First, but not last, end of year thing from this pen/keyboard.
A summation of a year dominated by people who won't be making music again but not ruled by it because it was also a year driven by people who made music socially and politically relevant again, Also a top 10 that somehow doesn't include Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree. Still not sure how that happened. Can I have a Top 11 please? (I'll be writing about the top 10, or 11, or 20, elsewhere soon.)
BLACK DAYS, BLACK STAR, BLACK LIVES And all about me lay death. Not just any death, not just the usual good and very good people who each year move on to play venues on the other side. Though there were plenty of them, from Glenn Frey of the Eagles and Wayne Duncan of Daddy Cool, to Sharon Jones, Lemmy and Leon Russell, Papa Wemba, Maurice White and Merle Haggard, And more. No, this was a year of genuine giants bowing out and leaving gaping holes behind in the industry and in our lives. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen released some of the best music of their careers, full of intimations of and ruminations on death, and died soon after from long term illnesses. Prince performed intimate concerts which those who saw will never forget and then, in a bitter irony for a man who had always eschewed drugs, succumbed to legal, prescribed but perhaps not wisely taken drugs. Here were careers of 40 to 50 years gone. Music-changing and life changing careers with landmark albums, classic songs, scores of cover versions, forest of pages devoted to critiquing. And the devotion of fans for whom life was measured by those albums, those songs, those shows. It was not sentiment which would put their albums (Bowie’s Black Star; Cohen’s You Want It Darker) and concert (Prince at the Sydney Opera House) in the pick of 2016; it was, as it always has been, quality that made the choice obvious. If death stalked music, a kind of existential madness infiltrated the world and in particular, but certainly not confined to, its cultural, military and financial centre, the United States of America. By the end of the year commentators and activists were calling for resistance, for voices in opposition and conscience, defiance and explanation on behalf of people of colour, of people without homes or nations, of people of sexual orientation wider than the prescribed set by our betters, of people with moral flexibility narrower than those allowed by the imprisoners and torturers, abusers and governors. The cry has been heard, the cry has been amplified, from PJ Harvey’s reportage from the frontline of the migrant/refugee crisis, The Hope Six Demolition Project to Jenny Hval’s personal exorcisms in Blood Bitch to the “they’re all bastards and we’re all done for” not-exactly-sub subtext of Radiohead’s brilliant Moon Shaped Pool. Just lend an ear locally to the angry, combative and fiercely topical album by indigenous duo A. B. Original, Reclaim Australia which takes back the laughable assertion of the racist thugs and then inserts it sideways into an appropriate IPA, ahem, pigeon hole. Or listen to the unvarnished tales of suburban and exurban lives, told as noir truths by the Peep Tempel on Joy. They’re not going quietly. Was it coincidence or timeliness which, like Billy Bragg taking to the road again across the USA, brought Peter Garrett back to recording, this time as a solo artist? The voice was familiar, the dancing even more so, and so were the topics: the environment, injustice, bastardry in power, respect for indigenous Australians – and our inability to master them. Has nothing changed? Perhaps even more tellingly, Midnight Oil with Garrett up front return in the new year. The far younger producer/writer Flume may well (but probably won’t) win a Grammy in 2017 to add to his latest ARIA haul for Skin, the album which secured electronica at the centre of Australian music. But given he won’t be confronting the likes of Hanson, Bernardi and Hadley any time soon, it could be up to Midnight Oil to fan that fire, maybe with a reissue of the 19-year-old album Redneck Wonderland. Too provocative? It’s time. The woman of the year in music was already there of course. No, not Adele, who outsold everyone on the charts and in the stadiums, will make almost as much money as Taylor Swift (who didn’t play a show or release a new song but still topped the list of highest earning musician) and generated a million memes that resurrected interest, briefly, in Lionel Ritchie. Definitely the sales phenomenon of the year with the album 25, especially if you consider she got people buying whole albums, often on CD – yes, it’s still a thing - Adele reached every corner of pop music but has not said a word on any topic of social significance. Neither did Rihanna who made one of the standout pop albums of the year in Anti. The woman, the artist, of the year is Beyonce Knowles who got right up the noses of the alt(ered) right by raising black consciousness and black defiance at the most sacred of American events, the Super Bowl. Soon after that January performance Lemonade, her second successive stunning album of R&B and sexuality, pop and feminism, rock and pride, country and infidelity, arrived in a rush of visuals, speculation and critical fervour. Her sister Solange made an album of similar intent, if softer delivery, with A Seat At The Table, and deep within the tone poem that were the twinned albums released within days of each other by Frank Ocean – Blonde and Endless - lay some parallel thoughts. Exactly what the thoughts were in Kanye West’s on The Life Of Pablo will occupy thesis writers for a few decades (but we can guess a good number of them concern Kanye on Kanye). At least Kanye will occupy those thesis writers who aren’t already involved deciphering the implications and intentions of the stark, utterly beautiful and utterly haunting album from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, which is all about death and loss but never directly about death and loss. Maybe Cave won’t win a Nobel Prize for Literature as Bob Dylan did. Maybe he won’t release an album marking the first concerts in 30 years, as Kate Bush did with the classy and emotionally fulfilling Before The Dawn. Maybe he won't expose the guts and heart of a genre defining album, as Gillian Welch did with Boots No. 1. And maybe he won’t appear on TV talent shows and pretend it’s a cultural act not a financial/career resurrecting one, as one too many local and international performers are want to do (looking at you Boy George, Delta et al). But he will be touring Australia in January, ahead of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Pixies, Bonnie Raitt and Dixie Chicks. And you can bet they’ll have a thing or two to say about 2016, and death and defiance. TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2016 Beyoncé - Lemonade Peep Tempel - Joy David Bowie - Black Star A.B. Original - Reclaim Australia Frank Ocean - Blonde/Endless Kate Bush - Before The Dawn Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker Solange - A Seat At The Table Brandy Clark - Big Day In A Small Town