Sunday, December 18, 2016

My Top 20 Albums Of 2016

The first thing you're gonna notice in this list is the absence of some big names. Yeah, David Bowie put out an exceptional album right before his death early in 2016, and a few other mainstays of the indie world released records this year that pushed at the edges of their established sound. Still, I was a bit brutal this time around. It's not that these were necessarily the albums that I played the most in 2016 -- heck, I probably played the reissue of Kaleidoscope World from The Chills more than some of these selections; and the release of the complete Third from Big Star made that band's music just as current and vital as a lot of what's here -- but that these are the ones worth highlighting, the ones that seemed to grab my attention, held my interest, offered something special, inspired me.

And, it's worth noting that this list is only albums proper, hence none of the fine EP releases that graced my year are here. So no 2016 offerings from Angelic Milk, Chemtrails, The Close Lobsters, Tony Molina, or Butterfly Child.

So, all that being said, here we go. Here's my list and in no particular order beyond release date (roughly). Links to the bands' websites and labels are in my original reviews (linked where available).

My Top 20 Albums Of 2016

1. In Search Or Harperfield by Emma Pollock

The former Delgados singer offered up one of her best solo releases with 2016's In Search of Harperfield, a lyrical-and-lush rumination on aging and family. Cuts like "Old Ghosts" offered an aching understanding of what it means to care for one's parents in their old age.

2. Spilt Milk by Pete Astor

Pete Astor was the leader of both The Loft and The Weather Prohets but one didn't need a knowledge of those bands' back-catalogs in order to appreciate the buoyant Spilt Milk. The Slumberland Records release began a year of exceptional releases for the label, and signaled the start of a new era for this underappreciated songwriter.

3. Wolves Of Want by Bent Shapes

Did someone mention Slumberland Records? The latest long-player from this Boston crew, on that label, was an absurdly catchy affair, indie hooks ringing throughout. Stuff like "New Starts in Old Dominion" was smart-not-snarky and a number -- like so many here -- with some of the biggest hooks of 2016. So many cuts on Wolves of Want didn't leave my iPod for the last 12 months that it feels like I've been loving this one for years.

4. Searchlights by Dot Dash

The D.C. quartet turned up the volume in 2016 and -- full confession -- I didn't quite dig this new one on first listen as I expected to despite being a huge fan of the band. A few more plays did the trick and everything clicked for me. Searchlights is louder and longer than earlier Dot Dash releases but it's also one of their best releases, Steve Hansgen now a strong, firm presence in the production of the group's sound. The Minor Threat legend joins these other D.C. legends in cranking out power-pop of the very finest caliber, with "Woke Up Saturday Night", in a video shot by Lorelei/Sansyou drummer Davis White, being a prime example.

5. Antares by Tone

Speaking of D.C. legends, these cats have been producing superb music for decades. Antares was the 2016 release from Tone and it rewarded fans of this band, as well as casual listeners, with the sort of muscular post-rock this outfit has staked their lives on. Blurring lines between genres here, the return of Tone was one of 2016's blessings for a listener.

6. Actual Entity by Lake Ruth

Actual Entity by Lake Ruth was the surprise release of this year for a lot of people. The band, featuring Hewson Chen from The New Lines and singer Alison Brice, put out an album that managed to echo past greats like Pram and Komeda while offering up something stately, otherworldly, and haunting.

7. Tonight's Music by The Moles

If anything, The Moles, fronted by superb songwriter Richard Davies, didn't make things easier for listeners. A dense album packed full of cryptic references and difficult melodies jutting up next to lush ones, Tonight's Music was one of this year's most rewarding listens.

8. The Glistening One by Sansyou

This D.C. trio offered up one of 2016's best albums with The Glistening One. If Sansyou doesn't use a vocalist, it doesn't really matter as they still manage to make what can only be termed "catchy" music. Full of hooks that recalled Cocteau Twins, Ride, and Johnny Marr, this trio's tunes blended multiple sub-genres within the indie world with ease.

9. Here by Teenage Fanclub

Of course the return of Teenage Fanclub was something to be applauded. That the results were as excellent as those found on Here made that applause even louder. Their sharpest set in ages, this album charmed and offered up downright life-affirming music from these indie legends.

