Friday, December 23, 2016

Top 10 Albums of 2016

Crikey, this was a hard list to make. So many ace albums had to be left off - I considered doing an 'honourable mentions' list as a way of recognising the albums that fell just barely outside my top 10, but that list could easily have included another 20 albums and I probably STILL would have had a crisis of conscience over any I missed out.

So instead of going down that road, I'd simply like to present my top 10 albums of 2016. These are the cream of the cream of the crop, and interestingly, two of them weren't represented at all in my Songs of 2016 list. Just goes to show that the whole is sometimes stronger than the sum of its parts, eh?

Once you've finished reading, feel free to tell me how wrong my opinions are on Twitter.

10) Still Valid by MJ Hibbett & The Validators

To call Still Valid a light-hearted album would perhaps be a touch misleading, given that it contains songs like Burn it Down & Start Again (about corrupt politicians) and The 1980s How it Was (about the hairspray whitewashing of a decade primarily characterised by poverty and nuclear terror). Still, MJ Hibbett's sense of humour always shines through, even - especially - when he's worrying about his age on tracks like Can We Be Friends? and That Guy. In fact, as I mentioned in my (and my mum's) review of Still Valid, Hibbett's lyrics have really helped me to stop worrying about the fact that I'm no longer in my early 20s.

Best Tracks: Can We Be Friends? // That Guy // We Did It Anyway

9) Adult Teen by Lisa Prank

Father/Daughter Records became one of my favourite record labels this year, and Lisa Prank's album Adult Teen is a big part of why (although I would also strongly recommend Air Guitar by Sat. Nite Duets). It's a pretty straightforward set of songs - each track consists of little more than a vocal, an electric guitar track, and a synthetic drum machine beat - but the album's attitude, breakneck delivery, and acute understanding of how messy the transition from teenager to grown-up can be make for a great listening experience. It's flippin' catchy, too. Read my review of Adult Teen here.

Best Tracks: Drive Anywhere // Take it All // Heart 2 Heart

8) Beeps by Little My

It's kind of sad that Little My's long-overdue debut LP is also their goodbye album, but it's a really perfect goodbye album and musically irresistible while it lasts. Beeps is just the right side of twee, with loads of ideas and a colourful mixture of instruments, voices and styles on show - read my full review of the album here.

Best Tracks: Quiet Times B // All But the Beeps Meep // Post-Fixing

7) Blisters in the Pit of My Heart by Martha

Blisters is exactly what a second album should be. It keeps the heart, the impressive songwriting, and the awkward charm that made Courting Strong such an outstanding listen, but it adds deeper thoughts, bigger riffs, and ever-so-slightly better production values. Throughout the LP, Martha sound like a group who have grown up just the right amount without losing what made them great to begin with - as the band themselves put it, "Courting Strong was about punks growing up, and Blisters is about grown-ups who stayed punk."

Best Tracks: Do Whatever // Chekhov's Hangnail // Goldman's Detective Agency

6) Beneath Your City; As You Dream by Robberie

Robberie are three people from Sheffield who write fairly simple but bloody heart-grabbing songs about being a wallflower and getting things wrong and trying to carve out a space for yourself in this barmy old world. Their debut album, Beneath Your City; As You Dream, was clearly recorded on a pretty small budget, but the quality of the songwriting is plain to hear, and the stripped-down, mostly acoustic recordings only make Robberie's music sound all the more heartfelt and all the more real. Read my full review of Beneath Your City here.

Best Tracks: The T-Shirt Song // In the Next Town (Same Old Radio) // This Dancefloor Needs Me

5) Moon Saloon by Arc Iris

This is one of the albums that didn't appear in my Songs of 2016 list, but that's not because Arc Iris didn't release any music worthy of my top 20 - it's just that these songs work so much better together than broken up and mixed in with others. Moon Saloon is a good, old-fashioned, beginning-to-end album that simply has to be consumed in whole. Sure, there are highlights - see below - but the slow build of She Arose, the striding pop of Johnny, the triumphantly tricky one-two shot that begins with Saturation Brain and continues with Rainy Days...all of these things are most effective when heard in the context of the entire colourful adventure. More thoughts on Moon Saloon here.

Best Tracks: She Arose // Rainy Days // Johnny

4) Amen & Goodbye by Yeasayer

I was thrilled when Yeasayer returned to the fray(sayer) this year. I loved Odd Blood, their second album, and I loved seeing them live in 2010 when they were touring that album, but I sort of forgot about them over the intervening years. For whatever reason, I didn't bother to check out their third LP, but when Amen & Goodbye came out back in April I decided it was time to get back on the Yeavy train. Could they still be as good as they were in 2010?

Well, Amen & Goodbye is very different to Odd Blood: its ideas are loftier and its horizons are broader, but Yeasayer still know how to make wonderfully weird pop music that nonethless makes you want to dance like heck. I love the way this album balances musings on science and religion and philosophy and capitalism with very straightforward pop matter like lamenting the end of a relationship (Silly Me) and having a crush on someone (Divine Simulacrum). The result is a very clever album indeed, but one that's nonetheless incredibly accessible and immediate.

If you fancy a long read, you can check out my track-by-track analysis of Amen & Goodbye here.

Best Tracks: Cold Night // Dead Sea Scrolls // Silly Me

3) Ruminations by Conor Oberst

The last couple of Bright Eyes albums - Cassadaga and The People's Key - were a little too overcooked for my liking, so I was thrilled upon giving Ruminations a spin to discover that Conor Oberst had stripped everything down to the bone for his latest solo release. It's so wonderful to hear the man who made Fevers & Mirrors sitting at his piano and singing his latest thoughts without any unnecessary frill or filler. It's never anything less than a rich, warm listen, and at its best (such as The Rain Follows the Plow's "I know where I belong" line, which is followed by a perfectly-judged piece of harmonica playing), Ruminations is really quite moving. Read more of my thoughts on this album here.

Best Tracks: Gossamer Thin // Tachycardia // The Rain Follows the Plow

2) Puberty 2 by Mitski

Between this album and Adult Teen (see above), 2016 has been quite a rich year for music lovers in their twenties who don't yet feel like they've left their teens. Puberty 2 perfectly encapsulated this feeling with its title alone, and Mitski's songs explored the chaos of that second adolescence with unflinching honesty and grit. Happy personifies happiness as a lover who gives you high-sugar treats in exchange for sex, then sneaks away and leaves you to clean up the mess. The frantic My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars has a thrillingly and terrifyingly untethered feeling that's not rather reminiscent of adulthood itself. Puberty 2 (reviewed in full here) is not always an easy listen, nor a particularly upbeat one, but it's certainly the most incisive, the most emotionally articulate, and the most all-around astounding work of art I've encountered this year.

Best Tracks: Your Best American Girl // My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars // Happy

1) Public Library by The Burning Hell

I had a very hard time deciding whether Public Library or Puberty 2 was my favourite album of 2016, but in the end, I had to give it to The Burning Hell's verbose, witty, fun, clever, catchy, rocking, rolling, heartwarming, literary-inspired latest LP. The variety on display across these eight tracks is perhaps unsurprising given that each song was supposed to represent a different genre of book (The Road is a band biography, Men Without Hats is a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story, and so on), but what never fails to surprise and delight me is the way songwriter Mathias Kom manages to turn absurdly unwieldy and sesquipedalian verses into the most addictive, accessible, and downright fun songs you could imagine. My full review of Public Library can be found here.

Best Tracks: Men Without Hats // The Stranger // Good Times

So those were my favourite albums this year - what were yours? Leave a comment or let me know on Twitter.

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