Higher Plain Music’s Top 25 Albums of 2016

2016 was an interesting year for me musically as I discovered a collection of new artists to enjoy whilst many of my favourites also returned with usually excellent pieces of audio art. For this list, I’m not including EP’s, remasters or live albums (so that excludes Tori Amos and Kate Bush whom would have been on the list easily) as I want to showcase the album as a body of work that I think is still very relevant in this day and age for many audiophiles. Also a shout out to Gregory Douglass whose album My Hero, The Enemy came out this year for some people, but Kickstarters had it last year so I can’t include it.

I hope you enjoy the list and here’s to more awesome music in 2017!

25 – WE ARE TEMPORARY – CROSSING OVER

The heady electronica melodies and 80’s drama pop voice from WE ARE TEMPORARY injects theatre into what is a unique collection of retro and futurist synth music that sits firmly in the reflective misery category and with more than a hint of industrial angst to things. For fans of music like The Knife but a closer fit for Fever Ray.

24 – Jim Guthrie and JJ Ispen – You, Me and Gravity : The Music of Planet Coaster

I haven’t connected with an acoustic guitar based album like I did with this since Age of Mythology but whereas that album is intricate and reflective, everything about this amazing soundtrack is full of wonder and joy. It’s an indie pop album written for the inner child inside every adult from the cheeky fanfares, warm whistles and clever guitar and smiles for your inner ear. Game music doesn’t have to be chiptune or orchestrated and this proves the best music is served with emotion and feeling.

23 – Emily Jane White – They Moved in Shadow All Together

I discovered Emily earlier this year and am eager to grab her back catalogue as she provided me with my witch folk needs for 2016. Her dark guitar folk and hushed low register delivery work together to create a mysterious edge to every song and when she layers it all together with bells, minimal drums and many vocal harmonies she strikes gold. Best in candlelight.

22 – Hannah Peel – Awake But Always Dreaming

What starts as a dreamy pop album quickly transforms into a wonderful piece of industrial symphonic electronica as ambient noise, rich string arrangements and Hannah’s angelic pristine voice collide. The entire album weaves a wonderful narrative about dementia and memory and gets more and more poignant as the album continues. A complete surprise in quality and depth – this is the perfect bridge album between mainstream and artistic.

21 – Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death

I discovered Emma Ruth Rundle two weeks ago and her latest album Marked For Death had such an immediate impression on me I had to include it. Her grungy guitar chugs away nearing a wall of sound in a way that reminds me of PJ Harvey when she does her raucous album every other time. Rundle however has her voice that is incredibly emotive and she can cut through all the minor chord screams with words of clarity and meaning. I am smitten and this would be way higher time given as the whole album feels like discovering a diary of demos that never need polishing.

20 – Bic Runga – Close Your Eyes

When one of your favourite Kiwi’s returns after a few years away but it’s a covers album I was in mixed emotions. However this let’s Bic deliver her most diverse and concise album to date. Trying new genres of rock and spending most of it in the swinging 60’s rock, the album shows that she can leave her original mark on a plethora of different styles. More exciting are the two original tracks are possibly the best which means my go to for softer rock is in safe hands.

19 – Heinali – Bound Original Soundtrack

Bound’s music is difficult to describe. It takes familiar instruments and sounds and distorts them into rhythmic patterns that are both alien to the mind but also as captivating and hypnotic as they are often dramatic. Heinali’s ability to take music that moves with you and craft a soundtrack from it that flows beautifully shouldn’t be underestimated and whilst this absolutely fits into avant-garde synth music, there’s also some achingly beautiful piano work and a gorgeous vocal theme too.

18 – Syd Arthur – Apricity

Over the past couple of years Syd Arthur have nestled their way into my top shelf of psychedelic rock and Apricity continued to show me why. Clever off beat tracks that refused to stay in simple time signatures but stayed stuck in your head for days, the additional of a more symphonic edge at times really helped elevate their overall sound for their album of rock anthems.

