Tracks of 2016: #16 Altar Flowers

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Funny what the Internet can do.

There’s meeting people at gigs because they’ve not got a plus+1 and you have (waves to the person to whom this refers.) There’s meeting people for brief moments of pleasure (shrugs shoulders, I’ve only heard about this on the bus.)

And there’s finding a band who you don’t just really like, but who you end up chatting to about, er, Eurovision, if I recall. Hello Altar Flowers.

I can hardly deny liking Altar Flowers very much. As you may have noticed throughout this rundown, I’m a sucker for good old honest songs with heart and substance; maybe it’s the long lost 1980s goth inside me who never had the chance to develop who loves Altar Flowers’ retro touches. Melodies as strong as eye-liner is fundamental, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Tracks of 2016: #15 Eädyth

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Unknown unknowns bring so unexpected pleasures.

Lazy noodling around Soundcloud and the like takes me into all sorts of places. All Internet surfing is the same, of course. Oh look at me, using “Internet” with a capital letter and “surfing” like I’m a children’s television presenter from about 1994. Coming up next on The O Zone…

Anyway, lazy link following on Soundcloud landed me eventually with this track, and how I soon stopped hopping around and remained with my finger poised over the repeat listen function.  Eädyth has an amazing voice, soulful with youthful vigour floating above the essence of chill-out cool. Countless forwarding and skipping tracks, in a very modern way, took me to a song I couldn’t wait to hear again, and isn’t that the essence of an end-of-year roundup?

I am not one of those dyed in the wool romantics who believes in the wholesale destruction of all commercial radio (although I have been tested, CAPITAL). However, just sometimes, a voice like Eädyth’s comes to my attention and I wonder what would change if she was heard just once over Ellie “sheep being tickled” Goulding being heard for the 564th time that day.

Tracks of 2016: #14 Palomino Party

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What the Hell are we listening to?

That’s a question often placed straight at my door. At work (because I try to sneak on 6Music for a bit). At home (because I try to sneak 6Music on for a bit). At house parties (because invitations to use Spotify always turns my head into a mush of mainstream chart music and cheese at the worst possible times).

Question me again, then, folks, because here’s Palomino Party and I haven’t got an inch of an idea. To what am I listening? To whom? For why?

Great though, eh? Unhinged at the start, in that way which would cause the unsuspecting outsider to reach for the “skip” button. And you’re talking to an expert here, I had a barmaid use the BIG BAD JUKEBOX SKIP RED BUTTON OF DOOM before “One Night In Bangkok” had got past the orchestral sweep of its introductory movement. “Black Russian” turns into a sludgy, murky, pop-sprinkled guitar wigout and I ruddy love it, so skip button be damned, I don’t know much about this band at all although I’m certain we could prop up a few bars.

Tracks of 2016: #13 The Coral

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A conversation picked up at work, I think from something I heard on the radio, about those albums released at the height of 1990s Britpop-infused guitar frenzy. Many of the albums which came from that period now seem awfully dated and “of their time”. Further, of course, many of those bands have either moved lightyears away from those Britpop chart-toppers (that’ll be your Blur) or disappeared through various ways and fashions (that’ll be your Pulp.)

Then there’s those whose albums seem to be watchwords for the 1990s and early 2000s who have carried on quietly, methodically and doing so with loyal fans in happy rapture (that’ll be your Gomez, your James, your The Coral.)

The lights may have faded, the live music shows have all been yanked off air or marginalised, music itself may have transformed into an unrecognisable industry, yet here these bands remain. In the specific case of The Coral, remaining with songs far removed from the quasi-Merseybeat image of their mainstream hits: this new material is broad and brashy and satisfyingly trippy. I’ll suggest very early “The Actor” era-ish Moody Blues as a companion piece.



Tracks of 2016: #12 The Capital

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You know a good song when you hear it, yes? The innate sense of immediate approval, the pursed lips, the nod, the whispered “oh yeah”, the click of “Buy Now” or “Download This”. Something about a good old fashioned no nonsense song when all the elements of what has been recorded clicks with whatever you’ve been wanting to hear; that’s a darn good feeling.

In what I call a “previous life”, advice was given to me to never review guitar-based music as “raw”. It’s like saying “I support healthcare” as a politician: of course guitars are going to make a rock song “raw”, that’s the whole point. I retort now. many years later, how else could I describe “Hummingbird”, have you noticed the lyrics?

It’s not that this track, number 12 in my in-no-particular-order run down, happens to be the unofficial number 1 by the way. There’s been plenty of pursed lips and nods with my headphones in, let me tell you. “Hummingbird” blimey heck should be on far more lists than this one, and very high in the rankings too. What hits me about the song is how it’s clearly crafted but without any artificial polish: if there’s no way around the ban on “raw”, might I get away with “natural” ?

Or a less flim-flam way of putting it: a damn good song.

Tracks of 2016: #11 ZAYN

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“Green Man” by Mark Owen. Remember it? Of course you don’t. Nobody does. I doubt Mark does (if the “green” in the title means what it likely did, check the art work.)

