Take a journey with us into the bowels of some of the year’s most underrated - and overrated - records as we unpick them to find the musical gems of the year you might have missed - or follow the whole list over on Spotify.
Meilyr Jones’ 2013 was an audacious and perfectly realised mixture of the Welshman’s love of classical and pop music, on which he charted a year of self-discovery to a soundtrack of strings, choirs and brass with piano guitar, bass and drums. The arrangements bristled with a brilliant intricacy, yet the records’ centrepiece was one of its straightest and most pared back songs. Originally titled “God”, “Love” is a lustrous ballad that starts with the deceptively humdrum line “Just another day” before it goes on to ask big questions, such as what is the nature of love and the meaning of divinity in the modern age? The answers are delivered in Jones’ rich, yet wide-eyed croon in the most intimate of styles. “Love” is equal parts devotional, emotional and questioning and a reminder of how good music should be.
- Ed Nash
From the very beginning of his career, Leonard Cohen sang primarily about the only three topics that really matter – sex, death and religion – better than anyone ever has. Amid the gorgeous gloom of "Treaty", he sang about all three as well as he himself ever had. I say 'sang', but his failing voice at this point was now registering so low that singing wasn't really what he was up to. Here, Cohen was talking; talking to us about what still matters to a person once they've reached a stage where there might not be much more of life left to experience. And then he went and died.
The triumphant closing track to The Hotelier's third album Goodness, "End Of Reel" is a power ballad of most epic proportions. The track unfolds from its delicately twanging introduction through strident rhythms and intricate contemplation, to impassioned screeches over calamitous expression and the exhilaration that lies beyond. Through its ever-evolving structure, the track lays every emotion bare. Lines flow into one another as thoughts collide, the spaces between sentences as heavily emphasised as the words themselves.
An anthem to waking up, "End Of Reel" is the soundtrack to a newfound happiness. Laced with the elated freedom that comes from unloading everything that weighs heavy on a chest, the track revels in uncertainty and confusion, celebrating the very essence of the vibrant hope it clings to. Attaining bliss in a moment only for that moment to end, "End Of Reel", like much of Goodness, is devoted to the idea that happiness is an constant challenge. You can't force it, and you certainly can't pin it down, but what you can do is keep searching for it. And isn't that what life's all about?
MONEY's near seven-minute opus, "I am The Lord", was the perfect introduction to the band's more experimental second album Suicide Songs. A record that hears frontman Jamie Lee grapple constantly with identity and seeking transcendence, "I am The Lord" is its early pinnacle. Driven by a stunning Indian-stringed dilruba, flutters of jangle-pop guitars, and stirring string arrangements, Lee sings of a dreamy ascension: watching the world through God's eyes. "I am the Lord", he howls, but he doesn't want to be God: "I just don't want to be human". Hope and despair is beautifully played out in one of the year's most arresting songs.
On an album where the political and personal battles blurred into one traumatic whole, Highasakite generally took an aggressive pop approach to the songs on Camp Echo. “God Don’t Leave Me” was the single beautiful exception. Based around gentle synths and keyboardist Marte Eberson’s sensitive minor chords, singer Ingrid Helene Håvik produced her best and most affecting vocal to date.
Stark lyrics like “God don’t tempt me I’m weak…a needle is a shitty way to leave” take the song away from global worries to Håvik’s personal isolation, and the sentiment hits hard. As an extended outro of a multi-layered waltz made up of electronic whirrs and whistles, strings and double-tracked vocals carries “God Don’t Leave Me” skyward the feeling never leaves you that this a deeply troubled – yet stunning - moment on one of the year’s best pop records.
The closing track on Bon Iver's third album is perhaps the most dramatic and poignant conclusion to any record in 2016. A life-affirming sample from Fionn Regan's Abacus" ties the album together thematically and gives the song its perfect refrain. It's less than four minutes long but feel as epic a moment as any other for music in 2016.
LANY’s third extended play came as a placeholder for their debut album, due out next year, and as an opportunity for the three piece to soundtrack the summer. Headed up with the highly relatable lead single “WHERE THE HELL ARE MY FRIENDS”, kinda is a six track effort pandering to the band’s strengths offering an insightful look to the future and their long awaited full length record. From snappy opener “like you lots” to long distance detailing “current location” the three piece show their self-produced pop can still stand on its own. The band’s simple and often incredibly literal approach to songwriting is highlighted on standout “pink skies”. The track certainly lives up to the band’s hopes of providing some kind of soundtrack to the warmer months of the year. The soft drum tracking and lilting guitar riff match up perfectly with frontman and lyricist Paul Klein’s story telling as he reminisces about one particularly special night, under a particularly special sunset in Malibu. “pink skies” is a sign of great things to come.
While Black Lights is Samaris’ first album sung in English, it’s more notable for the subtle, deeper textures revealed in singer Jófríður Ákadóttir’s voice and the slicker confidence in Þórður Kári Steinþórsson’s beats and loops. The overall result is a more sensual and sometimes uncomfortably close record - one that seeps seamlessly under the skin and never goes away. Closing track “In Deep” is trancy, spacious six and a half minute piece where lyrical simplicity and directness is key. “In deep is the place that unravels me / The easiest way to discomfort me / The tiniest breath unsettles me / Or sets me off,” sings Ákadóttir, getting to the record’s introspective heart and soul.
Blonde closes on a track that's the very definition of a grower. “Futura Free” also has one of the best beat drops Ocean’s every done, some utterly amazing flows and begins with the lines “If I was being honest / I'd say long as I could fuck three times a day and not skip a meal I'm good.” It’s arguably the most revealing song on the record, both personal and self-referential as Ocean lays down bars on fame, love, family and friends.
The final song on one of the best instrumental records in recent memory, “The Great Unwind” closes out William Tyler’s Modern Country in typically languid fashion. As much an album of Americana as it is the mid-point between Dire Straits and Live From A Shark Cage-era Papa M, Tyler’s unmatched finger-picking is joined by discordant electric guitar, subtle synths and a motorik beat (courtesy of Wilco’s Glenn Kotche). The heart swells along with “The Great Unwind” and the wordless story it tells, and there’s a positive energy right through to the closing bars which almost makes you forget about all that’s happened in 2016.