Was 2016 a good year for music? We have to come to terms with the fact that we face a future where 2016 took David Bowie and Leonard Cohen from us! Prince’s light was also snuffed out far too early, his last album (HITnRUN Phase 2) in December 2015, was a return to the Prince of old, he sounded like he was having fun again. The prospect of never seeing another live gig from any of these, no new album whilst they are living and breathing is incomprehensible. Becoming a year to potentially equal the horrors of 1970/71 where we lost Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Louis Armstrong, 2016 further twisted the knife to take Glen Frey, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, Joey Feek, Keith Emerson, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Greg Lake and George Michael from us. 2016 was showing us no mercy, a true annus horriblus! But in music a permanent reminder of a musicians art, their genius, remains. Both Bowie and Cohen have left us with last albums that are among the best they have ever released. 2016 saw beloved bands reform, groups in the business for 30/40 even 50 years straight release albums and playing live with the same energy as they were for their debuts. Talking of debuts, 2016 also introduced new talents, taking their first tentative steps in the industry.
Those musicians, artists that we have lost may not know what I thought of them and how they have shaped my life, but I’d like to raise a glass and say ‘Thank you for the music’. Heaven has one hell of a house band now! For those that remain…here’s to a happy, healthy and productive 2017!
Here are my Top 10 Albums of 2016…
10) Pet Shop Boys – Super
Super is the thirteenth studio album by the Pet Shop Boys, released 1st April 2016 on their own X2 label. As their previous album, Electric, production duties lie in the able hands of Stuart Price (Madonna, New Order).
Super has everything you would expect from the Pet Shop Boys, lyrically witty and observational with occasional poignancy, music with great hooks and melodies. It’s the second part of a Stuart Price produced trilogy (2013’s Electric being the first). So what does Price add? A club vibrancy, he polishes the beats, keeps things contemporary without diluting the classic sound, and this is an album that bounces, it benefits from being played loudly. This is a purely electronic album, there are no strings, 10 of the 12 tracks included are dance orientated. Mostly big beat euphoric hand in the air tunes, in the vein of the tracks off of the 1993 album, Relentless. Of the 12 tracks, only one stands out as ‘weaker’, and that would be the oddly countrified album opener ‘Happiness’.
Approaching 31 years in the business, the Pet Shop Boys are still able to stay relevant and avoid becoming a parody of themselves. 2017 looks to see a reissue campaign kicking off to continue the ‘Further Listening’ series that started way back in 2001. Fingers crossed we see the trilogy concluded in 2018. I for one, cannot wait.
For more details about the Pet Shop Boys, please visit here
09) SURVIVE – RR7349
RR7349 is the second album from experimental synth quartet SURVIVE, released 30th September 2016 on Relapse Records.
Now this group were completely new to me until I watched the brilliant Netflix sci-fi/horror hit show Stranger Things. The show is excellent, but what really set it apart for me was the soundtrack. There are obvious influences (John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Goblin), used by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein, who, when they join up with Adam Jones and Mark Donica become SURVIVE.
Formed in 2008, SURVIVE produce music that is much more intricate than the Stranger Things offering. This is a dark, moody headphone album that is much more than an 80’s homage. It takes you on a journey, through dark fog filled streets, into neon filled clubs, it may well evoke memories, but SURVIVE are no nostalgia act. Yes, the album could very easily soundtrack an 80’s Italian classic by Fulci or Argento but at the same time it sounds so contemporary. Comprised of 9 instrumental tracks this album really is a pleasure to listen to. On the strength of this album, SURVIVE deserve more than being credited as being 50% of the composers of the Stranger Things soundtrack. I have very high hopes for album three!
For more details about SURVIVE, please visit here
08) The Avalanches – Wildflower
Wildflower is the second studio album by Australian group The Avalanches. Released digitally on Apple Music 1st July 2016 and saw a full release a week later on the 8th July 2016 via Modular Recording, Astralwerks, XL Recordings and EMI.
After many delays (mostly due to line up changes and illness), 16 years after 2000’s debut, Since I Left You, to the fans delight, The Avalanches released Wildflower. The debut album is still held in very high regard, would The Avalanches be able to meet expectation levels with their sophomore release? The answer to that, in my opinion, is no, they have succeeded brilliantly, and in doing so have created the perfect feel good summer album. Seamlessly splicing hundreds of samples together (which allegedly took 5 years to earn clearance for), The Avalanches have generated wonderful soundscapes, so distinct, they can only be described as the sound of The Avalanches.
