Let’s face it, 2016 has been a shocker of a year: beginning with the death of David Bowie and ending with Donald Trump’s confirmation as US President, it’s been bloody awful. Thankfully, though, there has been a lot of great music released, some of it wrought directly from these lows.
As has been our tradition over the past few years, here is a list of the top 30 albums for 2016 according to The Upside News. Let us know how your lists shape up in the comments below.
- Paul Dempsey – Strange Loop
Strange Loop is our album of the year. Paul Dempsey is a national treasure who just keeps getting better. This is a gem of an album from start to end, a beautifully constructed work brimming with creativity. “Throughout the offering, Dempsey demonstrates a keen awareness of his antecedents and influences, but the material is characteristically his own. Delivering a dazzling array of musical and lyrical ideas, and promising to reward with repeated listens, Strange Loop is an outstanding work from an artist at the height of his powers. Paul Dempsey is surely one of this generation’s finest songwriters.”
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Out of tremendous personal tragedy, Nick Cave has forged an album of incredible, stark beauty. It’s not always an easy listen, but it’s a profound experience. You can hear the artist, making himself vulnerable, trying to find some sense in the world. “With fragmentary lyrics and a general reluctance for conventional song structures, … the album will take some time to digest. But Cave has never been one to shy away from challenging his audience, and it’s rare (and stimulating) that popular music can genuinely be called art.” The accompanying film, One More Time With Feeling, is a poignant and deeply philosophical study in grief and creativity, and deserves to be seen by everyone.
Read our review of One More Time With Feeling here.
3. David Bowie – Blackstar
What an amazing legacy to leave the world! Bowie’s final album landed with it’s cryptic meditations on mortality and within a few days he was gone. It is now impossible to consider Blackstar outside of this context, and it is certainly an album that grows in stature the more you listen. The experimental fusion of musical styles makes it a fitting final offering for a creative spirit who made a career out of being an innovator. “If you revelled in the ground-breaking work Bowie was doing in the mid to late seventies and then dreamed what he might be up to forty years later, then Blackstar would be a worthy answer.”
Read the full review here.
4. A.B. Original – Reclaim Australia
This is the most important album released in Australia this year (and possibly for many years). You’d probably have to go back to Diesel and Dust to find an LP with such a focused political message and the capacity to change mindsets. In the album’s ‘Foreward’ Archie Roach speaks about how this work reminds him ‘so much of those old days’ and the need to be in people’s faces to make your message heard. Briggs and Trials certainly deliver an ‘in your face’ experience – this is no background music, demanding your full attention. And indeed, it seems a long time since political music was front and centre. Reclaim Australia makes up for this. From its wonderfully subversive title to its barely relenting lyrical anger (tempered only by an irreverent sense of humour), it’s powerful stuff. All this is mixed in with some terrific cameos, including Dan Sultan, Thelma Plum and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Consider yourselves reclaimed Australia.
5. P.J. Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project
A searing, swampy rocker of an album which sees Harvey pull off quite an undertaking: blending musical creativity with observational journalism. In making this LP she travelled to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington DC to observe war and poverty first hand, subsequently channelling these experiences into the powerful songs here. Here is someone who truly believes in the artistic merit of rock’n’roll and isn’t afraid to explore its potential for communication. The musical landscape is appropriately apocalyptic: swamp blues, garage rock and big choruses, with thumping drums and saxophone driving the music. The Hope Six Demolition Project is a highly accomplished work from a truly creative mind.
6. Angel Olsen – My Woman
Angel Olsen’s most fully realised work, My Woman, manages to be both highly polished and raw. With its nuanced explorations of love and connection, the album is at various turns heartbreaking, breezy, poignant and fun. The feature that brings it all together in a cohesive whole is Olsen’s beautiful voice, demonstrating incredible vocal control throughout. She also writes a great song from succinct gems like ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’ and ‘Give It Up’ in the first half to more ponderous works played out on a larger canvas, like ‘Sister’ and ‘Woman’ in the second half. My Woman is an absorbing work to wrap you up.
7. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
Radiohead continue to do things their own way and aren’t we glad! A Moon Shaped Pool appeared almost out of nowhere; while the internet was awash with speculation, the usual pre-release contrived hype for a big album was absent here. The record, which brings together material developed from different stages of the band’s career, turns out to be their most focused work in some time. “While the songs here were written in different times, they hold together with remarkable strength. With a commitment to creating an intricate and arresting soundscape, there’s aesthetic throughout the album that is both beautiful and disconcerting at the same time. A Moon Shaped Pool is a record to be immersed in, music for late nights with the headphones on; it will continue to reveal itself as it’s played over and over again.”
Read the full review here.
8. Lake Street Dive – Side Pony
Side Pony is the most fun you’ll have listening to any album this year. Retro chic might be in right now but Lake Street Dive aren’t putting anything on – they own this space. Side Pony takes us through soul, disco and blues, via fantastic songwriting and flawless musicanship. This is one sassy, sexy, soulful record. Rachael Price has an incredible voice – the best you will hear on any album released this year. Couple this with a great ensemble and some terrific song construction that knows how to pay its dues while sounding resolutely fresh, and you’ve got Side Pony. Spin this record and let the party begin.
Be sure to catch the band as they tour the country over the next month, including a gig The Gov on 4th January.
Read our interview with Rachael Price here.
9. The Cat Empire – Rising With the Sun
At the heart of the sixth album from The Cat Empire is ‘Bataclan’, a defiant response to the 2015 Paris massacre, demonstrating that as much as this is Australia’s best party band, at their core they understand the transcendental power of music. “Rising With The Sun strikes a pleasing balance: there’s enough that’s familiar to satisfy dedicated fans, while also managing to expand sonic boundaries by experimenting with new sounds. So while the lively world music vibe remains front and centre, there’s a stronger emphasis here on synth sounds (notably in the opener, ‘Wolves’), making the album sound fresh and relevant. Importantly, for a band that’s built a career on the back of vibrant and engaging live performances, this new offering successful captures their infectious energy.”
10. Nick Waterhouse – Never Twice
Never Twice is the coolest album of 2016, replete with its perfect rhythm and blues stylings and well honed production. The album sounds amazing from beginning to end. Lead single ‘Katchi’ offers the perfect pairing of auteur, Waterhouse with soul alumni, Leon Bidges, while the rest of the record boasts some fantastic playing, the ensemble never too far away from a searing instrumental. This is music to get you moving – for late at night with a scotch in the hand.
Read our interview with Nick Waterhouse here.
11. Public Access T.V. – Never Enough
It’s not hard to see why Public Access T.V. are drawing comparisons with The Strokes. Hailing from New York, their raw garage rock sound is possessed with an infectious energy and they write a cracker of a song with a polish that belies the outfit’s relative youth. Throw in influences of 70s new wave, a hint of the new romantics and the playfulness of Split Enz, and Never Enough is one hell of a debut. It’s a sad, sad state of affairs that this isn’t getting any major airplay in Australia right now, as Never Enough is a superb album that deserves to be heard absolutely everywhere (despite having one of the more questionable album covers of 2016).
12. Olympia – Self Talk
Olympia was a revelation in 2016, announcing herself with this accomplished debut album, Self Talk. Armed with a terrific set of tunes, the singer-songwriter manages to marry a pop sensibility with the raw appeal of garage rock. Well crafted atmospherics abound, with a great sense of melody permeating the record and tracks that pack an emotional punch. Expect to hear a lot more from Olympia.
13. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
The first thing you notice about Love & Hate is the sound: the production values here are impeccable, piecing together this soul opus. But behind the seductive sound, this is music with a message. Lead single, ‘Black Man In a White World’ begins as a stark gospel tune that builds to a burning political statement. There should be more music like this.
14. The Avalanches – Wildflower
Sixteen years is a long time to wait for a sophomore album, but Wildflower delivers a dazzling kaleidoscope of sounds and ideas. In an era where bands come and go faster than it takes to put together a Spotify playlist, it’s incredible that an outfit can be on hiatus for this long and still have an impact, but The Avalanches are not your ordinary act. This LP may have its uneven moments, but the tapestry of sounds and guest vocalists that contribute to Wildflower make this quite a creative accomplishment, full of surprises and moments of pure joy.
