The 10 Best Albums Of 2016

It’s almost common knowledge by now that music has been exceptional in 2016, even if everything else hasn’t. It’s been inspiring to see so much good music come out of uncertain and frightening times. There’s been a couple of major shifts in the industry too. Streaming continues its rise, artist exclusives continue to drop on platforms like Tidal and Spotify, and we hear the same stories about rock music dying and the music industry not having any money on an almost daily basis. Saying that, when the industry can’t drag itself into the 21st century, there’s a push for alternate ways of distributing and consuming music. Bandcamp and Soundcloud continue to offer alternatives, with some of the best music of the year being born on both. It’s unclear what the music industry will do to come to terms with this new divide, but it’s very clear that the quality of music refuses to drop.

fkntNext Thing – Frankie Cosmos

Next Thing improved in almost every way upon its predecessor, Zentropy. It still clocks in at a punky 28 minutes and contains songs that barely break the minute mark, but that’s all in the charm. Frankie Cosmos albums are like collages, little snapshots of a much broader picture, that when it gets pieced together is a colourful combination of pure ectasy and uncertainty. To hear songs like ‘Embody’, where Greta Kline talks about the ‘grace and lightness’ in her friends, and the happiness of seeing her friends being friends, and hear no skepticism, or sarcasm, is refreshing and for a second, makes me think the world might be an ok place. It’s unashamedly sentimental, and the fact that I have to specify sentimentality as being shameful is pretty dreadful. There’s sad moments on Next Thing, but I find the most rewarding moments are when Kline feels strong and content by surrounding herself with people she loves.

whuHeads Up – Warpaint

Without a doubt Warpaint’s greatest moment yet. They’ve moved away from their more guitar-oriented sound, pared back to their strong bass and drums section and then built on top from there. What you get is a dance-inflected pop-rock album that casts off any sleepiness from their last album for a more immediate version. ‘New Song’ is possibly their best pop song yet and ‘So Good’ and ‘The Stall’ delve into hip-hop in a much better capacity than they attempted on Warpaint. Heads Up sounds like the title; less heads-down swaying, and more heads-up dancing.

aomwMY WOMAN- Angel Olsen

Perfecting a sound, Angel Olsen traced over Burn Your Fire For No Witness in much bolder lines, filling in the folky elements with bluesy ballads and powerful pop like ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’, one of the best singles this year. There had been crescendos from Angel Olsen before (see ‘Windows’), but when ‘Sister’ and ‘Woman’ come along, bearing fangs with classic rock soloing and Olsen declaring ‘I dare you to understand what makes me a woman’ with that voice, it’s goosebump-inducing. A bit like Warpaint, this album was like the one Olsen had been leading up to, to reach a peak in sound. But then again, why limit this album to her peak? She’s got much more to give.

radiohead-new-album-a-moon-shaped-pool-download-stream-640x640A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

There’s still much more to understand about A Moon Shaped Pool, and there’s constant fan interpretations of what Radiohead have offered this year and that’s Radiohead’s big trick. All they have to do is release an album, and there will be talk over the tiniest details. Is it about Thom Yorke’s breakup from his partner? Is it about the rise in nationalism (somewhat confirmed)? It’s probably about climate change too. Maybe there’s no grand arc. But the key to any mystery-shrouded band is giving the illusion that there might be. A Moon Shaped Pool is an unusual album, Radiohead take their time to look back for once in their career, and accept their influence. By doing that, this isn’t their ‘electronic’ album, or their ‘political’ album, but a collection of everything they’ve toyed with. This was their breath out.

ncstSkeleton Tree – Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

If there was an album that perfectly captured 2016, it was Skeleton Tree. Nick Cave working through grief by song is nothing new to the Bad Seeds, but this time it was real. Cave spills his guts when he had no reason to, and there’s plenty of credit to be given for an artist that brings the pain of reality into the public sphere. He touches on the real and the surreal, car crashes and the rings of saturn, electrical storms on the bathroom floor and hyenas singing hymns. This was Nick Cave the poet on fine form. You could almost separate the music from the lyrics, but the subtle twitches and groans of the Bad Seeds are the ideal accompaniment to the album.

