2016 in Music: Staff Picks

David Bowie Blackstar

Here we are again. Interesting times, and all that.

2016: the year we mused upon the bigger things. Life, death, war, politics. Everything at once, and not very much to cheer about.

W&G Album of the Year – David Bowie’s Blackstar.

Enough words already.

Staff Picks

Douglas Baptie’s AOTY: Lily & Madeleine’s Keep It Together

Should the ‘best’ album of the year be the one you’ve listened to the most? There’s an argument to be had, for sure. If so, then Keep It Together, the third album from Indianapolis sister act Lily and Madeleine, is the best. Expanding their sound from that initial dreamlike Americana to include little dabs of alt.pop and indie rock, KIT prefers to woo, rather than try overt seduction. In many respects, it’s the sound of white bread middle America, of car rides and endless Sundays where teens wish their lives away, “try(ing) to make the time go faster”. There’s heartbreak for sure (“There you were / Holding flowers for a girl who wasn’t me” is 2016’s most devastating couplet) yet this is an exquisitely romantic album. The oddly unsettling reverb that sits underneath the skipping drums of ‘Hotel Pool’ suggests David Lynch’s picket fences and well-managed roses, yet KIT has yet to properly face adult cynicism or disappointment; there’s still a lovely innocence here in the blue skies, the vapour trails heading somewhere, anywhere but here.

Honourable mentions: More teen sibling action with Skating Polly’s The Big Fit, a terrifically beguiling effort from ones so young, skipping from lung-busting Riot Grrrl with nods to the Deal sisters (is there a pattern here?) and Amanda Palmer along the way. They sound like they were born to this. Honeyblood‘s Babes Never Die probably arrived too late for many publications’ end-of-year lists but its addictive blend of grunge-lite, indie and a maturing songwriting craft really is a confection to savour. I guess Austrian duo Harakiri For The Sky sit in the black metal section of your local record emporium, though the core sound is post-metal with singed edges, rather than lo-fi squall. Most impressive is their ability to squeeze so much melody in among the blast beats and thrilling riffery – there’s genuinely nothing here to scare away ageing Fields of the Nephilim fans, the touches of piano and shoegaze textures instilling catharsis, not fury. Finally, it would be remiss not to give a nod to something local but The Lucid Dream are no scene also-rans. Pleasingly dismissive of most of their contemporaries and the current ‘psych’ movement, Compulsion Songs distills their already formidable sonic juggernaut into something pretty definitive. They might find themselves at a crossroads – where now? A full blown dub album? Space rock? Their strength is that they could do whatever they want and no-one would question their ability to nail it.

Tracks of the Year – Martha – ‘Goldman’s Detective Agency’ // Honeyblood – ‘Justine, Misery Queen’ // Emma Pollock – ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ // Jamie T – ‘Tescoland’.

Live highlight: The Stone Roses in Carlisle. I don’t suit a bucket hat and I don’t wear flares, but if I ever get religion, I hope it feels like that.

Gary Kaill’s AOTY: Beyonce’s Lemonade

Lemonade was a head-spinning assemblage of old school soul, futuristic r&b and fearless confessional. Ostensibly a fiery document of woman-scorned fury, it surveyed Beyonce’s (and our) fucked up world with a keen eye and a deeply embedded sense of justice. It spilt blood with one hand as it as it spun poetry with the other. Released, as is the increasing norm, unexpectedly and minus fanfare, it served as the final shaking off of Beyonce’s indulgence of the artistic constraints of the mainstream. Trailed by the genre-warping ‘Formation’, the year’s most stimulating and literate piece of pop protest, it felt like the start of chapter two – or three – for the world’s greatest pop star. Untouchable.

Honourable mentions: Shield Patterns’ Mirror Breathing fused complex melodics and spartan beats. A creative leap for the Manchester duo of Claire Brentnall and Richard Knox, its deep musicality and elaborate arrangements made a nonsense of its DIY origins. Three songwriters in classic mould spiked traditional elements with their own unique outlook: Eleanor Friedberger’s New View, Margaret Glaspy’s Emotions and Math and Julia Jacklin’s Don’t Let the Kids Win told vividly crafted stories with little more than voice and guitar. Ex-Long Blonde Kate Jackson teamed up with Bernard Butler for British Road Movies: the equal of anything by her previous band and a showcase for her often under-appreciated voice. Loss defined 2016. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen left behind work as fine as anything they had released in many years. Nick Cave and the Bad SeedsSkeleton Tree is built from tragedy and sorrow and, consequently, sharing Cave’s pain feels intrusive. Yet these eight songs made for his most compelling work in years. The musical arrangements are barely there but they are staggering, The Bad Seeds supporting their leader with minimal and modest backing.
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Tracks of the Year: Lush – ‘Out of Control’ // Frank Ocean – ‘Nights’ // Dawn Richard – ‘LA’ // Carly Rae Jepsen – ‘Higher’ // Beyonce – ‘Formation’ // Kate Jackson – ’16 Years’.

