It’s fair to say I’ve somewhat neglected my blog for the past year, so over the Christmas holiday and seeing as 2016 has now come to an end I thought that I ought to reflect on the previous year’s musical output and put together a list of my own personal top 50 albums of the year (seeing as very few publications put out a list I agreed with). This is also probably the stage that I should point out that there’s a lack of rap albums on the list (although I’ve included a fair number there are a few glaring omissions in the form of Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, two albums I’ve heard great things about but am yet to listen to), a genre I’m beginning to educate myself more on, however I like to think there’s still a fairly eclectic range of genres (hip-hop, punk, blues, soul, indie rock, avant-garde pop and world music to name a few). Nevertheless here’s the first ten of the countdown!
Who’d have thought that 2016 would have seen a Rolling Stones release? In fact, what’s probably more surprising is that with all the 2016 celebrity deaths Keith Richards is still alive and kicking. Perhaps it’s the youthful vigor of Blue & Lonesome that has injected a new lease of life into the veins of the veteran rockers. After years of experimentation and rock n’ roll trailblazing, the Stones’ latest record sees them go back to their rhythm and blues roots with an album of covers, as they recreate legendary blues classics from the likes of Buddy Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. Jagger’s voice hasn’t sounded so fresh in years, with Richard’s guitar licks and bluesy harmonica melodies rolling back the years in simplistic yet stylish fashion. Without a gospel choir in sight, The Rolling Stones have cut out the frills and thrills and set out to make an album Jagger, Richards and Co. wanted to make rather than one that they felt they had to make. Emblazoned with the iconic lips logo, Blue & Lonesome couldn’t be more classic Stones if it tried, and more importantly is the sound of a band having fun.
Top Track: ‘Just Your Fool’
It can be difficult for international bands to truly make it in such a congested music scene over here in the UK, however this ramshackle gang of girls from Madrid have managed exactly that with their debut Leave Me Alone. In fact, the Spanish garage rock quartet’s debut has caught imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic as the band channels a cross between the loud and soft structures of the Pixies and the slacker mentality of Mac Demarco. Hinds’ style of scrappy garage rock has a distinct plucky energy and air of nostalgia to it, something that is reflected in the band’s origin story as a group of girls that only recently started to learn their craft, pushed on by their desire to purely ‘be in a band’ and make ‘rock n’ roll music’. Whilst it would be easy to pick up on their often overly-simplistic chord progressions and song structures, it’s clear that what they lack in technical skill they more than make up for in head-strong desire! There’s a baggy jangle to tracks like ‘Davey Crockett’ and ‘Garden’ and an uplifting appeal to their unsubtle, heart-on-sleeve lyrics, the kind that are tailored made to be screamed by adoring fans in festival fields. Simple, yet effective.
Top Track: ‘Garden’
A band’s sophomore album is well documented as being the hardest to create, particularly when the debut is wildly popular, as is the case for Oxford innovators Glass Animals’ ZABA, an album that saw them garner considerable critical and commercial acclaim with their outlandish brand of math-pop that has more twists and turns than a circuit of Silverstone. How to Be a Human Being sees the band dabble in world music, in particular afrobeat with a welcome splash of tropical house and a hint of indie rock for good measure. There isn’t really a name for this interesting concoction, so most settled on math pop, a term that also been set upon other British pacesetters including the likes of Alt-J and Wild Beasts. Glass Animals went big on scope with How to Be a Human Being, an interesting concept album that focuses on a series of characters of whom the band have met on their travels, showcasing principal songwriter Dave Bayley’s intense eye for detail. The record is glued together with intelligent pop hooks and big tunes, particularly seen on lead singles ‘Life Itself’ and ‘Youth’. Smart pop acts don’t come round very often and Glass Animals are definitely flying the flag as one of the best the UK has to offer.
Top Track: ‘Youth’
Clocking in at just 34 minutes, Margaret Glaspy’s debut album, Emotions and Math, is probably one of the shortest on this list, but that doesn’t detract from its merits. Glaspy has crafted a collage of short, sharp character studies set to a shifting backdrop of biting grunge rock (‘You and I’), reflective folk (‘Antony’) and even melodic soul (‘No Matter Who’). Whilst her voice often takes centre stage, and rightly so, with a soulful, delicate and intriguing vocal delivery, there is also an innate and necessary aggression and messiness to Emotions and Math that gives it an added bite. With the lyrical grit of tracks like to ‘You and I’ to the sloppy guitar solos on ‘Memory Street’, Glaspy has made a record that is far more than it first appears. Lyrically Emotions and Math has enough intrigue to prompt repeat listens, as Glaspy flicks between self-examination (‘You Don’t Want Me’) and adopting interesting perspectives (‘Parental Guidance’). In a year when singer-songwriters have been leading the way for musical innovation, Margaret Glaspy is up there as one of the most exciting to emerge on the scene and definitely one to keep an eye on.
