10. The Leers - Are You Curious?
Yet another of the many great recent things to come out of Auckland's Red Bull Studios with Ben Lawson's name affixed to it, The Leers' debut album was a firm favourite across the first half of the year. Are You Curious? was an absorbing radio-ready blend of indie pop hooks and big slabs of bluesy psychedelia. My review can be found here.
9. Crystal Castles - Amnesty (I)
Evidently no longer the critical darling he was when Alice Glass was fronting his unique form of agit-electro-rave on three previous albums, Ethan Kath returned in 2016 alongside a new vocalist, with a new full-length work, and thankfully, more of the same. My review is here.
8. Radikal Guru - Dub Mentalist
Dub Mentalist arrived right at the end of the year so I didn't manage to get a full review up on the blog. But it was nonetheless impressive enough to get more than its share of pod time, and that's all that really matters in terms of where it ultimately stacks up. This is the third straight Radikal Guru album to make the blog's year-end list, so some context here might be that I’m a committed fan of the Polish dub fiend, and therefore, Dub Mentalist, by default, was always guaranteed more ear time. But it still had boxes to tick and expectations to meet, which it did with some aplomb, and Radikal Guru’s signature mix of the deep, the digital, and the rootsy, ensures Dub Mentalist rates just as highly as the other two albums. The tunes given the most room and space to breathe, sans vocalists, take on lives of their own, and those are my favourites here. But that doesn’t mean contributions by guest conspirators like Jay Spaker, Echo Ranks, Solo Banton, and Earl 16, don’t also have their place. This guy keeps on rolling out a wholly unique brand of extra-terrestrial dub at fairly regular intervals, but his genre of choice and area of expertise is so niche, nobody seems to notice.
7. Pacific Heights - The Stillness
Shapeshifter-come-electro-head-bobber Devin Abrams came up with something personal, intimate, and quite raw (in parts) with The Stillness, yet it was also polished, accessible, and everything a successful breakout solo album should be. During a year when local work blasted all preconceived limitations out of view, The Stillness could quite easily have placed much higher on this list. My review is here.
6. The Radio Dept - Running Out of Love
On the surface Running Out of Love appeals as a dose of saccharine Swedish indie pop. Scratch a little beneath that, however, and you’ll find something much darker buried deep within its slightly rotten core. My review is here.
5. Adrian Sherwood/Various - At The Controls Vol.2 1985-1990
This is another one of those pesky compilation albums that has no place on a list such as this (see unwritten blog rule 425, clause 1b). Well it would be, if it wasn’t an On-U Sound compilation, and a collection of prime On-U era archive material, mixed by label guru and occasional world leading mixologist Adrian Sherwood. In defiance of the rule, At The Controls v2, also topped one of the annual lists over at the obviously very learned website, The Quietus. Admittedly it was a list for rogue releases, oddities, and collections that don’t really fit in anywhere else. A little bit like Sherwood himself. My review is here.
4. Underworld - Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future
Aside from the Radikal Guru album, Underworld’s awkwardly-titled BBWFASF (phew) was the only other entry in the ten that I failed to write a full review for during the year. But just like Radikal Guru, Underworld’s place on this list was practically assured as soon as the album arrived in my inbox. As an Underworld fan, I was always bound to give more time to BBWFASF than some others. I even thought their otherwise indifferently-received Barking album of 2010 was one of the best of its year. The thing that makes new Underworld material so hard to resist is the sense that they’re always a few steps ahead of the game, always state-of-the-art, despite massive changes in the rules over the course of the 25-odd years they’ve been doing their thing. And all - for the vast majority of those years - within that most fickle of flighty genres, dance music. In truth, it probably doesn’t hit the giddy or euphoric heights of their first couple of albums, and there’s no ‘Born Slippy’ or an epic ‘Rez’ to be found here, but the music of Underworld has evolved to occupy a different space these days, and there’s still a lot to love on BBWFASF.
3. Pitch Black - Filtered Senses
See all of the above. Add in a local context. Ahead the rest, state-of-the-art, across 20 years. Etc. For me, one of the best Friday mornings of 2016 was the one when I skyped Paddy Free in New York, and he spoke of Pitch Black’s accomplishments and getting to do what he loves every day like it was the most natural thing in the world. Reviewed here for the blog and for NZ Musician magazine.
