The year 2016 is nearly over, and as everyone says, “Good riddance,” and scrambles to prepare for Christmas, art enthusiasts (such as myself), pull together lists of their favorite pieces of the year as a reminder that maybe the year wasn’t so bad after all. Here’s my list, focusing specifically on music since I don’t watch enough movies or read enough books to compile lists of those.
Though my previous iterations of this list have been much more structured, this year I will be presenting my favorite album and my favorite EP from 2016 and the rest of my top picks in no particular order. This seems to be a more fitting approach for this list since I in no way am seeking to create an authoritative, objective best-of-the-best super-list. You can go to Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, or some other major music journalist for those. These records are the ones I’ve been listening to a lot this year, the ones that have meant the most to me, and the ones I’ve enjoyed immensely. I didn’t get into a lot of the critical darlings from this year (sorry, Bon Iver, but that record didn’t do much for me), so I hope that this compilation can be a good companion piece to the major lists, a window into the underappreciated and independent records from this year.
The Extended Plays:
This is Fine by Secret Stuff
This Nashville indie rock outfit combines the emo noodling of American Football with the pop-punk attack of Blink-182 into an earnest stew of self-criticism and angst to gratifying effect. These emotions boil to the point where the band comes to grips with its weaknesses and hardships, accepting the world’s fallen nature and moving forward, “afflicted in every way, but not crushed.”
III by AyOh
In III, AyOh has proven himself to be a deft beatmaker and promising figure in the Atlanta and instrumental hip-hop scenes. While the DJ’s plunderphonic sketches are brief and draw samples from retro and nostalgic sources, it refuses to fall victim to kitsch or chaos. The tracks bob and weave from idea to idea, seamlessly flowing through the 18-minute run time to form a cohesive and satisfying mix.
Hoops by Hoops
This spacious and relaxed set of songs from Indiana’s Hoops is their debut on Fat Possum records, and the band has clearly capitalized on their recent partnerships. While keeping the lo-fi spirit and aesthetic of their “Tape” releases, Hoops has enhanced their sound with crisper production that gives the compositions more room to breathe and showcase the fine musicianship that hides beneath the cassette hiss.
Floral Hall by Fauna Shade
Everett’s own Fauna Shade has topped their debut album Baton Rouge with a four-track offering that explores the far reaches of their sound. While their first record brilliantly split the difference between aggressive post-grunge and dreamy indie rock, Floral Hall takes both ideas and pursues them to the extreme. Opener “1973” (featuring guest vocalists from the band LAKE) contains the EP’s only prominent acoustic guitars, fading from a psychedelic haze to the crunchy riffs and hooks that the following two tracks employ in manic fashion. The closing track “P.S.” simmers with reverberating chords and and gently brings the EP — a concise demonstration of Fauna Shade’s talents — to a close.
JX-3Please by cultureculture
I’m a sucker for 80s-styled synthpop, and cultureculture’s curiously titled sophomore EP is the best I’ve heard all year. With lush, generous layering and lyrics that pack a punch when deconstructed (such as the critique of materialism in “RGB”), this Atlanta group deserves close attention. Also, it is worth noting that their live performances are absolutely fantastic. You can read my full review of the EP here.
\\ EP OF THE YEAR \\
Wow to the Deadness by Steve Taylor & the Danielson Foil
This outstanding one-off collaboration is a classic example of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I haven’t been able to get into Steve Taylor or his reincarnation with the Perfect Foil, and it took me a while to appreciate even the most accessible of Danielson’s projects. That being said, this EP is something special. Taylor and Smith’s voices complement each other, and the raw punk-ish instrumentals serve as a surprisingly fitting home for them. The quirky lyrics sharply communicate the writers’ ideas in refreshingly unique ways, leaving the listener with things to ponder after the whirlwind of an EP has come to a close.
Additionally, this record is a perfect example of a short-form release done right. The musical styles, which are brilliantly brought to life by legendary producer Steve Albini, wouldn’t necessarily fit in either of the artist’s main projects. Therefore, the EP gives them room to explore new musical strains without totally changing their artistic direction as a whole. It gives them room for a collaboration that would have been harder to fit within a full-length context, and it doesn’t feel like a mere collection of singles or a leading-up to an LP. Wow to the Deadness stands as a unit of its own outside of the contexts of both Steve Taylor and Danielson. It’s a reminder that focusing on a multi-song release does not have to be limited to a full-length record.
