And here’s numbers 20-1…
1 Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House
The list of solo albums and side projects that are superior to the work of the same person in their original band is, let’s face it, a pretty short one. After a few pale ales you could make a case for The Last Shadow Puppets’ debut being the equal of the best of The Arctic Monkeys. Or if you are stretching the point Gene Clark’s debut almost trumps Fifth Dimension by The Byrds. Then of course there’s the output of various members of Blur, especially Alex James whose Hanging Around gem was way more fun than 13 ever was.
Yet the three Cats Eyes albums – I’ve included their sumptuous soundtrack to the film The Duke Of Burgundy here too even though it is a mainly neo classical instrumentals – are to these ears way beyond what Faris Badwan has ever achieved in his day job with The Horrors. I would even argue that Treasure House and the band’s debut are quite possibly my favourite two albums of the decade. So I am completely flabbergasted that no one else seems to share my views.
Of course it is just my opinion. Everyone has them. But in this instance everyone else is clearly wrong. Treasure House is so far clear of its rivals in the album of the year stakes it is not funny. The duo, Faris and his partner in crime Rachel Zeffira, have taken The Carpenters goes psychedelic vision that they patented on their debut and taken it to new heights.Everything just falls into place. Rachel’s soaring soprano, the exquisite melodic twists and turns of the songs, and the utterly beguiling orchestral passages. It is just not worth picking out highlights because not a single moment of Treasure House is wasted.
Maybe one day this will become the Big Star Three of its generation. Hailed for its ambitious, yet melodic genius.
If you buy one album this year…
2 Whyte Horses – Pop Or Not
I agonised over whether this album was going to make the cut. Not because of its quality. For me this is a high watermark in jangly indie psychedelic pop. Nope, it is just because I made it my album of the year in 2015. The band sneaked out some advanced vinyl copies one of which I snapped up after hearing the gorgeous single Snowfall. The proper issue was in Spring 2016 and hence this is not only sneaking on to other albums of the year lists it is topping a few too.
It is an album that’s rooted in Manchester’s past with nods to both The Stone Roses and some of the city’s B listers in The Mock Turtles and World Of Twist, but sounds like a record that could only have been released in 2015 (coughs, 2016). Glorious hummable tunes (Promise I Do and Peachtree Street are pop dynamite), slightly bonkers instrumental interludes (Relance II) and fantastically creative arrangements (Feels Like Something’s Changing). And even a song or two that pays tribute to the more unhinged of the Ye Ye girls (La Couleur Originale).
It is so rich and the songs are so strong (they have even recorded some of the tracks with a kids choir) that like Cat’s Eyes it deserves a much wider audience than it is probably going to get.
3 The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood
So rock and roll is an old man’s game with albums of the year lists dominated by artists who have sadly departed, or whose bus pass applications are a distant memory. Well someone forgot to tell The Lemon Twigs.
A pair of teenagers from suburban New York, with a minor power pop legend as a father, and quite possibly access to his huge and rather brilliant record collection, have come to save us from indie mediocrity with an album that is colourful, challenging, in parts reassuringly familiar but also a huge amount of fun.
Take the opener, I Wanna Prove To You, three and half minutes of gloriously twisted pop, that’s always accessible but yet full of unexpected turns. It is clever, ambitious, yet shed loads of fun too. Think Jellyfish at their finest.
Haroomata, a cross between something from Foxygen’s …And Star Power album and Wings Wild life, follows soon after and brilliantly steals from Queen at its climax. Then there the live showstopper How Lucky Am I? It’s a stunning Emitt Rhodes-esque piano ballad with beautiful three parts harmonies. And what about Frank which kicks off with a Wurlitzer type instrumental before morphing into a very delicate Big Star meets The Raspberries ballad.
It will be intriguing to see where they go next, for now though this is by far the most fun debut of 2016. Somewhere I suspect Alex Chilton is taking a break from jamming with Chris Bell and giving this a massive thumbs up.
4 Rapid Results College – City Life
The best things in life happen serendipitously. Like me discovering Rapid Results College. I went to a gig, missed the main act because I was late, contemplated going home, but hung around long enough to catch their set, and within minutes I was smitten. Here’s a band who are clearly in love with many of my own pet genres; C86, 60s Brit psych, 80s Kiwi indie pop and a smidgen of Jonathan Richman and The Go-Betweens, yet have managed to create that sounds familiar yet fresh and vibrant too.
