Ela Orleans photo: Alkistis Terzi
Years don’t have much more than an arbitrary feel to them yet 2016 has taken something of a beating as the scapegoat for a number of events out with its control. Still, despite that, I’ve been handed the unenviable task of putting together a list of my favourite albums of the year again for this esteemed online publication
So, despite my temptation to add albums that came out prior to 1 January 2016 but which only presented themselves to my ears in this calendar year I’ve stuck to my task. And while this year has been something of a tumultuous year I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed by the amount of albums that thoroughly moved me and enthralled me this year.
Personally, I feel that it’s been a good year for music, but most years are, it’s just sometimes you have to search a little deeper. So here we go on a trip through my favourite albums of the year.
Ela Orleans – Circles Of Upper and Lower Hell (Night School)
This is my hands down favourite album of the year for so many reasons but mainly because I love it wholeheartedly. I’ve been a fan of Ela’s music and performances for a number of years now but this album has followed me everywhere since I picked up the sumptuously packaged double album in Monorail when it came out. It’s gorgeous, sometimes heartbreakingly so, at other times so absolutely joyous. It stands up to repeated plays from start to finish and reveals itself in increments as I keep playing it. I doubt I will ever get fed-up of this record in all its beauty and shades of light, dark and everything in between. Pretty much the perfect record.
De Rosa – Weem (Rock Action)
De Rosa’s third album was an absolute revelation to me. After a long hiatus they really came up with the goods with this elegant, elegiac third album. The opening track ‘Spectres’ alone is worth buying the record for but the songs that succeed it are things of rare beauty. Both musically and lyrically Weem is astute, haunting and never less than brilliant, evocative and full of ghosts and memories. It deals in landscapes, both past and present and is gloriously melodic and, for me, was an album that slipped under the radar a bit. Epic in a good way.
The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset (Hardly Art)
Kathleen Hanna has consistently made brilliant records from Bikini Kill to Le Tigre and with The Julie Ruin. Hit Reset, the follow-up to 2013’s fabulous Run Fast, is just so much fun. The songs come wrapped in sugar-sweet melodies that are so damn infectious but they pack a lyrical punch as well. There is a really liberating feeling to The Julie Ruin and this album is such a rush to listen to. It makes me want to dance around the room, on some days it even helps me get out of bed and it makes me think as well. Smart, intelligent, edgy pop always rocks my boat and this album has it in abundance. One of my favourite live bands of the year as well.
The Filthy Tongues – Jacob’s Ladder (Blokshok)
The Filthy Tongues are a band with a lot of history but none of that prepared me for how much I would fall for this album. It’s a fully realised, epic tribute to the dark underbelly of Scotland’s capital. Each song is a brilliantly realised, smartly constructed work of art in their own right but as a whole the album encompasses a narrative and musical structure that means it holds together as a complete work. Despite the lush arrangements and full songs there is a rough, brutal energy to the songs as well that bands half their age would struggle to achieve. Another one of the best gigs I have seen this year was also The Filthy Tongues who just smacked me between the eyes and caressed my ears. A dark, stark and wise record.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Columbia)
In a year when a number of talented musicians passed away it was Leonard Cohen’s final album which struck me even more than David Bowie’s Blackstar as a perfect sign-off. As far as songwriters go, personally I think Leonard Cohen is peerless. From a teenager I’ve loved his writing and performances and I found him as witty as he could be dark and his albums are some of the wisest and most gorgeous that I have ever heard. This is a stark but strangely beautiful album about death and passing. It’s hugely intimate and extremely moving with Cohen’s battered voice to the forefront accompanied by the sparsest of instrumentation that is delicate and superbly structured. Sometimes there is just that voice, light percussion and a ghostly choir interspersed with violin. Totally haunting stuff yet full of life and an acceptance that all things must pass. Certainly not an easy listen but it also feels celebratory in places.
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd)
This album is so painfully difficult to listen to. I am a massive fan of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and this is a fine, fine record full of unbelievably wonderful arrangements but the sense of grief is overwhelming at times. Where Leonard Cohen looks over a life, long and fulfilled, Nick Cave mourns the loss of his son, a boy not yet a man. One of the most moving films I saw in 2016 was the documentary, One More Time With Feeling. I came out of the cinema barely able to speak. It’s a film that asks not how a person moves on from such a devastating event as the loss of a child but how one even acknowledges such a traumatic event which is the subject matter of Skeleton Tree. This is an album that I can hardly bare to listen to at times, the intensity of it scares me but it is also a beautiful and humane record. An album about the love of a child and the loss of the child.
The Liminanas – Malamore (SPFF / Because Music)
I heard a song off this album and loved it but when I was in a record shop my mind blanked when it came to the name of the band or the album and subsequently spent an awkward few moments googling ‘contemporary French bands’ (Daft Punk anyone?) before recalling the information I required from the dusty and muddled corner of my brain that I store such things in. I wasn’t disappointed by the album which is a groovy bunch of songs influenced by psych-pop and French 60s pop but put through a 21st century blender. There are a few moments when I think Serge Gainsbourg is still alive and making music (particularly ‘El Beach’) but in my mind that would be a good thing. There is also a Peter Hook appearance playing bass on ‘Garden Of Love’ and some utterly wonderful freakouts that sound like part of the soundtrack to the craziest film either. Great fun.
Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini (Transgressive)
This is a really difficult album to describe to anyone but it has an off-the-wall freshness and in ‘Deep Six Textbook’ and ‘Eat Shiitake Mushrooms’ two absolute diamonds of songs. There is a rough, experimental edge to the album and Let’s Eat Grandma sound like no-one else making music at this point in time. At times the songs are fragile things, at others ramshackle and full of ideas exploding in so many different directions like the duo couldn’t settle on just one way for a song to go. I, Gemini is an album of some many different moods. It can be eerie and unsettling at others rapturously beautiful and fun. Occasionally things misfire over the nine songs but when it is good it is so bloody good. A powerful debut album that creates a world of its own. A peculiar but special record.
Graeme Rose – Kleus*Artium (Self Released)
Another album that exists in a world of its own making this is a bewitching collection of instrumental tracks that operate as soundtracks to films that only exist in the imagination of the musician. The 31 tracks, the majority very short, operate together to create an enchanting, dreamy sound that can both relax and unsettle you. ‘Shieldmaids At Rest’ and ‘The Temple’ are particular favourites with gentle, undulating melodies that wrap themselves around you while other pieces have a more discomforting feel to them. Overall it works together well as a complete piece that you can immerse yourself in totally. A very accomplished work indeed.
Witching Waves – Crystal Cafe (Soft Power)
This is one that I actually purchased by accident. I hadn’t heard Witching Waves at all and bought what I thought was their debut album, Fear Of Falling Down, mainly because I loved the sleeve and trusted the taste of Soft Power Records. I took it home from Monorail only to find that inside the sleeve of the debut was the second album, Crystal Café. I was a bit disappointed with that but certainly not with the music. There’s a great, exuberant feel to this album with soaring melodies and a raw energy and it’s a record that always gives me a boost when I play it. Fear Of Falling Down is also well worth checking out.
Hayley Bonar – Impossible Dream (GNDWire / Thirty Tigers)
I bought this after hearing the single ‘Kismet Kill’ on the radio. It stuck in my head for days and I wasn’t disappointed by the rest of the album when I got home. It clocks in at just over 30 minutes but each song is a beautiful, precise detonation in the heart. Smart, bittersweet and utterly beguiling. Really fine stuff that has never been far from my stereo or spinning around in my mental jukebox. Hayley Bonar seemed to appear out of nowhere this year but has a pretty impressive back catalogue now which is well worth diving into.
Whyte Horses – Pop Or Not (CRC)
This one arrived via a recommendation from Mike Manic Pop Thrills himself. I’m not even sure if Whyte Horses are a ‘real’ band in the sense that they have a fixed line-up or are the dream of one person but what a dream it is. Dom Thomas and various collaborators have created their own sublime world, creating a psychedelic pop album that is utterly enchanting and engaging. They draw on the outer edges of 60s music but create something so enticing and compelling that I keep being drawn back to it time and time again.
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island)
The Hope Six Demolition Project got a lot of attention before a note was even recorded when it was announced that the recording of the album would be partially done in front of an audience. Not as a live album but where people could view the band at work in the studio in Somerset House. This, along with reports of Polly Harvey’s field research for the album gave it the aura of an art project but the results are warm and intriguing and often quite intimate. There are some huge topics dealt with on the album – urban regeneration, war, the global economy – but it results in a very moving, lovely album rather than a simplistic look-at-me, I care, I saw a documentary once about Kosovo piece of voyeurism. It explores the small details that make up the bigger picture and sounds intimate and inventive.
Kid Canaveral – Faulty Inner Dialogue (Lost Map)
The third album from Kid Canaveral took me a while to come around to but hearing them play songs from it at The Cool Cat Club seemed to unlock its numerous charms for me and I have warmed to it considerably. Initially the songs seemed somehow more stripped down than before, colder even but that’s illusory. It feels bleak in places but has an elegant, graceful feel to it and the band retain their enviable knack for pop hooks while sounding more grown-up and, if not wiser, then certainly less naïve.
Kate Jackson – British Road Movies (Hoo Ha)
I really dug The Long Blondes, particularly their debut album, which perfectly describes a certain type of urban living – dreamers on high hopes and low incomes – and on British Road Movies, a collaboration with Bernard Butler, Kate Jackson revisits that territory a little older and a little wiser. This is a beautifully epic work full of smart lyrics and catchy hooks that capture both a sense of movement and stasis, particularly the wonderful opener ‘The End Of Reason’ (if ever a song title summed up recent times) and the punchy ‘Wonder Feeling’. Kate Jackson is a talented singer and lyricist who seems to me to be a bit unfairly overlooked. This is a fine record that, had I heard it earlier might have made its way higher on this list.
And here’s the one that eluded me in 2015.
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts – Manhattan (Rough Trade)
This would have made it pretty high-up last years list had it somehow slipped out past me. It’s another album that I play constantly and Jeffrey Lewis is one of my favourite songwriters ever. From start to finish this album is an absolute beauty as Lewis pays tribute to his home borough. I had the privilege of putting Jeffrey and his band on at The Cool Cat Club in August and it’s a night that will stick with me for a long, long time. I loved the band so much I even made them breakfast in the morning. Manhattan is currently my favourite Jeffrey Lewis album, it just fits together so perfectly and is full of wonderful, literate, funny and sad songs.
There were several albums that I’ve heard tracks from and loved but haven’t had the chance to fully make acquaintance with and these are The Wharves Electa, HiFi Sean’s Ft., El Hombre Trajeado’s fast Diagonal and Rattle’s self-titled debut album. There are also undoubtedly some utter gems that I’ve missed as well but there are only so many hours in a day, days in year and so, remembering that years are actually arbitrary constructs they will still be great records when I find my way towards them.