Picking my favorite fifteen albums of the year proved to be no easy task. However, after weeks of trying to come up with a shortlist of just fifteen albums and then ranking and re-ranking them over and over again, I feel like I’ve now finally come to a consensus. Eight of the fifteen albums listed were debut records, which is a very encouraging thing to see. Ten of the fifteen albums were by British artists. Three were by American artists, one was by a Scottish band, and one was by an Australian band. Unfortunately, only one of the albums was by a female-fronted act, but I’ve recently been trying to consciously find more female artists that I like and I’m delighted to report that I’ve had some success. None of the artists featured here are more than four albums deep, which is another encouraging statistic. The genres and subgenres span from folk, hip-hop, psych, dance, krautrock, punk, Britpop, classic rock, baroque pop, Madchester, electronic, indie, glam, Americana, proto-punk, alternative, and much more. So, without further delay, I give to you my ranked list of my fifteen favorite albums of the year that have been constantly in my head and on my turntable for the entirety of 2016.
15. Telegram – Operator
Anglo-Welsh band, Telegram, are among the most unique bands I’ve heard all year, although you wouldn’t think that just by looking at them. Looking at the group makes you wonder what the heck they were doing before they started playing music because they all look like they were born to be musicians (the drummer looks like he’s never slept before in his life and the bassist looks like he time traveled back from CBGBs in the 70’s). Appearances aside, the band’s debut album is full of emotive, slick, inventive, 100 miles an hour rock ‘n’ roll music. It takes cues from glam, garage rock, krautrock, proto-punk and it is this combination of genres mixed with the quavering, staccato vocal delivery of Matt Saunders that makes Operator so wonderfully appealing. However, their desire to be inventive (the strange chorus in “Aeons”) and their reluctance to slow the tempo doesn’t always help them, but luckily there’s far more good moments than bad. The highlight tracks include their buzzy debut single, “Follow”, the mighty “Inside/Outside”, and the brooding “Regatta.”
14. Baby Strange – Want It Need It
While Telegram’s sound is a mix of loads of different subgenres, Baby Strange are a pretty clear-cut punk band. However, this isn’t a criticism since the band are great at what they do, no matter how one-dimensional the sound of their album may be. Baby Strange are a Scottish trio led by charismatic frontman, Johnny Madden, who’s got a look in his eyes that would give Johnny Rotten a run for his money. Their debut album, Want It Need It, is just track after track of youthful, energetic, punk rock that was made for the pit, but make no mistake: these guys can carry a tune. Sure, there’s plenty of simple, “ooh ah” choruses, but it isn’t unfiltered, frightening, unmelodic racket that other punk bands make. The McCann brothers are a rhythm section made of steel (live footage of the band makes this even more apparent) and Madden’s lyrics are practically a bible for the youth, full of references to nights out, fun with friends, love, lust, and relationships. The highlight tracks include the lust-driven “VVV”, the song to belt while on a friend’s shoulders, “Pleasure City”, and the unapologetic “Friend.”
13. Catfish And The Bottlemen – The Ride
Juggernaut British indie rockers, Catfish And The Bottlemen, followed up their smash hit 2014 debut album, The Balcony, with another cracker in the form of The Ride. Does it go toe to toe with the flawless side A of their debut record? Probably not. But what The Ride does have going for it is that it’s an album that’s deeper, more complete, and more sonically diverse than their first record. Let me put it this way: there’s more good songs on The Ride than The Balcony, but there are individual songs on The Balcony that are far superior to The Ride (for example, I’ll take “Hourglass” over “Glasgow” and “Heathrow” any day, but I’d also take “Oxygen” and “Postpone” over “26” and “Sidewinder”). Some of my favorite moments on their second record include Van McCann and co’s sleazy breakdown in “Twice”, McCann’s “just come along for the ride” vocals in “Outside”, and Bondy’s guitar solo in “Anything.” I absolutely adore the anthemic qualities of “Cocoon”, “Pacifier”, and “Kathleen” from their debut album, but listeners have to admit that “Soundcheck”, “Twice”, and “7” come pretty damn close.
