2016, the year everyone loved to hate ! As with most years, there were a few albums that REALLY grabbed and stayed with me, and 2 of them seem to have gone completely under the radar (no better time to check them out !).
One of my favourite releases of the year was actually a sort of re-release, albeit with half an albums worth of newly discovered, never released cuts. I really struggled with whether or not I should include it on the main list, but reasoned that I would keep my Top 10 for “New” albums, but spotlight the re-release on its own. I also discovered 3 great TV Soundtracks this year, but again decided to keep them off the main list, as all 3 had so many tracks, I just don’t know how often I’ll revisit them, separate from the shows themselves of course.
While my list doesn’t contain some albums that many seemed to love (Beyonce, Kanye, Chance, Solange, Bon Iver, Radiohead, Bowie, Danny Brown, Common, Iggy Pop, De La, etc), none of them really clicked with me personally, as entire albums. Pretty much all of them contained some good stuff, but just didn’t grab me on a consistent enough basis to include them in the list. That said, it pleases me greatly that so much music connected with listeners this year. It’s always a beautiful thing to see, and I always look forward to seeing what worked and didn’t work for people this year.
2017 has a lot of gems on the horizon. I’m personally looking forward to new records from Arctic Monkeys, Nas, Jungle, Electric Guest, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Royal Blood, Kasabian, The Slew, The Shins, TRDMRK, Alexandra Savior, Noel Gallagher, Queens of the Stone Age & of course, the physical release of RTJ 3. I hope you discovered a lot of new gems this year, and maybe some of my picks will work for you like they did for me !
Happy New Year, and enjoy the list !!
Grapefruit – Yesterday’s Sunshine (1967-68)
Grapefruit were one of the unfortunate 60’s bands that had the chops, songs & opportunity, but just didn’t blow up quickly enough. They were named by John Lennon, and even had a song produced by Lennon & McCartney ! Unfortunately, their original lineup only released one (excellent) album, 1968’s “Around Grapefruit”, before switching their sound towards Hard Rock for their second (and final) album, 1969’s “Deep Water” (which did have some good tracks, but was like a completely different band).
Grapefruit’s principle songwriter, George Alexander (aka Alexander Young) was the brother of both George Young (of The Easybeats) and Malcolm Young (of AC/DC). Despite his connection to rock royalty, Grapefruit’s timing just didn’t work out, and they broke up in late 1969. Their first record was remixed & re-recorded, but the Lennon/McCartney produced track was never released, nor were the original (non remixed) recordings, or a handful of other non-LP tracks. That situation was rectified this year with the (CD and digital only) release of “Yesterday’s Sunshine”.
This release really shines a light on what could have been, and in some ways adds to the tragedy of losing a great band too soon, as seen all too often in groups like Honeybus, The Family Tree & The World of Oz, among others. While an LP release would have been outstanding, having these recordings finally see the light of day was a joy to be a part of.
Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad – Luke Cage OST
I’m pleased to admit I was wrong in my apprehension of Disney taking over Marvel (and Star Wars), much less of partnering with Netflix (a then-unknown factor, original content wise). There was a valid fear that the material would be handled with kid gloves, glossing over any violence or adult themes. Thankfully those fears were unfounded, as evidenced by all 4 seasons of Marvel Netflix TV thus far. They’ve been exactly what they needed to be, and handled with the utmost respect to the source material.
Having just finished Luke Cage, I must admit that I found it to be the lesser of the 4 seasons created for Marvel Netflix so far. This is less a knock on LC and more a praise of Daredevil & Jessica Jones. All 3 shows have their issues, but I found that Luke Cage took the longest to get going, and suffered from some problematic writing and odd choices (or lack thereof). That said, I did enjoy the series, and wouldn’t hesitate to watch a second season (I look forward to the upcoming “The Defenders”, starring JJ, DD, LC & the upcoming Iron Fist).
One of the things that worked so well for the show was it’s soundtrack. Roping in a legend in Ali Shaheed Muhammad, partnered with a modern gem like Adrian Younge was a bold and clever decision. Ironically, both producers were contacted separately, without the knowledge that they had just recorded an album together in secret ! Sometimes these things just have a way of working out. Using the club setting to have an array of musical performers was a smart choice. Coupling that with a 90’s throwback feel, the music ended up working better than some of the writing on the show itself !
Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things OST
More Netflix love, more “It was good, but …” ! Stranger Things took the world by storm and became the Must See TV of that month. While I wasn’t head over heels, lose your mind in love with the show, it did maintain my interest throughout. I have a lot of respect for the filmmakers, they really came out of nowhere with this love letter to the 80’s, an era I reluctantly admit to being born in. In some ways I was reminded of what Tarantino has done with his work, a veritable “Best Of”, influences wise. Certainly not a knock on the show, as I think it achieved exactly what it set out to do.
