Musical Waffle: The 5 Stages of 2016

It’s been a strange old time, this year of our Dark Lord that is 2016. As I remarked in my musical round up of the year, it’s been the best of times, it’s been the worst of times. The best of times if you’re a music fan. The worst of times if you’re, well, a human being. While the world around us has devolved into the opening of an apocalyptic novel written by a deranged child on his twitter feed, the plethora of ‘good choons’ has been somewhat staggering. So, swings and roundabouts, eh?

In the same way that my traditional ‘top ten’ album roundup sprawled its ugly way across twenty-five long-players, so too has my end-of-year playlist gone way beyond what could be considered medically advisable. While in 2015 I had to split it into two playlists to contain all the excellent stuff I wanted to throw on there, this year my playlist was over eighty songs deep and over six hours long before I decided I’d need a new approach. Either that, or to check myself in to a medical institute.

So, I made five playlists.

You’re welcome.

Wait, where are you going? I haven’t even explained the theme!

Given the absolute shitshow that has been 2016, I figured I’d see if I can engineer some kind of group therapy session for humanity through the medium of other people’s music. I know, it might be a long shot, but there’s very little else I can offer at this point, and I needed a theme to justify the whole ‘five playlists’ thing. So I did what anyone would do in these circumstances, and turned to the Kübler-Ross model.

The what now?

Well, the Kübler-Ross model, or the five stages of grief, postulates a series of emotions experienced by terminally ill patients prior to death, wherein the five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s since become a stand-in for actual psychology when dealing with all kinds of grief. Now it’s the titles of five different playlists, each of which run the length of a C-90 mixtape, thrown together by a horror novelist for no particular reason.

Let’s start our musical journey of grief, shall we?

Denial

When faced with the likes of Brexit, Trump, Aleppo, Paris, Berlin, and the phenomenon that is Shopkins, I know my first tendency has been to run away, emotionally, and not deal. It’s a perfectly sane, if not particularly helpful response. So, here’s ninety minutes of music to escape the world to.

Anger

Let’s face it, this is far more appropriate a response to the year than anything else. From the surge in fascism, the plethora of idiocy abounding, to the end of truth as we know it, sometimes you just need to rage. What a good time, then, for metal to be a spitefully excellent as it ever has been. Here’s 90 minutes of bile, anger, and rage, all accompanied by some mighty riffs and pummelling drums.

Bargaining

In the model, bargaining is the process of begging for things to be different. Praying, pleading, getting on one’s knees in whatever way works for you. That’s a pretty tough thing to convey musically, so here’s 90 minutes of stuff that didn’t fit into the other four playlists. Hey, I never claimed this would be perfect.

Depression

Sometimes, you just need to wallow in the grand misery of it all. It’s like starving a fever, or feeding a cold, or sitting and watching romantic comedies when you’ve just had your heart ripped out by some unfeeling harridan or rogue. Here’s 90 minutes of unrelenting bleakness, to make you feel all Christmassy.

Acceptance

The hardest part, for me, of 2016, is trying to work out what is the sanest of these states to occupy. I must admit that I feel utterly bewildered by how things have gone this year, and somewhat guilty that I’m going to fare so much better than so many others. As we move into 2017, the challenge is to find a way forward, a way to make the world that seems so utterly horrific better than it is today. The only way that I can see to do that is to move beyond anger, beyond bargaining, beyond depression, beyond denial, and accept the way the word is now. That’s not to say we all just shrug our shoulders. We must accept the things that are terrible because that’s the only way to fight them. To bring the world back to be the one we thought we lived in, we need to fight for it. We need to stand up to intolerance, push back against the forces that seek to repress us, and repress others. To do that, we need hope. Hope that what small things we can do as individuals can inform the greater whole. As Woody Guthrie’s guitar used to declare, ‘this machine kills fascists.’ Here’s 90 minutes of music that fills me with hope, that 2017 won’t be the clusterfuck we all fear, but the year when humanity can pull back from the brink, and become a force for good in the world.

Musical Waffle: 2016 in review

All hail the Musical Waffle end of year musical round-up! Come, peasants, and bow down at the feet of he whose opinions must be worshipped! Marvel at the KNOWLEDGE!

