A few notes on 2016.
I pretty much didn’t hear any chart music. There’s a longer conversation to be had about the large number of people who love music, who would claim music is their lives, but don’t come across what’s trending. But another time – but this list is definitely just the records I somehow come across or knew about.
Listening habits were strange this year. I listen to more podcasts than music. But the iPhone 7’s 256GB storage meant I could finally load 130GB or so of music on there and I’ve gone back to listen to a lot of old stuff. I probably listened to more Lorenz And Hart than Wilco.
I’m not sure if this was a good year for music. For completely self-centred reasons, I found music to be largely lacking in the emotional solace I was looking for. Maybe because it has been a tough year with no easy answers. But the artists who should be providing wisdom were lacking. It ended up being personal stories, and personal records that resonated with me. It’s such a simple trick, one often forgotten, that sometimes all art is about is connecting to another human.
As usual, no friend’s albums on the list, excluding wonderful albums by Adam Gibson and the Ark Ark Birds, Bryan Estepa, Katie Brianna, Jason Walker, The Nature Strip, Fallon Cush and many more.
1. Alex Dezen – Alex Dezen
This is supposed to be a top 10, but this album I’ve listened to more than the rest of the ten combined. This album is 2016 for me. Dezen was the frontman of The Damnwells (who made my 2nd fave album of 2011) and this is his first solo album. with no commercial restraints or ambitions, he kind of went for it here. It’s an inventive pop/singer songwriter effort, and Dezen plays just about everything.
But the songs. Dezens drags out the demons. Like Revolver, an album pinned by three gorgeously melodic ballads, this album at its heart is the three gut-wrenching ballads; ‘I Don’t Want To Be Alone’ – about how his fear of time trumps his fear of death. It is his mother’s least favourite song. ‘I Have’ – as beautiful song about (in part) not looking at your phone when a friend plays you their music. And ‘Ode To Ex-Girlfriends’ is the kind of novelist detail of stunning lines and memorable images.
There’s a failed marriage, a disappointed mother, and an absent father all taken through the wringer. From the complicated feelings about the killing of Osama Bin Laden to a guitar he shouldn’t have sold. 10 wonderful short stories that I will go back to over and over in years to come.
Songs: Ode To Ex-Girlfriends, I Don’t Want To Be Alone, I Have
2. Sarah Watkins – Young In All The Wrong Ways
Sarah Watkins of Nickel Creek fame has released solo albums before, but this is a wonderful, rocking, fun album with plenty of heart. If there’s strands to this album it is confidence and empowerment. Watkins is pretty clear on what she wants (‘Move Me‘), which regrets to bury (‘Young In All The Wrong Ways‘) and walking away from bad situations (‘One Last Time‘). It’s an utterly charming album.
In Nickel Creek, she was already the best singer in a band of great singers. There’s not a lot of her trademark fiddle, but she translates that musicianship easily into the guitar, creating stunning moments of power and intimacy when needed. On the track, ‘Like A New Year’s Day‘, was by far the best song-for-making-me-feel-better of 2016. A simple story of a drive to a friend’s house to relax and unwind – the softest kiss of music all year.
Songs: Like A New Year’s Day, One Last Time, Move Me
3. The I Don’t Cares – The I Don’t Cares
Paul Westerberg teams up with Juliana Hatfield on a rocking new duo, pushing Westerberg to make exactly the same kind of album he’s been making for 30 years. And god it’s a good record. It sounds like it was again recorded in Westerberg’s basement, with lyrics that sound tossed off yet impossibly cool. A heart tangled up by the opposite sex, in a teenage milkshake way. There is, kinda, nothing personal going on here. But it sure is sweet.
It’s hard to know who this album is for. It sounds like a teenage party record – but I don’t think this duo’s audience has parties anymore. So there’s a layer of nostalgia here – this is the type of music, and songs, I used to like when I was a 17 year old discovering The Replacements. A nice place to visit.
Songs: Kissing Break, Back, Just A Phase
4. John Prine – For Better, Or Worse
John Prine‘s long career got a boost in 1999 with In Spite Of Ourselves an album of duets with the (then) hottest female singers of the alt-country set. That title track became a standard – there’s twenty couples somewhere playing the song right now. For Better, Or Worse is the sequel, with some newer country singers, alt-country but a memory.
The joy of this album is hearing (and discovering) these old duets, usually from the 1930s (‘Falling In Love Again’) to the TV honky tonks of the 1960s (‘Mr & Mrs Used To Be‘, originally by Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn). The songs are a snapshot of love from a different era. Married early, lots of alcoholism and fighting – you can’t help but think it’s a slightly more honest portrayal of a relationship than, say, The Bachelor.
The other real highlight from this album is how it sounds. Clear as crystal, laid back Bakersfield country. It sounds like one mic, recorded live, with great musicians. Pretty sure Hank (who has a song covered here, and whose granddaughter Holly Williams sings on a track) would have done it this way. Let’s hope there’s a third volume in another 17 years.
Songs: Falling In Love Again, Mental Cruelty, Just Waitin’
5. Emmy The Great – Second Love
One of my favourite albums ever is Central Reservation by Beth Orton. Her album this year was a return to electronica – it was a bit underwhelming. Which is a long way around to Emmy The Great, another British singer songwriter, who dived into electronica and came out with something dramatic, deep and lovely.