Leave-Me-Alone-575x575Leave Me Alone – Hinds

This album made a lot more sense in Summer. When I played it at the beginning of January, it seemed wrong to hear songs about dancing in the streets, going to the beach and a general sunniness that covered these songs from the Madrid band. Refreshingly different, born from equal parts love and sadness. Hinds are needed for indie music, not attached to any British or American ideas of coolness or what’s trendy, instead making music that they’d play at house parties for their friends. Close your eyes listening to this, and you can imagine being on a beach in Spain late at night, possibly a bit drunk.

pse200720112007-2011 – P.S. Eliot

I adore P.S. Eliot, so 50 of their songs being boxed together, complete with demos and barely audible recordings was like early Christmas. The album brings together everything the pre-Waxahatchee/Swearin’ bands, bursting with youthfulness, a DIY spirit and perfect rock songs. Personally, I’m more attached to the first album, Introverted Romance In Our Troubled Minds, which gets plenty of demo treatment, so hearing early versions of ‘Incoherent Love Songs’ minus the harmonica, or ‘Hail Mary’ is useful for connecting the dots between P.S. Eliot and Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee. I hope P.S. Eliot go down in history as one of those short-lived punk bands that everybody loves, and this is a pretty great place if you want to hear it all.

d5a30e2eHuman Performance – Parquet Courts

Great follow-up from Parquet Courts. They’ve shifted gears at exactly the right time, using their Parkay Quarts mini-LPs Content Nausea and Monastic Living as a template for a more americana-tinged sound. When Sunbathing Animal came out I was worried that the band had slipped into a comfort zone, so Human Performance is reassuring to hear that Parquet Courts can experiment on their main releases as well as their mini projects. I’m a huge fan of the more mid-paced songs like ‘Captive Of The Sun’ and ‘Berlin Got Blurry’.

gahtbahbHow To Be A Human Being – Glass Animals

Glass Animals have a Vampire-Weekend-from-the-UK thing going on. A group of preppy students playing around with non-Western styles and making a pop dent at the same time. Dave Bayley is a hugely underrated lyricist, slotting in some truly weird imagery about cocaine on ‘Cane Shuga’ and drinking pork soda. There’s also a concept running throughout the album, where every character on the artwork is represented in a song. So what you get is a set of character studies about being a human being. High concept, but it doesn’t get lost in the story. ‘Life Itself’ and ‘Youth’ are some of the best singles this year.

todTeens Of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

This seems like a big success for Will Toledo. It’s fairytale-like: Guy makes a couple of albums on Bandcamp, gets noticed by label, releases a hugely successful album and ends up on plenty of best-of-the-year lists. If that’s not punk then I don’t know what is. It’s been a long time coming for Toledo, and he didn’t simply repeat his lo-fi sound on a larger scale, he brought in a full band and made his mini-epics into actual epics like ‘The Ballad Of Costa Concordia’. I hope he doesn’t get tagged with the ‘depressing indie music’ stamp of death, because there’s a lot of humour in Teens Of Denial, it just comes with a lot of confusion and self-depreciation too.

Everything So Far – 2016’s Best Albums (So Far)

radiohead-new-album-a-moon-shaped-pool-download-stream-640x640A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

Well, it was bound to happen, really. The best thing Radiohead could have done to meet the huge hype was to not do what was expected, or what was not expected. Think of it as a semi-sequel to Hail To The Thief and In Rainbows, effortlessly combining the acoustic and electronic elements that they’ve polarised so often and making songs that don’t directly say anything, but are subtle both lyrically and instrumentally. Saying less and making less noise might look like a cop-out, but they do so much with that new space. The roles of the Greenwood brothers are amplified, from Colin’s bass input on ‘Identikit’ and ‘Decks Dark’ to Jonny’s work on film soundtracks being translated to ‘Burn The Witch’ and ‘The Numbers’.

Listen To: Daydreaming

SAVAGES_ADORE_LIFE_Cover_grandeAdore Life – Savages

In response to the tight and tense music that their debut album showed off, Savages got louder and covered a topic that not many would associate with moody post-punk – Love. But the way Jehnny Beth sang about it; it was like a horror film with the murderer always around the corner ready to pounce. It was monolithic and feared, and even when it was accepted, it was on her own terms. A unique perspective only matched by the jackhammer bass and drums of Ayşe Hassan and Fay Milton.

Listen To: Adore

a3933351475_10Rot Forever – Sioux Falls

One of the most enjoyable debuts to come out so far this year, Sioux Falls went overboard on their 72-minute first impression. It had more than a whiff of Modest Mouse, but frontman Isaac Eiger specifically mentions making Modest Mouse mixtapes in highlight ‘In Case It Gets Lost’. It’s clumsy, chaotic rock music that spills over usual time limits and restrictions into making an album that matches Eiger’s lyrics. Plus, the drumming is great.