End of year lists are, we all know, a bit silly. Anyone who writes about music knows this, and yet they spend almost the full last quarter of the year fretting about them. It’s the only time of the year that they feel truly of use, free of the shackles of having to satisfy PR people, and safe in the knowledge that there’s a sizable chunk of people who will trawl them, looking for gems they might have missed throughout the year. If they’re really lucky, one of the bands might spot that they put them on the list, and a good old fashioned circle jerk can commence, with added social proof for both parties.

So… Shall we just get on with my list? For I am ‘they’.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Before we do that, the good people at Tha Knows wrote the absolute best end of year list I’ve ever seen, so do go check that out. It’s a thing of wondrous glory. Then, let's all spare a few minutes for all the writers at TotalRock, and the office and backroom staff, especially anyone who have just lost their job a few weeks before Xmas. I've been there before, and it's tough.

2016 has been, let’s face it, not a great year. Pop stars falling like things that fall easily, far right lunatics grabbing power by the pussy, and oh yeah, the whole thing where the country I live in turned out to be full of racist dickweasels who’d rather not listen to people who actually know what they’re talking about because they want to get rid of the muslimists, or something.

On the other hand, 2016 has been ridiculous for new music. Properly bonkers. Every week has had at least one great new album, and there were weeks when I could barely listen to all the good stuff coming out before the next Friday came around. I’ve seen people writing up their personal top 100 albums of the year, and they’ve actually missed stuff out. Don’t worry, I’m not going to list my top 100, although I probably could. No, I know my format, and that’s pithy album reviews in segments of 25.

So, here are some pithy reviews of my top 25 albums of 2016.

1. The Black QueenFever Daydream: You’d think that in the year one of my favourite ever bands releases one last album, and it’s a corker, that it’d be a shoe-in for my album of the year, right? Not the odd, electro-pop side project of its lead singer? Well, The Black Queen is easily my album of the year, despite being almost the polar opposite of what I’d normally listen to, yet returning to my generic streaming device more often than anything else. It’s so good, and it’s completely challenged my own preconceptions of my own taste, which isn’t bad for a load of gloomy pop songs with shiny keyboard hooks all over them.

2. Cult of Luna with Julie ChristmasMariner: This collaboration between two pillars of alt-metal royalty is absolutely staggering, a post-metal journey through space with a petulant, hissing, feral child for company. That I managed to see the whole thing live and have it be one of the greatest gigs of my life only serves to cement the glory of this album.

3. The Dillinger Escape PlanDissociation: Bye bye, Dillinger. The most interesting and dynamic band in hardcore bow out with an album singular in its purpose; to go out on an outrageous high. The heavy bits are almost unbearable in their technical ferocity, the melodious bits as breath-taking as anything they’ve ever recorded. Not bad going.

4. Oathbreaker Rheia: Holy fuck. I’ve always rather liked Oathbreaker, with their blend of hardcore, black metal and post-metal, but Rheia was not so much a leap forward as a Wile. E. Coyote-esque ACME catapult forward. Haunting, devastating, brilliant, and so fucking bleak in places as to be a perfect howl of rage for this stupid year.

5. Black MountainIV: A swirling blend of British psychedelia, stone rock and fuck off great big pop melodies, this was an album I went into with virtually no expectations and which has been on heavy rotation ever since. They may be Canadian but they sound British as hell.

6. HakenAffinity: As much as I like prog when it’s joined onto other things, the real deal doesn’t really do much for me, Floyd aside. When I stumbled across this and assumed from the cover that it was a Causa Sui-style stone rock album, I was rather surprised when it worked its audacious prog hooks into me. Properly summery and mind bending music, and I think I’ve been in need of that an awful lot this year.

7. Every Time I DieLow Teens: Whilst maybe not quite the planet-leveller that From Parts Unknown was, this latest effort from the kings of party-hardcore whizzes along like the firecracker of an album it is. It sounds absolutely huge, and Keith Buckley’s vocals and lyrics are once again a cut above the generic hardcore that they’re a world away from.

8. Radiohead A Moon Shaped Pool: The sheer volume of great albums this year means that I’ve not paid as much attention to some albums as I’d like to have done, Radiohead’s latest being one of those. Not to say I’ve not really enjoyed it, but I suspect a few more listens to really let it sink in might have seen it a few places higher up.

