Top 10 Albums Of 2016

10. Hinds – Leave Me Alone

homepage_large-21b15074In their oversized t-shirts, smudged eye-liner and beers-in-hand, the sleeve art of Leave Me Alone might as well be a photo of your best girl mates outside that sticky uni club on a Wednesday night. But this sort of dirty dilettante vibe is exactly what fuels Hinds’ appeal. They are the sort of girls you could get along really well with, whipping your hair back and forth or going vintage shopping, as well as being a grungy, Madrid-based quartet that also make really cool music. They’re not preened pop princesses. They’re girls you know. And like all the more for it. Their debut album is just as unfocused as the album cover; playful, haphazard, home-video-style, with sleepy, beach-y melodies (homage to Mac DeMarco) and whimsical, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. The raucous, strident percussion and occasional chorus-chanting is often chaotic, with sounds and voices competing to be heard, but the album holds together so well because it’s undeniably theirs. It’s their heart, soul, sweat and saliva that’s gone into the production of it. Call them dishevelled. Call it careless. But whatever insouciant brand of garage these girls are operating under, they’re owning it. And whatever they’re selling, I’m buying.

9. Rihanna – ANTI

rihanna_-_antiR.Kelly once sang that “after the show its the after party, And after the party its the hotel lobby, Around about 4 you gotta clear the lobby, Then head take it to your room and freak somebody”. To me, ANTI is Rihanna soundtracking that hook-up. She’s not written this album for the sell-out stadium shows, or for Grammy nominations, or for the millions of devotees that like to slut-drop to Rude Boy. This is purely for herself, and whoever has the good fortune to be invited back to her and Mary Jane’s lair. In Rihanna’s post-pop, post-language rebirth she’s created something subdued, introspective and soulful. There’s none of the flashy, chart-topping anthems that we’ve come to expect from her, mechanically engineered, year after year since 2005. Instead, rejecting the mould of badass pop star that has been built for her, and which she’s so magnificently inhabited, Rihanna has made an anti-commercial, anti-mainstream, anti-Taylor-Swift’s-cutesy-girl-gang album. And if it’s not the triumphant, catchy, provocative music you’re used to, well that’s exactly the point. That doesn’t mean the songs are bad. Consideration, Kiss It Better and Work simmer and throb with the kind of woozy sensuality that Rihanna is so brilliant at. But if ANTI does anything brilliantly, it’s give space to allow Rihanna’s voice to shine (bright like a diamond). My favourite song of hers by far is “FourFiveSeconds” in which she belted with raw, unabashed feeling, only serving to amplify the level of vulnerability and soul in her voice. Here, she builds on that foundation, revealing a side of her – though don’t be fooled, this is just how she wants you to currently see her – we’ve rarely had the joy to behold. ANTI is a brazen, bold statement of intent, and an ANTIdote to the manufactured pop of Rihanna’s yesteryears.

eliot-sumner-information8. Eliot Sumner – Information

Sting’s prodigal daughter burst onto the music scene as I Blame Coco. But in shedding the cutesy moniker and opting to work under her given name, she returns with a moody, melodramatic and ambitious sophomore album that plays like a coruscating fever dream. Having honed in on and toned down her ‘sound’, Sumner produces an album of astonishing singularity, pulsating with vulnerability and searing synth-hooks that play to the strengths of her distinctive, husky vocals.

58764-the-altar7. Banks – The Altar

Brooding, menacing, searing synths and infectious pop hooks only serve to showcase Bank’s vocal talent, as she dishes up a platter of deliveries, cadences, and range over dissonant strings and thumping bass. But for all its experimental production and deeply-honest lyrics, this is an album to make you feel empowered.

6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

985e010aBon Iver, a.k.a Justin Vernon’s latest musical offering sounds like it was born out of Netflix’s Stranger Things sinister parallel universe, The Upside Down. This isn’t the Bon Iver we know and love – impressionistic, mournful, spiritual, trading in acoustic hums and strums – and it’s taken a bit of getting used. But if you can overcome your purist reservations there’s a lot to love here. Despite the glitchy, dissonant and electronic surface, the architecture of Bon Iver’s music remains visible; pastoral themes explored with a penetrating uncertainty. It clocks in at a mere 35 minutes long, but in spite of its brevity, Iver never loses the meditative quality that permeates his previous albums. Synth-heavy and processed it might be, but in pushing beyond the borders of the genre to which we’ve acclimatised ourselves to in relation to Iver, he creates something revelatory, surprising and adventurous. Which surely is what the best music should be?

