I have always been a devotee of charts and lists – using arbitrary conditions to formulate a rankings system with the optional extra of allowing banal, once-celebrity husks the opportunity for five more minutes of 'fame' whilst discussing how much they really loved Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Perhaps it is the competitive streak in me, perhaps there is something comforting about the structured nature of a chart (I won't say OCD, I hate it when people self-diagnose serious psychological conditions).
My favourite chart has to be the UK top 40. Each week, as a teenager, I put my dexterity to the test and honed a near perfect ability to press 'record' and 'play' simultaneously so as to get only precious song and no extraneous chatter – perhaps not something to admit to if recent evidence is to be believed (http://www.completemusicupdate.com/article/prs-welcomes-jailing-of-prolific-file-sharer/). My counter downer of choice was Radio 1's Mark Goodier whereas my wife claims to have had a penchant for human hair gel factory Neil Fox, or Dr Fox as he was known in a day where people hurled around honorifics as if they were Pogs.
Now that we have all Hogmanayed and Hootenannyed, it is time to look back on the year just concluded. 2016 was an unusual year for music. We saw the tragic passing of music legends. One slight ray of hope though, we also saw Elvis Presley set the record for the solo artist with the most albums to reach Number 1. The biggest selling album released in 2016 was by Michael Ball & Alfie Boe (who would have thunk it?) but even they could not dethrone the weepy juggernaut of Adele's 2015 release 25 which sold over 750,000 copies to take the 2016 top spot.
We saw the much-anticipated love child of City High's What Would You Do and Shawn Mullins' Lullaby as it rocketed to Christmas number one in the form of Clean Bandit's Rockabye. The biggest single of the year though was One Dance by Drake featuring Wizkid and Kyla which was streamed over 1 billion times on Spotify alone – my rough calculations make that over 5500 years of Drake. I must also give an honourable mention to I Took A Pill In Ibiza by Mike Posner which, if I owned it on cassette, would currently exist as nothing more than a tangled heap of tape and melted plastic through severe overplaying.
2016 also saw this website come along and shift the musical landscape. With this all in mind, let us count down our Musical Moron Top 10 Albums Of 2016. Can someone please line up Propellerheads...
First up, we have the debut of Californian band Francis And The Lights, entitled Farewell, Starlite! Lead singer Francis Farewell Starlite (you can't make this up) has previously worked with artists such as Drake and Birdy but this is his first studio album. Francis himself says that the exact number of members of Francis And The Lights is unknown, stating that “It is me and whomever else is involved. Including you.” Hmm... did anyone else's pretentious crap alarm just go off?
The album tells the story of a broken romance... or does it? The surfaces of the tracks appear to tell the story of lost love, hope of reconciliation, ultimate demise and then optimism for the future. Look deeper and it seems as though Francis is speaking to himself about rebirth, about rediscovering his identity either in the music business or on a personal level. However you choose to take it, the album makes compelling listening.
It may sound like an unusual comparison but there is something about Farewell, Starlite! that makes me think about what Genesis might have been like had they not changed line-up in 1975 and, instead, resolved the musical disparities that ultimately morphed the band. Francis' voice sits somewhere between Gabriel and Collins and the musical style has an experimental quality whilst remaining rooted in pop song sensibilities. Overlapping vocals are used to create an interesting collage of thoughts, complimentary or contradictory, for us to pick through. Overall, the album has a reflective feel – post break-up nausea-induced reminiscing set to a crushing backdrop of happy memories. Perfect pining paraphernalia.
Although this album falls under our 2016 list due to its UK release date, the original French release was actually back in 2014. The titular Christine is the alter-ego of Héloïse Letissier and the Queens are named for a London drag queen act met by chance during a low point that inspired Letissier to embrace her musical talent. That talent has now been applied to an album that is a contradiction. Its experimental nature generates distance. Often it can feel like the musicians are experiencing the sounds on a totally different level to us mere mortals. At the same time, the charm and familiarity of Christine draws you in, engenders emotions of safety like being in a cosy tent listening to the battering rain on the canopy.
Chaleur Humaine, literally translated as 'human warmth', is about embracing the unique – holding individuality up to the microscope and marvelling at it as we would a rare and beautiful quirk of nature. This is summed up in the playful Tilted which tells us that it can be alright to feel off-balance, out of kilter with the world around us but at ease with ourselves. Christine uses the album's other tracks to discuss, amongst other things, sexuality, androgyny and the role of women in the music industry. All the while, her focus is on self-expression and being allowed the time and opportunity to discover the type of person you want to be.
