What’s that sound I hear in the distance? Could it really be that the AOTY horn is sounding already? It must be: I can see critics emerging from their homes, lifting their hands to shield tired eyes from the light of the winter sun, thrusting forth stone tablets onto which they’ve etched their AOTY lists. It is a sacred duty they are compelled to fulfill – though they no longer quite know why they’ll soon amass upon the hallowed ground before the Great Hall of Lists. Then they’ll look at each other and solemnly intone, “did Kanye release a record this year? I dunno. That then. Maybe Radiohead.”
There’s only one definitive list though. This one. What makes it definitive? It’s mine. The fact nobody seems to agree with any of my choices only makes it more definitive.
So click on, young wanderer, if you wish to know what really were the best albums released this year. But remember: the real Album of the Year may just be the friends we made along the way.
10. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Y Proffwyd Dwyll
I hate that name. Look at it. It repelled me with such force I took me a long while to bring myself to listen to Y Proffwyd Dwyll. When I finally brought myself to give it a spin I was pleasantly surprised, but as soon as the record ended I became convinced I must have been mistaken. They must be terrible. Look at that name. Just look at it.
Soon after I dove back in and found once again that they’re actually an incredibly good band. Then the album ended and I thought, “you must be joking. With that name? Awful band. I hate them.”
This cycle continued on until the album had buried itself so deep under my skin I couldn’t deny it anymore. A blend of pleasingly dirgy doom, ethereal vocals and a sheen of hallucinatory psych it’s a hazy, headbanging delight from start to finish. It’s a little like Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins fronting Ufomammut. Which on paper also sounds awful. But it works. By god does it work. And so they’ve doomed me to a life of explaining to people that yes, I’m actually rather partial to a band called Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard. Which is as upsetting as it is impressive.
9. Haikai No Ku – Temporary Infinity
It’s been a hard year to keep track of the musical output of guitar wizard Mike Vest. Why, just this very moment while I was busy writing this piece I got a bandcamp email informing me that a new record from his solo guitar project Lush Worker has been released. I think that’s 3 for them this year, plus 2 and a live album for Blown Out, one for 11Paranioas, 1 for Melting Hand…the man releases more records in a year than most people listen to.
Of his 2016 crop Haikai No Ku’s Temporary Infinity pipped Blown Out’s New Cruiser and 11Paranoias Reliquary For A Dreamed Of World as my own personal favourite. It’s imposing cut-up soundscapes sound like nothing else I’ve heard and, rather bizarrely, became my go to anxiety soundtrack. For some reason that singular guitar sound, which (forgive me while I commit that most narcissistic of sins and quote myself) I described in my Echoes & Dust review as, “eldritch horrors sketched in feedback,” dulls the thousand tangent explosion of my internal monologue and makes it more bearable. Not the intended effect, perhaps, but a most welcome one.
Beyond it’s (probably unique to me) medicinal qualities it’s a strange, beguiling slice of otherworldly guitar noise barely contained in this realm by a stalwart rhythm section. If they weren’t there keeping it pinned down it sounds like it’d leave the surly bonds of reality and slip out into some other dimension. And lord only knows what havoc it would wreak there.
8. David Bowie – Blackstar
Would I have Blackstar in my top ten if it wasn’t Bowie’s swansong record? If it was purely decided on the strength of the songs alone? It’s impossible to say – Blackstar was crafted as his final curtain call, weaving his own battle with terminal cancer into the fabric of each song. There’s no separating the context from the content here – it’s imprinted on it’s bone marrow, impossible to tear away. Few could get away with something so audaciously morbid, but for Bowie it seemed almost inevitable that his death should be another performance. For a life lived blurring artifice and reality, of constant shape-shifting and of confounding the public whenever he could, it could end no other way. The fact that it’s his best collection of songs for two or three decades was almost a nice bonus to the theater of it all. There’ll never be another Bowie – a statement which, here at least, is not intended to bemoan Modern Music as it has been in many quarters. Music is doing just dandy, thank you very much. But the world lost something singularly wonderful this past January. There’s no getting away from that.
