Albums of the Year 2016
Well, 2016 was a right pile of shit, wasn’t it? Luckily, there was some fucking great music released, to relieve the pain just a little. Some of it might even be… important?
This here blog has long been a once-annual affair. Just an albums-of-the-year post every December, banged out in an hour or two. The writing may well be pretentious gobbledegook; the grammar and punctuation almost certainly aren’t 100% correct; you can pretty much guarantee a few serious factual errors…
But the music is fantastic and that’s what matters.
Right now, the current state of the world has to make you wonder if there will be an internet – or even a planet – upon which to publish this sort of list, come December 2017. And even if we’re left with anything more than a smouldering pile of ashes, won’t such things nevertheless appear appallingly trivial?
For now though, the question for list compilers everywhere has to be: What sort of album could possibly top an AotY chart in such an unceasingly bleak and unsettling context?
Top 10 Albums of the Year
1. Shirley Collins – Lodestar (Domino) LP
An album like this, it turns out. One of the most distinctive voices in English folk music makes her first album in over three decades and it has just the right mixture of brutality and compassion to divine some kind of sense from the world around us. That voice is even more distinctive now, sounding like creaking oak timbers on one of the many ships featured throughout this nautically-obsessed collection. Aside from boats, the main theme of the album is death – and the chillingly sparse, beautifully recorded arrangements are more than appropriate for this subject matter. But at 81, Shirley Collins certainly doesn’t seem ready to slip from this here mortal coil. On Lodestar, she sounds invincibly stoic – like she could quite happily sit out another three decades; like she could wait out a nuclear winter.
2. Trim – 1-800 Dinosaur Presents Trim (1-800 Dinosaur) 2LP
Grime’s finest emcee finally makes the experimental album he’s always had in him. The lyrics are as hilarious and bizarre as ever and the slooow beats – by a bunch of James Blake-associate nerds – push the plastic presets and clipped drums associated with classic grime right to brink of entropy. This is a landmark release both inside and outside the genre, so those of you with a prejudice against all things grimy in the 2010s need to knock it of a just listen.
3. Autechre – Elseq 1-5 (Warp) 5xDL
Massive, ridiculous, unmanageable and utterly singular in its alien brilliance. A five-hour stream of brain-scrambling digital abstraction that seems insurmountable at first – it opens with a barrage of percussive insanity and features several tracks that push well past the 20-minute mark. Still, there’s enough simple beauty lurking on Elseq‘s 3 and 4 in particular to lure fans of the Manchester duo’s early work (which itself got a welcome vinyl reissue this year).
4. Biosphere – Departed Glories (Smalltown Supersound) 2LP
An unusually sparse collection of highly-processed ambience makes for Biosphere’s best LP. In the past, there’s always been something a bit corny about Biosphere – all that film dialogue, for starters! But that’s generally been a big part of the appeal, to be honest. Here, the sound is austere and any hint of corn is scrubbed right out. But nothing is missing. The panoramic scope and awestruck wonder are broader and deeper than ever.
5. Trembling Bells – Wide Majestic Aire (Tin Angel) LP
Folk-rock throwback business that is more than redeemed by its consistently excellent tunes. You can’t underestimate the power of a good tune, really. In recent years Jim O’Rourke and Mark Van Hoen have managed to elevate albums that should have sounded insufferably cheesy or played-out, simply by loading them with gorgeous, unforgettable melodies. Aside from being inherently hard-to-resist when done well, this approach creates a context for the continued exploration of styles that might normally lead you to wonder if people are really still doing that. On “Swallows of Carbeth”, Trembling Bells sound almost laughably like classic-era Fairport Convention. But oh what a tune!
6. Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force – Yermande (Ndagga) LP
The Basic Channel guy successfully fuses his dub-techno genius with Senegalese funk. It’s astonishingly well realized, with Ernestus stripping the sound back to reveal its perplexing rhythmic intricacies and make ample room for its haunting melodic beauty to become all-encompassingly cinematic. ME has been absolutely on fire recently. In particular, his remixes of Nigeria’s Obadikah are essential listening for those of you craving something in the vein of classic Rhythm & Sound.
