Jesus, what a year for music.
Especially for Australian songwriters. As you’ll discover from the below list, seven of the 10 best records made in 2016 were by Aussies (50% of the top 20 is Australian). Amongst them are one master and six artists of a newer generation, each crafting some truly classic material. The future of Australian stories are in safe hands.
It was notably a year of sterling returns by a number of ’90s legends. The new offerings from Wilco, Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr and Pixies were very close to making the cut, but you’ll notice the esteemed rankings of the fresh albums from Nada Surf and The Jayhawks.
Some rising Australian stars gave us a lot to be excited about this year too. Particularly two songwriters by the name of Melody Pool and William Crighton, who both released truly incredible records. More established artists, such as The Drones and Liz Stringer, made the elusive arts of consistency and evolution seem very easy to obtain.
Much has been made of the legends we lost in 2016. Particularly painful for me was the departure of the incomparable Leonard Cohen, the greatest lyricist to have ever lived. His swan song, You Want it Darker, very nearly made this list. But while it was another peerless lyrical showing, melodically it didn’t arouse me as much as his previous work. But he is still one of the all-time greats – the lord and master.
So while we might lament the legion of superstars that ascended into the annals of music mythology, calling in their status as immortals, we’re all still here – and we’ve been left with some glorious music. I listen therefore I am.
20. DOPE LEMON
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 was, as the name suggested, pretty dope. In fact, at about the mid-point of opener ‘Marinade’, the idea that this was Stone’s finest work didn’t seem all that big a claim.
On Honey Bones, 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.
19. CHILDISH GAMBINO
“Awaken, My Love!”
A progressive psychedelic neo-soul space odyssey – void of any actual rap music – was not what Donald Glover’s legion of disciples would have expected from his follow-up to 2013’s impressive sophomore effort Because the Internet. But “Awaken, My Love!”, as his third record is maniacally titled, is certainly something left of centre.
Showing off his impressive range as a singer, Glover sounds like a man possessed, shape-shifting across every track, an artist with multiple personality disorder. Exorcising demonic funk and RnB entities, he’s either wailing as if in the throws of a voodoo ritual or cooing in bedroom falsetto. Childish Gambino, with songwriting assistance from long-time collaborator Ludwig Göransson, has well and truly splintered. He’s gone off the deep end, and what he’s found is a vein of creative gold. Make no mistake – there’s some heavy influences here, from Stevie Wonder to Outkast, but the result is an intoxicating and idiosyncratic concoction that surprises and amazes at every turn.
It’s hard to tell where the real Donald Glover is in this melting point of characters, personas and genres – the truth feels buried – but it sounds like Childish is having fun, and that sensation is infectious.
A Moon Shaped Pool
A restless melancholy pervaded A Moon Shaped Pool, the Nigel Godrich-produced ninth studio record by art rock innovators Radiohead. It was an example of the revered group’s honed talented for sustained atmosphere and cohesion.
The 10-track release is as painfully beautiful as any previous Radiohead release, adrift in ambling structures, Jonny Greenwood’s swelling choral arrangements, his and Ed O’Brien’s deft acoustic guitar parts, whispered drum samples and synths – all woven together with breathless, haunting serenity.
Singer Thom Yorke’s lilting voice aches and coos, wrestling with heartache, mob mentality and perhaps even global warming. Moments of stark poeticism cut deep: “As my world comes crashing down, I’m dancing, freaking out, deaf, dumb, and blind…” sings Yorke on ‘Present Tense’. Later the pain bubbles to the surface on moving closer ‘True Love Waits’: “And true love waits in haunted attics, and true love lives on lollipops and crisps. Just don’t leave, don’t leave…”
A Moon Shaped Pool is an emotional, immersive experience. So good, in fact, that we can perhaps forgive the missing hyphen in the title.
17. KOI CHILD
Fremantle seven-piece Koi Child were one of the surprise packets of 2016, dropping an expansive, luscious acid jazz excursion bursting at the seams with both influences and fresh ideas.
