Tis the season to write long retrospective lists, and we’re not going to miss the bandwagon. 2016 has been a big year for us: we kicked it off with the release of our debut album, Wave/Form, the culmination of a year of effort which left us feeling strangely… cut loose, free? Since finishing the album we’ve each been on a long campaign of musical mind expansion, searching for new ideas to exploit and creative seams to mine. While we’ve been thrashing out the album in the live arena, behind the scenes we’ve been getting back together to write again – cherry picking from the music we’ve been greedily consuming all year, as well as learning to play new instruments and manipulate new machines.
Here’s a little breakdown of some of the stuff we’ve enjoyed in 2016, and some of the ideas we intend to steal in 2017…
I immersed myself in a lot of new music this year, especially during the latter half. In particular, I found myself drawn towards the exciting synth-infused jazz recordings of band-hopper, Shabaka Hutchings, as well as those that melded the art-rock of Talking Heads with the funk of Prince (Field Music’s Commontime and Zoos of Berlin’s Instant Everything proving particularly relevant). Of course, Blackstar pre-echoed a number of these sonic investigations with prophetic accuracy. Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition was my most engaging listen of the year, it’s an immensely dense work that demands the listener’s full attention at all times. Consequently, it remains a favourite that I’ve listened to least as I believe it shuns all distractions. I enjoyed the whimsy of Jonny Fritz’s Sweet Creep, it’s as funny as it is melancholic. Esben And The Witch’s Older Terrors is a super selection of long workouts that almost warranted a Songs & Sonics review but there’s just a bit too much compression on show. I wonder why they didn’t ease off on the limiter a bit, there aren’t any pop singles here. Sonic nods go to Agnes Obel’s enthralling Citizen Of Glass; Bullion’s gloopy Loop The Loop; and Bushman’s Revenge’s cookin’ Jazz, Fritt Etter Hukommelsen. My favourite record of 2016 is Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker. Every track is better than the last, Cohen is on spectacular form, it sounds incredible, and it’s the perfect conclusion to his final trilogy.
I think anyone who’s musical year wasn’t in some way shaped by the triptych of David Bowie’s Blackstar, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree, and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker is either heartless, tasteless or has simply not been paying attention. All three of these wonderful albums are worth entire studies in their own right. Those of you that have been paying attention may have noticed that I reacted badly to both Blackstar and Skeleton Tree in their initial weeks of release, but a full year of constant attention, scrutiny and intra-band discussion has turned them both into monoliths in my music collection. Leonard Cohen was a hit as soon as it landed.
There are lots of honourable mentions this year. Albums that I enjoyed for one reason or another, but didn’t quite make the grade in every aspect. Factory Floor’s 2525 I enjoyed a lot, but mostly because it basically sounds like their 2013 debut, which I discovered last year and liked even more. White Lies’ Friends was also good, but I’ve owned it for several months now and, although I like it a lot, it hasn’t yet lived up to the promise of its lead single. Much like Fat White Family’s Songs For Our Mothers, which opened up with one of their best singles to date (the fabulous Donna Summer pastiche, “Whitest Boy On The Beach”), but descended into over compressed swampy noise – with only a few other really vital moments on it. My most anticipated rock album of the year – Purson’s Desire’s Magic Theatre (DMT, get it, get it?!) – also didn’t really make the cut, partly because it had also been mastered a bit too flat to be really immersive. I really enjoyed some of the sounds and overall production on Ritual Howl’s Into The Water, who are a bit like a more cerebral version of Ulterior. What it lacked in actual songs it made up for in sonic ideas I’m likely to mine for my own songwriting and production efforts! I’d like to mention James Ray and the Black Hearted Riders and their latest effort Death Dawn Zephyr, but I actually spent most of this year obsessively listening to their 2015 debut Last Train From Woody Creek, which would have easily made it to one of the top spots on this list if it hadn’t, in fact, come out last year. I would heartily recommend Young Romance‘s Another’s Blood. I initially wrote this record off as a grunge version of Kate Bush but it quickly grew on me. A well presented, subtle and interesting collection of songs – the complexity of which are initially masked by the aggressive guitar tone, but reward lots of repeat listening.
My favourite album of the year came out in the autumn, and that’s Alex Cameron’s Jumping The Shark. This utterly delightful combination of Suicide-esque musical arrangements and Bruce Springsteen Nebraska era vocal stylings is one of those perfect storms that was impossible until it was made, and then became obvious and inevitable. A concise 35 minutes of ballads about kitchen sink drama and personal failure, it’s a record that understands completely that you don’t have to be good looking to look real good.
Whereas many will praise 2016 releases from the likes of Beyoncé, Nick Cave, and David Bowie, I found the records that warranted the most repeat listens where those released by upcoming bands. Debut albums by Dead Coast (Shambolic), Desert Mountain Tribe (Either That Or The Moon) and Sunflower Bean (Human Ceremony) spring immediately to mind as exceptional first outings by bands that have gone from strength to strength over the course of the year and set a standard for ground-level artists on their way up.
2016 seemed to me a year of political uncertainty, with everyone looking to pop music for escapism. This, or eager to hear veteran songwriters’ point of view on the ever-changing world, cherry picking each line for some hidden message. What do they know that we don’t? Many ‘End Of Year Listicles’ completely bypass new bands in favour of established artists which, in my opinion, is a total crime. It wasn’t just in politics that the young were being largely ignored.