Arrayed Above the Seraphim Lights by Even Oxen
This record certainly has the least refined production of all the albums on this list, but the low-fidelity recording only increases my delight in this record. Despite its lofty source material — the eight-track record draws primary inspiration from the Book of Revelation — the record feels intimate and immediate. This is due largely in part to the raw, unrestrained, and unprofessionally recorded vocals and instrumentals. Though Even Oxen’s Bersain Beristain may be singing about “seraphim lights” in the closing track, the vulnerability of his vocals and the rain pattering on the outside of the truck in which he recorded the song makes the concept seem that much closer to earth.
III by Psychic Temple
This record was my introduction to Psychic Temple/Chris Schlarb, and I have been greatly pleased with my findings. III encompasses choice styles of American folk music in one of the most pleasant and versatile records of 2016. The production and instrumentation are warm and relaxed, and the lyrics and vocals follow suit. In addition to being a great record, this album has a personal dimension of meaning to me as my original review is becoming one of my most-read reviews on this site and it served as an connection to some pretty incredible people.
Are You Serious by Andrew Bird
This record may be the most “critically acclaimed” record on this list, as it was recently nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. While the record is certainly deserving of this nomination — Bird’s precision and technicality of musicianship is a primary draw — the staying power of Are You Serious comes from its educated lyrics. From the sharp Catholic references “The New Saint Jude” to the personal recollections of cancer’s effect in “Puma” to the meta, deconstruction-of-a-love-song “Left Handed Kisses,” Bird has created a record that both tickles the ears with its sheer skill and causes the listener to ponder its thoughtful poetry.
SECRETS by Deep Sea Diver
Deep Sea Diver’s sophomore record was a sleeper hit this year. For some reason, it slid under the radar of most major music outlets, despite frontwoman Jessica Dobson’s previous high-profile connections such as the Shins, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Beck. That being said, this record is simply outstanding. While there isn’t much “hit single” material here, the writing and production is flawless from beginning to end. The riffs are intricate, the vocals are sincerely passionate, and the unit is delicately structured and balanced. You should listen to this record as soon as possible.
Attic Static Sticker Star by The Normal Knees
Leading with the spirited “Audrey Lang Syne,” it seems from the beginning as if the Normal Knees’ Renew the Arts debut Attic Static Sticker Star going to be a thrill ride packed with fun, grungy rock jams; and it is. However, as the album progresses, it becomes evident that this record wields a serious edge, manifesting most notably in the album’s centerpiece, “Baseball Diamond.” The record battles feelings of inferiority and victimization, recognizing that people are often more abusive and deceptive towards themselves than anyone else. You can read my full commentary on the album here.
\\ ALBUM OF THE YEAR \\
Visions of Us on the Land by Damien Jurado
Damien Jurado’s Visions of Us on the Land isn’t just the high point of his Maraqopa trilogy or his collaboration with producer/instrumentalist, Richard Swift; it’s perhaps the climax of his entire career. Jurado progressed quite dramatically from the heart-wrenching narrative sketches of his early career. While there’s a unifying story and concept behind the record (and the two that precede it in the series, Maraqopa and Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son), it’s painted in more impressionistic strokes, focusing more on ideas and thoughts rather than the concrete stories that anchor his first few albums. Though the focus of the record is still on the writing, the instrumentation is more lush and expansive, drawing inspiration from choice musical styles of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Like the themes of the record, the music itself sounds timeless.
It’s these ageless truths Jurado explores that allows the record to touch the soul in the ways it does, despite potentially being about alien abductions or a pre-post-death dream or the Rapture. Even amid these dramatic, apocalyptic visions of isolation, Jurado illuminates beauty. This is where the album really hits home for me: if there is beauty to be found even amidst dramatic apocalyptic visions of isolation, then perhaps I can find beauty within my own trying circumstances. Visions of Us on the Land is an absolutely genius, heartfelt, and inspired record.
I Have Seen the End by Brock’s Folly
I originally wasn’t going to include this album on the list, but the more I thought about it, the wronger it felt to exclude it. I’m not including it in my main list because I was actively involved in its promotion and release due to my role at the Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal. I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish, but more than that, I just absolutely love this record. I enjoyed the first two releases from Brock’s Folly (I even reviewed one), but I wasn’t a huge fan. In this “farewell album,” however, the band really won me over. The band’s energy and chemistry is palpable in the recordings, and the lyrics are brilliantly penned. It’s awakened me to a greater appreciation of Americana-styled records, and listening to it brings back fond memories of hanging out in Georgia and Tennessee with the band and others from the Foundation before and after the release party for the album. But even outside of this personal context, the album has proven worthy of many happy returns.