10. La Arana Es La Vida by Kid Congo Powers and The Pink Monkey Birds

I'm still mad that I was sick the last time this lot played D.C. 'cause I'm sure the show I missed was just as much of a sonic riot as La Arana Es La Vida is. The newest one from Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds offered up the soundtrack to the greatest party in the world, or only the psychotronic one running in your head like an old B-movie.

11. Adult Contemporaries by Ablebody

I didn't really expect a band with 2 members of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart to sound like this. Anton Hochheim and his brother Christoph offered up the O.M.D.-influenced Adult Contemporaries and each cut here was a pleasant bit of ear candy. Echoes of past bands like Altered Images and Associates abounded, and yet Ablebody were serving up something modern and forward-looking at the same time. Superbly constructed, performed, and produced, Adult Contemporaries still deserves far more attention even as the year winds down.

12. Wordless Wonder by Real Numbers

Sounding like every C86-era band that inspired Mike Schulman to start up Slumberland Records in the first place, the music of American band Real Numbers was more than a note-perfect recreation of an earlier set of indie classics. Wordless Wonder offered up chiming number after chiming number. And yet, for all the nods to the past, the tunes here charmed in fresh ways. One of 2016's most listenable records starts here.

13. Lost At The Party by Terry Malts

The punk-pop band Terry Malts, pictured up above, re-invented itself in 2016 and dropped the superb Lost At The Party. Sleek Eighties edges and strong New Wave hooks were the key ingredients this time out and if Terry Malts didn't sound much like they had in the past, they sounded like one of the best bands operating in this country in 2016. With every cut a gem, Lost At The Party was one of the best releases from Slumberland Records in a banner year for the label.

14. Beneath a Yellow Moon by I Have A Tribe

I Have A Tribe is Patrick O'Laoghaire, more or less, and the band released one of the most haunting records of 2016 with Beneath A Yellow Moon. Doubt me? Spin "Buddy Holly" and other numbers from this record in the car when you're alone and driving late at night. Beautiful and aching, the music of I Have A Tribe, carried forward by Patrick's rich voice, surprised me in a year full of musical surprises.

15. Ten Hymns From My American Gothic by St. Lenox

Let's face it, if you asked me to simply name the best record of 2016 there's a very good chance I'd say this one. Ten Hymns From My American Gothic by St. Lenox is smart, emotional, brave, and bold big music. I've never heard anything like this, frankly, and each time I play it something grabs me, whether it's the humor of "Conspiracy Theories" or the poignancy of "People From Other Cultures".

16. Metal Frames by Split Single

Metal Frames may have featured the drummer from Superchunk and the bassist from Wilco but the sound of this act was entirely fresh. The superb power-pop cranked out by the Jason Narducy-fronted Split Single was bright, listenable stuff. The kid's now a real peer to those acts he's played with (Bob Mould, Superchunk, Guided by Voices).

17. The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo by Cory Hanson

I never ever would have expected that the singer from Wand would have offered up something like this. The Unborn Capitalist From Limbo revealed Cory Hanson to be a genuine chamber pop force. Echoes of Nick Drake and Elliott Smith were here, but there were also bits that sounded like old Van Dyke Parks records. Lush, lyrical, and altogether haunting, each tune on this one is perfectly crafted and entirely affecting.

18. We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest

The end of a bad year saw one thing to excited about: the surprise return of A Tribe Called Quest. Offering up one of their strongest releases, the Tribe, with contributions from the late Phife Dawg recorded before his death, delivered a thing of force in We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service. Brilliant blasts of lyrics and an excellent selection of samples filled We Got It From Here..., and this is exactly what hip hop, and the the world, needed in 2016.

19. Another's Blood by Young Romance

I had literally been waiting for years for this one and I wasn't disappointed. The debut full-length from London duo Young Romance, Another's Blood, offered up bright indie mixed with traces of shoegaze and C86 stuff. Claire and Paolo delivered on the promise of those early singles with one of 2016's most concise and sharp releases.

20. Love And Cannibalism by The New Lines

Featuring Hewson Chen from Lake Ruth and Davis White from Sansyou, 2 bands that appear elsewhere on this list, The New Lines make similarly affecting indie. While there are moments here on Love And Cannibalism that do indeed owe a debt to Silver Apples, or Stereolab, or The Velvet Underground, what makes the music here so memorable is how effortlessly those sorts of influences are blended together in the service of utterly unique tune-age. This is a release that will reward over time and one that reveals something new each time I spin it.