Albums of 2016

As I’ll write in my contribution to Strange Horizons‘s “Best of 2016” piece, the twists and turns of 2016 have often made me feel, in my weaker moments, like art needed to come second to news. I’ve read and listened much less this year, then – and from where we’ve ended up during the last twelve months I can’t help but feel that this was true of many of us.

So in that spirit, let’s tear ourselves away from the twenty-four-hour news channels for long enough to think about records. Maybe it’s because I’ve been concentrating on populating 50 Miles of Elbow Room every two weeks, but it feels as if 2016 has been a better year for songs than albums. Given that streaming – more track-based a business model than flogging LPs out of HMV – is now making labels money, it might also be the shape of things to come. If we omit the traditional singles focus of pop and hip-hop, then the impact of Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” was not matched by her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter; Christine & The Queens might be the year’s best singles band, but stretching that success to album-length was a challenge; and even Warpaint this year seemed to be better at doling out new songs (geddit?) than worthy successors to previous magnum opi.

That said, I listened less this year. So read this list and then re-educate me, please.

John Prine – For Better or Worse

I didn’t expect anything of this album except some fodder for a radio show. But blow me if Prine hasn’t put together one of the most affecting, emotionally open little albums I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a collection of duets with female luminaries of country – Iris DeMent, LeeAnn Womack, Kacey Musgraves – that is also a set of covers: old standards like “Falling In Love Again” and “Cold Cold Heart” sung by Alison Krauss or Miranda Lambert might sound dull as ditch-water, but partly thanks to Prine’s own cracked vocal and partly thanks to the sensitivity of the singers and their arrangements, what actually emerges are fifteen maudlin masterpieces. For Better or Worse is assured a place, I think, in the canon of great love albums: it’s sad, wistful, wry, joyful and wise. It’s also very, very pretty. Give it a spin.

Teleman – Brilliant Sanity

I caused some controversy amongst my indier friends when I demurred in 2014 from listing Teleman’s debut album is my best of list. My reasons at the time I still cleave to: Breakfast was a bit cold, a tad cerebral. Where Alt-J or Django Django leavened their songs’ math-rock nerdiness with dollops of humour, Teleman seemed a trifle more sober. Brilliant Sanity makes good on that debut’s promise, though: with a surer melodic touch and some lovely rhythms amidst the riffs, the band’s second album recalls Belle and Sebastain (whom they supported on tour this year), but also seems nicely contemporary in a way a lot of guitar music no longer does. I’m imagining my indier friends hate it.

Nathan Bowles – Whole & Cloven

This record may be the most musically accomplished, innovative and interesting album on my list. Bowles is a banjo player, but not as you know one: he recreates the instrument on this record, slapping it inj the middle of contexts to which it is often alien and playing it with a suppleness I’m not sure anyone else could manage. You may not be a fan of banjo; that does not matter. Whole & Cloven is primarily an album of music, and though the instruments that music is played on of course contribute to its textures what is most exciting here are the compositions. That these pieces have been written for the much-maligned banjo, and soar so surprisingly, is part of the album’s charm; but ignore old-time nerds like me and listen anyway: ignore the banjo if you must and investigate “Chiaroscuro” or “Gadarene Fugue”; tell me music much better has been produced this year.

Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung

When I first listened to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker this year – following his death, alas – I reached its end and realised, as the notes faded, that I’d been holding my breath. There are moments on Walker’s fourth album that have the same effect, though for different reasons. You Want It Darker is intense and stark, but, like its technicolor cover in which a sunset bleeds across the surface of a lake and multicoloured planets parade across an oil-spill sky, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung shoots for diversity. Its opening track, “The Halfwit In Me” is the album’s best, and announces a departure from Walker’s pastichey style of old; but the songwriting and production throughout this record showcase a fast-maturing talent. It may be that to some ears this album will still sound too revivalist; I think that’s unfair – it sounds to me like a revivication.

Edd Donovan and the Wandering Moles – Making Mountain Vol I

Full disclosure: Edd is a friend. But I have lots of friends who are musicians and have never listed any of their work in a ‘best of’ post … So I hope you’ll hear me out (although while we’re here please do take time out to discover Men Diamler’s Black Shuck Rings Mordor, too). For my money, Edd’s album stands toe-to-toe with any other folk singer-songwriter release this year; that it has been released by a tiny record label and written by a grass-roots musician seems irrelevant. It also has the virtue of an apocalyptic bent, which seems about right for 2016. With a broad sonic palette – from string-laden ballads and accordion-driven Parisian swing through to free jazz freak-outs and summery indie pop – Making Mountains Vol I is the perfect showcase not just for Edd’s laconic-yet-intimate vocal style, but also his literate, often biting, songwriting.  You can order the album from edddonovan.co.uk and should do so.

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