UTNS: Best albums of 2016
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Mark Perkins lets us in on what’s still filling his heart with joy as the year draws to a close.
Again? So soon? Surely the last time I sat down to collect my thoughts on the best music can’t have been 12 months ago can it? Well, of course it was, and it’s been a year of momentous change, so let us calm our post-Brexit, pre-Trump anxieties and wallow in the usual indulgence that is the annual Up The Narrow Stairs Christmas list of the best albums of 2016.
These are my picks of the past 12 months in no particular order. Albums come and go from the list, and I’d only start an argument with myself if I put them in any kind of order so here goes. When I’m at the end I’ll try to pick a winner.
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
I said at the time that this album was a contender for the album of the year, and I’ve never wavered from that view. Written as a kind of antidote and response to the Bataclan killings, Post Pop Depression would be a stunning album by any standards, but coming as it did when Iggy should really be putting up his feet, applying for his bus-pass, and complaining about the music that the kids of today are listening to. He’s 70 for goodness sake. Made with our very own Matt Helders and a couple of Queens of the Stone Age, this is the best thing he’s released in years. He’s lost none of his swagger, and the way he bounces ideas and sounds off the younger musicians is inspiring. ‘Gardenia’ is the most instantly appealing track, and still sounds good almost a year since I first heard it.
Solange – A Seat At The Table
It’s not surprising that this is regarded in all the reviews I read as a ‘political’ album. It puts me in mind of albums by Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, in that it talks about what it’s like being black in America. Sadly, little has changed in the intervening years, and if ever there was a time that white America needs to hear these sentiments, it must be now. It’s a sultry combination of lush vocals and arrangements, with some spoken word pieces added to the mix. The track ‘FUBU – The Dream’ stands alone as a very open and explicit version of what the rest of the album is saying but in a more oblique way.
Laura Mvula – The Dreaming Room
On her first album, Sing To The Moon, there was much talk of Laura Mvula creating soul music for the new generation, and with her follow-up three years later she’s taken on that role, run with it and stuck a rocket up its arse. This is a dizzying mix of soul/pop/gospel influenced music, all delivered with her phenomenally powerful voice, trained as she was at the Birmingham Conservatoire. The opening track, ‘Overcome’, a collaboration with Nile Rogers, seems to be an open-hearted challenge to her issues with stage fright and other panic-inducing mental health issues, telling them they can just fuck off while she gets on with making music. It’s as though she refuses to read the rule book about what sort of album she should be making, and just does what the hell she wants to. The absolute definition of a follow-up that blows all your expectations out of the water.
Ian William Craig – Centres
This is an album that reveals its beauty and majesty the more you listen, in fact giving it another listen as I write this reminds me how marvellous it is. At first you will be either be dazzled or somewhat bored by the swirling vocals and waves of sounds, but stick around, for there’s gold in them there grooves. OK music doesn’t have grooves these days, but I like the image. There are long periods with no vocals, until suddenly they surface and remind you there is some sort of structure to the tracks. Lasting well over an hour, this is not instantly accessible music, but be brave and go back for more. I promise you that with patience, you will be astonished by the beauty and grace of this album.
Teenage Fanclub – Here
They recently made a return visit to the Leadmill, and afterwards a friend remarked that seeing them again was like putting on a comfortable pair of old slippers. It was more than that for me though, as that seems to imply some sort of laziness on their part. Far from it. This is as vital and exciting an album as they’ve ever produced, and while they may no longer be riding on the Glasgow-collective inspired wave of pop music from the nineties, it’s still a great album. From the opening harmonies and chords of the opening track, ‘I’m In Love’, you know they’ve lost none of their talent for writing songs that could have come from the Byrds in their West-Coast heyday. Lovely stuff.
Steve Mason – Meet The Humans
His albums since his days fronting The Beta Band have been consistently great, and this is no exception. The difference here is the sense of peace and contentment that’s been absent in his most recent albums. He’s been open about his battles with mental health issues, as you may remember from when I interviewed him a few years back for Exposed. The production from Elbow’s Craig Potter is sublime, and possible has Steve sounding better than he ever has. A mature and classic collection of songs, which may well prove to be one of his most endearing albums.
