Albums of 2016

As the year comes to an end It was time to celebrate my favourite music of the year with my list and a brief review of my favourite five albums. they are in no particular order (excluding the album of the year). Feel free to click the links below and give them a read.

Albums of 2016:

Ian Wiliam Craig-Centres

Kendrick Lamar-Untitled Unmastered

SWANS-The Glowing Man

Danny Brown-Atrocity Exhibition

Album of the Year 2016:

Ólafur Arnalds & Nils Fram-Trance Frendz

Those who are interested and want to hear more this Spotify Playlist features them all in their entirety:
Spotify Playlist:

Album of the year: Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Fram-Trance Frendz

On 28th of July 2015 composers/multi instrumentalists Olafur Arnalds and Nils Fram met at Nils’s Durton Studio In Berlin with documentarian Alexander Schneider to play and record an evening of music and film the event. The outcome of which was this album Trance Frendz. It features no over dubbing (added instrumentation) so you don’t get the complexity found in any of the other albums on my list. What you do get though is a direct connection to the artists through their instruments. No elaboration or extension, just the raw, Improvised idea. The moment of creation in its purest form, recorded for all to hear and see.

The instrumentation features a different collection of pianos, keys, Synths and a glockensphiel. Although they are limited to only a couple of instruments a track. Each one has its own unique character and sound which subtly gives them an individuality. It’s this focus on detail that really exemplifies the record. Instruments are recorded naturally with plenty of room ambience which becomes a key feature in the organic and pure nature of the work.

Both artists have collaborated previously and have the same styles in their music. So they complement each other perfectly on these collection of duets. Creating a sound that varies from the light and playful to the darker more powerful tracks which feature prominent synthesis. However all of these tracks are chameleons. They seem to blend into many atmospheres. At quiet levels they can work as ambient pieces to play in the background of many settings, however turn up the volume and they immerse you in the sound of their world.

The hybrid nature of this release has made it quite hard to pin down to a year. Although the album was recorded and was available to view online last year. The distribution of the work on Vinal and CD box set, with their other collaboration work Loon, was staggered internationally with a UK release of this year. This is a mark of the times in many ways. Smaller artists and labels have to improvise in the distribution of hard copies but the digital domain allows a new and creative form of distribution. The ability to watch the live creation of this album on YouTube is another welcome addition to the music. Giving you and in depth look at how it was made, but also a further understanding behind he artists creating the work.

In a year of chaos and instability, times of self reflection and concentration have been a regular occurrence for me and this album has been its soundtrack. An escape from the surroundings into a simple but beautiful world. A demonstration of creativity in its purest most exiting form. It shows the positivity and wonder that we can achieve, even on the spur of the moment and if that isn’t the best thing to take with us into 2017 I don’t know what is:



Albums of 2016: Danny Brown-Atrocity Exhibition

Rap is still blamed by parts of the media as a bad influence to the delicate youth of today. The promoter of a culture centred around violence, drugs and sexism. People who say these things often have a passing curiosity in a genre and art form that is more diverse and experimental than any other element of mainstream culture. Rap manages (even in its most successful guises) to create sounds and textures that you would only expect to hear in the most avant-garde of alternative artists. It backs this up with lyrics that cover areas of culture that are usually ignored or sidelined. Lyrics that can be highly personal, political and public. Occasionally artists mange to achieve all of them at the same time.

Nobody could call Danny Browns album Atrocity Exhibition a promoter of a gangster lifestyle. The opening track introduces him strung out, hung over and looking for means of escape from his unforgiving world and it only goes down from there. His addictions to Sex, alcohol and drugs both pharmaceutical and illegal are prevalent and are talked about as an honest portrayal of a man dealing with some serious issues. Even tracks that feature bravado and swagger will be undermined in the next track as he tries to grapple the complexities of his life and his vices. At times tracks come across as a means of catharsis, a way he can contemplate the issues and let them go in a positive way and move forward. There’s little wallowing in self pity here, Danny Brown is trying to find solutions and through the albums playtime you get the feeling he’s on the way to doing just that.