9. BosskAudio Noir: I saw Bossk play to about seven people in a shitty pub in York, years ago, their mostly instrumental post-rock/metal really rather splendid, even then. They fell off the radar, only to re-emerge signed to ‘greatest label on earth’ Deathwish Records, and releasing this, an album with a sound thick enough to flatten the pub I’d once seen them in. Moving from haunting glacial melodies to riffs thicker than a brexiteer, this is absolutely cracking.

10. Causa SuiReturn to Sky: As kings of the (admittedly tiny) fiefdom of Danish instrumental psychedelic stoner jazz rock, this followed 2013’s Euporie Tide in being a much more focused, composed effort than their jazzier, early work, but gosh darn do these Danes know how to work a groove. Splendid stuff.

11. Black PeaksStatues: A real genre-bender, throwing in hardcore, math rock, prog, emo, and post-rock, this is a cracking, original debut by a British band, which invariably means they’ll implode sometime in 2017, then reform in another ten years. I think I’ve seen this film before, you see. *cough* earthtone9, Raging Speedhorn, Sikth, Pulkas, Labrat *cough*.

12. AstronoidAir: A really strange one this, musically akin to Black Metal, but with an almost dreamlike, shoegaze production, and emo-pop vocals over the top of it. It shouldn’t work, yet somehow it really does, creating an oddly calming, joyful listening experience.

13. DeftonesGore: While the arrival of a new album by what was once the most exciting band in the whole world doesn’t quite illicit the same pavlovian response in me as it once did, this is another in a long line of ‘damn solid’ albums from the Sacramento alt. metallers. Eschewing the harder edges of their sound almost entirely, this occupies an almost unique soundscape in modern metal. Which is nice.

14. Russian CirclesGuidance: Taking the post-rock sound and layering riff after bruising riff on top of it, Russian Circles are fast becoming the most reliably excellent band in what is a fairly saturated scene at this point. If it’s toe tapping, head nodding instrumentals you’re after, Russian Circles are the band for you.

15. Emma Ruth RundleMarked for Death: This second solo album from ‘her from Red Sparrowes and Marriages and that’ is every bit as haunting, glorious and heart-breaking as her first, which is to say it’s very much all of those things. A rather stunning work of gloomy genius.

16. MeshuggahThe Violent Sleep of Reason: My fervent admiration for alt. metal’s most technical wonders has slipped a lot over the last decade, with a string of albums that didn’t really grab me, and a terrible genre of music (ughhh, djent) inspired by them. But this is them back to their pummelling, dizzying best. Maybe it’s the return to live recording over technical wizardry, maybe it’s just that I really needed something this stupidly heavy in my life this year. Either way, this was brilliant.

17. clipping.Splendor & Misery: In a year when I expanded the scope of hip-hop that I listen to, there was a fair amount of new stuff that was pretty staggering, too, with a few albums that didn’t quite make the list. This, however, was the pick of the bunch. Intellectually challenging, sonically masterful, I’ve never heard anything quite like it. To give you an idea of just how dizzyingly brilliant it is, check out this three part exploration of the album. That’s right, it’s an album so packed with ideas and brilliance to merit someone writing three whole articles on it, which sounds like the sort of thing I would do. Except I didn’t.

18. 40 Watt SunWider than the Sky: Shorn of the crushing doom and distortion of their earlier work, this stripped back, languid doom-rock is haunting and really rather lovely, allowing Patrick Walker’s vocals the space to really breathe. I chuffing loved it. It’s a fairly late release in the year, but given a few more months with it, I may have placed it higher.

19. MONORequiem for Hell: I love these mad Japanese instrumental loons, with their staggering walls of beautiful orchestral swell, and their new album is no exception. Breathtaking.

20. ConanRevengence: This came out at the beginning of the year and has been my go-to album for when I want to hear bass tones likely to rupture my kidneys when played at the right volume. Every now and again you need a bit of oof in your life, and there’s none-more-oof than Conan.