Album two from God Damn was an angry, riff-laden masterpiece that saw a two-piece become three. Constantly engaging and evolving, the record saw a band eager to avoid pigeon holes and in the process created something totally unique. Lola Colt’s second release was a confident, effortless joy throughout, far superior to the flurry of other psych and prog releases that littered 2016 while Wolf People’s third outing was doom heaven and explored themes of nature, the environment and history, yet couldn’t sound more relevant.
Cruelly overlooked this year was Eagulls’ follow-up, Ullages, probably because it was released way back in May, which took their original guitar-heavy garage, upped the post-punk, and doubled the misery, and it’s a treat to lose yourself in.
Number one though, the gold standard, was the debut release from London-based upstarts YAK. Alas Salvation is an epic which sees a band battle with their own hype to produce something both artistically relevant and crowd-pleasing for their growing mainstream fan base. They do both, and then some. This record has literally everything, partnered with their astoundingly chaotic live show, they’re a band I’m eager to see continue to live up to expectations.
Look to your young people, get your heads out the clouds. Lemmy and Cohen did their jobs by inspiring upcoming artists, and they’re sat across from you at work, serving you at your local, and playing just round the corner next week.
Twenty sixteen. 2016. MMXVI. The only thing anyone agrees on now is how comprehensively awful this year has been, awful enough to have spawned a cottage industry in memes reminding us how it is best quickly forgotten, blacked out like an alcoholics fortieth birthday. But as a great poet once wrote, there is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in, innit? But what are, in my objectively correct opinion, some of the cracks in the monolith that was 2016? As my comrades above have chosen to shun the traditional list format, let’s break it down old school style.
It may seem trite, but the constant flashes of wit and brilliance in the local London live music scene never cease to amaze. There are so many great bands, staffed by some of the coolest cats you’d ever hope to meet, doing what they love. In alphabetical order (no favouritism here) BlackMoon 1348, Broken Soundtracks, Desperate Journalist, Lola Colt, Medium Wave, Purs, Sex Cells, Sly Persuaders, St Agnes, Weird Sex have all played great gigs, and/or released amazing material, and/or just rocked fucking hard. All your hard work does not go unnoticed.
The constant folding and refolding of pop culture from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, blah fucking blah, into every facet of modern life reaches undreamt of heights. “Do you member? Oh, I member!” Once perceived as a harmless distraction, we glimpse the dark underbelly. Fetishisation of a rose tinted past has birthed our Make X Great Again ™ world, a pulling down of shutters, a tightening of bootstraps, a cherry picking of history and ‘truth’ that suits the narratives of every chancer sitting at any given point of the political spectrum, left, right, every shade in between.
But hold up now, isn’t this about the cracks of light? The chinks in the armour? When we see the morass of mud and shit clearly, the nuggets of gold shine brighter. Across the media spectrum we have been gifted with the note perfect love letter to retro of Stranger Things, John Carpenter with a full band live on a balmy summer evening, face melting psych freakouts from Baba Naga, and S U R I V I V E releasing a fantastic yet challenging vox-free synthwave album to critical acclaim. And more decent synthwave in the world is clearly A Good Thing.
A dark and somewhat dingy working mans club in Hackney. A small stage, a gold glitter backdrop, an antipodean lounge singer paces, muttering anecdotes about dead baby rabbits and crooning about comebacks that are never to be. His business partner lounges louchely on a nearby stool, draped in a fading dressing gown, looking generally disinterested but occasionally interjecting with bursts of sax. Never has a live set, with almost the entirety of the music set to a backing track, been so electric. Alex Cameron, upon you I bestow the coveted Gig of the Year. And I think a few other people might have noticed that Jumping The Shark is pretty damn solid album too. And you know what? It’s also A Good Thing that an album released two years past can get picked up for a solid re-release and finally get some of the acclaim it deserves. Maybe it takes the rest of the world a little time to catch up when you’re living so far out in front? Maybe it gives the rest of us some hope too.
If you want to make it onto a bunch of year end best-of lists (and lets face it, who doesn’t?), as our in house PR team would argue it’s a delicate dance of timing and ingenuity. Release too early in the year and, unless you’re Bowie, by the end of the year everyone’s probably forgotten about it. Release too late, and while your shit may be great, people will wonder whether you’ve got the chops to still be top of the heap in a month, a year, a decade’s time. So with that in mind I’m going out on a limb and claiming that, today, Moonlandingz’s new track “Black Hanz” is the best track of 2016. It’s a stonking blend of motorik drums, swirling psychedelia, catchy hooks, and what the fuck were they thinking bells and whistles.
Would it make this list if I wrote it tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Who can say, but probably not.
A muggy summer afternoon in the Catalan capital. Hawaiian shirts, shorts, aviators. Cliches within cliches. Security confiscates three of the four bottles of homemade rum and pineapple punch stuffed down the back of our pants, but they’re pretty good natured about it. Wander down a quiet path to a quiet beach. Sit on the sand, smoke a spliff, drink rum and reasonably priced beers, watch fat men in y-fronts and sunburns wallow in the flat mediterranean. Head back, security still friendly, down to the main stages. Brian Wilson has started. Somewhere in the middle of a massive crowd, not too close to the front and not too far from the bar. As classic song follows classic song, a teacher and I make total fools of ourselves playing air guitar, piano, drums, weaving drunken vocals in and out in approximations of complex vocal harmonies. The crowd around ignores us, or joins in, whatever, drunken English. A moment in a day in 2016, as days go it’s pretty much like every other for the mass of living things on this world, but oh what times to be living in. Cliches within cliches.
This very nearly made the cut…
All photography by Keira Ann, January 2016.