Listen To: In Case It Gets Lost

a0138284876_10Human Ceremony – Sunflower Bean

‘Easier Said’ is Sunflower Bean’s best song, yet it’s unlike any other. On ‘2013’, ‘I Was Home’ and ‘Creation Myth’ they blend hard rock with psychedelic music, but on ‘Easier Said’ it’s a pretty little pop song with Julia Cumming, bassist, leading the vocals instead of the band’s other vocalist, Nick Kivlen. It was probably a coincidence that Human Ceremony and Leave Me Alone by Hinds arrived around the same time, but both of those albums were genuinely surprising for debuts by bands that had been pegged into a certain sound. Apparently Sunflower Bean are good live as well, and they refuse to stop touring, so give them a go.

Listen To: Easier Said

mothers-when-walk-long-distance-new-albumWhen You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired – Mothers

Mothers continue the flow of folk/singer-songwriters around right now, from Angel Olsen, Eskimeaux and Frankie Cosmos. It originated as a solo project from Kristine Leschper, but the full band backing gives ‘It Hurts Until It Doesn’t’ and ‘Hold Your Own Hand’ a life beyond quiet folk. Leschper’s voice is the centrepoint; an emotive and sharp performance that aims for the heart like any good folk music.

Listen To: Too Small For Eyes

todTeens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

Here’s an underdog story waiting to happen. Will Toledo makes loads of Bandcamp albums and gets a record deal with Matador, puts out a compilation of his best tracks so far and then, on his first Matador album of original material, makes one of the best albums of the year (not without some copyright issues along the way). It might sound a bit like the resurrection of peak-Stephen Malkmus, but Toledo’s relentless self-referencing, concepts and dry humour are just what indie-rock needs to sound important.

Listen To: Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales

d5a30e2eHuman Performance – Parquet Courts

You could be worried about Parquet Courts easing into their cynical comfort zone, but Human Performance took some of the pressure off lead vocalist Andrew Savage and gave more time to the other band members. The extended jams mostly went out the window, and in came the Velvet Underground and country-tinged indie-rock, something that Parquet Courts always hinted at but never fully captured. They’re finally where they should be.

Listen To: Berlin Got Blurry

beyonce-new-album-lemonade-download-free-stream-640x640Lemonade – Beyoncé

No doubt an album that will be on many peoples’ year-end list already, Beyoncé topped her self-titled fourth album by heaping on more of that artistry and auteurism that Rihanna and Zayn Malik have hopped on. Beyoncé didn’t forget to leave out the big songs with ‘Hold Up’ and ‘Sorry’, but it’s the narrative that many came for. It became clear that Lemonade was about a break-up, whether that was a story or reality is yet to be known, but it made for a compelling arc. You could follow the story whilst listening to the best pop music right now. It’s the reason that mainstream and underground and becoming increasingly blurred.

Listen To: All Night

Leave-Me-Alone-575x575Leave Me Alone – Hinds

A record that should have been released in summer instead arrived in chilly January to start the year off strong. We were worried that Hinds were one-trick-ponies but when ‘Solar Gap’, ‘And I Will Send Your Flowers Back’ and ‘Warts’ came along with the hits it proved us wrong. It’s music to put on with the sun shining and not worrying if that verse was a bit awkward or they can sing pitch-perfect. Perhaps it’s the isolation from the self-appointed indie-rock headquarters of the UK or US, but Spain is looking pretty special right now with Mourn and Hinds spearheading some great rock music.

Listen To: Garden

Album Review – Human Performance / Parquet Courts

d5a30e2eParquet Courts have quietly been refining their sound since 2014’s Sunbathing Animal, deviating from the breakneck punk of Light Up Gold and Tally All The Things You Broke EP to somewhere in the middle of mid-tempo cowpunk or stretched out indie-rock such as ‘Pretty Machines’ from 2014’s criminally underrated Content Nausea. As you might have guessed if you didn’t know already, Parquet Courts are a prolific band. With every release they press new buttons, sometimes coming across gold like Content Nausea and other times not-so-good projects such as last years’ Monastic Living EP. This new album has already been greeted as the new great step forward for Parquet Courts. And it is. They still dabble in highfalutin concepts (their frontman Andrew Savage has talked about his thoughts on ‘human performance’ in several interviews) but their sound has opened up into a more nuanced performance, with keys, other vocalists, synths and sometimes even less violent guitar-playing. In fact, the two bands that Parquet Courts now resemble is a punkier R.E.M. or the Velvet Underground (Compare ‘Steady On My Mind’ with ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’). It’s a perfect little niche to find themselves in, still writing the occasional furious punk song but then slotting a laid-back pop song into the mix. Parquet Courts have found their home, even if they might not stay there long.

