The Best Overlooked Records of 2016

Apoptygma Berzerk

Apoptygma Berzerk. YouTube

There are many reasons why an album might not get much press, and most of them don’t have anything to do with whether or not the album’s actually any good.

The most common culprit is poor timing—like coveted movie release dates, it’s often a “when it rains, it pours” situation where all the great albums seem to come out on the same day. This forces the cultural media outlets, already pressured by declining ad-sales and declining attention spans, to go with the press release boasting the highest number of streams, downloads or followers.

And then there’s the matter of “branded content.” A responsible news outlet won’t grant a profile or feature to an artist because of any partnership that artist has with their publication, but partnerships develop. Something as simple as a coordinated track premiere, an in-house live session or a custom playlist for a streaming platform like Apple Music can often turn out to be product placement. Just last night I saw an animated excerpt from Laura Jane Grace’s autobiography, co-written with Vice’s Dan Ozzi, as a part of HBO’s Vice News Tonight. Not the biggest or most surprising example of vertical integration in the biz, but decisions like these are all clouding space that might otherwise go to new, emerging or overlooked artists.

That being said, I’d like to share with you the albums that I wish we gave more love to this year. My criteria for covering an artist is simple—do I like their work and do they have a story that even people who don’t consider themselves fans would appreciate? All the artists on this list not only satisfied both requirements but made music that, for the aforementioned reasons, didn’t get the love it should have. Let this list serve as a corrective band-aid to that boo-boo on my part.

Ghost Funk Orchestra, Night Walker

Some of this year’s gems have never been heard because they’re buried in anonymity, not known beyond their local communities, small scenes or neighborhoods. Seth Applebaum’s Ghost Funk Orchestra, which channels Latin Jazz, ambient and psych into a deliciously groovy creation all its own, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

This year’s Night Walker is a bedroom creation that reveals Applebaum to be a tremendously dexterous multi-instrumentalist, and everything from the drum sounds captured on mic to the horns tell the story of a true music fan whose taste and instincts cross styles and disciplines. These are the restless folks who build new genres and create new worlds all their own. Equal parts Latin Jazz and wide-eyed psych, with a garnish of salsa for flavor.

Public MemoryWuthering Drum

Can we please retire the word “textured” to the same shelf of overused clichés that “ethereal” rests on? Sure, the word makes a whole lot of sense, especially when describing electronic music that weaves disparate sounds into compositions, but its just too easy of a catch-all.

Let’s instead call the music that Brooklyn’s Robert Toher makes as Public Memory “maximum minimalism.” Layers of instruments create a plane of textured, dark synthwave via the Korg MS-20 on his woozy, intoxicating Wuthering Drum, but those layers never dominate or take precedent over the rhythm. Even in moments of narcotic ambiance, the songs are absolutely dominated by those beats, driven forward and propelled by a brooding, near-Krautrock levels consistency.

Toher seems interested in the trajectories that foster dissonance, in exploring the line between what your ears consider to be catchy and what they consider to be noise. When you can’t tell where the electronics end and the real instrumentation begins, you’re in the presence of warmth, the greatest electronic unicorn that there is. I hope to hear more about this guy and his creative process next year.

Doug Tuttle, It Calls On Me

The reserved but highly gifted Cambridge, Mass., musician Doug Tuttle understands that subtlety sets classic psychedelic music apart from the blown-out nonsense that today’s digitally compressed tripsters lose in their bombast. His second record, It Calls on Me is a heady dose of time-traveling pop gems, catapulting me back with hooky melodies and raga-inspired, minor-key guitar leads reminiscent of Love’s Arthur Lee at his peak. While the title track evokes a sense of personal responsibility that comes from a long journey, It Calls on Me ends with the loner having descended from the mountain, carrying the good advice he’s collected on his way.

“Make good time, and what you’ve left behind will grow,” he sings on “Make Good Time”, and the record stays true to these words. Tuttle’s thinking about the power of willing your own heightened perspective on “Painted Eye” right before recommending self-reflection on “Falling to Believe”, just two of many instances when he infuses larger life lessons and metaphysical triumphs of the self into this near-perfect collection of songs.

Cool GhoulsAnimal Races

San Francisco’s music scene isn’t dead, Tim Cohen told me, just bleeding internally. Aside from his band The Fresh & Onlys, notable names like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees and The Cairo Gang have largely packed up their bags for the cheaper rent of Los Angeles.

Cool Ghouls have remained, though, and this year’s largely unheard Animal Races positions them to reclaim their city from the sharing-economy entrepreneurs slowly killing the city’s creative class. Maybe that’s what they’re singing about on Animal Races’ title track, come to think of it:

“I’m awake and watching something made by people not immune, sifting through pages of history, people win and people lose…and the race is on.”

While “When You Were Gone” evokes some psychoactive slide guitar and harmonies, “Just Like Me” laughs at the sonic mélange that SF made its name on: “You ain’t no country boy, you ain’t foolin’ me/ You come from concrete just like me.”