Top Track: ‘Emotions and Math’
2016 has undoubtedly been a big year for Blossoms. As well as dropping their positively received first album (which went onto become the highest selling debut this year in the UK), the Stockport lads have also reached newfound levels of commercial success that will see them headline Manchester’s Castlefield bowl this summer in a huge outdoor show. Whilst their self-titled debut hardly reinvents the wheel, treading a narrow tightrope between 90s indie rock and 80s synth-pop, Blossoms reels you in with its soaring choruses (‘Getaway’) and catchy hooks (‘Charlemagne’, arguably one of the catchiest pop tracks of the year). Is this a band that is going to change music? Certainly not. But that’s not the point of Blossoms! This is a band that craves the mass sing-alongs. They are not afraid of the ‘radio-friendly’ tag (that has been placed upon their heads by many as a means of criticism) and are a band all about the big tunes that lead vocalist Tom Ogden can strut along to as he prowls the stage. Blossoms are great at what they do, which in this case is pure unadulterated indie pop fun (with a light hint of psychedelia)!
Top Track: ‘Charlemagne’
Dinosaur Jr. have been stalwarts of the US alternative rock scene for such a long-time now it’s a wonder how they have been able to maintain such a consistent level of output. Formed in 1984, Dinosaur Jr. have done it all; name changes, line-up alterations, eight year hiatuses and yet always come back strong. Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not plays out like a classic Dinosaur Jr. album yet still remains vital with its immediate hooky, fuzzy guitar, ear-splitting solos and melodic vocals, something demonstrated by lead single ‘Tiny’. In amongst the fuzz and sludge of the hard rocking ‘Goin Down’ and ‘I Walk For Miles’, there are also more melancholic moments such as the softer ‘Be A Part’ and the retrospective charm of the opening half of ‘Knocked Around’. Although going back to basics, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not proves that there is life yet in these dinsouars.
Top Track: ‘Tiny’
Whilst Preoccupations is a fairly bland name in comparison to Viet Cong (a name they were forced to change after it unsurprisingly evoked controversy), their music is anything but. After the Canadian post-punk’s first self-titled debut (under the Viet Cong alias) saw them cement their status as a leading light in modern guitar music, Preoccupations is more of a slow-burner. The band’s sophomore album is bursting with fragmented emotions, something reflected by the band’s choice of song titles, with a series of one word tracks like; ‘Anxiety’, ‘Monotony’ and ‘Stimulation’. However it’s ‘Memory’ in particular that stands out as the mid-album highlight, a sprawling, towering track that comes in at over 11 minutes and creates a suffocating, industrial atmosphere with its droning soundscape and Matt Flegel’s growling vocals (which are somewhat reminiscent of New York post-punks Interpol). Preoccupations marks a shift towards Joy Division-esque territory and a richer musical pallet with shimmering synths, dirty bass guitar and screeching keys helping to create an immersive concoction of sound.
Top Track: ‘Memory’
Alas Salvation is a dirty mess of an album. Complete with savage garage rock guitars, sludging bass and distorted vocals, Yak have crafted a raucous debut album that sounds archaic yet original. Yak built their reputation on their frenetic live shows, which also saw them take up supporting slots for the likes of The Last Shadow Puppets. Former Pulp bassist Steve Mackey’s (also behind the likes of Florence + the Machine and Palma Violets), production expertly translates Yak’s terrifyingly exhilarating live sound onto record, whilst still maintaining its pure dynamism and thundering sound. At a time when British guitar music appears to be at an all-time lull, Yak have strutted onto the scene and demanded your attention. Whilst arguably not the greatest innovators, there’s a fresh resilience about tracks like ‘Victorious (National Anthem)’ and ‘Harbour the Feeling’ as they generate a rowdy sense of excitement that exhibits the energy of an early Stooges and the crunching guitars of the Sex Pistols. If you like your guitars dirty then I urge you to listen Alas Salvation, one of 2016’s forgotten gems.
Top Track: ‘Victorious (National Anthem)’
Dev Hynes has taken up many forms in his musical career. Having put out two successful albums in the indie rock guise of Lightspeed Champion and written for artists including the likes of; Florence + the Machine, Solange Knowles, Sky Ferreira and The Chemical Brothers, Hynes’ most successful (both critically and commercially) project has been that of Blood Orange. On his third album, Freetown Sound, Hynes flirts with funk, synthpop, baroque pop and alternative R&B in a melting pot of ideas that mixes expert production with intelligent and progressive song-writing. As has been the case with a lot of albums in 2016, Freetown Sound also takes a distinctive political stance, tackling important issues such as racism, sexism and more personal areas of individuality through the avenues of pop music. A masterful record and arguably Hynes’ best yet.
Top Track: ‘Best To You’
Following up their hugely popular debut (Are you Satisfied) was always going to be a challenge for Slaves. Their fresh outlook on the tried and tested punk formula saw them win legions of fans as they mixed a knowing sense of self-parody with a raucous punk guitar and thunderingly simplistic drumming. Take Control however sees the band go in a newer, less retro direction as they start to take themselves more seriously and attempt to blend elements of hip hop with hardcore punk. But is that a move that will work? With legendary Beastie Boy, Mike D at the helm, there’s a slicker production aesthetic to the record and whilst not quite capturing the cathartic youth of their debut effort, its throws a more mature shadow with tracks like ‘Steer Cleer’ and ‘Cold Hard Floor’ grappling with more interesting themes and this unsteady period for Britain. However, the punk silliness does still persist with the 45 second thrash of ‘Fuck the Hi-Hat’ and the lyrical banility of ‘People that you Meet’. Whilst Take Control has had its critics and doesn’t quite posses the witty, self-depreciating charm of the band’s Mercury Prize nominated debut, it still has it’s merits and warrants further listens.
Top Track: ‘Spit it Out’