Love Has Sharpened Our Claws: our top 10 singles of 2016

Prince Street Bridge, Bristol, December 2016

Welcome back to in love with these times, in spite of these times, the fanzine of the metropolitan liberal elite, apparently, and a citizen of nowhere to boot.

Yes, it’s been quite a year, one in which even the brutal murder of a pro-Remain, pro-refugee rights MP by a man basically shouting pro-Leave slogans, hours after the Leave camp unveiled an heart-sinkingly shameless anti-refugee poster, could not dent the UK’s collective enthusiasm to vote for them. That crime felt, deplorably, like the defining moment of the whole campaign, a campaign which would have been depressing enough, to be clear, whatever the outcome of the vote.

And a campaign effortlessly symbolised by the despicable Nigel Farage, a man who stoked things up, stirred things up and then just walked away as the hate crimes rose, as if butter wouldn’t melt. That... that piece of work must never think, any more than Gove, Johnson or their Labour lackey Gisela Stuart, that his role in this will be forgotten or forgiven. That’s even before we get to the people now overseeing this farrago, like disgraced ex-minister “Dr” Fox, a man so unpopular that fewer than 1 in 20 of his own parliamentary party could stomach voting for him in the Tory leadership election.

As we feared, essentially the referendum amounted to a coup, and we have a government not far short of a UKIP one. And the leaflets we all got through our doors that told us the NHS would be transformed, or that Turkey would join the EU, were admitted to be worthless pretty much instantly by those that authored them. (We love the way it’s now apparently “unsporting” even to mention the ‘£350m a week extra for the NHS’, or any of the other fabrications). We also had the wholly unedifying spectacle, in a campaign in which immigration became a key issue, of both Remain and Leave basically conceding that immigration was a negative thing, with nobody prepared to (competently) challenge that assumption.

Argh. We lamented the infelicities of language in our dispatches from the frontline during the last “twee wars” (many fell; knees were grazed). And now - post-referendum - we are officially through the bloody looking-glass, scrabbling around in a world decimated of common sense in which descriptors like 'competent' and 'coherent' are translated via alt-right Newspeak into cyphers of the ‘elite’, making incompetence and incoherence positive strategic assets: if your opponents dare to point out their existence, this is merely evidence of the establishment conspiracy that burns against you. Those leaders whose heads are uncluttered by the luxuries of critical thinking offer a fresh start, a new way: not for them the bourgeois restraints of evidence-based research or empiricism. Self-styled mavericks all, they revel in their rejection of all that is difficult or complex or nuanced, and glory in the binary narrative that follows one of the most divisive political events in British history, one of the most collectively irrational decisions ever made by a developed country in peacetime.

And so... we reap the harvest of years of undervaluing, even ridiculing, education, and creating a world in which expertise is now viewed even by leading Cabinet figures as proof of bias, an unwelcome attempt to undermine gut instinct, anecdote and rumour as they reverberate around the echo-chamber of “send now, think later” social media. A new, moneyed Right is emboldened: as we write, its press battalions target overseas aid and the right to strike. The rump Lib Dems, whose new leader’s first act was to vote to bomb Raqqa, are nowhere. The Labour Party, meanwhile, is fatally ruptured, caught between the poles of what working people want, and what Labour thinks - rightly or wrongly - that working people need.

I suspect that quoting the Financial Times is a first for this blog, but they were pretty much spot on back in June: “The country is going to be meaner and poorer… the UK has chosen a largely illusory autonomy over EU membership. That has consequences. It will have to accept this grim reality and move as quickly as it can to whatever the future holds.”

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So with all this mendacious tosh going on, why does music still matter so much? It’s not just to soothe, nor to reflect our anger (though of course it can do both): it’s to INSPIRE. If you were in any doubt, watch the best documentary of the year, Rodney P’s 90-minute BBC4 tour through the history of hip-hop. And watch the moment when our Rodney, overcome by the emotion of standing in Chuck D’s old gaff, breaks down in tears of sheer happiness as he remembers how - when he was a young man - another young man, from across the Atlantic, helped to change his life forever. For the better. Just through the power of record-making. And we feel that way about so many artists, and labels, not just from our youth, but RIGHT NOW. Artists that make us smile, or dance, or sing along, and who collectively can change the shape of the present.

Ooh - actually, there were a couple of other things we liked about the documentary, albeit less profound than the lesson just, erm, endeth-ed.

