Bursting with glittery synths and decadent pop, Phoenix provided a sweet, beguiling escape at a time when the world needed it most. Recorded in Paris against a backdrop of terrorism and the refugee crisis, the French outfit’s sixth album is like an upbeat safe haven that is the perfect accompaniment to festival season. Said to be inspired by the band’s “fantasised version of Italy”, Ti Amo’s ten songs are meticulously constructed and feature major ELO and Steely Dan overtones amongst all the glossy soft pop romance. Standouts include its dancefloor-filler title track, ‘Tuttifrutti’ and the euphoric J-Boy.
Music fans all over the world were positively exultant at the prospect of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett joining forces for a collaborative album; and they didn’t disappoint. Both sublime wordsmiths in their own right, Vile known for sly observations and compelling guitar work and Barnett known for her deadpan wit, Lotta Sea Lice sees them trade barbs and entrancing guitar riffs in a way that plays to both their strengths. Locked into a cool, laid-back groove, it’s as amusing and fun to listen to as it is sweet and romantic at times. More than a one-off collaboration, the duos chemistry is undeniable and ya a record that hints at exciting new directions for both artists
Reformation was a definitive statement of intent from The Ninth Wave; a band who are quickly becoming one of the nation’s most exciting young talents. Brimming with brooding melodies, gothic synths and sky-high ambition, it’s the sound of a band who have found their lane and blossoming in it; from the spiralling opener ‘Heartfelt’ to the wonderful Elina Lin led ‘Liars’ to the emphatic title track. With the exciting prospect of more new material on the horizon, the only way is up for this talented four-piece who continue to attract attention from all corners of the industry.
Harry & the Hendersons released one of the most ambitious and multifaceted Scottish debuts of the year in Method of the Matchstick Men. Opening with the lavish sounds of ‘Transcendental Meditation’, the record weaves its way through elements of Americana, country, folk and blues, evoking the spirit of early 60s artists such as Crosby Stills and Nash, Donovan and Nick Drake. From their playful manipulation of tempo to their impeccable harmonies to their rich and varied instrumentation, their songs ooze vitality and originality; seamlessly shifting from gentle, delicate moments to roaring crescendos while fusing harmony and melody together in a way that is utterly bewitching and uplifting. It’s a record that pinpoints the seven-piece as one of Glasgow’s best kept secrets.
The inimitable Laura Marling broadened her folk palette once again with the release of her sixth album Semper Femina. Full of the sharp lyrical observations that have informed her entire career, the singer-songwriter used the record’s nine songs to examine a multitude of female characters, all incredibly life-like in their flaws and vulnerabilities. A beautifully intimate yet complex portrait of womanhood in the 21st century, it poses a lot of deep questions without providing any easy answers’ resulting in one of her most profound, compelling and accomplished records to date. Deeply layered and textured in its sonic exploration, it is still the most foundational elements of her songcraft that continue to blow listeners away; her beautiful vocals and quick-witted lyricism once again proving a stunning combination.
Superfood effectively reset their own bar this year with the release of their game-changing second LP Bambino. Shedding the fuzzy guitars and Britpop-angled tunes of their 2014 debut Don’t Say That in favour of exotic samples, innovative twists and a funky swagger, the duo have returned an entirely re-energised and exciting proposition. From the giddily infectious opener ‘Where’s the Bass Amp’ to the sun-drenched, anthemic ‘I Can’t See’ to the shimmering ‘Double Dutch’, it’s a vibrant album rich with samples and massive hooks. Crafting a sound that pays homage to a host of genres while remaining entirely innovative and refreshing, Bambino is testament to hard work and second chances.
Shedding the skin of their previous record, Different Creatures did exactly as its title suggested and presented us with an entirely new beast of a band. Armed with a gritty determination and newfound swagger, the Liverpool four-piece sound heavier, louder and more focused than before as they come to terms with the changing world around them through a more meaningful lens. Fuelled by a bristling sense of disenchantment, it effectively results in some of their biggest and boldest work to date with the album featuring massive tracks such as ‘Wake Up’, ‘Fire That Burns’ and ‘Goodbye’. It’s safe to say that Circa Waves are now a mainstay on UK festival line-ups for the coming years.