Wildflower is an album that rewards multiple listens, there is so much going on in the mix. The only thing that I am not so keen on would be some of the vocal contributions. They detract too much from some of the sublime turntablism that’s going on. Saying that, The Avalanches are back, 16 years later and they are still making me smile like I did back when I heard Since I left You for the first time.
For more details about The Avalanches, please visit here
7) Madness – Can’t Touch Us Now
Can’t Touch Us Now is the eleventh album by Madness released on their Lucky 7 Records label through Universal Music Catalogue (UMC) on the 28th October 2016.
The first Madness album in four years and the first without Cathal ‘Chas Smash’ Smyth sees the boys in fine form. An album packed with sing-a-long choruses, guitar, sax and piano solos, laced with occasionally dark lyrics hidden by the playful delivery of a band that look like they are really enjoying what they are doing. Madness don’t always get the credit they deserve, there is fantastic song writing throughout their catalogue, and none fits the bill so perfectly on this album than the track Blackbird, a tribute to Amy Winehouse that really packs an emotional punch.
Approaching 38 years since the release of their debut album, 79’s One Step Beyond, Suggs and the rest of the Nutty boys have almost released the perfect Madness album.
For more details about Madness, please visit here
6) Red Chili Peppers – The Getaway
The Getaway is the eleventh studio album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers released through Warner Bros. On 17th June 2016. It marks the first albums since 89’s Mothers Milk to not be produced by Rick Rubin. Replacing Rubin is Danger Mouse (Beck, Black Keys).
Fear not, this album is probably their most consistent since 91’s Blood, Sex, Sugar, Magik. Not something I was expecting after losing the 25 year security blanket of Rubin. Yes, the rock element of the band is not so prominent, focussing more on a trippy, funk pop sound, but Flea’s slappy bass is as prevalent. Anthony Kiedis continues his unusual rap/sing delivery and sounds incredibly good throughout. I have always enjoyed his voice. Both are ably backed up by Chad Smith (Drums) and Josh Klinghoffer (Guitar/Vocals).
Chili Peppers have some incredibly catchy songs across their back catalogue, but their albums are patchy. The Getaway has 13 tracks, all of which will get you interested, you’ll find yourself singing along to the choruses or find yourself humming the melodies as you go about your daily routine hours after you have finished listening to the album. A lot of credit for this has to go to the lush production by Danger Mouse, the album has a lot going on, but everything and everyone has a space, they all have room to breath.
For more details about Red Hot Chili Peppers, please visit here
5) Richard Ashcroft – These People
These People is the fifth studio album from Richard Ashcroft, released through Cooking Vinyl on 20th May 2016.
Richard Ashcroft doesn’t seem too popular among music critics. ‘Stroppy’, ‘Pretentious’, ‘Ostentatious’, ‘Mad’, all words banded about the ex lead singer of The Verve, a band that with Urban Hymns, one of the greatest albums of the 90’s, put Ashcroft on a pedestal, he became a target, especially once The Verve broke up. A break up he was reportedly responsible for. The knives were out.
Previous solo albums have been poorly received, a half decent lead single played out to a below average album. Ashcroft set the bar in the 90’s and now he wasn’t delivering. Six years after his last album, These People, I wasn’t even going to bother with it, but the completest in me kicked in, sounds daft, but it would’ve annoyed me to of had an album missing from his discography, even if it just sat in my collection virtually unplayed. (Surely I’m not the only one like this?).
Expectations suitably low, I gave the album a spin, intrigued by the middle of track one, so much so I stopped what I was doing and sat down. By the end of the album I was very impressed. Dare I say it, after listening to this many times, this is close to matching the heights of Urban Hymns, passion exudes from every track, a passion that was missing from all the previous four releases. Big and bold production, with some audio tweaks and electronic flourishes that might put Verve purists off, this is chock full of catchy, occasionally anthemic, songs that echo those 90’s heydays. It might have a lot to do with the Bitter Sweet Symphony string arranger, Wil Malone, who’s involved with These People, but lets not take anything away from Richard Ashcroft. As he said in 2016 ‘If you don’t feel it, that’s fine. I know how good I am!’ Well after listening to These People, it’s nice to agree with how good you think you are for once.
For more details about Richard Ashcroft, please visit here
4) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service is the sixth album from A Tribe Called Quest. Released by Epic Records on the 11th November 2016.
