A year of magical listening with James Acaster

The comedian is obsessed with end-of-year album polls from 2016, so we asked him what he made of ours

At the end of February 2020, I met James Acaster in what used to be BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge studio, but is now a basement restaurant, to record an episode of the Loud And Quiet podcast Midnight Chats. That episode has since become available on all the usual podcast apps, and features James and I discussing a new podcast series that he was putting together at the time. 

A lot has happened since then, including the completion and launch of James Acaster’s Perfect Sounds Podcast, available now on BBC Sounds. Or maybe it’s not complete yet – it’s a big project, the latest enabler of the comedian’s obsession with the music of 2016.

Perfect Sounds has already existed as a 2019 book (entitled Perfect Sound Whatever, named in homage to the Pavement EP Perfect Sound Forever), and both it and its new audio counterpart come from a deeply personal place. 

2017 was not Acaster’s year from the very beginning. His girlfriend dumped him. His agent dumped him. His career hit a wall. He started to seriously question if he wanted to be a comedian any more. And it was still only January. 

As a kid he’d found solace in music, inspired to become a drummer by watching the Christian band in his local church, and going on to play in groups that covered Nirvana and Pantera and later leaned into nu metal originals. But he hadn’t bothered with new music for years. And then he started to read the Albums of the Year lists that were still floating around from December 2016. He read all of them, and as he did he started to believe that 2016 was the greatest year in the history of music. 

At his last count (he’s still buying), Acaster has bought 600 albums released that year, from giants like Lemonade and Blackstar to Bandcamp curios, like Howdilly Doodilly by Okilly Dokilly, a metalcore five-piece devoted to The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders (who all dress like him). He treats them all with equal respect, which is why each episode of his new podcast is dedicated to a different 2016 release, each one a weapon in his arsenal as he attempts to prove the year’s musical greatness to a different skeptical guest. 

After we finished recording our podcast, I wanted to get James’ take on some of Loud And Quiet’s favourite albums from the year, playing him snippets to jog his memory if he needed them. We began with our 2016 Album of the Year, by Anna Meredith.    

Varmints – Anna Meredith

So, one of my constant things is that I love music with lyrics, and stuff that doesn’t have lyrics on it, I struggle a bit more. There are some records from 2016 that I loved that are instrumental albums, like Crystal Machete by Wes Borland and Discordia by Bologna Violenta, but with Anna Meredith, I love the stuff with her vocals on it, and I don’t connect to her instrumental stuff as much.

‘Taken’ on this record, I think is brilliant. But I prefer FIBS, her latest album, which is more PC Music – I like that she’s taken her contemporary composer roots and gone that way with it. With Varmints I wasn’t able to love it even though I wanted to, but I could tell that I could potentially love what she does next, and then FIBS comes out and I’m like, “oh, now this is brilliant.”

CashmereSwet Shop Boys

With British rap and grime, I’ve struggled to find stuff that I like from 2016. I’ve got this album, and I like it, but I haven’t listened to it enough. I like Riz [Ahmed], but I got into him as an actor first, so it’s weird hearing his voice as a rapper. 

They’re another thing where I’m excited by what they’re going to do. I love how both of them sound – Riz and Heems. Nish Kumar got me into this album – there are a lot of records from 2016 that he recommended to me. We lived together in Edinburgh for the summer that year, while we were at the festival, and he first played me Frank Ocean, the day ‘Ivy’ came out. He’s one of my closest friends, and he was aware that I was doing this project, so whenever he got into an album from then he’d play it to me. 

Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest

In 2016 my friend Henry texted me and said, ‘Do you want to hear the best album of the year?’ and he sent me a link to Teens of Denial. [Car Seat Headrest] is a fucking awful name, but I got into it pretty quickly. Songs like ‘Drunk Drivers’ and ‘Destroyed by Hippy Powers’ you instantly want to go back to and listen again. And I eventually felt like that about the whole record. It’s such a dense album. I love how it’s put together – there’s always something going on, like a second guitar line in the background, or a little flourish here or there, but it’s never overkill. Lyrically it’s brilliant, I love the sound of his voice, and these songs are like monoliths – they’re all so big. 

Upstepping – Oliver Coates 

No, I didn’t buy this. But I’ve heard of it, and I like that bit you just played me, so maybe I’ll end up getting it.

I remember Oliver Coates cropping up on a few lists and me listening to it a few times and there not being anything on it that grabbed me. When you’re doing what I’m doing, going down list after list and listening to so much, there needs to be something that hooks you in that makes you justify buying another album from 2016. But he does cello work with Thom Yorke, right? And Radiohead released an album in 2016, so bad luck Oliver – I’m going to go with that instead. Although I’m very slowly getting into Radiohead, to be fair. It’s hard to form your own relationship with a band that everyone else already has a strong relationship with. The Beatles I’m the same with – and then it clicked and I was like, “oh, this is mine as well now.”

Body War – Show Me The Body

This is an album that I discovered on [YouTube channel] The Needle Drop. I got into that pretty late, but his top 50 was a real treasure trove. His number one was Danny Brown, and he’s really into the Drones, and that’s also how I heard Show Me The Body. I love that they get a banjo in there, but they’ve also got this spirit of nu metal in them but do in this post-hardcore punk way. They seem to have all of their ingredients measured out to the perfect amount. It never gets cheesy, and they don’t seem to take themselves 100% seriously. 

This album is one that I really like, but it’s borderline. I can’t quite love it. I wouldn’t buy this on vinyl. Although, y’know what, if I was in a record store and I saw it, I’d buy it, but I’m not going to order it. But I do go back to it a lot, actually. 

22, A Million – Bon Iver 

I wasn’t a Bon Iver fan at all until this album came out. I didn’t give a shit about Bon Iver. I’d heard ‘Shinny Love’ and thought that’s a nice song, but I don’t want to hear an album of it. And then my friend Steve Dunne, who does a podcast with Joel Dommett and is a professional musician, I asked him what was his favourite album of 2016 and he said Bon Iver. And I was like, “Argh. What was your second favourite?” And he said, “No, no, honestly…” He didn’t even tell me anything about it, so I thought it was going to be a ‘Skinny Love’ album, and then I listened to the track ‘33 “GOD”’, and I was like, “Oh my fucking God. This is brilliant.” 

I just love the drums on it… And also, it’s just great that a folk artist who then guests on an album of Kanye’s came out completely changed from it, and then made this album that’s basically, imagine if Kanye made a folk album. It’s fucking great. And I feel like even though it’s a big one and it did get a lot of recognition, it didn’t get enough. I think in the future, people will be like, “hold on, no one ever did that before, or since.” At their heart, these are still simple, emotional folk songs, and you’ve cut them up and you’re fucking around with these songs in a way that you shouldn’t when you’re making folk music. 

I think it’s such a great record, and it’s one of the ones that excited me about modern music. This guy’s huge, he’s got so many people listening to him and watching him, and he’s done this. He must have thought, “yeah, I love it, but everyone else might tell me to go fuck myself.” 

Shoo – Lionlimb 

I don’t know this at all. But the little bit of out of time drumming on that song that you’ve just played is what will make me go and check it out. It’s become more and more the thing – because I’ve listened to so much stuff now, that’s more appealing to me than someone playing the perfect drumbeat and singing perfectly. It’s weird how doing this project has resulting not just in me liking things that I wouldn’t have liked before, but I’ve realised I don’t like thing that are too polished. I like production that is dodgy and music that’s a bit out of time.