2016 was a great year for music. The world and his/her wife seems to be posting lists of favourite albums of the year, so I thought I’d dash out a list. I’m doing this quickly, in no particular order (apart from a couple which I’ll make very obvious). If you want to keep up with what albums I’m liking a lot, I review a lot of them for Drowned in Sound. You can find my list of articles for that fine website by clicking on this sentence. What interests me as I look at my very handy Last FM profile, which tells me how much I’ve listened to each album over the course of the year (or most of them anyway, it doesn’t log vinyl plays, naturally) is that some of my favourite albums are definitely not my most-listened-to. Some albums take only a listen or two to lodge themselves firmly in your memory bank. Others, as I’ve looked back over the past year, have seemed vital at one point or other but not stayed with me. Perhaps a symptom of short attention span on my part, or perhaps a sign that there’s just too much music to be listened to for it to be properly taken in and appreciated. According to the August Last FM, I ‘scrobbled’ all or part of 1109 albums in the last 365 days. Think about that. That’s listening to all or part of just under 3 distinct albums a day, every day for a whole year. Surely that’s not healthy. Music, art, it’s not meant to be so disposable. Apologies to the artists whose creations I have failed to properly spend time with this year.
All that said, there have been some absolute belters this year. I’m not limiting myself to albums released in 2016, just to things I’ve heard and enjoyed this year. Here goes.
Neil Cowley Trio – Spacebound Apes. The undoubted number one album in my household this year. A fantastic piece of work showing everything that is so spectacular and criminally underrated about this wonderful band. Of all the items on this list, this is the one that you should drop everything and check out immediately. It will make your life better. There is not a better live act in the world today. The show at Union Chapel in the autumn was as spellbinding as ever.
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Everything Sacred – a hugely ambitious, emotional, beautifully realised record. Cross-cultural, a multi-textured palette, everything you could possibly hope for. An alt-folk masterpiece.
Losers – How To Ruin Other People’s Futures – One of the most exciting bands in the world finally realises its full potential. A heavy, synth-tastic exploration of desolation.
Brian McSweeney – As the Bluebird – Brian McSweeney, former frontman of Seven Day Jesus and Matthew (the best rock band you’ve never heard (of)) returns with a lovely, folk-leaning record which exhibits his exceptional songwriting and vocal prowess to the full.
Willam Ryan Fritch – New Words For Old Wounds and Ill Tides – It takes a lot to get me in the right place for modern or contemporary classical music, but William Ryan Fritch carries me far away into a place where only this music matters and, really, isn’t that the point of it all?
Motorpsycho – Here Be Monsters – vying with Neil Cowley Trio for the crown of best live act on the planet, Norway’s Motorpsycho returned with what, for them at least, was a somewhat restrained affair. If you don’t know this band, you really should. Each iteration, each release, is so wildly different, creative. Sometimes heavy, sometimes soulful, sometimes introspective, at others entirely unhinged. There isn’t a more interesting band active at the moment. Here’s hoping they continue forever!
House of Heroes – Colors – a concept album that actually remembers to focus on high-quality songcraft. House of Heroes are the band that proves that existing outside of the Christian music ghetto is good for artistic development once and for all. The production and mix here is spot on, too.
Lettuce – Crush – Everyone needs a glorious slice of funk every now and again.
Thrice – To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere – s blistering return. I won’t say return to form. Their form never dipped.
Andy Gullahorn – Fault Lines – The most potent accoustic/singer-songwriter album you could ever hope to hear. These are songs you can believe in, that you can live. I have no idea why Andy Gullahorn isn’t one of the most famous musicians on the planet. This album has been good to and for me this year.
Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion – a really satisfying, intensely heavy and challenging listen, harking back to the time when rock music was intelligent first and commercial second.
Lisa Hannigan – At Swim – Lisa Hannigan’s solo output continues to dwarf that of her erstwhile bandmate Damien Rice. She just gets better and better. This album feels like the one where she has worked out who she is and what she wants to sound like. Gorgeous production, a really nice mix, but that would be nothing without stellar songs, which this album has from start to finish.
The Lees of Memory – Unnecessary Evil – This band are vital. This is a fantastic album that passed by virtually unnoticed. John Davis is a gem of a songwriter.
Switchfoot – Where The Light Shines Through – Switchfoot feel comfortable in their own skins these days. This is a glossy, widescreen pop record, but Jon Foreman continues to pen some of the strongest, most biting lyrics in the scene. The band’s talent for allying those poetic challenges with cinematic pop melodies continues unabated.
