As I sit staring at a blank screen a thought occurs … “where the hell do I start?”
There have been so many searingly good ‘sonicisms’ out of the Nordic belt in 2016 that choosing a “best of” list comprising a dozen songs is nothing more than an “understatement” of the regions achievements. One has neither the time, patience, nor the resources of Nordic Playlist to conjure up a ‘decameron’, yet a mere dozen songs seems like, we-ll, an insult to the many, many artists whose perfectly crafted gems shall go unheralded in this brief retrospective.
So back to ground zero and the conundrum of where and with whom to start proceedings.
So many great tunes, so many personal faves. Surely the best tack is to include those ass-kicking, thought provoking songs that resonated, the sparklers that lit up the midnight darkness, and the emotional tendrils that reached out and touched one’s soul with their tenderness, rawness and honesty. And let’s not forget those that, well to put it simply, just made us smile.
So without further ado, and in no particular order of merit, here’s Part 1 of a medley of some of the best Nordic tracks of 2016. Songs which for a myriad reasons, professionally and personally, impacted, ignited, resonated, uplifted, calmed, transported and generally made what was quite the difficult year, a lot more pleasant and easier to bear.
Part 1 : 25 – 11
25. Sweet Tempest – The Truth (Den)
It’s songs like ‘The Truth’ for which the word “delightful” were coined. Delightful, wistful vocals float through the most warming of melodies making this track a thoroughly joyous affair. Hailing from Copenhagen, Sweet Tempest have all that Scandi quirkiness and unique sense of style we’ve witnessed in other well known Danes like Stine Grøn and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. Radiating happy contentment and positively emitting ‘hygge’ (if it can be emitted) Sweet Tempest are to Bohemian charm what Hans Christian Andersen was to fairytales. Having laid a solid foundation in 2016, expect great things from this duo in the new year.
24. Chain Wallet – Muted Colours (Nor)
This Bergen trio provided Øyafestivalen with one of its best Klubbdagen performances and courtesy of providence, I found myself, right place, right time in front of one of the best live acts of 2016. Judging by the hyped up crowd, they thought the same! A muddle of Prefab Sprout and 80s nostalgia interwoven through a mesh of guitars, and the result is 21C pop perfection. Chain Wallet play with an enthusiastic energy and animation that belie the wistful melancholia drifting through their songs. A self-titled album received waves of positive vibes. As the song goes, “things can only get better”.
23. Panda Panda – New Friends (Nor)
The first of two entries from the boutique Riot Factory label, indie band Panda Panda are open, warm, funny, quirky, random and as dynamic as their home-video for New Friends would suggest. Young, brimful of colourful creativity and as energetic as they are ambitious, this is a band who, right break/right time, could set fire to the Norwegian indie scene. ‘New Friends’ was already popular with their loyal cohort of fans before its online release. Innovative and catchy, unyielding to norms, it blurs lines between strident indie and dreamy pop. Will a debut full length be on the cards for 2017? One hopes so.
22. Vök – Waiting (Ice)
‘Waiting’ is a track positively dripping with elegance and class. Slick, immaculately tailored and slightly stand-offish like a well heeled Sloane, this track reeks of confidence. If Carlsberg did Iceland electronica it would be Vök! Cool, competent, understated, Vök make intelligent, mature music that’s far from the black and white affair it first seems. This is more than just electronic music – it pushed experimental boundaries in the most controlled and stylish of ways. Margrét Rán’s somewhat detached vocal blows an Arctic chill across a spectrum of undulating and spiralling synth patterns. This is a band on the cusp of reaching their zenith.
21. Masasolo – Really Thought She Loved Me (Den)
Masasolo – what’s not to love, eh? Cool, laid-back, slacker vibes meets Summer tinged psych. There’s nothing remotely ‘rush hour’ about their mellowed out sound, which simply floats. To be honest, it was a toss up between this and ‘How it Feels’ but the chilled out, dreamy vibe of ‘Really Thought’ won me over. Gentle, thoughtful, soothing, inviting – the type of touching vocal and relaxed sounds combo of which the world needs more!
