Part two of my 2016 round-up is being posted from Los Angeles, so hello from there.
29-Nov: Best Compilations and Reissues
today: Best Tracks
13-Dec: Best Albums
20-Dec: Best Gigs
Previous Best Tracks:
2015: CHVRCHES – Playing Dead
2014: seeming – The Burial
2013: Seabound – Nothing But Love
2012: Death Grips – Hacker
2011: Frank Turner – One Foot Before The Other
2010: In Strict Confidence – Silver Bullets
2009: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Zero
2008: Mind.in.a.box – What Used To Be (Short Storm)
2007: Prometheus Burning – Battery Drain
2006: No tracks of the year list
2005: Grendel – Soilbleed / Rotersand – Exterminate Annihilate Destroy
2004: No tracks of the year list
2016 has been a curious year for music. A large number of the “old guard”, so to speak, have passed away, venues continue to close, laws and political leanings continue to squeeze opportunities for music to travel, as it were. Not to mention the various other events this year that have shaped our world.
But amid all of the chaos, disorder and darkness in our world, there has been some great music released – some of it protest music, some of it about as far from that as possible.
As is always the way, I try and restrict my lists to thirty releases – partly because it takes so damned long to write already, and partly because I’ll never stop if I don’t put a limit on it – so a few things that I might otherwise have liked to include missed out.
So these are the thirty best songs of 2016, as heard with my ears. Not all of it is industrial or dark alternative (or goth, or whatever you want to call it this week), as I’m happy to write about whatever I like, as a general rule. For all of you that put music my way – be that in promotional form, as a recommendation, as a mention at a show or festival – thank you. And thanks to my readers, too, wherever you are.
On with the thirty.
Let There Be Lasers
It’s been what seems like forever, but the glorious, sci-fi-industrial-dance stylings of Memmaker finally returned early in 2016, and while the album perhaps didn’t quite live up to the brilliance of the debut album, the lead single certainly did. A thumping, hook-heavy dancefloor workout, complete with obscure BBC sci-fi samples and a brilliant video, this made me nostalgic for industrial dancefloors of ten years ago.
Finally, they return – sixteen years since their amazing debut album Since I Left You and the lead single was a barking, summery joy – and the mother of all earworms. That main hook was based upon calypso artist Wilmoth Houdini’s Bobby Sox Idol, and wound through the song with rappers Danny Brown and MF Doom providing additional input along the way, but this was more than about words and hooks, it was about feel. This immediately brought to mind hot, sunny days, the kind of days where cares about the outside world quickly fizzle away in the heat haze. Music as escapism, right? Man, we needed that this year.
Let All The World Believe
It’s been a long time, or so it felt. I’ve seen AHC a few times since they returned to touring the UK again, and while the EP wasn’t great, the first track to be released from their comeback album was really quite brilliant. The implied violence and fury – always bubbling under the surface of their best music – is present and correct, and a sense of restraint for much of the chorus only makes the grinding riff, when it arrives, punch you in the gut even harder. A band sadly beset by tragedy and bad luck that somehow manage to fight back time and again, I can only hope we get another
Flesh For The Living
Flesh For The Living 12″
An intriguing, arty industrial act from Chicago, initially lurking in the shadows both metaphorically and visually – their earlier material was difficult, blurry work that was hard to get a handle on – and then came this. Totally different to what they’ve done before, it is a punishing EBM-techno track that I could easily hear in clubs both sides of that divide.
chance live at least.
The long-running Bristol electronic music collective finally returned with new material this year, complete with a handful of gigs too (of which I was lucky enough to see two). The promised album hasn’t (yet) materialised, but six songs-worth have, all of which have additional guests, and there isn’t a single bad song among them. The pick of the bunch, though, was this track, featuring the 2014 Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers, providing a nervous energy and unusual style to Massive Attack’s usually laid-back sound.
The Burning Bridge
The Burning Bridge EP
A striking change of tack for Athan Maroulis and his NOIR project, with a blistering dancefloor industrial track that sounds nothing like anything from his debut album Darkly Near – and indeed is a world away again from Spahn Ranch. Athan confirmed that this was a conscious decision in an interview with him back in the summer, and the new sound suits his voice well. Also of note – among other worthwhile moments on the EP – was an absolutely sumptuous cover of Duran Duran’s smouldering ballad The Chauffeur.
