The traditional year-end list is a withering, shit-stained evergreen, clickbait skewered by a fishhook that plunders the lowest depths of the dirtiest lake. Because while ranking inherently different genres and sounds is a quick way to incite dialogue, it’s all so reductive—one man’s essential country compilation is another’s avant-garde, 12-tone soundtrack to a documentary about the world’s first completely green sex-toy factory.
Here at the Observer, you’ve already seen our unapologetically gratuitous remedies—we hit you with our 50 Best Songs, a list compiled by five writers including myself that, in our humble opinion, reflects the tremendous amount of sonic surface area we’ve covered this year.
And because we strive to maintain some informed perspective on specific genres and sounds that don’t get enough love in other publications, we’ve looked at those, too—our top R&B, hip-hop, experimental and jazz albums of the year were all embraced by their respective communities, sick of seeing their favorite genre compared to slicker sounds intended for younger, more medicated ears.
We also learned that these communities are more inclined to actually read the damn things, because the albums included in the conversation are all on a similar sonic playing field. It turns out that Jazz fans read a whole lot more than anyone else.
But what of the emerging artists, the noobs, if you will, whose debuts and first grand statements to the world are so often forgotten in the wake left by big names releasing albums on the same week?
If Observer Music claims to be committed to turning over rocks and uprooting established root structures in the interest of discovering what’s new, then there are still a few lists unaccounted for. You ought to know the best records of 2016 that you might have missed, and you ought to know some of the best new artists of this year.
So those are the two lists I’m going to be sharing with you over the next couple of days, starting with a couple of my favorite new artists this year.
A few notes about this list—for the aforementioned reasons, I’m not ranking anyone. You can go to Pitchfork for that. I’m also using the term “new” loosely, to include not only artists on this list who necessarily released their debut this year. Some of them put out their second or third album, but are still “new” insofar as they’re new to me, to you, and to the music community writ large, outside of their immediate scenes or social circles. Sound good? We sure think so. And what’s more, we can’t wait to see what these ambitious noisemakers have in store for us over the years to come.
You’ve likely heard Terrace Martin before—since getting his start recording breaks for the radio, this Crenshaw, Calif., kid played the role of musical director and session cat for many of the hip-hop greats whom he also calls close friends.
Little did I know that it was Martin was holding down the keyboards and samplers for Snoop Dogg when I saw him open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in high school. His name popped up again last year when Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, as Martin served as musical director and wrote many of the jazz-meets-G-Funk arrangements that gave the record its unique, intergenerational sound.
Martin’s skills channel the history of black American music into a swooning sonic flux, an appreciation developed from growing up alongside the great Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, he told me at Montreal Jazz Fest this year.
Though Martin’s released several hip-hop albums under his own name, he kicks off this list with 2016’s Velvet Portraits, an accomplished, G-Funk-infused jazz record that cooks up the same sonic stew he mastered on Butterfly while going a little bit deeper into the world of jazz he fell in love with at a young age after studying with Kamasi Washington’s father. Come for the Robert Glasper and Tundercat cameos, stay for the simmering and sexy grooves.
Velvet Portraits is many things—a love letter to the multiculturalism of his neighborhood on songs like “Bromale”, an exercise in the dexterity of his arrangements on songs like the soulful “Patiently Waiting”, and a glimpse into his creative process on the full arrangement of his Butterfly composition, “Mortal Man”. Martin may have been around for years, but as a new talent on the jazz scene, he’s sorely needed now.
Car Seat Headrest isn’t technically a new band either, but they might as well be—frontman and songwriter Will Toledo told us at 2015’s CMJ that we should never, ever listen to those old records of his on Bandcamp, under any circumstance.
Instead, he’s gifted us with two gems over the past year—the home-recorded Teens of Style and his shiny, studio debut proper, Teens of Denial.
As the titles suggest, lyrics and themes overlap here to paint a jaded, lanky kid with classic indie-rock affectations, channeling Pavement and Yo La Tengo and Guided by Voices as he compares drunk drivers to killer wails and sends his cosmic hero on a quest.
Songs like”Cosmic Hero” only use the sounds of CSH’s sonic forefathers as a starting point before transforming into their own, distinct bedroom micro-epics, as Toledo’s concerns for theology and social dynamics often cut much deeper than anyone ever would have expected. My conversation with him only confirmed the saliency of his deeply-felt ideas about the failure of the free-love generation and the wisdom of the Old Testament. If Toldeo’s exploring near-academic-level ideas, he’s doing it while wearing a blanket of crunch and fuzz.
The mighty, feral Wolf Parade came howling back this year, and with it, strong projects from frontmen Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner. Boeckner’s other band, Operators, features electro maven Devojka on synths and New Bomb Turks’ drummer Sam Brown rounding out the dance party.
