Nick Bollinger surveys some of the outstanding international sounds of the past twelve months.
Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae has proven to be one of those talents that are bigger than any genre can contain. Hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop … Like Prince or Stevie Wonder, her music spills across all of it, and that’s not to mention her additional and considerable skills as an actor or as an activist. She happened to write ‘Hell You Talambout’, the most simple and powerful protest song of the century so far, the song David Byrne concluded his great shows here with this year. But if you want all Monae’s talents in one bundle, Dirty Computer comes close.
It skitters from ebullient pop to grinding funk to things that might sound like they have jumped out of stage musicals.
Monae has always wrapped her albums in allegorical sci-fi scenarios, and Dirty Computer has all that going on too. Yet once you get into the heart of the album, it becomes apparent that for once Monae is not singing to us as one of her android inventions. She is telling us exactly who she is, how she identifies, and where she finds her pleasure, and that her expectations – to live a ‘crazy classic life’ – are constitutionally American.
Room 25 by Noname
A little more genre-contained yet still pushing against conventions is one of the other albums by an African American woman that stood out for me this year: the second collection from the rapper known simply as Noname.
Known offstage as Fatimah Warner, Noname comes from Chicago and a background in slam poetry.
She had a small cameo a couple of years back on Chance the Rapper’s Colouring Book album. But her own record from this year, Room 25, displays a kaleidoscopic lyrical style that commands its own canvas. She’s a verbal virtuoso but musically this is adventurous stuff too. Noname’s band is led by multi-instrumentalist/producer Phoelix, who matches her verses with arrangements that are alternately jumpy and jazzy yet never fail to find a groove.
Double Negative by Low
Low, the Minnesota band centred on the couple Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, have been plying their brand of slow-mo electric folk-rock for the best part of two decades. While their music has gone through some variations in that time, a fan approaching a new Low album has, up until now, broadly known what to expect. But this year’s album seems to take all the things people love about Low – their languorous melodies, the warm enveloping sounds – and literally blows them apart.
I confess to checking there wasn’t something wrong with my amplifier the first time I listened, but no, it’s meant to sound like this, damned and distressed. But it’s not just the sound but also their songwriting that has been effectively deconstructed. If there are still lovely Neil Young-like melodies lurking in the murk, often it is as though they have been pulled apart and put back together, with some bits deliberately left missing. Even Sparhawk’s lyrics are clipped back, at times to little more than a sputtering of syllables.
The kind of overhaul Low have given themselves is unusual for a band this far into their career. Perhaps they simply figured that at this point they could either just make the same record again that they have been making for the past quarter century, or make something that for better or worse will have a unique place in their catalogue. One thing about this mid-career slide into noise, though, is that they have the skills now to carry it off. Titled Double Negative, the album is constructed very much as a continuous piece and within that piece there is a fragile but satisfying balance. While the sound can be brutal and oppressive it is broken up with passages of ethereal loveliness that act as a sonic balm. It’s challenging, but I like a challenge sometimes.
Con Todo El Mundo by Khurangbin
The other guitar band that made magic for me this year also, funnily enough, centres on a couple: guitarist Mark Speer and bass player Laura Lee. With drummer DJ Johnson completing the trio, they call themselves Khruangbin, which although they hail from Texas points to an interest in South East Asia, which results in dreamy fantasias like these.
Though the music on Con Todo El Mundo is not entirely instrumental, it almost is. Their vocal lines are often lyric-less and hang like reverb-soaked backdrops behind the gently funky rhythms and Speer’s intricately articulated guitar lines.
The Asian influence is audible, yet what I’m reminded of more than anything is some of the music Fleetwood Mac made back in the days of Peter Green. It’s not just that Speer’s touch on the fretboard can sometimes resemble Green’s, but also the landscapes conjured by beautiful melodic pieces like these.