Battle of the music years – which was REALLY the best ever year in music history?


The greatest year in music history? You decide…

James Acaster declared that 2016 is the best year for music releases of all time, Getintothis’ Nathan Scally and the team pitch in with their own suggestions.

It’s been suggested that the majority of people stop looking for and discovering new music after reaching their late twenties and thirties, and that our favourite tracks, artists and eras will generally be released during our younger years.

Life gets in the way, your spare time begins to dwindle and spending that time listening to music you might hate just isn’t that enticing when that good old album is guaranteed to get you through your commute.

Losing interest in the unknown is only natural as we become more and more comfortable.

And for James Acaster, this is exactly what happened.

After disbanding The Wow! Scenario, and shifting attention to pursuing a career in stand-up, new music took a backseat in his life and he found himself listening to the classics he knew and loved. It’s just one of the many ways we can all fall into a rut.

This rut didn’t change until 2016 and the release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. One of the most popular albums of the year released by a global megastar that was being praised for the full body of its work, not just the bangers.

Fans and critics alike talking about how it needed to be appreciated as a whole to really get the most from it is what inspired him to listen – that and Mock The Week host Dara Ó Briain declaring it’s not his favourite album from Queen B.

As 2016 ended and we rolled into 2017, James’ personal life took some dark turns and he suffered from a major breakdown.

And one of his initial coping mechanisms was exploring the Best Of lists from the previous year, when he was happier. Once he began to immerse himself in the music of yesteryear, a project that’s still going on today was born.

Never one to just listen to the more traditional and mainstream genres, Acaster only focussed one aspect of this music, that it was released in the calendar year of 2016.

On this melodic journey through experimental jazz, and trip-hop infused folk from across the world, he had the epiphany that it was the best year for music of all time.

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It’s a bold claim and it comes with its own theory for why – the How To Pimp A Butterfly effect. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece was rumoured to be so mind-bendingly impressive and instantly iconic that many of his peers and the industry as a whole decided to withhold releases to avoid compare and contrast.

So convinced with his proclamation, the Kettering comedian has written an entire book on the subject, ‘Perfect Sound Whatever’. Telling the story of the worst year of his life, and also the story of many of the albums that helped him come to terms with it.

2020 has also just seen the release of his podcast on BBC Sounds, James Acaster’s Perfect Sounds, featuring him and a comedian friend discussing one particular 2016 release and whether they also agree that it’s the best year for music of all time.

His natural storytelling style brings with it plenty of laughs, but never at the expense of the major issues of the books origin – and each album mentioned is done so with the meticulous attention to detail of the most thorough critics and journalists.

James Acaster

What makes a year ‘the best ever’? The Scrapemaster says it’s not just the big albums, but also all of the smaller and more niche releases that fill in the holes, of which 2016 is blessed to have so many outstanding entries.

If you find yourself curious to the releases of 2016, you can find a taster into the subject in what he also refers to as ‘the perfect playlist’.

Acaster is not shy on his opinions about a year others look back on with more distain than rose-tinted. The playlist itself shows ‘Sir William Strawberry’ is no genre snob, and is musically one of the more open-minded people you’ll meet.

The best ever of anything is a claim that will always invite conflict. Meal, player, bar, movement, street, shoe, way to make a brew, name for a muffin, etc.

While you can prove the milk comes last, pushing your opinion on something as broad and general as music is a much tougher task.

Whether it’s loved or hated, every record has a different story for each person. Your favourite album might be from a major point in your life, or perhaps the whole story surrounding the writing, recording and release of it resonates with you in a strong way. Your favourite isn’t necessarily the one you think is the best, and it’s near impossible to determine just what it is that makes it number one for you.

With that in mind, a few of us at Getintothis have used our time in The Lockdown to stake our claims for why James Acaster is wrong and 2016 is in fact inferior to our chosen years.

Here is just a few of the years we believe to be superior in chronological order. Nathan Scally

1967 – the possibilities of forging new and unfamiliar sounds came to the fore

It’s tempting simply to list the glut of bona fide classic albums (an over-used term) released that year as evidence of the greatness of ‘67, but you already know them and probably own quite a few. But this was the year that albums outsold singles for the first time, which makes perfect sense because pop music was becoming increasingly ambitious, so a larger canvass was required.

Repeatedly in music history, brilliance has emerged from a new musical scene or youth movement. This was the high-point of the hippie era – the so called ‘summer of love’ – and it was accompanied by a new experimentalism, adventurousness and creativity which, arguably, had never been seen before in mainstream, chart-topping popular music.

Musical tastes became more open-minded as artists drew upon a more diverse range of influences. The possibilities of forging new and unfamiliar sounds in the recording studio came to the fore. There was a real effort made to be original and daring, and this repeatedly paid dividends.