One was when Rodney asked a few talking heads to name the greatest MC of all time. A couple of people proffered Jay-Z, a worryingly “post-truth” answer which caused me to panic a bit and begin to doubt the veracity of the whole enterprise, but just as I was about to give the off switch an uppercut in disgust, a whole sea of eminent punters popped up just in time and all made it satisfyingly clear that the correct answer is of course Rakim, a man whose shoelaces Jay-Z remains unfit to tie. Even Gang Starr's DJ Premier had no doubts about that one, and he’s worked with a few of the greats, hasn’t he?

Plus, the programme reminded us that a direct inspiration for many of hip-hop’s greatest DJs - and this came, unprompted, from the lips of Premo himself, but from others too - was one Malcolm McLaren, via “Buffalo Gals”. That’s a fact that probably is isn’t dwelt on enough.

Right. Enough reminiscence. Back into the motherjumbling singles fray. For the final time this year, you’ll be pleased to see. This one is going out to Gina Miller, frankly a British hero, for all the flak that she has unjustly attracted from - putting it more politely than we could have chosen to - fucking idiots. And to the memory of Colonel Abrams. Peace.

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1. Jeff Rushin “Decline Into” EP (Wall Music)

Dutch master builds Wall (not dyke) to new heights with silky-smooth suite on twelve. He’s the sultan of subtle on “Decline Into Chaos”, which would be enough on its own with its echoes of the gossamer brilliance of Michael Schwarz’s “She Doesn’t Ask For”; but in fact the whole shebang is something of a masterclass, still perhaps peaking with the riches of “Decline Into Shadows”. More on that story here.

2. Hate Week “Nights By The Lake” / “Blunt Claws” (Where It’s At Is Where You Are)

There are few bands that ever made me feel as alive as the Faintest Ideas did, but their successors Hate Week have a damn good go here, with two of the most glitteringly essential tunes of the year (the third tune is merely very, very good). The fullness of our joy on first traversing this one should be readily apparent right here. NB - as it came up in a chucking-out time conversation - that the boys are probably not to be confused with Hatebeak, much as we have a certain weakness for that combo too.

3. Close Lobsters “Desire & Signs EP” (Shelflife)

Scottish Electric lightning strikes twice, as the fabulous five follow “Now Time” with this simply delicious tribute of sorts to London and its spirit of resistance, a song which also shines with their memories of walking the city’s streets in their 20s. I was in my 20s once, treading the same streets. I even still remember those times and feelings, and “desire and signs” is dead right. Nobody has ever made lyrics like “it was alright / it was all fine” sound as magical as Andrew Burnett does here.

4. DJ Cable featuring Ghostly “In ‘Ere” (Triangulum)

I know I’m getting old. The other day I overheard myself saying “thank you” to a pair of automatic doors. And I’ve started to thank the bus driver when I get off, too. But it’s not all new politenesses - don’t get me started on all the people who keep pressing the bell even when it’s beyond obvious that the bus is already stopping. Indeed, I’m amassing bêtes noires daily, such as recaps and trailers in TV series; people calling a TV series a “season”; and fixture boards outside pubs (or, indeed, posters in bookies’ windows) which put the AWAY TEAM FIRST.

And yet, despite all this, sometimes a song can squirrel the passing years away, and make me feel fresh and new with the sheer joy of not having to PRETEND I love this new song by a young person, but actually just realising that it’s the bomb, and that I am still capable of these moments of discovery that once seemed two a penny. “In’ Ere” (a bit more in 'ere) thrillingly harnesses the pure grime bounce of west Lon’s Ghostly as he and Cable deliver the top English single of 2016.

5. Hood “British Radars” (Acuarela)

BRITISH radars, OK? None of your foreign tat. TAKE BACK CONTROL. (Sorry, can't help it sometimes).

This feral, some-fi, absolute gem is the highest-placed time capsule this year: recorded in 1994 and released in 2016, thus taking even longer from recording to release than that second MC Tunes album. None of that stops it being a gorgeously chaotic slab of indieness which made a very direct bee-line to our collective hearts.

6. The Fireworks “The Ghost Of You” (Shelflife)

At some point we are going to opine more forcefully about the merits of charging £15 for a single, but now is not the time, because the timeless post-Razors jangle of this song kills us, in a good way (and the whole 10”, “Black & Blue” is further proof of the Fireworks’ skyward ascent). The EP also marked Emma’s swansong as a Firework, but if they’re even half as great with Beth instead, we’ll still all be in clover. Emma departs with the consolation of now having starred in not just one, but two of England’s toppermost 21st century pop combos.