Chaleur Humaine is a gorgeous album of theatrical proportions. Lyrical artistry conveys the hypnotic moods of the tracks and conjures up images that are intended to be shocking or thought-provoking. It is not difficult to draw parallels with the work of Antony and the Johnsons, both thematically and in the way that Christine is able to have her guard permanently down yet exude such strength. If an antidote were ever needed to the uniformity and monotony of the music industry, Christine and the Queens is surely it.
Until now, my favourite artist to emerge from the seething land mass of deadly animals that is Australia were the oddly titled Men At Work. The main reason behind this was the ingenious lyric 'he just smiled and gave me a vegemite sandwich'. 2016, however, has brought us the best Antipodean thing since Toadfish Rebecchi in the form of Grace Sewell or Grace as she is known in musical circles (and presumably Brazilian footballing circles as well). FMA is Grace's debut album and the first that I know of to use its title to reference Australia's Financial Management And Accountability Act 1997.
For the most part, this is a collection of songs about love and heartbreak but the subject matter feels almost inconsequential – it could just as easily be a musical rendition of 'Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley'. Grace's voice has a jazzy, soulful gravel that betrays her minimal years (she is one of those unintentionally frustrating people born post-Jurassic Park who make the rest of us feel crumbly and irrelevant). That being said, she has no issues slipping into a powerful vulnerability as in How To Love Me with the ease of a seasoned professional. What I think we can all be grateful for is that no-one has tried to overpower her with accompaniments – everything is kept incredibly simple so as to truly emphasise the richness of her vocal ability.
Church On Sunday is the perfect opening track, brass-balled enough to take by surprise anyone who looked at the album's cover and expected a pouty, identikit teen cash cow (sorry, Zara Larsson). You Don't Own Me is a well-updated cover of Lesley Gore's 1963 feminist anthem. There's even a version of single Boyfriend Jeans for those that didn't catch her earlier EP – a song about young love that feels like the only time Grace acts like a teenager, head over heels about the wrong man. The album's real highlight for me was New Orleans, an almost mystical slow jazz number that conjures images of late nights spinning tragedy over the perpetrator of a broken heart.
Grace has an air of Joss Stone about her. FMA has a maturity beyond its years. Thematically, it could also be compared to Amy Winehouse (who fit a whole lot of living into her 27 years) or Adele (who has fit a whole lot of whinging into her 28). To hear that confidence and life experience from a 19 year old is truly remarkable. One can only hope that Grace's album is a springboard to what could be an amazing career.
Next up, we have Remember Us To Life, the seventh studio album from the marvellous Regina Spektor and her first in four years. I first heard Spektor on 2006 album Begin To Hope and was blown away from the opening bars of first track Fidelity. The subject matter may have changed since then but her focus on storytelling and the immaculate harmony between her piano and her voice remain unchanged.
John Lennon once said that 'life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans' and this theme carries through the album. Spektor deals with growing up. She talks about the people we once were, the people we have become and the people we wish to see ourselves end up as. The most beautiful example of this is in Sellers Of Flowers where she likens the fragility of human existence to the delicacy of a rose and speculates on where we will all be when the winter comes. On a grander scale, The Trapper And The Furrier is a magnificent indictment of the world we live in, told in three almost-Biblical tales of greed and corruption which both tickle and terrify in equal measure.
It is Spektor's versatility that makes her so easy to listen to. Solemn in one moment, jaunty the next. Just as you think you are getting the hang of a song, she can explode into a manic moment of measured mayhem that spins you like a whirligig. Her voice is exceptional, her connectivity with the music she plays is breath-taking. What I love the most though is that it feels so personal. I would venture that if you were to lock Regina Spektor in a room for a decade with nothing but a pair of spoons, she would emerge with stacks of new songs such is her necessity to create. She makes music for herself and we are fortunate that she occasionally allows us to visit her world.
I originally wrote this review for Ceefax but they rejected it so I thought I might as well put it on here. Untrue, but something that Sia might empathise with if seventh studio album This Is Acting is anything to go by. Released in January, we covered the obligatory 'deluxe edition' in our Best (Or Worst) feature in October which you can find here.
Essentially a concept album, the tracks have been compiled from material written by Sia on behalf of other artists which was ultimately rejected. I'm not sure whether the point of this album was to shed some light on the uphill grind experienced by some artists in the music industry or to expose/humiliate the artists who deemed Sia's work unworthy. Either way, the result is a very interesting record. Understandably flitting around from one musical style to another, the end product is undoubtedly a testament to the versatility of Sia's talent.
