The dominant theme in the innumerable ‘best of 2016’ lists is disappointment, failure and despair. A year categorised by the rise of the Far Right, war, random acts of violence, hate speech, death and the ominous cracking of the polar ice caps. In the parts of the world that weren’t already in social crisis, this was the year in which the chickens of the 07/08 financial meltdown finally came home to roost. In South Africa, the year was characterised by sleaze as the rich and powerful continue to plunder the state, militarized campuses and a general sense of social stagnation.
In such bleak times, music is even more important in expressing anxiety, resistance and hope. Of course, culture is no substitute for political struggle. (Just look at how the Clinton campaign held the delusory idea that a few celebrity endorsements would win against Trump.) But art can help us find our bearings, even if just to say how fucked up things are. So here is my highly subjective list of the releases which best captured the tone of the dystopian present.
DJ Lag– DJ Lag EP. A few months ago, a video was leaked from the US Defence Department which predicts a future of high-tech militaries fighting low tech insurgents in the favelas, shacks and townships of the global South. This futuristic EP from KZN is the sound of the South fighting back, an off-the-shelf laser pointer taking down an imperial drone. Lag is an architect with his beats, using snatches of missing sound to ramp up the intensity. Furthermore, this release highlights how Gqom, and its numerous offshoots, is the most significant music currently coming out of this country.
David Bowie- Blackstar. Bowie did about as much as person can in one lifetime. And rather than facing his trip to death’s undiscovered country with fear or mewling resignation, he brilliantly stage-managed his exit. The black star of the title stood in for the cosmic terror of space, the personal terror of cancer, even the brutality of ISIS. But most importantly, it was a final artistic triumph.
Danny Brown– Atrocity Exhibition. Many critics this year seemed overly enamoured of the saccharine positivity of Chance the Rapper’s gospel sound. Instead of singing with Jesus, Danny Brown was laughing with the Devil. Completing the trilogy which he began with XXX and Old, Brown released his masterpiece. And for a schizophrenic, post punk inspired trip through personal dysfunction it’s also surprisingly fun, with Brown offering all kinds of wayward life advice. My single favourite musical moment of 2016 is when the beat drops on ‘When It Rain’, a tribute to his hometown of Detroit which oscillates between despair and nihilistic pride ‘’ whole damn city probably got a couple warrants.’’
Radiohead- A Moon Shaped Pool. After the pleasant, but underwhelming King of Limbs, Radiohead decided to go back to doing what they do best- grand statements about the terrors of late capitalism. This beautifully orchestrated album is rooted in personal heartbreak but also glances at global warming and populist hatemongering.
FAKA – Bottoms Revenge. This year was full of terrible things done in the name of religion. In stark contrast, FAKA offer an alternative spirituality of metamorphosis and transcendence. The entire EP is orchestrated like a ritual. Occasionally disturbing, sometimes confusing, always revelatory.