17 – Olga Bell – TEMPO

Olga Bell is a rare artist that is happy to flip genre and put her twist on it rather than taking something and making it her home. As a result TEMPO’s art pop see’s so many weird and wonderful influences and traits in it feels like a fusion of freeform European synth work and industrial America percussion trying to have a co-existence in a musical realm and finding they can make their own sound. Unique and compelling and that’s before all the head-fuck music videos are seen!

16 – Liset Alea – Heart-Headed

A warm and cozy rock album with a Cuban twist, Liset Alea has been around for a few years but I only found her this year with her sumptuous and deceptively simple melodies. Her voice is pitch perfect and she has all the hallmarks of someone who would have been utterly at home in a field of flowers making acoustic melodies of heartbreak in the 70’s. The music video has a weird compressed audio but the album itself is bright and beautiful.

15 – Johanna Warren – Gemini I

A dark and damp album of the night, Gemini I specialises in circular patterns that infest inside your veins and you end up having them on repeat. Johanna’s music flips from guitar to piano based but no matter what her audio weapon of choice is, she delivers statement after statement of intrigue and truth in a bare and cutting album of grit and determination. Oh.. and her voice has a fragile defiance I fell for on first listen.

14 – Greg Laswell – Everyone Thought I Dodged A Bullet

A bitter breakup album that firmly throws the blame at the other party, Greg Laswell’s 2016 album is angry, fire tongued and epic. All that would be nothing without really infectious pop rock tunes laces with plenty of piano and keyboard work to inject a real flair and flavour to his work. I hope he continues to colour his musical palette like this in future as it is my favourite of his albums to date.

13 – Austin Wintory – ABZU Original Soundtrack

Austin Wintory’s game music soundtracks have often wowed me but following on from an all time favourite with Journey, ABZU is very much a spiritual successor in tone and feeling. It’s orchestrated world is rich and detailed and he turns his attention to the underwater world. This means harps, tuned percussion, chorale sounds that bleed in and out like shoals of fish and transitions from dark mysterious and murky depths to euphoric dolphin dives of ecstasy. What it lacks in simple and direct motifs compared to Journey, it makes up for in scope, scale and grandeur. This is the extrovert of the siblings.

12 – PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project

For the first time in two decades PJ Harvey stayed still in her sound but her penchant for flipping between polished and rough records remained. As a result The Hope Six Demolition Project feels like a b-side collection to let England Shake at times (which is fine by me) as its unfocused and scattered yet contains unhinged genius. Harvey relishes her new place as political and world surveyor without really commenting on things. The Wheel is easily in my top 5 songs of the year – I utterly adore it.

11 – Faun – Midgard

The pagan folk clan return with yet another stunning album. Moving convincingly on from the slight misstep of the piratey shanties, here we have a more returned to roots affair. With 2016 seemingly being the year to add string arrangements to albums, Faun worked their magic here too. The strings never take over their unique instrumentation but instead compliment the tracks, providing power and vulnerability in equal measure. Easily my favourite multi vocal band – I never tire of their style.

10 – Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass

After two beautifully delicate albums Agnes Obel brought vocal synthesizers to her work for Citizen of Glass and the results were utterly spellbinding. Although only used on a couple of tracks it was just the nuance needed to add a bit of spice to her emotional music. Elsewhere her use of harp and glockenspiel were inspired and I’d love to see her going down that route more to continue to expand her palette of work as she clearly knows how to do a twist on things with perfection.

09 – Kadhja Bonet – The Visitor

Remember when music was all about a singer taking centre stage and a full orchestral band would back them up? Well those Gaussian blur on female days are back with the soulful Kadhja Bonet. Her voice is like warm syrup and her song production does everything to make sure it snuggles you in fluffy pillows of thick 60’s style orchestral soul. It’s unlike anything I usually listen to because she takes what could be quite dark and sinister folk tracks and turns them into something you could sip wine to in a bubble bath. Underneath though, there’s a siren like sinister element. I’m not even sure if it’s intentional as I think it’s more about cultural music structure but I don’t care – I love it.