Blending the elegant, sparse pop of their previous records with Jamie xx’s club beats, The xx released their most confident and self-assured record to date this year in I See You. While Romy Madley Croft and Oli Sim’s intimate vocals and distinctive guitar lines still form the focal points of their sound, the addition of jubilant instrumental breaks and jittering samples led to a more warm, upbeat and tactile album. By finding a balance between the old version of themselves, fraught with fragility and self-doubt, and this richer and fuller sound, it’s as if the three-piece had a moment of self-realisation on this record about what they want to be and where they’re headed.
Accredited with endless upside potential, the last few years have been a persistently frustrating time for fans of Long Beach MC Vince Staples. An artist that wilfully refutes the standards of the past and tropes of the genre’s zeitgeist in order to head off in his own emboldened direction, it felt like he had continually fell short of crafting a genre classic that could rival all of those revered records that he would so gleefully toss aside. Unquestionably one of the finest and most sonically forward-thinking albums to have emerged from the hip-hop realm this year, Staples’ Big Fish Theory is an unabashed whirlwind of invention that draws as much influence from UK garage and dance music than it does any of his contemporaries. A relentless collection of tracks that pinpoint all that makes him such a special proposition, it is a turning point in a career that has been maligned by momentary setbacks and misdirection and will be likely regarded as a benchmark from which all of his future work shall be gauged in the same way that Illmatic is for Nas or All Eyez On Me was for the late 2Pac.
A band who have been on our radar since they first burst onto the scene with a series of promising demos, Neon Waltz’ long-awaited debut album Strange Hymns lived up to all expectations and more when it arrived earlier this year. The six-piece may wear their influences on their sleeves but they manage to do so while sounding entirely unique; Jordan Shearer’s angelic vocals drift over a tidal swell of drums and jangly guitars; classic song structures transform into dreamy, swirling compositions while the warm organ lines provided by Liam Whittles elevate the band beyond the tropes of standard indie rock and depict a group that are ready to take on the world. A record defined by starry-eyed optimism and fearless ambition, Strange Hymns is sure to mark the beginning of an exciting new era for Neon Waltz.
Fully shedding any perception that he is the artist behind the artist that contributes to a great album as opposed to producing a project of such magnitude himself, Thundercat’s third full length record Drunk is nothing short of dizzying in its originality and vitality. A clear indication that he’s no longer constraining himself and is more than willing to act upon every musical idiosyncrasy or fleeting notion that may come into his head, Drunk is psychedelia, jazz, funk and soul all combined in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the heady days where Funkadelic reimagined rock ‘n’ roll in their own manic image. A voyage into his gleefully demented mind, it’s a record that often refuses to take its own absurdity seriously and is all the better for it.
With his mainstream appeal clambering to unforeseen heights in recent years, it’s relieving to know that Canadian alt-rock troubadour Mac Demarco is wholly unfazed by the rigours of fame and continues to make music that is as distinct and nuanced as ever. Boasting formidable songwriting chops that demonstrate a deep admiration for the lineage of the singer/songwriter genre alongside a seemingly endless reserve of energy, This Old Dog unwittingly strips back much of Mac’s goofier and more bombastic persona in order to expose the heart and soul that lays underneath. A sumptuous collection that proves him to be worthy of the endless plaudits and fanfare that are thrown his way from the music-loving community, highlights include the sparse ‘On The Level’ and ‘Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.’
From the moment they arrived with their very first single ‘Sucker’ in 2015, all signs pointed to a knockout debut album from The Big Moon; and they didn’t disappoint. A band who went onto become one of the star attractions at our very own festival Tenement Trail, they very deservedly picked up a nomination for the prestigious 2017 Mercury Prize. Harking back to the carefree days of nineties Britpop with nods to Elastica and Blur, Love In The 4th Dimension crashes and careens its way through an onslaught of hook-filled choruses, infectious melodies, snarling guitar parts and beautiful harmonies; all while displaying an electric chemistry that is impossible to replicate. While there may be nothing ground-breaking at play, the band put their faith in vibrant, guitar-led indie pop and the result is a fantastic album which fizzes and sparks from start to finish.
Three of Scotland’s most prodigious talents came together under the Out Lines moniker to release one of the most deeply moving albums of the year. Inspired by conversations they had in Platform, a multi-arts and community space in Easterhouse, Glasgow that offers a year round programme of performance music and visual art, the album has the city laced through its very being; and the result is a record that balances sadness with defiance in a deeply affecting portrayal of humanity. Showing off their key strengths, Kathryn Joseph and The Twilight Sad’s James Graham are the narrators of the piece under the stewardship of Marcus Mackay whose production is meticulous; at times, stark and eerie but beautifully gloomy and utterly intoxicating.
