It's a controversial opinion, but I'm going to say it anyway: as years go, 2016 was absolute dogshit. Massive upheavals throughout society, combined with the death of apparently every famous person ever - against a backdrop like that, any personal problems of your own seem magnified as they become part of the overall global catastrophe.
My pal Lou, who's effectively been the patron of these Pick Of The Year compilations since 1993, has always suggested that they provide an insight into what my mood was like each year. Looking at Täähä Menöö Hyvi!, my compilation for 2016, that mood would currently appear to be swinging wildly: downbeat or angry songs interspersed with bursts of unexpected joy.
So, are you ready for one of the most manic depressive collections of music I've put together since I started doing this in 1982? Let's hope so. Here, in a simultaneous broadcast with MostlyFilm (who are including this as part of their general end-of-year roundup), is a CD's worth of tracks that defined 2016 for me. And stick around to the end if you want the chance to win a copy of the CD for yourself (as long as you're reading this before the end of January 2017).
No free samples for this one, I'm afraid - Kate Bush is currently keeping her live album off streaming services, and the few YouTube videos out there are nothing more than adverts for bootlegs (presumably obsolete now there's an official recording). Which means that Bush has done an extraordinarily efficient job of keeping her live visual experience the sole property of those people who actually paid money to see it. Still, from the reviews I've read, a show as wildly theatrical as Before The Dawn would probably look a bit daft squished onto a telly screen. At least we have the audio of the concerts, which suggests that the best moments came when her excellent backing band let rip completely, as in the climax to this one.
2. DAVID BOWIE - Lazarus (from Blackstar, ISO) [video]
It's easy to forget what excellent value for money the Blackstar album was. If you bought it and played it on the Friday of its release, it was merely Bowie's strongest collection of songs in years. Three days later, on the Monday that his death was announced, that same record transformed into an entirely different one, so obviously a man's last will and testament that you wondered how you missed it first time round. Lazarus is the most blatant example of this, with its opening line just screaming for a literal interpretation. It's also the song that's the centrepiece of the musical of the same name, and crystallises the problem I have with the way the show rearranges the music - in the musical the song ends as soon as the vocal does, missing out the gorgeous rise and fall of the instrumental coda in the original.
3. KID CARPET - Tiny Light (from Dogmeat, Bandcamp) [video not available]
When we first encountered Kid Carpet on support bills some twelve years ago, it wasn't immediately obvious that he was destined to become the West Country's answer to Lin-Manuel Miranda. But here we are. Carpet's focus these days is largely on music for stage shows, primarily ones for kids: but this year he collaborated with Vic Llewellyn on a more adult piece called The Castle Builder, which knocked my socks off in Edinburgh (and did it all over again when the show came to London recently). In the show, Tiny Light was the cue for the single most delightful bit of audience participation I've seen in a long while. I was tempted to try and recreate it at home so I'd have a video for the song to show you, but I've been busy. Sorry.
4. RUTH THEODORE - The Carcass And The Pride (from Cactacus, Aveline) [video]
So now we've started, let's talk about some more live highlights of the year. One of the most delightful experiences I had in 2016 was a tiny show on board Ruth Theodore's barge, aka River Rat Studios, where she previewed some of her newest songs to an audience of no more than a couple of dozen people. Six months later, she was launching the album of those songs in the less intimate (but still terrific) location of the Borderline, a show that seems to be creeping out on YouTube bit by bit. When we first saw her in Sheffield in 2014, she was a raw guitar-driven folkie with some admittedly interesting songs: but the way her musical ambition has skyrocketed since then has been a wonder to behold. What she does after this is going to be fascinating.
5. RIZ MC - Englistan (from Englistan, Bandcamp) [video]
Riz is everywhere these days, isn't he? As the actor Riz Ahmed, he's grabbed your eyeballs this year in The Night Of, and is hopefully just about to do it all over again in Rogue One. (Not to mention his forthcoming City Of Tiny Lights, which has some fans around these parts.) Meanwhile, under his rapper alias of Riz MC, he put out a collection of killer tracks and suggested you could pay what you like for it, the daft bugger. In a time when we need reminding just how much of England has been built by people coming in from outside, Riz nails the feeling of not knowing which country you're really a part of, and does it with a naggingly catchy little tune to boot.
