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Albums of the year 2016

It’s time once again for my roundup of the albums I’ve enjoyed most this year and predictably enough 2016 marks the year my musical taste disappeared almost entirely up its own arse and listened to too much drone music. But it was also a year in which stacks of really interesting, brilliant music came out, so here’s a small sampling of it:

20. Plaid – The Digging Remedy

The new Plaid record doesn’t quite hit the soaring heights of the excellent ‘Reachy Prints’, but there are some real standout moments here – and no one sounds quite like Plaid, or hits the melodic heights of which they’re capable.

Plaid – Clocks from biokemical on Vimeo.

19. Marconi Union – Ghost Stations

Two years in a row on this list for Marconi Union, who keep the quality levels high while maintaining a prolific output. It’s incredibly difficult to make the kind of music Marconi Union do without it descending into dull musical wallpaper. With these guys, it never comes close, such is their grasp on the fine art of ambient. The brass and woodwind introduced on Ghost Stations really lights it up, too.

18. Rival Consoles – Night Melody

Hot on the heels of the brilliant ‘Howl’ from 2015, Rival Consoles came back with this collection of beautifully-assembled bangers. At only six tracks, it doesn’t outstay its welcome but swings by, drops off some tasty electronica and heads out of the door.

17. Tomaga – The Shape of the Dance

Tomaga’s second record is a great distillation and summary of how far they’ve come in a couple of years. There’s a great deal more structure and form to their explorations, and the greatest compliments I can pay them are that they don’t sound like any other band, and the closest analogue I can find are the mighty This Heat. The Shape of the Dance doesn’t quite capture the jaw-dropping form they’ve hit during live shows this year, on the evidence of which the next record should be a world-beater.

16. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Ears

Swirling electronica-tinged psychedelia, as if The Knife and Grumbling Fur had merged and become a single, two-headed beast, while at times there are some delicate, burbling Laurie Spiegel-esque synth explorations augmented by treated vocals. And it’s a lot more fun than that sounds, too.

15. Botany – Deepak Verbera

All I had to do was read the description of Botany as ‘Popol Vuh armed with an MPC sampler” and I was sold. It doesn’t disappoint on that score – a fascinating mixture of Indian-style ragas, parping reverb-drenched woodwind and brass, drifting synths and warm distortion that hangs together the way a thundercloud does. In places it even brings to mind psych-krautrock luminaries like Ash Ra Tempel or A.R. & Machines. Excellent.

14. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

A properly great Radiohead album up there with their best work. Stretching themselves in all the right ways, still making the most interesting mainstream ‘rock’ (whatever that means) in the world. And ‘True Love Waits’ as a bonus.

13. Tim Hecker – Love Streams

A new Tim Hecker album featuring the manipulated voices of an Icelandic choir, you say? Oh go on then. Moments of terror, moments of beauty, and a real expansion of his palette into some straight-ahead electronica in places. A beautiful album and also album artwork of the year.

12. Cavern of Anti-Matter – Void Beats/Invocation Trex

Tim Gane is back, and he’s ditched all the lounge-pop in favour of 4-square beats, fizzing analogue basslines and euphoric synth leads. There are more riffs and ideas spread across this mammoth 3-vinyl set than many bands manage across their careers. Ex-Stereolab bloke does very good driving motorik record – who’d have thought it, eh?

11. Willamette – Diminished Composition

You wait ages for something to come along and fill the Stars of the Lid-shaped hole in your musical life, and then two come along at once. Described as ‘minimal compositions for tape, voice, silence and stringed instruments’, you get an idea of what you’re in for here. There’s not quite the effortless compositional skill of Stars of the Lid, but Willamette produce some beautifully warm tones, and something like ‘Codeine Catnap’ sounds like it could have walked straight onto “The Ballasted Orchestra”. Anyhow, enough comparisons – this is more than strong and lovely enough to stand out on its own.

10. Johann Johannsson – Orphee

A incredibly productive year for Johann Johannsson, what with scoring Arrival, releasing Orphee and a range of other stuff. This beautiful record was a sure top ten entry from the minute I heard it – imagine a Ludovico Einaudi album with all the pompous and mawkish bits replaced with genuinely moving imaginary film soundtracks. Really great.

9. Saaad – Verdaillon

A prime marker for 2016 being the year my musical taste disappeared up its own arse, this is an album constructed almost entirely from the manipulated and processed sounds of a church organ – but it’s completely gorgeous. Reminiscent of the deep reverb experiments of Stuart Dempster coupled with the drone skills of Rafael Anton Irisarri, it’s subtle, detailed and completely immersive.

8. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid

Almost 20 years in the game, and still a step ahead of the competition – there aren’t many who can compete with Aesop Rock’s dense, inventive flow of images, references and ideas, and on The Impossible Kid, the accompanying music matches it blow for blow.

7. Eluvium – False Readings On

I can’t decide which is more impressive: Eluvium’s desire to keep moving what he does into completely new areas, or his ability to do so with such bravura. False Readings On brings in the human voice, lending a dense spirituality to pieces like the frankly astonishing ‘Beyond the Moon for Someone in Reverse’, which is as if descended from a church in heaven.

6. Matt Robertson – In Echelon

Out of nowhere (for me at least), one of the electronica albums of the year. Beautiful, full and warm synths touching on ambient in places, some really solid Andy Stott-style drum and bass programming, and a lovely blend of electronic and organic reminiscent of John Hopkins. Melodic, beat-driven electronics simply done really, really well.

5. Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie – Salero OST

Part two of the answer to “what do I do while I wait for a new Stars of the Lid album?” comes in the form of an actual member of SOTL, Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie, whose soundtrack to a movie about the Bolivian salt flats, is a stunner. There are some trademarks of A Winged Victory for the Sullen in his droning, grandiose use of strings, and elsewhere there are subtle electronics blended in to give the feel of a more stately, measured Clint Mansell soundtrack.

4. Tangents – Stateless

Congrats to Tangents, who have so successfully out-Tortoised Tortoise that the (slightly disappointing) new Tortoise album doesn’t make the list. This is an ace collection of skittering drums, changing time signatures, beds of electronics and so on, sounding refreshed and energetic the way Tortoise did around “Beacons of Ancestorship”. Some of it even sounds semi-improvised without being rubbish.

3. Josefin Ohrn & The Liberation – Mirage

A band created in a laboratory specifically to sell records to krautrock and Stereolab fans. This bit sounds like Stereolab! This bit sounds like Jane Weaver! This bit sounds like Can! This bit sounds like Broadcast! I’ll take 100 copies!

2. Ian William Craig – Centres

Next-level stuff from Ian William Craig, who really doesn’t sound like anyone else. What he can produce with his voice and a few cassette machines is astonishing. In a time when so much sounds the same, a unique voice like his is to be treasured.

1. Be – One

An album with a unique beginning – as the soundscape for the UK Pavilion at the Milan Expo in 2015 – has crept up over the course of 2016 to become the record I keep going back to most frequently. The original concept was to create a soundscape activated by live-streamed signals from a beehive – a live feed of beehive sounds was played while musicians improvised an accompaniment in the key of C (not B, unfortunately). The project moved on from here to become this extraordinary album. The sounds of 40,000 bees mix with a stunning musical accompaniment of rare beauty, something akin to The Flowers of Hell jamming inside an apiary. It’s completely mesmerising, revealing new layers of subtle detail and intricacy on every listen, and proves that music can come from a conceptually interesting place without compromising on, well, sounding REALLY GREAT. Album of the year.