08 – Utada Hikaru – Fantome

The long-awaited queen of adult J-Pop Hikki returned with her most adult album to date. Initially its simplicity and natural sound palette came as a disappointment and wouldn’t have been on this list at all. Thankfully this album is an ear worm. Each track has grown on me a thousand times over and now it’s firmly on repeat. Covering death, mortality, time and emotional bankruptcy in a pop album is no mean feat and she does it casually all the while telling everyone she’s made it out fine the other side. This album establishes her as a ballad beauty too.

07 – Daughter – Not To Disappear

If there was a real rock album in 2016 that went above and beyond creating a sound that could make you cry and mosh at the same time it was Not To Disappear. A full on attack where every song is lovingly crafted in the build up, main explosion moments, and often in the break down, Daughter made every single track feel as epic and rock odyssey like as possible. Then we have that voice. Disconnected. Numb. Yet transferring emotions to you like power plant. Rock album of the year.

06 – C Duncan – The Midnight Sun

The hushed rock of C Duncan moved genre to a more synth based affair with the less accessible but equally brilliant “The Midnight Sun”. It’s an album that requires you to listen and appreciate all the various effects and noises as they all wash into one soundscape that often points to something without actually taking you there. It’s a sci-fi soundtrack in waiting.

05 – Lupa J – My Right Name

My highest charting new discovery during 2016 is Australian Lupa J. Armed with a violin and plenty of effects pedals her album My Right Name straddles alt-pop and the mystical elements of classical and synth worlds to perfection. She is a talent waiting to burst into the wider mainstream of female singer-songwriters and I am really eager to see what she spins up in future as she has all the hallmarks of a great artist already.

04 – Highasakite – Camp Echo

Switching out Nordic quirky pop for something more akin to the dance floor (whilst keeping the quirks) was a risky but fabulous decision for Highasakite. Camp Echo is crammed with wonderful sounds and bold statements of intent showing that regardless of genre, the five piece band can craft epic tunes that you can sing your heart out to at all hours of the day. At the heart of it is the signature voice of the group whose cross cultural sound gives them an otherworldly feel, which is given more space in the excellent acoustic EP that came out at the end of the year.

03 – GoGo Penguin – Man Made Object

This trio knows exactly how to create the perfect blend of skill, melody and emotion for music. Their third album is just as astonishing as their first two and feels in some ways their most complex and compelling to date. They are effortlessly in sync and the added minimal effects for this album actual enhance the music with Smarra being the best use of a sound damage effect in my listening memory.

02 – Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust

My favourite violin pop rock man returned in 2016 with Sonderlust and continued his progression from looped violin sounds to a more fully rounded band sound. Here the drums are huge, the effects are in full and whilst the violin is still leading the way, it’s now firmly nestled inside a larger arena with more programming and other things filling up the space. He has followed a similar journey to TuneYards in that his original sound, whilst absolutely amazing, needed to evolve to continue to be innovative and unique and also like TuneYards, he has succeeded a million times over.

01 – Douglas Dare – Aforger

Aforger is a complex cluster of personal stories and genres that span weird and wonderful places on the musical spectrum. From inventive piano rock to slow motion synth space sections to noble brass arrangements and organ pop. Douglas Dare is able to bring dark alluring charm to his music by being honest and open with his life and what is inside it. It’s great to have an album that is part experimental and that each track feels unique and different but works in cohesion as an album. For a man who usually loves female singer songwriters to a fault, it’s a delight to see a man take my album of the year crown for once!

Thanks for the music and I’ll be back posting something musical everyday (if possible) from Wednesday 4th January.

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Categories: AAA, acoustic, Adult Pop, Alt-Pop, alternative, Atmospheric Rock, Baroque Pop, chamber pop, dark folk, dark pop, Dark Wave, dream pop, electro pop, electro rock, electronica, Experimental, game music, indie, indie pop, j-pop, music, New Wave, piano, piano pop, piano rock, pop, Pop Rock, psychedelic, review, Soft Rock, Soul, strings, synth, synth rock, synth-pop, trip hop, VGM, Vocal, world music

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