Craven Hermit’s Top Albums of 2016

As it turns out, modern technology is not impervious to careless douchebags in big pickup trucks.

I was out of town for Christmas, visiting family back in wintry Winnipeg. In between cacophonous family gatherings and bouts of spoiling my precious little nieces (hereafter known as my precious little ‘disease vectors’, as they sent me home with a lovely dose of rhinovirus), I sneaked away to do some record shopping. Hey, a leopard doesn’t change his spots just because he finds himself in Canada’s coldest provincial capital.

While I was travelling, some careless twit in a Dodge Ram wannabe monster truck apparently crashed into the telecommunications box at the end of my street. From what I can gather nobody was seriously injured in the collision, but Billy Joe and his Gravedigger sure smashed five kinds of shit out of the telecom panel that feeds my neighbourhood. It took all the king’s horses and the local utility’s men almost a week to put the fibre-optic Humpty Dumpty together again. To make a long story slightly longer, the impromptu internet blackout (and some general sloth on my part) is why I couldn’t write and post my Favourite Albums of 2016 list… until now!

Let’s review the usual caveats. This is a list of the ten albums that brought me the most enjoyment this year. They may not be groundbreaking or hugely original. They may not float your boat. They certainly won’t cover every genre of music. You may accuse me of having a shamelessly beige, guitar-driven, Anglocentric view of the musical landscape and I won’t be able to refute it. But I do know what I like, and that’s catchy melodies, interesting rhythms, and that elusive “X” factor that helps new music wrap itself around your DNA. The question I always ask myself when I pick my top ten is “will I still be listening to these records a decade from now”? Chances are, the highlights of these records will remain on my playlists for years.

Without further ado, here are my favourite albums of 2016, sorted alphabetically by artist. If you’ve read my Top 10 lists from previous years, you are unlikely to be shocked when you see who topped my charts this year. What can I say? It was a great year for new releases by well-established artists, less so for breakout artists (with a few notable exceptions).

And, most importantly, feel free to leave a comment at the bottom if you want to salute (or heckle) any of my choices – that’s half the fun!

Ellipsis by Biffy Clyro

biffyclyro_ellipsisScotland’s finest power trio was back with a new album in 2016. Coming on the heels of an ambitiously sprawling double album, the eleven sinewy tracks featured on Ellipsis seem positively efficient. The album oscillates nimbly from percussive rockers like “Wolves of Winter” and “Flammable” to mid-tempo, melodically driven songs like “Rearrange” and “Medicine”. Regardless of whether their multi-layered guitar attack is aimed at your brains or your balls, Biffy Clyro’s huge stadium-ready choruses are destined to entertain. Somewhere, Dave Grohl is head-banging in admiration and approval. Best track to seek out online: “Howl”

American Band by Drive-By Truckers

dbt_americanIt says something profound about a band when they can lose a songwriter of Jason Isbell’s caliber and still deliver album after album of the finest southern-fried rock. On this, DBT’s eleventh album, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley continue to illuminate what it’s like to be alive and conflicted in 2016. These days, you can scarcely switch on a television without being confronted by self-aggrandizing shills, screaming at each other about red states and blue states and other complete bullshit. But if you’re keen to understand what’s really going on south of the Mason-Dixon line, you can glean more from these eleven painfully honest tracks than you’ll learn from a month of watching the bloviating heads on cable news. Best track to seek out online: “Ever South”

Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

frightenedrabbit_panicIt was never going to be easy to follow up 2013’s excellent Pedestrian Verse, but Frightened Rabbit gamely gave it a go. They enlisted Aaron Dessner to produce their new songs, and The National’s guitarist brings a bit of his band’s melancholy sparkle to the Scottish fellows’ proceedings. Long-time fans will be happy to know that Frightened Rabbit’s stock in trade – guitar-driven music – still hopscotches from hope to disillusionment to misery to unbridled fury. And perhaps no other band on the planet can reliably deliver heart-wrenching lines like “blood seems black against the skin of your porcelain back” with such grace and aplomb. Best track to seek out online: “Get Out”

Meet the Humans by Steve Mason

masonsteve_humansMany moons ago, I had the privilege of watching the Beta Band open up for Radiohead in Vancouver and Seattle. I became an instant fan of their quirky, laid-back, dub-inspired rock and infectious melodies. They had an unmistakable groove that I’d seldom heard before (or since). I was deeply disappointed when the Beta Band broke up in 2004 and scattered like chaff to the wind. Vocalist Steve Mason plied his trade as King Biscuit Time and various other pseudonyms for a while, but eventually he stepped into the limelight and started releasing new works under his own moniker. Meet the Humans is Mason’s third, most accessible, and (by my reckoning) best solo release; by focusing on tight & tidy songwriting and re-emphasizing the groove, he nearly matches the highest highs of his Beta Band days. The new record is effortlessly melodic and hypnotically rhythmic, though I’m at a loss to explain why there are so many cartoon dicks and boobs on the cover. You have to see this record on vinyl to fully appreciate all the pastel penises and bodacious bums! Chalk it up to cheeky British humour, I suppose. Best track to seek out online: “Alive”

