At the halfway point of 2016, the music world has been rejoicing and mourning in equal measure. It’s been one of the best years for new music in a decade, yet the achievements of the world’s songwriters stand in the long shadow cast by a series of departed superstars. Giants like David Bowie, Merle Haggard and Prince have stepped into the wings after their final encore.
As we remember the contributions of those legends, let’s also indulge in some ripe new produce. Here are some of the best records of 2016 so far.
David Bowie’s final studio record became a theatrical magic trick worthy of Labyrinth‘s Goblin King. Upon his death, which caused widespread devastation, the themes embedded in the envelope-pushing Blackstar took on new meaning. Viewed through the prism of a man aware of his impending departure, the album is the trailblazing legend’s final musical statement – as stunning, esoteric and deliciously brazen as Bowie’s fans could have hoped for. Now we wait for the inevitable swathe of unreleased material.
Feelin Kinda Good
When The Drones release a new album, it’s best to expect the unexpected. Feelin Kinda Good delivers on the band’s early promise of not just pushing the sonic envelope, but also gleefully desecrating every modern music convention they can get their greasy paws on. Here, on their seventh record, songwriting mastermind Gareth Liddiard’s acid tongue is as voracious and verbose as ever, twisting around enough subjects to fill a volume of the Funk and Wagnalls. He spits rhymes in compelling rhythms, more rapper than rocker. Bassist Fiona Kitschin’s eerie vocals add beauty, albeit unsettling beauty, to the discordant throbs of keyboards and demented instrumentation. This is The Drones at their most weird and wonderful. They remain Australia’s best band.
It’s an increasingly rare feeling to break bread with a record that feels legendary – and isn’t 40 years old. But William Crighton’s debut effort is indeed one of those elusive modern classics, a stirring and powerful songbook with literary ambition.
This collection of tunes that spans alt-country, rock, and psych-folk – with poetic flair – taps into Australian culture and then sets its gaze further, as Crighton ruminates on mortality and the broader human experience. The tracks sometimes feature murder and suicide, and then tip to the other end of the emotional spectrum: love and loyalty. William Crighton is sure to prove the most exciting discovery of 2016 for a great many discerning music lovers. Any “best of the year” list void of this album has been compiled by a hack.
Curve of the Earth
In 2008, lots of Aussies discovered Twickenham indie-pop group Mystery Jets when their twee duet with Laura Marling, ‘Young Love’, became a hit on Triple J. The tune, while irresistibly catchy, was very much of its time – cute, minimal and… well, cute. But since then the band, led by angel-voiced Blaine Harrison and his dad Henry (who rocks the keyboards), the band have consciously evolved and crafted increasingly nuanced anthems. That metamorphosis has come to a head on Curve of the Earth, a mammoth prog-pop opus that is hypnotising in its beauty. Perhaps the title suggests the band are on the precipice, at inspiration’s peak, wide-eyed at the possibilities of their sound. The rhythm section hums beneath a wall of glorious synthesiser and rock guitar. It’s decidedly British. It’s decidedly brilliant.
The Jezabels fell victim to the brilliance of their debut material. The Sydney quartet’s triptych of EPs indicated they were the future of rock music in Australia. Their sound, buoyed by the ethereal vocals of Hayley Mary, was overwhelmingly emotive and felt dislocated from any trend or definable influence. It was of its own universe.
Their inevitable debut record, and its follow-up, contained singularly great tracks (‘Endless Summer’ an undeniable creation) but there was also a sameness across both albums, as if the band had reached a glass ceiling of innovation that they could not quite break through. On Synthia, the group smash the ceiling to smithereens. Dark, mesmerising, unconventional and otherworldly, Synthia feels like a band that has deconstructed its sound and built into something radiant and towering. It’s the journey we’ve been craving. A promise fulfilled.
Post Pop Depression
“Post Pop Depression” is surely what the music world will feel when Iggy snarls and spits his way off the end of this mortal coil. But, in the meantime, we can bask in the twisted machismo of one of the last living punk legends. Pop has long waded through the swamp of man’s nature, and on Post Pop Depression he finds a suitable modern adventurer with whom to frolic. The leathery warlock is front and centre – exactly where he should be – but Queens of the Stone Age captain and Kyuss alumni Josh Homme is behind the screen, orchestrating this dark and masculine theatre. The result is a beautiful fusion of both their sensibilities – Pop’s dulcet delivery and red-blooded poetry dancing with Homme’s cinematic, inventive arrangements and kinky riffage.