A Tribe Called Quest split in 1998 after releasing their fifth album, The Love Movement. The group, often regarded as the pioneers of alternative hip-hop was no more. Alleged in-group fighting and disillusionment about the state of the industry brought down the curtain on one of ‘the most intelligent, artistic rap groups of the 90’s’.
It came as a huge surprise, that some 18 years later an announcement that a new album was imminent. Tribe had reunited briefly in 2013 (playing on Kanye West’s Yeezus tour), and then again in 2015 to play on The Tonight Show, it was after this performance that the band claimed they were feeling ‘charged’ and they were able to put aside their differences. 98’s The Love Movement is certainly not my favourite Tribe album, it was a low point with which to sign off a career filled with so many peaks. Tribe Called Quest have always been about beats, rhymes and life with plenty of experimentation and risk taking. The Love Movement didn’t tick many of these boxes for me.
Tribe could be forgiven for overdoing reflection and nostalgia after being away for so long, but this is a forward thinking, frenetic even chaotic listen. Issues like, intolerance, the media and politics are all addressed but not in a heavy-handed way. The album has a general theme, subtly incorporated and that is a tribute to Phife Dawg. Several tracks mention and honour him, and rightly so, he was, along with Q-Tip, the founding member of the band, and tragically died in March 2016 due to complications relating to diabetes.
It seems fitting that Tribe are back with possibly their best album, an album packed with everything you would want from the group. The guest appearances mostly work and compliment the flow of the album, samples are fun if initially a little jarring (yes, oompa loompas I’m looking at you), it’s fitting that this album is getting so much positivity as it will be their last, you can’t have a Tribe Called Quest without Phife.
For more details about A Tribe Called Quest, please visit here
3) Anohni – Hopelessness
Hopelessness is the debut solo album by Anohni (formerly known as Antony Hegarty), released on 6th May 2016 on Secretly Canadian, Rough Trade and Hostess.
An engrossing electronic sound scape, co produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never replaces the familiar chamber pop stylings of Hegarty’s earlier work under the Antony and the Johnsons banner may surprise fans.
The subject of this album is decidedly bleak, covering politics, surveillance, wars, murder and conservation. But please don’t let this put you off! Anohni has an incredibly unique and beautiful voice, marry that with some of the finest electronica I have heard in a while and you have a truly magnificent album, as Anohni herself calls it, ‘an electronic record with sharp teeth’
For more details about Anohni, please visit here
2) David Bowie – Blackstar
Blackstar is the twenty-fifth and last album by David Bowie. Released through ISO, RCA, Columbia and Sony on 8th January 2016.
An album recorded mostly in secret covering a variety of style including jazz and experimental rock, Bowie surprised everyone by releasing possibly his best album since the 70’s. For him to then pass away two days later, cements Blackstar as his last message, a parting gift to his legions of fans and music lovers everywhere.
Blackstar finds Bowie at his most experimental, but the one thing that really stands out? His voice! For everything that is going on in the album (and there’s a lot), the vocal is dominant, it’s so strong, so alive. The way Bowie delivers the lines at the five-minute mark of the title track always makes me smile, he is having a blast. But then, occasionally it falters, a fragility is noticeable, but that may just be hindsight.
Blackstar represents Bowie at his forward thinking best, it’s an incredibly strong and complex album. Seven tracks, seven wonderful tracks, the last released in his lifetime…
For more details about David Bowie, please visit here
1) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Skeleton Tree is the sixteenth studio album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Released 9th September 2016 on Bad Seed Ltd through Kobalt Label Services.
I’m not sure you will ever hear such a heart-felt passionate album as this. During the sessions for this album (which were almost complete), the tragic news broke that Cave’s son had died, this in turn led to several lyrical amendments being made.
Skeleton Tree is a minimal sounding album, using ambient and electronica as it’s soundscape. The main instrument throughout is Cave’s vocals, here he is in majestic form, so full of raw emotion, sometimes angry, other times fragile. You never feel like you are intruding though, you want to reach in and comfort Cave who is baring his soul, broken. This is not an album about the death of his son, but, like Blackstar, you can’t help but link the album to events, that with hindsight make the album a much more powerful experience, and that’s what we want from music, we want to feel it, for it to affect us, to make us think. Skeleton Tree does this and more.
Nick Cave has never shied away from the darker aspects of life, in the middle of one of the darkest moments of his life he has produced one of the most emotional, powerful, satisfying albums to date.
For more details about Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, please visit here