As we come to the penultimate instalment of my ‘Album of 2016’ countdown, I thought I ought to take the opportunity to address some of the albums that didn’t quite make it onto the list, for a number of reasons. Firstly, although I do have a lot of free time as a student, I can’t listen to everything and there are numerous albums I still really want to hear (Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu to name a few). In fact only yesterday I listened to S U R V I V E’s brilliant RR739, an album that could easily have made the list, and then there was the Run the Jewels surprise Christmas release I’m yet to properly get a look at. 2016 most certainly was a good year for music and compiling a list was never a stretch with a wealth of talent on offer from a number of differing genres. However, there are a few releases (some of which received great acclaim) that I chose to omit. Grime was a massive in 2016 and whilst I admired both Kano and Skepta’s records (both clearly talented urban wordsmiths) for me personally they don’t come close to the 50 records on this list. Something which is similar to Frank Ocean’s Blonde, a clearly talented artist and an album that has been brilliantly produced but doesn’t do much for me, maybe I just don’t get it. Then I think of artists like The 1975 and Beyoncé of whom I’ll never really get. I hope you find this list an interesting read, even if you disagree with some of the albums I have left out and please checkout the big one, as I reveal my top 10 next!
Part of the recently rather dormant New York indie scene, Sunflower Bean are not your average indie band. For a rag-tag trio of misfits, the band have crafted an intricate sound that lies somewhere between the complex chorus effect noodling of The Cure (‘Human Ceremony’), sledgehammer, distorted riffs of Black Sabbath (‘Wall Watcher) and psychedelic breakdowns of Tame Impala (‘2013’). There’s a youthful vigor to tracks like ‘Come On’ and ‘This Kind of Feeling’ that almost borders on punk before you hear the angelic tones of model/ rock vocalist Julia Cumming, that explodes into more dream pop territory. In fact, each member of the band oozes talent and is something that is clearly visible on ‘Human Ceremony’ as the band tightly traverse shifting time signatures and winding psychedelic jams. Lead guitarist Nick Kivlen makes use of a vast pedal board that would make many a guitar enthusiast envious, as he spits out an ever changing array of sounds and effects on tracks like ‘I was Home’ and ‘Creation Myth’. You can’t fault Sunflower Bean’s scope on their debut album, with lead single ‘Easier Said’ also showcasing their ability to deliver softer yet rich ballads as well as exuberant large-scale space jams. Human Ceremony is the work of a truly great band that deserve to go on to bigger and better things, another great debut effort of a truly spectacular year for new artists.
Best Track: ‘Easier Said’
Glaswegian alt-rockers Frightened Rabbit have been at the top of their respective scene for a long while and on album number five they’ve done it again. A customarily melancholic shadow is cast across Painting of a Panic Attack, something that was only helped by the fact The National’s Aaron Dessner was on production duty. Following in the footsteps of their first major label record Pedestrian Verse, Painting of a Panic Attack sees the band experiment with interesting electronics and synths whilst still preserving their talent for heart-on-sleeve choruses as seen on single ‘Get Out’. Lyrically its as strong as anything they’ve put out previously, bookended by the eerie turmoil of ‘Death Dream’ and the stripped down epic ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’. Whilst Scott Hutchinson’s way with words have always been one of the bands best attributes, it’s the sonic landscape that they’ve crafted that takes centre stage on Painting of a Panic Attack, with the orchestral grandeur of ‘I Wish I Was Sober’ and the eccentric scale of ‘400 Bones’ showing a newfound maturity in their songwriting. Another great album to an already strong canon of work, pushing Frightened Rabbit’s claim as possibly the best Scottish band out there at the moment.