Lyrics addressed more adult, intellectual and even pretentious themes, but artists who’ve never been called ‘pretentious’ just aren’t trying hard enough. There was a new playfulness and, paradoxically, a new seriousness to popular music and it’s genuinely true to say that it helped to drive progressive social change.

It’s difficult to choose just one record to represent this golden era, but few could argue that Pink Floyd’s debut deservedly earns it place near the very pinnacle. – Gary Aster

Sex Pistols. (c) Creative Commons

1977 – the year super sonics were laid down, and future rock royalty was cemented

If 1967 was the year contemporary pop music was born, 1977 was the year it became fully realised into a raging, ferocious, flamboyant teenage beast fully exploiting a musical world of endless possibility.

The groundwork had been laid by their forefathers but this new spawn of musical heroes ripped up all their rule books and decimated the senses with extremism, experimentation and progressive exoticism that for many musicians remains their year zero nearly more than four decades later.

Where punk had The Sex Pistols (Never Mind The Bollocks), The Clash (The Clash), Wire (Pink Flag) and The Jam (In The City), prog countered with Pink Floyd (Animals), Rush (A Farewell To Kings), Yes (Going For The One) and ELO (Out Of The Blue).

While rock and roll saw debut albums by Television (Marquee Moon), Iggy Pop (The Idiot and Lust For Life) and Talking Heads (Talking Heads:77) pop saw one of the biggest groups and albums of all time in Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

All the while David Bowie turned in two of his career-defining albums in Low and Heroes before joining Bing Crosby on TV to sing Christmas carols.

Leftfield artists crossed over into global audiences with Bob Marley’s Exodus doing for reggae what Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express did for krautrock and Steely Dan’s Aja did for jazz fusion.

Meanwhile, over in New York, disco becomes a phenomenon as Studio 54 opens creating the world’s first super club which was almost as overblown as Meat Loaf‘s Bat Out Of Hell.

As a footnote, 1977 saw a teenager begin work on his debut album in Minneapolis – his label Warner Bros gave him full creative control giving birth to a whole new generation of songwriter – his name was Prince, and he sure was funky.

1977 – the year super sonics were laid down, and future rock royalty was cemented. – Peter Guy

Joy Division

1979 – a year for stunning debuts and career best records

1979 was a year in flux, caught between the end of the 70s and the beginning of a new decade, dragging the influence of punk into the future.

Punk’s initial promise of bringing about something new and challenging had been largely co-opted in the public mind by the likes of Sham 69 and The Exploited. This is often the way, where the lowest common denominator wins out and the scene dumbs down to mere parody.

But those who took the initial premise of genuine change and ran with it had, by 1979, learnt to play their instruments and were creating new music.

And there were so many bands doing this! So many youngsters had been inspired to take up instruments and see what they could do with them. There was a real sense of anything-can-happen in the air and 1979 saw a glut of brilliant and genuinely stimulating and though provoking new music.

The Clash grew up in public with London Calling, Joy Division came out of nowhere with Unknown Pleasures, The Slits finally brought their sound and agenda to vinyl with Cut, Public Image tore up the rule book with Metal Box, Gang of Four brought radical politics to the dance floor, The Specials released their first album and Gary Numan fast forwarded to the future with his debut solo album The Pleasure Principle.

Away from this white hot heat, Chic released Risqué, AC/DC had Highway to Hell out and Bowie released Lodger.

All these bands releasing stunning debuts or career best records? That’s why 1979 is the best year for music ever. – Banjo

Pet Shop Boys

1987 – magnificent one off hit singles 

1987 seemed to stand out on its own within the context of the rest of the 80’s.

Whereas the early years were made up of electronic bands finding their feet with regards to the new noises that could be made, whilst the last couple of the decade seemed to consist of trying to make everything have a dance element to it.

And what wasn’t straightforward dance was Stock, Aitken and Waterman produced, sinking their collective claws into the zeitgeist, as their most interesting material came pre-1988, before they became a duller pop conveyor belt.

But 1987 was a high-quality anomaly.

It had everything, returning big acts coming back with their best material for years and newer acts really hitting their stride, in most cases producing their career highs.

And this wasn’t just in pop music terms, the ‘alternative’ scene (as it was known) spawned a multitude of great new bands and 1987 was when ‘proper’ rap hit the mainstream.

There were magnificent one off hit singles (Pump Up The Volume by M/A/R/R/S), fleeting pop idols (Terence Trent D’Arby), novelty tunes that weren’t that bad (Bruce Willis, The Firm) and of course, the greatest battle for the Christmas number one ever.

If 1986 still seemed naive and 1988 seemed contrived, 1987 was perfect. And the album that summed up the year is Actually, the second Pet Shop Boys.

