James Blake was always an artist I truly admired. Since the release of “Retrograde” in 2013 there have been very few days I didn’t listen to Blake. And after having the pleasure of interviewing him I was so mesmerized by not only his personality and ingenuity, but also his intelligence which consistently shines through his immersive arrangements. We saw the first taste of the London native’s first album since his 2013 Mercury Prize winning sophomore release Overgrown on his BBC Radio 1 residency in the form of “Modern Soul,” months before the near-instantaneous release of the LP back in May. The album’s opener “Radio Silence” is a friendly introduction, delving right into his signature sound. The Colour In Anything also saw the highly talked about collaborations with Frank Ocean on “My Willing Heart” and “I Need A Forest Fire” featuring Bon Iver. The latter is sandwiched in the tracklist between “Choose Me” and “Noise Above Our Heads,” my personal highlights from the record tied up in the heart of it.
words: Laura Ersoy
Palace – So Long Forever
Palace are a band we’ve been following over the past couple of years. It has been both a pleasure and an absolute intrigue to watch them develop and evolve various sides to their sound that culminated in the release of debut album So Long Forever. With the North Londoners known for their signature effortless blues groove as in “Bitter,” “Live Well” and “Fire in the Sky” I was apprehensive that the entire album would come across as a bit too tame. Instead it became a platform to showcase their versatile and multidimensional nature. The tracklisting is littered with several uncharacteristic gems. Apt mathrock opener “Break the Silence” menacingly teeters on the edge of frenzy, a stark contrast to the restrained rock realizations of “It’s Over.” The highlight, however, has to be “Holy Smoke” which patiently and sumptuously ebbs and flows towards an ornate crescendo, a track crafted with an air of warmth almost entirely masked by its vulnerability as it conveys a message of hope and spirituality. Ultimately though, So Long Forever sparkles most because of an unmistakable hypnotic fluidity that connects every song from start to finish.
words: Andrew Sharp
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – The Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave has always been a wanderer of dark, chaotic worlds. Most of his career has been spent chronicling the macabre underbelly of the human condition through vivid fictional narratives and poetic verse. But after the tragic death of his 15-year-old son back in 2015, Cave was unable to fathom the loss. He and his wife were left utterly bereft, a feeling expressed poignantly in “One More Time With Feeling,” a black and white ‘making of’ documentary about The Skeleton Tree. But the album alone is enough to see that this music result of emotional torture, trauma and indescribable grief. Many of the tracks represent Cave’s confused, scattered mental state, saturated with deeply personal lyrics and melancholic experimentation of the most goose-bump inducing kind. Alongside long-time collaborator and eccentric companion Warren Ellis, Cave walks us through a disjointed landscape where violins interrupt ambient piano flourishes – “Jesus Alone” – and ghostly choirs dance on the horizon – “Anthrocene.” “Distant Sky” is throat-chokingly beautiful whilst “Rings Of Saturn” is an untamed stream of Cave’s semi-conscious. What The Skeleton Tree does most is to embody an element of closure for Cave as we sit alongside him at the piano, tearful and lost, yet silently hopeful for the future.
words: Nad Khan
Young the Giant – Home of the Strange
Young the Giant grabbed so much attention with their 2010 debut album and have continue to grow and evolve ever since. Crafting several hits and easily becoming festival favorites, their focus has traditionally been on the anthemic, feel good vibes mirrored in their performances. The approach to the studio ‘as-live’ is evident in third album Home of the Strange, which really hit home for many. “Amerika” starts off the record and it haunts listeners as it begins and there’s absolutely no questioning why “Repeat” is called just that. The incredibly catchy “Something to Believe In” is unmistakable signature Young The Giant while “Jungle Youth” explored a grungy, gritty, edgy side to the quintet we have rarely seen before but the understated jewel in the crown has to be the breathtakingly sensual “Titus Was Born.” Fans can really tell how carefully curated Home of the Strange is.