Animal Races displays a band with the chops and the compositional skills to really cut through a dissociative groove, reminding me it’s O.K. to leave your body sometimes and have fun.

Cass McCombsMangy Love

Cass McCombs has been releasing music since the early 2000s, which makes the fact that this year’s Mangy Love is his best record impossible to ignore. Still, our branded-content-heavy blonganistas found a way.

Equally bitingly self-deprecating and gorgeously arranged, Mangy Love sneaks up on you and stays put. From the opening track “Bum Bum Bum”, which evokes a white dog on a farm tearing flesh over a catchy soft rock lead, McCombs is consciously and confidently fucking with us. The dog soon becomes a metaphor for something out of control being given a quick fix, “and eulogies poured from the stage, but nothing changed.”

Angel Olsen guests on the sparse and lovely “Opposite House”, which shows McCombs’ gift for distilling simple images, like rain inside or a refrigerator magnet, into deeper, infinitely sadder explorations of loneliness.

Christopher Tignor, Along a Vanishing Plane 

It’s deeply enjoyable to experience composer Christopher Tignor’s Along a Vanishing Plane liberated from the context of its creation. As a collection of building moods and sounds that start off as pillowy clouds of electronic ambiance before evolving into full-fledged orchestral arrangements of violin, triangle and light percussion, it’s instantly transportive.

But once you understand what’s at stake here, these slowly unfolding song cycles also become a feat of live execution. Tignor has applied his background as a Google software engineer to build patches that allow him to trigger all of these sounds live, and while you can hear that the warmth of Vanishing Plane’s electronic washes are a uniquely cathartic addition to the “new music” canon, understanding his method allows these summoned tones to fast become welcome voices in the ensemble, bringing us closer to ourselves instead of farther apart.

TEENLove Yes

After including them in last year’s “most anticipated” list, it’s among my deepest musical regrets of this year that we didn’t get to spend some time chatting with Brooklyn’s TEEN. This year’s Love Yes is a love-positive exploration of camaraderie and female solidarity, and I’m sticking to my previous description of their sound as a cross-section of Zappa and dream-pop.

On the groovy Devo-esque hop of “All About Us”, keytars meet a slinky bass for a syncopated, dancefloor-ready inversion of the all-female pop standard. “What kind of woman did you think that I could be?” asks Teeny Lieberson on “Please”, as her sonic sisters join in with harmonies to show their support, a chorus of muses from the future.

The slick production and pop sensibilities of Love Yes are woozy and intoxicating, but they don’t render TEEN’s larger questions and points about relationships and self-love moot or irrelevant. This is a record you can enjoy on two levels—as a catchy collection of music that could equally be from the past or the future, and as a manifesto of solidarity and strength.—Justin Joffe

Bryan Reesman

They say there’s no accounting for taste, and year-end critics’ lists epitomize that thought. No doubt many tastemakers silently struggle between staying current and following their heart, a conflict compounded by the fact that there is now more music than ever invading our consciousness.

It can be hard for everyone to keep up with what is out there, and it can be easy to miss diamonds in the rough. While I’m still working out my Top 10 for 2016, I thought I’d submit a list of albums that caught my attention regardless of whether or not they will make the final cut. From ambient to metal, here are 10 albums from 2016 that I feel you should check out.

Apoptygma BerzerkExit Popularity Contest (The End Records)

Hailing from Norway, Apop is the brainchild of Stephan Groth, who has guided his band through a number of musical and roster permutations over the years, from synth-pop to electro-rock to this more minimalist excursion into 1970s electronica a la Kraftwerk or Jean-Michel Jarre that is mostly instrumental in nature.

Considering this is the group’s first new studio release since 2009, it’s a rather ballsy turn that might understandably throw off some longtime listeners, but it makes sense given his influences. It will be nice to get another vibrant Apop release like his past studio efforts, but this is a satisfying detour in the meantime, especially given the current synthwave craze.

Sully ErnaHometown Life (BMG)

When he fronts his main band Godsmack, Sully Erna unleashes the venom that befits the rage rock format. His solo work is another matter, and his second individual outing since 2010 finds the fierce frontman in a more contemplative, vulnerable, and predominately acoustic mood as he ruminates on personal conflicts and complicated familial relationships.

It feels like much of this cathartic collection of tunes is about staying afloat in a sea of overwhelming emotions, as he sings in “A Different Kind Of Tears”: “It ain’t easy, believing in believing.”

But even when he lets loose on “Turn It Up!” he takes a jazzy blues approach with multitracked trumpet accompaniment from his father Salvatore.

It’s not metal and it’s not supposed to be—this is a true solo effort rather than a collage of Godsmack outcasts. It’s one of the most underrated releases of 2016.

Wolf HoffmanHeadbangers Symphony (Nuclear Blast Records)

The guitarist and co-founding member of German metal legends Accept has been a lifelong classical music aficionado. Not only has he quoted composers like Beethoven in his group’s music, but his first solo effort Classical in 1997 offered his electrified take on famed works like “Pomp and Circumstance” and “Bolero”.