The first of two appearances by blond strummer, Jacob ‘Jake’ Haubjerg, more of whom anon.
20. Lumikide – Golden (Nor)
One of the many happy accidents of 2016, I came across Lumikide when researching another band Antler, with whom they share drummer Axel Skalstad. One month later I found myself sharing air at Oya with band member Martin Tonne. Norway is like that! One big friendly loop. ‘Golden’ is as golden does – lustrous, iridescent indie-pop overflowing with gilt edged melodies and jazz infused percussion courtesy of the afore-mentioned Axel. Rich, bewitching vocals take already soaring sequences to dizzying heights, but not to the extent that it all becomes otherworldly and flimsy. This is gauze swathed punchy pop, arranged with precision and underpinned by ‘crack’ instrumentation. Lumikide are currently working on new material – can’t wait.
19. Electric Eye – Bless, Al Lover Remix (Nor)
Can anyone else hear the ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’ Edge vibe to the guitar hook around which this track revolves? One of THE top lives acts at Øya ’16, the varnish was all but bubbling on the woodwork such was the scorch coming from those guitars. EE are seasoned pros who know their audience and give them what they want. Purveyors of retro psych updated to blend perfectly into a modern haze, this outfit from Bergen are one of the best acts in Norway right now. Hot from success at Roskilde and SXSW, 2017 should see them light up even bigger and better festivals. Unfort I couldn’t find a YT link to the Al Lover remix so behold, ‘Bless’ in all its original splendour!
18. Fufanu – Ballerina in the Rain, Nick Zinner Remix (Ice)
Einarssonx2 make up Icelandic post-rock outfit Fufanu. Kaktus E owns vocal duties while Guðlaugur E (pronounce that I dare you) does guitars. With remixes dropping from the renowned fingertips of Damon Albarn and Nick Zinner, stints at Iceland Airwaves and a second album, ‘Sports’ in the can (due out in Feb) you could say they had a pretty good 2016. Frontman Kaktus is part Iggy Pop, part Liam Gallagher: hidden in an undergrowth of sullen, indifferent swagger fizzes sassy attitude and possibly a stick of gelignite. ‘Ballerina’ is one of those tracks whose toxicity knows no bounds. Its darkly hypnotic guitars, languid vocals and brooding, volcanic atmosphere pack a powerful punch! Fufanu are about to hit the UK with a bang details & would you believe my luck, are playing Oslo’s By:larm the year I can’t go!
17. Palace Winter – Soft Machine (Den)
Antipodean Carl Coleman caught the eye of Danish synth maestro Caspar Hesselager two years ago and the rest as they say is history. Palace Winter’s debut album, ‘Waiting for the World to Turn’ which dropped in June and was greeted with a myriad of multi-star reviews, has fired these musical innovators into an out of orbit trajectory ie. the cosmic highway travelled by darlings of Lauren Laverne, Liz Kershaw and Tom Robinson! Standout single ‘Soft Machine’ is their best track to-date. Subtle and paired back, it is a masterclass in tender elegance and restraint, in which the symmetry between Coleman’s country influences and Hesslager’s synth-led ingenuity is sheer perfection. With By:larm, Roskilde and Green Man in the 2016 bag, 2017 should bring their sounds to an even wider audience.
PS – the afore-mentioned Masasolo muso, Jake, spellbinds (the word playing would be an insult) some electric guitar & then some with PW for their lives!
16. Highasakite – Golden Ticket (Nor)
What’s to say that hasn’t been said of a year that saw this five-piece shoot from ground zero to stratosphere without so much as breaking a sweat. Practically unheard of outside of Norway before touring with OMAM, Highasakite smelt the first blood of success and came back with album ‘Camp Echo’ plus a list of tour dates that saw them burn through the capitals of Europe, speed through a whistlestop of the US, and take a quick dive Down Under. All of which will be neatly rounded off by a sold out arena show in their native Oslo this coming March. Put simply, Highasakite are to Norway what Zara Larsson is to Sweden. In their own words, they’ve “got a golden ticket” ..Watch this space in 2017. This band is going global!