words: Christine Nguyen
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
2016 gave us many surprises, if you can call it that. One of the more pleasant surprises was Post Pop Depression – an album put together by punk godfather Iggy Pop alongside Queens of the Stone Age veterans Josh Homme and Dean Fertita, and Matt Helders of Arctic Monkeys. For a man who has seen it all, Iggy wisely took a fresh approach to this album keeping things modern and clean, steering clear of the ragged punk sound he is known for, consequently thrusting his vocal and lyrical skills to the forefront, with the help of his collaborators on instruments and production. The lush and rich “Gardenia” is one of the best tracks on the album, if not the year, and “Paraguay” provides a perfect and grand closing statement. Post Pop Depression earned the seasoned rocker a Grammy nomination in a standout year that also included several projects revolving around the Stooges, it seems we are in an Iggy Pop renaissance despite him hinting that the record would be his last LP. While it would be a shame, seeing as the talent is clearly still there, it wouldn’t be a bad note to end on.
words: Ashley Seydel
Bad Suns – Disappear Here
Bad Suns dazzled with debut album Language & Perspective, a record of big singles that fueled my anticipation and excitement for this year’s follow up, Disappear Here. Bad Suns had set the bar pretty high for themselves and they certainly delivered. While they took on a cheerier undertone in many of their tracks, the album still manages to scream Bad Suns with its contagious guitar riffs, upbeat percussion and charming melodies. Lead vocalist Christo Bowman also shone through with his impressive vocal range in many of the tracks, confirming why he ranks as one of my favorite vocalists. Lyrically the album touches on worry and insecurity, a topic many will find relatable. In a year of divisive characters and disturbing acts, Disappear Here was a sublime, well-rounded album carrying a message of striving to overcome adversity.
words: Kenneth Ong
David Bowie – Blackstar
It still hasn’t quite sunk in that David Bowie died this year, yet in a way it almost feels like it happened forever ago. In a quite frankly catastrophic year, Bowie’s passing remains one of the worst things to happen, and we can only be thankful of his parting gift in the form of Blackstar. Yet another sign of Bowie’s otherworldliness – we’re pretty sure he’s some sort of alien/angel hybrid – he managed to perfectly align the album with his death. Perhaps unintentional, but given the content of the album (specifically “Lazarus”) we can’t help but feel that Bowie knew what was happening and wanted to tell the world goodbye in the best way possible. Thus, Blackstar came about. Though it’s easy to gush about the album, between “’Tis a Pity She Was A Whore” and “Girl Loves Me,” it’s a work of genius. Haunting, showing a glimpse of Bowie’s fragility at the time, but equally his unwavering confidence as he sings “who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?” on “Girl Loves Me,” Blackstar is everything we could dream of from Bowie’s final bow.
words: Melissa Svensen
Mystery Jets – Curve of the Earth
Curve of the Earth is Mystery Jets’ biggest feat yet. This album is by far their most mature and complex. Although it is easy to love the playful charm of earlier hits such as “Two Doors Down” and “Flash A Hungry Smile,” their new, more refined sound is not only impressive but moving. “Bombay Blue” is undoubtedly a highlight, a mixture of vocals that Thom Yorke would tip his hat to and dreamy acoustic guitar. This blend erupts into crashing waves of electric guitar and percussion. It creates a reflective feeling that runs through the whole of the album, like a microcosm of the solar system; the title clearly fits. Another noteworthy track is “Blood Red Balloon.” The baseline and organ cling together to make a Bon Iver sound, however, it is the harmonies that really elevate this track. These hippy-esque Beatles style vocals really are transcendent, transporting your ears to a parallel universe and the breakdown with the line “don’t close your eyes,” almost leaves you suspended in mid-air. These two tracks really encapsulate Curve of the Earth.