7. Wolf People – Ruins
After the slight backwards step that was Fain Wolf People needed to release a killer album to live up to the high standards they set themselves with Steeple. Well, actually they probably didn’t – I seem to be in a minority in my feelings for Fain and I doubt the lack of love for that record from this anonymous blogger gave them any sleepless nights. But whether necessary or not they surpassed themselves with the brilliant Ruins, ramping up the psych in their psych-folk blend and creating possibly the greatest sounding record of the year. The guitars sound like they’re drifting in from another world, the rhythm section sound so crisp and dreamy you wonder why every band don’t record them this way, and their folk tales were infused with a very British sense of the occult and macabre in places that nearly put them in step with schlock-stoner rockers Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats. It’s a direction I didn’t see coming, yet it suits them perfectly.
There are few things that please me more than a band I’d almost written off proving me wrong. Not only did they match my beloved Steeple, they surpassed it. Well played, Wolf People.
6. Anenon – Petrol
Anenon, aka sax player and producer Brian Allen Simon, apparently wrote Petrol after being inspired by watching traffic drift by on the freeway. If I didn’t know that I might have guessed – as inscrutable as instrumental records often are this one has that heady twilight city feeling coursing through it’s veins. Once maybe my song of the year, if I’d considered such a thing – the jazzy percussion, strangely nostalgic synths and sombre sax riffs lift me from wherever I am and drop me on such an overpass, filling my mind with that wistful sadness that comes from watching people speed by in an instant, barely giving you pause to wonder who they are and what troubles they face. It’s a powerful sort of alchemy being able to transmit so specific a feeling without a single word being uttered. His earlier work grasped at it but didn’t quite reach it – on Petrol Anenon mastered the art.
5. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
Aesop’s last record Skelethon has become one of my all time favourites. I’ve listened it to death since it’s release and still haven’t untangled all of the imagery and metaphors. By contrast The Impossible Kid is a much more straight forward affair. Aesop has gone even more overtly personal in his lyricism and laid himself out in a more accessible and easily parsed manner, making for a record full of smirk inducing observations and gut punching moments of sadness. It sacrificed a little of the depth of Skelethon in the name of clarity, which means it often feels like there’s less beneath the surface of this one. But the surface is god damn beautiful all the same. And his production as an entirely one-man-band these days never fails to dazzle.
4. Western Motel Skies – Settlers
Much like Anenon Western Motel Skies – aka René Gonzàlez Schelbeck – succeeded in crafting an atmosphere so vivid it can transform your surroundings. For Shelbeck this is the “dry winds of the American prairie,” a sense of rural America either lost or almost gone. Shelbeck is from Denmark and these feel like portraits painted by an outsider – it’s the old weird America as portrayed by Cormac Mcarthy, John Steinbeck and countless old Westerns as described by someone who’s immersed themselves in the art more than the place itself. It’s American Primitive by the way of post-rock and drone/ambient, solo guitar played with a rare eloquence that makes for a haunting journey.
3. Wrekmeister Harmonies – Light Falls
If I’d have had more time with Wrekmeister Harmonies’ last record Night of Your Ascension before I had to hand in my AOTY 2015 list I think it would have been right at the top. It’s a record crafted with dozens of hands but with sole true member J.R. Robinson pulling the strings, a work of singular vision but crafted by a distinguished cast. For Light Falls the number of collaborators are cut right down, largely comprised of Godspeed! You Black Emporer alumni, but while the cast has shrunk the scope couldn’t be wider. Inspired by Primo Levi and his accounts of the concentration camps during the holocaust it’s a work that tackles the biggest of Big Themes. But for the most part it carries itself with a grace and restraint not seen in earlier Wrekmeister records that suits the subject matter. If not quite equal to it’s inspiration – what could be? – it reaches for them in a manner many wouldn’t expect from a ‘heavy’ musical outfit.
It’s one failing is the inclusion of tracks about Robinson’s estranged son. As tough a situation as that must be any man’s individual suffering seems insignificant in the extreme when compared to the holocaust. Those tracks might have benefited from being siphoned off for another record. But when it’s on point Light Falls is further proof of the genre transcending brilliance of Wrekmeister Harmonies.
2. Bossk – Audio Noir
Post-metal is more or less a dead scene at this point. There are a few bands making decent enough records in that vein but they’re mostly attempting to rekindle the embers left by Isis and Neurosis. Even Neurosis themselves had a rare blip this year releasing an album which occasionally sounded like a tired imitation of Neurosis.
