In a year like the one we’ve just endured, making music (and for that matter writing about music) might seem a bit like fiddling while Rome burns. Behind everything, our shared subconscious is screaming that we should be doing more, we should be helping in some practical way to make the world bearable.
It’s hard to know what to do, so we carry on doing what we can. We make art; we appreciate art. And, however hopeless a situation may be, it is vital that we keep doing that. We must keep putting things into the world that reflect the world, and things that hope to create the future of the world.
2016 was full of wonderful music and singling out an arbitrary selection is a tough job, but here are ten albums that I thought shone particularly brightly, and which I feel will retain their meaning and their importance in years to come.
Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Everything Sacred
The first new album I heard in 2016 remains one of the best and most inventive. Everything Sacred was an endlessly original melting-pot of musical forms and idea. The cover of Ivor Cutler’s wonderfully absurd Little Black Buzzer was a particularly apt greeting for a year that was to become ridiculous and terrifying in equal measure.
Khan and Yorkston also put on a fabulous show at Green Man.
Josephine Foster – No More Lamps In The Morning
An album of mostly older, reworked material, pared back so that Foster’s haunting and distinctive voice shines through as the main instrument. The songs, for all their restraint, sound more experimental than anything else she’s done, thanks in part to the modernist and minimalist influences she has embraced.
A Dyjecinski – The Valley Of Yessiree
Canadian Dyjecinski is one of the most original voices to emerge on the alt-country scene in the last few years, but to call The Valley Of Yessiree an alt-country album is doing it a disservice. There are elements of minimal blues, grunge and the garage rock background from which Dyjecinski sprung, but at the bottom of it all is that voice: heartbreaking, cruel, tender and cracked.
Richard Moult – Sjóraust
The prolific Newcastle-born composer/songwriter/producer Richard Moult latest album is a four track long-form musical odyssey through Norse history and Scottish island psychogeography, and it is captivating. The sounds of the Atlantic drift in and out, underpinned by a minimal piano and a slow-moving string section. The whole thing has a haunted, almost ritualistic feel to it, and owes as much to site-specific land art as it does to traditional music making methods.
Fred Thomas – The Beguilers
Composer Fred Thomas combines elements of modernism, classical composition, freak folk and even oriental minimalism, and on The Beguilers he enlists an accomplished group of co-conspirators (including singer Ellie Rusbridge) to provide new settings for English language poems by the likes of Joyce, Blake and Shakespeare. Despite the age of the material, the album never feels antiquated. The sequencing of the poems is spot-on: Thomas plunging us from innocence into experience. An uneasy, dark dreaminess pervades throughout.
Seamus Cater – The Three Things You Can Hear
In a year of stunning musical originality, Cater’s album was a singular standout. There were elements of La Monte Young and John Cale in the drones and wheezes of Cater’s concertina, hints of Germanic folk and even post-rock, but The Three Things You Can Hear was really all about one man’s relationship with his musical instrument. The way the songs seem to grow out of nothing, music and words goading each other on and existing in fragile synchronicity, was recalled the weird song-worlds of Arthur Russell. But the style and mood is all Cater’s own, and the album has a satisfying narrative arc.
Rusalnaia – Time Takes Away
Trans-Atlantic duo Sharron Kraus and Gillian Chadwick created the years witchiest, headiest brew of incantatory psych-folk, often switching during the space of a single song from pretty pastoralia to full-on space-rock freak-out mode. It makes for an exhilarating listen, and a great introduction to the impressive careers of both of its creators.
The Burning Hell – Public Library
In the tradition of great Canadian songwriting, Mathias Kom and his band of merry pranksters served up a delightful spread of mordantly witty, literate alt-country-folk. Autobiographical and self-deprecating, tracks like The Road sound like The Silver Jews, had David Berman ever embraced touring. And any song that references Cormac McCarthy, Fiat Pandas, Joni Mitchell and the Scotch Corner service station must be worth a listen.
Lady Maisery – Cycle
Possibly the freshest and most strikingly original folk record of the year, Cycle was the perfect showcase for Lady Maisery’s combination of near-forgotten singing forms, modern songwriting and the trio’s intuitive gift for harmony.
Live, they manage to convey the record’s intricacy and thrilling immediacy with enviable skill.
The Furrow Collective – Wild Hog
Lucy Farrell, Rachel Newton, Emily Portman and Alastair Roberts got back together for a second album as the Furrow Collective in 2016, and the result was the best collection of traditional music of the year. Indeed, Wild Hog was one of the best albums in any genre, proof that folk music can look to the future while embracing old forms. Roberts also impressed with Plaint Of Lapwing, an album recorded with James Green of the Big Eyes Family Players, and his live shows with Stevie Jones and Alex Neilson hinting at more great things to come (new album Pangs is due at the end of February).
An added bonus was the creepy/cute/psychedelic/child-scaring animated video for Wild Hog In The Woods, directed by Chris Cornwell.