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.
Continue reading: Jim Pusey's Top Ten Albums Of 2016
It's rare that you'll find a record that so strongly evokes an American road trip where the miles mount up with each passing track. Butch Walker's eighth solo album Stay Gold does exactly that as it moves from East Coast blue collar Rock, through shades of Country and Blues, towards the 46 year-old's home in Georgia. Walker's accumulated experience as a musician and producer (In the last year alone he's produced material for Frank Turner, Brian Fallon, and Carly Rae Jepsen) bleeds through into every track here, helping to shape these ten songs into a classic American narrative. As the record subtly shifted gears and styles it also made me realise it's one of the best things I've heard this year.
Walker certainly plays to his strengths from the very start; the guitar that drives the opening bars of the title track is a pure joy as he blasts into a slice of good-time Rock n' Roll. There are flourishes of accordion and piano, but it's that guitar that hooks you in instantly. It's those little touches that elevate the record too; none of these songs sound overly derivative because Walker uses a number of techniques to keep it interesting. 'East Coast Girl' for example features spoken word verses that sound like snatches of a barroom interview, before it explodes into a fist-raising chorus. Later in the same song he introduces a classic "baby, baby." mantra, which grows with each set of backing vocals. It's not like you haven't heard this kind of thing before, but it's done with such a knowing affection that it's utterly charming. By the time 'Ludlow Expectations' is ushered in by the roar of motorbike engines, it's clear we're on the road across the American heartland.
Stay Gold also feels like a record very specifically designed for vinyl, and is musically split into two very distinct halves. The end of side one is punctuated with the piano based duet 'Descending' which features Ashley Monroe, it's the first time that you get a subtle taste of Nashville into the mix, which moves the album into different territory in its second half. Instruments like the fiddle ('Irish Exit') and a full brass band ('Mexican Coke') start to creep in as Walker explores more far-flung reaches of his homeland. Along the way he includes hints of Funk, Blues, and Country. It's a dramatic shift from the introspection of his previous Ryan Adams produced solo effort (2015's Afraid Of Ghosts), and feels celebratory in comparison. The album concludes with a solo acoustic song ('Record Store'), which is just as heartbreaking as anything from its predecessor though.
Continue reading: Butch Walker - Stay Gold Album Review
Born Bradley Glenn Walker, Butch Walker has had a varied involvement in the music business, from producing the likes of Weezer to touring with Pink or just appearing in videos for The Academy Is. This album is his second with The Black Widows and will see the band tour North America throughout October.
Continue reading: Butch Walker And The Black Widows, The Spade Album Review