I guess she was probably on the path to being a nice indie pop person, in the vein of Kate Nash. I really loved her last album. But it seems like a break-up (with her famous boyfriend) and discovering America has made something more interesting. I always find the best electronica creates this distance between the listener, and then great songs or great ideas break through with more impact. Newly single Emmy tells fascinating tales of finding her feet again. One arresting image (one of many) is being taken to a bar where the drinks cost more than music.
Songs: Social Halo, Swimming Pool, Algorithm
6. Wilco – Schmilco
Wilco were once my favourite band. But around 2009, after seeing about 150 shows and sitting through too many noodle-y versions of the same songs, I drifted away. I bought every record since, listened to each a few times, they were fine. I wouldn’t say Schmilco is a return to form, but it’s closer to what I like about the band – acoustic, slow, thoughtful, tender, basically American Beauty.
I’d be pretty happy if this band pumped out one of these records a few times a decade, mixed with a couple of rocking ones or whatever. It’s like Neil Young. Happy to hear what he’s up to, but I love Silver And Gold and I love Prairie Wind. Schmilco joins Sky Blue Sky as laid back hippie Wilco. It’s not their best work – but it’s what I like.
Songs: Cry All Day, North American Kids, If I Ever Was A Child
7. Teenage Fanclub – Here
No one’s had a good year, and we’ve all needed comfort. Hello Teenage Fanclub, the biggest comfort band there is. I’m not sure this album breaks any new ground. In fact, the last three Fanclub records seem to refine what they do. There’s a song on here called ‘Hold On‘. Initially, I was disappointed – they already have a (great) song called ‘Hang On‘ – thinking the well was dry. But you can’t have too many hugs, and if anything, we need these quietly positive songs even more.
I once remarked that all my favourite songs say the same thing – life is hard, but with you by my side, we can leave this bad situation behind. Teenage Fanclub mine that idea at medium heat, and it’s the joy of slowly sinking into a warm bath. Not that the album is boring – it’s full of great riffs, great solos, and great singing. It just doesn’t feel the need to show off. Who wants to start a TFC covers band?
Songs: Darkest Part Of The Night, I’m In Love, Thin Air
8. Paul Simon – Stranger To Stranger
I’ve always had Paul Simon. So when he sings, on this album, about looking for Proof Of Love, I feel like I’ve been looking for the same thing for decades. Through ‘Homeward Bound‘, ‘America‘ to ‘Outrageous‘ and ‘Questions For the Angels‘, his search for human connection has soundtracked my own. Which is to say – I’m utterly blind to this man’s faults. I guess I can see he’s a bit short.
The old crowd (boomer era critics) praise the latest Simon records for their adventurous sounds and strange touches. It doesn’t actually sound that much different to your run of the mill indie band, say like Magnetic Fields. The strange buzz of feedback and the odd sample are hardly adventurous. But he’s still a phenomenal writer, a cataloguer of love as it gets old and remains strong. And there’s a healthy Randy Newman-esque cynicism and quite a bit of humour – in his own way. Wristband tells the story of being locked out by security for one of his shows, but he turns it into a bigger thought like a great master can do. and how can you beat a line like – “most obits are mixed reviews.”
Songs: Proof Of Love, The Werewolf, Wristband
9. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake
Whitney‘s debut record has made some best of lists, and yeah – it’s a bit hipster nonsense. But the album sounds amazing – and it’s very fun. It’s not a head record – it’s one for the hips and one for the feet. I know they are supposed to sound 70s, but it really sounds like a 90s band doing 70s – like Sloan or Phoenix. Or more modern precedents like Real Estate or Avi Buffalo. This was the record most likely to make me break out into a dance when on my headphones.
Maybe having something to say would detract from what this album is trying to do – it’s not a lyricist trying to get a worldview across. It’s a broadly romantic record, with more than a little sweetness. But it’s more about that trumpet, that rush of bass and that high lonesome vocal. It’s fun, and let’s hope there’s more in them.
Songs: No Matter Where We Go, No Woman, Dave’s Song
10. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
The first album by The Last Shadow Puppets is one of my favourite albums, a perfect surprise of an album. This album, 8 years (i.e. the entire Beatles recording career) later, is like another band entirely. Gone is the heartbroken Scott Walker, and back is Alex Turner’s desperate need to be Nick Cave. Like the last several Arctic Monkeys albums, there’s a lot of dramatic and dangerous women.
This is more Bowie (they’ve been covering ‘Moonage Daydream‘) here than Bacharach, with much heavier guitars and tempos. Iggy Pop, Queens Of the Stone Age, the Bad Seeds at their baddest…all mixed in here. From their videos, they look like they may have learnt drugs. It’s a ballsy, crazy arrogant album. When Turner and Kane decide to write tunes – like the magnificent ‘Miracle Aligner‘ – the album really shines. But it’s fascinating anyway.
Songs: Miracle Aligner, Sweet Dreams TN, The Dream Synopsis
Here’s a YouTube playlist of my favourite 2016 songs that had videos. It includes tracks from the ten above.