7. Nothing Clean / Ona Snop split (Gronk! Records / Repulsive Medias / Vleesklak Records / Samizdat Records)

‘Kinell. Again. Tremendous, crushing, properly fulminating hardcore played at grindcore pace, with excoriating lyrics. Despite ranging “only” 8 tracks over one side of 45rpm vinyl this time around, the sheer aggression of this third 7” of theirs sees them land somewhere between Coke Bust, Wormrot and Narcosis, leaving a crater roughly the size of Walthamstow. In fact, it hit us so hard that we were too shellshocked to give it its own capsule review: the aggression is perfectly fitting in songs like “Questions Asked”, which target our destruction of the natural world. And Leicester music hasn’t excited us this much since the halcyon days of Street Ferapy.

8. Sev Dah “Proletarijat 001” (Proletarijat)

“Your only daughter, dear mother of mine, I leave you, to carry a carbine”

This spellbinding 12” from Sweden-based Bosnian Sev Dah, a tribute to women who have fought for freedom from tyranny, has pretty much got it all. Track one: ambient tech-electronica as the ‘helicopter’ bit from “Something For The Longing” gets spliced with traditional Balkan folk tunes. Track two: sleekly artful minimalist techno, inspired by the resistance movement but ripe for beckoning us oldies from our armchairs onto the dancefloor. Track three: eight exceptional minutes of pure, driving Scandinavian acid-techno heaven bearing the name of Yugoslav partisan Marija Bursać, who died aged 23 from wounds suffered after attacking a Nazi base with hand grenades. Yup, this is not the sort of record you trip across every day. More’s the pity.

9. Sev Dah “Proletarijat 002” (Proletarijat)

That man Sev Dah again, and he seeks to tell a story with this EP too, ambitious in itself when you’re largely dealing in the currency of top-class, pumping European techno. This time, the theme revolves around the Stakhanovite endeavour of coal miner Alija Sirotanović and the udarniks - "Working and be able to live from our work” - with the EP dedicated to the working class and struggle for a more equal system. Aside from Amir Razanica, perhaps, it’s interesting (and a little sad) that there isn’t more of this in dance music circles: notable, I guess, that it’s producers of Yugoslav heritage that seem to be pushing the envelope.

Anyway, on this EP both “Ustanak” and “152” pulse with more than serviceable Aiken/Rushin-ish techno thrills (the latter is likely to be the only dancefloor-friendly tune in history named after the number of tonnes of coal that an udarnik’s team mined in a single shift) but the highlight is the stunning, strictly zero bpm “Fallen Comrades”, which turns the howls of anguish of the bereaved into a heart-rending, spine-tingling, frankly harrowing post-classical piece. If you turn it up, “Fallen Comrades” basically makes Diamanda Galas sound like Black Lace. Quite, quite exceptional.

10. Burial “Young Death” (Hyperdub)

One our favourite Advent traditions, this, as Burial sneaks out his annual 12” on Kode9’s Hyperdub in a bid to miss every year-end list except this one. Interesting that of all the celebrity deaths of 2016 Burial was most touched by that of Sir Jimmy Young: this single is an affecting tribute from one music guru to another.

In all seriousness, “Young Death” is powerful stuff: mostly ambient, there’s hardly a hint of dance music here. Instead, it’s as if the samples, shuffles and stutter that used to overlay his sarf London nightbus soundtracks have been thrown together instead as the main attraction, daring you to moan (as many are) that Burial isn’t as good as he used to be. The thing is, we think he might be: never has a record sounded so soulful and so utterly desiccated at the same time. And that’s even before we get on to the synth-jinking “Nightmarket” on the other side, which also toys with textures so delicate that they often disintegrate completely for several seconds at a time.

10A. Helen McCookerybook and Charlie Tipper "Femme Fatale" (Breaking Down)

Now. Radical times call for radical measures. And if we can't have an eleven-song top ten in 2016, when can we?

There's also a perfectly legit reason for allowing this particular late runner to slot into the listings, because it only fell into our clutches in the hours before Xmas. As you'll surmise, it sees Bristol stalwarts Charlie Tipper sharing a studio with ex-Chef and Skat vocalist Helen McC, as they re-create the VU song covered by Skat back at the start of the 80s, this time to raise money for Refugee Action. And to our slight surprise - not as a rule being fans of the Velvets or of the general quality of charity or Christmas singles - we found ourselves totally overtaken by the beauty of this.

Atop of Helen McCookerybook's soothing, lilting, hints-of-wild (Pam) Berry flow, Tim Rippington's mob keep the guitars low-burning, yet interlace proceedings with arcing Wareham-esque guitar lines; but the clincher is the song's use of samples of various politicos pontificating, intercut with news reports on some of the many lows that 2016 brought for those trapped by war and those trying to escape it to a West now frightened of its own shadow. In every sense - a moving song, a sombre summary of the year, a vital cause - this is something we'd urge you to buy.

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And now - we must rest. Please have a splendid, and safe, 2017.