Sandra McCracken – God’s Highway – Sandra McCracken grows with each release. So much soul, so much depth. Each lyric seems hard-won, to come from the deepest place imaginable. In turn, each collection of her songs become a resource for the hurting, the broken and the seeking.
Matthew Zigenis – Overflow – a creative, original-sounding worship album. I finally found one. These songs could be sung in any Church in the world and they sound great on this album. Wonders will never cease. (obviously, one has to be creative enough to replace the splendid synth work with, you know, Gladys on the piano or Bob on the guitar if that will truly work, but it could work. Why not try some of these songs in your Church? Go on, I dare you).
Monomyth – Exo – I love this band. They stunned me in front of approximately 5 people in a small village near Milton Keynes in 2015, but I still contend that they should be loved by thousands. Instrumental post-rock, with hammond organs and fabulous moments of utter chaos. It takes some time to get going, but you always know the destination, and when it gets there…Well, there can be barely anything more musically satisfying. What’s not to love?
Albert Af Ekenstam – Ashes – another contender for best singer-songwriter album of the year. There’s a closeness to the vocal placing on this record that just makes the whole thing feel intimate and all the more special. Lovely songs.
David Bazan – Blanco – Some time ago, David Bazan was ranked somewhere in the late 30s (I think) by a noted magazine in a list of the greatest living songwriters. The ones who were above him in that list must be pretty flipping great. Blanco is another example of a master craftsman presenting not just his talent, but the whole of himself, his inner life, his dialogues on matters temporal and spiritual. One can only wish more communicators did their jobs with the consistency and openness that Bazan does. This side-step into synth territory could have been a mis-step, but instead it merely goes to show that whatever the sonic palette, Bazan is a songwriter to be treasured and learned from.
The Seraphim Project – Journeys and Destinations – To disclose fully, I have friends in this band. If anything, though, that makes me pre-disposed to be harsher in my estimation of this album. So when I say that it is a stunning, emotive piece of post-rock, take it from me that this is one record you don’t want to miss. The bits when it gets loud are great.
New Dog – Teeth Marks – I was sent this album by New Dog (Anar Badalov) completely out of the blue. No idea what to expect. It could have been awful. Fabulously it was not. A hushed, deep, searching acoustic singer-songwriter record of the finest kind. I wish Anar was known and loved by myriad, myriad people. Why don’t you become one such lover of his fine work?
Tigercub – Abstract Figures In the Dark – I saw this band opening for Royal Blood when both acts had released only one single. We all know what happened next for Royal Blood. With this album, Tigercub show that they are destined for the same stratospheric levels of success, if not surpassing that of their Brightonian brethren.
Asylums – Killer Brain Waves – a really fun, heavy, punky rock record from Southend. Those don’t come along too often
Silver Snakes – Saboteur – This is a heavy, blistering even, intricate and demanding rock record, the kind that is rarely made anymore, it seems. Might be too challenging for some. See what you make of it.
Audrey Assad – Inheritance – Unusually for me, a hymns record slips into my list. This one gets in if for no other reason than for the mind-bendingly good version of Holy, Holy, Holy contained herein. Seriously, even if your faith is long latent, forgotten in childhood, I defy you to listen to that song and remain unmoved.
Espen Eriksen Trio – Never Ending January – aside from Spacebound Apes, this was the jazz trio record I returned to the most this year. It’s understated, but intensely melodic and memorable. A jazz record with hooks you can hum along to. Whatever next
Chris James – Space In the Clouds (EP) – That voice, the one that made Stateless an absolutely crucial Ninja Tune act what seems like many moons ago, it’s back, making its’ first showing on this glorious 5 track opening gambit. The songs give James’s vocal room to breathe, but they also contain enough guts to lead this EP straight to the realms of glory. I’m looking forward very much to a full-length album, hopefully before too long.
So, there we are. What a lot of albums. It’s a diverse list. And I didn’t even mention Radiohead. Hopefully you’ll find something diverting, even something to love, here. 2017 is already looking like a good year. If I might point you in the direction of releases from Army of Bones and Jim Rogers, both forthcoming and undoubtedly worthy of your attention for starters…Have a great 2017, both musical and otherwise.
Did I miss something glaring in my list? Why don’t you let me know? If I had any time I’d make a playlist, but I don’t, so you’ll have to spend some time researching any albums you’ve not heard. Happy hunting!