2016 saw the release of some of memorable new music, including important albums that challenged conventions, reinvigorated established styles and enshrined burgeoning reputations. Here, Phil Smith and Piers Barber present a run down of the Music Factory’s 10 favourite albums of the year (and also offer an extensive Honourable Mentions round-up.) Lists from previous years can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.
Tindersticks – The Waiting Room ; Kornél Kovács – The Bells ; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree ; David Bowie – Blackstar ; The Radio Dept. – Running Out of Love ; Delroy Edwards – Hangin’ At The Beach ; Steven Julien – Fallen ; Fatima al Qadiri – Brute (review); Skepta – Konnichiwa ; Kowton – Utility (review) ; Underworld – Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future ; Gold Panda – Good Luck And Do Your Best ; Micky Pearce – Michael ; Krisztian Dobrocsi – Playback Philosophy ; Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. ; A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service ; Leon Vynehall – Rojus ; The Invisible – Patience ; Andy Stott – Too Many Voices ; Huerco S. – For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) ; Pangaea – In Drum Play ; Roosevelt – Roosevelt ; Nao – For All We Know ; Beyonce – Lemonade ; Nicholas Jaar – Sirens ; James Blake – The Colour In Anything ; Doms & Deykers – Evidence From A Good Source ; Youandewan – There Is No Right Time ; Zomby – Ultra ; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (review) ; Blood Orange – Freetown Sound ; How To Dress Well – Care ; Floorplan – Victorious ; Illum Sphere – Glass
10. Teenage Fanclub – Here [PeMa]
Children of Indie, rejoice! Teenage Fanclub had not made a record since 2010, yet it takes just two seconds for Here to explode into life with a riff that will loosen your hips as fast as hearing Johnny Marr launch into ‘This Charming Man’. ‘I’m In Love’ is the perfect Teenage Fanclub track, a ready-made, toe-tapping indie disco staple. Orchestral touches are added to make ‘The Darkest Part of the Night’ and ‘The First Sight’ particular delights. A still criminally underrated band, we still don’t know how lucky we are. Phil Smith
9. Angel Olsen – My Woman [Jagjaguar]
Angel Olsen was once introduced to the stage at Green Man Festival by an MC who told the crowd to ‘prepare to fall in love’. Olsen took it in good spirits, but the perception of her music as dreamy, wispy folk musings belied an artist with a wicked sense of humour and an ability to kick through genres. Burn Your Fire For No Witness was a stunningly sparse record, but My Woman is a delightful collection of tracks that finally shows off the full range of Olsen’s talent. The first half is punchy, the semi-comic ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ a highlight. The second half is more elongated and perhaps more familiar to long-term listeners. Both underpin Olsen’s burgeoning reputation as one of the best and most entertaining songwriters around. Phil Smith
8. Kowton – Utility [Livity Sound]
The hallmark of Livity Sound releases to date has been their unrelenting clarity of vision. Kowton’s Utility is the epitome of this ambition and purpose: nine tracks of inventive and striking club music, fully soaked in Livity DNA. There is a compelling simplicity to the finished record. Devoid of any pretension or unnecessary flourishes and crammed with compelling, stripped back textures, this is a record of impact, characterised throughout by hard-hitting bass, lots of empty space, and sparse but consistently smart percussion arrangements which borrow cleverly from grime. Read our full review here. Piers Barber
7. Anderson .Paak – Malibu [Steel Wool]
Malibu really overflows with self-confidence and smartly-channelled ambition. Honest, soulful and refreshingly optimistic, it’s an album of lovingly crafted modern R&B, characterised throughout by a nimble merging of styles and hearty live instrumentation, with guitars, horns and drums given room to breathe throughout. There are some truly memorable turns, such as ‘The Water’’s liquid smooth bass line; ‘Am I Wrong’’s irresistible horn breakdown; and ‘The Dreamer’’s celebratory chorus which brings the record to a thrillingly upbeat close. Here is an artist clearly in the midst of an important purple patch: check out Yes Lawd! – .Paak’s November album released alongside Knxwledge as NxWorries – for his second significant triumph of 2016. Piers Barber
6. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake [Secretly Canadian]
Light Upon the Lake is a shimmering Americana record that was one of 2016’s most delightful surprises. Whitney are perhaps indebted to The War On Drugs, who brought this genre back into fashion as everyone’s favourite Space Cowboys of 2014. Yet Light Upon the Lake is breezier and more relaxed, skipping from the sumptuous melody ‘Golden Days’ to the sparkling riff that sets ‘No Matter Where We Go’ alight. A record that cheers and illuminates: 30 minutes of unexpected joy. Phil Smith
