This time last year, I wrote in these very pages that my desire for music in 2016 was for “something that confuses the shit out of me while educating, entertaining and transporting me temporarily into another life, so that I remain incapable of even cooking my dinner.” Well, if there’s one thing that we’d have wanted during this strangest of years, it was to be magically teleported somewhere else, uncooked dinner or otherwise. I’ve tried to find a common thread in my Albums Of The Year list, and although a subtle one, it definitely seems to be each record’s ability to astrally project me into another galaxy while I listen, some more effectively than others. But each is raging proof that, whatever else may be disintegrating around us, music is still here for us, still has our back, can still deliver us from all – or perhaps most – ills. So here we go… in diplomatic alphabetical order…

Brodka – Clashes (Kayax/PIAS)

This album has soundtracked my world since I chanced upon it in June. There are so many good things to say about it, I barely know where to start. Monika Brodka is the sort of auteur who doesn’t come along too often: capable of moulding an entire creative universe for herself, where music, lyrics, pictures and videos are all part of the same wonderfully unified and deeply original force. Within this, she can do low-fi punk (My Name Is Youth), post-punk (Horses), pre-apocalyptic tension (Can’t Wait For War), gothic oddities (Holy HolesFuneral), latino folk (Santa Muerte), even off-kilter bubblegum pop (Up In The Hill), all of which manages to call to mind long, lonely drives across the haunting and slightly foreboding landscapes of the artist’s home, Poland. I have a funny feeling that, come 2018, there will be rather a lot more people listening to Brodka.

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador)

Fucking YES… American indie-rock finds its fire again. Listening to the Car Seat Headrest album reminds me of the first time I heard Weezer, or Beck, or even Elliott Smith, but with none of the latter’s occasional tendency to self-aggrandise, nor the former’s brattishness, and with a sense of humour that the medius has largely abandoned. A thumping, noisy but languid treat, replete with some absolutely ace songwriting. But the drummer needs to tighten his snare, it sounds like a frigging box of marbles (that’s probably the whole point).

Douglas Dare – Aforger (Erased Tapes)

Chords and melody. The two enigmatic ingredients to the basic music of a song. I always find it amazing when music writers through the years rattle on about songs being “melodic” when they’re actually nothing of the kind. When a songwriter manages actual, true melody, it reaches out to grab you by the emotional goolies like nothing else. Douglas Dare is one such songwriter. That he then fuses these melodies to the most inventive, exploratory of lyrics is enough in itself to seal the deal, but – rather like getting yet another large Christmas present when you’ve already been given ten – you also have Fabian Prynn’s visionary beats and production to contend with. Aforger is everything I wanted Whelm‘s follow-up to be: harder, bolder, more adventurous and eclectic, but with Douglas’s voice soaring above the whole thing like it never soared before, telling poetic tales of doomed romances and personal dramas in places far and near. If you need an antidote to all the festive pap and miguided optimism this holiday season, get yourself a copy of Aforger, stick on some decent headphones, and dive into Douglas Dare’s cathedralic infinity pool.

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Douglas Dare’s Aforger. The vinyl comes with a free mirror on the back of the sleeve.

Field Music – Commontime (Memphis Industries)

Ah, the Brewis brothers. Imagine being a creative partnership with your sibling. I can’t. But there’ve been many of them in rock over the years. I suppose what you get with a brother or sister is a cutting-through-the-bullshit directness which allows you to be as endlessly creative as possible. The best moments on this album – The Noisy Days Are OverDisappointedI’m GladSame Name – display this unfettered drive better than practically anything else I’ve heard this year. I guess Field Music’s insularity might also be responsible for the record being just a tad too long, but generally it’s a fresh, funky barrage of itchy tunes, as if someone’s imprisoned Steely Dan in a Sunderland warehouse for a few weeks with only the occasional Pot Noodle for refreshment.

Future Of The Left – The Peace & Truce Of Future Of The Left (Prescriptions)

Sometimes, I don’t want nice music. I don’t want pretty harmonies, carefully crafted middle-eights, universally positive themery and endlessly heartfelt balladry. I want a grimy, twisted, ear-splittingly grungy racket with barbed lyrics screamed at me by a man who looks like he’d make a decent assassin unless you served him a well-made cup of tea. I want lurching, lumbering “hit singles” called things like Back When I Was Brilliant, scratchy blasts of sarcasm called things like Proper Music and In Grass Parade, and Young-Knives-esque middle class psychodramas called things like Miner’s Gruel. For those special moments, thank goodness we have Future Of The Left.

