An Abbreviated Albums A-Z of 2016: From Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to XAM Duo.

Wherever you’ve been on the geopolitical planet of 2016, there is no doubting that it’s been a turbulent and testing year, which some people would rather forget.  Hence, looking back upon the best albums of the past twelve months feels almost too trivial.  Yet, great culture is nearly always there to remind us what can still make life so enriching in troubled times.

Whilst events are yet to be fully responded to by shell-shocked artists themselves, there is no doubt that the finest of the music world’s offerings have provided both a sense of comfort and social solidarity in a divided uncertain annum.  Such quality moments therefore still need their recognition in some form or another.

Thus, once again, DOA’s writers – alongside label friends and several previously-featured artists – have contributed to the below cherry-picked A-Z selection of albums from 2016.

(As with last year too, no numerical-based ranking or October-booked committee meetings were involved in the decision-making process…)

Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie ‘Prince’ BillyEpic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties (Drag City)

Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties

Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Epic Jammers And Fortunate Little Ditties

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy meets The Bitchin’ Bajas?  I first encountered the idea of this collaboration in a mail-out from Café Oto, which I guess set the scene perfectly.  Once the initial five seconds worth of “wha?” had passed it was replaced emphatically by a bright-eyed, “Yes, of course!”  On that basis, it is exactly what you think it will be but no less perfect for that.

The twist is that the lyrics appear to be drawn entirely from the hokum pearls of cod Chinese wisdom contained inside fortune cookies.  No, that’s not the twist.  The twist is that the fortune cookie lyrics seem to shimmer themselves into actual pearls of actual wisdom.  I don’t know how this black magic works but every time I play anything from this record (and it’s usually the whole LP and a half) it feels life-affirming.  Why am I nodding sagely to these phrases from the Hallmark halls of enlightenment? “Show Your Love And Your Love Will Be Returned”, “Despair Is Criminal”, “Your Hard Work Is Bound To Pay Off. Keep On Keeping On” and “Nature Makes Us For Ourselves”, etc. etc.

These phrases loop and tumble and roll like mantras, with the gently echoing orbits of tentatively stroked acoustic guitar, harmonium-like organs and bubbling analogue synthesizers gently supporting them like so much cosmic gas and dust. It seems that these banalities, if repeated in the right company and with the right intent become profound and sound, in the end, like answers.  This is a trick, surely?

Oliver Cherer (The Assistant, Rhododendron, Dollboy et al.)

Martial Canterel – Navigations: Volume II (self-released/Medical Records)

Martial Canterel - Navigations: Volume II

Martial Canterel – Navigations: Volume II

This collection of early work from the renowned synthesist Sean McBride – and second in a set of three volumes of such material – is subtitled Forgotten Tracks, Sketches & Unfinished Work. A fairly modest description, as the material here is actually highly polished, with its intricate arrangements, elegant harmonic constructions and urgent drum sequencing. The lyrical themes span millennia, intoned by McBride’s asomatous voice, adrift in a sea of control voltages and gates, intertwined with haunting, wavering melodies, speaking of devastated environments and ruined relations. All this is achieved with analogue synthcraft in complete live takes, as is always the case with Martial Canterel. Known these days for pushing the limits of analogue FM modular synthesis, here McBride uses classic rhythm machines and vintage modular heavyweights to push the possibilities of the burning cold electronic elegy. Released in August as a download on the Martial Canterel Bandcamp site, it is also slated for a LP release from Medical Records.

David Mason (Listening Center)

Convextion – 2845 (a.r.t.less)

Convextion - 2845

Convextion – 2845

To claim Gerard Hanson is playing his part in a release-drenched music world would be unfair. Since 1995, the discreet Texan has kept a rather modest release catalogue to his name, none more so than when using his Convextion moniker.  In addition, it seems that whenever Hanson finally decides to release a record, it’s simply released – no fanfare, no gimmicks.

Dropping from out of the blue, 2845 was unleashed on an unsuspecting world by a.r.t.less – an offshoot of Germany’s Mojuba Records – causing a dedicated corner of the internet to almost self-ignite, when it dawned on people what had just happened.

Split over four sides of wax, 2845 effortlessly and elegantly sums up decades of techno, linking the endeavours of early Motor City pioneers such as Derrick May and Juan Atkins to the dubby universe of labels like Basic Channel and its Chain Reaction cousin, while maintaining the unmistakable and reassured Convextion approach. Because ultimately, this album is entirely its own.

From the lengthy and subterranean sounding opening statement “New Horizon” echoing masters like Wolfgang Voight and William Basinski, over the Detroit inspired “Saline Moon” (which also nods towards the legendary Italian DFC label) to the almost Larry Heard/Marshall Jefferson-ish atmospheres on tracks such as “Sea And Satellite” and ”Exploration”, keywords include ‘timeless’ and ‘maturity’.

