It is time for that customary end-of-year music list. Since there are more than enough ‘Best Albums of 2016’ lists out there already, I have opted for a more modest ‘Five Great Albums You May Have Missed This Year’. The albums below might not necessarily be ‘the best’ of the year. Nor are they necessarily obscure (since they are readily accessible via streaming services). But they are certainly worth your time if you missed them when they were first released.
Have You Been Good to Yourself
Track Pick: “Have You Been Good to Yourself”
Johnnie Frierson’s story begins in the sixties when he was a member of the short-lived soul quartet The Drapels and various other musical outfits. He also had a brief hit as co-writer of “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” with his younger sister Wendy Rene (Wu-Tang Clan fans may be familiar with the sample used on “Tearz”). Frierson was later drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam and this effectively brought an end to his music career. He had a number of difficulties afterwards as he struggled to deal with his time in the war, had a son die young, and was later a witness to a confronting murder (documented in this court decision where he appears under his other name Khafele Ajanaku).
Music – especially gospel music – remained important to Frierson for most of his life though. The intimate home recordings from the early nineties featured on this posthumous release were recently rediscovered by vinyl peddler Jameson Sweiger while browsing through a cassette collection at a thrift store. These seven short, simple songs might seem a little unassuming at first. But what makes this album so great is the nakedness of Frierson’s voice. He is singing for nobody but himself on these songs; which is a rare and precious thing to have the privilege to hear.
Track Pick: “Fáinleog”
Irish supergroup The Gloaming are perhaps the biggest name on this list. Their breakout self-titled debut album in 2014 received significant critical acclaim and the praise has continued with this sophomore effort. They are new to me though, and I suspect that they may have slipped under the radar for many other music fans.
This is easily the most beautiful album that I have heard this year. Each band member complements the others perfectly; from the subtle guitar of Dennis Cahill, to the vibrant fiddles of Martin Hayes and Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh, the stepping piano of Thomas Bartlett, and the striking voice of sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird. The sublime Gaelic vocals are a particular highlight, as are the extended musical breaks which seamlessly build and subside throughout the album. Essential.
Genre: Indie Rock
Track Pick: “Lanes”
It is difficult to describe why I like this album so much. On the surface, it seems like just another indie rock record: eleven songs, mostly between three and five minutes, played in a fairly standard rock band configuration. Yet this was the one album that I found myself returning to again and again throughout the year.
I think that there are two factors at play. The first is consistency. Few albums have this many solid songs one after another and I could easily have selected any song off the album for the Track Pick above. The second factor – which is closely tied to the first – is the sense for melody. Lead singer Martin John Henry constantly reveals rich melodies in each lyric and his words are neatly draped in luscious textures by the rest of the band. This album comes about seven years after De Rosa’s previous album and there was also a bitter breakup in the meantime. With such a long time between nips, the quality of this album speaks volumes about the band’s songcraft when working together. Hopefully there is more music to follow in the coming years.
Onwards to Mars
Genre: Balkan Brass Band
Track Pick: “Mista Lobaloba”
Fanfare Ciocărlia are my favourite kinds of artists: seriously good musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously. Well, I am sure that they take their mission of keeping Gypsy music alive very seriously. But they sure have a blast while doing it.
Onwards to Mars is a celebration of twenty years passing since the twelve-piece was first discovered in the tiny Romanian village of Zece Prajini. The songs are a mix of old and new, fast and slow, cheeky and solemn. But the one constant throughout the album is the impeccable musicianship. These musicians can play. And most importantly, they play even better together.
I’m not sure how much thought Elon Musk has put into any possible soundtracks for the moment when SpaceX lands a person on Mars. But a fanfare from Onwards to Mars would certainly help to celebrate such a momentous occasion.
The Furthest Tree
Track Pick: “Lady of the Valley”
Clive Carroll has a truly distinctive voice on the guitar. I was first introduced to him when he toured Australia with Tommy Emmanuel back in 2004 and his latest album at the time (The Red Guitar) has been one of my favourite albums of solo acoustic guitar music ever since. The Furthest Tree might now challenge that position.
The new compositions on the album reflect the many different sides of Carroll’s musical personality. There are the more jovial tunes (such as “The Adventures of Wilfred”) which speak to his more playful side while also providing an opportunity to show off some impressive chops. But where Carroll really sets himself apart is in his more introspective songs. The delicate “Lady of the Valley” featured in this Track Pick is one such example and it displays a composer at their best.
It’s not all just solo guitar on this new album though. Acclaimed classical guitarist John Williams joins in for a duet on the sweeping five-part ‘A Renaissance Suite’ inspired by the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Support from the likes of John Williams is no small endorsement. So if you don’t trust my recommendation, at least trust his and give Clive Carroll a listen.
Thank you for reading. What were your favourite hidden gems from the year?