5. The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It

cover1400x1400-1Existing on the periphery of cool, you don’t lose all manner of dignity admitting you like The 1975, as you would with, say, One Direction, but certainly a big chunk of it would disappear. They’re like an edgier version of The Vamps or a grittier version of 5 Seconds of Summerexcept that I like their music. And as much as I could’ve earned more regard among peers by putting Kendrick or Chance or Kanye in the number 5 spot, I’ve given it to these weed-smoking, skinny-jean wearing lads because they’re a huge amount of fun. This is music I’d dance to. And lord knows I like to do that. And with their skittish, aspirational sophomore album (see above) they might just have crawled their way into the realms of reverence.

ILIWYSFYASBYSUOT (more effort than typing the actual title) is self-indulgent, sprawling, self-proclaimed ‘art’. It’s obscenely pretentious and it’s not hiding the fact. It riffs of the effervescent sounds of the 80s; all neon-drenched rhythms and resounding hooks, the gleaming glossiness of which is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s 1989, just less neatly packaged and besieged by introspection, digression and experimentation. The ‘hits’ (The Sound, UGH) are interspersed with 6-minute spasms of instrumentals. It tackles BIG SERIOUS TOPICS like fame, faith, loss, love and sex with a trademark bluntness and wit and whilst the profundity the band might be aiming for doesn’t always come of, the playful wackiness certainly does. It’s hard to not to admire the sheer appetite for genre that The 1975 display and how earnest and eager they are to be irreverent. And for that reason they earn this (much coveted) spot.

4. Solange Knowles – A Seat at the Table

ed5cd56aba0fc1ca577a2a67dd5efe9c-1000x1000x1Solange (a.k.a. sister of Beyoncé) comes into her own with this Motown-esque, but thoroughly current album packed to the rafters with dreamy melodies and soulful laments. Not dissimilar from The 1975’s interlude-heavy artistic endeavour, almost every full length song is sandwiched between spoken word vignettes, memoirs depicting the reality of black lives and fragments of intensely personal experiences that often serve as context for the subsequent songs. I wanted to resist comparing it to Lemonade (more of which later), but its difficult when both albums are so determined to push the boundaries of what an ‘album’ is or can be. They subvert and remould and transform expectations. Both are bold statements of intent. Despite the soft, whispery vocals throughout, Solange’s statement is loud and clear. There’s a seething and simmering, but equally gentle and languid undercurrent as she traverses topics from gentrification, heritage, drugs and cultural appropriation. Yet A Seat at the Table never relinquishes its irresistibility in favour of politics, but rather becomes a pitch-perfect integration of the two.  In “Don’t Touch My Hair”, the sparse production, drowsy rhythms and barely-there falsetto gives birth to a song of poignant protest. Indeed the tenderness with which Solange performs the entire album makes it that much more resonant. A Seat at the Table occasionally suffers at the hand of its plaintive textures, but keep listening, keep revisiting and you’ll unearth a lavish feast of intricate harmonies, intimate interlocutions and elegiac lyricism. Pull up a chair.

3. Angel Olsen – My Woman

b536a49eGirl crush alert. Angel Olsen is amazing and this album is spectacular. I’m tempted to publish a litany of adjectives which reiterate as much. But I’ll try my hand at eloquence first.

Not dissimilar from the transformation undergone by Bon Iver in 22, A MillionAngel Olsen has emerged from her folk-rock makings and gone electric, a la Dylan circa 1965. From the brooding intensity of Intern onwards, Olsen doesn’t let up and track after track delivers something fitful, fevered and fierce. It might be heart-break fuelled, but it fizzes and flares with attitude, spunk and the conviction of an artist who is fully realising or harnessing her talent. Olsen has frequently explored the wrenching, conflicting nature of love, but never in such a way that displays all the sullen colours of her voice. Her vocals are at once soul-crushing and electrifying, and despite all the twinkly synths and burnished bass-lines, the staggering thing about the album is the rage Olsen unleashes. The line “hurts to be around you” in Give It Up is a perfect example of where upbeat guitars and riffs almost disguise the anguish this album deals with. It plunges you into the depths of Olsen’s emotions in all their raw, chaotic splendour and never loosens its grip. Which oddly becomes an exhilarating, rather than wearying experience. Amid murmurs, wails and swelling guitar solos, Olsen gifts us an intoxicating, bittersweet record. Fearless.