THE BESNARD LAKES
A Coliseum Complex Museum
With an album title that should sufficiently tickle prog-rock fans in their giblets, The Besnard Lakes return with their fifth interstellar excursion. A Coliseum Complex Museum doesn’t exactly take the Montreal six-piece boldly where no Besnard album has gone before. But whatever lack of self-imposed invention the album may harbour, ACCM is too shimmering, catchy and radiant to avoid repeated listens. For a band named after a still body of water, their echoey wall-of-sound rises and crashes in glorious waves. High vocals and reverb-drenched guitars hint at alt-country, power pop and prog influences, but the ingredients are melted down into a lysergic kaleidoscope that is unmistakably the work of The Besnard Lakes. Closer ‘Tungsten 4: The Refugee’ is one of the best songs of 2016.
Deep Dark Savage Heart
It’s shaping up to be Melody Pool’s year. The Kurri Kurri-raised, Melbourne-based songwriter has made a stirring creative statement on Deep Dark Savage Heart, an inspiring and always arresting songbook of strength and sensuality.
Pool’s impressive debut album The Hurting Scene, released three years ago, was forged in the flames of heartbreak. The pain-laced lyrics were those of a young woman not just suffering the loss of someone she loved, but the suffocating sting of betrayal. Cathartic and aching, the album’s centrepiece, ‘Henry’, was a mature and fatalistic distillation of her anger and hurt. But, conversely, The Hurting Scene‘s radiant melodies and arrangements were invariably upbeat, belying the emotional weight within.
Deep Dark Savage Heart is a far different beast. It’s a dark folk record, cast in shadowy minor chords, and a work of staggering beauty. The arrangements and melodies dance and twirl beneath the moonlight in a synergic embrace.
Full review here.
Paging Mr. Proust
There are Jayhawks fans that prefer the alt-country twang that original member Mark Olson brought to the group. But he departed, for the second time, in 2012, again leaving the Minneapolis folk-rock band in the capable hands of singer-songwriter Greg Louris. Four years later The Jayhawks take wing with an effortlessly melodic album that mostly shirks the country inflections of their 1995 masterwork Tomorrow the Green Grass. Instead, Louris and his cohorts straddle power pop, folk, rock and all the myriad sub-genres in between. The harmonies are sublime. From the Wilco-esque ‘Comeback Kids’, to the Teenage Fanclub-esque opener ‘Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces’ and the breathtaking closer ‘I’ll Be Your Key’, Paging Mr . Proust demands repeated listens.
You Know Who You Are
New York City’s alt-rock heroes Nada Surf make a triumphant return on You Know Who You Are, their first album in four years. ‘Cold to See Clear’ kicks into a familiar gear; pretty and heavy. But from the stomping first track the distortion softens and they demonstrate their power pop prowess, crafting 10 dreamy tracks of jangled guitars and sugar-sweet harmonies. Singer and guitarist Matthew Caws channels the sweetness of Roger McGuinn and, more than ever, sounds like a Teenage Fanclub alumni. If you love top-shelf power pop (you know who you are) then you should part with some cash for this album.
In June this year Angus Stone finally got around to dropping the breezy bedroom project he’d been slowly piecing together over many years. The result is, as the name suggests, pretty dope. In fact, at about the mid-point of opener ‘Marinade’, the idea that this is Stone’s finest work doesn’t seem all that big a claim. Stone manages to out-slack Kurt Vile with a cohesive psych-folk collection that’s so dreamy it’s on the brink of deep slumber. There’s some sweet experimentation too, with drops of trip-hop on ‘The Way You Do’ and shimmering dream-pop on the exquisitely serene ‘Won’t Let You Go’. They’re zesty elements in an always interesting and catchy record that expands and unfolds with repeated listens, and is a perfect marriage with Stone’s laconic vocals. Dope Lemon is a project worthy of further exploration – let’s hope it’s not a one off.