Take The Cautionary Tale of Alphonse du Gard, a bizarre tale of an unlucky in love who manages to slice the finger off his would-be girlfriend while ice skating on Hampstead Heath. Both the music and lyrics the song remind me have a great deal of my favourite Brit psych, like the first Kaleidoscope album or On a Saturday, the low-key missing in action 45 from Tomorrow’s Keith West or at a push the decade’s secret Smiths’ influence Peep Show.
Shop is a delightful upbeat ditty (well for this album anyhow) about every ageing hipster’s dream of owning a record shop downstairs and a cafe upstairs, while Turret Grove is hypnotic slowcore with some unusual, and inspired drumming from Owain Evans. Any Other Way, is a gem of pop song with a soaring chorus embellished by some subtle harmonies. Then there’s the album’s finale Down on You. Originally a upbeat jangle-fest recorded by The Hillfields, it’s now a stripped down brooding psychedelic mother which climaxes in deluge of feedback drenched guitars. You really need to hear this album. Let’s hope that the vinyl is on its way!
5 The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Third World Pyramid
Side two of this years Brian Jonestown Massacre album, Third World Pyramid, is probably my most played side of vinyl of recent months. This is trippy psychedelic pop music as only the BJM know how to produce – a cascade of colourful tunes that range from the Mariachi-flecked instrumental Oh Bother (named after Winnie The Poo, doncha know!), to the Lennon-esque anthem SunShip. Along the way there’s the Krautrock at treble speed title track and the Byrdsie jangle of Like Describing Colors To A Blind Man On Acid. It is marvellous and intoxicating trip. And that’s just side two. Side one has four more technicolour pop gems. This might just be the best BJM album in a decade!
6 The Junipers – Red Bouquet Fair
An album opener that sounds like the theme tune from Steptoe And Son played by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band. Yep it can only be the return of Leicester’s favourite psychedelicists The Junipers.
While album two (Paint The Ground) was a pastoral picnic in the countryside, Red Bouquet Fair is a bit more urban – a glance from a window on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It is a tad more psychedelic than its predecessor too. Here Comes The Winds is a folky strum with a sitar, while in Dig Me Up they are momentarily possessed by the spirit of The Stooges, (well not quite) in the middle section, which is the heaviest thing they have ever done (which is not really saying much TBH).
The best moments come on side two. Like A Merry Go Round has a stunning Younger Than Yesterday era twangy guitar solo, while the album’s finale Say Goodbye is a slight but beautiful ballad. And then there’s The Old Man Suite where Robyn and the lads go all Grocer Jack complete with soaring harmonies and clever melodic twists and turns.
If you can nab a vinyl copy get one!
7 Whitney – Light Upon The Lake
The first time I heard No Woman, the lead single from this album, I knew I’d found a new favourite band. Eerie opening keyboards, chirpy horns and mournful vocal – it is just beautiful. It seems like a lot of people agree with me as Light Upon The Lake has featured on quite a few album of the year lists. Polly might just be my favourite, a classic pop song that builds up to a stunning crescendo. Then again the title track is pretty special too. The soundtrack of my summer.
8 Ultimate Painting – Dusk
Album number three for Trouble In Mind’s British indie supergroup is their best yet. The stand out here is Bills, a psychedelic tune with a chugging Krautrock beat that reminds me of The Soundcarriers. Song For Brian Jones is a lovely, quiet Velvets type thing while Lead The Way is a haunting piano led ballad. Monday Morning, Somewhere Central is the album’s big pop moment. And that’s just side one. Side two boasts many more great songs including the psychedelic finale of I Can’t Run Anymore and the very lovely I’m Set Free.
9 Darren Hayman – Thankful Villages
In which one of our most treasured indie folksters travels around the country recording songs, soundscapes and interviews in small English villages. The link is that the Thankul Villages are places where, just under a hundred years ago every single man who went off to war came home. This is volume one, there are two more on the way. Not only is it an inspired idea, but is beautifully executed too. The songs are generally recorded in churches and remarkably you get a tangible sense of the place from the melodies that has Hayman has created. There’s a sense of otherness – (a community, a past, a ghostliness I can’t quite put my finger on it) that resonates from the the speakers.
