2016 has been overshadowed by bad news, both politically and for the music industry itself.
Yet the shifting social landscape and loss of musical icons doesn't seem to have galvanised any one artistic movement in response, surely that's on the horizon for 2017. But while this annus horribilis may not be remembered for a particular genre or artist capturing the cultural zeitgeist, it did reinforce the simple point that the concept of an album is not dead yet. From Bowie and Cohen quite brilliantly using the format as a last will and testament, Beyonce's lavish visual album for Lemonade, to Kanye and Frank Ocean bypassing some methods of traditional distribution, it's clear that the digital age of single song downloads hasn't killed the album as an artistic statement. Vinyl has helped to massively bolster sales of physical products too, emphasising the artistic merits of the album beyond simply the music on the record.
With that in mind, many well-established artists delivered records vying for position with their best work. Bands such as Weezer, Green Day, Biffy Clyro, and Against Me! may not be making many end of year top ten lists, but their output in 2016 has been impressively solid. Even Metallica returned with a record that lived up to its hype. Elsewhere other artists produced records that at an earlier point in the year would certainly have made my list; Ray LaMontagne, Brian Fallon, Iggy Pop, Shearwater, Wye Oak, A Tribe Called Quest, Bob Mould, PJ Harvey, Joseph Arthur, and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, all comfortably fit into that category. Of particular note was the album, which kept appearing on my list and then just falling frustratingly into a lower position. Underworld's Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future is a glorious album. It's two men at a very different point in their lives using the music of their youth to paint a portrait of life post 50, and the result is uplifting and hopeful in a way that many other albums weren't this year. I'm delighted that Underworld has picked up a Grammy nomination for such a great record.
One final mention before sharing my ten favourite records of 2016 is for Jimmy Broomfield. Performing under the name Heart Of Oak, his debut EP, aptly titled EP 1, was released this year. It's a collection of songs that are deeply personal and wonderfully intimate with their bare bones performances. His song-writing is both clever and witty and if you're looking for some home-grown talent with a promising future you need look no further than Heart Of Oak's website.
Frightened Rabbit - Painting Of A Panic Attack (Atlantic)
Yet again Scott Hutchison wrote some heartbreakingly honest and emotionally raw kitchen sink dramas for Frightened Rabbit to perform. But if you look below the surface you'll find warmth and hope that makes this an incredibly rewarding record. Using The National's Aaron Dessner to produce the album just added a layer of sonic depth that Frightened Rabbit hadn't quite explored properly before. While not the most consistent Frightened Rabbit album in terms of quality the high points are among their best work, earning Painting Of A Panic Attack a special place in my heart.
Butch Walker - Stay Gold (Lojinx)
In my review for Contactmusic I said that "there's real depth and emotion hiding behind every line and joyous chorus" on Butch Walker's eighth solo album, Stay Gold. It's that craftsmanship that earns it a place amongst the best that 2016 had to offer. The heart of the album can be found by listening to 'Record Store', but there's so much more to discover here, and it's a shame that Walker's excellent songs seem to have passed many people by this year.
David Bowie - Blackstar (Sony)
David Bowie's twenty fifth and final studio album was released to coincide with his 69th birthday in January. At that stage few people outside of his inner circle knew just how ill he was. Taken in isolation these seven jazz infused songs made Bowie sound more vital and relevant than he had in years, but when just days later his death was announced, Blackstar took on an entirely new meaning - his farewell to the world. Bowie clearly understood just how this record would be seen following his death and it retrospect it feels so intricately stage managed that it remains a perfect epitaph for an icon of his stature. Strip away the poignancy and you find an album that oozes personality, which makes the whole Blackstar experience astonishing.
Angel Olsen - My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Angel Olsen's third album, My Woman, is broad in scope, but so nuanced that's it's hard not to find something to like during its 47 minute running time. She can rock with the best of the Indie crowd ('Shut Up And Kiss Me') or ease in to a laid-back groove ('Those Were The Days'), but it's all so effortless. It's a less self-conscious and lo-fi record than her previous work, making it Olsen's standout album by far.