The Japanese House – Swim Against the Tide
Not really an album as it’s just four tracks, but this has been a great year for 20-year old Amber Bain, singing under the name of The Japanese House. She played in Bungalow and Bears on the last day of Tramlines, just before this little gem was released. Her space-age, unearthly guitar, mixed with strangely distorted vocals is totally captivating, and I’m convinced there are great things to come from her.
Agnes Obel – Citizen Of Glass
Two years in the making, which is a luxury not afforded to many these days. It is an album where no two tracks sound the same, whilst they all still hang together as being clearly from the same artist. The title is a reference to the idea of knowing everything about someone, making everything about them transparent, and in doing so seeing everything in complete clarity. This idea seems to inform the music and the production throughout the album. The instrumentation is uncluttered and full of depth, so much so that repeated listening reveals different aspects to each track. When I reviewed it earlier this year I predicted I’d still be listening to it in months even years to come. Nothing has moved me from that opinion.
Field Music – Commontime
When rock journalists review Field Music, they are contractually obliged to mention the following; Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Scritti Politti and Todd Rundgren. Then finish with a Beatles reference. There, obligations fulfilled. You get the idea I’m sure. Classy pop and jazzy rhythms, clever lyrics and superb harmonies, and of course production that is totally on point. Don’t dismiss them as just a rock critics’ band with not much to say, the Brewis brothers, from Sunderland have made a great album here, and pop never needed this kind of perfection more than it does now. Don’t expect it to trouble the selection panel of the Mercury awards, but that is their undoubted loss.
Lambchop – Flotus
For anyone familiar with the music of Lambchop this came as something of a surprise, albeit a very pleasant one. Lambchop albums up until now have all had their own individual character, but none of them sounded at all like this one. Where once there were a set of superb musicians providing backing for Kurt Wagner’s distinctive vocals, here there’s more of a fluid soundscape, sometimes made up of traditional instruments, but more often flowing, shifting chords, on piano or organ, and with Kurt’s vocals auto-tuned and harmonised in places to great effect. The whole album opens and closes with two remarkable extended pieces, consisting of almost 30 minutes of music between them. The remainder of the album is made up of shorter songs, but all of them are filtered through this fresh approach to a new Lambchop soundscape.
Tegan and Sara – Love You To Death
There was a time when I thought Canadian twin sisters Tegan and Sara were destined to take over the world with their irresistibly catchy tunes but it never happened, so what do I know? The good news is that they they’re still making a living out of their music over 20 years later. Love You to Death seemed to slip out unnoticed over here, but for those of us still listening to them it was a joy. On their previous album they sort of re-invented their sound by going all synth-pop, and this is more of the same. Their songs are essentially just the same, but set in a different frame. They still have a loyal band of followers who were quite accepting of the change, but their new sound has taken them to a new much larger audience, so who knows, all these years later, I might finally be proved right.
Bob Mould – Patch The Sky
I’ve not put any new, young indie-guitar bands in here yet, and Bob Mould sounds like he’s in one even if he isn’t. In reality he’s 55 and has been making music for years but I did find this irresistible and he could certainly teach some of our less experienced girls and boys a thing or two about guitar music. This is a set of perfect power-pop songs, harking back to Bob Mould’s days contributing to the more melodic moments of the punk-pop band Husker Du. It’s an instantly likeable collection of songs, but no less valued for that.
The Divine Comedy – Foreverland
I missed the return of Neil Hannon to Sheffield recently, so the last time I saw his songs performed live was when his incredible musical version of Swallows and Amazons played the Lyceum. That in itself was a musical highlight, so anything new from him came loaded with expectation. Good news! Foreverland truly delivers. It’s been six years since his last album, and intelligent pop music is in pretty short supply these days. Old-school it may be, but this sort of quality transcends the generation of the listener, and reminds those of us who still care that quality pop music is an art form to celebrate.
