My Best Albums of 2016 - James Thornhill
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Far from the hyperbolic ‘music is dead’ statements coming from some quarters (sure we have lost a lot of people this year, but come on!), music in 2016 was exceptional – especially in terms of albums.
Putting together a top 10 list has been an arduous task, there are hundreds of incredible records that were released this year. So the compiling of this list has been a mixture of what I have enjoyed, what is worth noting and what has not been mentioned so far in our personal run-downs of albums.
These are the albums that have done the most for me in 2016:
Martha – Blisters In The Pit of My Heart
So much music that falls into the “pop punk” sphere focuses on the ‘pop’ element to mean formulaic, and lacking depth – it has become a cliché. Not so with Durham band Martha who on their latest album Blisters In The Pit Of My Heart have packed the punk-power full of glistening pop hooks and melodies.
It is also an album brimming over with lyrical charm and poignancy taking on everything from gender politics to romance. You’d be hard pressed to find better lyrics than on punk pop belter ‘Checkov’s Hangnail” with its sense of romance and yearning, “Well I’ve never been any good at poetry, and I stumble over words from time to time” and it’s chorus refrain “when it rains it really fucking pours.”
Is there more poignantly romantic song than ‘Ice Cream and Sunscreen’ released all year – probably not?
This is intelligent, perfect but flawed pop music for the outcasts.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
To say I enjoyed this album would be misleading – I FELT this album. Skeleton Tree is by far the most emotion-destroying, endurance listen of 2016.
Despite most of the album being written before the tragic death of Cave’s son, that tragedy is etched into every word and note of this stark, raw masterpiece.
This is the trauma of grief laid out into music and it is sad, powerful and beautiful in equal measure.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Nine albums in Radiohead still has the ability to astound. A Moon Shaped Pool is less a drastic reinvention (which is a usual album trait for the band) but more a consolidation.
This album showcases a band that understand their powers and strengths and plays to them perfectly – nothing is out of place.
This point is supported by the fact the album features songs that have been floating around for a long time including ‘True Love Waits’ which has been taking shape for two decades and blistering opener ‘Burn The Witch’ which has been around in one form or another since the Kid A era.
For an album that straddles so many styles its master stroke is how complete it is.
Romare – Love Songs Pt.2
The Ninja Tune aural alchemist continued working his cut and paste magic for his second album, which again forges a nugget of pure gold from disparate samples in such an effective manner that it all feels like it was composed from scratch.
A slightly darker and more accomplished work that his debut Projections (one of our albums of the year in 2015) Love Songs: Part Two is really an album for everyone, working as well at a dinner party as it does on the dancefloor.
It is packed with charm, soul and incredible beats – what more could you possibly want?
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Kate Tempest – Let The Eat Chaos
Kate Tempest is fast emerging as the most vital voice in British music. A true poet her tales of our modern world are increasingly on-point and real food for thought.
Her second album follows seven different characters awake in the middle of the night.
Capable of dropping club-bangers, Tempest has opted for darker more introspective sounds to compliment her vitriolic, impassioned rhymes.
She is as good an MC as there is, with the best lyrics and a completely British voice. “Europe Is Lost” may well be th best political statement laid to record all year.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here... Thank You 4 Your Service
2016 was a year that was crying out for the return of the Tribe, and after 18 long years we got a new album from the hip hop innovators and it was like they never went away.
Despite the tragic loss of Phife Dawg and the album being it being largely recorded at Q-Tip’s home studio, this their sixth studio album reinvigorated the group’s incredible discography while at no point resting on nostalgia.
Sure it has all of the classic ATCQ tropes – the genre spanning musical journey, the super-smooth rhymes and the on-point, optimistic lyrics – but it feels vital for now.
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter struggle ‘We The People’ is the perfect illustration of what the Tribe have always meant in the world of hip-hop – a positive intellectualism. Q-Tip rhymes, “All you Black folks, you must go/All you Mexicans, you must go/And all you poor folks, you must go/Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways/So all you bad folk, you must go,” taking a pot-shot at the right-wing populism taking liberties with the US psyche right now.
Smooth, vital and still the best of the best in hip hop.
Angel Olsen – My Woman
Angel Olsen has built a reputation for lo-fi, introspective indie-folk which is why My Woman came as such a welcome surprise.
The first half of the album in particular the synth-led ‘Intern’ and the indie-rock bombast of ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ illustrate a wonderful new direction and depth to Olsen as she moves away from the minimalism of old.
When the lo-fi folk does come into play it fits the album beautifully and has the power to stop you in your tracks, as with ‘Women’ which washes over the listener likes a warm, comforting wave.
Swans – The Glowing Man
Often at odds with audiences over their long career, noise-merchants Swans have mellowed over recent releases. Their career is ending with this magnificent work of powerful, hypnotic album.
The Glowing Man is an album you experience, rather than listen too – this is rock music from the furthest edges of the universe.
Ebbing and flowing in waves of guitar dissonance, folk flourishes and jazz time-signatures, The Glowing Heart leaves the listener physically and emotionally drained in the best possible way.
BadBadNotGood – IV
The fourth album of progressive jazz for the modern age from this Toronto quartet is another masterstroke.
Taking the freeness of jazz and melding in the modern sounds of black culture (hip hop, RnB) BadBadNotGood make jazz an artform for the new millennium in the same way Kendrick Lemar and Kamasi Washington do.
Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini
The debut from the Norwich-based duo is childlike in the same way the twins from The Shining are ‘childlike’ – slightly unnerving.
I, Gemini is a truly experimental pop album, in the same vein as Bjork or Kate Bush, creating its own aural universe seemingly birthed from a broken music box.
The childlike vocals float above a selection of pop hooks, beats and surreal synths to forge a truly spellbinding listen.