Emerging after what seemed to be years of hype and anticipation that stemmed from star-making turns on the work of SBTRKT and Drake to name a few, no-one could’ve expected just how much of an awe-inspiring body of work Sampha’s debut album turned out to be. Confessional and deeply resonant soul and R&B that is made all the more intriguing by its brazen dalliances with ambient and electronica, it’s no surprise that its victory at this year’s Mercury Music Prize has been one of the most warmly received in history. At times heartbreakingly melancholic yet augmented with small glimmers of hope amid the emotional turmoil, Process could easily be miscategorised as a break-up album but is in actual fact the sound of an artist reconciling with his own inner conflicts over an immersive soundtrack that implores you to visit again and again.
Although they may be fresh off the release of its follow-up and with an alleged third instalment on the horizon, it is safe to say that the Texan/Californian ‘American boyband’ Brockhampton’s first full length project is undoubtedly their most revered work for the calendar year. A collective that has been previously mentioned in this series of articles, their daring approach to the unyielding world of hip-hop flouts all taboos and preordained attitudes in favour of an inclusive outlook that enables verses about Kevin Abstract’s struggles about his sexuality and the prejudice he’s faced to nestle alongside Ameer Vann’s exultant tales of drug-fuelled misadventures with remarkable ease. Capable of heartrending honesty in one breath before spinning surrealist scenarios in the next, everything from Saturation 1’s immensely creative use of pop hooks to its expansive, multi-faceted production makes it an album that must be heard in order to truly comprehend the underground phenomenon it has birthed. A record from a gaggle of outcasts that teaches the latest generation of disenfranchised and misaligned youth that embracing who you are is the only route to fulfilment whilst never taking things down the self-effacing route, ‘Saturation’ is the genesis of a new superpower in hip-hop and their unrelenting work ethic means that there’s much more to come.
Anchored by the breath-taking song craft of Adrianne Lenker and her equally affecting lamentations on life, love and everything in between, to say that this Brooklyn-based group’s latest body of work is a thing of beauty would be an understatement bordering on an injustice. Allowing Lenker to expunge the depths of her soul and bring every malignant insecurity or previously shrouded tale to the table, its sound flits between delicate, cleansing indie folk and squalling, disjointed rock ‘n’ roll that mirrors the fragility of its lyrical content. A record that dwarfs the considerable merits of their debut album Masterpiece, ‘Capacity’ is an album that calls for absolute immersion in order to be fully comprehended but the rewards of allowing it to envelope you are bountiful to say the least.
At only twenty years of age, lorde established herself as one of the most emotionally intelligent songwriters in pop with the release of her outstanding second album melodrama. Following the global success of her minimalist and insightful debut pure heroine, she reached dizzying new heights on melodrama that didn’t seem possible in the context of today’s world of mundane and predictable pop music. Crafted meticulously and with a wisdom beyond her years, Melodrama is a breakup record that elicits grief, hedonism and what it is to be a young woman in the modern world from a deeply insightful yet youthfulky exuberant perspective. Introspective without being self indulgent, brave and courageous, it contains a number of massive stadium ready pop anthems like Green Light and Supercut to quirky, intimate ones like The Louvre and Writer in the Dark’
Building on the precedent set by their self-titled debut in 2014, Alvvays sharpened their focus on Antisocialites; but without losing the jangly pop charm that made them so popular in the first place. Full of fuzzy guitar beauty and shoegaze romanticism, Molly Rankin’s cathartic lyrics and deadpan wit give a sharper edge to the dreamy, golden sounds of the album. While their debut centred around themes of stagnation, quarter life crises and failed relationships, Antisocialities seems to focus more on the latter; and as a result, the swooning, sun-drenched vibes of its predecessor is joined by a synth-driven melancholy. The endearing songcraft is still there, but Alvvays have grown since their debut and have placed themselves in a larger narrative.
