At this point it’s probably worth mentioning, in no particular order, the albums that on another day with a fair wind behind could have made it into the Top 20; FRENCH BOUTIK – Front Pop, C DUNCAN – The Midnight Sun, LEONARD COHEN – You Want It Darker, MADNESS – Can’t Touch Us Now, LAMBCHOP – Flotus, ED HARCOURT – Furnaces, THE CORAL – The Distance Between Us, THE HOSTS – Moon, DEXY’S – Let The Record Show, WHITE DENIM – Stiff, STEVE MASON – Meet The Humans, ABC – The Lexicon Of Love II, ELI PAPERBOY REED – My Way Home, RICHARD ASHCROFT – These People, SUEDE – Night Thoughts, THE SENIOR SERVICE – The Girl In The Glass Case.
10: KUTIMAN – 6AM (Siyal Music) According to press articles, Kutiman (Israeli multi-instrumentalist/ producer Ophir Kutiel) is a “psychedelic funk architect” and although not my words, it’s an epithet that fits like a glove. On some tracks we get spaghetti-western guitars, on others, subtle Middle Eastern influences. In places, it’s jazzy, funky and cool, in others, psych-rock elements appear. Put it all together though and you have a superb genre-mashing listen!
9: DAVID BOWIE – Blackstar (Columbia) In light of his death, it would be easy for me to write gushingly about the final record from my musical hero irrespective of how good or bad it was, however, “Blackstar”, whilst not being his best ever record certainly sits up there alongside them. Bowie’s bravery in making this enigmatic and, in hindsight, extremely moving album, knowing it would be his last, is a testament to an artist who pushed boundaries, broke the rules and single-handedly redefined rock-stardom. RIP
8: VAN MORRISON – Keep Me Singing (Caroline) Whilst enjoying his 70th year, Van Morrison released his 36th studio album and, as I have the other 35, in my opinion, it’s his best since 1991’s “Hymns To The Silence”. In “Keep Me Singing” the (occasionally) hoary old goat has, it appears, mellowed like a fine wine, as this set of 12 songs are as warm, melancholy and reflective as anything he’s ever released. Be warned though, if you’re not already a fan, this album probably won’t change your mind.
7: THE JAMES HUNTER SIX – Hold On (Daptone) From the moment the funky Hammond and sax kicks in seconds into the album’s opener “If That Don’t Tell You” to the jazzy piano and brass fade on closing track “In The Dark”, this superb, 30 minute, 10 track set from one of the best R&B vocalists (and his shit-hot band!) around, is a soul fan’s delight with shades of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Chuck Jackson et al permeating throughout. White, middle-aged British men never sounded so damn groovy!
6: MAN & THE ECHO – Man & The Echo (1965 Records) I’d not even heard of Man & The Echo until November when Steve Lamacq played “Operation Margarine”, their wonderfully titled nod to 70’s soul, on his 6 Music show, but since then I’ve listened to this brilliant album almost daily. Contained within are elements of the Style Council, The Divine Comedy, Monkeys of both the Blow and Arctic variety, Ian Dury and even Madness in places. Lyrically quirky, politically astute and supremely tuneful but always massive fun and catchy as hell.
5: WILLIAM BELL – This Is Where I Live (Stax) William Bell is an indisputable Southern Soul legend who started out way back in 1961 on the original Stax label. Now 76 and recording on the rejuvenated Stax for the first time in 40 years, he has made one of the best albums of his career. Stand-outs for me are the ballads “The House Always Wins”, “The Three Of Me” and the title track, plus a superb, swampy version of his own best-known song “Born Under A Bad Sign”. This is a must-have record for any discerning soul-music fan.
4: THE JUNIPERS – Red Bouquet Fair (Sugarbush Records) The Junipers are from Leicester and for the second time this year Leicester has something to be immensely proud of, as, like a certain Mr Ranieri, “Red Bouquet Fair” is exceptional! This is an album as sun-drenched as a Californian summer and as comforting as your favourite pillow. Bathed in shimmering psychedelic instrumentation beneath Robyn Gibson’s dreamy, easy on the ear vocals, the 12 tracks that make up this record are THE perfect antidote to the winter blues. Buy it!
3: TEENAGE FANCLUB – Here (Merge) Teenage Fanclub are another band on my list who are now making some of their best music over 25 years into their career. Power-pop opening track “I’m In Love” was one of the singles of the year, “Steady State”, “I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive” and album closer “Connected To Life” are as immersive and dreamy as anything they’ve ever recorded whilst “I Have Nothing More To Say” and “Live In The Moment” are TFC at peak flow. This is quite possibly their best ever album.
2: THE MONKEES – Good Times (Rhino) Take a band who haven’t released anything since 1996, who are in their 50th year, are fronted by a septuagenarian, ask “modern” pop-stars to write songs for them and it’s going to be as cringeworthy as Madonna shagging Bieber, right? Wrong – it’s fucking brilliant! The opening 5 tracks, including the brilliant Andy Partridge composed and virtually perfect pop record “Here Comes the Summer” could be lifted from any album in their 1960’s heyday, “Me & Magdalena” from the pen of Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is stunning, Michael Nesmith’s “I Know What I Know” is so moving that it made me cry, “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” by Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher is, well, what you would expect a Paul Weller/ Noel Gallagher track sung by The Monkees to sound like, and we even get a lead vocal from the now sadly departed Davy Jones on the re-recorded 1967 original “Love To Love. This is an album that EVERYONE who loves music should own as, even if you’ve never heard of The Monkees or the songwriters that worked on it, Good Times is a bonafide pop masterpiece.
1: MICHAEL KIWANUKA – Love & Hate (Polydor) In 2012 the then 25-year-old Michael Kiwanuka released one of my favourite albums of the year with his outrageously mature folk/ soul debut “Home Again”. In 2016 he has gone one better and released THE best album of the year in Love & Hate. When opening single, the brilliantly funky “Black Man In A White World” was released at the start of 2016, Kiwanuka described it as “slave music” and when he sings “I’m In Love, But I’m Still Sad/ I Found Peace But I’m Not Glad” you really do feel the inner turmoil regarding his ethnicity. This sentiment plus his own sense of insecurity is a nagging thread throughout the 10 tracks of what is an immensely personal record. The wonderful 10-minute opener, “Cold Little Heart” is a stunning piece of work and almost 2 tracks in one with the opening 5 minutes redolent of a Pink Floyd classic before it morphs into a soulful, handclap-led “proper” song with full orchestral backing and mournful guitar. The 7-minute title track follows a similar path to “Cold Little Heart” and once again, despite its length, draws you in with the sheer insistence of a fantastic arrangement. The album’s closing track, the beautiful ballad, “The Final Frame”, possibly gives you a real insight into Kiwanuka’s state of mind when he recorded the album and the lines “And we can’t pretend, we’re reaching the end, it’s true/ love’s been a strain, a strain on my heart” reveals that he may have suffered the pain of a broken relationship. Overall, and for those of you may not know this exceptional record or artist yet, the touchstones are Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers with a little Gil Scott-Heron thrown in for good measure. Of course, it always helps when you get to share 5 minutes with the singer of your favourite album of the year after a great show last October at The Phoenix in Exeter – especially when he then turns out to be the most charming and humble man you could wish to meet. Great work indeed sir and very much looking forward to seeing you in Bristol in 2017!