One of the biggest draws for me (and many others) was the throwback soundtrack that anchored the series throughout. It became one of the rare scores that can stand on it’s own two feet, separate from the source material itself. It reminded me a bit of the semi-recent score for “Turbo Kid”, a film I’d highly recommend for those into 80’s throwback type stuff. This score road the Synthwave wave, along with many others, right into the hearts of 30+ somethings everywhere,
Much like with Luke Cage, Stranger Things has such an enormous amount of tracks (75 in total), I just didn’t feel that I would revisit it enough to justify a place on my Top 10. It’s great in doses, and I love that public demand lead to an LP release, as well as a second season (and presumably more music to come with it). This score has a definite feel, and it’s pretty special that they were able to capture it so long after the era it emulates.
Ramin Djawadi – Westworld OST
Speaking of shows that took the (west) world by storm & were intrinsically linked to their scores, Westworld was another brain melter that gave just as much as it needed to, while making us wait 2 years for a follow up season (and score). Being set partially in a saloon, barroom piano music was integral to the shows DNA. The idea of including modern music, albeit in ragtime style, was brilliant and worked perfectly with the shows esthetic.
I was reminded at times of another HBO show with an excellent, piano driven score – The Leftovers. Both shows use their themes (piano and otherwise) to great effect, both rely on an extremely dramatic undercurrent, broken up with very occasional levity. As The Leftovers gears up for its third and final season, at least we’ll have Westworld to continue providing us with our delightful, piano-riffic score fix.
While Westworld did have far less tracks than Stranger Things and Luke Cage, I still wasn’t convinced that it would receive a ton of play from me over the years, as a complete album. While there are a handful of tracks that I loved and will absolutely revisit, it JUST missed the final 10 cut. Still, it’s well worth a listen.
The 2016 Top 10 List
10) The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect
I must confess, I was not the biggest fan of the first Last Shadow Puppets LP. As a huge Alex Turner fan, I was really excited to check out a non-Arctic Monkeys collaboration. Unfortunately, I found the first record to be a bit lost under its orchestration, some good efforts, but overall a bit aimless and overblown. The tools and skills were all there, but it was quite a disappointment after the excellence of Arctic Monkeys.
Luckily, LSP have honed their collaboration on this sophomore effort, bringing everything they do well and crafting some quality tracks in the process. While I can’t say that this is on the level of Arctic Monkeys’ output, it was never meant to be. As a side project between two friends and fellow musicians, it’s a very pleasing release.
9) The Coral – Distance Inbetween
I must confess, I have been a massive fan of The Coral for quite some time. Their first single, “Dreaming of You”, was an instant classic, although it took my awhile to warm up to the first record itself. It wasn’t until the first single from their sophomore release, “Pass It On”, that I went back and was blown away by the first LP. The early 2000’s were a magical time for that style of 60’s throwback rock. The Coral & The Zutons were probably my two favourites, but so many bands came out of that time, thanks to the sound The Coral brought to the fore.
Unfortunately, breaking into the US market wasn’t really in the cards. I was lucky enough to see them (and later The Zutons) in Toronto around 2003, but the place was only about half full. As each record passed, they transitioned to more of an acoustic, A/C style that was of less interest to me. In some ways I felt like Arctic Monkeys picked up where they left off, but I’d always hoped The Coral would return to their rock roots. Luckily, they did ! While “Distance Inbetween” isn’t perfect, it’s most definitely a return to form, and a gift to fans who stuck it out all these years.
8) Czarface – A Fistful of Peril
In some ways, I kind of view Czarface as an alternate universe Run the Jewels. Both groups have just released their third record, both have a white rapper and a black rapper who was previously in a classic hip hop group & both are able to be geeky at times while still maintaining an edge. Plus, ridiculous production, you gotta have that. Unlike RTJ though, Czarface has kind of stayed below the radar, well known to hip hop heads, but yet to achieve the universal acclaim enjoyed by RTJ.
With that said, Czarface have brought the heat yet again, proving that their chemistry and artistry is no fluke. Their devotion to a comic cover aesthetic is admirable, and enviable, a perfect fit for the multitude of comic references littered throughout. Ironically, Run the Jewels did a series of comic book covers for Marvel last year, something that probably made Czarface more envious than any other accolade RTJ has amassed. Still, all comparisons aside, as listeners WE are the real winners, getting to enjoy both albums before the dawn of 2017.
7) A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service
By all accounts, this is a record that should not even exist. Up until this year, and especially with the untimely death of Phife Dawg, it seemed that Tribe’s legacy would end with the uneven “The Love Movement”. Of course, regardless of that, ATCQ would have gone out with no less than 3 Classics (depending on who you ask), which is more than most groups can say in their lifetime. That said, we were blessed with a final record, made in secret & unleashed when nobody was expecting it. The problem was, could it possibly EVER live up to the hype and legacy ?
Well … no. Much like a new Beatles album, there’s simply no way to please millions of fans, many who had been following the group from their onset. Luckily, it really only needed to be better than TLM, and it certainly was ! As a 2016 Hip Hop release, Tribe delivered. As a late period addition to their catalogue, Tribe delivered. As an Instant Classic that will stand the test of time next to their other gems ? Well … just enjoy it for what it is.