6. YLVIS - Old Friends (single, Urheim) [video]
Three years after The Fox, Ylvis are still going, but nobody outside Norway seems to care very much. Which is a shame: they still put out a couple of videos from their TV show every year, and they're still tiny masterclasses in absurdity. You could argue that a lot of the time, the jokes run out before the end of the song, and that's certainly the case here. But in this particular instance it doesn't really matter, as the song keeps swerving around trying to confuse you as to what you're meant to be feeling from second to second.
7. PET SHOP BOYS - The Pop Kids (from Super, x2) [video]
Getting back to my favourite live shows of 2016, I'd have to say that Pet Shop Boys' residency at the Royal Opera House was rather special. The closing image, in particular, was a delight: thirty or so dancers in dayglo fatsuits leaping around to this typically melancholic floorfiller. The fact that all this was happening as the curtain was slowly falling shows that the Shoppies, as ever, have a perfectly-honed sense of the theatrical. They may be in their sixties now, but they're still resolutely pop kids.
8. SAUL WILLIAMS FEAT. EMILY KOKAL - Burundi (from MartyrLoserKing, Fader) [video]
Given that we all agree that the world is currently going to hell in a handbasket, it's surprising how few artists are making music reflecting how cross they are about it. All the more reason to celebrate Saul Williams, then. I've been a fan of his ever since seeing him perform his poetry in the film Slam back in 1998, and enjoyed his records too: although for the last couple of albums, I've found the music to be a little lacking in comparison to the words. That's definitely not the case with MartyrLoserKing, which has beats as searingly ferocious as its rhymes, as Burundi demonstrates.
9. MASSIVE ATTACK FEAT. HOPE SANDOVAL - The Spoils (single, Virgin) [video]
An interesting change in tack for Massive Attack this year, as they seem to have given up on the album as a means of communication, deciding instead to release singles and EPs as soon as they have a few songs worth sharing. It's reduced the filler on their records to zero, no question, as their two main releases have been full of terrific collaborations with just the sort of people you always wanted them to collaborate with (Young Fathers, Ghostpoet) or reunions with former mates (welcome back, Tricky). The Spoils falls into the latter category, as Hope Sandoval's previous encounter with the band resulted in the Luthertastic Paradise Circus. This is a similar piece of artfully crafted gloom, although it's fascinating to see how the earlier track built to a climax by adding more instrumentation, while this newer one creates an even more heart-stopping finale by taking instruments out of the mix.
10. UNDERWORLD - If Rah (from Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future, Smith Hyde Productions) [video]
A comparatively subtle one from Underworld here, and I appreciate you can't say that about them very often. It's all in the layering: throwaway lines and phrases gradually turning into loops, which wander in and out of the mix before all coming together for the big finish. By the end of this one, I always find that I appear to have somehow laid my hands on a pair of air glowsticks.
11. BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY - The L&N Don't Stop Here Any More (from Shine A Light, Cooking Vinyl) [video]
Bragg's love of Americana has long been an undercurrent in his later work, and this collaboration with Joe Henry just makes it official. This is probably the best concept album of the year, that concept being Bragg and Henry travelling to various locations by train and making field recordings of some of the finest train-based songs ever written. Most people of my age will be familiar with this song from Michelle Shocked's version of thirty years ago, but Billy and Joe bring their own distinctive weary charm to it.
12. THE DIVINE COMEDY - How Can You Leave Me On My Own (from Foreverland, Divine Comedy Records) [video]
It would appear that as we move into late period Divine Comedy - hey, Neil Hannon's been making records for a quarter of a century now, I think that counts as 'late' - anyway, it looks like it's the sillier songs that grab me more than the big emotional ones. It's not immediately obvious that this is one of the former: the title suggests a melodramatic tale of romantic abandonment, whereas in reality it's about Hannon complaining how bored he is around the house while his other half is out for the day. I keep trying to explain to The BBG that this is a perfect depiction of the life of a freelancer sat at home in between jobs, and she keeps assuming that I'm kidding. Probably just as well, really.
