Best Albums of 2016 (Part 1)

by 5:4
* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

i’ve long wondered whether there’s any justification—or, indeed, any point—in making end of year lists, particularly when, as usual, there’s a pile of as yet unplayed discs staring down at me from the shelf above my desk. But, for all its provisionality, the following list will serve as a good starting point for anyone wanting an eclectic, considered, non-partisan take on the best of this year’s albums. Besides, lists are cool. So to begin with, here’s the first part of my current favourite forty albums of 2016, counting down from 40 to 21. i’ve included links for the albums, each of which is the lowest price currently available; most are streamable or can at least be previewed, so if you like what you hear do please support these fine artists.

40 | Mitski – Puberty 2

There’s a confident aplomb and unpredictability running through the eleven songs on Puberty 2 that sets it apart from the cluttered generics of indie rock. Encompassing and at times transcending the tropes and clichés of the genre, Mitski demonstrates a new level of maturity here, driven by intensely personal lyrics that imbue her songs with fiery radiance. Standout track ‘Fireworks’ is a masterpiece of suppressed hurt, propelled onwards at speed (note: no drums here), masking the raging pain lurking between its strong bass foundations and attractive surface sheen. [Bandcamp]

39 | Me and My Drummer – Love is a Fridge

It’s been good to hear new things from Me and My Drummer—2012’s The Hawk, the Beak, the Prey seems a very distant memory—and Love Is A Fridge finds them in new territory, with a superb blending of synthtronics with elements of dream pop. The result is a heady mixture where froth and gravitas intermingle freely in songs more concerned with reflection than agonising, but which are prepared to let rip when the mood demands it. ‘Nuts’ is arguably its most affecting track, Charlotte Brandi’s voice disarmingly faltering in the verses before exploding with passion at each chorus. [Bandcamp]

38 | Bear McCreary – The Forest (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

At a time when movie soundtracks are languishing in ever more specious realms of incompetence, unimagination and downright plagiarism—a cycle fuelled by cinema’s current love affair with blockbuster franchises—it’s heartening to find examples that hold true to something deeper and more meaningful. It’s been a great year for Bear McCreary: his music for 10 Cloverfield Lane was excellent, but for The Forest he reached beyond the movie’s narrative shortcomings to produce an outstanding score that pits lyricism against unsettling orient-meets-occident noise textures. They’re made all the more troubling by the way McCreary is prepared to literally yank around his sound materials, continually establishing and undermining a sense of stability. [Amazon]

37 | Olga Neuwirth – Goodnight Mommy (Original Soundtrack)

“Permeating the score is a weird sense of idyll, projected primarily through Neuwirth’s use of glass harmonica and musical saw, instantly attractive sounds that nonetheless sound surprisingly alien. […] Mirroring the visuals, her score seeks less to portray the on-screen events than to shade and reinforce them, laying down hints and ideas that we can either take on their own terms or connect into something more far-reaching. Olga Neuwirth’s score has no interest in and no meaningful connection with convention, opting to keep its distance and allow the narrative to project its own inherent violence without ever forcing it to, and just like the film, it’s a triumph. Without recourse to a single bang or crash, Neuwirth’s music packs an infinitely greater punch.” (reviewed in May) [Amazon]

36 | Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch

With Blood Bitch, Jenny Hval has come closer than ever to recapturing the relentless, radical intimacy of her finest album, 2011’s Viscera. Here drawing on blood-related phenomena, from menstruation to vampires, Hval taps into a retro vibe that lends the songs a psychedelic wooziness (think Duke of Burgundy), coupled with a meta approach to song-writing that continually ruptures their internal logic. Spoken episodes, convoluted field recordings, an excerpt from Adam Curtis and an unexpected reference to Transvision Vamp all feed into Hval’s singular narrative, establishing the soundworld for what is a defiantly avant-garde song cycle. [Amazon]

35 | Kroy – Scavenger

With its relaxed demeanour, Scavenger‘s opening song ‘Hull’ gives the impression of a gentle, mild-mannered album to follow, but Canadian musician Camille Poliquin has other ideas. Her brand of indie pop opts for restraint and delicacy to heighten its intimacy, sometimes tilt-shifting into dancefloor-ready refrains that speak volumes about the conflicted feelings that impel them on. You only have to listen to the ostensibly cheerful way Poliquin sings a line like “i’m losing days thinking of all the ways / i could make you hate me too” (in ‘Days’) to realise what complex and difficult emotions are being expressed here. [Bandcamp]

34 | Maïa Vidal – You’re the Waves

God is my Bike (2011) and Spaces (2013) indicated Maïa Vidal was someone special, and on You’re the Waves she’s created some of this year’s most imaginative electronic pop. Something of the low-key quirk of those previous releases is gone here, but in their stead comes an ambitious quasi-cinematic quality that makes songs like ‘The Tide’ and ‘La Luna’ feel as though they occupy vast spaces, packing a tub-thumping, crowd-jumping wallop. Some lovely echoes of her smaller-scale earlier work remain, though, particularly in ‘Infinity’ and miniature gem ‘El azar’. [Crammed Discs]

