END OF YEAR REVIEW:
2016'S TOP 10 ALBUMS
Welcome to this End of Year Music Review.
2016 has been a challenging one but thankfully, there’s been enough good music released to make you realise that the year shouldn’t be completely written off.
Like the previous years, this Top 10 list is a personal appreciation of the year’s musical releases and only rule is simple: only full-length albums released this year are eligible for inclusion. So, no EPs, Best Of compilations, soundtracks and no Christine And The Queens, since their album Chaleur Humaine was a 2015 release.
Much like last year’s End of Year Review (click here for 2015’s Top 10), the suspense shall be preserved: we start the countdown from 10, working our way towards 2016’s N°1 spot.
So, without further ado, let the countdown to the best album of 2016 begin...
- 10 -
Editors + Mogwai + Slowdive.
As far as crossovers go, this one was a big’un.
Starting off as a pet project of Editors guitarist Justin Lockey and snowballing into a 10-tracked self-titled debut, Minor Victories combined the talents of Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite and Lockey’s filmmaker brother James, member of the Hand Held Cine Club. Together, they crafted a post-rock gem of an album, one in which the influences of respective parent bands are discernible and add up to something that met - and often surpassed - very high expectations.
The supergroup’s debut is a darkly atmospheric and melodramatic affair, a cinematic brew of synth rock and atmospheric guitars that would prick up the ears of many Nine Inch Nails fans. It’s plain to hear that Minor Victories are more than just a haphazard collection of talented musicians having a jolly on a half-arsed side project: Minor Victories does not bank solely on the goodwill of the line-up’s fans. It stands on its own two feet and shines.
Not such a minor victory after all.
Key Track: ‘Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard)'.
- 9 -
NOT TO DISAPPEAR
On their follow up to 2013’s If You Leave, the London-based trio Daughter have upped the ante on icy melodies, raw sorrow and confidently released a quiet riot.
Indeed, Not To Disappear picks up where their debut left off and poignantly becomes more intimate. Lead singer and songwriter Elena Tonra imbues her lyrics with heartbreak and confessional stories, and her hushed delivery makes tracks like ‘New Ways’ feel smoothly melancholic yet suffocating. Standouts ‘Doing The Right Thing’ and ‘No Care’ show to what extent Daughter are capable of some of the most heartbreaking and relatable songwriting around: the first shifts perspectives and looks at memory loss from the POV of the singer’s grandmother, while the second breaks the hazy softness by painting a bizarrely danceable picture of self-loathing and post-coital angst.
Granted, it’s not one to listen to while in an introspective funk, but dismiss these bracing pop melodies at your considerable loss; Not To Disappear is a mature sophomore album which manages to be uplifting through sheer beauty.
Key Track: ‘No Care’.
- 8 -
Antony Hegarty signed her first album under the name ANOHNI this year. Gone are the chamber pop inflections of Antony and the Johnsons, which have been replaced by a luscious yet jittery electro pop sound, courtesy of co-producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Her metamorphosis did not limit itself to a name change and a different musical style: it also saw a shift in substance. ANOHNI looked outwards, making her debut album a protest record.
Many may cringe at this, as it’s true that overtly political or militant albums can be a chore, with holier-than-thou posturing and grating unsubtlety hindering any musical enjoyment. However, nothing of the sort with Hopelessness, which is an ethereal marriage between often venomous socio-political commentary and the truly heartfelt, without at any point sacrificing entrancing musical content.
It’s hard in a cynical world to make a defiant stand without it being casually dismissed as wishful idealism and whatever preconceived ideas you may have about engaged music, don’t dismiss Hopelessness. For the most part, ANOHNI has succeeded in creating a challenging album and never has a visceral protest sounded so intimately uplifting. Maybe there’s hope after all...
Key Track: ‘Drone Bomb Me’.
- 7 -
David Bowie left us at the beginning of this year and in retrospect, his tragic passing was the harbinger of darker days to come for 2016. His follow-up to 2013’s somewhat overrated The Next Day saw him add a dose of experimental daring that made ★ (written Blackstar) as destabilizing as it was addictive. This was the sound of a man taking risks and reinventing himself once more.
The opening title track is without a doubt one of his most cryptic and startling, a downright bizarre 10-minute space oddity. The first listen made it sound like an intriguing but dysrhythmic mess; the second mesmerized further; the third revealed a melodramatic track infused with an apocalyptic grace.