5. Skee Mask – Shred [Ilian Tape]
2016 saw Skee Mask’s first full-lenth album lead the irrepressible charge of Ilian Tape, the Zenker Brothers-owned, Munich-based label responsible for some of today’s most relevant bass music. Perfectly paced and expertly sequenced, Shred makes compelling use of the album format to sketch out memorable soundscapes and shed exciting new light on established styles. It combines breakneck breakbeat experiments, rich and indulgent ambience, and chunky, dub-fuelled techno to reveal a new rare master of the dance music album format. Piers Barber
4. Solange – A Seat At The Table [Columbia]
Solange’s A Seat At The Table was one that replaced the zip of 2012’s True with an altogether more world weary record. The result is a stripped back album of rare and clarity and beauty. 21 songs strong, it avoids meandering, unfolding as a powerful narrative that will halt you in its tracks. ‘Cranes in the Sky’ is the track of the year, a song first and foremost dealing with the artist’s emotional anguish but at the same time capturing a time and place in history, the mood of a divided and hurting nation. Themes of rejection, isolation and identity underpin a record that deserves to resonate for years to come. Phil Smith
3. Mark Pritchard – Under The Sun [Warp]
Mark Pritchard’s quietly maturing discography may well constitute one of the most varied and vital contributions to British dance music ever offered by a single artist. Under The Sun sees Pritchard abandon his sophisticated and perfected variations of techno, rave, grime, and jungle and instead take time to further evolve his more ambient, atmospheric material recorded under monikers such as Harmonic 33 and Global Communication. This is still no 76:14, though, and Under The Sun expertly steers well clear of any corny chill-out room aesthetics. Instead it constitutes rich sketches and tastefully cultivated landscapes that are soaked in yearning drones and synths, such as on the lingering ‘Sad Elron’, and peppered tastefully throughout by some stunning vocal turns, especially on the Thom Yorke-powered otherworldly pulse of ‘Beautiful People’. Piers Barber
2. Omar-S – The Best [FXHE]
The Best is an album dripping with personality, a characteristic immediately indicated by the album’s typically modest title and eccentric song titles. It’s a tour de force of style and genre, ranging from the urgent rolling bass of ‘You Silk Suit Wearin MuLaFuk’ka’ to the wonderfully emotive love song ‘Heard Chew Single’, which features a crooning John FM on the vocal. More than anything it’s an album soaked in the unique heritage of Detroit music, especially on the memorable ‘Seen Was Set (Norm Talley Mix – BIG Strick Vocal)’, a disco-fuelled jam which lovingly harks back to “1988, the true Detroit party scene, where there wasn’t no wallflowers holdin’ the wall down.” This is no tired tribute record, though, with the established master bringing along a new wave of Detroit artists, such as Kyle Hall, along for the ride here too. The result is a record which immediately sounds timeless. Piers Barber
1. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker [Columbia]
By Phil Smith.
Leonard Cohen went out how you always hoped he would: wise, witty, self-deprecating, right until the very last line. You Want It Darker is an album that stayed true to the contradiction that left Cohen standing at the top of the tower of song for six decades. On the one hand, he is magisterial, regal, a master of language with a fearless appetite for taking on life’s great themes. That sense of grandeur, most famously known on Various Position‘s ‘Hallelujah’, is served wonderfully by the orchestral flourishes on ‘Steer Your Way’ and ‘String Reprise’.
Yet there is another side to Cohen, a songwriter who left himself remarkably vulnerable to his listeners. Age did not inhibit him on that front, leaving us with the stunning, moving ‘Treaty’, in which he sings, “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time… I’m sorry for the ghost I made you be”. It is the perfect successor to ‘Bird on the Wire’, Cohen admitting that even after all these years his flaws are as prominent as they ever were.
You Want It Darker is an album that stayed true to the contradiction that left Cohen standing at the top of the tower of song for six decades.
The album is impeccably produced, with Leonard’s son Adam perfectly capturing his father’s distinctive voice. Long gone are the dated and sometimes wooden sound of his early records, replaced by a plush, sweeping sound that elevates his trademark grumble. A year of angst provided the perfect backdrop for Cohen’s farewell, the urgent beat of ‘It Seemed the Better Way’ an apt backdrop for his withering take on modernity. Like his finest work, You Want It Darker captures how personal and political angst become one.
Hey, that’s how to say goodbye.
What 2016 highlights have we missed? Let us know in the comments below.
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