By Chris Jarvis
Yes, yes, we all know that 2016 has been an unmitigated cluster-fuck, with rising fascism, worsening humanitarian crises and intensifying conflict. In moments of darkness, many of us turn to the arts world – especially music – for comfort, for release, for explanation. With David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Maurice White, George Martin, Phife Dawg, Erik Petersen, Leonard Cohen, Nick Menza, Greg Lake, Sharon Jones, and too many others all having passed away, many have found music to have also fallen on dark times.
That notwithstanding, 2016 has been a year of some undeniably and uniquely brilliant music too, especially music that espouses messages of a better world, of political analysis, of radical alternatives. Here are the 20 best of those radical releases from the past year.
20. Solange – Seat at the Table
While Beyonce’s Lemonade is without dispute the most important political release of 2016, her sister, Solange’s Seat at the Table is the better album. A polished R&B classic, with a litany of guest appearances from music’s great and good, Seat at the Table reveals a musical maturity not seen on her previous work, with Rise and Don’t Touch My Hair being the primary moments of note.
19. Green Day – Revolution Radio
Far from Green Day’s finest output, Revolution Radio is nonetheless a welcome return after the disappointment of the Uno, Dos, Tre trilogy. Simultaneously as damning an indictment on US society and as musically commendable as American Idiot, lead single Bang Bang is supported by other solid tracks in a strong album through and through.
18. OPS – Sluice Around
With a semi-complimentary review in Kerrang! Magazine in the bag, Sluice Around has put OPS on the map of the UK music scene. As an album, it hangs together a little loosely, but that is more than made up for by the quality of much of its content, with the angsty Over and Over being as ridiculously brilliant as any of yesteryear’s pop-punk classics.
17. Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing
On Saul Williams’ sixth album, MartyrLoserKing, he is as incendiary as ever. One of the greatest wordsmiths of his generation, Williams shows this once more as he reflects on the protest movements of the day.
16. Martha – Blisters in the Pit of My Heart
A drunk man in a denim jacket recently described Martha to me as ‘the next great punk band’ just before band member Naomi took to the stage for a solo acoustic set. That drunk man could be dead right, and Blister in the Pit of My Heart is a stepping stone towards that. Some of the most naturally gifted lyricists, with an unparalleled ear for hooks, Durham’s Martha have been shaping pop punk in the UK since 2012.
15. Lobster – Art Cut Demo
Brummie reggae punks Lobster released another collection of infectious songs this year. Art Cut Demo demonstrates once more their much envied ability to fuse incredibly energetic music with conscious lyricism. We’re all still awaiting that debut album, but this is just enough to keep us going for now.
14. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Love & Hate is the follow up to lacklustre 2012 album Home Again. Almost everything the debut lacked, the follow up fulfilled, with Kiwanuka cementing himself as a pioneer of contemporary soul music and Black Man in a White World and Place I Belong existing as two of the genre’s best anthems.
13. Against Me! – Shape Shift with Me
Against Me! albums have to date fallen into two categories, the groundbreaking and the mediocre. Reinventing Axl Rose and Transgender Dysphoria Blues occupy the former territory and Shape Shift with Me almost makes the cut – but despite being a solid record, and musically more ambitious than previous releases, there’s something of that raw spark missing that means it just falls short.
12. Chris T-T – 9 Green Songs
Perhaps a follow up to 9 Red Songs released in 2009, 9 Green Songs consists of 10 (I don’t know either) vibrant folk songs, including the slightly jovial #WorstGovernmentEver and the brilliant reworking of Phil Ochs’ Love Me I’m a Liberal. Good quality folk music is hard to come by these days, but Chris T-T delivers the goods.
11. ANOHNI – Hopelessness
ANOHNI has had a prodigious musical career thus far. She is the second openly transgender person to have been nominated for an Academy Award and has released five utterly stellar albums to date. None are as important or as good as Hopelessness, which in various forms takes on the drone warfare, failures of Obama’s government, climate change and state surveillance, all set against an eerie electronic backdrop.
10. Prophets of Rage – The Party’s Over
For many, the emergence of Prophets of Rage will be the most exciting moment in music of the decade. A supergroup including history’s most innovative rock guitarist Tom Morello and major hip-hop influencers Chuck D and B-Real, Prophets of Rage have come to life at one of the most important moments of global politics. Embedded within protest movements for decades, they each remain as relevant as ever and the output of their collaboration is as polished and powerful as you’d expect.