21. NeurosisFires Within Fires: While not exactly a disappointment – it’s a fine album – I’ll admit that I was expecting more than this delivered, which is why its languishing down in the 20’s, rather than trying to push The Black Queen off the top of the pile. I adore this band, and I’ve given this a fair few spins, but if it’s anything like the last two albums, I probably won’t fully ‘get’ it until I’ve seen it live.

22. Aesop RockThe Impossible Kid: Just a damn fine hip-hop album, with Aesop’s deadpan delivery the perfect vessel for his dry wit and sharp mind, backed by some of the best beats of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

23. Hesitation WoundsAwake for Everything: A hardcore super-group made of people from bands I’m not a huge fan of, this actually knocked it right out of the park. Somewhere between Converge and Blacklisted, in a year when the likes of Nails, Trap Them et al have failed to impress me much, this has been on pretty heavy rotation.

24. SubRosa – For This We Fought the Battle of Ages: Hey, are you looking for something to totally nail the mood of unrelenting misery and doom that encapsulates this year of our lord and satanic master? Well, you really should be listening to SubRosa. Atmospheric to the point of claustrophobia, crushingly heavy but also hauntingly gentle and beautiful, this probably should be higher up the list, but who can be arsed to control x, control v, in these dark days?

25. GoatRequiem: I kind of missed this, until the theme song to the excellent Crimetown podcast reminded me to go back and give it a chance, and I’m really glad I did. Close in vibe to the best stone rock, with a completely different tonal palate, this is a great listen.

So there you go. There’s a stupid amount of stuff that didn’t make the list that would have walked onto it in any other year – Boyfrndz, Seven Sisters of Sleep, North, Thrice, Kemba, any one of the eleven million albums that Omar Rodriguez Lopez released – but hey, you have to draw the line somewhere.

I was going to say, it’d be nice if we could have another year this musically brilliant in 2017, but then I remembered we’ll all be too busy building our nuclear bunkers and trying to fight the rising tide of fascism for all that.

Anyway, I’ll be back with a playlist to soundtrack that apocalypse in a few days. Until then, why not let me know which album I’m an absolutely raving lunatic for leaving off the list?

Welcome to Discovery Park – the chronicle of my increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all-time list, is available now on Amazon Uk, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and many more.

Alt School: British Indie - Part 2

In case you missed it, I’m challenging myself to listen to 50 albums in ten genres of alternative music that I don’t know enough about, in an attempt to make myself some kind of alt-music Voltron. Next up is British Indie music, and I’m working through the list I posted last time. Given that I’ve made no bones about how much I hate jingly-jangly indie, this is sure to go swimmingly. Let’s find out.

1. The DelgadosThe Great Eastern: Any apprehension I might have about this challenge is immediately washed away in this great big hug of an album. Spacey, gentle, warm; I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.

2. JamesStutter: It’s somewhat hypocritical for me to judge something as being po-faced, humourless, and self-important (I listen to heavy metal, after all) but by christ this is full of its own sense of self. It’s essentially a slightly jauntier version of U2. I remember when Sit Down came on at the old indie disco and all the kids with stupid haircuts would sit on the dance floor and I used to hate them for it. I still do, and I hate this.

3. Camera ObscuraBiggest Bluest Hi-Fi: This is wonderfully lo-fi and quite lovely, with half-sung, half-whispered lyrics and a general sense of whimsy. So, yes, it’s basically Belle and Sebastien, albeit with entirely lady-vocals. This is a GOOD THING.

4. Half Man Half BiscuitBack in the D.H.S.S/The Trumpton Riots E.P: I ran the full gamut while listening to this. I started off hating the terrible production, the childish ‘clever’ lyrics, and the half-arsed vocal delivery. I moved to quite enjoying it, getting into the wit of the lyrics, enjoying some of the better written songs. By the end I just couldn’t wait for it to be over. A mixed bag, then.

5. The Pooh SticksOptimistic Fool: This is somewhat Beatles-y, albeit with none of the song writing nous and a predilection towards sunshine and rainbows. The front cover even has those dancing flower pot things that used to be a decent indicator as to whether the owner was a sociopath. It’s all fine and dandy but it’s hardly interesting enough to get excited about.

6. RideNowhere: A band I recall everyone getting all hot and bothered about, I never bothered to investigate, because I was too cool for all that. It’s pretty good, and screams ‘90’s indie’ at you, albeit in a wistful, foppishly haircutted kind of way. I rather enjoyed it.

