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.
Releasing their debut album at the beginning of the year, Wet moved from Brooklyn to Western Massachusetts to perfect Don’t You in quasi-isolation. The eleven-track work features highlights from their critically acclaimed self-titled EP and a host of new stuff, perhaps most notably singles “Deadwater” and “It’s All In Vain”.
Dig a little deeper and their full length features the kind of sad pop songs that stop you in your tracks and none so much as closing cut “These Days”. Stripping away the masterful electronic production which holds the album together “These Days” doesn’t see the record fall apart, but reveals its themes with clarity and form. Vocalist and lyricist Kelly Zutrau documents loneliness, heartbreak and vulnerability on just about every track, but “These Days” certainly feels like the end of something more than just the band’s first record. Led by a humble piano melody, Zutrau’s voice and words are the real stars. Loneliness never sounded more haunting. “Today I scare so easily” she croons before we are left with the outro of the piano slowing in the distance, exposing tortured backing vocals.
Lady Wood was the second album from Swedish pop heavyweight Tove Lo. Whilst the record may have been defined by the insistent refrain of ubiquitous Gone Girl-referencing lead single “Cool Girl”, it had plenty more to offer. Title track “Lady Wood” perfectly distills the essence of Lo echoing dance-pop into three-and-a-half minutes of club-ready perfection. When that chorus kicks in, you’re definitely not going to care about the track’s slightly cringey name. In Fairy Dust, the short film provided as a visual accompaniment to the record, “Lady Wood” soundtracks a messy, strobe-y club scene. It’s damn near criminal that - with it not being a single - it’s unlikely to be heard in that context in real life.
A chance meeting at a New Year’s Eve party led to one of the years best story-songs as Mathias Kom and Arial Sharratt tell the story (true or otherwise) of how she joined The Burning Hell. Infused with the spirit of Leonard Cohen, "Fuck The Government, I Love You" conjures some unique images: Jean Baudrillard rapping with Public Enemy and shouting “don’t believe the hyperreal” being a case in point.
Elsewhere they spend time avoiding the pitfalls of every party ever (except stealing bottles of gin by accident). Ultimately the song resolves into a swaying chant of the chorus- one that seems perfectly suited for 2016 and certainly provided some cathartic experiences when the band toured earlier this year.
- Ro Cemm
Saskatchewan singer/songwriter Andy Shauf brought us his most accomplished work in May with his third full-length The Party, his first on Anti- Records. As its title suggested, the record was a collection of vignettes from a fictional party, each song coming from different perspectives and so capturing different elements of the night. It works so well because each little encounter at Shauf’s party is relatable but nuanced and not filled with the obvious party clichés.
In “To You”, the party goer drunkenly tells his friend Jimmy how important he is to him: “Let’s go outside / I’ve got some smokes if you’ve got a light / It’s just that sometimes when I’m by your side / It feels so right / It feels like nothing could go wrong”.
Shauf doesn’t let us hear Jimmy’s response, but rather the speaker’s own backtracking ensues: “I Just mean that you’re a good friend / It’s hard to explain / Just forget I said anything”. It’s not your normal kind of love song, and the protagonist’s defensiveness highlights Shauf’s awareness of that. The song’s brooding but playful clarinets capture this party goer’s drunken uncertainty, but, as with every other track on the record, there is tenderness in Shauf’s delivery and orchestration here that makes it heartwarming and sincere.
Under his various guises Adrian Teacher has been documenting his immediate surroundings in Vancouver, BC. This year he released his debut as Adrian Teacher and The Subs - Terminal City. The record dissects the way his hometown has changed over the years, most directly tackling the issues of Gentrification on the albums rumbling title track, which finds Teacher skewering the ramblings of over-keen realtors and repeating their mantra-slogans “This neighbourhood has a a lot of character/ We’re bringing the West to the East”. You don’t have to be from Vancouver to appreciate the sentiment, or to enjoy the naggingly insistent jangle-punk brilliance.
- Ro Cemm
Winners of this year's Músíktilraunir - a kind of elevated Icelandic Battle of the Bands previously won by Of Monsters and Men, Samaris and Vök - Hórmónar impressed the fuck out of everyone who stumbled across them during Iceland Airwaves. Newly converted fans even left PJ Harvey part-way through to make their midnight, festival-closing set .
The five person strong band's take on rock music owes as much to the jazz-flecked corners of the The Slits as it does the punked-out sound of Nirvana's Bleach and, notably, the innovative rock expressions and textures of fellow Icelanders (and former Músíktilraunir winners) Mammút. There's just a EP out for now, recorded at the legendary Sundlaugin Studios, but "Ekki Sleppa' reveals them at their most calm, angry and exciting.
Dinosaur Jr.'s fourth post-reunion album Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not rolled back much of the relatively softer textures from their last pair of albums for its hardest hitting offering since Beyond, the album that kicked off their current period. "Good To Know" is a prime, bloody red meat example of the trio's unabated ferocity, threatening with little effort the hearing of any listener crossing its path; though if there's any track to deafen oneself to this year, by all means dive right in.
Not offering anything particularly novel - and in the case of these guys, that's great news - the track careens barely in control. precariously bound together by J Mascis' slacker drawl. Mascis croaks rather vaguely about escaping and pushing/pulling through, yet those feelings at this point in time are far from vaguely felt for many of us; whether we find a crease to slip through ourselves, ready or not, dammit, Mascis and Co. are set to piledrive a truck-sized hole through that wall for us.
The Bella Union-signed threesome made a superb record in A Hermitage, with its leviathan post-rock compositions, endless fusions of Korean hip-hop, neo-classical, metal, and traditional folk, and an arsenal of sociopolitical statements. There's a lot to dig into, but one particularly dark oeuvre ensnares attention like no other: “Deus Benedicat Tibi”. The track is Jambinai's “tribute to all people” based on “Dae Chui Ta”, a traditional Korean procession usually reserved for royals and armies. It's an abyssal vortex where dissonance reigns supreme and vicious, visceral plumes of darkness belch into the ether – but its cathartic and muscular as well, with strength stitched into the seam of every clanging salvo.
“Deus Benedicat Tini” may not be a hopeful call-to-arms, but it's got the power to galvanise.
The epic centrepiece of his third album Each Other, "The Arp" is a perfect microcosm the album, showcasing Aidan Knight’s understated delivery and ability to turn from tender to devastating over the space of a few words. The track slowly builds and evolves bringing in a crescendo of euphoric french horns and trumpets before giving way to fuzzy synths and the tracks easy groove.
- Ro Cemm
The criminally underrated Daniel Romano returned earlier this year with Mosey - a collection of songs that buried the Canadian's reputation as a throwback George Jones-lite country crooner and saw him emerge as a freewheelin' bohemian. A whirlwind of styles and influences; Mosey is the aural equivalent of spending an hour in a dusty old thrift store. "I'm Alone Now" is the moment the record finds its feet and showcases Romano's knack for a turn of phrase and guttural delivery with a weighty emotional punch.
Echoing Dylan during his 'Wild Mercury Sound'-era of 1966 in both hairstyle and production values, "I'm Alone Now" could quite easily have been a long lost outake from the Blonde On Blonde sessions. Just make sure you stick around for the whacked out psych outro for added sixties weirdness.