12. CRX – New Skin
New Skin is the debut record from Nick Valensi’s (guitarist of NY rock giants, The Strokes) side project band, CRX. The record was produced by none other than QOTSA’s Josh Homme and it marks another great album from a guitar player turned frontman (Noel Gallagher, Johnny Marr, etc.). One would expect that someone who isn’t used to singing lead vocals would be a bit unsure of the strengths and weaknesses of their own voice, but Valensi is an obvious exception. For the most part, the album can be divided into either the pop rock sound of bands like The Cars and Cheap Trick (“Ways To Fake It”, “Slow Down”) and the heavier, edgier rock of bands like Queens Of The Stone Age and (“Broken Bones”, “Give It Up”, “On Edge”), the latter of which Strokes’ fans won’t be used to, but is done to perfection. However, what Strokes’ fans will recognize throughout the record is Valensi’s innate sense of how to flawlessly arrange and utilize lead and rhythm guitars. My favorite track from the record is probably the infectious “Anything”, which has keyboards that are reminiscent of The Strokes’ later material and it’s Valensi’s strongest vocal performance to date.
11. Jake Bugg – On My One
British singer-songwriter, Jake Bugg, may have disappointed some of his earlier fans with this record, but I have to say that I am not one of those disappointed fans. Lots of critics also questioned Bugg’s venture into new genres with his third album, On My One, but I’m not sure that this is a fair criticism. Sure, the rapping in the verses of “Ain’t No Rhyme” was probably a failed experiment (I did like the chorus and Hendrix-esque guitars though), but why should fans and critics deter musicians from trying new things? Bugg nails the smooth rock of “Never Wanna Dance” and “Love, Hope and Misery”, the country sound of “Livin’ Up Country”, the dance/hip-hop vibe of “Gimme The Love”, the blues of “Put Out The Fire”, and of course, the folky, introspective tracks that are his bread and butter (“On My One”, “The Love We’re Hoping For”, and “All That”). However, I think my favorite track from the album is actually the album’s closer, “Hold On You.” One of the things that was overlooked about this album is the fact that his guitar playing is so tight and this track is a clear demonstration of his serious chops. While there’s no “Two Fingers” or “Kingpin” on this record, it’s an absolute winner in my book.
10. Jamie T – Trick
Jamie T, even though he’s only four records deep, he’s far from a rookie. After all, next year is the ten year anniversary of his debut album, Panic Prevention. Although he’s barely 30, Jamie T has emerged as a true veteran of the British indie music scene who reliably continues to put out great records. His new album, Trick, is no exception. Not only is the album cover one of the finest of year, he also put out some of the most interesting, varied album tracks of the year. The intro to “Tescoland” is one of the funniest intros I think I’ve ever heard in my life (it’s a very nonchalant grocery store PA announcement: “aisle 5 / some cleanup needed / there’s blood on the floor / it’s suicide”) and the chorus to “Tinfoil Boy” is both mad and a huge departure from his previous work, but it still somehow works perfectly. On the other hand, “Dragon Bones” is sure to get people on the dancefloor while “Sign Of The Times” is another sign of Jamie’s fantastic ability to write honest, heartfelt guitar ballads. Then, you have the 80’s and 90’s hip-hop influenced tracks (“Drone Strike” and “Solomon Eagle”), the punky “Police Tapes” and “Robin Hood”, and the sweeter “Joan Of Arc.” Jamie T didn’t hide in the shadows like he did before the release of 2014’s Carry On The Grudge. He went back to work and came out with one of the most successfully diverse records of the year.
