My Top Ten albums of 2016

A turbulent year politically, what with Brexit, Trump and the continued horrors of Syria. And a sad year in music, when we lost David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and more. But the music itself – as brilliant as ever. I’ll be writing a review of the year, so this is a taster: my Top Ten Albums of the year.  Last year, indie got top slot with Gengahr’s “A Dream Outside” – still an album I listen to a lot – but the dominant theme was the female voice. This year indie has made a bit of a return, but those beautiful and distinctive voices retain a strong hold. Read on…

No 1. “Fading Lines” by Amber Arcades

I first came across Amber Arcades at the End of the Road festival in early September. The band, led by Annelotte de Graaf, made an immediate impact, with their dreamy melodies and Velvets-inflected guitars. I downloaded the album as soon as I got home and haven’t stopped listening to it. It’s a joyous collection of songs – lovely melodies, Annelotte’s wistful voice, the chiming guitars and a punching beat underpinning everything. “Fading Lines”, “Come with Me” and “Turning Light” remain highlights, but every song has its own beauty. This album lifts me up every time I hear it. And for that reason it ousted what I thought would be No 1 from the moment it was released…

No 2. “A Moon Shaped Pool” by Radiohead

A new Radiohead album is always an event. And this one did not disappoint. It took a couple of listens to reveal its full depths, but deep it was. A change in style for the band – the more angular electronic replaced by a lush, cinematic sound at times. There were strident tunes, the lead track “Burn the Witch” and the unsettling “Ful Stop” (my favourite on the album) amongst them. But lushness and gentle swirls of sound were the defining characteristic, and Radiohead made some of their most beautiful music in the process. I especially liked “Daydreaming” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief”. Music for films, the Radiohead way.

No 3. Adore Life by Savages

This one has crept up on me just recently. Hit me on the head with a saucepan, punched me in the face and booted me while I’m on the floor! It really is magnificent in its gothic angst, its pummelling riffs, the grandiose cries for love and a sheer theatricality. Singer Jehnny Beth is extraordinary – when she howls that she going insane you can believe it! I had this album for a while before I fully appreciated it, and there’s no doubt that their awesome performance at End of the Road set me on my way. I especially love the frenzied riffing of “The Answer” and “T.I.W.Y.G” (this is what you get when you mess with love) and the pounding beat of “Sad Person”. And “Adore” is just made to be a slow-burn stadium anthem. Watch the BBC recording of their Glastonbury set on You Tube and you’ll get a sense of their relentless power.

No 4. Waiting for the World to Turn by Palace Winter

Palace Winter are a Copenhagen-based duo, Australian Carl Coleman and Dane Caspar Hesselager. The songs on this, their debut album, are big, like U2’s and Coldplay’s are big. And like The War on Drugs on the more upbeat numbers on the brilliant “Lost in the Dream” (my No 2 in 2014).  They are my points of reference, with any number of anthemic 80s bands – Talk Talk spring to mind. Give it a few listens and some lovely melodies reveal themselves amid the singing guitars and thumping drums. This is undoubtedly a sound fit for stadiums. I can’t imagine how they won’t be massive.

No 5. “The Colour In Anything” by James Blake

This is a deep, melancholy, but warm suite of songs best heard together. Overall I think it’s James Blake’s strongest album, though it doesn’t have anything quite as distinctive as “The Wilhelm Scream” and “Limit to your Love”. The electronic veerings that make his music so distinctive are still there, along with some gorgeous melodies, that bring out all the sinegr’s angst. There’s a spirit of Stevie Wonder in there – listen to the “My Willing Heart” and “Choose Me” to hear what I mean. Like all James Blake’s albums this is music best listened to late at night, though he has proved he can captivate a festival audience in the summer sunshine as those angular beats kick in at the most unlikely of times. Listen, listen and listen again – you will be enveloped.

No 6. “Blonde” by Frank Ocean

To say that Frank Ocean’s follow up album to the brilliant “Channel Orange” was much-awaited is something of an understatement. Five years it took. And yes, it was worth the wait. It’s more subdued than its predecessor – but it is suffused with a melancholy beauty. It’s got a lot in common with James Blake’s album in that respect – and Blake was involved in the production. Frank Ocean occupies a space between R&B, rap and soul, with pop references too – there’s even a hint of the Beatles in “White Ferrari”. The spirit of Stevie Wonder is undoubtedly there, and Prince too. But this is 2016 and Frank Ocean’s sound is distinctly his own. It’s a fascinating album – you can speculate like crazy about the state of the mind that produced it. Or you can just wallow in the beautifully produced melancholy. Essential listening.