He is also Joined by a collection of features and collaborations big and small who all pull out their A game, enhancing and developing elements in their own way whilst fitting into the clear style employed throughout the album.

We have an album with great vocal delivery and well structured lyrics that look into the more insecure feelings from Danny Brown, but it’s the way that this is tied to the unusual and experimental production that really makes the album shine. When listening you just go with it. But take one second to analyse the musical accompaniment and you’ll find a kaleidoscope of alternative samples and instrumentation backed up with odd time signature drum patterns. It shouldn’t work and yet amazingly no matter how out there it goes it never feels out of place. Providing a perfect accompaniment to his verses. It does this time and time again. Track after track of instantly memorable and catchy music that reveals its layers on multiple listens.

Yet again Rap has gone in a unique direction from an interesting artist with a strong identity and created a wonderful album that manages to have modern popular design, yet bring in some of the oddest and most experimental production I have ever heard. The genre continues to dumbfound my expectations and Danny Brown achieved that the most for me this year.

Albums of 2016: SWANS_The Glowing Man

If there was one personal musical discovery this year that dwarfed all others it would be the band SWANS. For a band who’s music spans decades I have definitely come late to the party.

I first heard about them from favourable reviews on the release of their 2012 album The Seer and listened to the track “Mother Of The World”. At the time it’s looping rhythms and heavy breathing took me to an uncomfortable place but it’s unique vision and sound flagged up as something important that I needed to study further. Unfortunately those thoughts passed by and I never looked further into The Seer at the time.

Then in 2014 their album “To Be Kind” arrived with more critical applause and I picked it up towards the end of the year and relay enjoyed it but was still struggling with it by the point I wrote my end of year list. I’m sorry to say that because of this it didn’t make the list. What it did do though was stick with me, growing into my most listened to album the preceding year and still a strong contender in my playlists today. The uniqueness and power of the SWANS sound takes time to digest but once you get it they become these long all consuming artworks that verge on the hypnotic. It’s a sound that has taken years to develop but truly cemented its self on The Seer and then has been experimented with further on To Be Kind and now this years album The Glowing Man to create one of the greatest album trilogies recorded.

As a whole The Glowing Man is certainly the calmest of the trilogy with the roaring distorted guitars and more aggressive soundscapes limited to occasional use rather than the all out pummelling they create on To Be Kind. But this limitation allows simpler subtleties to become the driving forces of the tracks. On these three albums Swans have always focused on heavy repetition of live instrumentation which makes smaller changes noticeable to the listener. On the glowing man this can be as small as the change in pattern of Hi-hat. So when it does increase into the heavier elements they are even more hard hitting for the listener, creating sounds that at one point can be completely uplifting before feeling all consuming by their second repetition.

This and their previous works mentioned are all a masterclass in repetition and how you can play the same single bar structures for many minutes without loosing their power or intrigue. This is created due to the incredible talent in finding catchy grooves but also the organic nature of the pieces. Songs drift in tempo and dynamics which would sound sloppy for a band that weren’t as attuned to each other as SWANS are. Instead this becomes another tool to create moments of tension and release. Builds in the music that sound epic to almost biblical proportions, when analysed, are often created with very subtle changes in melody or instrumentation. An achievement that can only come from the experience and mastery of their sound.

Add to that the lyrics of Michal Gira which reach into the void and pull out bleak, sinister and cryptic iconography. It’s not a pleasant world that is being portrayed here more a spawning writhing mass of obscenity and evil. However like all good horror he rarely reveals the monsters instead placing small phrases and word associations into the listeners mind and allowing them to make their own conclusions and have there own revelations as to the Music’s subject matter.

You mix this style of conceptual lyrical delivery that allows the mind to wonder with these looping patterns of instrumentation and the music can turn into something hypnotic. A trance that can detach you from your surroundings and pull on your emotions. Playing with your ideas and expectations of what music like this can be. It does this with such a flair and expertise that you accept these more experimental ideas as normal. If this is the last album to come from SWANS in the near future, (as Michal Gira has stated) it will be a shame. But they has left us with a trilogy of albums that will hold there own for years to come. Glowing Man stands on its own as a brilliant work and also an incredible conclusion to the unique style created and developed over the past four years of releases.