9. Sulk – No Illusions
Sulk are a band that have only recently gripped my attention. I had never heard of them until about three weeks ago when someone mentioned their name to me. Once I read a description of the band’s sound (“like The Stone Roses if they signed to Creation”), I knew that I was probably in for something special. I started working through the band’s discography and it became clear how effortlessly the band merges Britpop, Madchester, and shoegaze. Sulk just recently released their second album, No Illusions, which although I admit it took me a few listens to wrap my head around (as all good shoegaze albums should), it’s a really strong record full of great hooks and melodies. The first song I heard was “Black Infinity (Upside Down)” and I was mesmerized by the pounding drums, swirling guitars, and the vocals that just blend in perfectly with the rest of the record. Another track that really struck me was “The Tape Of You”, which is a beautiful track whose individual parts may be less distinct than other tracks, but the vocals are absolutely sublime and soothing. Other tracks that can’t go without mentioning are the hypnotic “Another Man Fades Dawn”, the Roses-esque “Queen Supreme”, and the guitar-centric “One Day.”
8. The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood
The Lemon Twigs are one of the most unexpected, but pleasant musical surprises of the year. The two, young Long Island brothers have achieved something that not many other musicians have achieved (whether we’re talking about their age group or not), which is an album of their musical and songwriting caliber. Both brothers swap guitar/drum duties as well as lead vocal/songwriting duties, which is a pretty unusual feat. The younger of the two, Michael D’Addario, is clearly the better drummer of the duo and he so obviously calls to mind the talent of Keith Moon (which I know is a comparison that shouldn’t be easily thrown around) while Brian D’Addario’s strengths are on guitar and his vocals could be easily imagined on Pet Sounds. The two tracks of theirs that everyone who’s been regularly reading music press knows by now is their retro (think 60’s and 70’s pop, rock, and glam) double A-side single “These Words” and “As Long As We’re Together”, but their album is far deeper than that. My favorites include the shimmering, doo-wop influenced “I Wanna Prove To You”, the strange, schizophrenic “Hi+Lo”, and the album’s uplifting closing symphony, “A Great Snake.”
7. Toy – Clear Shot
Toy are a five-piece band from Brighton, England and I’m a bit ashamed that I haven’t listened to them before this year. The band just released their third album, Clear Shot, a few months ago and I don’t think I’ve heard anything like it before. Their sound can be best described as dreamy, synthy, psychedelic, shoegazy krautrock and the press has compared them to the likes of The Horrors, Neu!, and The Voyeurs. Although I’ve gone backwards and listened to their first two albums, it was this record that was the first I heard from Toy. “Another Dimension” was the first tune that caught my ear and it’s a gorgeous track, especially the melodic keyboards and calming vocals. The track also refutes the ridiculous claim that frontman, Tom Dougall, only sings in an emotionless, monotone voice. However, Dougall’s trademark somber voice does show up on the record in several places like the album opener, “Clear Shot”, a track which takes a complete 360 about halfway through and by the four minute mark, you really wish you were watching them perform live because the whole band really goes full throttle. “Fast Silver” is another great track, but it may scare the average listener away by the initial strange (but wonderful) keyboards, but by the two and a half minute mark, you’re welcomed back by Dougall’s beautiful voice. Other tracks that you have to check out is the dreamy “I’m Still Believing” and the climactic “Dream Orchestrator.”
6. Viola Beach – Viola Beach
First things first. This was not a sympathy vote. Tragedy aside, I think this was genuinely one of the best albums of the year and an album that, no doubt, would’ve been even better had it been completed like the band wanted it to be. The Warrington, England four-piece band, Viola Beach, had such a genuine and natural ability to play infectious guitar pop, full of hooks, passion, and promise. The band’s leader and main songwriter, Kris Leonard, had such an obvious talent for songwriting and so much so that Coldplay even let them posthumously headline Glastonbury for a song (make sure you have tissues handy). One of the standout tracks was, of course, the pop genius that is “Swings And Waterslides”, which reached #1 on the charts after their accident and the drum-centric “Boys That Sing”, which made its Glasto debut this year. Some of my favorite tracks also include the bouncing “Go Outside” where guitarist, River Reeves, truly shines and “Really Wanna Call”, a track that’s impossible to be sad or angry while listening to it. Although it wasn’t the album that we were supposed to get, it’s a masterpiece in its own right. RIP Kris Leonard, River Reeves, Jack Dakin, Tomas Lowe, and their manager, Craig Tarry.