6) The Avalanches – Wildflower
Speaking of lengthy waits between records, how about 16 years between first and second albums ? True, Tribe went 18 years, but that was after a breakup and 5 albums ! It was starting to look like we would never see a follow up from The Avalanches, and the pressure was intense, considering how lauded their debut was. Amidst health issues and throwing out albums to start from scratch, 2016 was finally the year we got to hear another transmission from the top of the mountain. But was it worth the wait ?
Well … again, I suppose that depends on what type of listener you are. Their debut, “Since I Left You”, is on such a pedestal, it’s almost impossible to top or equal (for most diehards). It’s a situation many electronic artists struggle with, from RJD2, DJ Shadow, Fingathing, Portishead, Tricky and onward. Thankfully, “Wildflower” meshes very well, and rewards repeat listens. Its release also spurned a re-pressing of their debut, so if you end up hating this one, you can finally afford a copy of the other one !
5) Wax Tailor – By Any Beats Necessary
Wax Tailor is sorely underappreciated, and virtually unknown in many places. I actually wasn’t too familiar with his work until about 2 years ago, but better late than never ! While I find some of his LP’s a bit uneven, “In the Mood for Life” really blew me away (and is highly recommended). Still, that record came out 7 years ago, and with any artist (much less a DJ or Producer) there is always the chance that the magic is lost, or at least, not consistent enough to carry an entire album.
Luckily, WT has delivered an enjoyable, partly Blues-based effort that flows nicely and doesn’t sound derivative of his earlier material. I can’t say that it reaches the heights of “In the Mood for Life”, but it does have elements of that release, as well as his other projects. Last year he released a live, orchestral backed album which was essentially a Best Of. That release dovetails nicely into this one, and both are certainly worth a listen.
4) Weezer – The White Album
Well, if you’d told me that a 2016 Weezer album would crack my Top 10 list (much less Top 5), I’d have said you were a piece of human garbage for spreading such lies. Yet, here we are ! Sorry for the cruel remark. Anyway, like most people, I really dug the first 2-ish Weezer records, then tuned out entirely for several (horrific sounding) albums. I felt no real urge to listen to them, neither their old OR new material. That said, I started hearing rumbles that this was a pretty solid return to form, then I found the whole thing on youtube anyway, so why not gamble with 30 minutes for an old favourite ?
As it turns out, the rumours were true. This is easily Weezers best front to back album since Pinkerton (which in some ways isn’t saying much, but is actually pretty astounding if you think about it). The way I describe it is, if you EVER liked Weezer, you’ll find something to love about this album (perhaps all of it). It would certainly be easy to dismiss, and many who haven’t heard it (or Weezer in years) will sneer and ignore it. It is what it is, but what it is may be of interest to you.
3) Boogie Belgique – Volta
Speaking of underrated producers, Boogie Belgique is another who has released several excellent albums, but remained relatively obscure in most non-European places. BB’s style is largely Electro Swing based, meaning he combines old jazz tunes with new electro beats to make catchy and timeless new tunes (ideally). I was a bit concerned for this album, as his last 2 haven’t been front to back perfect, but I was still excited enough to pre-order it.
Luckily, BB stuck the landing and delivered arguably his most accomplished album to date. It draws on elements of his previous records, but feels BIGGER, especially production wise. I still worry that he may have reached his peak (especially if this doesn’t land), but this is one of the best records of the year. I truly hope it reaches as many ears as possible.
2) Run the Jewels – RTJ3
Well, they’ve done it again. This time they shocked us all by dropping RTJ3 on Christmas Day, for free. Another astounding move by a group that has done so much in such a small amount of time. For Hip Hop fans, this was one of (if not the) most highly anticipated releases of the year. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointment when they moved the release to January, but anything worth having is worth waiting for (plus, I didn’t really have a choice either way).
Luckily, the album is a gem (as assumed). Easily the Hip Hop release of the year (sorry Kanye / Chance) & a triumphant conclusion to the RTJ Trilogy. Who knows what their next step will be (apart from a massive world tour), but RTJ have built up a ton of goodwill with fans, and an impressive discography. In the end, we are all witnesses …
1) La Femme – Mystere
Last (first?) but not least, another underrated band who will likely miss out on most End of Year lists. I had the great fortune of seeing La Femme in Montreal this year, and it was a fantastic experience (muddy sound mixing notwithstanding). Their first record, “Psycho Tropical Berlin” was another under the radar release, finishing 2nd on my Top 10 that year, second only to Arctic Monkeys’ stellar “AM”. It didn’t seem right to bump LF again, so here they are, alone at the top !
Now, of course, this won’t be for everybody. I know that some people just don’t care to listen to non-English music, and I must confess that La Femme are the only french band I listen to. That said, they make an eclectic and appealing blend of Dreamy Pop, with Rock, Rap and even Dance elements at times. Kind of a mix between Serge Gainsbourg, Portishead, Radiohead, Phantogram & Sigur Ros ? Maybe ? All that really matters is, they write great tunes, put on a great show & have released 2 highly enjoyable albums. Check them out, it just might be up your alley !
And that is that ! Hope you guys dug the list, and that maybe some of it works its way into your ears ! Have a great year, and keep the music coming !