Upbeat dance anthem Move Your Body was intended for Shakira. The annoyingly catchy Cheap Thrills went to number 1 in the US and was the 3rd biggest selling song of the year but it so easily could have been recorded by Rihanna. Footprints was destined for Beyoncé. There are also reported rebuffs from Katy Perry and Demi Lovato on the album.
The real stand out tracks though are the opening two. Haunting slow builder Alive was actually recorded by Adele before being passed on. Likewise, Bird Set Free was offered to Adele, along with Rihanna and movie sequel Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps the point of this album should be a lesson to Sia to be a bit more selfish because This Is Acting is packed with some truly fantastic songs.
Right, let's get this out there as it's been hanging over us for too long now. I can confirm that I am 'Becky With The Good Hair'. Well, technically I'm not but I thought that might add a little extra spice to this review. Not that anything extra is needed to flavour the bitter Lemonade that Beyoncé is serving in her sixth studio album. She manages to remove the heart from her sleeve, tear it open and shower listeners with the contents in an album that is peremptory, vulnerable and downright, acid in your ears, honest. This is all the more impressive when you see the sleeves that she has opted for on the album cover, combined to devastating effect with David Beckham's haircut from 2003.
Forget solicitous sibling Solange giving Jay-Z a beat down in a lift, this album shows the true fury of a woman scorned. There is class, power and an edge to Beyoncé's voice that has been missing from her more pop-orientated tracks to date. Highlights include the delightfully vicious Don't Hurt Yourself featuring the exceptionally talented Jack White; paternal country-inspired track Daddy Lessons, recently enhanced with a Dixie Chicks team-up at the CMAs; and anthemic closing track Formation which so successfully eclipsed the sport on offer during Superbowl 50 back in February.
If, like me, you had written Beyoncé off as just another pop mouthpiece (sorry, Rihanna), now is the time to revisit that opinion. This album has raw quality, intelligent collaborations and cutting lyrics. Beyoncé has created a record that has made me sit up and take notice in a way that Crazy In Love and endless repetitions of knee bends and finger waggles was never going to. There is a lesson in here for all men, mainly Jay-Z, on how to treat your significant other. Speaking of which, my wife asked for a cup of tea about an hour ago and I am just hearing the faint sound of an angry guitar. Hold on, dear...
We delved into Courteeners' 5th studio album in October – the review for your delectation is here.
To summarise, Mapping The Rendezvous was an album that touched a very personal nerve for me. As a 13 year resident of Manchester where the band are from, I have experienced the ups and downs of city life. Contrary to the musings of my beloved Woody Allen, I don't believe it possible to fall in love with a city and hang off its every nuance, wandering its back streets in a hazy dream of undeterred adoration.
My relationship with Manchester is more like with an annoying sibling. We fell out when I got mugged in Northenden after 2 months of living here. We made up again when I attended my first United match. We didn't speak for quite a while after I was burgled in Didsbury. Then I met my wife. I've seen Manchester be racist and homophobic. I've seen it be inclusive and welcoming. I've been proud and ashamed in equal measure. My children were born here. I've grieved for loved ones here. That is the true relationship that you can have with a city.
That is what this album calls to my mind – the highs and lows. It is about young love, heartbreak, nostalgia and idealism. It is an album that took me on a tour of the sibling that I will never be able to disown and brought back memories I thought put aside for good. My favourite track is The 17th (the album version as opposed to the dreadful single edit floating about on the radio) and I have played it almost daily since October. It is a song that so beautifully captures the preciousness of mediocrity and the importance of the everyman. If you have any ties to Manchester, open up the memory floodgates and see where Courteeners can take you.
However you feel about the so-called '2016 curse' (my opinion is that each of us will have enough personal grief during the course of our lives without needing to piggyback on the grief of others), one positive that has emerged from it is the level of exposure that this album has received. Blackstar, released two days before Bowie's passing, has gone on to be 6th biggest selling album of the year.
The album reaches for gravitas and, ironically, without Bowie's death it might not reach it. Every lyric that might have meant something now means everything. Blackstar manages to be retrospective, introspective and prophetic simultaneously. Bowie, clearly aware of his own mortality, muses on his life, often through the works of literature that have inspired him ('Tis Pity She's A Whore, 1984, A Clockwork Orange). He talks, amongst other things, about religion, sexual politics and the state of the music industry – often viewed from a disassociated position of separation for as he says in Lazarus, 'I'm in heaven'.