5. Blossoms – Blossoms
Blossoms were one of the biggest British buzz bands of 2016. Their self-titled, debut record was both a massive commercial success and critical success. The Stockport, England based quintet plays psych-tinged indie pop/rock and they do so with influences as widespread as ABBA, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Oasis, and Arctic Monkeys. As soon as I heard the dark, psychedelic, Doors-esque “Blow” last year, I knew there was something special about these five lads. Then, I heard the beautiful “Blown Rose”, the keyboard-heavy “Cut Me And I’ll Bleed”, and the indie pop classic, “Charlemagne” and I knew for sure that they weren’t a one hit wonder. The band released so many hyped singles and EPs before their debut record that the album is practically a greatest hits record. Additional tracks that shouldn’t go unnoticed are the bass-driven “At Most A Kiss”, the acoustic ballad that Noel Gallagher wishes he wrote, “My Favourite Room”, and the oddball track “Smashed Pianos.” Although I wish the album was a little bit more indicative of their earlier psych sound, there isn’t a single track worth skipping on this record.
4. Sunflower Bean – Human Ceremony
Sunflower Bean, in my opinion, are one of the best female-fronted bands around and one of the best new American bands at the minute. The Brooklyn trio’s critically-acclaimed debut album, Human Ceremony, brings together the jangly guitars of The Byrds and The Smiths, the jam band quality of Neu!, the vocals of Wolf Alice, and the musicianship of Led Zeppelin. There are also really diverse lyrical themes that emerge throughout the record like social isolation (“I Was Home”), anxiety (“Wall Watcher”), mythological stories (“Creation Myth”), loneliness (“This Kind Of Feeling”), time (“2013”), and religion (“Oh I Just Don’t Know”, “Space Exploration Disaster”). My three favorite tracks from the record are their easiest song to jump and headbang to (“I Was Home”), guitarist, Nick Kivlen’s, strongest track and one of drummer, Jacob Faber’s, best tracks (“Come On”), and lead singer, Julia Cumming’s, best vocal performance (“Easier Said”). I saw Sunflower Bean on their Human Ceremony tour this year and it was obvious just how strong the album tracks are and how tight they are as a live band, which was probably thanks to the fact that within the last few years, they had the record for the most shows played in New York by any band for that given year.
3. Thomas Cohen – Bloom Forever
Thomas Cohen’s debut solo album, Bloom Forever, was another album that took me by surprise this year. The British, former S.C.U.M frontman and husband of the now-deceased Peaches Geldof retreated to Iceland after the death of his wife to produce one of my favorite albums of the year and one of the most heartfelt records that I’ve ever heard in my life. The album was influenced by the Americana and singer-songwriter albums of the 70’s, but it is far from a one-trick pony. The first track that I heard was the folk-tinged “Hazy Shades” that’s got a really great guitar intro and a bassline that wonderfully hovers throughout the track. One thing that you can’t miss about this record is Cohen’s distinctive vocal tone, which is reminiscent of the legendary Lou Reed. The album’s title-track is the centerpiece and it gets its title from one of Cohen’s and Geldof’s son’s middle name. The calming track is a nice trot through the sunshine until its epic guitar solo climax. The most brutally honest track is “Country Home” where Cohen beautifully details his feelings of grief after his wife’s passing (“my love is gone / turning so cold / keep your eyes closed”, “everyone knows that house feels so cold”). However, the album doesn’t dwell on the tragedy, the uplifting “Ain’t Gonna Be No Rain” and the optimistic “New Morning Comes” are some of the album’s lighter moments, while “Mother Mary” is a fitting, haunting finale. The album as a whole feels like a warm, comforting hug and it’s by far the most underrated album of the year.
