Jessikah Hope Stenson
Lauren Aquilina - Isn’t It Strange?
From lead single Kicks, a pop song with a punch, to How Would You Like It?, an emotional track about being cheated on, Isn’t It Strange? is a well-balanced collection of Aquilina’s best work to date. My personal highlights include Wicked Game, Way Too Good and Midnight Mouths. Especially Way Too Good, an atmospheric, soulful track about waiting for life to come crashing down when things are going well. I’ve heard it said on Laura Marling’s Reversal Of The Muse that good songwriting is capturing those feelings and aspects of life which everyone experiences but cannot put into words. Here’s an example of Aquilina doing just that.
Unfortunately, shortly after the album’s release Aquilina announced that it wouldn’t just be her first but also her last, claiming that her role in the music industry needed to change for the sake of her mental health. She’s assured her fans that she’ll still be an active song-writer, but it’s tragic to think of someone who went from performing as Taylor Swift’s special guest to saying goodbye to their creative platform.
Instead of focusing on this, it’s important to appreciate Isn’t It Strange? as Aquilina’s heart and soul. It pushed her to the limit and that shows. Without a song worth skipping and - more than that - with a ferocious blend of emotive song-writing and graceful keys, Isn’t It Strange? is without a doubt the most impressive debut album of 2016.
Whitney- Light Upon The Lake
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a band who know themselves, and know their sound even on a first outing. Light Upon The Lake is a record that sounds like its existed for years, a forgotten gem of the late 60s dream pop explosion or a 70s AM radio album that slipped out of memory after Rumours got released. This fusion of such well studied sonic influences probably has something to do with Whitney’s classification as an indie supergroup of sorts; the brainchild of ex-members of both Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Smith Westerns Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek.
Despite the album’s lean 30 minute runtime, these sounds feel thoroughly stretched out and explored along with every other gorgeous and glowing part of the instrumentation. Guitars are twangy, the keys are warm and subtle as is the percussion, bursts of soulful brass and thumping bass colour the record in some truly beautiful shades of blue on tracks like Polly and lead single No Woman. Julien’s voice meanwhile remains a smooth and delicate falsetto that never lets up or misses a beat (check the title track and its intertwining guitar and vocal lines). The songs themselves are steeped in nostalgia, somewhere between country and soul. They tell of old loves and new found flames, introspective window gazing and sometimes just loss. Light Upon hooks into you for weeks after you’ve heard it, the melodies still echoing around your headspace; it’s a concise and gripping listen for the dreamy haze of production that wraps it all up. Sure, it wears some influences on its sleeve, but when they’re used so well, you can’t help but dive in.
Meilyr Jones - 2013
Jubilant, heartfelt and Welsh Music Prize winning, Meilyr Jones’ 2013 is my pick for debut album of the year.
After a breakup with both his former band and girlfriend, 2013 recounts a turbulent year for the former Race Horses frontman. The debut solo album bursts out of the stocks with How To Recognise A Work Of Art, a bright and punchy track, recorded entirely live, that could well be my single of the year too. Jones sings without a hint of embarrassment or restraint - not to say his voice is scrappy - just unperfected. His likeness to Morrissey is unavoidable but Jones sings without the same pouting pretence and retraining self awareness. The same style of humour is also spread throughout 2013, culminating in the mocking pride of the line “I am the face of the Observer’s free magazine” in Featured Artist.
Sonically, the album is a gold standard of chamber pop. Sgt. Pepper style A Day In The Life horns and strings fit with choral interludes to form a flawless fusion of classical and pop. All this orchestration provides the backdrop for theatrical story of the album. Narrating his trip of self discovery to Rome, Jones has said the record was “conceived as a compilation of myself, over the period of a year”. For a breakup record, 2013 has a rich and varied outlook. Among the 13 tracks are moments of both mourning and euphoria. A decidedly strange, emotional album, as Adrian Meilyr Jones would probably put it.
Spring King - Tell Me If You Like To
The Manchester 4 piece, Spring King, have ridden the recent resurgence of DIY post-punk rock to break through with their debut, Tell Me If You Like To. Their low-fi sound is defined by biting grungy guitar riffs and the distorted echoes of the vocals. Drummer, vocalist, and arguably the driving force behind Spring King, Tarek Musa is well known for his DIY credentials and this is evident, even with the move to a combination of home and studio production, throughout the album.
The tone of this album captures the mood of 2016. Reflected in the often ominous, ragged guitar and drums and allusive lyrics, this is made all the more impressive by the fact that Tell Me If You Like To was released in June before the political turmoil of Brexit and the US election. There is also a general sense of uncertainty of identity and powerlessness thrown in for good measure. This is revealed most clearly in the desperate refrain of Who Am I, What Does It Matter? and In City.
However, Tell Me If You Like To escapes the trap of inextricably drowning itself in the quick sand and angst and despair by of setting this with the anarchic joyfulness of its guitar riffs and its thundering choruses tailor made for indie clubs. This is also reflected lyrically with a theme of escapism from the aforementioned angst and despair running throughout. Ultimately, Tell Me If You Like To is a first rate rock album that exudes pure energy and fires out guitar solos, riffs and choruses that rarely miss the mark.
Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke
Putting aside the unfortunate number of newly-deceased musicians for a second, 2016 hasn’t been that bad of a year for music. It’s given us some pretty spectacular debuts, from Bossk’s searing onslaught of post-metal noise to Noname’s introspective rap excursions, and the best that I’ve been fortunate enough to hear is the brainchild of veteran jazz musicians Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith – the wonderfully inventive A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Iyer’s gently hypnotic piano on opening track Passage gently coerces the listener into a beguiling sonic whirlpool, wherein Smith’s trumpet shrieks all the right notes in precisely the right order and rhythm, showing a healthy disregard for the casual listener’s potential reliance on obvious melodies. The eponymous suite is remarkably expansive, covering just about every kind of textural terrain imaginable, and the album displays an astonishing level of vibrancy, as well as a sense of purpose unprecedented in such uncharted musical territory.
It’s certainly a challenging listen. Anyone unwilling to broaden their horizons may well wish to tear their ears off. With that being said, such an exercise wouldn’t nearly equal the catharsis offered up by the music itself, if given a chance. To play fast and loose with the word ‘fact’ for a moment, the fact is that very few LPs this year have attempted to push the boundaries as much as this, and none whatsoever has succeeded to this extent. By carefully deconstructing the framework of avant-garde jazz, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke has positioned itself as one of the best debuts of the year. There are countless good reasons to try this album, from sampling some of the finest music of 2016 to simply having a quasi-valid justification for your belief that jazz is pretentious rubbish. Find a reason.