7. Westside Gunn – Flygod (Daupe!) 2LP
A harshly thrilling update of the 90s golden age hip-hop sound, straight outta Buffalo. In a sense, this seems to be about as far away from the Shirley Collins album as you could get. And yet both deal with violence in a way that is as horrifically surreal and dispiritingly mundane as it is when you’re unfortunate enough to encounter it IRL. Bottom line: both albums are truly great folk art that make deep-rooted traditions sound fresh and vital.
8. Oren Ambarchi – Hubris (Editions Mego) LP
Combining 80s film soundtracks and afrobeat rhythms to audaciously brilliant effect.
9. Paul Jebanasam – Continuum (Subtext) LP
A galaxy-shattering wedge of cinematic electronica.
10. Pita – Get In (Editions Mego) LP
The Mego boss is back with a typically confrontational collection of electronic abstractions.
And here’s a bunch more stuff…
The Next 10
11. Matt Elliott – The Calm Before (Ici d’Ailleurs) LP
12. Scott Walker – The Childhood of a Leader (4AD) LP
13. Roly Porter – Third Law (Tri Angle) 2×12”
14. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner - The Revenant (New Regency Music) 2LP
15. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai (self-released) LP
16. Juan Atkins & Moritz Von Oswald – Borderland: Transport (Tresor) 2LP
17. Loscil – Monument Builders (Kranky) 2LP
18. Monolake – VLSI (Imbalance Computer Music) 2LP
19.Oval – Popp (Uovooo) LP
20. Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger (Drag City) LP
If you think Elseq is hard to handle, try messing with Stephan Mathieu’s monumental 12CD work-in-progress Radiance. There’s every reason to suspect that the six volumes of Radiance to emerge so far might constitute one (or six) of the albums of the year. But it’s all a bit much to take in. Maybe the holiday season will provide some time for more in-depth investigations into the nature of this particular monolith. In the meantime, here’s a handful of other really excellent albums to which you should lend your ears…
- Yves Tumor – Serpent Music
- 3/4hadbeeneliminated – Speak to Me
- Sarah Davachi – Dominions
- Demdike Stare – Wonderland
- Christian Fennesz & Jim O’Rourke – It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry
- Fis – From Patterns to Details
- Fatou Seidi Ghali & Alamnou Akrouni – Les Filles de Illighadad
- Tim Hecker – Love Streams
- Hieroglyphic Being – The Discos of Imhotep
- Jóhann Jóhannsson – Orphée
- Kiki Hitomi – Karma No Kusari
- Eric Holm – Barotrauma
- Ian William Craig – Centres
- Jem Circs – s/t
- Kel Assouf – Tikounen
- Nicolas Krgovich – The Hills
- Klara Lewis – Too
- Ramzi – Phobiza Dia: Vol. 1
- Seekrs International – Lovers Dedication Station
- Tumastin – Amanar
- Valerio Tricoli – Clonic Earth
- Zomby – Ultra
Singles, EPs, Tapes etc.
- Secret Pyramid – Distant Works II tape
This one is unmissable. A pretty under-the-radar release by Vancouver’s true king of emotive drone-scapes, which you should not allow to pass under your own personal radar because it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Plenty of people are doing the crybaby drone thing right now and most of them fall into the same generic traps, time and time again. This release avoids those traps very deftly indeed. It’s as smart at is sad but track five will, nevertheless, leave you in absolute tatters.
- Mark Ernestus vs. Obadikah – April 10″
- Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden I 10″
- Burial – Young Death/Nightmarket 12″
- Sleaford Mods – TCR 12”
- Horsetail – Hollow Sea DL
- Farmers Manual – glague general gen DL
- Loscil – Sine Studies 2 7”
- Karl Fousek – Pattern Variation tape
- Fousek/Hansen/Tellier-Craig – No Sound Without a Misunderstanding tape
- Kyoka – SH 12”
- The Fall – Wise Ol’ Man 12″
It’s been a great year for reissues, with a whole bunch of favourite artists getting long-overdue represses – notably, the Autechre albums mentioned near the top of this page. Let’s hope the vinyl bubble lasts long enough that this trend continues for at least another year or two. Maybe someone will finally do the Disco Inferno albums.