33 | Necro Deathmort – The Capsule

Brooding, gritty electronica, coloured with analogue synths, driving beats and lugubrious basslines that make the album sound like a lost John Carpenter score – what’s not to like? Texturally simpler than some of their previous work, their latest album projects an immense, immediate soundscape that pulls one in deeply, becoming surrounded by cycling loops of material that grow in strength and density, and playfully light melodies that combine to keep one wondering about what’s really going on at the heart of The Capsule. [Bandcamp]

32 | Wendy Bevan – Rose and Thorn

Wendy Bevan has the kind of voice that instantly makes one think of black mascara. From jazz origins (2009’s Lilac Wine), Bevan’s music has become increasingly experimental, passing through full-on art-house avant-gardery (2014’s Slow Light) to here, a place of dark electronic noir. Those origins serve her well, infusing Rose and Thorn with an overt lyrical edge that makes songs like ‘Porcelain’ and ‘Black Kat’ achingly poignant. [Bandcamp]

31 | Oy – Space Diaspora

The latest from one of music’s most irresistibly irrepressible (and stubbornly neglected) bands, Space Diaspora continues Joy Frempong and Lleluja-Ha’s brilliant, disarmingly intuitive mashing-up of First and Third World styles and ideas. More glossy than 2014’s No Problem Saloon, this is an integral part of their exploration here of the implications of modern life on us both as individuals and in our relationships with others, captured especially strongly in songs ‘Transhuman’ and ‘We We We We’. Appropriately, the duo’s musical language—always unique in any case—here sounds incredibly futuristic, singling Oy out as one of the most radical and compellingly human-focused electronica acts around today. [Crammed Discs]

30 | James O’Callaghan – Espaces tautologiques

The four works on this fascinating collection from Empreintes DIGITALes vividly demonstrate O’Callaghan’s very physical relationship with found sounds. ‘Isomorphic’ is a piece concerned with granular materials, whereas in the trilogy comprising Objects-Interiors, Bodies-Soundings and Empties-Impetus, instruments are not simply explored but thoroughly scrutinised, their sonic potential writ large in huge textures seemingly filled with a myriad whirring, clanking and gurgling machines and gizmos. This creates the startling impression that the instruments are organic life forms and we are hearing their internal organs and mechanisms, particularly in Empties-Impetus, where a potent drama emanates from continual alternations between mild and torrential episodes – the former of which become like pausing for breath between punches to the chest. []

29 | Seth Parker Woods – asinglewordisnotenough

When writing about Seth Parker Woods’ HCMF 2016 performance, i demurred at some of the pieces in his recital, but i found myself eating those words when hearing them again in these recorded versions. Edward Hamel’s Gray Neon Life has something fascinatingly analytical about it, as though it’s peering into the makings and/or articulation of an idea, while the non-stop activity in George Lewis’ Not Alone is seriously engaging, continuously changing its character and attitude such that cello and electronics seem to keep assimilating each other. Michael Clarke’s Enmeshed 3 puts a melodic urge through a dense network of inhibiting machinations—and then there’s Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s asinglewordisnotenough3 (invariant), of which i’ll simply restate my original response, as true of this piece in particular as it is of Woods’ performance throughout this splendid album: “a composition masterclass in its seamless, aurally non-hierarchical interaction between acoustic and electronic, as well as a performance masterclass in its bravura display of frantic virtuosity from Woods.” [Bandcamp]

28 | Michael Moser – Antiphon Stein

“Time doesn’t so much speed up and slow down in this context as become rendered moot, irrelevant even, Moser establishing a soundworld that resists becoming ‘steady state’ yet the movement of which is essentially glacial. But it’s the timbral palette that makes Antiphon Stein the wonder that it is, filling the Minoritenkirche with long resonances, shimmers and thudderings, deep pedal drones and sliding pitches causing exquisite shifts in beat patterns, glinting bells and chimes, punctuated throughout by distant sounds of metal clanging and rubbing, lending the piece an industrial hue (not unlike David Lynch’s darker music). Everything seems to float, nothing ever settles. Hypnotising magic.” (reviewed in July) [Edition RZ]

27 | Mark Korven – The Witch (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Finally a film genuinely worthy of the epithet ‘horror’, Mark Korven’s score for The Witch is a major factor in the movie’s oppressively doom-laden atmosphere. He achieves this through slow, simple textures that are as clear in their constituent sound elements as they are in the way Korven gradually ramps them up, layering and driving them to intimidating levels of claustrophobic overload. ‘A Witch Stole Sam’ is an especially dynamic example, beginning from a place of ethereality, but ‘Caleb’s Death’ takes it to an extreme, Korven exercising extreme patience through an undulating five-minute slow build of terrifying menace. Outstanding. [Amazon]

