2016 Albums of The Year: 50 – 26

Tyler enters the top half of his 2016 Albums of the Year list, focusing on ascendant stars like Pkew Pkew Pkew, Kweku Collins, Gordi and Lydia Loveless.

If it sometimes feels like Albums of the Year are preferential to emergent artists, it’s because the surprise of a record unanticipated grants it some modicum of credibility throughout the year.

As the year goes on, some of those records age poorly (hey, what’s up Sturgill), while some just keep growing (Lucy Dacus, ascendant star). That they get slotted so relatively far from the top spot is one of the engendered, and righteous criticisms of music writers – we simply can’t get away from our past preferences most of the time.

Still, this section of the list  is a fun run through some of the best new artists I listened to this year, with just a few carry-overs in there as well. These records were surprises, but they won’t be the next time.

50. Kweku Collins – Nat Love

God bless Nat Love for, at least, not having skits. 2016 didn’t end up being the summer of Kweku, and he says in “Nat’s Intro,” yet the bleary rapper’s sophomore album is a more grounded and focused effort than his first, the ADD Say It Here, While It’s Safe. In the middle of his slightly poppy influences (“Stupid Rose,” “Death of a Salesman”), Collins manages to keep Nat Love from bloating itself up with overstated purpose or ambition. Instead, Nat Love is simply nearly a dozen of strong songs, pulling from forebears like Kid Cudi (good god, he’s an ancestor now… I’m old) to combine a deep-seeded love for guitar based music (“The Outsiders”) with contemporary sung hip-hop. Collins is destined, potentially, to be the chorus man on a breakout Top 40 hit for a lesser rapper, which will be a shame. Yet Nat Love is a good keepsake for those who seek him out. In a year of overhyped and bloated hip-hop, Kweku Collins stayed simple, and it works.

49. Julianna Barwick – Will

Julianna Barwick’s 2013 Nepenthe was a revelation. The freak, chamber-pop folkie had made a career on layering her magnificently evocative and mysterious voice over itself in cascading waves of choral sound, eventually building something close to revelatory. On Nepenthe, Barwick added strings and keys to the mix, proving, crucially, that she could expand outside of the framework she had created for herself. Will is an extension of Nepenthe, building an almost traditional intro from “St. Apologia” with piano and violin around a relatively basic Barwick vocal loop. That the record doesn’t have a highlight like “The Harbinger” or “Pyrrhic” is less a criticism of Will and more an appreciation of what made Nepenthe stand out. Will is a more sonically adventurous, colder companion piece to Nepenthe, something that broadens her sound, if perhaps not her appeal.

48. Colin Stetson – SORROW

Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, startling mid-90s success excepted, is a pretty weird piece of music. Which only heightens the bizarre Overtness of Bon Iver collaborator Colin Stetson’s decision to post-rock and modern instrumentalize the shit out of it. The immediate relationship pop music fans might draw is Explosions in the Sky, and there’s plenty in the first movement “Lento” that indicates toward the high on the neck scribbling of the Austin megastars. It’s the easiest trick in the book – turn the guitar into a classically centered string instrument. Yet Stetson does yeoman’s work divorcing the piece from generic post-rock – the second movement is rooted in deep, Sunn O)))-esque drone, and the third movement begins with what sounds like a opera singer belting over anarchic Archers of Loaf drums and screeching guitar. Sorrow isn’t a particularly languid listen, but it’s enrapturing climax and well-balanced pacing reveals Stetson to be less a shameless rip-offer and more a willing fan, re-interpreting something he loves.