Cruz Patterson lends his rapping and singing expertise, flowing over scintillating, soulful and dense arrangements, reminiscent of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. With Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker in the producer’s chair, there’s a smouldering, space-age sheen across the record. The band, with their sexed-up brass section, are really a sonic tour de force, sounding vast almost futuristic on ‘Frangipani’ and ‘1-5-9’, all slinking melodies and kinetic drumming. A truly absorbing listen.
16. ANGEL OLSEN
Angel Olsen broadened her sonic palette for this impressive third record, an utterly irresistible synthesis of late ’50s girl pop (The Ronettes etc) and modern ’90s grunge and Americana. Front and centre is the Missouri native’s gorgeous voice, which aches and yearns with every coquettish, sultry confession, both nuanced and powerful.
Olsen’s kinetic guitar spurns the more upbeat tracks, somewhere between Spanish gypsy and outcast shoegazer. For every shorter, radio friendly pop hit (‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’), there’s an expansive, dynamic set piece like ‘Not Gonna Kill You’.
The album’s masterpiece is ‘Sister’ (also the soaring highlight of Olsen’s live performances in Australia in 2016), a near-eight minute opus that spans the jubilant rise and wrenching fall of a relationship, changing gears and building into a gut-wrenching coda in which Olsen mournfully and effortlessly repeats the line: “All my life I thought I’d change, all my life I thought I’d change…” This one track alone is worth the price of admission.
15. IGGY POP
Post Pop Depression
“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 found a suitable modern adventurer with whom to frolic. The leathery warlock was front and centre – exactly where he should be – but Queens of the Stone Age captain and Kyuss alumni Josh Homme was behind the flowing 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.
14. THE BESNARD LAKES
A Coliseum Complex Museum
With an album title that should sufficiently tickle prog-rock fans in their giblets, The Besnard Lakes returned with their fifth interstellar excursion. A Coliseum Complex Museum didn’t exactly take the Montreal six-piece boldly where no Besnard album had gone before, but it’s was cosmic as ever. Like its unusual title, A Coliseum Complex Museum was impressionistic and too dreamy, catchy and radiant to ignore.
For a band named after a still body of water, The Besnard Lakes’ echoey wall-of-sound rises and crashes in glorious waves. Jace Lasek’s falsetto 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 this consistent Canadian outfit.
Closer ‘Tungsten 4: The Refugee’ is one of the best songs of 2016.
13. MYSTERY JETS
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 came to a head on Curve of the Earth, a mammoth prog-pop opus that is hypnotising in its beauty. Perhaps the title suggested the band were 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.
12. THE FALL OF TROY
Washington post-hardcore wizards The Fall of Troy released their fifth record – the end of a seven-year hiatus – and dutifully gave it away for free on their website. OK is something of an ironic title, because the record is much more than just “ok”. It’s a continuation of what the trio do best – mind-bending, hook-laden, mile-a-minute sonic sucker punches that leave you dizzy and clutching for the nearest handrail.
The sheer speed and complexity of OK‘s 10 tracks leave you breathless, balancing on the edge of your seat, as the tracks rise and fall in blistering, volatile dynamics. Singer-guitarist Thomas Erak and new bassist and backing vocalist Tim Ward deliver a two-barbed assault with their melodic and screamed vocals respectively, while drummer Andrew Forsman unleashes a hellish maelstrom from behind the kit.
Another infectiously catchy monster of an album. Fans of The Mars Volta, Coheed and Cambria and System of a Down take note.
11. THE AVALANCHES
It’s nice when a band meets mountainous expectations. The Avalanches finally followed up the release of their ground-breaking 2000 record Since I Left You and the wait was worth it. Wildflower was a cool sixteen years in the making and perhaps needed that time to gestate and evolve. The result is modern – no surprise from a group seemingly always ahead of its time – and continues the rapturous, mind-bending “plunderphonics” approach to their music.
Surviving members Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi throw old-school samples into their multi-layered sonic weave, including a tune from The Sound of Music, but mostly turn their attention to hip hop and other urban soundscapes. The result feels like a sunlit stroll through the decaying fringes of the city, high on LSD, drifting into the elusive optimistic corners of the subconscious mind. An essential listening experience.