Albums Of 2016: Kendrick Lamar-untitled unmastered.

Untitled unmastered arrived Just a year after To Pimp A Butterfly and consists the same kind of sound design and lyricism found in the best album of last year. However these tracks are a gathered collection of curios, rather than more detailed structures of the previous album. In lesser hands and with lesser talent behind the making of this work it could have come across as a cash grab to get some extra money from fans clamouring for any new material. However the quality of the music and the mix of this album only enhances the experience of listening to these smaller and sometimes more experimental ideas.

This collection of tracks at varied stages of completion are blended together in an almost dreamlike way. They create a style and sound that represents an artist during and incredibly creative time period with the same thoughts and contradictions found on To Pimp A Butterfly but in a structure that is at times more instinctive. Allowing moments to wonder off the path and into the subconscious. This is exemplified in the instrumentation and its “unmastered” treatment with drums often sounding a lot looser and natural with a swing and an organic sound closer to free Jazz then Hip-hop. The mix also allows the elements of the instrumentation to drift around in volume with slow mixes and panning as instruments float about the stereo field.

Add these disparate elements together and it could have been an incomprehensible mess but Kendricks usual hard hitting lyrics and cutting delivery anchor them in place. On tracks like Untitled 5 they are delivered with such anger and command in structure that when they arrive they become both the lead element and the drive for the track that you would usually expect from the rhythm section. It’s this contradiction between the massive verity of experimental styles and the solid grounding of experienced rap that enhances them both to make this piece as a whole one of the best works to come out this year.

Kendrick Lamar has managed to do something that many artists never achieve. Create the best album of the previous year and then come off the back of it with a work that both appeases the fans before they get to restless whilst also wiping the slate clean for the direction of his next album. It’s a rare and momentous achievement and for that alone it deserves to be on my end of year list.

Albums of 2016: Ian William Craig- Centres

When you set an FM radio far enough between stations you will hear “radio static” otherwise known as white noise. It’s a sound that can be harsh at loud volumes and has been used in torture and yet at low volumes is used to help people sleep and heal tinnitus.

Radio static is also the audio replication of the radiation left over from the Big Bang. A moment in time that shifted simplicity to complexity, bonded chemical structures of uncompromising beauty and jump started the messiness and wonder of creation. It’s all there in the speaker, sounds that have great force of complexity or simplicity, It’s just a matter of perception.

It’s in this vast wash of sound that you’ll find Ian William Craigs Centres. An album that covers vast spectrum of audio styles in both genre and expertise to create something that features both the wonder of creation and its destruction.

The album starts with the track Contain-Astoria Version, heavy synth pads underpin a distorted and pitch shifting vocal that blends the organic with the mechanistic. Halfway through the backing vocal loops drift away to leave room for a synth wall of sound that is distorting and falling apart as fast as it is coming together.

This engulfing power of electric instrumentation is in the epic scale of the cosmic. It’s unexpected but works brilliantly and this could summarise the whole album. Constantly going in directions that surpass your expectations. Places that have been there in other music but done in a way that is refreshing. More musical than the experimental noise sounds of artists like Belong, William Basinski and Tim Hecker yet with all there edge and power.

It then uses these soundscapes to squeeze in genre not usually associated with them. Stripped down Ballads and Choral music interweave the tape loops, field recordings and distorted synth lines to create rest bite from their intensity and also demonstrate the skilled classically trained singing of Ian William Craig. Something rare in more experimental music which is usually created by vocalists rather than singers.

I have often commented on my love for the bitter sweetness of in-tune electronics with slightly drifting vocals. but Ian William Craig proves that pitch perfect delivery also works incredibly well, especially when he pulls the vocals apart with tape degradation and distortion until they become the background ambiences they originally opposed.

Its this constant flow of build and destruction that makes the album so impressive. An album that surprises and excites me and continues to grow and develop on repeat listens. It manages to encompass a vast swathe of genre, music and production techniques over its long play time without loosing its style or vision.