- Coil – The New Backwards
- Painkiller – Execution Ground
- Guy Reibel – Douze Inventions en Six Modes de Jeu
- Locust – Morning Light
- Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – Songs of Forgiveness
- Iannis Xenakis – La Legende D’Eer
- MF Doom – Unexpected Guests
- William Basinski – 92982
- Zabaya – Azna de L’Ader
- Carl Stone – Electronic Music from the 70s & 80s
- J Dilla – The Diary
- Autechre albums
- Yoko Ono albums
- Flying Saucer Attack albums
- Godflesh albums
- Sonic Youth albums
- Pram albums
- Melvins albums
The live highlight, on a personal note, was obviously the Stewart Lee-curated edition of All Tommorow’s Parties in North Wales. Amazing sets from Datblygu and Sleaford Mods plus The Bevis Frond, Trembling Bells, Richard Youngs, The Fall, Stew himself and many, many more. This event had a distinctly weird vibe, probably caused by the ATP organization’s in-progress implosion but the convergence of so many favourite artists in one place was absolutely sublime. Had some nice walks on the beach too.
Also memorable was Brix Smith’s appearance at Rough Trade East in London, reading from her excellent autobiography, The Rise, The Fall & The Rise, as well as playing some acoustic songs and answering questions. Kris looked after her pug, while she sound checked. And speaking of blondes with pugs…
- Maria Bamford – the only comedian even nearly as funny as Stewart Lee
- Stewart Lee – the only comedian funnier than Maria Bamford
- Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell!
- Recollection GRM and 70s/80s electro-acoustic music, generally
- Curits Roads, Barry Truax and early granular synthesis, generally
- Datblygu, Llwybr Llaethog and Welsh-language music, generally
- Tinariwen, Mdou Moctar and crazy Saharan rock, generally
- The Bevis Frond
- Leslie Winer
- Digital Eurorack modules
Let’s be frank: the whole year was a serious let-down. Part of the reason that Shirley Collins had to top this here list was that 2016 ended up simply marinated in the stench of death. So many legendary musicians died that it seemed like barely a week went by without some new round of RIPs on Twitter. On a personal level, the passings of Prince, Dale Griffin and Jean-Claude Risset were particularly significant (not to mention those of some beloved animal pals – don’t worry, Sneefler’s fine!) Then you had Bowie, Cohen, Pauline Oliveros, Alan Vega, Geneviève Castrée, Bernie Worrell, Dave Swarbrick, Phife Dawg… The list goes on.
But at least some of these folks were elderly and had clearly made peace with the world. The point is, death is expected, sooner or later – so it’s not exactly a let down. What is far more disappointing is the aforementioned state of world affairs: Brexit, the international rise of fascism and the collapse of American democracy. Without wishing to lapse into poor taste, you have to wonder if those dearly departed musicians might have gotten out at just the right time. At least they didn’t have to suffer through Kate Bush voicing her support of the UK’s crypto-fascist Prime Minister.
So, right now, musical disappointments like Katie Gately’s frankly unlistenable debut full-length seem decidedly meh.
Wish it was possible to say that 2017 will be better but it’s more than likely to make 2016 look like a walk in the park. In the meantime, you might want to make sure you really get as much joy out of this holiday season as you can. Seriously.
(P.S. As mentioned before, this post was created with reckless haste. If you spot anything glaringly missing or false, please post a comment to that effect and I will make the required additions/corrections ASAP.)
Edit: Late Additions
Normally, this section might be used to add recent discoveries found via other albums-of-the-year lists. But in this case, most of the following albums were actually released after this post initially went online. The big discovery was Sendai – a dream-come-true cross between Autechre and Roly Porter. All three of the Belgian duo’s albums are (it turns out) excellent but the new one might be the best yet. Oh and the new Rashad Becker is phenomenal too.
Anyway, the following list may get added to as and when new discoveries are made:
- Sendai – Ground & Figure
- Rashad Becker – Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. II
- Cindytalk – The Labyrinth of the Straight Line
- Sarah Davachi – Vergers
- Blessed Initiative – s/t
- Terminal Cheesecake – Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients
- Jóhann Jóhannsson – Arrival
Pretty sure there’s at least one Seekers International album that remains unheard too. Who can keep up?