2.Beyoncé- Lemonade

beyonce-lemonade-album-cover-compressedAn anthemic manifesto. A film. A piece of concept art. A staggering achievement that cements Beyoncé as an artist at the height of her powers and influence. Who knows how the hell to define Lemonade. But lord am I glad life gave Bey some lemons. It’s punchier and more potent that anything she’s hitherto delivered; a visceral and profound insight into the speculated infidelities between her and Jay-Z and her subsequent journey through anger, revenge, jealously, acceptance, forgiveness, redemption and so much more. The whole album is a force to be reckoned with, but particularly tracks 2 – 6 are the best we’ve ever heard from Beyoncé (despite the shade it’s received, I’m a big fan of Daddy Lessons). Her vocal prowess is unprecedented. The sheer range when combined with her distinctive patois, individualistic inflections and overall poise confirm her as artist of singular talent. There is no-one like her. But equally Lemonade isn’t afraid to mix things up and incorporate artists as diverse as Kendrick Lamar, Jack White and James Blake, which never once dilutes this being completely Beyoncé’s album, but rather augments it. She emerges from the swirling flavours and samples a post-genre pop star, as comfortable singing country as hip-hop or soul. As sonically audacious as it is emotionally excavating, Beyoncé is at once the most human we’ve ever seen her and the most divine. An utterly transcendent experience.

1. Christine & The Queens – Chaleur Humaine

christine_and_the_queens_-_chaleur_humaine_600_600Swooping down and nabbing the No. 1 spot? Of course it’s something you can dance to.

Christine & The Queens, the adventurous, androgynous outfit of French songstress Héloïse Letissier, has been performing for a while in her native France. Reminiscent of St. Vincent’s self-titled album in its slick execution and infectious tapestry of beats, but equally inventive, Chaleur Humaine confirms Letissier as an artist deserving of mainstream attention. In exploring the liminal spaces and contours of one’s identity and sexuality, Letissier produces something quick-witted, subversive, joyous, colourful and empowering. Segueing from mesmeric ballads to jaunty pop anthems (try getting Titled or iT out of your head), don’t be fooled by the slinky exterior of these sparkling synth-pop productions, this is a formidable album from an enigmatic personality. Surrender yourself to the Queen.

And Best Supporting Actress goes to…a woman of colour. Hollywood’s diversity problem as reflected by this awards season

As the red carpet is rolled out, and awards season rolls around once more, the question on everyone’s lips is will #OscarsSoWhite become a thing of the past? Has Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ initiative to make the Academy of voters more inclusive worked? Or will they be doomed to repeat the hegemonic mistakes of 2016? 

It doesn’t look that way. Already IndieWire have reported that several films boasting racially diverse casts and crews are battling it out for Oscar inclusion and will inevitably disrupt the status quo. However, before we wax lyrical about Hollywood’s newfound commitment to diversity, there’s another worrying trend that has caught my attention….

As campaigns gain momentum and various nominations are revealed – both the Golden Globes and the SAGs were announced this week – one thing particularly struck me. If you take a look at the four main acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), across the predominant awards announced or decided thus far (Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice, Indie Spirit Awards; the Oscars have yet to be announced), diversity is far less of an issue in the Supporting arena than it is in the Leading one.

The main Best Actor contenders this year are as follows:

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea 
  • Joel Edgerton – Loving
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Tom Hanks – Sully
  • Denzel Washington – Fences
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington is also a bit of a misnomer because he’s transcended the typical risk-aversiveness to black actors by securing a status of bankability.

The main Best Actress contenders this year are as follows:

  • Amy Adams – Arrival
  • Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Emily Blunt – The Girl on the Train (an SAG anomaly, not really a contender, to put it, well, bluntly).
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Represented across these two categories you have 2 people of colour out of 15, so roughly 13%.

The main Best Supporting Actor contenders are: 

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges –  Hell or High Water
  • Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon  – Nocturnal Animals
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
  • Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins

And finally, for Best Supporting Actress we have: 

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Whereas in the supporting category you have 6 out of 15, where the percentage increases to 40%. This trend is particularly prominent in the Best Supporting Actress category, where out of 7 contenders, 4 are black women.

If we were to rewind and take a whistle-stop tour of the Academy Awards from it’s inception, this trend is repeatedly confirmed. That is, that women of colour are far more likely to be nominated, and to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar than they are a Leading Actress one.

And even then, the odds are unfavourably stacked.

Hattie MacDaniel was the first black woman to win Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. It then took 51 years until the next: Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990. Another 16 years passed before Jennifer Hudson took home the gong for Dreamgirls.