Blue Wave by Operators

operators_bluewaveFans of Divine Fits and the dearly departed Handsome Furs (myself included) were delighted that Dan Boeckner fully realized the potential of his synth-pop project Operators with a full-length album in 2016. Blue Wave is a hurricane of analog synths, whip-smart danceable rhythms, and hooks galore. Imagine LCD Soundsystem rummaging through New Order’s record collection, and you’ll get the gist of it. “Control” is the latest hyperkinetic ringtone on my mobile phone, “Bring Me The Head” is the ultimate workout for your new hi-fi speakers, and the title track is pretty much a perfect Saturday night “going out” tune. Here’s hoping that another Operators record is already in the works – unless, of course, Divine Fits beats them to it. Best track to seek out online: “Bring Me The Head”

A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead

radiohead_moonshapedIn 2016, Radiohead did the unthinkable. They delivered a record that was forthright and unabashedly pretty. Not pretty in a conventional Hollywood starlet sense, of course. More like finally noticing that the shy, introverted girl on the periphery of your life is actually an overflowing fountain of mind-expanding thoughts and quietly sexy gestures. With A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead turns guitar rock on its head, yet again, by incorporating symphonic elements into the sonic stew. Jonny Greenwood’s mastery of the London Contemporary Orchestra essentially adds a vital new member to the band. And for a band that’s become known for synthetic robot vocals, it’s refreshing to hear Thom Yorke singing in such a human (if a little weary) voice again. It’s as though he’s yearning to be understood, after a decade or more of hiding behind disguises. You can reliably expect Radiohead to reinvent their sound yet again on whichever new music comes next. But whenever you have a quiet Saturday evening to contemplate that crush you have on the introverted girl, there will be A Moon Shaped Pool right there at your fingertips to provide the soundtrack. Best track to seek out online: “Burn the Witch”

Winter Wheat by John K. Samson

samsonjk_winterwheatA stalwart of the Winnipeg indie rock scene, John K. Samson fronted bands like Propagandhi and The Weakerthans to various levels of critical success. Now going it alone under his own name, Samson has solidified his place amongst Canada’s greatest songwriters. In my mind, Cohen –  Lightfoot – Bachman/Cummings – Keelor – Newman – Samson forms quite the lineage. Though if I had to guess, JKS sees himself as part of a much different punk rock continuum. No matter. Winter Wheat is his second full-length album, and it continues to mine Samson’s wryly oblique yet highly literate observations of life on the Canadian prairies. Lines like “The payday lonely pray in parking lots, a one-bar wi-fi kind of town” could come from no other. Meanwhile, acoustic guitars and melancholy folk tales of damaged people are framed by production as wide and as sparse as a Manitoban sunset. Best track to seek out online: “Capital”

Jet Plane and Oxbow by Shearwater

shearwater_jetplaneHo hum – yet another brilliant album by the criminally underrated Shearwater. Jet Plane and Oxbow features the return of some of Jonathan Meiburg’s favourite muses – wildlife, widescreen imagery, and the unbridgeable chasms that sometimes keep people apart. But this time out, several songs are notably infused with the corrosive influence of troubled times; Meiburg (or at least his protagonists) seem to be struggling to suppress their anxieties at every turn. Synths are turned up to eleven, the drums clatter with martial beats, and a palpable dissatisfaction with “the way things are” rises to the fore. Challenging the status quo has rarely sounded so engaging and comforting. Best track to seek out online: “Quiet Americans”

SVIIB by School of Seven Bells

sviibIt’s impossible to listen to this album without reflecting on the tragedy of losing a key band member so young to cancer. In a way, the sadness casts a revisionist shadow over many of the crystalline dream-pop confections on SVIIB, even though they were reportedly written before Benjamin Curtis’s diagnosis. As a casual listener I won’t pretend to know anything about the intra-band relationships, and I sincerely hope that we haven’t heard the end of these very talented artists. That said, it must have been excruciating to sort through Curtis’s last recordings to assemble this album. It’s a fitting tribute that the results are so engaging, with flat-out gorgeous washes of synths, multi-layered vocals, pulsing beats and plenty of modern hooks. Best track to seek out online: “Ablaze”

Schmilco by Wilco

wilco_schmilcoWilco, to my mind, has become the quintessential American rock band. With each new record, you’re never quite sure if you’re going to be treated to alt-country, psychedelic rock, screwball folk music, jazz odyssey, or some strange new hybrid. Inevitably, long-time listeners will find something to love. Schmilco covers enough bases that it’s tough to categorize, but it’s a mostly mid-tempo, autumnal affair built around acoustic guitars and Jeff Tweedy’s introspective vocals. The overall tone is one of a band that is comfortable in their own skin, yet casting a wary eye at the world around them. God only knows how they’ll react to the forthcoming Trumpocalypse, but their next album may well be the most important one these Chicagoland dyed-in-the-wool Obama supporters will ever make. Hopefully Schmilco doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as the dreaded “transitional record, since it’s a lovely sounding album that richly rewards a few extra listens and an open mind. Best track to seek out online: “If I Ever Was A Child”