Anna Meredith – Varmints (Moshi Moshi)

I know very little of the background to Varmints, but there’s a made-up story which pops into my mind whenever I listen to this madcap fairground ride of a record. Hardcore classical composing wunderkind Anna Meredith is hanging out in a café somewhere, and on comes an Everything Everything record, or a Dutch Uncles record, or even a Foals record. She knocks back her coffee, thinks, “Your know what? I can out-math these slackers,” pops into a nearby studio and a year later emerges with Varmints under her arm. Am I anywhere near the truth? Who knows. All I know is that Varmints is forty-seven of the most entertaining minutes you will spend this year, sounding not unlike a jam session between John Adams and Vince Clarke after dropping a tab of acid each.

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

In the name of not being totally predictable, I really tried to not include this one. Really I did. But hell, it’s like trying to not include William Shakespeare in a roundup of the best late-sixteenth century English playwrights. Incredibly, I still occasionally encounter Radiohead fans – usually the old-school Bends/OK Computer mob who tuned out when Amnesiac didn’t turn out to be the “normal” yang to Kid A‘s leftfield ying – who haven’t yet heard A Moon Shaped Pool. So at the risk of oversimplification: this is a very good Radiohead album. Good like No Surprises is good, like Fake Plastic Trees is good, like Talk Show Host is good, even like Ripcord is good. But also, good like Nude is good, and like The Gloamingis good. Right, I think I’ve exhausted that particular motif long enough. Look: it’s good, all right?

She Drew The Gun – Memories Of The Future (Skeleton Key)

Of all the global problems we face as 2016 draws to its awkward, shuffling close, one stands taller in my mind than most: not enough people know about She Drew The Gun. That sounds like one of my dumber jokes, but I’m actually serious. Because SDTG’s singer, Louisa Roach, writes songs like If You Could See, a warning from an inhabitant of a particularly screwed-up future world, telling us to basically sort our shit out or global destruction and general nastiness will quickly ensue. She writes songs like Poem, a misleadingly mellow bile chant about the increasingly yawning rich/poor divide. I could go on. Essentially, if Apple were to invent some new device to upload Roach’s lyrics into every greedy fuckwit’s brain the planet over (the iRoach, perhaps?) things might get a little better. Oh, and the music’s pretty damn rocking too. Hats off to a particularly unique talent, and lest we forget, hats off to The Coral for discovering it.

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Memories Of The Future. My index finger visible through the hole.

Sinoptik – Interplanet Overdrive (none – someone sign ‘em up!)

Stoner rock from another world. Well, it might as well be; Sinoptik hail from eastern Ukraine, where the first world problems of British bands vanish into a civil war bomb crater. Somehow, this epitome of the power trio manage to play headline-standard rock shows without so much as an LED by way of stage production, and somehow, they’ve made one of the most inventive albums I’ve heard in a while. Like Teleman, their strengths lie both in a hunger for moving sounds forward, but also with a reverence for the past: Hail tips its hat to both Zeppelin and the folky end of grunge, while Crop Circles sounds a bit like the Chemical Brothers covering a movement from Pink Floyd’s Echoes. And as musical visionaries worth keeping an eye on go, singer/guitarist/keyboardist Dima Sinoptik is up there with Brodka in his all-encompassing full bodysuit of pure talent.

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Interplanet Overdrive. Not available physically, so here’s what it looks like trapped inside my computer.

Teleman – Brilliant Sanity (Moshi Moshi)

What with Future Of The Left’s masterful Back When I Was Brilliant, “brilliant” is shaping up to be my Word Of The Year where music is concerned. And there is indeed something brilliantly sane about Teleman. On the face of it, their journey from the meat’n’potatoes of former band Pete & The Pirates to the jolly krautrock of Düsseldorf is a logical, sane, even predictable one. But what lifts them above everyone else – and where the sane turns inwards, if you will – is their evident and deep love for 1970s pop. Glory Hallelujah sounds like Tangerine Dream covering an ELO song (or maybe the other way round). Superglue has a certain 10cc-ish charm to it, while also suggesting the band have been listening to McCartney II, which is never a bad thing. The whole album pops with earworms and quirky grooves, with singer Thomas Sanders engagingly guiding us through the restless aural terrain in a tone suggesting what David Gedge might have sounded like as a teenage choirboy.