7. Saint EtienneSo Tough: An unexpected delight, I expected this to be a bland mix of cheesy house music and wistful lady-indie, because that’s what I dimply recall from the time. Turns out it’s much more than that, with inventive, almost trip-hoppy beats, and lovely chilled out vocals layered on top. There’s a couple of duff tracks where the dance production sounds a bit like someone hit auto-play on a Casio keyboard, but I rather enjoyed this.

8. The Sea UrchinsStardust: This is fine, I suppose, but I’m not sure I entirely see the point. Standard Beatles worship with jingle-jangle guitars, and a bit of a rubbish singer. A bit yawn-worthy, all told.

9. Elastica Elastica: Now this is a proper pop album. It’s also the first album we’ve come to on the list that I actually owned. I can’t remember if it’s because I heard them on the Evening Session and loved them, or if I just saw Justine in the NME and somewhat fell in love with her, but I played the crap out of this album for a few years, and have barely touched it since. Thankfully, it’s held up remarkably well.

10. The Wedding PresentGeorge Best: this is very jolly, a post-Smiths mix of, guitars, pop and bristling wit, not at all what I was expecting. There’s some great tunes on here, and the vocals are excellent. Hey, I’m not hating this challenge at all so far!

11. New OrderMovement: I wrote that last line fully expecting to be able to have a witty one-two with myself about how much this sucked, but I’m completely bowled over by this. Nowhere near the later, more polished pop sound, this is harrowing gloomy indie that feels like the logical next step to Joy Division. In these somewhat tumultuous times, this feels like a perfect album to listen to.

12. The LibertinesThe Libertines: I tried to go into this without my preconceptions of this shitshow of hipster dross, but it looks like I failed, because after just a few songs of Pete ‘I love heroin’ Doherty’s mumbled atonal bullshit I just mentally checked out, and spent the rest of the album staring at my screen, waiting for it to end.

13. StereolabPeng!: Over the intervening years, my increasingly befuddled brain has equated all British indie to its worst moments, its Ian Browns and its Scouting for Girls, conveniently forgetting all the varied delights that actually fall under that umbrella. This is one such delight, a mix of lo-fi, slightly chintzy pop and out there musical freak-outery. Really enjoyed this, I will have to dig in deeper.

14. Franz FerdinandFranz Ferdinand: ‘Be nice about that one, I love that album,’ says my good lady wife. Of course, I’m a ‘journalist’, with ‘integrity’, so I would never stoop so low as to give something a false review in this most meaningless of challenges. I am, however, fucking relieved to say that this completely confounded my expectations. I never gave Franz the time of day, back in the day, believing them to be part of the whole ‘second wave of britpop’ nonsense that ended up with The Fucking Kooks being an actual, real life thing that happened. This is, of course, nothing like that at all, full of angular post-punk with brilliant lyrics, swaggering and self-deprecating at the same time. Really rather good. Phew!

15. Aztec CameraHigh Land, Hard Rain: Somewhere between 80’s indie and 80’s grandiose pop, this is in fact the product of a seventeen year old musical prodigy called Roddy Frame, and it’s pretty damn good. For some reason, my brain was expecting some kind of reggae, or world music, or something. It’s definitely not that.

16. Happy MondaysPills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches: Here we come to one of the main reasons I absolutely hated indie in the early 90’s. Bands like ‘The Mondays’ were all over Top of the Pops and The Chart Show (remember that?) with their atonal, disinterested halfway-pop songs, which made no sense to my ears. I wanted angst, I wanted melodies, and I wanted Eddie Vedder going ‘huuurrr de hurrr burrr’. That everyone was lauding these bands as some kinds of geniuses just confirmed how utterly wrong the whole rotten business was to me. How could they be geniuses, and sound that awful? Anyway, thirty years later and it still sounds like a steaming turd to me, sorry.

17. The PastelsUp For A Bit With The Pastels: Less obnoxiously awful than Shaun Ryder’s lot, this still suffers from an extreme case of ‘singer not being able to sing’. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Dylan. I love me some Tom Waits. But from Ash to the Stone Roses, and now to The Pastels, I could never fathom this style of singing. It’s deliberately out of tune, but also completely devoid of personality, like a child forced to sing Christmas carols against their will.