2. David Bowie - Blackstar
Only David Bowie could pull this off. What better way to go out than to do so just two days after releasing an album that positively oozed all things life and death? Without giving us so much as a hint in advance. I’m still a little spooked by it. A massive loss, but he left us with an incredible legacy. My review is here.
I told anyone that would listen just how good this was. Every listen felt like it was turned up an extra notch. As Radiohead continue to astound and build on an already expansive discography, A Moon Shaped Pool is merely the latest flawless instalment. In reality, daylight was second. My review is here.
Five Honourable Mentions:
The Average Rap Band album, El Sol, very nearly pipped The Leers for a place in the final ten, falling just short in the end. It probably just needs to simmer through another summer.
I thought the Suede album, Night Thoughts, had a lot going for it, in a very insular and retro kind of way, but it also felt a little bit out of step with everything else going on in 2016. I remain a Suede devotee and completist.
The also no-longer-particularly-relevant Primal Scream released something close to an actual synthpop album in the form of Chaosmosis, which had a few cracker tunes on it. But the feeling I got listening to it, given the Scream’s cutting edge past, is that cliché commercial pop, in this instance, might just be the last bastion of the ultimate Nineties scoundrel. Bobby Gillespie has a lot to answer for, and that vocal is now more irritating than ever.
I know Warpaint’s Heads Up got a lot of love elsewhere, with good reason, and I did enjoy it, I just didn’t find myself wanting to go back for fourths, fifths, or a sixth listen. Even though I understand that’s probably exactly what I needed to do.
My guilty pleasure quota was sated by the music of Icelandic blues-rockers Kaleo, and their album A/B, which arrived somewhere out of left field and was an album I wouldn’t *normally* find myself listening to.
Some other end-of-year gongs (“the EGGs”):
EP or short album of the year was Yoko-Zuna’s Luminols, five quite diverse and distinct tunes, with the Tom Scott collab, ‘Orchard St’, going on to become a big pod favourite.
Reissue of the year was Jack White’s Acoustic Recordings 1998-2016, because I’m a big White fan, and cos I like the idea of putting some of this stuff together, where it wouldn’t ordinarily be automatically compatible by default. And because, if for no other reason, the stripped back bluegrass version of The Raconteurs’ ‘Top Yourself’ blows me away every time I hear it. White’s release was pushed closely by two deluxe/expanded releases: the 40th anniversary issue of The Ramones’ 1976 debut, which became a triple disc featuring demos and live takes, and Pure McCartney, which was another scarcely needed yet still strangely compelling post-Beatles career overview from his nibs. There was also the small matter of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall getting a deluxe makeover.
Freebie or exceptional name-your-price release of the year: as found on Bandcamp, toss a coin and choose between Adi Shankara’s dark and dense Structures, or the Auckland-based Peach Milk, with her delicious Finally EP.
The everythingsgonegreen gig of the year was Tami Neilson’s San Fran (Wellington) set from way back in March. Thoroughly polished and professional, great company, and a brilliant vibe on the night.
More generally, 2016 was a year of relentless mourning for pop culture fiends. All of those barely anticipated deaths: from Bowie to Prince to Leonard Cohen to George Michael. And everyone else in between. Farewell to popular artists like Glenn Frey, Sharon Jones, Maurice White, and Pete Burns. To roots and country music stars like Leon Russell and Merle Haggard. To iconic producers like (Sir) George Martin and Prince Buster. To local (NZ) legends such as Ian Watkin, Ray Columbus, and Bunny Walters. To stars of the big and small screens - Gene Wilder, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Jean Alexander, and Caroline Aherne. Even beyond the world of music, film, and the arts, transgenerational global figures such as Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro couldn’t survive the cull. Plus there will be many others of varying importance and influence to you personally (that I simply haven’t covered here). Bottom line: it’s been a rough year …
And while I’m sorely tempted to use the last paragraph of this post to launch into an opinionated rant about global politics - Aleppo, terrorism, the global refugee crisis, Brexit, Trump, and the rise of the xenophobic Right in general - I’ll spare you …
Be gone 2016 ... watch your arse on the way out.