There are songs too – Knowlton is a lovely slice of folk pop not million miles away from the tracks on Hayman’s last album, Florence. Then there are the instrumentals where acoustic guitars, gentle drums, accordions and, in the instance of Little Sodbury, wind noises, a clanking church door and some analogue synths, combine to paint intriguing aural pictures.
There are also plenty of fascinating tales to be told both on this album and its accompanying website. This is a truly wonderful thing. Maybe Darren’s best conceptual art idea yet.
10 Morgan Delt – Phase Zero
Psychedelic music to skip to? That’s the best description I can come up with for the closer of this wonderful album by the Californian based musician who broke thorough a couple of years back with Barbarian Kings. Some Sunsick Day has Morgan’s trademarks, a gentle but slight melody, but is nudged along by an unusual beat – is that four three time? It caps off a wonderful album that took the Floydian aspirations of Morgan’s debut and has taken things in a more melodic direction. I Don’t Wanna See What’s Happening Outside is a striking upfront pop tune, while Another Person channels Meddle-era Floyd. And then there’s A Gun Appears which has the most blatant Nirvana steal ever and is all the better for it.
11 The Hanging Stars – Over The Silvery Lake
The Hanging Stars are a London band comprised of members of The See See (among others), and in Over The Silvery Lake they deliver a series of songs that keep the jangly template of that band but slightly up the Americana with an underscoring of slide guitar. There are some wonderful moments too, Cripple Shining Blues is an upbeat pop song with a blissful instrumental section, and Running Waters Wide, the album’s closer nudge things in a slightly more psychedelic direction with its Traffic style flute. Golden Vanity and The House On The Hill are also massively recommended if you like a bit of Byrds/Americana.
12 The Monkees – Good Times
Ok so the standard wisdom on this album is that 1, it is a joyous set of pop tunes and that 2, Me And Magdalena, a folky ballad from the pen of Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, is quite possibly the track of the year. To be a contrarian though, I agree with the latter statement, but prefer the Teenage Fanclub-esque more upbeat alternate take. I also have a massive soft spot for Birth Of An Accidental Hipster, the psych by numbers track gifted the band by Noel and Paul from England! Sure it references just about every paisley pop classic you have ever heard together, but that instrumental fade with Mike Nesmith’s still remarkable voice hanging over the top, could roll on forever. Even though so many indie A-listers that have worked on this album it had no right to be quite this good.
13 The Shadow Kabinet – Nostalgia For The Future
I was utterly charmed by this band’s (basically a charming chap called Steve Somerset) Sgt Pepper-ish opus Smiling World’s Apart and this has a lot to love too. Sure the band have moved on a little. Sure there’s a smidgen of psych, especially in the album’s opener – the title track – and its Lennon-esque finale Let It Go, but in between the music’s inspiration hovers somewhere between 73-76. So you have Dust Descends Into Light – a droney slice of Wish You Were Here era Floyd complete with Gilmour-esque guitar and Ladder To The Moon, whose jazzy interludes and odd instrumentation recall Peter Frampton. The album’s opening single Angelville even has a whiff of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Games about it.
While the lyrics are often inspired and the arrangements ambitious it is the melodies that carry this excellent album. The title track may be Steve Somerset’s best ever though Honey Glow Afternoon – a gorgeous slice of folk pop – runs it very close.
If you have ever loved Pugwash, XTC, The Orgone Box or any number of McCartney influenced US power poppers then you’ll adore this.
14 Gloria – In Excelsis Stereo
French 60s influenced pop has enjoyed a great year with albums by The Liminanas, French Boutik and now this debut from Gloria. It is a wonderful minestrone of 60s pop and psych that takes in Lee and Nancy, The Shangri-las as well as countless psych obscurities from Cake to The Carrie Nations. In The Morning Jangles away while Howlin’ Stones is powered by the dirtiest of Stonesy guitar riffs. Pretty much every track is a gem. Get the vinyl if it hasn’t already sold out. Now, about that second Melody’s Echo Chamber album!