Lazarus was written for the musical of the same name – our review of the soundtrack can be found here. The poignancy of the lyrics though means that it will never refer to anyone other than Bowie himself - he assumes the role of the bluebird who is now free. Bowie also gives us one final character, the Blackstar, and immediately takes the role for himself. The Blackstar cares little for the direction of the grain – he speaks out unafraid of the repercussions and is rewarded with a deification of sorts. He is everything reached for by Ziggy Stardust immortalized in time and space.
This is an album that will always sit within the context of the times. The musical style is experimental – perhaps one final gift from Bowie to those with the creativity to take his vision forward. Traditional jazz melodies and interspersed dance baselines play out together in an atmosphere of cosmic majesty. Blackstar is the hidden letter uncovered in a drawer whilst doing a final sort of a loved one's possessions. It is the explanation of a life lived and a sliver of hope for the future. It is something that so many people do not get and, thus, it must be treasured by fans of Bowie and music alike for it encapsulates a crucial era in our musical history and the place of one of our greatest icons within it.
Earlier this year, I attended a wedding at the Alma Lodge Hotel in Stockport. Little did I know at the time, I was entering the very hotel where the band Blossoms were formed. I would like to say that I left that wedding inspired and went on to create unbelievable music but I cannot. The best I managed was nearly accidentally setting the bar on fire after knocking over a flaming sambuca.
Nominated for the BBC's 'Sound Of' poll late last year, Blossoms released their self-titled debut album in August. It combines new material with songs taken from previously released EPs and ranges from the grandiose, synthesized sounds of Charlemagne and At Most A Kiss to the balladry of Blown Rose and My Favourite Room, all punctuated by the fabulously undisguised Manc accent of lead singer Tom Ogden. With sentiments like 'let's elope to Japan' and 'I'm over you, you're under me', it is impossible not to get caught up in the nostalgia of Blossoms. It will leave you yearning for a time when dalliances with the opposite sex were the be-all and end-all and where friendship and camaraderie transcended everything.
There is something incredibly endearing about a band telling stories of young love in such a mature and intelligent fashion. Lyrically accomplished, it brought fragments of coming-of-age story Submarine to mind. It has the feeling of an album crafted outside the pressures of the music industry. Mates in the schoolyard or youth club, lyrics jotted on the backs of hands, jam sessions interrupted by laughing fits and lewd remarks. It is a charm that I hope the band is able to retain as fame and success is thrust upon them.
We first reviewed Kevin Abstract's breakthrough album back in November, the full details of which can be found here.
To recap, the album is part-journal, part-exposé, part-support mechanism for anyone growing up in America today who experiences prejudice or discrimination as a result of their race or sexuality. The album uses themes of young love, personal conflict, isolation, marginalisation, substance abuse and unrequited infatuation to stitch a 21st Century American Quilt, one that increasing numbers of young people are forced to hide beneath as their country leaves them by the wayside.
American Boyfriend is a revelation. Abstract is an unheard voice that must be listened to and the simple, stripped back melodies make sure that he is. The album's dynamism, when combined with the tragic and hard-hitting lyrical themes, leaves you feeling like you have spent significant time in a centrifuge yet have emerged wiser for the ride. I chose this album to represent 2016, a year where the security some people may have felt in January was gone by December. We are now entering 2017, a year of extreme uncertainty. I am, however, doing it with Kevin Abstract's album behind me – safe in the knowledge that even in the darkest of times, hope is never quite extinguished if we know where to look for it.
Since the album's release, Kevin Abstract has gone on to host 'The All-American Drive-In Prom', a free event held in Los Angeles with invites distributed through social media. A reported 400 young people attended, with hundreds more having to be turned away. Abstract wanted to hold a prom for all the people who never went to their own prom – for the marginalised, the outcast, the people who never quite fit in. His goal was to create a space where these people could feel safe and enjoy a good time and, by all accounts, the event was a massive success.
American Boyfriend ends with the song I Do (End Credits) which I didn't touch upon in my initial review. It is an anthem of sticking two fingers up at the world, of clutching success against all odds and of being the person you want to be no matter what the opposition. It is a fitting message of hope on which to conclude his work and one that feels closest to Abstract's current outlook on life. It is so refreshing to find an artist who is not only willing to share his thoughts on the world but is also prepared to put his money where his mouth is and give a little something back to fans living through similar issues.
Kevin Abstract – congratulations, you are the Musical Moron Number 1 album of 2016.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
As always, please feel free to write your own review using the comments section below. The more the merrier. Please do take note of our contribution guidelines. Looking forward to hearing what you thought.