The carefully constructed and wonderfully executed textures combined with the rubbery bass-lines (which never fail to send shivers down my spine – check the above mentioned “Sea And Satellite” and you’ll know what I mean) will surely sound as fresh in 20 years as they do now.

2845 is a remarkable achievement. This is an album that consistently keeps a human touch at its very core; one which reminds us how soulful machine music can be and that is easily one of the best techno full-lengths released in a very long time. No fanfare, no gimmicks – just essential.

Martin Jensen (The Home Current)

The DronesFeelin’ Kinda Free (Tropical Fuck Storm Records)

The Drones - Feelin' Kinda Free

The Drones – Feelin’ Kinda Free

The Drones new album isn’t the album I’ve listened to most this year. That’s probably Bohren & Der Club Of Gore’s Piano Nights, ideal music for slowing the world down. But Feelin’ Kinda Free is the album I’ve reached for first when I’ve needed a blast of articulated anger.

Gareth Liddiard has more to say than most, and most if it’s not very pleasant. Very 2016. Few writers can be topical and political yet not descend into platitudes and hand-wringing. Liddiard spits and rages where others merely plead. It comes over as instinctive but I’d be willing to bet he drafts, redrafts and rewrites many times to get the right language. Hard to believe he described himself recently as a guitarist who sings.

The music? More polished than previous Drones albums. Weird, jerky post-punk-funk that sounds like a bastard version of modern R&B. Foul guitar tones and piercing synths that splinter the songs.

Yet it’s always melodic. They know the best way for you to remember this face-slapping ass-kicking is if you can hum the tune back to them. Mission accomplished.

David Armes (Last Harbour, A.R.C. Soundtracks, Little Crackd Rabbit Records et al.)

Freakwater – Scheherazade (Bloodshot Records)

Freakwater - Scheherazade

Freakwater – Scheherazade

There was a lot of music released, old and new, in 2016.  So much so, that true gems risked being overlooked.  Certainly, a handful of great things left their mark quite easily with this listener – like Thee Oh Sees’ awesome A Weird Exits, Julianna Barwick’s wonderful Will, Faten Kanaan’s tremendous The Botanist And The Archaeologist and Aidan Moffat’s ribald-witted Where You’re Meant To Be – but a few equally laudable long-players almost got buried beneath the avalanche.  Amongst them being the long-awaited studio return of Freakwater.

Delivering arguably their best record since 1995’s Old Paint (and their first since 2005’s Thinking Of You), the soaring Scheherazade captured co-founders Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean on a new label home in fully rejuvenated condition.  Across the album, Bean in particular extended upon the potent purple patch that she began inside Eleventh Dream Day’s returning-to-form Works For Tomorrow LP last year. This worth-the-wait full-length brought back all the best Freakwater ingredients (raw and soothing harmonies, earthy yet intelligent songcraft, unvarnished Appalachian intimacy and cowgirl sass) to mix them with a warmer and wider-screen reach into cinematic Morricone atmospherics, gutsy Sticky Fingers-smeared gospel-blues and gregarious Neko Case-meets-Sweetheart Of The Rodeo twang (facilitated by an expanded studio ensemble featuring long-serving bassist David Gay, Dirty Three/Bad Seeds violinist Warren Ellis and much-in-demand multi-instrumentalist James Elkington).

Admirably ambitious and intuitive as well as eclectic and cohesive, Scheherazade was definitely one that we shouldn’t have let get away in 2016.

Adrian (DOA writer)

Gravitysays_i – Quantum Unknown (Inner Ear Records)

Gravitysays_i - Quantum Unknown

Gravitysays_i – Quantum Unknown

In a year that saw me listening to and writing about some consistently high quality music, the third album by this little-known Greek band needs to take the ‘album of the year’ slot, and for more than one reason. Amongst the numerous alt.rock and psyche-folk albums (many of them very worthwhile listening) Gravitysays_i brought to my stereo a completely realised prog-rock experience of a scale and actual grandeur in a way that I don’t think I’ve heard from another similar contemporary group in nearly 18 years of music reviewing.  I need to delve very far into my own music collection to make comparisons with other reviewables that found their way to me – none of these by very well-known musicians – and as I wrote found myself reflecting on how, fifteen or so years ago, I would have been very unlikely to have written anything that included references to such 1970s synth luminaries as Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre, which I was unable to complete the review of Quantum Unknown without mentioning.

The album is more than just a tribute to the prog maestros of yesteryear though.  And while, as with so many other truly great albums I’ve reviewed for DOA, Quantum Unknown may find itself sliding into undeserved obscurity, anyone reading this that is sufficiently curious to hear some or all of its tracks will find its powerful musicality and resonant production just as memorable as have I.

