Monday, 2 January 2017

The Best Of 2016

As we reach the end of another year, it hardly seems necessary for me to say that 2016 was a bad one for deaths and world events in general. This is reflected in the lyrical themes of some of the year's releases but what's more noticeable is that many of us have sought comfort in music and perhaps even used it to shut ourselves off from the horrors around us. I wouldn't have thought it possible this time last year but I've listened to even more new music than I did in 2015 and that has made compiling this year's listing an almost impossible task. I did consider making it a top 30 instead due to the large number of albums that didn't quite make the cut. For example, I expect many of you will be concerned by the absence of PJ Harvey. "The Hope Six Demolition Project" was in my first draft of the chart but then I realised that I'd left out Kristin Hersh so positions had to be shuffled, which meant that poor Polly Jean was bumped out of the top 20. To make us all feel better about it, let's consider her to be joint 20th, which just means she doesn't get her photo on the wall above.

Other notable omissions include Savages, the Besnard Lakes, the first album in over 15 years from the Violent Femmes, an excellent film soundtrack from Scott Walker and the last ever album (although Michael Gira has promised/threatened that more than once in the past) from Swans. As in previous years, an honourable mention should go to my good friend Steve Lawson, who misses out simply because he's released so much new music recently that it's difficult to pick one.

20 CAVERN OF ANTI-MATTER - Void Beats/Invocation Trex
Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth collaborate with members of Deerhunter, Spacemen 3 and Mouse On Mars for a triple album that replicates the best of Stereolab with added sci-fi weirdness.

19 JENNY HVAL - Blood Bitch
The only artist from last year's chart who also features this year. While some might find an album about menstruation unnerving, the music is serene enough that you find yourself forgetting the overall theme and the lyrics could be interpreted as being about emotional loss, vampires or whatever you choose.

18 THOUGHT FORMS - Songs About Drowning
The Bristol trio have been getting some well-deserved press this year, with support slots for the likes of Bob Mould. Live, they blew me away with fury that called to mind early Sonic Youth. On record, their musical ability comes to the fore and with the more minimal approach on a couple of tracks it becomes apparent just how much vocalist Charlie Romijn sounds like Kim Gordon.

17 STEVE GUNN - Eyes On The Lines
It's easy to be fooled by Gunn's voice and think that you're in for an album of classic '70s rock but then you notice the technical intricacies of the playing. The best comparison I can come up with is a mix of Richard Thompson and recent Thurston Moore works, and I've tied my brain in knots trying to work out how many guitars are layered on top of each other.

16 WYMOND MILES - Call By Night
The Fresh & Onlys' guitarist has released three solo records but I'd never encountered him until he cropped up on a Sacred Bones label sampler that came with Jenny Hval's album. Baroque pop that will appeal to fans of Scott Walker's '60s work.

15 LINDA GUILALA - Psiconáutica
Foreign language albums are difficult to get my head round if I'm not sure what the songs are about but this Spanish mix of swirling keyboards and shimmering guitars inspired me to put in a bit of effort. While many would have been content just to enjoy the ethereal melodies, I spent an evening running the lyrics through Google Translate and discovered that this is a concept album of sorts about someone going through various stages of addiction and psychological trauma.

14 THE WOLFHOUNDS - Untied Kingdom (...Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture)
Although usually lumped in with jangly C86 bands, from their second album onwards the Wolfhounds were more abrasive and socially aware, and "Untied Kingdom" picks up where 1990's "Attitude" left off. The lyrics, including racist jokes from the 1970s and mentions of "the stupid poor getting what they deserve", come uncomfortably close to the truth at times - an indie equivalent of Frankie Boyle.

13 KRISTIN HERSH - Wyatt At The Coyote Palace
Kristin Hersh rarely releases albums in a conventional format these days; this 24-song epic comes in a book with stories, poems and even a recipe. While the boundaries between her solo and Throwing Muses output have become increasingly blurred of late, many tracks here hark back to works such as 2001's "Sunny Border Blue".

12 PSYCHIC ILLS - Inner Journey Out
The third Sacred Bones release in this year's chart. The hazy melodies bring to mind Mazzy Star so it's no surprise that there is a guest appearance from Hope Sandoval, whose own album narrowly missed the top 20.

11 ANOHNI - Hopelessness
I was slow to catch on to the fact that Antony Hegarty was recording under a new name but snapped up this album as soon as I learned who it was. There are more electronic elements and a more political slant than on Antony And The Johnsons' releases, but the haunting voice is still unmistakable.