Until the past couple of years, Kanye West was the undisputed master of the hip-hop domain in the sense that when he moved, the collective culture moved right alongside him. Whether it was from a sonic standpoint or merely an adoption of his personal style, the genius with the megalomaniacal tendencies held sway over the genre in a manner that seemed to be unattainable by anyone else. After years of his illustrious reign as the presiding leader, it can now be said with a great degree of sincerity that we are in the era of King Kendrick and his latest studio album DAMN serves as confirmation of his coronation. While his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly was a high-minded and socially conscious exploration through the history of black music which encompassed everything from funk to the blues, his newest record sees the TDE lynchpin ruminate on human emotion and his inner conflicts over brash, trunk-rattling beats that don’t subvert from hip-hop’s trends but rather attest to his sheer ability and supremacy. Although ‘DNA’, ‘HUMBLE and ‘ELEMENT’ may be the tracks that’ll endure in the mind of the casual hip-hop fan, it’s the tales of fate, chance and insecurity that can be heard in tracks such as ‘FEAR’, ‘LUST’ and ‘DUCKWORTH’ that are the true crown jewels in the Compton native’s latest body of work.
Dripping with his uniquely satirical and highly sardonic style, Father John Misty’s third full length album departs from the land of love, romance and balladry in order to lambast the absolute absurdity that is the human race. Taking aim at everything from the perils of technology and social media’s vicelike grip over our lives to war-mongering world leaders and our infatuation with fulfilment, it avoids becoming overtly preachy or condescending due to his wry wit and trademark self-effacing comments. A sprawling epic of an album that revels in its own misanthropic tendencies, it is a stunning summation of all that makes Joshua Tillman such a pervading cultural figure in the modern music industry Littered with highlights from start to finish, It’s not hard to imagine that its title track, ‘Ballad Of The Dying Man’ and ‘Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution’, it’s not hard to imagine that their sentiments will be viewed as enduring allegories for the state of this world as it continues to degenerate and become more unforgiving.
When it comes to modern rock ‘n’ roll bands, it’s hard to think of a band that command more respect and sheer admiration than Adam Granduciel’s The War On Drugs. Although it may have taken them many years of graft and toil in order to reach their present over ground vantage point, their latest body of work A Deeper Understanding proves that their creativity wasn’t exhausted in their formative years and that the sound continues to age like a fine wine. Incorporating elements of motorik krautrock and electronica alongside the sweeping, emotively driven Americana that they’re so renowned for, it would’ve been easy for fans to fear that they’d miscalculated by unveiling half of the album as singles before its release but hearing them in the context of the entire album provides further comprehension alongside the spate of new gems that it harbours. An album that flies in the face of detractors that deem their sound to have limits and restrictions, Granduciel and co flit between treading familiar ground and upheaving their sound to cathartic and immensely riveting effect.
No matter where you look, there are few bands that are as stringently committed to their vision than the preposterously talented men that comprise Pronto Mama. Crowd-funded by an attentive audience that has long believed in the disorientating levels of inventiveness that exuded from their early releases such as ‘Niche Market’ and ‘Lickety Split’, the release of Pronto Mama’s ‘Any Joy’ was met with an overwhelming sigh of relief as it became clear that they had continued to carry on in their own restlessly eclectic vein. Right from the very moment that ‘Bottom Feeder’ vivaciously explodes into life, the Scottish multi-instrumentalists take us on a voyage into their own extravagant, horn-filled universe that encompasses soul, trip-hop, indie-pop, barbershop and generous helpings of anything else that can accentuate their almost incredulous sound. A band that never fail to deliver music that cleanses the palette of all of the drab and uninspired, ‘Any Joy’ makes a mockery of convention and expectation with every layered slice of luxuriant alt-pop.
Reinvention is an often pursued but seldom attained feat in the music world and first impressions can often be the force behind your finalised view of an artist, preventing you from being capable of dispensing with your preconceptions in order to be open to new material. Once a provocateur and antagonist to such an extent that he remains barred from the UK to this day, Tyler The Creator is now less concerned with garnering the revulsion of the easily offended and self-righteous and has crafted one of the most painstakingly honest albums to have emerged in recent years. A drastically different direction from anything we’d ever heard from the Californian MC and producer, ‘Flower Boy’ is the feeling of loneliness and yearning for an idealised love story that’s yet to come to fruition encapsulated over a succession of soulful, jazz-fusion indebted beats that finally see him reach his true potential. Supported by a phenomenal supporting cast of artists including Kali Uchis, Rex Orange County, A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne to name a few, tracks such as ‘See You Again’, ‘Where This Flower Blooms’ and ‘Glitter’ subvert all expectations of what a Tyler, The Creator track can bring to the world of music and it makes further exploration of this sound an absolutely tantalising prospect.
