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« Best of 2017 | Main | Another guest review »

The best of 2016

Well, where did that year go?

I'm still not convinced that any dearth of opinionated amateur music critics on the internet requires Eden On The Line to return to more active service, but it still seems right to set down a pick of 2016.

Some amazing concerts - Bruce Springsteen at Wembley, from close enough not to need the video screens, for once; Wussy, touring in full-band mode, upstairs at the Hope and Ruin; Paul Simon (who I'd not seen before) on cracking form, aged 75; a reformed Long Ryders ditto and ditto, though slightly younger...

On record, not many entirely new discoveries, but folk I like made some good ones. The usual crop of wonderful reissues, headed by the expanded It's Too Late To Stop Now by Van Morrison, which includes a DVD of the long-lost video from the Rainbow, originally broadcast as an Old Grey Whistle Test special. Van at his very finest in 1973: essential stuff. Check out also Gillian Welch's set of out-takes from Revival, which is well worth the price of admission.

These were my favourite newbies:

10. Various Artists: Blonde On Blonde Revisited. Mojo magazine came up with this double vinyl collection of cover versions for the original's 50th anniversary. In the general way of these ventures, the contributions are mixed. But it's a lovely package and the better tracks are splendid: Jim O'Rourke makes 'Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands' more interesting than anyone could reasonably expect; the almost inevitable Ryley Walker and Michael Chapman are ace on 'Fourth Time Around' and 'Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat' respectively. The whole thing makes you think about the originals and sends you back to them - which is exactly what you want.

9. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker. In the year that he checked out for good (taking up permanent residence in the Tower of Song), the great man left us with an apt memento, by turns dark, tender and witty. It probably won't be the first of Len's albums we turn to in five years' time. But in 2016 - as usual with his albums - it put most of the competition to shame. (Memo to the - thoroughly deserved - Nobel laureate: there are still opportunities to revisit the writing motherlode...)

8. A Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. You may have spotted that I'm not generally a huge hip-hop fan. But I like to kid myself that with any genre I can get the really good stuff. I've always had a soft spot for the Tribe since I heard the wonderful 'I Left My Wallet In El Segundo' on a compilation I'd bought way back for one of my daughters. So, yet more of 2016's bitter-sweetness: Phife Dawg dies, at a horribly young 45, but a reformed band turn in an impressive and engaging release, featuring his final contributions.

7. Alejandro Escovedo: Burn Something Beautiful. One old faithful teaming up with another: Peter Buck produces and plays guitar here. They're well matched. No great surprises, but a strong set of songs, crisp playing and admirable energy. What's not to like?

6. Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker: Cannots. Why can't I shut up about Ryley? Because he's so prolific and so damn good. He's already featured in this list on the Dylan covers compilation. His own album this year (Golden Songs That Have Been Sung) could well have featured here - though it was edged out for relative inconsistency and an unacceptably noodling live version of 'Sullen Mind'. This one is a live-in-the-studio duo recording with a jazz drummer, released in a limited edition for Record Store Day. Seek it out, if you're not allergic to jazz. Probing, intelligent, light-on-its-feet and generally wonderful.

5. Steve Gunn: Eyes On The Lines. I could have mentioned Steve already - his 'Visions Of Johanna' on the number ten pick is worth the entrance fee there. He also played a splendid gig in Brighton this year and has produced a Michael Chapman release that's due in January. One of those people who have hit a purple patch in which it is difficult to do any wrong. And there is certainly nothing wrong with this collection of strong songs and lovely guitar.

4. Avishai Cohen: Into The Silence. And finally, a genuinely new discovery in 2016 - courtesy of a review in The Guardian. If the letters ECM bring you out in a rash, stop here. But I find this gorgeous, reflective and intelligent stuff from the Israeli trumpeter and band leader. Inspired by loss, but finding beauty rather than gloom. And I suspect that is a facility we're going to continue to need in 2017.

3. David Bowie: Blackstar. Like Leonard, Bowie went out on a high. A surprise release at the start of the year. It is inevitable, after his death, to find intimations - and explorations - of mortality in the lyrics. But the music is yet another questing, and challenging, shift in a legendarily chameleon career. It's genuinely inspiring to hear the squally jazz skronk underpinning his final dispatches. No compromise and no surrender. I'll have have what he had, please.

2. Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like A Levee. Another known quantity who has played an excellent gig in Brighton this year. This may be MC Taylor & co's best effort yet. And it is not just the main man: lovely grooves to match confident singing. It feels like a band on record - and that is certainly the impression they give in concert.

1. Wussy: Future Sounds. A band here too. And what a pleasure to see the whole team touring the UK in May. (Thanks for the blog, Mark.) I'm not sure that individually the songs here are as strong as the previous release Attica!, but the textures and cohesion make up for that. Chuck and Lisa in fine voice - and they have added a pedal steel! The bizz. If there was any logic in the world Wussy would be playing to audiences of thousands, but it's such a selfish joy to catch them in small rooms: don't miss the opportunity while it's there.

Those of you who know may tastes may feel that this post has been a case of "round up the usual suspects" - and I guess that's one of the reasons why I'm not blogging more regularly now. Other fingers are rather closer to the contemporary pulse...

The close runners-up this year included Paul SimonOliver Swain, Lisa Hannigan, Chris Forsyth, Nathan Bowles and the Trembling Bells. Special mention for the Prettiots: their NYC-sass-plus-ukulele combo didn't really sustain itself over a whole album, but "Boys (That I Dated In High School)" was a killer track. If you missed it, try here.

And so, 2017 - what ya got?

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