10. DAVID BOWIE
David Bowie released what seemed to be yet another envelope-pushing sonic excursion, a feat we’d come to expect from one of the most revered icons of all time. It seemed dense with ideas and cryptic poetry, a dark and haunting experience. We soon found out, however, that it was not just any statement from the genius mind of David Bowie – it was a final statement. A man on the precipice of mortality, staring into the darkness below. Those that jumped in and listened to it on the day of its release, were blessed with the opportunity to hear the record two different ways.
It goes without saying that this gut-wrenching revelation applied a fresh coat of context and perspective to the experience of Blackstar. Opening with the near-ten-minute opus of the title track, Bowie is seemingly throwing every inch of his soul into this book end to a storied life and career, shifting between a seemingly endless array of grooves and song ideas, stringing them together with stinging, digitally altered falsetto stabs of “I’m a blackstar“. Bowie’s working out who he is in these dying moments. “In the villa of Ormen, stands a solitary candle, in the centre of it all…”
Blackstar continues with Bowie’s trademark class, Tony Visconti’s shimmering production buoyed by gorgeous brass flourishes. The result is futuristic, slick, atmospheric and, of course, sexy as hell. It’s proof that, no matter how hard it tried, mainstream music was never able to catch up to David Bowie. Perhaps it never will.
09. NADA SURF
You Know Who You Are
New York City’s alt-rock heroes Nada Surf made 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.
08. THE JAYHAWKS
Paging Mr. Proust
There are Jayhawks fans that prefer the alt-country twang that co-founder 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 and founding member Greg Louris.
Four years later The Jayhawks again took wing with Paging Mr. Proust, 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, often echoing of The Byrds. 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.
07. LIZ STRINGER
All the Bridges
Discerning pundits are likely already aware of Liz Stringer and her staggering prowess. The Melbourne resident is one of the country’s best songwriters, gifted with an ability to weave incisive, revelatory prose with earthy, earworm hooks that burrow further into your soul with every listen.
Recorded in Portland, Oregon, with Stringer’s trademark penchant for tasteful, understated instrumentation, All the Bridges is another personal songbook, if not gleaned entirely from Stringer’s own life, then certainly from the personal moments of others. Reflective, melancholy, optimistic, soulful – the album becomes further embedded with every listen. Songs like ‘Casey’ arrive and feel like instant classics, rich in melody and sentiment that exist outside of time and trend – pure, undeniable craftsmanship.
06. NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS
Given the tragic circumstances in which Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ 16th studio record was made – the album’s creation commencing after the shocking death of Cave’s son – fans seemed to expect a fairly dark and harrowing experience. Even by Cave’s already gloomy, twisted standards. What arrived, though, was slightly unexpected – a gentle, cathartic, eerily beautiful and strangely uplifting journey.
Cave’s lyrics are at their most rambling and impressionistic, verses dense with imagery. You sense his emotions have come alive to taunt him. On ‘Rings of Saturn’ he croons: “You’re like a funnel-web, like a black fly on the ceiling, skinny, white haunches high in the sky and a black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything…” It’s instinctive poetry, interpreted differently by every listener, his personal trauma darkened, buried amongst the tumult, appearing for brief moments. In response, The Bad Seeds are at their most restrained, their input floating like apparitions all around him.
05. THE JEZABELS
The Jezabels fell victim to the brilliance of their debut material. The Sydney quartet’s triptych of EPs, released between February 2009 to October 2010, suggested they might be 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.
Devastating in its emotional depth and musical performances, dogged in its pursuit of lofty ambition, The Jezabels’ third album makes its intentions clear with the whimsical and ambient opening track ‘Stand and Deliver’ and maintains a gripping consistency right through to the slow-burning closer, ‘Stamina’.
Dark, mesmerising, unconventional and otherworldly, Synthia sounds like a band that has deconstructed its hallmarks and rebuilt them into something radiant and towering. It’s the journey we’ve been craving. A promise fulfilled.