As a whole, Blackstar is hard to compare with his discography: it wasn’t created in a vacuum but certainly feels like it. The best reference points can be found in the Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) for its inventiveness, in the underrated 1995 album ‘Outside’ for its obscurity and in 2002’s envelope-pushing Heathen for its atmospherics. The legend’s 25th and final record is a fitting final transmission from an artist that has shaped the musical landscape of the past 50 years. It is a strange concept album that lacks consistency but that shows his influence will continue to be felt for decades to come.
Key Track: ‘Blackstar’.
- 6 -
THE HOPE SIX DEMOLITION PROJECT
For her follow-up to 2011’s Let England Shake, PJ Harvey cast herself as a war correspondent and an observer of the world. As she sings on ‘The Orange Monkey’: “I took a plane to a foreign land / and said ‘I’ll write down what I find’.” She travelled to Washington DC, Kosovo and Afghanistan and penned a collection of rallying cries with made The Hope Six Demolition Project a journalism-rock hybrid.
Her ninth album is unwavering in its emotive and dramatic images, which paint pictures of injustice, conflict and socio-political strife. It doesn’t seem like an easy album to enjoy from that description, but the music allows some hope and catchy tunes to complement the lyrical intensity. There’s the rocky but engaged duo ‘The Ministry of Defense’ and ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’, the Tom Waits-ian ‘Chain of Keys’ and the hand-clappy yet poignant ‘The Wheel’, all of which standout in a stellar collection of rich songs which blend gospel, rock and jazz.
This passionate and deeply earnest protest album is powerful to say the least and even if some overly ripe diary-to-music-sheet lyrics do let it down at times, there’s so much that The Hope Six Demolition Project does right. Repeated listens affirm this album is the engaged gift that keeps on giving.
Key Track: ‘The Wheel’.
- 5 -
A MOON SHAPED POOL
For their ninth album, the celebrated Oxford quintet tempered the experimental with the melodic to offer a stunning record. It’s a melancholic album, and arguably their most introspective to date; it’s also one for the patient fans, as A Moon Shaped Pool offered many long-awaited songs: the lyrics of ‘Burn The Witch’ could already be found in 2003’s Hail To The Thief’s liner notes, while the retooled closing number ‘True Love Waits’ had been a live favourite for fans since 2001’s I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings EP. Not that this is an album of orphaned tracks: all songs beautifully gel together and one of the reasons this coalescence happens is album MVP guitarist Johnny Greenwood, whose experience of scoring multiple soundtracks can be felt throughout.
A Moon Shaped Pool might not be as revolutionary as OK Computer or the sonic slap to the face that was the peerless Kid A and its sister record Amnesiac; nevertheless, it stands as their most engaging album since these releases. It’s certainly more inviting than their impenetrable The King Of Limbs, and its atmospherically textured songs make it one of the year’s very best.
Key Track: ‘Daydreaming’.
- 4 -
22, A MILLION
Justin Vernon’s third album under the Bon Iver name - his first since 2011’s Bon Iver Bon Iver - saw the singer / songwriter experiment with no restraint, so much so that aficionados of the first hour were confused. Indeed, those who still considered Bon Iver as the cabin-based lovelorn singer-songwriter of his debut For Emma, Forever Ago had another think coming...
22, A Million is a strange and unpredictable album, one which sees Vernon break new ground by fully embracing more electronic avenues and merging disorientating sonic landscapes to his trademark oblique lyrics. It stands as his most wilfully experimental album to date and you can hear the influence his frequent collaborators have had on this album. Slappable ego-goblin Kanye West in particular stands out as a reference, due to the presence of vocal distortions, the sampling of gospel singers, distorted loops and the sheer creative chutzpah on show.
Much like the song titles, the numerology and symbols in the excellent album artwork / booklet, this album cultivates a certain cryptic mystique, which amplifies and entices more with every listen. With this in mind, 22, A Million feels like the sound of Bon Iver’s Kid A... and that’s no small compliment.
Key Tracks: ‘10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄’.
- 3 -
YOU WANT IT DARKER
2016’s musical landscape was circumvented by loss: it started with the passing of David Bowie and ended with the loss of Leonard Cohen, who gave us his 14th studio album before leaving us.