13. ABC - The Love Inside The Love (from The Lexicon Of Love II, Virgin EMI) [video]
Taken from the only album I thought was worth reviewing in full on the site this year. ABC's sequel to their debut still holds up several months later, with this collaboration between Martin Fry and orchestral arranger/Art Of Noiser Anne Dudley continuing to be the standout. It's a more mature approach to the love song than Fry could ever have managed in his twenties, but with many of the classic ABC tropes. Specifically, the look-at-the-studio-time-on-that-missus expansiveness of Dudley's arrangement, the surprisingly early key change, and an over-extended metaphor ('take a left at heartache...') that literally deforms the middle eight into a middle sixteen. Still, it's that level of ridiculousness (played, naturally, with a straight face) that made us love ABC all those years ago, and continues to work even now.
14. KATE TEMPEST - Ketamine For Breakfast (from Let Them Eat Chaos, Fiction) [video]
Kate Tempest was last mentioned in these pages two years ago, when I noted that along with everything else she had a novel on the way. I bought an airport exclusive paperback of that novel - The Bricks That Built The Houses - virtually on the week of its publication, and felt so pleased with myself that I haven't looked at it since. In the meantime, Tempest is still making records, assembling tight little character sketches over a musical backing. I'm amused by the way that the radio edit of this song has become Kkkkkkkk For Breakfast, in case Shaun Keaveny listeners are tempted to abandon their Shreddies for something stronger.
15. DONNA LYNNE CHAMPLIN - Face Your Fears (from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Original Television Soundtrack (Season 1 - Volume 1), CBS/Warner Bros) [video]
I've blathered on relentlessly (mainly in the Simian Substitute pages) about how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been the best thing on telly recently, and how its creator/star Rachel Bloom has restored dignity to the art of the televised comedy song. (Although, of course, we were talking about Ylvis just a few paragraphs ago.) The requirement to create two full musical numbers for every episode meant I had about forty songs to choose from in Season 1 alone: but this one stands out because it doesn't require any real knowledge of the show's plot to enjoy it. (I suspect it might have been sitting in Bloom's drawer for a few years under a working title like Generic Musical Theatre Act One Motivation Song.) Donna Lynne Champlin sells the living crap out of it, convincing you by the end that "wipe back to front, not front to back" is valid life advice.
16. KOJEY RADICAL - Kwane Nkrumah (from 23Winters, Kojey Radical) [video]
Here's another live memory from this year for you. Saul Williams played at the Garage in London back in March, and had two support acts on with him. Shay D was fine, but seemed obviously overawed by the experience. On the other hand, when Kojey Radical came on stage you could almost see him thinking "Saul Williams is on straight after me. I'd better up my game." What followed was a staggeringly powerful half-hour set, made even more so by his performing with a full live band rather than a pre-programmed backing. His records this year - this album, and the airplay-grabbing single Gallons - haven't had quite the same intensity for me as that introduction, but they definitely mark him out as a voice we're going to be hearing a lot more of soon.
17. ENKEL - Pappilan Hääyö (from Pappilan Hääyö, Kansanmusiikki-institutti) [video]
And one more gig to mention. The Belated Birthday Girl and I woke up in a Helsinki hotel room on June 24th to discover the result of the referendum. This put us in a bad mood for much of the day that followed, particularly as we'd paid for the hotel room on a credit card in Euros the day before, and the payment wouldn't actually get processed until shortly after the pound had gone down the toilet. Still, it was also the day we visited the Seurasaari Midsummer Festival, and one of the highlights of that turned out to be catching the tail end of Enkel's set. This instrumental, in particular, was enjoyable enough at the time, but it wasn't until I got home and purchased their album that I realised just how hilariously dirty an instrumental it is. You see, the title of the song translates to A Finnish Wedding Night, which gives the discords and tempo changes a whole new meaning. And that's before you get to the phrase "täähä menöö hyvi!" which is yelled a couple of times towards the end. This is a) a pretty good punchline and b) the perfect title for a collection of songs released in this shitty, shitty year. Because "täähä menöö hyvi" means...
...that it's time for the competition to win a copy of this year's CD. You can probably guess the question already: what, in the context of the song Pappilan Hääyö, does the phrase "täähä menöö hyvi!" mean in English? Be warned that automatic translation software may not entirely help you with this: the tools you need to answer the question are, however, available somewhere on this page. Send your answer to [email protected] no later than 11.59pm GMT on January 31st 2017. First correct answer received wins the prize: if nobody gets it right, the first entry received will win. And yes, I know it's a lousy title this year, but at least I didn't go for I'm Aiming For The Kids. Being a monkey, and all.