The singles boded well for Human Performance. ‘Dust’ was a shuffling rocker with the introduction of keys and a minimalistic portrait of crushing anxiety and claustrophobia, something Parquet Courts are well versed in at this point. Then ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ came along, all spaghetti-western and stream-of-consciousness ramblings by Savage, as he rifles through typically wordy lyrics such as ‘Döner wrapper done right / An extinguished crutch of a rollie inside yellow fingers’, but the verse ending of ‘Berlin got blurry and my heart started hurting for you’ was an unusually direct show of emotion from Savage. Finally, ‘Human Performance’ arrived, with further examples of Savage opening up further with lyrics like ‘I told you I loved you / Did I even deserve it when you returned it’. ‘Human Performance’, the song, drifts between his confessions of love and him playing at a gig, which ties in with the theme of ‘human performance’. Savage previously questioned whether performing can pass as authentic expression if it isn’t a faithful representation of the person performing. This thinking is translated into his love life, where he sings ‘phantom affection gives a human performance’ as if he’s tricking himself into performing a natural human routine – relationships and so on – in order to convince himself he’s living a normal life. If in previous albums, Savage and co-songwriter Austin Brown have explored anxiety, then this is a completely new chapter. They don’t announce it as directly as they did before, but it’s implicitly there.

There’s instrumental expansion as well as lyrical expansion. Parquet Courts have been known for their punky side, but never before have they incorporated so much extra stuff into their sound. Often those extra instruments is what makes the song memorable, for example ‘Dust’ is the organ/keys song (it also features Jeff Tweedy on guitar as a bonus), ‘One Man No City’ is the bongos song and ‘Captive Of The Sun’ is the creepy glockenspiel song, or at least that’s what we think it is; it could easily be a synth. ‘Captive Of The Sun’ gets the award for best song on Human Performance because it combines Parquet Courts’ knack for words with instrumental oddities and sounds that they haven’t played with before. Austin Brown, who takes on vocal duties on more songs than ever, spits out rapid-fire surreal imagery like ‘Half-tone harmony from the sewer’ and ‘Trucks pave the roads with amphetamine salt’. After Content Nausea, which had songs that lived and breathed New York, ‘Captive Of The Sun’ could’ve slotted straight onto that mini-LP. Many would describe the sights of New York, but Brown turns it into a clattering orchestra of sounds from the sewer, the smashing of glass, the train, dogs barking. It’s uplifting and uneasy at the same time, as Brown opens with ‘My misophonia’, or his hatred of sound.

Human Performance is the best Parquet Courts album without a doubt. It’s another tightly written and performed album, but this time there’s more variation in the performance, a twist on their typical subject matter and more input from bassist Sean Yeaton, who sings on ‘I Was Just Here’, and Brown, who is credited with playing the car* in the credits. It’s more of a band and less of Andrew Savage running the show. That’s not to say he’s not the frontman anymore, he’s just pulling the strings behind the scenes and organising the sound of the album. Just when the band were beginning to sound a little tired and stale, they’ve vastly improved upon the experimentation of Content Nausea and Monastic Living into a perfect sweet spot upon which their older material is buried into the fibres of the new songs, but there’s so much more to offer here from the repetitive nature of Sunbathing Animal. They can only go upwards from here.

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Funnel Recommends: Human Performance / Captive Of The Sun / Berlin Got Blurry

*Correction: It is Andrew Savage who ‘plays’ the car.

Track Review – Berlin Got Blurry / Parquet Courts

Hot on the heels of last single ‘Dust’, Parquet Courts have emerged with a wordier slice of americana compared to the minimalism of ‘Dust’. However, it’s still nothing compared to their monolithic monologues on ‘Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth’ or ‘Instant Disassembly’. But the lyrical content is just as claustrophobic and fraught with anxiety as anything they have done before, taking place in Berlin, a city that’s practically known for its tension and anxiety. That said, frontman Andrew Savage finds longing in his loneliness with the chorus of ‘Berlin got blurry and my heart started hurting for you’. Think of it as a song in the same vein as Bowie’s Heroes (The album) – finding love and warmth in a city of loneliness. The instrumentation is another new direction for Parquet Courts – there’s an organ just like ‘Dust’ did, there’s a spaghetti western guitar and an acoustic guitar, which is a new choice for the typically all-electric band. Parquet Courts’ sound is undeniably changing, and both ‘Dust’ and ‘Berlin Got Blurry’ promise good things.

