Top Ten Albums of 2016
I’m officially in my late-twenties now, and as such, I’m increasingly in danger of becoming one of those people who constantly can be heard saying things like ‘music was so much better in the 90s’. To avoid becoming an insufferable grumpy old man, I decided a few years ago to make a deliberate effort to keep seeking out and enjoying new music. Compiling a list of my favourite releases for the year has become a bit of a December ritual for me. Now a few notes on the list:
* Full disclosure: as a seller of instruments, I’m a little biased towards music made on instruments, as opposed to, well… Macbooks.
* The list and order is based on two things: how much I got hooked on a record, and how awesome I reckon it is. That’s all.
* I’m traditionally a punk/hardcore kid, so the list this year represents a significant deviation from that for me… that’s a story for another day.
Ten: Ngaiire: Blastoma
Ngaiire’s futuristic neo-soul is so very smooth. Her voice has this incredible rich timbre which sits beautifully atop the sparse but intricately layered textures of electro-infused instrumentation. The album title refers to her childhood battle with a form of cancer; the album weaves effortlessly between wily determination and pure heartbreak. I have it on good authority Ngaiire absolutely slayed the stage at Splendour this year, although her Hobart show sold out before I even heard it was on!
Key track: I Can’t Hear God Anymore. Perhaps the record’s bleakest, this track features some mind-bending vocal chops and some brutal absolute honesty.
“He don’t come round here no more, he just went away,”
If you like: Beyonce, Hiatus Kaiyote, Meg Mac
Nine: L-fresh the Lion: Become
I’m calling it: 2016 is the best year ever for Australian hip-hop. L-Fresh brings a fresh kind of fire: amazing flow, great storytelling, unapologetic political statements and an uncontainable energy. There’s so many great songs on this record; it’s a chronicle of living in an Australia struggling to leave behind our prejudices and embrace diversity.
Key track: 1 in 100,000. Upbeat with a big chorus, this one will have you simultaneously throwing fists in the air while musing on just how just (or otherwise) our nation really is.
“Refugees overseas, there's a cost to be savage and that's that
Lock them away and we all just clap, clap”
If you like: Phrase, Remi, AB Original
Eight: Joe Mungovan: Way Down South
I saw Joe perform earlier this year in a little room with no stage that fit around thirty people (it was squishy) and I was certainly charmed. He dropped this album in March, and it’s copped a bunch of spins from me. The lyrics and vocals drip with sincerity, and he’s a bloody great guitar player. It’s simple and effective, what more could you want?
Key track: I was told. A slinky, slow, open track dealing with the longing and resignation of distance.
“Your phone was off when I tried to call, but hey, it’s the thought that counts,
At least that’s what I was told”
If you like: Jack Johnson, Ben Harper
Seven: J. Cole: 4 Your Eyez Only
A pretty recent release, but a worthy addition. This album struck me as a little microcosm of hip-hop generally: it tells the story of a man leaving behind a life of crime and doing his best to take on a stacked system and win for the sake of his daugher. The production and instrumentation is lush and varied, with layers of horns and strings atop bass firmly in the pocket. I’m really enjoying the trend towards using real instruments and mixing in jazz and funk influences in hip-hop. J.Cole’s lyrics are equally brilliant, he paints pictures brimming with colour and contrast and delivers them with rare conviction. Can’t spell though it would seem!
Key track: 4 Your Eyez Only. The closer and title track, this one is long, weaving and utterly engaging.
Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars
Not because he screamed f*** the law, although that was true
Your daddy was a real nigga ‘cause he loved you"
If you like: Kendrick Lamar, Tupac
Six: Hail the Sun: Culture Scars
I don’t really understand why this band isn’t huge. They mix frenetic prog of acts like The Mars Volta with Saosin-style pop sensibilities and big choruses. The record is choc-full of harmonised guitar riffs and rhythmic twists and turns while never going ‘over the edge’ into pure wankery. Donovan Melero covers both the drums and lead vocals, have a listen and try to figure that one out.
Key track: Paranoia. The album opener sets the tone with a killer opening riff and one of 2016’s best choruses.
“Paranoia in my conscience and when it talks I don't care at all; Moral fentanyl”
If you like: Karnivool, Circa Survive, At The Drive In
Five: Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math
Margaret kinda reminds me of Norah Jones, if Norah downed an entire bottle of bourbon, grabbed a telecaster and ripped you a new one. This album swings between bravado and vulnerability with equal conviction. It’s full of tasty guitar playing; frequently understated, sometimes obnoxious but always perfectly fitting. The production is also perfect, the simple arrangements shine through a warm, spacious and dynamic mix.