Everything Must Change (Extended)
Everything Must Change EP
Their period of reflection – various “retrospective” shows and a three-part “best of” series – now apparently completed, ISC returned with their first new material in four years this year, in the form of two longish EPs and a new album right at the end of the year (only released a couple of weeks ago). The two EPs were very different, too – one EP leading with a lush ballad, the other with a very much old-school dancefloor industrial/darkwave track. That ballad (Someone Else’s Dream) was pleasant enough, but sorely missed the usual ISC counterpoint of the female vocals, while Everything Must Change, especially in the extended version, was a thundering, howling return to form for this now (very)-long-lived band.
The closing track from Joey Blush’s Ant-Zen debut – and the highlight of a strong album – this is a world away from the ultra-treated, dense industrial-synthpop he first appeared with. Vocals and most melody have been dispensed with, for an assortment of analogue synths that have been fashioned into hypnotic restraint, the thundering climax that appears to be promised never coming. I wasn’t sure initially, but his move to the techno end of industrial has suited him very well, and this is among the best of the genre I’ve heard.
Clear A Path [economically viable edit]
Chicago rivetheads Cyanotic return with a new album Tech Noir soon, and as a taster in the autumn released this track – a pointer toward, apparently, a more retro industrial sound, a nod toward their influences both musically and technologically. This track is a solid, mid-paced industrial groove, sampling (and lyrically inspired by) Falling Down, long an industrial touchstone. It’s still Cyanotic, it still kicks hard, but the shift in emphasis is certainly noticeable, and I’ll be intrigued to see where else Tech Noir takes them.
As noted in my recent interview with the band, it has been a busy year for them as they adjust to now being a four-piece, and their sound has adjusted accordingly. The best of their releases this year, though, was this glowering, shadowy charge, built upon a heavy-hitting beat, melancholic piano and sharp-edged guitar work, as Nadia’s vocals float across it, lost in their own world. One of the most intriguing post-punk(ish) bands I’ve heard in recent times, they are seemingly trying to fashion new ideas from sometimes over-familiar templates.
Lava Lumps and Baby Bumps
I’d be lying if I was particularly au fait with Controlled Bleeding’s extensive, complex back-catalogue – one that stretches back almost as long as I’ve been alive, and has taken diversions into all kinds of sounds in-and-out of the industrial range. So the new album – the first in some time – took me by surprise a little, but this track in particular was the star of the show. A brutal, no-wave, industrial-jazz percussion attack that twists and hammers through six thrilling minutes.
Feeling My Heart Run Slow
Thirteen years on from Mansun’s split, Paul Draper at last returned with his first solo release in the spring, appropriately following the old Mansun tradition of EP titles (they went One EP/Two EP/etc). Perhaps not especially surprising was that the lead single from the EP, in particular, certainly bore a resemblance to what had come before. There was the busy, complicated arrangements, an oblique approach to melody, and of course Draper’s voice hitting familiar heights – and it sounded great.
Sins of the Father
The return of Rebekah Delgado this year was a cause for celebration. Partly because she’s well again (after serious illness, apparently), but also because she has picked up where she left off, with another song of dramatic, flamboyant rock. Sighing backing vocals, a racing heartbeat of a drum-rhythm, as well as cinematic-esque guitars provide an ample canvas for Delgado’s sultry voice to tell a wonderful tale of sin and darkness. A new album was apparently due, but I’m not sure if this is now the case.
Clipping. remain an outlier in hip-hop – while Death Grips might play with extremities, they aren’t sampling *Whitehouse* and inserting squealing, high-pitched noise amid a beat pattern that bears more relation to industrial power-electronics than it does to hip-hop norms. So, yes, this isn’t to all tastes, but as experiments on the fringes of established genres, this is a fascinating – and great – way of pushing boundaries, even if it is most likely some way beyond where many will go – even further than the sci-fi concept album Splendor & Misery that followed it…
Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
While it is over six years since their last album proper (Barking), Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been busy with many other things in the meantime. Lots of work with Danny Boyle (including working on the music for the Olympic opening ceremony in London), other solo work and collaborations, and the lavish, sprawling re-issues of their two greatest albums (and a tour for the dubnobasswithmyheadman re-issue). So it was kind of a wonder that they managed a new album so fast, really.