47. Kamaiyah – A Good Night In the Ghetto

From the funky percussion at the beginning of “I’m On,” Kamaiyah introduces herself as a vibrant, expressive voice in the burgeoning field of mainstream female hip-hop stars. Her braggadocio is familiar, yet the beats under her burble with a retro g-funk bop that the mediocre likes of Drake and others have eschewed or bastardized for their own sing-songy ends. Good Night In The Ghetto is similarly obsessed less with violent threats toward competing gangs or haters and more with celebrating the simple (if ever expanding) pleasures of her scene or crew. “Out the Bottle,” is a powerful “ima do me” anthem, unwilling to allow to haters or potential beef with her partying lifestyle stop Kamaiyah from expressing herself. “N*ggas” is magnificent role reversal of the normally male-obsessed sex-crazed objectification of the opposite sex – “Break You Down” achieves a similar purpose with some purple synths and an effortless funk baseline. Kamaiyah’s flow is also impressive, unrelenting yet unsuspeting; she rarely feels the need to flex her credentials, and shows up the ascendant YG with her simple, appropriate confidence on “Fuck It Up.” A Good Night In the Ghetto is nasty fun, a welcome respite from the sometimes overwrought hip-hop zeitgeist.

46. Big Thief – Masterpiece

Masterpiece is a hell of a name for your debut record, but for Brooklyn’s Big Thief it almost holds up. Adrianne Lenker sings with a Midwestern longing that is rapidly starting to disappear from modern folk-rock. In its place bands like The Lumineers co-opt songwriting chops with bland, millennial ADD ear-baiting “hos,” “heys” and all other many of exclamation. Big Thief are ever so retro then – a band that trades in the sounds of a genre that, while still very popular, has been marginalized by its biggest successes. Thankfully, Masterpiece is a refreshing recap of what made the folk-rock revival so promising. Propulsive blues elements writhe around Lenker’s voice on “Vegas,” power chords add a wailing power to “Real Love,” and mystical whispers from Lenker’s breathy whisper adds mystery to the lilting “Velvet Ring.” For those despondent on the marginalization of folk-rock, Big Thief are around to ease the pain.

45. Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop – Love Letter for Fire

Somewhat similar to Wilco’s slow reckoning with a diminished influence, Sam Beam, the man behind tentpole indie-folk artist Iron & Wine, has had to reckon with his style of back porch calm calamities and soft sexuality going decidedly out of style with an increasingly glossy generation. So after the somewhat disappointing 2013 Ghost on Ghost, Beam has gone back to the well of his former glories for a series of Archive releases and, most importantly, embraced collaboration with other folkies. Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses collab’d on a series of covers, and this year Beam finds some dirty gold with breathy folk artist Jesca Hoop. Together they put together a fitting capper on some of the sounds Beam helped popularize, all the while maintaining the course of his career toward the end of the decade. Beam may not be the instigating folk figure he once was, and his back porch may not be as crowded, but those still hanging around for the late night session are likely to leave pleasantly surprised.

44. Chris Farren – Can’t Die

The impending demise of Motion City Soundtrack has left a strange void in the self-aware humorist enclave of pop-punk. Chris Farren’s newest record, which starts with the sardonically dark title track, puts him on the track to be MCS’s potential heir apparent. In a year that featured the sadly disappointing confessional screed of Jeff Rosenstock, Farren’s cutesy power pop as he’s dealing with feelings of inhumanity on “Human Being” strikes a refreshing chord. Not all of the sardonic darkness has to blend with furious punk stylings, and Farren is far more interested in the chip-tune power-pop sound that manages to buoy his depressiveness to earworm-y levels.

43. Sioux Falls – Rot Forever

In an age when records are progressively getting shorter, punk brevity spilling over into the sometimes staid, long long-players of indie-rock’s past, Sioux Falls defiantly flips the bird to convention and made one of the longest records of the year, the punishing and hard wrung Rot Forever. A model of slacktivist Weezer-baiting and softcore Jawbreaker chords, Rot Forever succeeds in places where Sioux Falls can balance the unrelenting with the beautiful, such as the near pitch perfect three song run of “Practice Space,” “Dinosaur Dying” and “Copy/Paste,” which starts glacially before building to a giant finale. For those looking to toke up and listen to indie rock that accurately describes their couch-bound aesthetic, Rot Forever might be an Album of the Year candidate. As it stands, it’s a giant set of songs that begs for picking and choosing. The choices, though, are stellar.

42. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Conor Oberst’s return is surprising, if only because, through all of the travails Oberst has been put through over the past two years, he’s still the same nihilistic self he was back on LIFTED. Ruminations isn’t a Bright Eyes album – Nate Wolcott isn’t around, even if Mike Mogis is manning the knobs. Ruminations reminds me most closely of Big Sur, Jack Kerouac’s underrated accounting of the early stages of his delirium tremens through the lens of a number of aborted trips to a cabin in Bixby Canyon. There’s the weariness of dislocation and inability to meet up with one’s idols (“Barbary Coast (Later)”), the hardened resentment towards those fair-weather members of his circle (“You All Loved Him Once”), then sneering paranoia of seeing friends as nothing more than swooning members of an adoring populace (“Gossamer Thin”). All this filtered through four instruments – piano, guitar, harmonica, vox – renders Ruminations weary, displaced and given up. But what else would you have expected of Conor Oberst, a dozen years ago when he was just moving to New York? He may not have expected it to happen this way, but the winding road ended up in a predictable place – Conor Oberst, surrounded by only those original boys, recounting his stories through a beer, a whiskey, and an unreliable narrator.

41. Lydia Loveless – Real

A contender for Album Art of the year, Lydia Loveless improbably became the best female example of breakout star in this resurgence of “traditional country” LPs that have popped up out of the ground this year and last. While Margot Price, Nikki Lane, Kacey Musgraves, and Ashley Monroe have all carved out their niche (Musgraves probably most firmly), Loveless succeeds for two reasons – she has a defined sense of pop-rock that she infuses into her honky-tonk (“Longer”), saving it from sounding overly retro or cute. The other reason is that, by far, she has the most powerful voice of the new group of stars. She can go from belting the chorus of “Same to You” to the sweetness of “Heaven” to a bleary eyed sardonic wit in “Midwestern Guys,” Loveless is preternaturally talented at finding the proper tempo, tenor and timber for the song she’s in, very similar to male analogues Justin Townes Earle or Tha Gawd Jason Isbell. In a pair of years saturated by retro flavor, Real stands out.

40. Into It. Over It. – Standards

While he outshot many of his compatriots, Standards is a bit of a letdown for Evan Weiss. Presented as the first fitting follow-up to The World Is a Beautiful Place’s Harmlessness, the next immensely satisfying pure emo hit that could nevertheless cross over to the mainstream, Standards is unfortunately nothing except a strong selection of songs from one of the best musicians in his genre. Recalling Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans in tempo and scope, Weiss maybe stretches his arms a bit too far (“Vis Major,” “Old Lace and Ivory,” and “Required Reading” don’t so much fit together as seem slammed together from a collection of EPs), but his songcraft is enviable. Standards is better than most emo this year; it’s just not as great as Standards was led to be.

39. Yohuna – Patientness

Johanne Swanson, who has been recording as Yohuna since mid-2011, trades in a style of indie that most artists eschew these days for easy Bandcamp setups that could get them a record deal. To be clear, Patientness is the culmination of a slow build up of Swanson’s expressive, poppy shoegaze. Yet the mere fact that Swanson is comfortable layering massive elements like distorted guitars, layers of vocals and various other melody-based string elements speaks to her necessary voice in a genre that features more than enough spare garage rock 90s revivalists. Patientness is earnest and romantic, layered, calm and blissful in places, nostalgic and ethereal in others. Swanson grounds her narratives on songs like “Lake” and “World Series,” only to allow her more expressive pieces like “The Moon Hangs in The Sky Like Nothing Hangs in the Sky” and “Golden Foil” to take off into a galactic headspace. With multi-instrumental superstar Owen Pallett backing her up, Swanson and Yohuna have a bright future in a genre underserved by current trends.