Jon (DOA writer)

Minor Victories – self-titled (Fat Possum Records/PIAS)

Minor Victories - self-titled

Minor Victories – self-titled

The self-titled debut album from UK-based super-group Minor Victories, which appeared in February of this year, is a major triumph that manages to incorporate the best attributes of each of the member’s original bands in the creation of a decisively winning masterpiece.  Rachel Goswell (Slowdive/Mojave 3), Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai), Justin Lockey (Editors), and James Lockey (Hand Held Cine Club) have crafted ten deep and epic tracks that blend the grit and noir of Editors’ post-punk, the airiness and swooning allure of Slowdive’s dream-pop, the expansiveness of Mogwai’s experimentalist post-rock, the cinematic symphonic pop of Hand Held Cine Club, the plaintive alternative folk reflections of Mojave 3, and even the sweep of heightened synths.  Each sonic composition is a resounding achievement which reigns in the compelling realm that is Minor Victories.

Jen Dan (DOA writer)

Cian NugentNight Fiction (Woodsist)

Cian Nugent - Night Fiction

Cian Nugent – Night Fiction

I’ve heard it’s been quite a year. Uncertain times. But as my man Cian sings, “Things don’t change that fast.” Certainly not round here. Night Fiction is a fantastic album, a treasure trove of Cosmic Eirecana that’s worth slowing down for. The fact that this record could have been made at any point in the last forty years only adds to its unhurried, elemental grace. This is a collection where spirits drift in and out of view – Lou Reed’s rave-up solos, the slow groove wonder of prime Van – all welcome visitors for sure. The key to the album’s success, however, is Nugent’s knack for a tune. Take the lovely Janschian instrumental “Lucy” (you had me at the title) or opener “Lost My Way” with its slippery guitars and beguiling vocal. Indeed, as the album progresses, Nugent’s sprightly, inventive stringwork seems to become ever more perfectly matched to his weary croon. Things close out with the epic burner “Year Of The Snake”, which steadily comes into focus before evolving into some viola-fuelled garage rock rapture. And that certainly feels like good medicine for uncertain times.

Owen Tromans (solo artist, Candles et al.)

Angel OlsenMy Woman (Jagjaguwar)

Angel Olsen - My Woman

Angel Olsen – My Woman

The best actors convey the most emotion with the least amount of facial movement. The motion is all internal.  Angel Olsen is a virtuoso singer, but not content to merely dazzle with her natural vibrato, she merges the physical and emotional with power, depth, and nuance, exploring moods and characters like a zen surfer.  She doesn’t indicate externally, you feel it vibrating through her body and psyche. She’s a kitten and a beast and everything in between, but most definitely a woman, not a girl.  Her phrasing, like her lyrics, is alternately simple and incredibly complex.  My Woman starts pop (“Intern” sounds like a Chromatics track sung by Lana Del Rey if she were a Greek goddess) and touches on many styles – post-punk, glam, garage rock, and soul to name a few. She reminds me of Hope Sandoval a few moments in “Heart Shaped Face” and even a bit of PJ Harvey when she unleashes a primordial howl, but really, she has more in common with Johnny Cash (if he sang like Roy Orbison).  Sheesh. I don’t usually gush, but GOD DAMN!

Britta Phillips (solo artist, Dean & Britta, Luna)

Papernut CambridgeLove The Things Your Lover Loves (Gare du Nord Records)

Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves

Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves

Stylistically centring upon ‘70s upbeat glam-tinged pop, Love The Things That Your Lover Loves takes the many ‘ups’ of that period on and, for the most part, simply betters them.

Herein one is never far from a highlight but standing-out is the kitsch-kick glory of liqueur-paean (yes, I’m serious) “Chartreuse” (“Like drinking a Christmas tree, the taste of the Thirty Years War”) featuring a euphorically ‘announced’ solo-period Lennon vocal, over a shuffle-beat reminiscent of Fox’s “He’s Got Magic”. Cool understatement carries the day throughout and much of the album’s pleasure is in its vibe of confidently restrained power. All the arrangements display a phenomenal, elegant, comprehension of exactly what it takes to craft interesting, original pop. They also have such a cool logo…

Love The Things That Your Lover Loves feels celebratory, an album of genuine warmth which, although drawing upon the stylings of a previous musical era, contains no trace of pastiche or tedious irony.  Everything is the right way round; the song content is always primary and the retro-crafting an appropriate decorative accompaniment. The closest point of comparison might be the work of St. Etienne but dare I suggest that the ‘Nut have a naturalistic edge over Cracknell and Co? So, for those with ears to hear, uncork the Mateus Rose right now.