The Hotelier - Goodness (Tiny Engines)
Another record that I reviewed for Contactmusic earlier this year sits firmly in the middle of my favourite records of 2016. Massachusetts' trio The Hotelier released their third album in May and even now I still get the same exhilaration as the first time I put it on. It's an ambitious and surprisingly subtle set of songs that deploy loud guitars when needed, while striving for something more literate than their competition. An album that's well worth your time.
Frank Ocean - Blond (Boys Don't Cry)
Frank Ocean's proper follow up to 2012's Channel Orange is an impressive record, especially considering it dropped hours after his visual album Endless, which had released him from his obligations to Def Jam. Despite a laidback and very melodic consistency, which borders on minimalism, there's something new to marvel at with each listen. It's not really any one genre either; Ocean plays with the expectations of his audience to create something rather beautiful. There's liberal use of auto-tune and vocoders, but they are inventively used, and the harsh brashness of Ocean's contemporaries just isn't present here. The personal touches, including an entertaining voice message from his mother, just add to the sense of care and attention that's been put into Blond and that hard work really has paid off even if Ocean has currently chosen to restrict the record from a widespread physical release.
John K. Samson - Winter Wheat (Epitaph/ANTI)
I love the Weakerthans; therefore I was pre-disposed towards adoring John K. Samson's latest solo offering, Winter Wheat. This is now as close to a record from the band that we're likely to get and Samson doesn't disappoint as he invites a few familiar faces along for the ride. It's a sad and occasionally harrowing album that feels like an ending of sorts, but Samson is a wordsmith in the truest sense and the stories he regales us with here are compelling. The most satisfying moments revolve around Samson doing a great job of channelling fellow Canadian Neil Young, during his On The Beach era. The ultimate fate of Indie-Rock's favourite feline friend, Virtute the cat, is also revealed in these 15 songs, many of which may just bring you to tears.
Car Seat Headrest - Teens Of Denial (Matador)
Will Toledo is prolific as a songwriter, technically Teens Of Denial is his band's 13th release, their second on Matador. Like all artists with a penchant for putting out such volumes of work, not all Car Seat Headrest releases have been great, but this most recent record is certainly worthy of your attention. It's crammed full of ideas and veers dramatically minute by minute to different musical horizons. It may have gained notoriety for its recall due to The Cars' Ric Ocasek's questioning of the use of some of his lyrics, but that couldn't derail a brilliant album which is comfortably my favourite guitar record of the year. I can't remember having the same reaction to an album like this since hearing The Strokes' debut, which made it a real treat for me.
Bon Iver - 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
Justin Vernon exists on a sonic plain separate from everyone else. The sounds and textures he conjures up bury themselves deep in your soul and just won't let go. 22, A Million, was confusing and daunting on first listen, but ultimately it's the gift that keeps giving. What at first seem like little niggles, sonic imperfections or Vernon masking his voice with studio trickery for example, become familiar navigation points from which to explore this unique record. The song titles alone take some decoding, but as soon as you appreciate that some of the more obscure numbers like the area code 715, which relates to Vernon's home, are deeply personal, the record starts to fall in to sharp focus. There's a religious and philosophical debate going on under the surface, but 22, A Million, doesn't force you to delve that deeply if you don't want to. However you choose to consume these songs, their greatness certainly can't be questioned.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
Radiohead's ninth album, and their greatest work since Kid A, appeared abruptly in May. As always it was an event, and I listened to it in its entirety when it dropped. From the barrage of strings that usher in 'Burn The Witch' to the closing moments of the long-awaited studio incarnation of 'True Love Waits' there wasn't a hint of disappointment in sight. It remains one of the few albums from 2016 that I will happily sit through front to back, regardless of my mood or the time of day, it's just quite simply that good. Much has been written about the album's virtues, but for me it explored new ground and sounded more confident than Radiohead had in years. The jagged and abrasive electronic elements of their more recent work receded here to reveal something elegant and timeless. It's perhaps not just the best album of 2016, but possibly of the whole decade and doesn't rely on nostalgia in any way to make its point, which is a refreshing statement from a band of this stature.
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