And there you have it. Thanks for reading my words this year, have a walloping good Christmas and Happy New Year and see you on the other side. Thanks as ever to the Huffpost team and all at Fink HQ. x

Conversations can continue on Twitter @timwthornton

In 1994, the rock band dEUS released Suds & Soda, a debut single suggesting a drunken fantasy jam between the Beastie Boys and The Pogues after a Faith No More concert. But the all-powerful British music press barely noticed the actual sound of the record. One could picture the journos sniggering over one of their marathon liquid lunches: “Hoo-ha-haa! Have you heard? There’s a new band called dEUS… and they’re… pffft!!… from Belgium.”

It was moronic: the notion that a crunchy contemporary rock band coming from mainland Europe was somehow laughable, just as the idea of a global smash hit single from South Korea seemed before 2012. But laugh they did, fuelled by the constant spectre of Eurovision and the surfeit of slightly questionable 1980s acts like Baltimora, Europe and Modern Talking. Not that it harmed dEUS, who were, and are, awesome; as were the torrent of other ace continental acts that followed, to the point where it’s now as common to hear a band on the radio hailing from the other side of the Eurotunnel as from this.

Or is it? Europe’s a bloody big place, and with pop music, all European countries are equal but some are more equal than others. The torrent slows to a trickle the further east you go; much as the arrival of dEUS inspired chortles in the 90s, any band from beyond Berlin has to fight through an – if you will – iron curtain of humour before they’re taken seriously in Britain. Don’t believe me? Conduct an experiment. Tell a friend you’re seeing “a Ukranian rock band” tonight. I guarantee one of these reactions. A puzzled expression, accompanied by “reeeally?” An amused suggestion they’ll be using an electric balalaika. A full-on gale of laughter. A tight smile and a clipped, “Oh, how interesting,” with the clear implication that your evening’s entertainment will be crap.

In the movie version of this article, cut to a shot of me in a vibey rock club in Budapest, pint of Hungarian beer in hand, watching a Ukranian rock band. A three-piece Ukrainian rock band called Sinoptik, who are busily proving they are not crap. Far from it. In fact they’re a gloriously unfettered and ethereal barrage of rock’n’roll noise, with the searing melodies, nail-biting dynamics and surprises to match. I’m among a crowd of a hundred, but singer/guitarist Dmitriy performs like he’s headlining Glastonbury.

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Dmitriy from Sinoptik. Pic by fnyrzkny

Sinoptik are here, as am I, for the very first Budapest Showcase Hub (BUSH), a conference and music festival with the rallying cry of “looking at the Eastern European music scene from a brand new perspective”. And perspective, when considering a band like Sinoptik, is what you need. They drove from Ukraine, presenting visas at the EU border which took months and a bank account of savings to procure. They recently transferred their HQ to Ukraine’s capital Kiev, after their hometown Donetsk was engulfed by civil war. The struggles of a band in London these are not. And yet here they are, mopping the floor with any rock act I’ve encountered this decade.

You see, the Eastern European music scene is getting its shit together, with the various promoters, labels and bands joining forces to export their own music to their western neighbours. And it’s a no-brainer: in 2016, there’s no reason why the next big acts can’t come from Prague, Belgrade or Vilnius. The talent’s certainly there. One of BUSH’s headliners is Brodka, a singer-songwriter from Warsaw of staggering confidence and vision, her latest record Clashes sounding like the possible result of a post-punk band being locked in a cathedral for the night. A big hit at home, it has yet to make much of a dent abroad, Brodka herself eyeing the challenges ahead with knowing humour: “I’m ready to build my audience album by album, but it’s difficult to break the market when you’re Polish. Let’s face it, it’s not like being from Iceland where every band has an instant ‘high-quality’ tag thanks to Björk.”

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Brodka. Pic by fnyrzkny

People mention Iceland a lot here. It’s not hard to see why. When I ask IAMYANK, a distinctive electronic artist from Budapest itself, where he would choose to work if not here, he replies “Iceland” without hesitation. “It’s a resilent, off-the-beaten track place which happens to make beautiful music. They’ve built a brand… if a group said they’re from Iceland, you’d check it out. The same isn’t true for Hungary.”

