London – It’s surprising quite how quickly the season of goodwill is upon us. Time, of course, marches on with the same precise regularity as it does week in week out yet the sense that days are accelerating away from you is never more keenly felt than in the run-up to Christmas. OK, you made the list but you still don’t have those last minute presents bought, let alone wrapped. Hmmm. May I be so bold as to bring in another list at this juncture; one might provide some brief if welcome respite from shopping overload, or even some last minute ideas for presents? So may I introduce to you a list of 10 albums you might have missed in 2016. You might have because I did, despite the best intentions to review several of them as they came out.
Like all countdowns it’s numbered accordingly but don’t read anything much more into that. These 10 albums are presented largely with equal merit. Sit down, relax, enjoy and then start wrestling with that shopping list again.
10. Highly Suspect – The Boy Who Died Wolf
The Brooklyn via Cape Cod trio, Highly Suspect, has been touring incessantly since dropping its full-length debut Mister Asylum last year, yet the Grammy-nominated outfit somehow found the time to follow it swiftly with a sophomore effort The Boy Who Died Wolf in November this year. While embracing some familiar hard rock tropes, and a nod in the direction of the likes of Nirvana and even the Floyd, Highly Suspect has produced an engaging set of tunes delivered with confidence and intensity. The bluesy, portentous “Serotonia” is one of the album’s highlights with the (literally) killer opening line, “I wish that everyone I knew was dead / So that I’d never have to pick up the phone”. Seasonal goodwill, eh.
9. Quilt – Plaza
Plaza is the third album from psych-rock band Quilt who knit together elements of dream pop, psychedelia, English folk-rock and Americana into a wholly cohesive and agreeable melange. Originating from Boston, Massachusetts, the four-piece makes sounds as all-enveloping as its band name suggests, filled out with supple, warm textures. The album is a collage of new songs and revisited demos and is one where the band can really claim to have found its voice. Inspired by the setting of an Italian gig, “Padova” sees Quilt at its softly reflective best led by Shane Butler’s relaxed burr and embellished with quiet harmonies, fluid piano and rolling guitar.
8. Blossoms – Blossoms
Formed in 2013 the UK indie-pop four-piece Blossoms made a big impact this side of the Atlantic in 2016 with its self-titled debut album release and impressive schedule of live gigs, including some landmark festival appearances, not least at Glastonbury. The album charted in the UK at No 1 despite the band ploughing a less than fashionable guitar-band furrow and sporting the flowing locks of yesteryear. Its strength is in the quality of melodic interplay the band brings to relatively standard indie rock with synth hooks that give the songs a distinct pop edge. It’s the kind of sound that gave birth to the phrase radio-friendly and is further stamped by front man Tom Ogden’s vocals which ooze charm with a touch of vulnerability. “Getaway” is a case in point.
7. Lily & Madeleine – Keep It Together
Keep It Together is the third album in four years from the productive Indianapolis sisters, Lily & Madeleine. For an act with a combined age of just 40, it’s a striking achievement and the latest record maintains the poise and polish you’d normally associate with industry veterans. It is one that you need to hear over and over to appreciate the depth of craft the Jurkiewicz sisters bring to their songwriting along with collaborator Kenny Childers. Marshalled by producer Paul Mahern’s ever broadening palette, you’ll still hear the duo’s folk roots in its instinctive, complementary harmonies but now with added R&B beats, electronic twirls and jazzy inflections. The beautifully weighted “Westfield” comes with the added bonus of its own teen mini-movie.
6. Rebecca Ferguson – Superwoman
The Liverpudlian singer Rebecca Ferguson gets fewer plaudits and column inches than many of her more vaunted contemporaries yet deserves real kudos for her honest, committed approach to her craft. Channelling the heartbreak that seems to go hand in hand with her life, her heart-on-sleeve lyrics speak openly and simply, accessible to any who want to plug into their sentiments. Her latest release, Superwoman, is sophisticated and soulful, doggedly avoiding the stereotypes of modern R&B. There is a classic feel to these songs, many of which bristle with the sense of empowerment against all odds. Moreover Ferguson is not overwhelmed by the serried ranks of sought-after writers and producers enlisted here, but rather soars above everything; an old soul in a young body as evidenced by the classy single, “Bones”.
5. Gitta De Ridder – Feathers
Anglo-Dutch singer-songwriter Gitta De Ridder learnt to write and perform songs on the guitar from an early age and there remains a child-like quality in her approach to her art today. Her vocal style is delicate with a stylised tremble to it while her finger-picked guitar gives space to her lyrical exploration of romance and relationships, family and cities and all that makes us human. On her debut full-length release, the 10 song collection Feathers, she displays a lightness of touch born of home studio one-take recordings that are then carefully textured with the likes of toy instruments, cello and soft percussion. Here “Alternate Reality” builds to a stirring crescendo without losing the essential gracefulness of the song’s sentiments.
4. Christine & The Queens – Chaleur Humaine
French artiste Héloïse Letissier trading as Christine and the Queens created massive waves this year. Her album Chaleur Humaine began life in her native France two years ago where the sultry-toned flamboyant singer is a big star. Repackaged in 2016 with some new, English language tracks and French lyrics translated into English, the record quickly earned her recognition from further afield. Live shows were truly elevated by some amazing choreography which at times put Letissier on a performance artist platform. Who at Glastonbury could forget her entreaty to “imagine you’re in Paris at a French disco” during a sudden rainstorm! Quite the most interesting thing to happen in pop music since Lady Gaga first emerged, the self-confessed pansexual Letissier also drops seriously infectious tunes, like “Tilted” here.
3. Car Seat Headrest – Teens Of Denial
Prolific singer-songwriter Will Toledo aka Car Seat Headrest followed 2015’s Teens of Style with this year’s Teens of Denial suggesting continuity of themes and imagery. Social angst and modern life melancholia are duly discoursed in abstract thoughts and metaphors while wrapped in rock song dynamism. As a wordsmith and ideas man, Toledo is up there with a clutch of maverick geniuses – Ben Sommers, Cosmo Jarvis, Rob “Hacker” Jessett, Sweet Lights among them – and refreshingly is now reaching a wider audience beyond bedroom recordings on Bandcamp. “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is one of the albums many high points, lyrically and musically. “It doesn’t have to be like this” is his mantra for now.
2. Reverieme – Straw Woman
Reverieme is the moniker of Louise Connell, a singer-songwriter from Airdrie, Scotland whose day job is a school teacher. The cover of her 2016 album, Straw Woman, presents the artiste as a dual personality; the strikingly beautiful singer with a scarily dark alter-ego. The image would not be amiss in Twin Peaks and indeed, inspired by an insatiable appetite for literature and drama, Reverieme excels as a storyteller. Vocally she has a touch of Amy Macdonald on her more uptempo material while in her quieter moods her tone is individual, fragile and serene. Her songs are captivating and intelligent, blessed with great melodies which at times she is not afraid to dress up with bright horns as on the Belle & Sebastian-like “Golem” here.
1. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
Following spells with psych folk act Woods and alongside Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls with The Babies, Kevin Morby really blossomed as a solo artiste with the release of Singing Saw. Morby combines the world weariness of a seasoned troubadour with a touching affinity with nature that means he sees stars rather than city lights in LA and hears coyotes away from urban noise. His nasal drawl with vestiges of Dylan about it suits his material admirably making it both intimate and empowered in equal measure. The album’s title track perfectly reflects Morby’s world view of duality, with the saw being both a creative and destructive tool. It is a sprawling epic song of intent, full of portent and quite mesmeric instrumentally.
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Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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