38. Johanna Warren – Gemini I

Johanna Warren is a freaky-folky, and despite her first two LPs, Gemini I states this most clearly. Her 2015 effort, Nümün, was a grounded bit of folk plaintiveness. Gemini I ascends Warren’s sound into the mist of a cloudy evening, presenting Warren as a ghost, spectral yet stuck to the ground. “Hungry Ghost” treats this persona as metaphor, Warren lamenting her status as a potential has-been already, listening to people talk about her as if they’re grieving. Thankfully, Gemini I is not a sign that Warren is dying. If anything, the Iron & Wine collaborator is just starting to reach a point of true artistic blossoming, merging traditional freak-folk with her own slice of conversational lyricism. “Circlenot Astraight” lilts along like a ballad, yet is a poignant moment of Warren discussing the way that her actions might be viewed by others as alienating, yet Warren keeps trying to emphasize what her true philosophy is. Gemini I is a beautiful, placcid and weird moment of catharsis and intent from Warren, leaving us to wonder what ghostly coastline she might bring us to with the expected Gemini II.

37. Gordi – Clever Disguise EP

Finding EPs that have as visceral an impact as Gordi’s debut is difficult business. But Gordi, who staked her initial claim on a dynamite, unexpected cover of fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett’s breakthrough “Avant Gardener,” turns in an altogether surprising blend of big tent festival folk, modern Euro-centric dark pop and trippy percussion. The middle three tracks of the five track EP are perhaps her best, with the singles “Taken Blame” and “So Here We Are” surrounding the handclappy “Can We Work It Out.” Gordi has potential superstar fundamentals, and a unique take on some tried genres. Her debut, assuming it comes out next year, might be massive.

36. White Lung – Paradise

With the exception of Touche Amore, who we’ll get to a little bit later, nobody rips as heavily, wails as chillingly, or writes as explosively as White Lung. The Canadian four-piece have been peddling their blistering hardcore punk for nearly six years, and Paradise is the first indication of them broadening their horizons to include such mildly softer focus fare as “pop hardcore.” For those unaware of what that sounds like, “Below” is the perfect example. Raucous, gigantic, yet a sparkling lead guitar mimicking the degrading but romantic lyrical through-line; it’s an almost impossible tightrope to walk (only Fucked Up do it on the regular), but White Lung nail it. The rest of the album is considerably harder than “Below,” yet the edge of White Lung’s pen and axe seem no less sharp than it was when they blew open the scene in the early 2010s.

35. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

Hip-hop has entered its drug-addled phase. Over the last couple of years the major stars of hip-hop have presented themselves either against or a part of the emergent drug culture of molly, lean, ecstasy and other party drugs. Not so much drug dealing, per se, but drug using. And as the drugs have gotten more hallucinatory, so has the music. Young Thug has practically made a living off of sounding like he’s on a perpetual combination of psilocybin and codeine this year. So, absent the actual (excellent) quality of his flow, the measured, calm, un-hazed out method of Ka’s Honor Killed the Samurai is instantly refreshing. Immediately recalling obvious forebears Wu-Tang Clan, Honor is a nearly percussion-less missive from a rapper that sounds confident, yet in control. Overt statements of power are made through rhyme and verse, not braggadocio. Ka is an outlier, yet Honor Killed the Samurai is one of the better hip-hop albums of the year.

34. Pkew Pkew Pkew – Pkew Pkew Pkew

If it feels as though 2016 has been a never ending slog between Know Nothing-ism, depression, Woke Baes and the ever present reality that we must confront our problems to be better people, 2016 Best Band Name Winner Pkew Pkew Pkew have something to say – “let’s stay in the minors, where we can hit well, even when we’re drunk.” From album centerpiece “Prime Minister of Defense,” the line sums up the ethos Pkew x 3’s self-titled debut – fuck all this shit, let’s get blitzed, get injured and enjoy the hell out of it. There’s an entire song about playing nose-goes with ordering pizza before vomiting. The last track is as close to a ballad as the band can get, and it’s address to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb (yep, them). It’s Andrew W.K. for the vaping generation; boys who might’ve voted for Bernie Sanders because he could get them out of their loans. It’s a character, obviously. But, for nearly a half an hour, Pkew Pkew Pkew are the most rad rock n’ roll of the year, capable of erasing nearly all of the existential dread this year has wrought.