One senses that people here are waiting to see who’ll hit big first, hoping others can follow in the slipstream. Tony Duckworth, from indie umbrella label PIAS, says, “there is a good chance that, by 2021, we will have internationally successful performers from the region.” Who will finally do it? Brodka? Tommy Cash, the arse-percussionist (no, really) rapper from Estonia? Or someone else, like Cash’s rather more savoury compatriots, the electro-rock three-piece I Wear* Experiment? Having enjoyed their single Patience – a blast of catchy, of-the-moment Nordic pop – I meet the Tallinners before their headline set at BUSH. They’re energetic, friendly and bursting with passion for what they do, but with a refreshingly global ambition. “We’re touring in South Korea,” enthuses guitar/synth man Hando Jaksi. “And Japan, and China. Our music’s popular in those places, and if people want to hear you play, I really feel you should get out there.” Live, I Wear* Experiment’s self-assuredness is unavoidable, vocalist/keyboardist Johanna Eenma whipping up the crowd at the Kuplung club like they’re down the road at Budapest’s epic Sziget festival. Stage right, drummer Mikk Simson smacks his kit with a positivity that verges on the maniacal.

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Johanna from I Wear* Experiment. Pic by Sinco

Slightly mad levels of positivity are present throughout the festival, in fact. Mid-evening, I catch Ghost Of You, a frenetic quartet from Brno, Czech Republic, who combine a Madchester-ish swagger with the urgency (and instrument swapping tendency) of The Coral. At one of the conference’s many symposiums, I witness an impassioned speech from Fruzsina Szép, a Budapest local but currently festival director of Lollapalooza Berlin. Halfway through the talk, it would be fair to say she goes off on one, calling on the audience to celebrate the diversity of talent from the region, insisting we think as one nation, rather than lots of smaller ones. It’s an inspiring, emotional oration, which I’m not ashamed to admit causes me to make a complete arse of myself and break into spontaneous applause. But is it naïve, or do others feel the same? Turns out: they do. Daniel Somló, BUSH organiser (and also, conveniently, IAMYANK’s drummer), strikes much the same note.

“That’s what this festival’s about… the realisation that we’re not separate, but one country with 140 million people… the same problems, the same thinking. We should help each other.” Virgo Sillamaa, director of Music Estonia, takes the point further. “If we’d open up and integrate – and we already are – it might shift the axis away from the traditional Anglo-American canon.” But he’s quick to point out the Catch-22. “The internet has opened new ways, but also an unprecedented number of contenders.” Alex Bruford, director at London’s ATC Live agency, agrees. “The standards are high, because everyone’s at it. The industry is now more open-minded to listen to a band from Hungary, or wherever. But once they do listen: the music has to be exceptional.”

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Ghost Of You. Pic by Sinco

How do the region’s undiscovered musicians feel, though? Is all you really need that age-old ingredient: being good?

“You do need more than that,” shrugs IAMYANK. “Things are going well for us here, but there are only so many times we can play Budapest.” Some countries are, I suspect, better at the whole music industry thing than others? “Of course,” nods Daniel Somló. “We’re trying to play in Poland. It has 40 million people; Hungary has 10 million. You can’t compare them. Also, Poland is close to Berlin, and they use that closeness really well. There’s even a government plan to bring Polish bands to Berlin, and vice versa. Also, there are many Polish people in England; whenever they go back home, they bring fresh culture with them.”

Magdelena Jensen, CEO of Chimes Agency in Warsaw, is cautiously positive about her country’s merits in this field. “The key is building confidence in what we do. Performers from Poland sometimes have a bit of a complex which holds them back, plus the industry occasionally suffers from an unhealthy negative competitiveness. But thanks to travel opportunities, conferences and the sharing of experiences, this is changing rapidly.”

Listening to Brodka’s tantalising album, or feeling the primal blast of Sinoptik‘s live show, I’m wondering – perhaps impatiently – why all this change takes so damn long? BUSH’s official hashtag is #newkidsfromthebloc, but it’s a long time since the bloc; are they really new kids?

“We’re talking about the creation of a whole sector,” explains Virgo Sillamaa. “An entire music industry ecosystem… more than just developing a talented artist.”

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IAMYANK Live Band. Pic by Sinco

Late evening, as the last chords of IAMYANK’s atmospheric set die out, I drain my pint and wander off into the Budapest night, with many earworms squirming around my slightly drunken brain. It’s a typical musician’s tendency to want everything to happen immediately, but to use a couple of old clichés, these bands and musicians just need to keep the faith, think positively, carry on banging out the tunes. Or, as I Wear* Experiment put it rather more eloquently, “beautiful patience, flow into my soul.” Here endeth the lesson.

*The asterisk is actually part of their name. I don’t know what it means.

DECEMBER 2016

Conversations can continue on Twitter @timwthornton