Hoffman’s long-awaited second solo album continues that trajectory with his amped-up covers of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” Bach’s “Air On The G String,” and much more.

Naturally, classical music is not the type of music that generally receives radical reinventions, but Hoffmann’s passion for these masterworks, plus the inclusion of the string section of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, imbues Headbangers Symphony with authenticity and earnestness. Plenty of rockers have worked with orchestras before, but Hoffmann really loves his source material.

Mark Korven, The Witch soundtrack (A24/Milan Records)

While The Witch‘s Satanic overtones undoubtedly had modern day pagans rolling their eyes at its stereotypical depiction of a malevolent witch in 17th-century New England, that is part of what gave the film its dark charm. I viewed it more as a fever dream of a repressed family blinded by their religious convictions and scared of their teenage daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. I just thought those Puritans were batshit crazy.

Mark Korven’s accompanying score is equally unnerving, combining eerie choral works with earthy compositions utilizing such instruments as waterphone, hurdy gurdy, and a traditional Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. Play this album with the lights out—it’ll seriously creep you out.

Donny McCaslinBeyond Now (Motema Music)

Even though this is his 12th studio album, you may best know McCaslin and his musical compatriots from their work with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar. The moody vibe of that album continues with McCaslin’s latest jazz effort, which spans the frenetic fusion of “Face Plant” to the ambient and atmospheric cover of Deadmau5’s “Coelacanth 1”.

Beyond Now balances five original compositions with two Bowie covers (“A Small Plot Of Land” and “Warszawa”) and renditions of tunes by Deadmau5 and Mutemath (“Remain”). If you liked the atmosphere that his group brought to Blackstar, you should dig this.

Robert Rich, What We Left Behind (Soundscape Productions)

One of the masters of the ambient genre returns with another beguiling collection of deep-listening cuts to sweep you into another realm. Dreamy synth washes, soporific flute playing, and delicate percussive rhythms pour from the speakers and wash over you. This is the perfect kind of chill out music that makes a nice sonic antidote to the stress of modern life.

I recall getting into Rich and many of his contemporaries in the early ’90s after seeking a respite from my heavy rock overdose of the ’80s. I’ve admittedly got some catching up to do with Rich and others, and this is a fantastic album to dive into. Listening to tracks like “Aerial On Warm Seas,” I’m tempted to say, “Beam me up to the Mothership,” but this album makes you realize that we’re already there if we just experience the world differently.

S U R V I V ERR7349 (Relapse)

Two of this band’s four members (Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein) composed  the soundtrack for Netflix’s smash summer series Stranger Things, and the electronic group released this latest album in late September.

Part of the synthwave movement that has been revisiting the analog electronic music glories of the ’70s and early ’80s, S U R V I V E exult in bubbling sequencing and synth drums overlaid with melodic keyboard lines on tracks like the industrial-sounding “Dirt” and the Brian Eno-esque “Low Fog”.

They channel influences like John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, and while this style of music could come off as dated, this Austin, Texas-based quartet keeps it fresh, as if it had never been done before.

Tengger CavalryHymn Of The Earth (Tengger Cavalry LLC)

NYC-based Mongolian folk metal group Tengger Cavalry has become one of the most original new voices in the metal world over the last few years.

Combining traditional folk instrumentation and Mongolian/tuvan throat singing with surging metal riffs, these galloping headbangers mask a majority of their English lyrics with that enigmatic vocal style, and they have a knack for conjuring tunes that are catchy without really being commercial.

In the hands of lesser metal hands, a track like “Battle Hymn From Afar” would simply be a roaring monster anthem, but instead it’s juxtaposed with beautiful acoustic guitar and fiddle work. Sometimes heaviness does not come from volume.

Uni Ika AiKeeping a Golden Bullseye in the Corner of My Mind (Zen Squid Records) 

On their debut effort, Brooklyn quartet Uni Ika Ai churn out a pleasing retro-modern dream-pop sound that rides the wave of the analog synth craze. Maia Friedman’s lilting vocals soars along the dreamy clouds of sound, and at times, Peter Lalish’s ethereal guitar work invokes the romantic feeling of Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie.

The group is also not afraid to get discordant at times, such as on “Soft In Ice,” which features the robust sax work of D. James Goodwin. The lush and otherworldly closing track “Zen Squid” makes for a lovely finale.

Lee Aaron, Fire and Gasoline (Big Sister Records)

In the first half of the ’80s, Canadian singer Lee Aaron rode the fashionable wave of hard rock with such releases as Metal Queen and Call Of The Wild. She got more melodic and pop-like in the late ’80s and produced some great tunes, becoming a triple platinum artist in Canada and a minor European star around 1989. In the mid-’90s she journeyed into grunge and then jazz and blues, but in recent years she has come to terms with her metal queen past and returned to rock.

Her first rock album in 20 years, Fire and Gasoline is not as hard edged as her early efforts, but it’s a hook-laden, grooving affair with mature lyrics about life and love. Aaron is that hot rocker mom down the street who makes you swoon and will also kick your ass if you mess with her. Respect.

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