To keep things recent, if we look at the period between 2000 and 2016, there’s been a comparative flurry of wins and nominations for women of colour in this category:

  • Lupita N’yongo won in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave
  • Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for The Help
  • Mo’Nique won in 2009 for Precious
  • In 2008, both Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button respectively.
  • Ruby Dee was nominated in 2007 for American Gangster
  • Jennifer Hudson won in 2006 for Dreamgirls
  • Sophie Okonedo was nominated in 2004 for Hotel Rwanda
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated in 2003 for House of Sand and Fog
  • Queen Latifah was nominated in 2002 for Chicago

Whereas in the Leading Actress category Halle Berry remains the first and only woman of colour to have accepted the award, for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2001.

There have been a handful of nominations through the same period:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated in 2012 for Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Viola Davis was nominated for The Help in 2011
  • Gabourey Sidibe nominated for Precious in 2009
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated in 2004 for Maria Full of Grace
  • Salma Hayek was nominated for Frida in 2002.

But the success rate is paltry when compared with Supporting Actress. Indeed, black actresses are 5 times more likely to win Best Supporting, than Best Leading Actress. And if that doesn’t hit home hard enough, a brilliant chart released by TIME last year visualises the scarcity of nominations at the Oscars for actors of colour. It’s a veritable sea of whiteness (or in this case yellow dots, which stand for white actors nominated).

ruthneggaloving

And this year looks to be no different. Despite attention being given to Ruth Negga for her performance in Loving, as well as the ensemble casts of Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, odds are on Natalie Portman or Emma Stone to walk away with the Oscar.

The SAG nominations released on Wednesday saw three women of colour nominated in the supporting role category; Naomie Harris as a crack addicted mother in Moonlight is joined by two other black actresses (Fences‘ Viola Davis and Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer), marking the first time women of colour have been nominated in the majority.

moonlight-naomie-harris davis la-et-mn-hidden-figures-trailer-20160815-snap

 
N.B. Entertainment Weekly incorrectly reported that this also happened at the 15th SAG Awards in 2009 where Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Penelope Cruz were all nominated, alongside Kate Winslet and Amy Adams. However Cruz is Spanish and therefore considered White, not Hispanic.

It’s a highly competitive category, but my money’s on Davis, Harris or Williams to win, once again placing the chances of a woman of colour securing a highly prestigious award with Best Supporting, rather than Leading. Which might seem like the epitome of a #FirstWorldProblem. ‘Oh no, you get to wear a beautiful dress and Hollywood applauds you whilst you pick up a shiny gold man and thank everyone you know in front of the entire world. Poor you’. Right? Except this trend speaks to a wider issue within the industry, and that’s the vitiation or peripheralization of women of colour in film.

So why is that? It can’t be coincidence that ethnic female actresses are more likely to get nominated in the supporting category. And you’d be right. It’s not coincidental. At risk of sounding like the chorus of Greased Lightning, it’s epidemic, systematic, bureaucratic and quite frankly racist. The issue is far more deep-rooted than governing bodies such as HFPA, AMPAAS and SAG-AFTRA are simply more willing to recognise women of colour in supporting than leading roles. It’s that the leading roles don’t exist in the first place for them to be recognised.

Viola Davis has spoken out about the relegation of black actresses to marginalised roles. She believes that there’s “a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles” which young white actresses can look up to. “You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls.”

Indeed, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University report examined the 100 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2015, noting the ethnic and gender makeup of 2,500 characters. Executive director Dr Martha M Lauzen found that women made up just 22% of key players, up from 12 per cent in 2014. The proportion of female characters was the highest since records began in 2002, when the previous best figure of 18% was posted.

The same upwards trend wasn’t discovered for female actors of colour, however. The survey found their representation in top Hollywood films was largely unchanged compared with 2014: 27% of leading female characters and 13% of all female characters were identified as being from ethnic-minority backgrounds in this year’s report.

If the representation isn’t there, then the critical reception and subsequent awards recognition simply can’t be.

As a report for The Economist delineates,

For most of the past 15 years, the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins…. The view behind the scenes is perhaps more revealing. Blacks really are much more under-represented in the director’s chair, where they account for 6% of directors of the top 600 films, according to the Annenberg study. Black women are nearly nonexistent there (two of the 600, Ava DuVernay being one).

If consumers want their films to reflect the society in which they live—as they do their parliaments and executive boards—it is these areas that must see improvement.

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However, the representational issue is largely an economic one.

