The idea of power in music is an interesting concept. Given the overwhelming variety of music that exists in the world, it can be expressed in many different ways. Often it’s immaterial, triggering emotional wellsprings within a listener purely from the sound of a voice or the stroke of a piano key. These same emotions can be activated by the lyrical content of a piece of music. Power can also come from the force and volume. Anybody who has stood in front of a stack of speakers at a punk, metal or techno gig can tell you. The context surrounding a piece may also project power to the listener. The following is a list of songs that most affected me last year and it’s not limited to releases from 2015.
The Freedom Singers – Ballad of Medgar Evers
Medgar Evers was one of the heroes of the American Civil Rights movement, gunned down outside of his family home in Mississippi on 12 June 1963 by the coward Byron de la Beckwith. The Freedom Singers responded to his death with the ‘Ballad of Medgar Evers’, a heartbreaking requiem written to honour the life of Evers and the sacrifice he made for the Movement. Sung acapella, the song is a heartbreaking meditation on Evers himself and the way he was killed. “They laid Medgar Evers in his grave” is repeated again and again, with more and more emotion pouring out of the singers with each repetition.
Gavin Bryars – The Sinking of the Titanic
A mournful reflection on the sinking of the Titanic, this is a highly conceptual composition which builds and fades away as if the music is being forced underwater only to reemerge and again descend. Bryars has said of the piece, “The music goes through a number of different states, reflecting an implied slow descent to the ocean bed which give a range of echo and deflection phenomena.”
William Basinski – dlp 1.1
Part of William Basinski’s classic Disintegration Loops series, the story surrounding this piece is as interesting as the music itself. Basinski apparently began digitising old tapes that he had on the morning of September 11 and found that as he was digitising them, the tapes began to disintegrate, the sound slowly withering away as a result. As this realisation was made, the Towers were struck and would themselves disintegrate a short time later. The result of the disintegration of Basinski’s tapes is this stunning piece of music.
It is comprised of one single loop that plays constantly for an hour, slowly falling apart as it progresses. The accompanying video was shot on the roof of Basinski’s apartment during the final hour of sunrise on 9/11 in New York. Smoke billows out from the wreckage of the Twin Towers, the ashes of more than 2500 souls rising with it. The effect of this piece of music accompanied by the video is a unique and haunting reminder of the fragility of life and our place in the world as corporeal beings.
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – Johnny’s Gone to Hilo
This is my absolute favourite kind of folk song. Appearing some time in the 1800s (as far as folk historians are aware anyhow) this is an old sea shanty and gives an insight into the emotions that these old sailors may have felt when friends would go out into the sea, never to return. Utilising only a guitar, harmonica and vocals, this is one of those truly powerful and emotional folk songs that make the genre so wonderful and compelling.
Skepta – Shutdown
This is the Grime track of the year. Probably the biggest MC to come out of Grime since Dizzee or Wiley, Skepta has galvanised a scene that many thought was being left behind and become big news internationally, mostly because of this song. Drake even got a fucking BBK (Boy Better Know) tattoo, that’s the kind of crossover appeal that Skepta saw last year. ‘Shutdown’ is just a stone cold classic that exudes confidence and power, no two ways about it. If you were ever at a show where this was dropped in 2015 you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Bjork – Black Lake
Much has been written about Vulnicura, Bjork’s emotionally taxing account of the breakup of her marriage. In an album full of incredibly powerful and heart-rending songs, ‘Black Lake’ takes the cake as the most apocalyptic of all. Co-produced by virtuoso Venezuelan composer Arca, the music instills a strong sense of dread and foreboding, creating the perfect environment in which Bjork is able to detail the breakup of her marriage and the effect that it has had on her soul.
Sufjan Stevens – No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
Carrie and Lowell was unquestionably one of the best records of the year. I have never much liked Sufjan Stevens prior to this release; I always found him to be a little too twee and pretentious. On C&L, Stevens has managed to strip everything back and create an emotionally honest and grounded record. The compositions mostly consist of little more than his voice and a guitar and/or piano and some background sound effects and focus on his stilted relationship with his now dead parents (particularly his mother).
‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ finds Stevens in self destructive mode following his mother’s passing. The way he sings is deliberately brittle and frail sounding, as if he can’t escape the cycle he finds himself in. He seems unable to find any respite under the shadow cast by the cross looming over his mother’s grave, and it is conveyed perfectly in this.
Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker the Berry
To Pimp a Butterfly has remained my favourite record of the year since it came out in March (you can read my review). From a record that exudes power in almost every way that is possible through music, ‘The Blacker the Berry’ stands out as the highlight. Released prior to To Pimp a Butterfly, it primed everyone on what to expect from the LP. Musically, it is fairly simple, but the lyrics stand out. The song is dripping with anger, Lamar raging against the racism inherent in American society, but also raging against himself and how he fits within the context of that society. My favourite part of the song is Assassin’s hook however. It manages to send shivers down my spine each time I hear it. Here are the lyrics from the hook for you to sink your teeth into:
I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black
Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black
And man a say they put me in a chain, cah’ we black
Imagine now, big gold chain full of rocks
How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back
But now we have a big whip, parked pon’ the block
All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black
Remember this, every race start from the block, just remember that