15. The Delta Riggs – Active Galactic
This is the best work from The Delta Riggs yet. “There’s so much to like here, both as an album that cohesively holds together and through some fantastic songs that can stand up on their own feet. Highlights include the psyched out seduction of ‘Sunny’, the infectious groove of ‘Never Seen This Before’ and the Strokes-style anthem,’Don’t Be Lonely’. ‘Losing All Our Love’ is then a perfectly chosen album closer, bringing us back down to earth at a gentler pace after all the high-energy material preceding.”
Read the album review here.
16. Bombino – Azel
The best guitar work of 2016 comes from desert blues virtuoso Bombino, who not only knows his way around an axe but also has a canny feeling for a song. The work blends blues with traditional African rhythms and touches of reggae into quite a seductive mix. The guitar solo on “Iyat Ninhay / Jaguar (A Great Desert I Saw)” makes Azel worth a listen all on its own, but throughout the rest of the album the music is of consistently high quality. Hailing from the nomadic Tuareg people of the Sahara, Bombino taught himself to play from watching videos of Jimi Hendrix and Mark Knopfler while living itinerantly as a refugee in Libya and Algeria. Sometimes great music is forged out of humble circumstances.
17. The Kills – Ash & Ice
On Ash & Ice The Kills have really distilled their sound. With guitarist, Jaime Hince suffering a hand injury, the playing is a little more sparse but the soundscape feels more carefully constructed, pairing perfectly with Alison Mosshart’s soulful vocals. There’s also a freedom to experiment with sound; while the record is firmly cast in a blues rock vein, there are hints of synth, samples and dancehall, keeping things consistently interesting.
18. Bernard Fanning – Civil Dusk
“Civil Dusk feels like hanging out with an old friend that you haven’t seen for a while and working out just how much you’ve missed them. There’s plenty that’s familiar in Bernard Fanning’s third solo effort, but that’s the real the appeal. There’s a palpable warmth here and the knowledge that you’re in the hands of one our best songwriters. And just because there’s a familiarity doesn’t mean that Fanning is writing to a template: his knack of taking a stretch of melody or a song structure in a direction that you weren’t quite expecting is part of what makes him such a great songsmith.”
Read the full review here.
19. Hollie Smith – Water or Gold
New Zealand’s Hollie Smith has a remarkable voice and Water or Gold is the perfect showcase. In this soulful, sultry, bluesy work you can hear Aretha Franklin one moment and Led Zeppelin the next. Yet this is distinctly Smith’s own work, with a resolute intimacy to the songs here.
And then there’s that voice – so big that it just might blow the speakers on your portable music player. So be warned.
20. Taking Back Sunday – Tidal Wave
“Tidal Wave takes a complete left turn from the band’s infamous sound from albums such as Tell All Your Friends (2002) and Louder Now (2006). The album gives a similar indie rock/punk sound comparable to The Gaslight Anthem, Against Me! and The Clash…
This new direction for Taking Back Sunday is a brave step… Regardless of genre and direction, it can’t be argued that this isn’t an amazing album from a newly inspired and re-energized band.”
Read the full review here.
21. Dope Lemon – Honey Bones
“There’s a real Dylan vibe to Dope Lemon, the new Angus Stone project, which has just offered up its debut album, Honey Bones. Like Bob Dylan many years before him, Stone has sidelined the acoustic folk/roots material and gone (somewhat) electric. But that’s not the end of the similarities: there’s something Dylanesque about Stone’s laconic, sometimes meandering vocal delivery style, and also in the unadorned sketches of his songwriting.
When expressed through the characteristically laidback guise that listeners would be familiar with from his work with sister, Julia, Dope Lemon makes for sweet slacker rock in the slightly off kilter vein of Mac Demarco. The whole thing is charmingly loose around the edges, while showcasing Stone’s strong songwriting skills.”
