Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Best of Newly Heard in 2016

This year’s list is surprisingly up to date, with four of the top six recommendations being released in the last twelve months. When looking for new music suggestions I often start unseasonably picking through the abandoned remains of the previous year’s 'best of' lists long after they’ve been published and forgotten. It feels slightly illicit, like finding a box of Christmas decorations on the hottest day of the year and deciding to hang them up, but they are still a good source for scavenging high quality recommendations. This influence is more visible in the longer playlist which contains the six songs below plus eleven more.




Against Me! - Delicate, Petite & Other Things I'll Never Be

As brutally direct as ever, with cutting punk riffs and almost no metaphors, this is a great song from a great album. While I’m a very biased Against Me! fan, I still think the music loving community is fortunate to have someone with the songwriting skills Laura Jane Grace willing to be this open, blunt and vulnerable. There’s no gloss coat or varnish here, it’s all bare, often uncomfortably so. Moving on from the more obvious and perhaps 'political' aspects in the previous Transgender Dysmorphia Blues, here she's exploring the emotional and relationship world post-transition, something she’s described as a second puberty. While not everyone has had her experience it’s clear that emotions are universal and no matter your gender we all feel, and are as human as each other. This album excellently expresses that to be human means being happy, sad, convinced and uncertain all at the same time, in what often feels like an inconsistent mess. 

Easy Snapping - Theolphius Beckford

I found this via the fantastic article That Chop on the Upbeat by John Sullivan, which traces the history of ska and reggae back to 1950’s R&B. It’s a great bit of musical archeology and Easy Snapping, apart from being a great song, is also a primordial soup of ska ideas. To save you the trouble there’s already a playlist of all the songs I could find available to listen to while reading the article. 

Good Morning My Love - Jesu, Sun Kil Moon

For me this was not an obvious collaboration, even if Mark Kozelek and Justin Broadrick have apparently been friends for a long time, but I’m glad they did. It reinvigorates Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon style and gives the abstract sounds of Jesu a very visible human scale focus. The opener Good Morning My Love is my favourite, coming across as the most deliberate and purposeful. The whole album, as ever with Kozelek’s singing, is close, friendly and detailed. 

Modern Baseball - Wedding Singer

The first of an emo one-two in this year’s list, the latest release from Modern Baseball is as catchy and observant as ever. There are still classic emo sad moments, but also a resolution, driven by their recent mental health issues, to not wallow and, with the help of others, get better. Unafraid of the social media references other writers avoid, as they can age a song quickly, it presents a more realistic picture of modern relationships. Maybe not as obviously marked in this album or song, but with lines like "Locked your love in a screenshot" we’re still aware that today almost no relationship plays out between only just people, there’s always an audience, but sometimes the audience can help and is part of the solution. 

The Front Bottoms  - HELP

Let’s quickly move past their truly terrible name, one that now feels very much the outdated frat-boy joke it was clearly chosen as, and just accept that like a badly selected tattoo it’s permanent, even if not really relevant anymore. 

All of Back on Top is a pop exploration of trying to pin down your identity as your tastes change with age, and if you, or anyone else, is still who they were five years ago. HELP pulls that together in one half hearted break-up conversation, showing the conflict first hand. Do you still have the goals you had? because you still have dreams, even if you don’t know what they mean to you now. This is not a record of answers, but of nicely produced and crafted uncertainty. 

Saor - Hearth

I’m going to say ‘soaring' and ‘epic' now so that they’re out of the way and we can all relax. Perhaps there are no new or unique ideas in Saor’s version of folk instrument complimented atmospheric metal, but it’s not been done this well in a while. Each song manages to create the feelings of staring at a particularly moody Scottish landscape and feeling the history rising up through the ground, your legs and your spine. While the title track Guardians is maybe more powerful, for me the slightly slower Hearth is more varied and atmospheric, making it their best track from the album.

Album wise my favourite of the year was Jimmy Eat World’s Integrity Blues. While no one track felt strong enough on its own to make it into the list above, as an album it sits coherently together, ideas interlocking and reinforcing each other, while exploring different aspects and viewpoints. It’s their best album since Futures (and an easy comparison to make, having overtones of the  same melancholy optimism) and great to see such creative strength from a band after nine studio albums.

On the heavier side is Red Fang’s Only Ghosts, fifty strong minutes of heavy and slow riffage of the highest quality, but I couldn’t bring myself to single out a particular track. The rest of Shape Shift With My by Against Me! is also excellent and worth your time.