9. Taj Weekes & Adowa – Love, Herb and Reggae
St Lucian musician and human rights advocate Taj Weekes is responsible for the best reggae album of 2016. Totalling almost an hour, Love Herb and Reggae drifts seamlessly from rebel rousing to beauty – ever considered, never forced. Let Your Voice, Here I Stand and Rebels to the Street are as a strong as any in the long history of conscious reggae music – as smooth as Bob Marley, as powerful as Peter Tosh.
8. Sleaford Mods – TCR
It’s hard to explain just how revolutionary Sleaford Mods have been on the UK scene, and as a contribution to the lineage of radical music. No other band has been able to encapsulate the bleak nature of working class life in contemporary Britain, with its backdrop of austerity, disaffection and alienation. 2016 EP TCR is as illustrative of that as any of their previous releases, containing all of the anger without any of the filler.
7. Muncie Girls – From Caplan to Belsize
Packed full of powerful storytelling, homages to the suffragettes and Sylvia Plath, and political calls to action From Caplan to Belsize is one of the best punk albums to be released in the UK for years. Ten exquisitely crafted songs overlaid with Lande’s immaculate vocal work, Muncie Girls’ debut is near perfect.
6. Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere
Cashmere, the debut album of actor and rapper Swet Shop Boys is groundbreaking and trendsetting. Without doubt the best British hip-hop release of the year, the album chronicles the realities and struggles of life for Muslims in Britain and America. Addictive beats, astounding mic-work and a heavy dose of fun to boot.
5. Petrol Girls – Talk of Violence
Talk of Violence is a violent explosion of discordant rage. In a genre that has been stale for some time, Petrol Girls’ almost faultless debut has smashed the scene to pieces and breathed fresh air into it once again. Highlights Phallocentric, Treading Water and Restless are contributions to post hardcore as exciting as the early days of Fugazi, Refused or Enter Shikari.
4. The Tuts – Update Your Brain
Insurgent pop-punk three piece The Tuts have had a phenomenal two years, with tours alongside The Selecter, Sonic Boom Six and Kate Nash building a growing and loyal fanbase. Their success culminated this year with the release of debut album Update Your Brain – a rapid burst of feminist energy, catchy choruses and dance-inducing melodies. The future is bright for The Tuts, and the strength of this album, with track after track of excellence is just the beginning.
3. Mischief Brew – Bacchanal ‘N’ Philadelphia
The untimely death of Erik Petersen in July this year shook the punk world. Since the late nineties, he had been an legend on the US punk scene, first through The Orphans and then through folk punks Mischief Brew. His name will be long remembered for being behind iconic songs like For an Old Kentucky Anarchist and Thanks Bastards!
Bacchanal ‘N’ Philadelphia is a melding of two of the earliest Mischief Brew releases, re-issued and remastered. Petersen’s unique talent for storytelling, passion for the craft of songwriting and belief in the power of music to purport political ideals is palpable from start to finish.
2. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
It’s been eighteen years since A Tribe Called Quest last released a studio album. Despite its release being tragically preluded by the death of founding member Phife Dawg, who features throughout, it was more than worth the wait. From opening track The Space Program, through to possibly the greatest song of the year We the People…, the opening of the album’s first disk is a blistering commentary on life for black America – tackling poverty, inequality, gentrification, racism and so many more issues.
Encapsulating the jazz-hop that A Tribe Called Quest became known for in the nineties, while also modernising their sound in other areas, We Got it From Here… may not be as original as People’s Instinctive Travels or as influential as Midnight Marauders, but it is likely their best, and arguably their most important work yet. As the album will likely be their last, and the final stamp on their legacy, Dis Generation passes on the torch to the new leaders of political hip-hop. Big shoes they have to fill.
1.Sonic Boom Six – The F-Bomb
Always innovators, Sonic Boom Six have since ditched much of the punk sound they were incubated in from their repertoire, while always maintaining its ethic. That ability to reinvent themselves is demonstrative in their phenomenally good fifth studio album The F-Bomb. Smashing together genres as ever, each song pulls together a plethora of influences, from reggae to dubstep and from hip-hop to pop, with an overarching political thrust running throughout: lead single No Man No Right is a singalong ska anthem oozing feminism through every pore, Joanna, offers an upbeat trans solidarity and the jewel in the album’s crown, From the Fire to the Frying Pan takes on the far right and the ever present threat of rising fascism.
Few bands can claim to come close to the creativity and ingenuity of Sonic Boom Six and with The F-Bomb, Manchester’s finest export since the Stone Roses have solidified their place as one of the greats.