22. The Last Shadow Puppets – What You’ve Come to Expect
What You’ve Come to Expect, with its adroit song-craft and cinematic landscapes, is an example of what happens when collaborations are done right. “Lyrical heroes of kitchen sink drama, both Miles Kane (The Rascals) and Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) have crafted another beautiful album that speaks to an audience of heartbroken and lamenting listeners.”
Read the complete review here.
23. Lady Gaga – Joanne
While Joanne exhibits the strength of Lady Gaga’s song writing, we also witness how she uses collaboration to get the best out of her work. Teaming up with the likes of Josh Homme, Mark Ronson, Father John Misty, Kevin Parker and Florence Welch, the album boasts quite a resume. Known for her excesses, Lady Gaga demonstrates some remarkable restraint here with this exercise in Americana, verging on country at times and managing to even sound Springsteen-esque on ‘Angel Down’. Joanne represents a very satisfying re-invention.
24. Syd Arthur – Apricity
Psych-rock UK four piece Syd Arthur travelled to California to record their third album and have come up with something dripping with early seventies ambience captured within a very modern production aesthetic. Apricity is in equal parts authentic retro prog and Tame Impala style construction. Thankfully, Liam Magill’s breezy, soulful voice is captured in unadorned clarity, unlike so many other recordings of this type, where the vocals are rendered unintelligible, buried in layers of reverb and technical trickery. It all amounts to one very attractive listening experience: trippy, jazzy and engaging.
25. Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals- Call It What It Is
Ben Harper has put the band back together (nine years after their last studio record), providing the artist with renewed focus and pulling off a fantastic rock record, with infectious rhythms, bluesy guitars and a dash Rolling Stones’ swagger. There’s a refreshing simplicity at work here, an album that seeks to just capture the band honestly. At the emotional heart of the work is the title track, an angry blues burner in the context of Black Lives Matter, reminding that Harper is just as at home with a political message as he is with the personal.
26. Jim James – Eternally Even
Away from My Morning Jacket, Jim James is freed to get experimental with his sound and instrumentation. Eternally Even presents quite an imaginative sonic landscape, with free spirited jams and inventive production. With fluid construction, one moment blends into the next – this is an album that should be experienced from beginning to end. It’s a mellow, seductive late night LP best enjoyed on the stereo with the volume dialed up.
27. Flavia Coelho – Sonho Real
Flavia Coelho has hit a prolific creative vein, following up last year’s Mondo Meu with another accomplished album that again celebrates the joys of music and rhythm. It’s a slightly more mellow listening experience than the belters on her previous work, with a little more space in the song construction this time. That said, the album is full of melodic and rhythmic hooks, seamlessly fusing a range of world music styles. The perfect soundtrack to your summer.
Read our interview with Flavia here.
28. Bob Evans – Car Boot Sale
“It’s appropriate that the name of the latest Bob Evans release is Car Boot Sale. There’s an engaging immediacy to the songs here, and it really does feel like Mitchell is offering his hand-made wares down at the local craft market. Not only are all the tracks lovingly constructed, they’re also nicely polished, with everything coming in at around three minutes in length. Mitchell knows his way around a song, building in the right musical hooks and respecting the art of concision.”
29. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim
Lisa Hannigan’s remarkable, lush voice is reason enough to listen to At Swim, but then there’s the layered instrumentation and beautiful song construction. Working with Aaron Dessner from The National, Hannigan has moved from the breezy levity of earlier work into a darker landscape, but one that still offers up quiet joys. It’s a haunting and tender listening experience that seduces the ears.
30. Paul Kelly – Seven Sonnets and a Song
Paul Kelly keeps on coming up with new approaches to his music. While some artists run out of ideas, Kelly’s creative energy just seems to build (as does his startling output). In this guise, he takes on the daunting challenge of putting Shakespeare to music, but we find him very much up to the task. “A beautifully crafted addition to Paul Kelly’s canon of works.”
Read the full review here.
Compiled by Matthew Trainor, with thanks to Upside music writers Libby Parker, Lauren McAleer, Thomas Jackson and Ken Grady.