Key track: Memory Street. This charged-up bluesy number is equal parts vitriol and regret. The down-tempo swing feel balances out the frenetic energy of the charged-up vocals.
“The record skips but I let it play, I hear your voice scream my name
And I tell you to go back, to wherever the f*** you came”
If you like: Megan Washington, Jack White
Four: Touché Amoré: Stage Four
This album follows lyricist Jeremy Bolm’s journey of grief as he comes to terms with the loss of his mother after a battle with cancer. It’s just as heartbreaking and confronting as you might imagine. The half-sung-half-shouted vocals only lend the lyrics all the more weight; there’s no glossing over the raw emotion with either intricate melody or aggressive distortion. The accompaniment is equal parts measured and raw; a tapestry of riffs and syncopated beats that mixes tight groove with frenetic energy. Punk at it’s painful best.
Key track: New Halloween. A simmering account of futile attempts to disctract yourself from the reality of loss a year on.
"How has it already been a year?
I skip over songs because they're too hard to hear."
If you like: mewithouYou, La Dispute
Three: Camp Cope: Camp Cope
The three girls from Melbourne have had a massive year, and for good reason: this album rules. Georgia Maq’s lyrics are the star of the show, she dissects life in city for the disenfranchised and finds both beauty and misery in the mess. The bass and guitar almost swap roles, with the guitar holding the rhythm together and the bass providing the melodic ‘sauce’; an interesting role reversal that creates a unique take on the three-piece-indie-punk genre. It took me a couple of listens, but I was hooked soon enough on the honesty, humour and openness of this record. Apparently they recorded it in just two days, which no doubt contributes to the low-sheen charm.
Key track: Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams. A messy lamentation of being sick of swallowing the same old bullshit, this track shows the band at their jangly, disobedient best.
“The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun
Is a good man with a gun, the lies they use to control you”
If you like: Modern Baseball, Courtney Barnett.
Two: Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
Chance was everywhere, even before his debut album dropped. It lived up to the hype: this a colourful, joyful, creative effort that’s equal parts sophisticated and manic. Another great example of genre-hopping, forward thinking hip-hop, Colouring Book mixes in heart doses of gospel, funk and pop and leaves behind the misogyny and hardness of it’s forefathers. Chance covers the lot: feel-good party anthems, earnest musings on love, drugs and God and everything in between. So good.
Key track: Blessings. A neo-gospel revelation that demonstrates the casual-but-killer flow throughout the record.
"I speak to God in public
He keep my rhymes in couplets
He think the new shit jam, I think we mutual fans"
If you like: Action Bronson, Kanye West, Anderson Paak
One: Julien Baker: Sprained Ankle
I was trying to figure out which album got under my skin the most this year, and this is it. I know it was technically released in late 2015, but it really only showed up here early this year and it’s my list so I make the rules. The album is fantastically simple; most of the tracks feature only a couple of instruments and some of the little errors are left in the final takes. It all contributes to this sense of being ‘in the room’, as if Julien is right there in front of you. Baker chimes on the second track “I Wish I could write songs about anything other than death”... some of themes are pretty confronting: substance abuse, mental illness, finding God… nothing is off the table. The honesty and succinctness of the lyrics are at once disarming and unnerving, it can be hard to talk so freely even with close friends. In a word, it’s moving.
Key track: Blacktop. The brilliant album opener details finding God amongst the chaos of a car accident and sets the tone for the rest of the album.
"But I know you're in the pews
the same as stools around the bar
And I know I saw your hand
When I went out and wrapped my car around the streetlamp"
If you like: Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens
Honourable Mentions, because no-one reads a ‘top 27 albums of 2016 list’:
AB Original: Reclaim Australia
Anderson Paak: Malibu
Alex Lahey: B-grade University
Aurora: All My Demons Greeting Me As A Friend
Beirut: No No No
Big Scary: Animal
Childish Gambino: Awaken, my love!
Departé: Failure, Subside
Dylan Joel: Authentic Lemonade
Jed Appleton: Jed Appleton
Julia Jacklin: Don't let the kids win
Kanye West: Life of Pablo
Koi Child: Koi Child
Modern Baseball: Holy Ghost
Paul Dempsey: Strange Loop
Urthboy: The Past Beats Inside Me Like a Second Heartbeat
Simon Grubb is the founder and owner of Topshelf Instruments.
Top Ten Albums of 2016