26 | Richard Barrett – Music for cello and electronics

A double CD comprising three major works composed through the last fifteen years, this excellent survey of Barrett’s electroacoustic cello music encompasses an impressively broad spectrum of modes of expression. On the one hand each of the pieces, as usual with Barrett, is multi-layered and highly intricate—put simply, there’s a lot to take in—yet on the other hand, as is also usual with Barrett, there’s an immediacy that cuts through the compositional strata to the quick of his musical ideas. Each piece is captivating in the way it unfolds, Arne Deforce’s cello by turns drenched and abandoned by the electronics. Blattwerk piles on the intensity such that unpicking cello and electronics is easier said than done, while nacht und träume speaks from a more lyrical heart; but the obvious highlight here is the most recent work on the disc, life-form, an hour-long epic featuring dazzling interplay between acoustic and electronic sounds. [Amazon]

25 | Bent Sørensen – Snowbells

“What leaps out immediately on Snowbells, a new collection of choral works by Bent Sørensen, and constantly throughout, is the composer’s deep, thoughtful engagement with intense emotion, particularly the themes of life, love and death. Words, and the layers of connotation and meaning encapsulated within them, are clearly not just important to Sørensen, they’re everything. The ways in which he expresses them involve a telling contemporary engagement with archetypes, sounding at once embedded in history—not just of music, but of humanity itself—yet also squarely at the forefront of present-day thought and feeling. […] A marvellous collection of works that sit supremely well together, given a beautifully sensitive treatment by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble directed by Paul Hillier.” (reviewed in March) []

24 | Zahn | Hatami | McClure – Veerian

For this remarkable project, Uwe Zahn (better known as Arovane), Porya Hatami and Darren McClure have teamed up to create one of the most gorgeous reinterpretations—or, more accurately, reinventions—of ambient music that i’ve experienced in recent years. Each of Veerian‘s seven parts has an element of stasis to it, sometimes in the form of a kind of monochrome that then becomes shaded and coloured by more active elements, sometimes as a united, single-minded exercise in blissed out beauty, orders of magnitude more refined and sublime than the majority of what’s passed—or, more truthfully, palmed—off as ambient today. Veerian injects a huge, desperately-needed amount of vitality back into the medium, at the same time throwing down the gauntlet to all aspiring ambienteers. [Bandcamp]

23 | Clara Iannotta – A Failed Entertainment: Werke 2009–2014

A new name to me prior to listening to this disc, Clara Iannotta’s work, if the seven pieces on this disc are representative, is about as slippery as contemporary music gets. Beyond the familiar pitch-noise continuum, Iannotta deconstructs things at the timbral level, to the extent that it requires something of an adjustment from a listening perspective. It’s easy at first to regard these pieces as tentative music, or perhaps as preliminary to something else, but it soon stands revealed as music reimagined from the ground up, robust and certain in its ostensible fragility and ambivalence. Caveat audiens: track three is mistakenly blighted with mono audio, but despite that irritating technical flaw this is still one of the most exhilarating contemporary music releases of the year, showcasing the extravagant imagination of a new and compelling compositional voice. [Boomkat]

22 | Robin Foster – Anthropoid (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Anthropoid was an unexpectedly involving and ultimately heart-rending cinematic experience, given considerable extra weight due to Robin Foster’s sensitively crafted score. i’m not sure if this is the first World War II movie to feature a soundtrack rooted in aloof electronics, but by avoiding the crashbangwallop clichés, Foster enhances the film’s visual focus on people and their enormous emotional turmoil. In many respects it’s more of a disaster movie than anything else, and the way Foster draws on materials that are initially cool in disposition—often drones lightly embellished with the odd pitch here and there or a touch of harmonic inflection—and then warms them through is superbly simple and effective, suggesting the quiet nobility in the protagonist’s brave but doomed endeavours; and when the music briefly breaks out into actual melody (as in ‘Lenka’s Theme’), the contrasting effect is heartbreaking. [Qobuz]

21 | SPC ECO – All We Have Is Now

There’s always been something uncanny listening to Rose Berlin and Dean Garcia’s SPC ECO project, bearing as it does many of the hallmarks of Garcia’s former band Curve. The lyrical tone and harmonic palette are equivalent to Curve, but the SPC ECO aesthetic is altogether more subdued and softer-edged, resulting in the most exquisitely dark and dreamy electronic pop. Embodying the pace and attitude of shoegaze, these songs have a hypnotic intensity that first fills and then seems to consume the listening space with raw power, despite that same power being very obviously held in check. It’s no exaggeration to say this album contains some of the most beautiful songs i’ve ever heard: ‘All Gone’ and ‘Slow Down’ are just incredible. [Bandcamp]

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Dan JC

Don’t be disheartened! I’ve taken great pleasure in rereading your lists from previous years and I’m constantly amazed by the sheer amount and diversity of music you cover. Please keep up the good work – somebody has to!

[…] and just yesterday Simon Cummings, the composer behind the invaluable music blog 5:4, rolled out a year-end list that included any number of fascinating recordings I hadn’t even heard […]

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