Bossk, one of the genres better late-comers prior to their disbanding in 2008, managed to avoid running into that dead end on their first reformation album. How? By throwing the doors open and letting everything in. The post-metal, post-rock tropes are largely absent, in their place we have periods of modern classical elegance, twinkling math rock, crushing stoner rock riffery and a dozen surprises in between. And best of all they tie it up into an album that feels like one mesmerising journey, a unified experience that is served badly by dividing it into individual tracks . Everything serves a purpose and adds to the larger whole. It points to a way forward for bands who find themselves trapped in the amber of a dead genre. And, more than that, it’s as uplifting-yet-crushing a metal record as has been produced in a long while.
1. Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
Would You Want it Darker be my no.1 if Cohen were still alive? In all honesty it’s unlikely. But there’s no such thing as objectivity in criticism – anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you an agenda under the guise of not having an agenda. You can’t separate an album from the context in which it’s heard or created. There’s no way for me to separate You Want It Darker from two memories; one of hearing it for the first time walking by a lake in the brisk autumnal air shortly after it’s release and one of listening to it by the same lake the morning I’d learned of his passing. You Want It Darker captured his essence in an unassumingly beautiful manner that felt miraculous in that first instance and almost perfect in the second.
For those of us brought up with Cohen firmly canonized as a patron saint of jaded lovers and drunk poets his parting words in this of all years feel all the more heartbreaking. Sure, a lot of it covers ground he’s covered over the past few records, of getting old and saying goodbye to the pursuits of his youth. But that it became his final farewell makes these songs that much more poignant. “I don’t need a reason/For what I became/I’ve got these excuses/They’re tired and lame/I don’t need a pardon, no/There’s no one left to blame/I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game”
And in the context of a turbulent year politically a few lines feel like daggers to the gut. “I do not care who takes this bloody hill/I’m angry and I’m tired all the time” sounds like the weary resignation felt by many before being jolted awake by the march of something disturbing that we felt had been defeated for good. And there are a lot of people who’ll rue the line “I fought with some demons/they were middle class and tame” having spent so much time play-fighting on the beach while the tide was rising. True, any set of Cohen’s lyrics will contain lines you can read such things into if that is your wont – that was his gift as a poet. But these are the last ones we have from him – it’s impossible for them not to feel that much more prescient and important now he’s left us to deal with whatever comes next.
It’s been an exceptionally good year for music, in that there’s been an exceptional amount of good music – but it was perhaps not a great one with few truly great albums. To be truthful You Want It Darker might not even be a great one compared to the rest of Cohen’s oeuvre. But I feel that as time goes by 2016 will remain indelibly marked for me by the words he left us with as he slipped softly into that long dark. “You want it darker/we kill the flame.” For that alone there was only one choice for the no.1 spot.
The rest of the top 20
11. Oathbreaker – Rheia
12. Dalek Asphalt for Eden
13. Blown Out New Cruiser
14. Latitudes Old Sunlight
15. Ka Honor Killed the Samurai
16. Dag Rosenqvist Elephant
17. The Great Cold S/T
18. Oranssi Pazuzu Värähtelijä
19. Domkraft The End of Electricity
20. Eight Bells Landless
For anyone fans unsorted lists of records here’s the rest of my top 50. I haven’t gotten down to the nitty gritty or deciding on the definitive order for these as my brain shut down and refused to co-operate once I’d finished agonising over the top 20. They’re all gems though and have all, in their own way, enriched my 2016 and prevented it from being a complete nightmare.
Aluk Todolo – Voix
Marielle V Jakobsons – Star Core
SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
Mizmor – Yodh
Open Mike Eagle/Paul White – Hella Personal Film Festival
Alcest – Kodama
Living Hour – S/T
Jefre Cantu – Ledesma In Summer
Arabrot – The Gospel
Elephant Tree – S/T
Gojira – Magma
Lycus – Chasms
Kristoffer Lo – The Black Meat
Kvelertak – Nattesferd
Otoboke Beaver – Okoshiyasu!!
Wooden Indian Burial Ground – How’s your favourite dreamer?
King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard – Nonagon Infinity
Johann Johannsson – Orphee
Khunnt – Failures
Astronoid – S/T
Melanie Di Biaso – Blackened Cities
Woods – Sun City Creeps
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Ben Lukas Boysen – Spells
Big Business – Control Your Weather
Huerco S.- For those of you…
Noname – Telfone
Ian William Craig – Centres
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death
Cult of Luna/Julie Christmas – Mariner