Last year, I did a series of favourites of 2015 posts around the Christmas and New Year period.
I’m struggling to do something similar this year. Not that I haven’t enjoyed listening to music in 2016. It has just been such a challenging year. It goes out without saying that we’ve experienced some seismic geopolitical shocks. The world of music in particular has suffered some significant losses. I’ve written about some of them here – Bowie, Prince and Sharon Jones.
Much of the year I’ve been listening to jazz and instrumental music. I’ve enjoyed my Blue Note vinyl and my forays into ECM’s catalogue. The German Kompakt label provides rich electronic pickings. The Numero Group’s reissues continue to be fascinating.
There hasn’t been what feels like much of a relevant response from what one could describe as rock, indie or let’s be honest – music by white musicians. If I analysed my “most played” albums for the year, I doubt there would be much from that broad background. I’ll sit down quietly and see what I can recall, but the fact that I need to force myself to think about it tells its own story. I haven’t bought the Uncut and Mojo end of year issues which will probably prick the memory cells. Certainly British guitar rock seems in populist thrall to the likes of the anaemic Blossoms and cookie cutter indie like Catfish and the Bottlemen. My daughter enjoys them and whilst I can see their appeal to a younger generation, their ilk says nothing to me about my life.
Obviously Bowie’s “Blackstar” stands apart as does Nick Cave’s “Skeleton Tree”, both dealing with death and loss in differing but unique and compelling ways. Bruce Springsteen’s River Tour was a welcome lift in those heady days when Hilary and Bernie were duking it out for the Democratic nomination and Brexit was the strategy that was going to seal the transition from Cameron to Osborne in a bloodless Eton stitch up. Boy, does that seem a world away.
There were some excellent albums from expected sources – Iggy’s “Post Pop Depression”, Wilco’s “Schmilco”, Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool”. All very good.
The music that I have listened too most that isn’t instrumental is music by black musicians. The intersection that exists at present between jazz, soul, r’n’b, hip hop, funk and everything else the field is fascinating.
One album has towered over 2016 in our house and the wider world is “Lemonade”. I think most people who have even the most casual relationship with 21st century music could hum a Beyonce tune. “Crazy In Love” and “Single Women” in particular have become standards in the new century already. Her albums have tended to be over shadowed by the high standards of these big hitting singles and have also fallen victim a lack of editing, a legacy of the CD era.
“Lemonade” is different though. It is concise at just over 45 minutes with 12 songs. Instantly impressive, this is the closest we’ve heard a major pop artist come to the glory days of Prince in the last two decades. The material is diverse from the country pop of “Daddy Lessons” to the cutting edge electronica of “Forward”. It is an immaculately sounding record, to be enjoyed on the best hifi you can lay your hands on. No problems with the loudness wars here, there is a complete dynamic range. It is both immediate and has depth, revealing its layers slowly. It sounds great in the house, in the car or out and about on headphones.
I heard recently an interview with Bowie’s long time producer Tony Visconti commenting on DB’s breathing being audible on “Lazarus” and how affecting that was given his passing. The recording of the vocals on “Lemonade” is a thing to behold. The opening “Pray You Catch Me” is brave and hypnotic, the distortion on “Don’t Hurt Yourself” blurs the lines between her and Jack White’s vocals and the cracking of her voice on “Sandcastles” transforms the song from a lighters aloft stadium ballad into something more affecting. There is some intelligence applied to how this record was put together.
The back story to “Lemonade” brings another dimension into play. For those who avoid the sidebar of shame, Beyonce’s husband Jay-Z had been unfaithful and this record captures her reaction. There has been much written about the sexual and racial politics contained within the record and part of me does have a sense of regret that Beyonce welcomes her husband into the fold rather than telling him to sling his hook for good. But the theatre along the way is something to marvel at. The run of tracks from “Hold Up”, through “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, B and her girls getting together on “Sorry” and into the Isaac Hayes sampling “6 Inch” is the ultimate expression of sheer anger and desire for revenge. I’m not going to try and add to the debate as a white middle aged British man other than to say the black artists in America are supporting their community and that alone is worthy of applause.
The latter part of the album initially seems a little weaker but it ultimately grows and matches the start of the LP. The blazing “Freedom” is a call to arms and the final track “Formation” feels like a direction waiting to be taken. “All Night” is a supremely well crafted piece of soul.
It is clear that Beyonce had a great deal of help putting this together but that doesn’t diminish it in any sense. Her personality shines through. Let’s cast our minds back to the golden years of Motown – did Marvin do everything on “Grapevine”? Were the widescreen Beatles tracks like “Day In A Life” created by the Fab Four alone? Of course they weren’t and nobody belittles the artists involved for it. She has chosen her collaborators well though. North London’s James Blake brings a quite left field quality. The Weeknd captures the pop angle and Kendrick Lamar picks up the cutting edge hip hop baton. Led Zeppelin are sampled and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig get writing credits. The country market picked up on it later with Beyonce joining the Dixie Chicks.
The press and public have embraced “Lemonade” and it is a huge commercial and critical success. However I still detect an element of sniffiness about her when I mention the LP to friends. Maybe because it isn’t available on Spotify or Youtube and needs an investment to listen to is slowing access to it. But I would urge anyone who is even curious to give it a punt. Not only do you get the LP but you get the artful DVD that accompanies it from which the videos above are taken.
You didn’t blanch at purchasing “Sign Of The Times”, “What’s Goin’ On” or “Songs In The Key Of Life”, did you?
Why would you not get a little Beyonce into your life? This seriously is a classic LP.
NB: More on those other LP’s that piqued my interest later.