Here is a band at the peak of their powers, their imperial phase, where they could do no wrong. Much like most of the records made that year. – Steven Doherty

Primal Scream

1991 – arguably the summer hit to end all summer hits

The seeds sown in the second summer of love blossomed in 1991.

A generation inspired to make music by the house music explosion of the late eighties reached its peak by a year which stands alongside any other for sheer creativity and the longevity of its highlights.

Blue Lines, Screamadelica, Orbital, Foxbase Alpha, The White Room, Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld – all groundbreaking and all standing the test of time.

Then to counter all the dance there was grunge. And 1991 was the year of grunge with a trio of albums which sit at the scene’s top table.

Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and the daddy of them all Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Add in ear catching debuts like Hole’s Pretty on the Inside, Cypress Hill and Leisure by Blur.

Career highs for My Bloody Valentine (Loveless), REM (Out of Time), Metallica (Metallica), A Tribe Called Quest (Low End Theory) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Magik).

Even stadium rockers U2 braved a bold new sound with Achtung Baby.

All of this and arguably the summer hit to end all summer hits with DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s Summertime.

Just don’t mention Bryan Adams.Mike Hill

Stone Roses

1994 – the feeling was we were living through one of the most special and blissful ages ever

Since 1990, independent rock was going through a massive resurgence, thanks mainly to the grunge scene coming from Seattle. Still, few could imagine that 1994 would be such an amazing year in music’s history, particularly in Britain.

There was already the smell of revolution in the air in January, when Underworld released Dubnobasswithmyheadman, reinventing themselves from pop to techno stars. In February, came another huge musical earthquake with Green Day’s Dookie, the album that turned melodic punk into a galactic phenomenon.

The next few months were packed with historic events, the most tragic being Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April – and the end of Nirvana – and the most joyful the release of Blur’s Parklife, also in April.

August concentrated an extraordinary wave of releases, including the colossal Definitely Maybe, Oasis’ debut album, and the debuts of Portishead (Dummy) and Echobelly (Everyone’s Got One), both released on the same day. The next day gave us the delightful Grace, which would become the only album ever released by Jeff Buckley.

The Holy Bible, the last Manic Street Preachers record before the disappearance of Richey James Edwards, also came out in August 1994. NME, Melody Maker and Select seemed too small to accommodate all incredible sounds coming out of that new British scene. History was being made almost every week.

Later in the year, REM were back at making guitar-based rock with Monster, and Pearl Jam went big with Vitalogy, but one of the biggest events of 1994 waited until December to finally materialise.

After years of huge expectation, The Stone Roses closed the year with the release of their second album, which would also be their last. Some were disappointed, some loved it, but everyone wanted a piece of their Second Coming.

Despite the loss of Kurt Cobain, the general feeling was that we were living through one of the most special and blissful ages ever. Nineteen ninety-four was unforgettable. – Rogerio Simoes

The Strokes (photo credit: via artist’s Facebook page)

2001 – driving home, listening to John Peel

2001 is a year for music that I’ll always remember fondly. At the time, I was a student, living in halls, enjoying the independence of moving away from home.

Before the 2000’s, I was still clinging on to the Britpop years, but the early 2000’s became very important to me with a lot of new, exciting music coming out.

On the evenings, I remember driving home from my part-time job listening to John Peel.

And it was 2001 that he was playing two artists that I became very excited about in particular – The Strokes and The White Stripes. These two bands went on to become two of my favourites to this day.

There’s not many debut albums that go on to be an immediate classic, but The Strokes achieved this with theirs. – Kevin Parry

Janelle Monae (Credit:JUNO)

2018 – an eclectic buffet of magic, with each dish and spoonful providing something brilliant

One dish doesn’t make a menu, one player can’t carry a team and it takes more than one scene to make a good movie.

Something special needs every part to work together, cohesively and it doesn’t necessarily take something special to make that thing memorable.

That’s why I believe 2018 to be the best year for music releases.

It doesn’t rely on its biggest hits to be exceptional, instead it’s an eclectic buffet of magic, with each row, dish and spoonful providing something brilliant.

There are the obvious outliers that’ll stand out when the 18 year olds of 2036 look back. Arctic Monkeys (Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino), Janelle Monae (Dirty Computer) and Anderson .Paak (Oxnard).

But 2018’s real strength is in its numbers. The Internet, Father John Misty and Young Fathers released some of their best work.

Simply put, you can’t move for albums that are just plain good.

Quality over quantity works for a career – look at Daniel Day-Lewis – but a calendar year? The sauce needs to be better, and 2018 has all the flavours.

Every end of year list is different, and with no undisputed number one, there’s a little bit of something for everybody. – Nathan Scally