No 7. “Don’t Let the Kids Win” by Julia Jacklin

This is my wistful singer-songwriter, Americana, country heartbreak album of the year. Julia is an Australian, sings like an angel and wields an expressive electric guitar. She’s great live, where my points of reference were the likes of Sharon van Etten and Courtney Barnett. She sings her slower tunes with a haunting beauty that you might also find in Emmylou Harris and two of my recent favourites, Daisy Vaughan and Lindi Ortega. So roll all those references together and you can see why I like her! Her voice is at its most expressive in the moving “Motherland”; her roots in great pop of many years evident in songs like “Pool Party” and “Coming of Age”. She’s on at the Scala in March 2017 – I’ll be there!

No 8. “Suppose” by Blue House

Blue House, a London band fronted by Ursula Russell and James Howard, play wistful, kind of melancholy, observant songs that chug along like a good Velvet Underground tune. The band they keep reminding me of most is Prefab Sprout, from the 1980s. and the melodies have something in common with Crowded House – and, I guess, R.E.M., especially their earlier albums. “Suppose” has one of my favourite songs of the year on it: “Ear to the Door”. It’s an affectionate break up song. That’s Blue House for you – reflective, ambiguous, slightly quirky and rather lovely. There’s the only song I know so far about the death of David Bowie, “January the Tenth”. Another affectionate break up – of a different kind.

No 9. “I, Gemini” by Let’s Eat Grandma

So, how to describe this one? A collision of prog rock, electronica, dance, pop and some very scary fairy tales! Sung and performed by two teenagers from Norwich, Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton, who have an obvious grasp of today’s sounds, but have clearly been listening to their parents’ record collections. There are so many different things going on in this music. It doesn’t always work, but mostly it does and it’s just intriguing. You are as likely to get a burst of triangle or recorder as a guitar solo or some jagged saxophone. The lyrics are equally mind-boggling: there are dead cats, shiitake mushrooms, chocolate sludge cake, cries for Mummy. The school play collides with “Tales of Topographic Oceans” in a disco. Or something like that. I saw them live twice this year: first in the dingy Elektrowerkz in Islington, then at Latitude. They didn’t have much to say, but played with real versatility. I’ll be fascinated to see – and hear – where they go next.

No 10. “Teens of Denial” by Car Seat Headrest

Car Seat Headrest is a Seattle-based band led by Will Toledo, who has been producing music under the name since 2010. I only came across him earlier this year thanks to a positive review in the music blog, Little by Listen, which is written by three guys from the mid-West, Wes, Austin and Todd. Worth following, though they’ve been quite quiet recently. The easy description is low-fi, slacker music. With grunge thrown in. Beck meets Nirvana and Pavement. That’s good! There are some great riffs in here, and some quirky takes on life. I like the song titles: “Destroyed by Hippy Powers”, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” amongst them. What can it all mean? This is a classic disaffected American album. There is a lot going on in it. Like Let’s Eat Grandma, but in a totally different way, it’s fascinating. They may not be that well-known yet, but word of mouth is strong and they have already sold out the Electric Ballroom in Camden for a March show. I just bought a ticket for Manchester in case I feel I must see them – and I think I may just feel that the more I listen to this one.

Two from 2015 that would be in the list if they were from 2016

“My Love Is Cool” by Wolf Alice

This one was in my honourable mentions last year, only because I hadn’t really listened to it enough. I gave it another go in the New Year and it clicked. It became my most-played album for quite a while, especially when I saw the band at the Forum in Kentish Town in March. They were electric and the (quite young) audience did some serious moshing. They combine hard rocking riffs with a strong pop sensibility. A sniffy Guardian writer described the music as bubblegrunge. Clever, but condescending and wrong! It is awesome rock’n’roll and Ellie Rowsell, singer and guitarist has a great presence. Best songs for me include “You’re a Germ”, “My Love’s Whore” and “Fluffy”, but it is an excellent, uplifting album from start to finish. Can’t wait for the next one!

“Sore” by Dilly Dally

The 90s revival is in full swing and grunge is back. And Dilly Dally, a Toronto band, have updated grunge and punk in a visceral, slightly shambolic but powerful way. They are another End of the Road discovery for me, so “Sore” felt like a 2016 album to me. It’s crude, heartfelt, wayward and captivating. As well as at End of the Road, I saw them at the Scala in September. The words I’ve used already – visceral, shambolic – are a good description of the music; but there is a real rock’n’roll power too. I felt excited to be a watching a band that didn’t feel quite the finished article, but which really had something about them. Fronted by two women, Katie Monks and Liz Ball. Katie’s voice is a rasp, almost slurred, but it works. The music bludgeons and the choruses are shouty. I listened to the album a lot after the gig and really liked it. Stand out tracks for me are “Desire” and “Snakehead”, where the Pixies and PJ Harvey are definite references. For me, a reminder of what rock’n’roll is all about.