While working with High Contrast again, this album felt more like Underworld. The highest point was this glorious track – Underworld’s best song since sometime around the turn of the millennium and maybe earlier. A slower, dirty groove underpins one of Hyde’s characteristic streams of consciousness vocals, that builds and swirls into an ecstatic, chanting climax.
While Richard Kirk has resurrected the Cabaret Voltaire name – even though the music he is playing at live shows is more akin to the, er, difficult noise he had been doing solo – Stephen Mallinder has quietly got on with the new band he is now part of. I saw them live in the summer supporting John Grant (in the Royal Albert Hall, of all places), and while the first album was an interesting excursion into analogue electronics, this first single from the new album is a hell of a step up. A squelching, rubbery, synth-led rhythm dominates the song, with Mallinder’s voice going into different styles than we may be used to. The video is darkly hilarious, too…
An ugly, snarling industrial-rock track that takes in a distinctly 80s-sounding synth sound, sampled choirs, indistinct ranting voices, and a stately, martial rhythm. This is yet another band from outwith the industrial realms and, it could be argued, that are doing a better job with the raw materials than many bands that actually identify overtly with the scene. I’ve asked this before, but again – are we in the scene keeping our focus too narrow?
I mentioned how much I liked this some months back, and there has been a steady stream of (very good) new songs from Rexx Arkana’s new project across the year – I understand a debut album is coming in due course. I’m all for that – this is dark, intriguing futurepop, with a distinctly eighties-edge to reflect Rexx Arkana’s formative influences, I guess – complete with sparse arrangements, heady rushes of synths whipping past the ears, and a deep, forboding vocal that suits the sound perfectly, and this is the best song yet released by them. A new album comes in the new year.
So, there has been lots of noise-rock taking on industrial sounds, but there haven’t been quite so many bands taking the noise element so literally. This is painful, grinding stuff – for over seven minutes. There is a drum pattern being battered out here, but it is blurred and obscured by a fluttering, presumably reversed beat that is overlaid at the front of the mix, meaning that what I can only assume are synths and guitars – and the vocals – are all buried underneath in a very unusual fashion, making this an uncomfortable, difficult and most of all enthralling listen.
You Don’t Get Me High Anymore
A staggering, indie-r’n’b-pop concoction that absolutely towers over the rest of a patchy album, I can only hope that this band have more in them at some point. It bounces, it crackles, it bursts into life from the off, and then somehow the band find a way to clamber up to even greater heights with a glorious chorus. Subject-wise, the song appears to be treading familiar ground (drug metaphors for a relationship fizzling out, perhaps), but for a song this good I’ll forgive just about anything.
Black Wings EP
Discovered from friends in the North-East after a plea for new music, this smoky, dark sound – Bad Seeds, Bowie, the Velvet Underground, Neubauten all spring to mind here – is really quite captivating. Yes, there is a gothic feel here, but there is also something more decadent, as if a club with tables, and the band in suits, are necessary for enjoying it – not to mention a quality red wine, and cigarettes. Despite the cliched imagery invoked, actually, the band manage to side-step them, creating something of their own sound within some very familiar, and much-loved, touchstones. One to watch.
Commitment to Complications
All of the second Youth Code album is an almighty step-forward from their still-impressive debut, but one song in particular shines above all of the others. Much of the material that Youth Code made their name with is full-on industrial-punk fury, but what is notable about this song is how restrained it is, for the most part. A slower, darker groove, where Sara spits and sings a song of personal examination, from what I can tell, and the result is an extraordinarily reflective industrial song that hits so hard for the emotional power, not sledgehammer beats.
Ἐλθὲ Κύριε (Elthe Kyrie)
‘Come Lord’, the title broadly translates to, but really, this sounds like an incantation to summon someone much darker. Danai Katsameni dominates the vocals – lengthy, fast-paced verses in Greek, and provides a fascinating counterpoint to the bellowed, earth-straddling roar of Sakis Tolis in the chorus. This was the first track to be heard from the new album, where Rotting Christ – again – provided one of the highlights of the metal year, where their blackened death metal once again looked well beyond the usual confines of their peers into a world of wonderous, devotional music.