The singer songwriter worked on his final LP knowing full well it would be his last, and the result is a haunting affair that embraces the darkness. As he sings on the opening track: “If you are the dealer / I’m out of the game (...) You want it darker / We kill the flame”. The lyrics of the album deal with Cohen-esque existential quandaries, as was his erudite custom, and his dark poetry resonates in this spine-tingling and crepuscular collection. It is a stark and intense listen, with achingly beautiful songs about death and the acceptance of a life drawing to an end.
You Want It Darker might be myopically dismissed by some as more of the same from the dapper gent, and while 2016 was in no short supply of albums dealing with mortality, threatening a general darkness overload, this vital album is not as dire a listen as it may sound. After all, as Cohen once wrote: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
Key Track: ‘You Want It Darker’.
- 2 -
NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
One of 2016’s best albums, like parts of the year, was shrouded in darkness.
Tragedy struck Nick Cave while he was writing and recording The Bad Seeds’ 16th album: his 15-year old son, Arthur, fell to his death from a cliff in Brighton. Instead of scrapping the recordings, Cave reacted by choosing creativity as an act of defiance over grief: the album was completed in the aftermath of his unimaginable loss and its spectre looms over this intensely moving record.
Not that the singer / songwriter and his band are strangers to darkness: over 15 albums, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds embraced dark themes at every turn. This time, gone are the gospel influences heard on Push The Sky Away and the theatrics of the unequalled Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus; the tone here is uniformly stripped back and raw.
Even when the album is divorced from its tragic circumstances, Skeleton Tree stands as the band’s most emotionally devastating record thus far, as it manages to tease out beauty from sorrow. All eight tracks are magnificent, making it an uncomfortably beautiful listen and one of the most devastating records you’ll get the chance to hear this year.
Key Tracks: ‘Magneto’.
- 1 -
CITIZEN OF GLASS
Reportedly inspired by an article the Danish singer-songwriter read about the “Gläserner Bürger” phenomenon - the “glass citizen” which refers to people’s fragility and increased levels transparency due to diminishing levels of privacy in the age of social media and state surveillance - Agnes Obel has crafted one of the year’s most beautiful records.
Her third album is also a departure: from opening track, you know she’s branching out and shaking things up. Not drastically - her ethereal vocals and trademark cello / piano-lead songs remain from her Philharmonics and Aventine days, but the Obel experiments, both sonically and conceptually. The best example of this is also one of the album’s strongest songs, ‘Familiar’, in which the subtle electronica is layered with a haunting layering of male voices, which are actually Obel’s pitched down vocals, therefore Obel dueting with herself.
Citizen Of Glass is full of subtle percussions, elegantly grandiose orchestrations and the use of unusual instruments like vintage celestas, spinets and the Trautonium, a synthesizer from the 1920s of which only two models still exist. She creates a textured reverie that builds crescendos and even allows for some soulful instrumentals, like the moody and trippy ‘Red Virgin Soil’.
All in all, a sonically immersive album that is without a doubt Obel’s strongest to date and 2016's very best release.
Key Track: ‘Familiar’.
Et voila. Granted - and as the album covers themselves attest - the spectre of death, a certain melancholy and a general moroseness pervaded this year, but this tone was not limiting and proved to be creatively exciting. I strongly recommend you check out these albums, as well as the ones that nearly made the Top 10:
11) James Vincent McMorrow - We Move; 12) Beyonce - Lemonade; 13) Jack Garratt - Phase; 14) Wild Beasts - Boy King; 15) Laura Mvula - The Dreaming Room; 16) Bat For Lashes - The Bride; 17) Glass Animals - How To Be A Human Being; 18) Moderat - III; 19) The Avalanches - Wildflower; 20) Bloc Party - Hymns.
Honourable soundtrack mentions: Stranger Things OST; Mogwai - Atomic; Sing Street OST; Westworld OST; David Wingo - Midnight Special; La La Land OST.
Agree? Disagree? Any glaring and unforgiveable omissions? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for reading and I hope your year was filled with musical goodness. I leave you with a few more pics from this year's gigs, a video of acoustic Metallica and one of my favourite live moments of the year - I had the privilege of seeing PJ Harvey when she decided to react to Brexit at Down The Rabbit Hole Festival (click here for full review of the festival) :
- D - 11/12/16