Best Track: ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’
On his third solo record, Kevin Morby straddles traditional folk and the Americana of old with the modernity of his lyrical themes (with lead single ‘I Have Been to the Mountain’ referencing the current wave of police brutality). His hazy world-weary musings (often channeling a strong Dylan influence on the likes of ‘Singing Saw’ and ‘Water’) are placed on a gorgeous musical backdrop of lush guitar chords (‘Cut Me Down’), tranquil piano (‘Ferris Wheel’) and a beautiful cacophony of saxophone (‘Destroyer’). There is an air of classic rock to tracks like ‘Drunk On A Star’ and ‘Dorothy’ with Morby’s croon reflecting that of Lou Reed in the early 70s, whilst other tracks like the waltzing ‘Water’ have a similarly large scale. Singing Saw is the sound of a great singer-songwriter finding beauty and inspiration in the natural world, rather than the concrete cities. And honest and warm album with spirit.
Best Track: ‘I Have Been to the Mountain’
Following on from the success of fellow singer-songwriting compatriots Courtney Barnett, Fraser A. Gorman and D.D Dumbo comes Aussie songstress Julia Jacklin. On her debut album Don’t Let the Kids Win, Jacklin forms a subdued mood and quirky aura as she switches gear between the upbeat distorted guitars of ‘Coming of Age’ and the moody indie-country of ‘LA Dream’ and ‘Elizabeth’. An absorbing and intelligent record, Don’t Let the Kids Win sees Jacklin deliver her lyrical insights into well-trodden themes such as coming-of-age, drug use and homesickness (‘Motherland’) with a cynical smile and an appropriate degree of wit. This in turn adds a sense of modernity to an album packed with yester-year nostalgia, such as on the waltzing ‘Pool Party’ or the stirring ‘Leadlight’. Don’t Let the Kids Win is an album that revels in its subtly and grows in stature with repeat listens. A quality album that stands as further proof that Australia is home to some of the best musical talent out there at the moment, with Jacklin looking like someone to keep an eye on.
Best Track: ‘Pool Party’
It’s often difficult for supergroups to really make an impact, with music history littered with endless examples of such labours of love not really coming off (Audioslave, Velvet Revolver and ChickenFoot to name a few, whilst even The Last Shadow Puppets most recent album was so self-indulgent it was hard to tell whether it was serious or some kind of inside joke). However in this case Vampire Weekend’s chief visionary Rostam Batmanglij and The Walkmen’s principal vocalist Hamilton Leithauser have put together a baroque pop masterpiece that captures an array of genres and spans numerous time periods. From the doo-wopping ‘Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)’ to the Bob Dylan indebted folk of ‘You Ain’t That Young Kid’ and back to the twinkly piano and orchestral charm of final track ‘1959’, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is a nostalgic nod to the music of yesteryear, whilst also bringing such styles through to the 21st century. The record proves that this is truly a match made in heaven, with Leithauser’s delicate croon complimenting the intricate production value of Rostam perfectly and cementing their status as two of alternative music’s greatest minds.
Best Track: ‘A 1000 Times’
After three albums of lo-fi indie-folk, Olsen’s fourth and latest full-length solo record strikes you from the opening chord of ‘Intern’. The immersive cosmic synths and full frontal vocals of the opener are a statement of intent and proof that this is an artist that is far more than just an emotional folk singer. Toying with various sonics, My Woman is a multi-faceted beast, with the retro 50s vibe of ‘Never Be Mine’, slacker riffs of ‘Give it Up’ and soft synth chords of ‘Woman’ acting as a backdrop for her exploratory themes of love, pain and faith. Standout track however has to be the grungy, stand-offish, slightly tongue-in-cheek anthem that is ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, which was in fact probably one of my favourite songs of the year. A track that screams cool, and in fact sums up what ‘My Woman’ is all about, taking Olsen’s ‘folk songstress’ name tag and obliterating it to smithereens. My Woman is the sound of an artist flexing her muscles to show what she can do, a superb, melodic record that definitely leaves listeners wanting more.