15 John Howard – Across The Door Sill
It only has five songs! Yes after the genius John Howard And The Night Mail album from last year the should have been massive 70s troubadour gives us a full easy listening, light jazz experience across a platter that only has five tracks – did I mention that?
No worries though for in Howard we are in very safe hands. Not only does he possesses one of the most underrated voices in pop ever he has the knack of structuring songs so they build slowly (and in some instances herem ver slowly) to wonderful finales. So the opener Who Cares meanders in for a minute or so before Howard’s stunning vocal (he sounds consistently amazing on the album) takes over. It seems to float by like an extended version of one of the more ambitious, but still very ‘easy style’ tunes that Scott Walker placed on his late 60s album.
If anything track two Outward is even more prosaic. It drifts in slowly with a golden vocal accompanied by a gently, tinkling piano. Yet the sheer beauty of the vocal and the melody carries it through. Outward might just be one of the best songs Howard has ever written. I’d love to hear a shorter punchier version though. But for me it is the grand finale that makes this album special. Stretching Out might extend to almost ten minutes, but it flashes by in what seems like three. It gently builds to a glorious climax when, after about six minutes, Howard’s double tracked vocal takes over. It really is quite sublime.
Taken as a whole this a fascinating, beautiful, yet ultimately rather challenging album. You have to be prepared to invest a little time to get the best from it. I find myself a little conflicted by it. I would love to hear a three minute edited version of Outward but at the same time I really could listen to a twenty minute version of Stretching out.
16 The Chemistry Set – The Endless More And More
Another gem of an album from the Barcelona via London psychsters. Like their previous records this is very much rooted in the later 60s classic Hendrix, Byrds, Floyd axis but has a very keen debt to the Manchester brand of psych from the late 80s as perfected by The Stones Roses. Take Elapsed Memories, which bolts a massive anthemic Madchester type chorus on to a very 60s-ish verse. And then there’s Albert Hoffman, which is straight out of the Barrett/Dukes of Stratosphear handbook. The Fountains Of Neptune and the droney The Open Window are also total gems.
17 Papernut Cambridge – Love The Things Your Lover Loves
Papernut, essentially ex-Thrashing Doves (a band I loved) and Death In Vegas man Ian Button and his all star Gare du Nord cohorts, have a track record of delivering 60s psych pop and 70s esque glam and power pop stompers, and as the opening track Love The Things Your Lover Loves highlights instantly they have still got it – big time.
For me though it is disc two which encapsulates so much of what is great about the band. Radio is a glam stomper with some stunning harmonies, while Chartreuse shuffles along in manner somewhere in between The Rubettes and The Auteurs (Button’s voice sometimes uncannily sounds like Luke Haines). Best of all is Them, a tad dark for such an upbeat album, that boasts a hypnotic tune and wonderfully unexpected coda.
Other highlights include the anthemic finale, We Are The Nut, the country Byrds inflected I’m Stranded, the early 80s doom pop of Mirology and the gothic twee English psych of St Nicholas Vicarage. Pretty much everything on these discs though are earworms of the finest order. And if you can’t get enough, there’s a very groovy instrumental reimagining of the album on Spotify too.
18 Teenage Fanclub – Here
Another exquisite set of songs from the Fannies. Always good to have them back. The live dates were pretty special too. Plenty of favourites here but I’ll go with The Darkest Part of the Night and Steady State, two gentle melancholic beauties from the album’s second side.
19 Luke Haines – Smash The System
From the coalface of conceptual art comes this corker of album. British pop’s greatest contrarian starts his latest opus with the brilliantly named Ulrike Meinhof’s Brain Is Missing, and from here on in things get even more surreal. The paean to The Incredible String Band is both funny and heartfelt.
20 French Boutik – Front Pop
The Parisian mod poppers are back with another set of swinging tunes that sound as I imagine a setlist at the Bag ‘O Nails circa February 1966 would. There’s loads to love here, especially the middle section of the album which pairs Hitch A Ride – one of the few songs that they sing in English which sounds to be like prime Swing Out Sister Kaleidoscope World-era (and that’s a massive compliment) with Je Regarde Le Tigres which kicks off with some brilliant 60s power chords, and builds to a punchy climax. Looking forward to seeing them in March.
Albums of 2016 numbers 21-33 reside here.
Reissues of 2016 here.