In a genre that can often be infringed upon by needless bravado and toxic macho posturing, there is something so refreshing about Loyle Carner’s refusal to cloak his values and amiable personality. Far from a mere commercially palatable façade, the south London rapper’s morally upstanding and at times deeply reflective outlook upon the world truly came to the fore on his fantastic debut album Yesterday’s Gone. Lavishly produced hip-hop that invokes the jazzy heritage of artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and GangStarr’s Guru, to listen to his first full length project is to feel as though you’re nestled into his consciousness for its 40 plus minute duration. From the smooth and empowering sound of ‘Damselfly’ and introspective streams of thought that can be found on ‘Ain’t Nothing Changed’ to the genuinely touching odes to the cornerstones of his life on tracks such as ‘Son Of Jean’ and ‘Mrs C’, it is a record that portrays him as an artist that is more than capable of becoming an integral part of UK hip-hop’s far-reaching landscape for many years to come.
After meticulously charting the band’s career for years, there was a palpable sigh of relief when Catholic Action’s debut album finally arrived in earnest and confirmed all suspicions about just how invigorating and rewarding it could be. Brimming with ideas and exuberance as well as a cavalier approach to veering into unforeseen territory, An overview of this crucial first stage of their career that leads the way towards a bright future that’s been beckoning them for years, to hear In Memory Of is to listen to the band’s emotional, personal and creative journey since their formation in a series of vivid musical snapshots. Simultaneously acting as an enduring document of their steady rise and formidable songwriting pedigree whilst wryly pointing towards what could be in the not too distant future, it’s hard to imagine how Catholic Action could’ve done a finer job of not only rewarding those who’ve long advocated for their success with everything they could’ve wanted to hear but ensuring that those who were agnostic at the prospect of their album are almost instantly made to leave such reservations at the door.
“This isn’t a victory lap or anything, which wouldn’t be of much interest to us”, proclaimed James Murphy when New York dance-punks LCD Soundsystem remerged in 2015 and luckily his proclamation has proved to be entirely accurate. Rather than being an exercise in nostalgia, the band’s reformation has been an opportunity for their highly strung sound to expand and evolve on this year’s ‘American Dream.’ Although its core elements remain largely intact, Murphy and co had evidently cultivated a wealth of ideas and a newly replenished penchant for experimentation during their absence and the result is a sound which expands on the direction of their beloved farewell album This Is Happening with deftness and as much self-deprecatory style as ever. Expanding their prolific streak of near perfect albums to four in a row, it may have been nice just to have them back but it now feels nothing short of a necessity.
It’s a commonly used idiom that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder and it is safe to say that it’s the case when it comes to Josh Homme’s renowned desert rockers Queens Of The Stone Age. With a colossal reputation in tow and a fanbase that were practically salivating at the prospect of venturing back into their high-octane world of seduction and sinister liaisons, their follow-up to 2013’s Like Clockwork certainly had a lot to live up to but the resulting Villains more than delivered. Produced by none other than Mark Ronson, his appointment at the helm gives their sound a new and fresh dynamic whilst avoiding the dilution of its muscularity and robustness. Adding a fresh batch of classics to their canon, tracks such as ‘The Evil Has Landed’, ‘Villains Of Circumstance’ and ‘Head Like A Haunted House’ are more than capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with the litany of fully fledged classics that can be found in their catalogue.
Shifting away from the angular sounds of her fourth album, Annie Clark unveiled one of her most personal records to date this year in ‘Masseduction’. A study into power, lust and spectacle with herself as the subject, she offers a raw insight into fame, pills, surgery and heartbreak under a pop veneer that refuses to adhere to any genre conventions. Containing some of her most visceral and cutting lyrics, she bites back at the gawkers and whisperers in a way that is fun, challenging and deeply intimate. As an artist who has taken on many personas over the years, ‘Masseduction’ is one of her most intriguing records to date with the witty, madcap ‘Pills’ and understated beauty of ‘New York’ two massive highlights.
Wolf Alice cemented their place at the top table of UK indie with the release of their scintillating second album Visions Of A Life. Elevating them to new dizzying, genre-defying heights, it took the experimentation, curiosity and eclectic palette of their critically acclaimed debut My Love Is Cool and pushed them even further; a shift that marked their growth from ‘best new band’ to quite simply ‘best band’, full stop. Opening with the dense shoegazy sounds of ‘Heavenward’ before launching into the utterly incendiary ‘Yuk Foo’, it contains their finest moment to date in the starry-eyed ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ alongside an eight minute behemoth of a title track. If people are talking about guitar music again, then it’s because Wolf Alice are one of the artists leading the way. Right now, their potential feels more limitless than ever.