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Shadows and Exits: The Music of 2016

"Look up here, I'm in heaven..." 

So sang David Bowie on 'Lazarus', one of the tracks from his last album, 'Blackstar', released on his birthday last January. A powerful and amazing album, the words above proved to be prophetic as 3 days later on January 11th, his death was announced, leaving millions of us fans stunned, this was a guy we'd grown up with, part of our lives, and who was now no longer with us. And this in many ways was the shape the year was to take, with a crazy number of musicians from all genres leaving us this year.

Here's just a few of those we lost: Prince, both Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, Merle Haggard, Pete Burns, Leonard Cohen, Phill Dawg, Dave Swarbrick, and Bobby Vee. And in the last few days, Rick Parfitt and George Michael. Many, but not all, of these were of a pretty senior age but we don't tend to think of them that way, we expect them to just carry on, not having prescriptions or hearing aids or walking sticks like ordinary people when they get old. Indeed, many of the musicians from previous times would always seem to die in more extreme circumstances; maybe a drugs overdose, suicide, shooting, or plane crash. But old age and illness? That was certainly not the rock'n'roll way to go. OK, many hadn't lived the healthiest lifestyles. But we had better get used to it!

However, on  a more positive note, there was some great music around this year from some of the oldies. Bruce Springsteen visited this country and played a host of venues where he would be on stage for hours, I finally got to see one of my heroes live, the septuagenarian Neil Young, and that elderly outfit, the Rolling Stones, returned to their roots to produce their best album in years. And doyenne of the folk scene, 81-year old Shirley Collins released her first music for decades, an excellent traditional album, 'Lodestar'.

Moving away from the age dimension, there was some great music around this year, whilst it probably wasn't a classic year. On the live music front, I managed to get to more gigs this year than at any time since my student days. Difficult to pick a favourite, but up there were certainly the gigs from Hurray for The Riff Raff and Hiss Golden Messenger, both at Leeds' excellent Brudenell Social Club. I also saw Ryley Walker twice, once at the Band on The Wall in Manchester, and then at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club. I enjoyed Neil Young as mentioned above, and caught The Stone Roses on one of the dates of their summer shows in Manchester City's Etihad Stadium. On the same day as visting the Holmfirth Folk Festival, I enjoyed the wild Scottish folk band, The Treacherous Orchestra at the Elizabethan Rooms, Bury, which was interrupted by a fire alarm so we all had to wait outside in the rain until order was restored. And I also enjoyed Julia Holter at The Sage in Gateshead.

I didn't get to see quite as much local live music as in previous years, but as usual we had the likes of The Rainey Street Band, Blood Sweat and Beers, Chris Martin and Scott Wainwright, JP Totham, and Bella Gaffney keeping us entertained. The Brighouse Canal, Beer, and Music Festival in August was the usual mix of excellent music from most of the above, some great beers, and monsoon-like showers!

Best Gig of the Year: Hurray For The Riff Raff, Leeds Brudenell Social Club.
Best Local Artists of The Year: The Rainey Street Band.

In terms of the best albums of the year, these are my personal choices. I am sure there are plenty of gems out there that I haven't heard, but here goes with what I have, in no particular order:

David Bowie - Blackstar
A great album, made all the more poignant by the events following its release. Here Bowie used a number of New York jazz musicians to create a moody, dark, and at times challenging listen. Not guaranteed to raise the spirits, but definitely one of the best of the year. Favourite track - Lazarus.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Another album that had sad connotations. Nick's son Arthur died whilst the album was being made, and so cast a huge shadow over the way it ended up sounding. Featuring stark, sparse, and bleak instrumentation, with dark lyrics, it takes a while to get into it, but is well worth persisting with. Favourite track - Rings of Saturn.

Drive-by Truckers - American Band
After missing out my final cut in the past, there was little chance of that this time as the band produced a excellent set of driving country-rock songs, which included tackling in this year of upheaval in America serious themes such as social inequality and injustice. Gone too was the usual cartoon-style cover in favour of a subdued black and white photo featuring the US flag flying at half -mast. Favourite track - Surrender Under Protest.

Angel Olsen - My Woman
This album is the first I have heard from this St Louis-born indie-folk singer-songwriter, and what a cracker it is. Featuring great songs ranging from the poppy 'Shut Up Kiss Me' to more reflective songs such as 'Sister', this is a top listen from start to finish. Highly recommended. Favourite track - Never Be Mine.

Christine and The Queens - Chaleur Humaine
Now this was different. Originally released in France by Nantes-born chanteuse Heloise Letissier in 2014, it wasn't until this year that this electro-pop album surfaced in the UK. It just seemed to creep up on you and before you knew it its haunting and insidious melodies had hookwormed their way into your life. But I'm sure you already knew that! Favourite track - Science Fiction.

Thee Oh Sees - A Weird Exits
Don't skimp on the volume when listening to this, it needs to be heard loud! This was the band's 17th album and for it band leader John Dwyer added a second drummer to the mix of guitars, bass, and synths. So we got a massive sound, with soaring guitars and pounding rhythms that produced the most breathless and exhilarating album I heard all year. Favourite track - Plastic Plant.

Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee
This was a musical journey through the Southern USA, with country, blues, rock, funk, and bluegrass all in the mix. Full of great songs, this was even better than 2014's 'Lateness of Dancers'. Led by MC Taylor, this is a tight group of superb musicians who know how to play to their strengths. Favourite track - Biloxi.

Ryley Walker - Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
I loved his last album, 'Primrose Green', but this is even better. Whilst still giving a nod in the direction of John Martyn and Bert Jansch, this album saw the Illinois singer and guitarist branch more out in his own direction, with some stunning instrumental passages and clever songs honed by a rigorous touring schedule. Favourite track - The Roundabout.

Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter
This was the best country album I heard all year bar none. Continuing in the tradition of the great female country singers like Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, mixed with the sass and attitude of the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, but with very much her own style. Margo Price brought us an amazing debut album of superb, largely autobiographical songs, of which the opener 'Hands of Time' is a modern-day classic. Favourite track - Hands of Time.

O'Hooley and Tidow - Shadows
I heard a few good folk albums this year, Shirley Collins as mentioned earlier, Lady Maisery's 'Cycle', but my favourite was this. Another great album from Golcar's finest, another step forward, some excellent songs with the usual blend including ones about their area, darker themes such as child abuse and forced migration, and changes in society. There are also a couple of instrumentals featuring Belinda's excellent piano playing, the title track and the stunning 'The Dark Rolling Sea'. Favourite track - Colne Valley Hearts.

PJ Harvey - The Hope Six Demolition Project
Polly's last, the remarkable 'Let England Shake' was a searing look at the state of this country. Now she turned her attention to further afield, looking at the impact of war, suffering, and poverty in places as far-ranging as Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the USA, with another amazing collections of songs featuring some superb instrumentation and great lyrics. Favourite track - The Wheel.

Michael Kiwanuka - Love and Hate
I would probably not picked up on this but a chance hearing of the title track got me interested. In my ignorance I thought he would be too middle of the road for me, but I was wrong. Kiwanuka is a musical explorer, pulling in influences from all over the place, mixing soul, blues, and rock to create an excellent piece of work. Favourite track - Love and Hate.

So that's it. That's my favourite dozen from the past 12 months, and there are some crackers in there. Hope you enjoyed the music you listened to this year, and here's to 2017....

Holmfirth Folk Festival, 2016


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