15. Ponette – Hunt Them Down (Nor)
‘Hunt Them Down’ is pure Nordic Noir. An intensely dark, melodrama filled nightscape illuminated by starbursts of synth fireworks and Helene Svaland’s angelic, ice-tipped vocal, this is the onyx jewel in the Ponette EP crown. So compellingly good is this song that percussion wizard Trond Bersu of afore-mentioned Highasakite fame, made time in his jam-packed itinerary to craft a rather lush remix of it. If that ain’t a seal of approval. Recently signed to NO FOREVERS, Ponette are as yet still under the industry radar. A band to watch out for in 2017.
14. Cats of Transnistria – Thunder Comes (Fin)
Finns Cats of Transnistria served up one of the most stunningly beautiful albums of 2016. Fact. A visceral sonic evocation, ‘Divine’ is woven through imaginative interplay of minimalist soundscapes and Gothic fantasies, expertly arranged and delivered with considerable emotional intensity. Lifted from the album, ‘Thunder Comes’, is a quirky, off-kilter confection of melancholic acoustic, scratchy amps and haunting vocals that is as disturbing as it is mesmerising. The sepia-stained, grainy visual is a perfect fit. Made up of Helsinki based Tuomas Alatalo and Henna Emilia Hietamäki, this duo has had a busy year playing promotional lives in the most out of the way (and we hope exotic) of Arctic locations. Where will they take their sound or their sound take them in 2017?
13. Bendik – Kriger (Nor)
Possibly one of the most uniquely talented and enigmatic of Norwegian music artists to remain a Nordic secret treasure. Why? Because Silje Halstensen aka Bendik sings in her native tongue. One can’t help feeling that if, like Icelandic trio Samaris, she ever decides to record any of her thrillingly good songs in English and I’m not for one minute suggesting she should, Bendik would, like all good cream, rise to the top of the music Eurozone. With a voice that is both at once as powerful as a Boeing engine and soft as a velvet dream, Bendik soars through compelling and passionate synth-fused soft-rock backdrops to create the perfect alt-pop landscape. I for one, am very much looking forward to hearing what 2017 brings from this genuinely raw and undiluted talent.
12. Snøskred – Blurred Out Lights (Nor)
What do you get when you group four talented, witty, savvy and insightful musicians? A classy, slick quartet called Snøskred is what. Erudite, verbose, adept, thinkers outside the lyrical box, this Norwegian four-piece produced one of the best albums of 2016 – ‘Empty House’. The sound is American, the style is suave, the lyrics thought provoking and the instrumentation consummate. ‘Blurred Out Lights’ which sadly wasn’t released as a single, is a song for driving in the dark on an unlit, empty road to nowhere. It dawdles along nicely following a REM-esque line in country until apropos of nothing it brews up a right instrumental storm. One can’t help wondering what would have happened had this album dropped in the US: it has all the sterling hallmarks and polished production to which the Americans are drawn like bees to manuka. A new album is in the offing for 2017.
11. Trance Frendz – 23:17 (Ice/Ger)
There aren’t any words in the dictionary to describe the emotional waves that roll over me when I hear the music of Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm, the most celebrated keyboardists/pianists/composers of contemporary alt-classical – again one word will not suffice to define the limitless talents of both men. 23:17 is one cog in the wonder wheel that is the Trance Frendz live album, off the hoof improv recorded in Frahm’s Berlin studio over the course of an evening and on into the early hours. The sheer gentleness of Arnalds’s touch, the delicacy of those loops as they fade in and out through Frahm’s altogether darker, more intense sequences is enough to give me goosebumps. Having tried and failed (miserably) to see them play live, both individually and together, I have made this one of my top “must do” missions of 2017. Expect more brilliance form Arnalds/Frahm this year; nothing that they produce, together or in their own right, ever ceases to amaze. 23:17 starts at 15:22 (and no, that’s not a joke!).
Tune in next time for Part 2 when I reveal tracks 10-1.