Best Track: ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’
In a year that saw the passing of Bowie and with Lou Reed already three years removed, who’d have thought Iggy Pop would be one of the final legends standing. After decades spent crafting some of the most vital albums in rock music history, Pop’s most recent output has consisted of relatively sub-par albums (released both as a solo artist and with a reformed Stooges). Post Pop Depression however lands as a crunching statement of Pop’s legacy and a real highpoint in his later career. Under the guidance of rock music’s best current mogul and innovator, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame, Pop has adapted a new, sleeker stoner rock sound which has a distinct sexual aroma and lashes out with biting delivery. Also adding to the hired muscle are Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders and fellow QOTSA member Dean Fertita, building on the revitalization of one of rock music’s most majestic figures. If this does happen to be Pop’s final record, he hasn’t half delivered, with the Godfather of punk yet again demonstrating why he is viewed as such a revered icon by so may people.
Best Track: ‘Gardenia’
Very few British artists have managed to capture the imagination of the British youth in the way Jamie T has. Transitioning from an urban street poet, with his unique blend of indie-rap on his hectic first two albums Panic Prevention and Kings & Queens, before returning after a five-year hiatus with the more mature, world-weary Carry on the Grudge. An ingenious wordsmith who’s tales of urban living in South London sound remarkably fresh, whilst tipping their hat to legends of old such as The Clash and The Libertines. Trick continues this more mature path, which began on his previous album, kicking off with the towering, experimental Tinfoil Boy, a demented chug of an opener that is filled with dread and despair. An undoubtedly British artist, Treays channels the spirit of grime on ‘Drone Strike’ before the anthemic punk of ‘Tescoland’ which nonchalantly stick a middle finger up to the US scene he’s never really cracked. As ever Trick lays its soul bare with references to suicide, the current state of the UK and drug use, however the over-riding feeling is that of celebration despite the doomy subject matter. The emotive ‘Sign of the Times’ is a true epic, whilst ‘Crossfire Love’ reaches similarly exultant highs. The Wimbledon-born troubadour has always been someone I’ve been a long-time admirer of and with Trick has again produced a painfully honest work and possibly his magnum opus.
Best Track: ‘Tescoland’
US indie band Whitney have really been bubbling under the surface in 2016, only to sneak onto some of the most prestigious Album of the Year lists last month and rightly so. An unlikely super-group the Chicago band came about following the break-up of guitarist Max Kakachek’s previous band, The Smith Westerns, in 2014, with drummer and lead vocalist Julien Ehrlich also previously playing drums for psychedelic rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Light Upon the Lake channels a wistful 1960s folk sound crossing the folk sensibilities of an early Dylan with the high-pitched vocals of Neil Young, with an added hint of rambling Creedence Clearwater Revival esque guitar lines. Whilst there’s a more than a healthy dosage of nostalgia, this doesn’t prohibit the record and in fact together the duo have crafted their own brand of heartfelt, soulful alternative rock, which often finds itself leaning towards Americana. Tracks like ‘No Woman’ and ‘No Matter Where We Go’ are whimsical guitar pop anthems that can’t help but worm their way into your subconscious and carefully interwoven with string and horn arrangements. A charming record, rich in texture and in heart.
Best Track: ‘No Woman’
Artists don’t come rawer than the Australian ‘Prince of Darkness’, otherwise known as Nick Cave. In spite of most of the album being written before the tragic death of his 15 year old son back in 2015, it is still a dark and grueling listen, as Cave eloquently explores mortality and the depth of humanity to a sparse soundscape of cavernous piano and electronic warps. A brooding, grief-striken record Skeleton Tree is packed with emotion from the poetic, visceral howl of ‘Jesus Alone’ to the frail cries of ‘I Need You’ and ending on the title track Skeleton Tree. In fact from start to finish the album documents Cave’s comprehension with the immeasurable sorrow transitioning to a point of acceptance on the final track. Skeleton Tree is an absolutely masterful work, which would probably have placed higher if it wasn’t such a difficult listen. That being said it is still most certainly a rewarding listen and an example of one of the best songwriters of a generation working at his best.
Best Track: ‘I Need You’