Live highlight: this. They said hello (again), then waved goodbye.

Nick Soulsby’s AOTY: Hypnopazūzu’s Create Christ, Sailor Boy

Star collaborations promise much but often deliver so little: therefore, it was such a surprise to see two established talents come together and find a way to blend their contributions in a way that made both shine. David Tibet’s adaptability as a vocalist allowed musician and producer Youth to develop sumptuous and expansive soundscapes without having to worry about leaving his singer behind. Meanwhile, being transplanted into Youth’s high-gloss environment and playing against such powerful music gave Tibet’s words a majesty and imposing weight, while seeming to provoke him into some of the most playful, hypnotic, twisted and hallucinogenic imagery of his long career. Each component could be described as an acquired taste, but here their ability to create momentum across this tight album, to never settle for long, they wrap together so many contrasting moods and sentiments while remaining cohesive. This was the most epic musical odyssey of the year and it was a pleasure to hear so much zesty energy crackling from the speakers.

Honourable Mentions: Margarida Garcia/Filipe Felizardo‘s Limbo is a dark affair, music for twilight, a veritable haunted house. Without a drummer metronomically hammering the performers in a set direction, it’s entirely on the backs of this double bassist and guitarist to navigate the listener, to work against one another or with one another to conjure an atmosphere, sustain or break it, press into the unseen place beyond. The purchase of Naked‘s Zone came about after a week that rekindled my faith that seeing support acts is a great way to discover and get a feel for new artists. This duo create a dramatic, pulverising, sometimes fragile/oft-heavy music and know for a fact that all the best albums depart early and leave you wanting more. You Are My Urusei Yatsura – BBC Radio Sessions: I can’t even pretend to be unbiased – as someone said after I submitted my review “you’ve waited a long time to talk about them, haven’t you?” Being given a new reason to remember why Urusei Yatsura are one of Britain’s great lost bands was a thrill and every minute of this record is a rush of sugary, caffeinated fun with riffs and lines that coil round the brain and squeeze it tight for days on end. Leviathan‘s Scar Sighted is the second cassette release on my Honourable Mentions list – I’d never have imagined, even just two years ago, rediscovering how great a cassette can sound. Jef Whitehead takes the various tropes of the black metal genre, then ensures maximum effectiveness with a virtuoso display of aggression, introspection, consideration, caution and beauty. It conjures everything from militarily-rigid clatter to post-rock haze to an uneasy seasick sway: a truly expansive release. Dumb Numbers’ II has a similar broad scope to Leviathan, though woven from very different fabrics. There’s a shoegaze vibe in amid the sudden eruptions of pure rock energy and a willingness to let pop urges into the environment which makes this a alternately lively and soporific, a release that takes you up then brings you back down again with a warmth and welcoming air.

Live highlight: Same week as the gig where I caught Naked for the first time, I felt equally blessed to be present at the Exchange in Bristol for a superb three band line-up. Arriving to the extreme volume of local psyche band Insomnichord, I reached beer break curious to hear more of these unknown newcomers – they were a perfect palette-cleanser. They were followed by Lorelle Meets The Obsolete who channelled very obvious comparisons to Sonic Youth into interesting new shapes spanning the post-rock, alt-rock, indie, lo-fi atmosphere. Genuine tunes, stage presence, the varied personalities on display, the way they came together to create music that could go have you leaning in to catch hushed words or send you reeling as their full fuzzed-up force kicked in – it was a big win. They came off-stage and a mere five minutes later I’d bought three of their records. That led me to the only band of the night I’d heard of before walking in – the reason I’d bought the tickets – Acid Mothers Temple. The band were on amusing form, working their way through glorious improvisational jams, weaving in Seventies rock riffs and ambience, relentlessly working away at a dazzled audience. From right in front of the speaker stacks, the sheer amp power overwhelmed, yet from a more centred position further back in the crowd I caught far more of the interplay and mutual responsiveness among the individuals on stage. A stately presence and an irreverent one – old masters who bequeathed an introduction to two new bands worth keeping an ear on.

About Douglas Baptie (178 Articles)
Editor at Words & Guitars. Lives in Carlisle, far away from 'that London'.
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