Studios, ultimately, hold the financial power to greenlight which movies get made and which don’t, and sadly they’re the crux of the issue when it comes to Hollywood’s homogeneity problem. Because believe it or not, most of the Hollywood’s top dogs and studio executives are white men. If you want to click through a depressingly honest slide-show that evidences this fact, be my guest. And in a very insightful breakdown of who has ‘greenlighting power’, The Wrap illuminates the fact that aside from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, the top leaders of the 10 biggest movie studios in the world are white. And two are women. (Though this was published in 2013, so the dynamics might have shifted slightly…but you can guess where the majority still remains).

Martha Lauzen agrees that we’ll “see greater diversity on-screen when we see greater diversity behind the scenes”.  It’s a problem that needs solving from the inside out. But herein lies the obstacle. Studios don’t like when there’s not a precedent for something. They like reliability. They like established fan bases. They love franchises.  And there isn’t a precedent for all-black movies with a plethora of roles for women of colour, because this be America y’all and if the election of Trump taught us anything it’s that the US is profoundly sexist and racist, and so the likelihood of those kinds of movies getting made isn’t just slim, it’s anorexic.

The average production budget of a studio film is between $50M and $100M, on top of which there are marketing costs, which is a hella zeroes. Hence why studios are overwhelmingly reluctant and hesitant when it comes to backing films, especially when they’re new and innovative and don’t possess that all-important template for success. Hence why they prefer to pump their money into Transformers 9 and Mission Impossible 7.

Don Cheadle spoke candidly to Robbie Collin for The Telegraph in promotion of his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, in which he laid bare the realities of film financing and the risk-averse (read: mainstream, read: white) nature of the industry;

Problem one was finding people to fund an unusual jazz biopic with a black lead character. As Cheadle says, “Everyone but everyone wanted to be the second person to say yes.” In the end, he had to chip in an undisclosed sum himself.

“It was a chunk,” he says, wadding up the last word like papier-mâché in his mouth. “Biggest investment of my life, no question”.

Similarly, Viola Davis and Tom Hanks in their ‘Actors on Actors’ interview for Variety confirm that a racially diverse cast, or indeed a predominantly black cast, does not yet equal ‘commercial success’ in Hollywood and as ever, ethics comes second to economics. (Now would be the point I’d trot out my Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery to win the American Civil War, not because he was a moral crusader argument, but that’s another essay).

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“I’m used to playing housewives and maids and crack-heads…if it is a black movie, at best it’s a biopic”, says Davis on Hollywood’s diversity problem. Writers, casting directors and studios are still confined to stereotypes, generalisations and broad-strokes when it comes to characters of ethnic backgrounds. The nuances and realities are simply not there.

Hanks goes on to confirm “a film has to play overseas to make its investment back…it becomes a barrier to [diversity]”.

This filters back to the Oscars, because, you guessed it, those campaigns cost money. Earlier this year, AdWeek reported that according to conservative estimates, anywhere from $3 million to more than $10 million is invested to lobby academy voters on behalf of the Best Picture nominees alone”. Ultimately, this means that films being distributed by bigger studios (Paramount, the Weinstein Co., Universal) are more likely to get their players in the game, because they have the cash to splash. Certainly independent studios and outfits are starting to penetrate that elite circle and films with smaller budgets are increasingly earning wider audiences, as proved at the 2016 Oscars when Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, A24’s Room and Open Road’s Spotlight landed a combined 13 Academy Award nominations. But, look at the casts of those films – not a single one contains a minor role, let alone a leading one for women of colour.

The obstacles to racial equality in cinema are monumental and whilst this means we must celebrate every nomination a female actress from an ethnic background achieves, we must also be careful to vindicate this year as a ‘sea-change’. It might be a turning point, but it’s only a starting point.

Without trying to minimise the achievement that is earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination, we shouldn’t consider this ‘job done’ and think that one year where an awards season is more reflective of diverse talent pool signifies the end point for this conversation. Just because there’s no hashtag, doesn’t mean the debate has died. Women of colour are capable of more than supporting, and enabling their white co-stars. They should be elevated to the title of leading actress wherever possible and given the platform and support that increases their visibility, both during awards season and in general. They have stories of their own to tell, and the film industry needs to do better at sourcing, producing and green-lighting those stories.

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So yes, based on last year, awards season has become a picture of progressiveness. But that wasn’t exactly difficult. The Oscars literally left a blank, stark white canvas beckoning to be coloured. The issue here is that recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category is still a marginalisation of sorts. For women in general, who are more often than not circumscribed by ancillary characters. And for women of colour, who are still usurped by the ruling class, who must watch as their white female peers get nominated once again for Leading Actress, whilst they settle for the next best thing. Sure, Best Supporting Actress is a pretty fancy consolation prize. But bottom bunk is still bottom bunk.