There were two albums that really influenced me in 2016 – Touch by July Talk and The Ride by Catfish and the Bottlemen. Coincidently the two bands just finished touring European together. Despite how fantastic The Ride was, I ultimately settled on July Talk’s sophomore offering. The Canadian band took risks with Touch as they explored their dynamic and experimented with their sound, especially in songs like “Now I Know,” “Strange Habits” and titular “Touch.” The Tornoto-based five-piece has grown so much since self-titled debut July Talk was released in 2012. Leah Fay’s ascension into her role, Peter Dreimanis’ strong foundation, the growth and maturity of Ian, Josh and Danny’s musicality over the year; I feel such a sense of pride for this band and am so impressed with the direction they’re going in and their success this past year. With an MMVA performance, multiple tours around the world and a CASBY award for “Push + Pull,” July Talk is a blistering rock force to be reckoned with raw live edge that will leave you perforated.
words: Kelly Nice
Glass Animals – How to Be a Human Being
Towards the end of August, Glass Animals released their second album, How to Be a Human Being. Zaba, their first album, differs in that it’s characterized by a cool, hazy air while the follow up is supercharged with life and zest. Even when the lead single “Life Itself” was released, mastermind David Bayley, potential neuroscientist turned musician, explained he wanted to write “something rawer and more human.” After opening with the tribal “Life Itself,” the album moves to “Season 2 Episode 3” featuring barbershop quartet sounds, 8-bit video game samples, and bouncy synths. The flittering harp and flute dance together in “Mama’s Gun,” eventually progressing to the swelling bass in the mysterious “Take a Slice.” The record closes with Magical Mystery Tour sounding “Agnes” which, despite its pleasant melodies, delineates a tragic tale of someone lost to mental instability and substance abuse to round off what is a testament to the iconic eclectic sound that distinguishes the Oxford band from any other: combining sounds that normally wouldn’t be caught dead together and pairing said distinctive instrumentals with highly intelligent lyrics.
words: Maya Siman
Viola Beach – Viola Beach
As addressed in our review earlier in the year, it feels difficult to avoid the circumstances surrounding this posthumous debut release. But to name Viola Beach as my album of the year comes with little in the way of honorable sentiment. It is richly deserved. The nine-track album is packed full of crisp, indie-guitar singles that exude energy. Book-ended by familiar favorites “Swings and Waterslides” and “Boys That Sing,” Viola Beach kept their upbeat bounce throughout even on the noticeably slower “Cherry Vimto” and “Drunk” which sees the quartet at their most melancholy lyrically. Viola Beach is an album that perfectly captures the youthful hunger and energy that surrounded the boys who were simply doing something they had a great passion for and found insurmountable pleasure in. With grounded themes of loneliness and companionship that now appear to have taken on additional, bittersweet meanings beautifully illustrated by their celebratory mantra “…together we could take on the world… together we could do anything” in “Boys That Sing,” it is undoubtedly one of the most down-to-earth yet outstanding albums of the year.
words: Rory Kenny
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Bon Iver’s third studio album 22, A Million marvels in oblique song structures and digitised pop meditations; offering a smorgasbord of Space-age sonnets and bewitching syntax schisms more experimental than Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz. Channelling the avant-garde intricacies of Radiohead’s Kid A, 22, A Million changes the math of Bon Iver both sonically and stylistically, favouring glitchy vocal manipulations and electronic glyphs over Vernon’s signature Wisconsin cabin croons and acoustic balladeering – giving Bon Iver new function. If previous albums For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver were lovelorn sentiments of dejection and dolour, 22, A Million is a synthetic oddity which parses numerology, instability and cosmic revelation. From the Mahalia Jackson-sampling, saxofón screaming “22 (Over Soon)”, to the bombastic breakbeat blitz of “10 (Death Breast)”, 22, A Million is a phantasmagorical masterpiece which perfectly explores the celestial, the metaphysical and a reverence for the mythical; underlining Vernon’s lifelong search for spiritual serenity amid this hyper-sensitive world of agrarian cyber-folk.