're just now at a stage where there are thousands and thousands of famous people reaching the kind of age where dying is, well, around the corner.

Things look a bit cheerier when you move past all the doom and gloom and focus on the brilliant music released in 2016 – although it can be harder to find than usual. When newspapers, websites and magazines are full of bad news, or obituary features summarising the lives of recently passed icons, it does leave an awful lot of new music undiscovered.

But, despite what your uncle might say about music being better in his day, 2016 really was a fantastic year for new music. For persuasion on that point, look to any end-of-year albums lists compiled by the big music publications. Few feature the same titles, and all have very different-looking top 10s.

Beyonce's Lemonade was released in April, accompanied by a 60-minute film of the same name and sees the artist move further in her own field. While 2013's self-titled Beyonce saw her redefine what R&B could be in the 21st century, Lemonade is her boldest work to date, incorporating race, politics and female empowerment in ways most artists of her stature just don't.

In August, Frank Ocean released his brilliant, long-awaited second album Blonde. It came after a couple of years of teasing work on his Channel Orange follow-up, and even a cryptic live feed of him doing some woodwork. Eventually, it was released and showed Ocean had built on the promise of his excellent debut to turn out one of the year's most flawless, contrary and wildly inventive albums.

For another slice of fresh innovation, look no further than Christine And The Queens' Chaleur Humaine. Originally released in her native French, it was reworked for release here and in the US. Despite the language shift, it's still a glorious collection of sultry synthpop from one of the most fascinating new talents to emerge in recent years, Heloise Letissier.

British band Skepta's fourth album Konnichiwa won the Mercury Prize in September, and wholly deserved it was too. For a prize often criticised for awarding the wrong, or safest album, it was a brave choice, but the correct one. You'd do well to find a more contemporary-sounding record released by a British artist this year.

If timeless is what you're after, Radiohead had something for you in 2016. A Moon Shaped Pool was released, as is their way, with no build-up, in May. After eight albums of almost non-stop movement and progression, it's sometimes hard to imagine where Radiohead might go next.

Some sections of their fan base want another OK Computer, others are happy with the band's slide into electronica, but as ever, Thom Yorke and co were a step ahead, delivering an album up there with their best, packed with intense atmospherics, but also tender acoustic tracks that tip a hat to Nick Drake and John Martyn. Few saw that coming, but it's a brilliant, brilliant album.

If you're looking for music from 2016 that you might have missed, try Badbadnotgood's IV, The End Of Comedy by Drugdealer, Do Hollywood by The Lemon Twigs, Good Times! by The Monkees, New View by Eleanor Friedberger, Solange's A Seat At The Table and Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate.

While some won't be with us as we enter 2017, their music will stay with us forever. For everyone else, there's still plenty to be excited about as we head into another year.

Here's hoping it's a little less turbulent than the past 12 months. Onwards and upwards.

30 December, 2016 01:00 Arts