Honourable mentions

There will no doubt be a Wolf Alice in here, but some of the other albums that were vying for a place in my Top Ten included:

“Blackstar” by David Bowie. His valedictory shot, greeted as a true return to form, exploring jazz at the edges of his sound. The title track was awesome and beguiling. Throughout you cannot help but interpret the songs as messages from a dying man, and maybe that’s why I didn’t listen to it a lot. But it will last, I think. The final work from one of the greatest pop artists of all time.

“Light upon the Lake” by Whitney, featuring the lovely “No Woman” and sounding like the late 60s Van Morrison was back. Brilliant live at Koko in Camden, where singer/frontman and drummer, Julien Ehrlich, kept his hood up, drank red wine, sang in a affecting falsetto and gave one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen all year.

“My Woman” by Angel Olsen

I’m still quite new to this one, but it was a rival to Julia Jacklin in that melancholy singer-songwriter with a rock sensitivity field. Again, Sharon van Etten is a reference point. And I really love the track “Sister”, which features some soaring, Neil Young-style guitar.

“The Bride” by Bat for Lashes

Bat for Lashes, featuring Natasha Khan, were terrific at End of the Road. “The Bride” was the centrepiece of that show. It’s a beautiful, haunting album, with a rather macabre theme about a bride who loses her fiancée to a car crash on their wedding day. The album tells the story of the hope, the loss and the recovery. Musically, comparisons with Kate Bush are unavoidable, but as Kate Bush doesn’t do a lot these days, it’s good to have Bat for Lashes!

“Human Performance” by Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts are a great band – I’ve waxed lyrical about them many times on this blog. When they started they felt like the Strokes meet Velvet Underground. With each album, the Strokes element fades and the grunge/slacker sound combines more with the Velvets. Like it a lot still, but fewer tracks that jump out. Still excellent live – saw them at the Forum, Kentish Town recently.

“22, A Million” by Bon Iver

In which Bon Iver goes electronic and slightly weird. The delicate angst is still there, but submerged in the effects. I haven’t listened to this one enough yet. It’s good, but I’m not sure how good. I think it will reveal more with each listen.

“Phase” by Jack Garratt

Jack Garratt is a multi-instrumentalist whose sound falls somewhere in between James Blake and Disclosure – so a bit more poppy and upbeat than the former, rather more angsty than the latter. But the combination results in a modern and catchy collection with plenty of hooks and some interesting electronic diversions. I saw him recently at Hammersmith Apollo – he had sold out two nights there – and he put on a real show – a one man show. It felt like he had found a way of combining popular appeal with musical complexity – quite a feat. And “Phase” is the recorded proof of that.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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8 Responses to My Top Ten albums of 2016

  1. dc says:

    so Let’s eat grandma beat Bowie?

  2. Jon Grantham says:

    John, interesting list. Here’s mine, greatly influenced by some fabulous live shows. The last two were released in 2015 but I only discovered them this year. As a result, my 10 becomes 12. So in no particular order:

    Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future. Underworld
    A Weird Exits. Thee Oh Sees
    Chaleur Humaine. Christine and the Queens
    Brilliant Sanity. Teleman
    A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead
    Light Upon the Lake. Whitney
    Commonline. Field Music
    Necroflat in the Palace. Cabbage (an EP)
    Acoustic. Simple Minds
    Fading Lines. Amber Arcades

    Art Angels. Grimes
    In Colour. Jamie xx

    • John S says:

      Great selection Jon. Thee Oh Sees are a band that are at their best live I think and were, of course, awesome at End of the Road. I should have had Teleman in my honourable mentions – forgot. And I’ve just not got around to Field Music yet – but again great at EoR. Likewise, overlooked Underworld for some reason, but must listen.

  3. Dood says:

    I’m beginning to feel a bit like my Dad when he was enjoying Russ Conway, and Van der Graaf Generator came along. I’m getting increasingly lost in all this new stuff – though Jon G remains impressively attached to it – and I’m still clinging on to the old certainties like Radiohead and Underworld.

    I’m trying to keep track of both your tastes, though I’m still struggling to love some of those folky/country/duende/weepy highlights. I do admire your curiosity, though, and your wish to keep your musical interests totally fresh. Me, I’m still stuck in Britpop land.

  4. Resa says:

    Glad to see Frank Ocean on the list!
    John, it seems like last week I was reading last years top ten list! Lol! Happy Holidays! ⭐

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