10 GONG - Rejoice! I'm Dead!
Purists will no doubt claim that Gong without Daevid Allen is unimaginable and with Kavus Torabi now at the helm, I must confess that on first listen this came across as a Knifeworld album. But on closer inspection, the underlying music comes closer to the classic jazzy Gong sound than anything they've released this century, particularly with Steve Hillage's contribution to the title track. Featuring lyrics written by Allen taking a self-deprecating look at his impending death, these songs provide some reassurance in a year when we've lost so many great artists.

9 SUEDE - Night Thoughts
Friends have expressed surprise that I listen to Suede as they were apparently a "Britpop" band - a scene I strove to avoid. I don't agree with them being categorised this way; let's not forget that "Dog Man Star" was one of the most complex albums of that period and 20 years later they have finally matched it with a record so sweepingly dramatic that it's almost prog at times. I still don't fully understand the accompanying film though.

8 BIRDEATSBABY - Tanta Furia
Despite several singles (including a Muse cover) suggesting Birdeatsbaby were developing a harder edge, this album features plenty of their trademark cabaret sound. The weekend I spent with Mishkin Fitzgerald was one of the high points of my year and after she bravely opened up in this article about her ongoing battle with depression, the introspective lyrics make perfect sense.

7 PIXIES - Head Carrier
Many fans had written them off after the departure of Kim Deal but we finally have a worthy successor to "Doolittle". Full review here.

6 PIANO MAGIC - Closure
Piano Magic, and also frontman Glen Johnson's other projects, have featured heavily in this blog since I started it and I think it's accurate to say that they are the one band who have provided a constant soundtrack for almost half of my life. So I'm saddened that they've decided to bring things to a close 20 years to the day since their first ever gig, but they go out in style with a final album that echoes the brooding melancholy of their 2005 masterpiece "Disaffected".

My greatest discovery of the year when I saw her at an excellent psych event in Manchester, coming across like Patti Smith fronting Suicide. I was worried that the album wouldn't live up to my expectations but it has exceeded them, with the drive of the live show augmented by hints of Silver Apples and Broadcast.

4 RADIOHEAD - A Moon Shaped Pool
This album has perplexed and even infuriated me - the grammatical error in the title, the inclusion of tracks that the band have been playing live for many years, the barely legible "secondary" lyrics on the vinyl packaging and most of all the release schedule, which meant I had to go against my usual instinct and listen to the download months before I had the physical release. But it's still Radiohead at their finest and hangs together more cohesively than previous effort "King Of Limbs".

3 NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - Skeleton Tree
A Nick Cave album is always an emotional experience and you can expect themes of death to crop up but after the untimely loss of his son, this one was bound to be unsettlingly realistic. On the first listen I assumed every song was written as a tribute but then Cave revealed that, amazingly, some of the lyrics were penned before the tragic event. Regardless of what he did/didn't intend the songs to be about, this is possibly the most moving release in his 30-plus years as an artist.

Many would have expected this to top my chart and if I'm honest, one of the reasons it didn't is simply that I've found it emotionally draining to revisit the album. In case you didn't read it, here's what I wrote at the time. I don't think there's any more that needs to be said.

1 KNIFEWORLD - Bottled Out Of Eden
If you've read this far then you're probably wondering a couple of things: Just who is this Kavus Torabi guy and why is he so special that not only does he get into the top 10 twice but also snatch the number one spot from odds-on favourite Bowie? And if the album is so great, why has a full review not appeared in this blog already? It's amazing that between taking on the unenviable task of fronting Gong and co-hosting a radio show with Steve "Interesting" Davis, Kavus has found time to create something that's alternately uplifting and poignant. But while the man himself gets most of the writing credits, let's not forget the other seven members who contribute elements such as clarinet, sax and bassoon to give the record such a frenetic sound. As for the lack of a review when it came out - well, I've started to write about it several times but it's such a diverse record that it's impossible to describe it accurately. To call it "prog" or "psych" is just lazy. I still haven't reached a full interpretation of what this album means to me on a personal level but the idea of leaving Eden for hell sums up the past year. Add to that the repeated theme of dreams and I get the feeling that this album is not intended to be understood, and that's what has kept me hooked. I would like to think that in 10, 20 years' time, if I'm asked to name a record that has stuck with me then "Bottled Out Of Eden" will be one of the first that comes to mind.

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