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The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (1)

underworld-barbara-barbara-face-shining-future

Underworld – Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future

So, in no particular order, I will kick off my top 10 with the clear contender for weird album title of the year. I’ve followed Underworld loyally since getting into them in the mid-90s and, to be honest, some of their efforts along the way have slightly tested that loyalty (I would put the low point at 2007’s Oblivion With Bells). However, BBWFASF, their most concise long player, is basically great from its stomping start (I Exhale) to beatific finish (Nylon Strung). Along the way, every track has something to recommend it (something I could not say with confidence about many of their other releases – even their best). Even second track If Rah, which begins with some very unconvincing middle-aged rapping, develops into something appealing. We also have Motorhome‘s slow-mo homage to Baba O’Riley, the beautiful finger-picked guitar interlude Santiago Cuatro and the one-two punch love bomb of the last two tracks, Ova Nova and the aforementioned outstanding Nylon Strung. When so many long-term favourite artists have disappointed me over the last few years, this was a very welcome reversal of that trend.

 

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The 2016 Round-Up: Honourable Mentions

Hello and welcome back to LostMeow for my 2016 round-up!

It feels like it’s been a bit of an off-colour year for music, in between all of the political upheaval and deaths of much-loved artists. Few albums have really, really stood out for me, compared with recent years, although there have been plenty that I’ve enjoyed. When I look down the list of critical top 10s (helpfully compiled at Metacritic), there’s really only one or maybe two that have caught my ear. Having said all that, it was still difficult to narrow down my list of 10 albums of the year, and here are the ones that just missed out:

Solar Bears – Advancement
Although slightly derivative of Boards of Canada, Solar Bears make electronica with a meaty heft and dramatic narrative. The album is a very enjoyable listen but falls short of greatness, for me, because the musical ideas they have aren’t given enough time to really flourish. Case in point: 7th track Wild Flowers spends 2:20 of its very slight 3:12 running time finding its groove (and a very fine groove it is, too), leaving just about 40 seconds to enjoy the destination before it’s all over. As such, it ends up being a collection of little vignettes rather than a truly satisfying musical journey.

Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place – You’re Doomed. Be Nice
I may well regret not putting this in my top 10. Such fun, inventive, fuzzy rock from a musician I really admire. Knotty time-signatures and tempo changes can’t hide the incredibly catchy hooks on offer, which is always a great combination, in my book…

Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
Seldom has a band been more aptly named than Pinkshinyultrablast, a shoegaze four-piece from Russia. Their music positively explodes through speakers or headphones in a sensory overload that is almost impossible to appreciate on first hearing. This is their second album, heavier guitar-wise than their first. It sounds almost as if it was recorded in a cathedral, such is the colossal reverb, and may have used 1000 guitarists at the same time for all I know. It’s a coruscating rush of sound that bludgeons all before it; pretty intense, in other words!

Warpaint – Heads Up
Ah…. The one that got away… I really wanted this to be in my top 10, having quickly grown to love the band on the strength of their first two albums. This one shows promise, with a poppier approach on lead single New Song, but just doesn’t quite deliver the same heights (and depths) as its predecessors.

Ulrich Schnauss – No Further Ahead Than Today
Ulrich’s A Strangely Isolated Place (2003) remains one of my all-time favourite albums but he’s struggled to match it since then. This contains some glimmers of his genius but has a ‘kitchen sink’ approach to filling the aural space with so much that it gets a little overwhelming at times.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (10)

Grimes - Art Angels
Grimes – Art Angels

And so to the most recent entry. This has been much raved about in the press (at last count, five #1 spots on critics’ end of year lists), and rightfully so as it is an album with wide appeal but also a phenomenal level of creativity and artistic endeavour. It is as if Grimes has digested all of pop music over the last 20 years and painstakingly remade it to fit her own vision, making the manufactured sound totally personal.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (9)

Helios - Yume
Helios – Yume

Keith Kenniff makes music as Helios with wonderful poise and composition. He’s not doing anything ground-breaking here but listening to this album is like sinking into a warm bath. His tracks are laid-back in tempo but impeccably constructed with great depth, elevating them above anodyne ‘chill out’.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (8)

Tame Impala - Currents
Tame Impala – Currents

In which Kevin Parker‘s Tame Impala make a seamless transition from psychedelic rock into psychedelic synth-infused electro-pop-disco-soul-something (let’s not get too bogged down in genres, eh?). It sounds so natural that the first time through I didn’t even notice that he’d almost abandoned his guitar – it’s still there, of course, but now it is the synths that shoulder the majority of the burden. He’s a damn good songwriter and as this album makes clear, a fantastic, meticulous producer as well.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (7)

Mbongwana Star - From Kinshasa
Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa

A refreshing and thrilling antidote to any stereotypical notions of what African music ‘should’ sound like. This is so comfortable and adept in its mixing of African and Western instruments, with a grubby, greasy but ultimately needle-sharp production. I love the hypnotic rhythms, anxious guitar work and distorted thumb pianos. Ultimately, though, it’s just a great collection of songs from another world.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (6)

BOOF - Shhh, Dandelions At Play
BOOF – Shhh, Dandelions At Play

Another not released this year – although house veteran Maurice Fulton did release an album under his BOOF alias (The Hydrangeas Whisper), I preferred this one from 2011. This is as much space funk as it is house music and the live drumming really pops out of the mix.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (5)

Blanck Mass - Dumb Flesh
Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh

As one half of Fuck Buttons, Benjamin John Power produced 2013’s excellent dystopian vision, Slow Focus. With Dumb Flesh he takes us into the nightclub. The cover’s weirdly unidentifiable flesh portrays something visceral and weirdly futuristic, which is an apt metaphor for the music itself. There’s a muscular power and intensity throughout, which may at first seem brutal but always turns out to be compellingly listenable. Case in point: the abruptly terrifying audio assault at the start of lead single Dead Format, which gradually morphs into a sleek tribal groove; when the noise returns it fits seamlessly into the track’s structure, effectively as the ‘chorus’.

The 2015 Round-Up: Albums of the Year (4)

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Gorgeous and sad. Sufjan completely strips back his sound from the technicolour head-fuck of Age Of Adz for this extremely personal account of his mother’s death. And he’s such a talented songwriter and producer that it still sounds utterly absorbing, his meticulous finger picks and multi-tracked vocals ever-so-gently augmented by electronics.

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