Keiron Phelan (DOA writer, littlebow, Smile Down Upon Us et al.)

Jamie T Trick (Virgin/EMI)

Jamie T – Trick

Jamie T – Trick

As one of the great talents of the UK music scene in the late-noughties, Jamie Treays’ recent return has been symbolic of the broader resurgence of indie-rock.  2014’s Carry On The Grudge suggested a step away from the Beastie Boys-esque indie-punk of his first two albums and a move towards a more conventional rock sound. However, when Trick emerged in September it managed to balance all of these influences and best capture the essence of Jamie T as an artist today. The punk nihilism of “Tinfoil Boy”, the indie groove of “Power Of Men”, the urban songcraft, humour and Joe Strummer influences of “Tescoland” and “Robin Hood”, the melodic balladry of “Joan of Arc” and the hip-hop of “Drone Strike” are bound together in a perfectly paced and balanced record. Trick also displays growing maturity, as Treays moves into his 30s, weaving socio-political commentary together with deeply personal narratives, rooted in his London environs. “Police Tapes” reflects on the toxic political spin that marked the Brexit campaigns whilst “Signs Of The Times” addresses the decline of the UK’s live music scene. The result is one of the most diverse and complete albums of the year, best defined by the brilliance of its songwriting.

William Sutton (DOA writer)

Michael Tanner – Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer (Kit Records)

Michael Tanner - Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer

Michael Tanner – Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer

As a long-time admirer of Michael Tanner’s music, I was beyond thrilled to hear that these works were finally getting a much-deserved vinyl pressing on the esteemed Kit imprint.  Suite For Psaltery And Dulcimer features Tanner and his frequent collaborator, violist Alison Cotton of The Left Outsides, alongside percussionist Matthew Shaw. The LP, having spent a near-month in customs, took a little time to reach me, but was well worth the wait and certainly one of my most treasured albums. The sleeve, from a print by Ivor Owen, is beautifully done, slightly recalling the vibe of 1977 British television drama serial Children Of The Stones.

The music itself a paradox: timelessly celestial but deeply anchored in the mysteries of landscape – its wordless, aural psychogeography hypnotic and utterly enchanting. It’s music to stare out the window by. And by doing so, enter more deeply into one’s surroundings via its eerie, liminal, pre-dawn quality. Tanner’s recordings have been likened to ‘little spells’, which couldn’t be a more apt description. Each spin reveals fresh dimensions.  He gifts us a still point of beauty in a noisy and hostile world.

Allison Brice (Lake Ruth)

Kate TempestLet Them Eat Chaos (Fiction)

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

So 2016 brought us another fantastic instalment of Kate Tempest goodness.  I’d been looking forward to hearing the new album since the clanking sparseness of “Europe Is Lost” appeared on YouTube late last year. Pre-referendum, pre-Trump, it had an urgency and frustration to it, made all the more poignant by the events that followed.  The rest of Let Them Eat Chaos certainly didn’t disappoint, I’ve listened to it so many times and think I’ve managed to get through all of one playing without welling up.

Following the stories of seven people on the same street, at dead on 4.18am, the album takes us through seven disparate tales of wasted wages, pig head incidents and wondering quite when life might start making some kind of sense.  Although the stories are set in London – and which personally, really hit home – they are easily translatable to any city or town and sum up the frustrations and difficulties facing many of us.

Throbbing bass-lines reach into your guts and give them a twist before Tempest’s voice rips them out and calls on us “…to love more…” Go listen.

Katie English (littlebow, Isnaj Dui et al.)

XAM Duo – self-titled (Sonic Cathedral)

XAM Duo - self-titled

XAM Duo – self-titled

To be honest, I found it quite difficult to choose an absolute favourite full-length this past year. Several things spiked my interest of course, but while I tip my hat to reissues from the likes of Minami Deutsch, Harmonia and Popol Vuh and have a fondness for all new Wire, Cavern of Anti-Matter, Thee Oh Sees, and the new Early Years, I’m going to opt for the latter’s Sonic Cathedral labelmates and former Deep Distance artist XAM, now filled-out as XAM Duo.

Hookworms’ Matthew Benn joined by Deadwall’s Christophe Duffin, created a gem of a record in the latter part of the year. Self-titled, it is fabulous and as a huge fan of the Sky label’s predominantly kosmische synth sound, this ticks all the boxes and is mostly great throughout.  I get very absorbed, protective and stupidly addicted to my real favourite records and while nothing sent those fanboy instincts into overdrive this year, I would say the XAM Duo got pretty close at times, especially during the mighty “I Extend My Arms”.

Dom Martin (Polytechnic Youth and Deep Distance label owner)