Not long after the slow release/rapid collapse of Take That, “Green Man” sneaked out like a fart in a church, the first full album of a former member which didn’t ostensibly represent a full-on peroxide hair dye pill-chomping breakdown. That we know about. By most measures and considerations, Owen’s stepping away from boyband unity to mucky-haired indie boy was a disaster of epic proportions: those who were convinced that the lad had musical chops on the basis of “Clementine” soon found themselves knee high in festival mud and new-age whimsy. It’s not always sensible to leave the comfort of manufactured pop *and* reinvent your output all in one go.

Fast forward to 2016, slap bang in the middle of the immediate post-Bowie aftermath indeed, and reinvention was clearly the topic du jour. Enter stage left Zayn Malik. Sorry. I mean Zayn. Sorry again: ZAYN. Capitals. Important business. Significant. Goes well with a hashtag and sans serif fonts.

ZAYN took an almighty dump on just about every element of his boyband life in the moments between leaving and releasing “Pillowtalk”. Shit dumping on this scale would usually require an expert in colonoscopy. Achingly cool to the point of parody (HE SWEARS IN SONGS NOW! HE SAYS SWEAR WORDS!) this would have been the start of something quite significant (HE SINGS IN URDU ON THE ALBUM! WITH A THICK BRADFORDIAN ACCENT! TAKE THAT BREXIT!) were it not for commercial radio to take one collective listen to the follow up single and go “…..nah, not for us.”

Tracks of 2016: #9 BOSS

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An unexpected selection.

Remember when a fringe element of the dance scene took it upon themselves to pretend that sounding like a Commodore 64 loading screen was somehow a “thing”? This track has that “thing” running through it. And it sounds fantastic. The retro bleeps-and-sparks are but one layer to this veritable signature dish of elements; and yes, I am “down with that”. It’s in the title. It all works.

BOSS sound boss, la. There’s a great use of the vocal equivalent of ellipsis about a third of the way through, the croak in the voice playful and a touch menacing, before the all-out indie feel makes way for something a touch more psychedelic. And yes, I’m “down with that”.

Tracks of 2016: #8 Shura

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Pop. What kind of year has it been for pop? As with 2015, it feels as though pop bangers of yore are, well, exactly that. Of yore. No longer guaranteed. Pop has been ripped apart like a chunk of Play-Doh, endlessly remodelled and reshaped, endlessly rolled into squashed up boulders which sort-of resemble dog-dirt. I accept that we live in a world of post-truth, are we also living in a world of post-irony? What even is post-irony?

Shura is not quite the all-out pop starlet we need. That said, “What’s It Gonna Be?” is pop banger material all the way through, and with the sweetest and most relevant accompanying video of the year. Yes, people still film pop videos. Presumably without irony. Or with. Maybe both? I don’t know where we are with irony, pre- or post-. Somebody help me.

“What’s It Gonna Be?” may not have broken through the mainstream channels as successfully as it should, but I’m not putting Shura to the back of my mind just yet, she’s got much promise yet to realise.

Tracks of 2016: #7 De Montevert

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Me! Disorganised?! Heaven forfend!

Okay. Disorganised. C’est moi. I have pencil sketches of this year’s list, possibly ensuring that I can at least prove the “in no particular order” part of this exercise. Best laid plans, however, do not respect the retractable pencil nor the shorthand writer’s notepad. And so, please get acquainted to De Montevert.

Who? No idea. I hear the sound of almost every other song Mary Ann Hobbs plays on 6Music…in a good way…the dreamy and ethereal, the insistence and the reticence playing off each other. It’s indie as heard through very modern filters, the vocal delivery shrug-shouldered, the lyrics playful and unforgiving. What came to me very late in this extensive/improvised process was a song with all the hallmarks of a late 1990s song popping up through means of time travel, and I’m a sucker for both the 1990s and tenuous metaphor.

Tracks of 2016: #5 Sharon Needles

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Here’s the T.

Ru Paul’s Drag Race had pickied up cult status long before 2012’s Season 4 came around. Self-aware and knowing, as all reality TV shows must be, the additional element of brand savvy drag queens just added the ingredient needed to push ‘potential’ into ‘phenomenon’.

For Season 4 the reality TV trope ‘series-length rivalry’ was edited to within an inch of its life between Sharon Needles (whose début runway look involved a bald cap and fake blood) and Phi Phi O’Hara (the more traditional ballgown and pageants queen). Of course the drama was ramped up to eleventistupid, it involved reality television, gay men and narrative convenience. What transpired generated enough social media content and Twitter friendly memes to guarantee Drag Race success from the first episode onwards for ever more.

Here’s another grand tradition of drag queens: their inevitable pop careers are usually disasters. Cheap songs, cheaper videos, in-joke lyrics. If Sharon Needles represents anything, it’s the results of knowing your gay history and working on songs with depth and content. It may not be a coincidence that the hit count for this video is much lower than would be expected from anything released by a series winner. #Choices.