33. Florist – The Birds Outside Sang

Florist were one of 2015’s late surprises, their debut EP Holdly setting itself apart from the mass of lo-fi projects bursting forth from label spots like Double Double Whammy. Not more than four months later, the band’s proper LP debut, The Bird Outside Sang, is a moving set of just outside the bedroom records that recall indie rock all stars like Death Cab For Cutie and overhyped current trendy picks like Frankie Cosmos. But while Cosmos and like bands (Eskimeaux among them) released records this year, none compared to the simple pleasures taken from the songcraft of Florist. “I Was” most clearly supports this thesis; it’s a fully formed pop song with ideas in its head and technical execution in its soul, something that lo-fi projects mostly eschew in favor of raw, moving narratives. To be sure, there are moments of messy lo-fi community building (“1914”), but Florist seem to understand the songcraft that will eventually put them head above their peers. Bird Outside Sang is an immensely promising debut, proof already that Florist are one of indie’s ascendant stars.

32. Dowsing – Okay

When the first line of your album is as incendiary as “punk is dead / and all your friends will be soon,” you know you’ve stumbled onto something powerful. Just so, Dowsing, one of the many potential also-rans in the emo revival of the past few years, cements themselves as one of the more promising bare bones foursomes out there. Where many of their compatriots have fallen back (Dikembe took a big step back this year), Okay finds the band tightening their sound without glomming onto sonics that don’t fit the band entirely yet. The band does a great job of distilling mathy emo into punkier anthems, resulting in a half hour that rarely lags, yet doesn’t feel awfully challenging. Call it emo beach listening, and that’s a compliment.

31. Billie Marten – Writing of Blues and Yellows

There was a depressing moment this year when it appeared that, in addition to Price and David Bowie, we might also lose and be forced to reckon with the departure of Joni Mitchell. Thankfully, that did not come to pass. Additionally, we got a record that, while certainly not on the level of Mitchell’s genre defining releases, glances at Mitchell’s tradition and legacy with Billie Marten’s Writing of Blues and Yellows. Plaintively put together guitar-based compositions accentuated by breathy backing vocals or skittering jazz percussion, Marten’s anticipated debut doesn’t disappoint in any way, and instantly vaults her forward as one of folk’s eminent voices. Marten’s voice is poppy, yet mysterious – “Heavy Weather” hints at simple pop songs, but keeps taking welcome backroads to arrive at something just off the beaten path. With an album that gets elongated and more wandering as it goes, Marten only comes closer to realizing her nature, merging bleary romanticism with dark mystery on whispery tracks like “Untitled.” Marten may not be Joni Mitchell… not close, in fact. Yet her Writing of Blues and Yellows has a similar playful mysteriousness, and in time Marten may realize a form of Mitchell’s historic preeminence. For now, just a terrific folk record.

30. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

Given eight months, Sailor’s Guide fades ever so slightly from the freakish highs of the early listens. Sturgill Simpson is one of contemporary country’s rising stars, and Sailor’s Guide has been lauded as his breakthrough, the moment when his combination of Americana, honky tonk and zeideco flourishes meets with the zeitgeist. Turns out that was a little premature. Yet the album is still a power packed romp through Simpson’s current state of mind; polemic diatribes about his fraught history in the Navy (“Sea Stories,” “Call To Arms”) are mixed in with sweet sermons directed at his newly born son (“All Around You,” “Keep Between the Lines”). Simpson is undeniably talented at bringing at gruff Southern charm to his tunes, most clearly evident on his powerful cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” The birth of his son, similarly, ignites a sort of polemic advice column style to his narratives, drawing them away from the laissez-faire atmosphere of most Southern country and more into “don’t be evil” circuit. Just so, his resentment towards the military for taking years away from his life still flecks Simpson’s cowpoke attitude with a razor sharpness – closer “Call to Arms” calls out the military industrial complex for its brazen treatment of soldiers.