Track Review – Dust / Parquet Courts

One of the most prolific bands this side of Ty Segall are back again with their fourth album (third if we’re not counting the hard-to-get American Specialties). Their last release, Monastic Living, didn’t exactly go down well here, but we’re willing to let pretentious noise-rock experimentation slide if it’s just a dip into unknown territories. And that’s exactly what ‘Dust’ suggests, albeit without leaving behind the noisier parts of that entirely. It’s true to say that ‘Dust’ is nowhere near as wordy as something like ‘Content Nausea’ or ‘Sunbathing Animal’, but Andrew Savage restraining himself from speaking every word in the known vocabulary has worked out pretty well for their next step. ‘Dust is everywhere / Sweep’ is probably as minimalist as Savage is going to go, which is something for Andrew Savage. There’s spaces for interpretation in their newfound lack of lyrics, whereas before it was very clear what Savage was on about.

The instrumental style is firmly in the Content Nausea – their hugely underrated mini-LP –  sector with its americana-by-punk dustiness (no pun intended) which echoes their homeland of Texas and makes them a bit different from your average punk band. Cowpunk might be a stretch, there’s more Sonic Youth in the latter section than the Cramps, but it’s definitely there. The repetition in the bass and drums lends itself to a resemblance to their longer songs ‘Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth’ or ‘Instant Disassembly’ and while those songs can drag, the repetition goes hand in hand with the conciseness of the track, coupled with the noisy ending that brings a conclusion to the built-up tension. A breath of relief after Monastic Living. 

EP Review – Monastic Living / Parquet Courts

parquet_courts_monastic_living_1Parquet Courts fell into a trap with Sunbathing Animal last year, which pretty much repeated the minor success they had encountered with Light Up Gold. However, they quickly followed Sunbathing Animal up with t Nausea, a mini-LP that was criminally underrated and more importantly, the proper follow-up to Light Up Gold. The band’s mini-LPs and EPs often allow Parquet Courts to become more experimental, dipping into noise-rock, southern goth-rock and a Nancy Sinatra cover, if you’re lucky. So it’s no surprise that Monastic Living is a collection of almost entirely wordless noise-rock songs, taking inspiration from the early Sonic Youth catalogue, minus huge walls of sound and more like super-skeletal guitar-bashing. Monastic Living aims for art-rock experimentation, but it comes off more like self-indulgent guitar wankery that lacks anything remotely interesting.

Andrew Savage, the main frontman for Parquet Courts, is mostly absent from vocals, except from the trick-first-track, which would probably confuse the listener into thinking this is your everyday Parquet Courts EP. Still, it’s only one minute long, so the enticing sound of the band rattling out a punky short song is fleeting at best, as it quickly descends into the second track – the lengthy and plodding ‘Monastic Living I’. The release would probably be a lot easier to consume if the band didn’t rely so heavily on distorted guitars and waves of sound colliding into each other, but ‘Monastic Living I’ is the first taste of a guitar-heavy EP. The band is a four-piece, but the rest of the band hardly make a dent and contribute to the consistent domination of Andrew Savage (and sometime frontman Austin Brown). The guitar repeats the same clumsy line over and over before the old friend feedback comes in to save the day, or at least that’s what Parquet Courts thinks will happen. There’s six and a half minutes of tooth-pulling before the track dies a quick death, transitioning into yet another series of Sonic Youth-esque hammerings of a poor guitar. The idea behind the album is reasonable – they want to make a noise-rock sidestep – but it’s so tedious and indulgent that there’s no reason to visit this EP.

Too many times do Parquet Courts come dangerously close to something that achieves what they want. ‘Alms For The Poor’, which resembles something from the Content Nausea mini-LP is so cocksure and funky it’s unlike anything else and deserves to be extended out and have some wordy lyrics tagged on, but it lasts one painfully small minute and fades out before anything can develop. Likewise, the electronic-inflected ‘Poverty And Obedience’ tempts out more influences, but yes, it’s one minute long. The longer tracks, like the painful ‘Monastic Living I’, ‘Monastic Living II’ and ‘Prison Conversion’ are the extended jams with no structure, but the more interesting tracks are one minute long. Either Parquet Courts have gone completely meta with this new release or they have no idea what kind of garbage they have produced. My guess is that this is a self-aware release, but there’s no point behind it. They haven’t had the major success to show the finger to their audience, so why put out a super-experimental and super-dull series of guitar squeals?

Monastic Living could have been a stepping stone to their next album; an art-rock gem that took the weirder moments of Content Nausea and built on them, but instead the band opt for a deconstruction of what they were good at (i.e. intelligent lyrics, punk) and go in the opposite direction. They can’t gain anything out of this other than self-satisfaction that they’ve messed with their audience and that’s not a good enough reason. This will only contribute to the theory that Parquet Courts are actually 90s slackers who will do anything to upset their audience. Monastic Living is dumb, indulgent and entirely unnecessary. Miss it out.

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Funnel Recommends: Alms For The Poor / Poverty And Obedience