Martha Wainwright – Goodnight City
I was such a fan of her brother Rufus that for quite some time I considered his shows to be the best I’d ever seen, and as he often brought sister Martha along with him, I’ve always taken a keen interest in what she releases. This is her fourth album, and it is more diverse and varied than her previous ones. She’s collaborated with a range of people on half the songs, which hasn’t happened before, and this infusion of other talents has allowed her to spread her wings.
Local Natives – Sunlit Youth
This rather slipped out without me noticing, but I was glad to hear it, even if it was some time after its release. Local Natives have produced the best indie-pop coming out of the USA for years now, but it frustrates me how few people seem to be listening. Maybe they were just too good too soon. Their debut album, Gorilla Manor was always going to be hard to improve on, and still holds up one of the most consistently enjoyable albums released in the last 10 years. They have more time and money to spend on their albums now, and Sunlit Youth took two years to complete in studios all over the world. If you’re missing the Fleet Foxes, get this album in your life and you’ll wonder what you ever saw in them!
The Monkees – Good Times
Yes, you read that correctly, The Monkees. A new album in 2016 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their debut on American TV, and just like their City Hall show a few years ago, this album has no business being this good. They were hired as actors for heavens sake! How did they become a credible live band? More than that, how have they managed to release an album as good as this? In the mid sixties, The Monkees were dismissed as opportunistic and untalented, by music fans who took pop music far too seriously. They may have relied on songwriters and session musicians at times but their original albums are now highly collectable and are still hugely enjoyable. Fast forward to 2016 and the three survivors have once again assembled a talented roster of songwriters and musicians to make what has turned out to be another classic album. If this article does nothing else, I’m going to insist you find a way to listen to Me & Magdalena. You WILL be impressed, perhaps even astonished.
Bibio – A Mineral Love
Bibio albums come from a world that no-one else ever goes near. The music is impossible to properly categorise, but is all unmistakably Bibio, or rather Steven Wilkinson. This is his fifth album on Warp, a label with it’s own rules and rosta of distinctive, very individual acts, which tells you something about the music. I’d urge you to listen to something by Bibio if you’ve never done so, as his music has added much to my life since I first heard him on his first Warp release, Ambience Avenue. This is something of a return to how he sounded then, but with some new excursions into funk and more upbeat music. The production is less dense, with arrangements that allow the different elements space to breathe more than they used to. His confidence in his art seems to have come to a point now where he knows exactly how he wants all this to sound.
Jens Lekman – Ghostwriting; Cincinnati and Gothenburg versions
Anyone who reads these columns will know of my admiration, bordering on obsession with Jens Lekman. If you haven’t experienced him, either live or recorded, there’s a world of angst-ridden joy out there for you to experience, and I’m almost envious of you as you embark on the journey of discovery and delve into his music. Ghostwriting was a typically untypical project he undertook at the end of 2015. His songs often appear to be reflections of his own life, but for Ghostwriting he handed the narrative over to his fans. They sent him their own personal stories; some trivial, some profound. He met them, talked with them, then wrote these songs. Simple as that. The albums of songs were only made available on SoundCloud (how modern), and are as honest and raw as you could imagine they would be.
Neil Cowley Trio – Spacebound Apes
This is a good old-fashioned concept album, but one which which has been re-imagined for the internet age. It tells of the adventures of Lincoln, a sort of ape-in-a spacesuit, as he explores a solar system, but which only really exists in his head. Alongside the CD release, an LP-sized book was published with narrative and piano scores, and simultaneously, a DC comic artist illustrated the whole story. If it all sounds like something of a high-concept, don’t worry, you can just enjoy the music, as it is superb. The Neil Cowley Trio; bass, drums, piano, have created a hypnotic, cinematic experience, which reveals more with repeated listening. Each track has its own signature and theme, with all eleven of them combining to make a shifting and evolving piece of music.
OK, job done; we’ve reached some sort of ending. On listening to them all again, and I did listen to them all, start to finish, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve decided on a winner. Well, two really as I can’t decide between awarding the UTNS gold medal to Ian William Craig or Laura Mvula. The first of those was the album I most loved hearing again after some time away from it, but Laura Mvula’s album is such a cracker I’m back in love with her all over again. So here’s wishing you good night, Happy Christmas!
For a sampler of two tracks from each album head here.