04. THE DRONES
Feelin Kinda Good
When The Drones release a new album, it’s best to expect the unexpected. Feelin Kinda Good delivered on the band’s early promise of not just pushing the sonic envelope, but also gleefully desecrating every modern music convention they could get their greasy paws on. There’s no other rock band in the world that sounds like them.
On The Drones’ 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.
03. WILLIAM CRIGHTON
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. Whether slaying a pedophile priest or questioning fate from behind the wheel of a crashed car, the stories here appear to put Crighton in the same league as Paul Kelly and David McComb. His eye for detail – moments that form an overall impression on the lister – seems to be far beyond most of his peers.
This self-titled release did indeed garner the rocker and balladeer a legion of fans in 2016, with those converted already whispering that he’s the future of music in this country. They’re probably right. Any “best albums of 2016” list void of this record has been compiled by a hack.
02. MELODY POOL
Deep Dark Savage Heart
Melody Pool’s major achievement on her 11-track sophomore album was that each song is individually arresting – it’s something of a masterclass. Pool’s parents could not have bestowed upon their daughter a more accurate first name. The folk artist has a natural gift for melody. Evident, too, is her decade-plus of live experience alongside father and country singer Alby. The prodigal daughter is not a 25-year-old novice who is coming of age technically, still discovering the power and nuances of her voice. She already knows.
Truly talented songwriters are not necessarily “better” than their peers, but rather blessed with the unearthly ability to disguise how fucking hard it is to write a good tune. Pool makes it seem effortless. If, indeed, the songs on Deep Dark Savage Heart were laboured over during countless candle-lit evenings, drained from the ether into bottles of red wine, it is not evident in these dozen compositions. The simple directness of every track reaches out and squeezes the air from your lungs. Pool’s emotional thrust is always direct.
Deep Dark Savage Heart is laden with numerous goosebump moments. Whether it’s the climax of ‘Old Enough’, in which Pool proclaims with gut-wrenching ferocity: “I’m old enough and I am a woman now” to her smouldering songbird coo on ‘Richard’: “I was so young then, I wasn’t eighteen, not even ignorant that love could take on hate… now I have no body, I’ve only soul…”, the songwriter knows how to write an unforgettable tune. ‘Romantic Things’ is deliberate Fleetwood Mac mimicry (the title track also bears the influence) and when you can pen a tune scarily reminiscent of one of the most successful pop acts of all time, well… now Pool’s just showing off.
Deep Dark Savage Heart is remarkably enrapturing, and has raised the bar even higher for this truly impressive songwriter and singer.
01. THE PEEP TEMPEL
“I’ll be an abrupt end to your misguided lip, boy,” menaced Blake Scott on steaming, sinister and unsettling opener ‘Kalgoorlie’, as he rambled and slurred his twisted poetry. The first track of Joy – the trio’s third and most cohesive release – wouldn’t be out of place in an Aussie horror movie.
This monstrous album – indeed, the best record released in 2016 – goes on to showcase Scott’s formidable command of the Australian vernacular. The Melbourne songwriter – aided by fellow band members Stewart Rayner and Steven Carter – deftly crafts our distinctive language into powerful explorations of small-town life, delivered by what seems like a multitude of personalities. Scott’s existential angst, scalpel-sharp depiction of the rural psyche and perception of modern Australia would be potent if merely printed on the page, but are made all the more powerful by The Peep Tempel’s raw, demented brand of garage rock.
You could spend time trying to pinpoint The Peep Tempel’s influences – the abrasiveness of The Sex Pistols, the twisted arrangements of The Drones, the unhinged rhythmic stagger of The Fall – but the truth is, there’s no one that sounds quite like them. From the stadium stoner grunge of ‘Alexander’ to the fist-in-the-air punk of ‘Rayguns’ (Scott’s signalling of the coming zombie Apocalypse), Joy might not be particularly joyous, but it’s an indelible document of Australia in 2016.
TOP 20 RECORDS OF 2016 PLAYLIST
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