Their debut Blue Wave pulsates with modern gear applied to classic ’80s compositions, nodding toward to New Wave while sounding like an evolution of Boeckner’s old electronic project with his ex-wife, Handsome Furs. I stuck album track “Control” on our best songs list, but the whole record might as well be on there because it can transform any loose gathering of friends or monotonous car ride into a shiny, pulsating meditation on apathy and ass-shaking.
As a whole new crop of youngsters who grew up on Black Lips and Mac DeMarco start releasing records of their own, we celebrate the continued revival of crusty garage punk. Madrid’s Hinds aren’t crusty so much as fun, always smiling, playing their instruments with a true outsider level of ramshackle, jangly abandon that embraces the power of a simple melody.
One sign of their success—their debut album, Leave Me Alone, came out in January and has already been reissued. Ana from Hinds told me that their secret is an unwavering sense of camaraderie and a good manager. Both these things allow them to work their asses off and not get burned out or hostile toward each other. They’re only now catching a break from the wave that this debut brought, and it’s well-deserved. If Leave Me Alone is any indication, fans will be sticking with them for a good, long while.
Buried in Epstein’s unassuming demeanor is a deeply sincere, soulful voice, while his training as a horn player and that luscious pillowy Rhodes round out the sound nicely. Crush is a collection of swirly, psychedelic dub and R&B that might make you feel like you’re tripping, but Epstein’s croon cuts through all of Jaar’s adventurous production.
Like Martin, Epstein is another session musician currently finding his voice as a solo artist, and right now I’m just fine with the fact that Crush doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. “I want my lyric writing and my singing to be as instinctual and as fluid as just picking up the horn and playing,” Epstein told me earlier this year. Operating from a place of feeling first is a smart move, and the community that he records with provides him all of the space to trust those instincts.
Experimental music fans have likely heard of Nils Frahm, the Berlin-based composer who’s been putting out moody modern classical recordings for a little over 10 years. Frahm getting together with old friends to form Nonkeen and releasing two wonderful records this year meant he’s piecing together live improvisational recordings culled from jams with his friends into a patchwork of electronic, improvised jazz.
Explaining their name to me, Nonkeen member Sebastian Singwald said that “It’s a made-up phrase in the end, which we like. After saying it for a while it becomes its own thing, this undefined blurriness. It’s not so keen, it’s unfocused, maybe.”
Seeing how so much of these albums were born from spontaneity, the question of where Nonkeen goes next looms large. But I’m really hoping that we hear more from these old friends—music this transportive doesn’t come from happy accidents alone.
Chicago’s Whitney aren’t inventing any new sounds. If their tightly composed Americana recalls the golden age of The Band, then leader Julien Ehrlich sitting front and center at his drum kit on a riser will. Like Levon Helm, Ehrlich and co. use sonic tropes from the classic American songbook, like slide guitar and horns, to fresh ends. This is so good I’m even willing to look past that reggae song.
Take treated horns on “Polly”, for example, which fortify Whitney’s dynamics with a fullness typically heard from musicians twice their age. They’re already booking some huge venues for next year, including East Williamsburg’s brand new Brooklyn Steel, and the songs on their debut Light Upon the Lake are strong enough to make the ascension well-deserved.
My favorite country album of the year comes from New Zealand, deal with it. Marlon Williams is already a total fucking superstar over there, despite releasing his proper solo debut this year. The sheer depth of storytelling and vocal dexterity that emanates from this kid is confoundingly mature, whether he’s singing about burying a child or living life as a young woman.
Like the classic outlaw country greats, Williams understands the power of losing your own identity to tell a good story, and this record is full of them. “It’s a really important thing to be able to do, observe and shed skins,” he told me. “It’s really strengthening as a creative person.”
Between releasing his near-perfect debut Malibu and dropping a nasty mixtape with prodigious Stone’s Throw producer Knxwledge, Anderson.Paak has had one hell of a year.
Somewhere between a rapper and a singer, Paak is the rare lyricist who understands how to infuse melody in flow. He’s also a hell of a live performer who played one of the best sets at this year’s Panorama festival.
There’s a reason that this dude works with everyone from Disclosure to BadBadNotGood to Kaytranada (who we ought to consider an honorable mention for Best New Artist). He’s in command of his delivery and knows how to work a crowd, feeding into the groove of his band, The Free Nationals, and sitting at his drum kit when the song calls for it.
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Lou Reed isn’t dead, he’s just living in Halifax. After quietly releasing their debut last year, Nap Eyes snuck up on me this year with the fantastic Thought Rock Fish Scale, full of slowly building songs as laconic as their name suggests.
This would be “slacker rock” incarnate, if slackers asked heady questions about the impermanence of consciousness and the naiveté of trust.
Packed with tunes that take their time charming you, this album is over long before you’re ready for it to be. And where I come from, that’s what we call staying power.