29. Lucy Dacus – No Burden

That bass line, and then – “I don’t wanna be funny anymore.” Lucy Dacus, with little more than fifteen seconds spent on her debut record, pushes through a persona of the cute-funny-hipster-girl-recording-in-her-bedroom cliche. No Burden is a progressive destruction of the idea that an emergent female artist must first cut their teeth with lo-fi raw emotion – “Troublemaker Doppelganger” and “Strange Torpedo” are big tent guitar rock blasts, fit for a band that might open up for a White Stripes tour rather than play a bunch of DIY venues in Bushwick. Dacus’ Southern upbringing carries weight here; she’s twenty-one and carries with her a world-weary voice and a pledge to move into spaces that men might dominate (especially in the South). While the second half of the record is decidedly slower and more muted, Dacus saves her biggest musical wallop (aside from the album’s opener) for “Man on a Wall,” a seven-minute anthem darting through time signatures and themes. It’s an audacious bit of folk-rock, setting Dacus up a true star in the making.

28. Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Confessional pop doesn’t get much better, or more subtly devastating, as Michelle Zauner’s new solo project Japanese Breakfast. Originally written as toss-off lyrics in the midst of a break from her near seminal Philly indie-rock band Little Big League, Zauner crafted a series of narratives that dodges around personal revelation, slicing into the safe spaces at opportune times – “This is where we lost you / despite every effort to bring you back / the hope’s the one that haunts you / and this home’s the rope around your neck / and it’ll be the noose that hangs you,” on the otherwise dreamy “Rugged Country.” The masterful short story about misplaced obsession in “Everybody Wants to Love You” (featuring Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott!) further disguises the confessional depths Zauner reaches on Psychopomp. Songs like “Jane Cum” and “In Heaven” deal directly with Zauner’s mother succumbing to cancer, the former being a sparkling, ethereal fuzzed out blast that translates the inability to reconcile with death into a beautifully distorted reality. Psychopomp is a distorted reality itself, a supposed respite from the tenuous realities of the world, yet a deep dive into the expressive, insistent mind of one of indie-rock’s strongest voices.

27. Blowout – No Beer, No Dad

The vocal might be criminally low in the mix, but Blowout’s lead singer Laken Wright still has plenty to say. Her rough, shouty yowl is immediately arresting and could draw very favorable comparisons to new indie-rock icons Katie and Allison Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, Swearin’ and PS Eliot. The lyrical subjects here aren’t anything revelatory for the genre; “Cents Cents Money Money,” the raucous opener, contains the shouted line “maybe I’ll get a job someday, / maybe I’ll find the words to say.” Yet she frames her tales of twenty-something angst through descriptive and illuminating verse, managing to keep up with Blowout’s sometimes ADD musical sensibilities. A debut with as much ambition as this doesn’t necessarily fit into the easily classifiable giant genre of pop-punk – there’s plenty of that around (the intro to “King PP”), but there’s also plenty of thrash, alt-rock and shoegaze moments in there as well. The album’s vulnerable centerpiece, “1 I Want” distills Blowout’s sound down enough to indicate at a potential direction for stardom. For now, No Beer, No Dad is just a freaking fantastic collection of songs by a band in a locale not typically associated with pop-punk revivalism (sup, Portland!).

26. LVL UP – Return to Love

You’d be forgiven for mistaking “Hidden Driver,” the opening track from LVL UP’s Return To Love, as a b-side from a lesser era of Neutral Milk Hotel’s lifespan. All the key elements are present; furiously strummed, fuzzy acoustic guitar, psychedelic, religious tinted impressionistic verse, MOOG synthesizers, propulsive punk anthem finish. “Hidden Driver” is a form of reboot for the garage rockers, a reassertion of their artistic purpose, for the next forty minutes establishing LVL UP as a messy indie-punk consortium of dudes. Elsewhere, Guided by Voices, Silver Jews and Weezer make their influential presence felt – “Pain” is a heartbroken via association screed against those who lie about loving unconditionally that bursts forth into a massive finish. “The Closing Door” is a military march of a pop song, typically fuzzed out guitars raining around the simple vocal melodies and Hobbit references. Return to Love is capital letter Indie-Rock, the purity of which is very rarely seen in today’s multi-referential scene. LVL UP may not have taken the next step past their promising third record Hoodwink’d, but Return to Love is a strong statement record on the band’s bonafides, as well as being a massively entertaining listen for anyone into In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (which should describe everyone, so).

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