Field Agent (demo)
An eleven-minute techno-industrial-alien-conspiracy, by a member of Deafheaven, that appeared as part of a three-track demo earlier in the year. Comprised of samples of, from what I can tell, Phil Schneider talking about his alien “encounter” in the 1990s – part of which is looped on an apparently infinite basis, it comes in halfway through, and then starts afresh – for the first half of the track, with spooky synths providing an otherworldly choral backing, before a thumping groove takes over as Schneider’s voice fades out, that likely sounds amazing in a club environment. The other tracks from the demo are similarly fascinating, dealing with a similar realm thematically – I can only hope that more releases follow this.
2016 has, in some ways, felt like one long fucking tease for the second 3TEETH album. There have been a couple of singles, and a number of other songs aired at their Infest appearance in August, but the point where I realised I was impatient to hear more was upon the first listen to this. Everything about this song is a power-up to what has come before. The beat is harder, the guitars are processed even more and louder, and Lex’s vocals have even more snarl. And that’s before the chorus hits you like an avalanche (both sonically and physically). With the Tool support slots across the year, this band’s profile has never been higher – so expect a hell of a bang when the album drops, finally, in February.
I spent a while agonising over which song to feature this week from KANGA, as it isn’t as if I don’t have loads of choice (in other words, yes, the album is great). But seeing as the chorus from this one has been stuck in my head for, oh, the past two months now, it has to be the one. A stomping, surging tide of industrial pop, with a monstrous build and hook, not mention an intriguing lyric seemingly based around the power dynamics of certain kinds of relationships, this is one of the blazing highlights of the album and ends in spectacular fashion, too, as the effects and density of the mix build and build, before stopping dead.
Eyes On Backwards
The first taste we had from DWIFH’s fourth album, when it was played live on their summer dates, Tantrum is a pummelling, dancefloor-bound howl of industrial fury with hooks, thundering rhythms and some amazing sample use (that “Jesus Christ” breakdown!). About as much of a step away from the sweeping grandeur of All The Way Down as it was possible to be, this is direct, snarling industrial music, and sounds fucking great.
Ben Wheatley’s stark – and very much Ballardian in visual tone, in every way – take on High Rise was also notable for the use of the first new Portishead material in some time – a cover of ABBA’s S.O.S.. Initially the band had made it clear that it would not be released outside of the use within the film – and most of the song is played along one long scene – but the band finally relented as the tense, ugly run-up to the EU Referendum here in the UK ended up with a young, up-and-coming left wing MP murdered in the street before the vote went in favour of leaving the EU.
The song deserved to be heard, too. An astonishing, sparse take on one of the Swedish pop titans greatest songs, it dials back everything, leaving little more than Beth Gibbons’ plaintive voice, wracked with emotion and reminding us of just how much power she holds in her vocal alone – easily the best cover version I’ve heard in many, many years.
Demons/Seeing Stars EP
These guys are a young band that are starting to be noticed (a European tour support to Mesh this autumn, as well as a few festival appearances in Europe over the summer, will certainly have helped). Nominally a synthpop band, but rather than going for the dancefloor, they go for the heartstrings instead, with a slower, nakedly emotional sound and a talent with songcraft that has meant, so far, that they haven’t released a single track that isn’t excellent. This track, though is simply brilliant. A wracked, heart-stopping chorus is the killer moment here, yet more evidence of old heads on young shoulders.
The final SVIIB album came heavy with symbolism and the aura of loss – band member Benjamin Curtis died a few years back, the other remaining member, Alejandra Deheza, decided to finish the album as a tribute to him – but remarkably, much of the album manages to break free of the darkness and burst into light. None more so than this staggering track, where vocal melodies and pulsing synths combine to provide a featherbed backing for Deheza’s musings on human communication – before a gigantic, dazzling chorus hits you between the eyes out of absolutely nowhere, and it becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, how much love there was in this working relationship. The video, which makes little reference to Curtis, closes with the heartbreaking image of a closed guitar case, reminding us what we’ve lost.