18. Teenage FanclubBandwagonesque: This is more like it. Melodies right out of the Lennon/McCartney/Wilson playbooks, drowning in guitars, this was really rather splendid. I used to have a housemate who loved them, but I never really gave them the time of day, mainly because he used to go nuts whenever the electricity ran out, and he once chucked a teaspoon through our back window because there was only soy milk in the fridge, but now I realise that disliking a band because of him was an awful burden to put on a band who had no idea of his existence.

19. Echo & the BunnymenPorcupine: I’m not sure if it’s true, and I certainly can’t be arsed to check, but it feels like every leg of this challenge has Echo and his Bunnymen somewhere along the way. Post punk? Check. Brit indie? Check. Alternative hip-hop? Okay, not so much. This is good, more goth than indie to these tired ears, but a change is as good as a rest, so I’ll take it.

20. The House Of LoveThe German Album: Another album that sounds less like the indie I grew up with, and more like 80’s goth-tinged guitar pop, but then I guess that’s what indie was back then. Clearly you’re not reading this because I’m a worldwide authority on the subject. To be honest, I didn’t like it or hate it enough to look it up in any great detail. Sorry.

21. Primal ScreamScreamadelica: I always dismissed this as being too ‘dancey’ for my tastes, and in places it really is, but there are flashes of brilliance elsewhere, when it can be arsed to sit itself down and write an actual song. The second half of the album in particular, when it slows things down and introduces some dub-style chillout stuff, is surprisingly excellent.

22. The Stone RosesThe Stone Roses: Well, this is embarrassing. This album has forever been my nemesis, a kind of warning flag as to the nadir of musical achievement. There’s something so utterly dreadful about that guitar tone, the singing, the way they dance, the singing, the swagger, and, oh yes, let’s not forget the singing. And yet… And yet… I’m almost embarrassed to say that I might, just might, have been a bit harsh on The Roses. Because while Brown’s voice isn’t great, and I’m never going to induct it into my top-anything albums of all time, I’ll rather begrudgingly admit that I quite enjoyed listening to this. It’s jolly, and summery, and facing into the bleakness of the nazi-infested nuclear winter of 2016, that’s actually not too bad a thing.

Wait, wait… I am the Resurrection is on. I chuffing hate that song. All is right with the world again.

23. The La’sThe La’s: I went into this with nothing more than the knowledge that if I hear There She Goes on a soundtrack one more time I’ll … I’ll … I’ll jolly well write a letter to my MP. Take that, Hollywood! Anyway, colour me once more utterly bewildered to find a truly exceptional album, halfway between the Kinks and the Beatles, with every single song an absolute delight. Proper northern working class guitar pop. Brilliant.

24. Arctic MonkeysWhatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not: Speaking of working class guitar pop, this almost feels like a spiritual successor to The Las’s; albeit a drunker, louder, funnier spirit, backed by a thunderous drummer. I remember when this came out, how it felt a million miles away from all the saccharine major-label indie-lite like The Pigeon Detectives, or The Fucking Kooks. I still didn’t like it all that much, but that’s because I am (as I believe I’ve noted before) a fucking idiot. This is great.

25. Joy DivisionUnknown Pleasures: Harrowing, dark, bleak, brilliant. I’ve now listened to this album a few times, since I encountered it on the Rolling Stone Challenge. I really like it, and can see why so many people would wear the t-shirt, even if I would never do so myself, because there’s no pentagrams or swear words on it.

Hey look, I’m halfway through, and despite there being some shaky moments, I’m still standing. Yeah yeah yeah! Oh for Pete’s sake, now I have bad Elton in my head.

Oh god, if you do too, I can only apologise. Seriously. Please still come back next time, yeah?

Welcome to Discovery Park – the chronicle of my increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all-time list, is available now on Amazon Uk, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and many more.

If you want to know more about me or my books, you can follow me on Twitter, like the Facebook page, or follow me on Instagram. For news, offers, and special content, sign up for the mailing list.

Also, my novel Blood on the Motorway – An apocalyptic tale of murder and stale sandwiches, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and many more.