2. Jagwar Ma – Every Now & Then
“Pride has no place in this room” sings Gabriel Winterfield on the track “Say What You Feel” from Jagwar Ma’s second album. However, the Australian dance/rock band has every right to be proud of their sophomore full-length release, even after their debut album, Howlin, which is among my favorite albums of all time. Jagwar Ma make music that’s kind of in a category of its own. If you mixed together the harmonies of The Beach Boys, the dance crossover quality of Pet Shop Boys, The Stone Roses, and Factory Records, the psychedelic rock quality of Temples and Tame Impala, and some classic soul for good measure, you would probably get something like Jagwar Ma. Though their second album doesn’t quite outdo their first, it is definitely a progression in that it’s a bit darker (there’s aren’t as many pop-oriented, Beach Boys-esque harmonies) and a bit more electronic (the guitars are less discernible than on their debut). My favorite tracks include the soon-to-be festival banger, “O B 1”, the slow-burner, “Loose Ends”, and their most rock-centric track on the record, “Ordinary.” Another track, “Don’t Make It Right”, which was masterfully put together by the band’s sampling and production mastermind, Jono Ma, is guaranteed to take you on a hazy trip through the rainforest and give you goosebumps along the way. Other favorites include “Batter Up”, which is sure to get crowds bouncing their arms, and the bizarre (definitely a grower) and only deliberately discordant song on the album “High Rotations.” A masterful second record from one of the best bands in the world.
1. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come To Expect
From the moment their return was announced at the end of last year, I knew that The Last Shadow Puppets’ second album was going to be a seminal record and it is now obvious that they delivered. Despite it being my favorite album of the year, it is clearly inferior to the British supergroup duo’s 2008 debut album, The Age Of The Understatement (#2 in my favorite albums of all time). Having said that, it was always going to be impossible to trump their first and most fans were OK with that and simply wanted to hear more. Besides producer and long-time collaborator, James Ford, the album has another secret weapon that has to be mentioned, which is Owen Pallett, who arranged the strings and brass on both their albums. Without the orchestral arrangements, neither of the albums would be anywhere near as classic, majestic, and epic as they are. The first track that was released from the album was “Bad Habits”, which immediately scared a lot of people who thought it was too harsh, but I think the catchy-as-hell bassline, the in-your-face (almost spitting) vocal delivery from Miles Kane (along with his insane guitar playing), the accompanying, backing vocals from Alex Turner, and the orchestral arrangements make it an uncompromising success that takes no prisoners. The next track fans heard was “Aviation”, which again was primarily led by Miles Kane, but was far more subdued than “Bad Habits” and was paired with tasty guitars, making it a standout track.
Another track, “Miracle Aligner” is probably the album’s best song, not because it’s led by Turner, but because it’s the closest that the album gets to baroque pop perfection. “Sweet Dreams, TN” also needs mentioning with its arm-punching-the-air quality and its building tension which is emotively unleashed slowly but surely by Turner. While Kane shines on “Bad Habits” and “Aviation” and Turner takes center stage on “Miracle Aligner” and “Sweet Dreams, TN”, the duo’s efforts are perfectly mixed on tracks like “Used To Be My Girl”, where the vocals of Kane and Turner are used interchangeably and where Turner’s uncanny lyrical ability is blatantly put on display (“good cop bad cop routine / black light animal print boogie / left in a heap / a kiss on either cheek / I’m a phoney / I’m a fake / a fraud / a snake / gimme all your love so I can fill you up with hate”). While we’re on the subject of lyrics, the title track has to be mentioned with superb lines like “ghost riders in The Rat and Parrot / croc-skin collar on a diamond dog / dirtbag ballet by the bins down the alley as I walk through the chalet of the shadow of death” and also “Dracula Teeth” with lines like “lipstick on my pillow via my cheek / the full moon’s glowing yellow and the floorboards creek / c’est horrifique!” In a nutshell, I think it’s hard to make an argument against this album being one of the best of the year and I must admit that I’m a bit surprised by the Mercury Prize nomination snub. The band has stated the project was meant to be a trilogy, so if their first two albums are anything to go by, we’re in for another treat within the next few years. Without a doubt, a five-star album.