Overlooked Albums of 2016
After days and nights of intense debating, the Scene staff has finished its list of the top albums of 2016, and will reveal it this Wednesday. To tide our faithful readers over until then, several Scene writers have offered up for discussion some personal favorites that didn’t quite make the cut. There is something for every mood here, with music ranging from headbanging-worthy punk to folk rock perfect for just relaxing.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down — “A Man Alive”
By Erin McAuliffe
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s album “A Man Alive” was released on March 4. I found it in the “Used” section of my favorite local record store on July 2. Who would do such a thing?
“A Man Alive” is a delightfully discordant album that deals with anger through a cacophony of catharsis. Thao Nguyen wrote all the lyrics, but tUnE-yArDs’s Merill Garbus leaves her mark on the album’s electronically droned and brass sprinkled production. “The Evening” features 8-bit buzzing behind guitar chords and maracas fronting folk like bass plucking. The intro to track “Nobody Dies” is a crashing sound (carried over seamlessly from the folky plucked final seconds of “Departure”) into drumstick taps, then drums, then claps, then violin. The album buzzes and blurs but never bewilders; it is grounded in theme and lyrical delivery.
There are so many sounds in this album, but they manage to steer clear of abrasive noise due to Nguyen’s hot-fudge-like crooning — smooth, dark and warm, her vocals cover the eclectic ingredients in sweet unity.
To the human that dumped a fresh sundae in the trash, repent for your sins. To those that never picked up the sundae in the first place — do so before your New Year’s Resolutions set-in.
PUP — “The Dream Is Over”
By Adam Ramos
Among the many themes ingrained into the story of music in 2016, the resurgence of punk is an important one. From the hardcore, ear-bleeding shreddings of Nails’ “You Will Never Be One of Us” to the more melodic, emo-influenced tracks off of Jeff Rosenstock’s “WORRY.” and the Hotelier’s “Goodness,” punk’s 2016 diversified sound christened this year an almost neo-golden age for the genre.
Yet, of all the albums and styles from the genre this year, no work better captured its historic rebellious ethos and ferocious fun quite like PUP’s “The Dream is Over.” After an extensive tour left frontman Stefan Babcock devoid of vocal cords, Canada’s premier punk outfit was left with little hope to continue (see album name), fittingly though, the incident only left them stronger. “The Dream is Over” is 30 minutes of unrelenting catchy yet intricate guitar hooks, stingily blunt lyrics, raucous choruses and fierce percussion via a genuinely disgruntled group of dudes.
Bolstered by a string of interesting music videos starring Noah Schnapp of “Stranger Things,” “The Dream is Over” is more than just a punk album reminiscent of the good old days, it’s something all of its own.
The Social Animals — “Formative Years”
By Kelly McGarry
I can only thank Legends that I stumbled upon this album. As the opening act at a show earlier this year, Social Animals totally outshone the main act. Their performance made it clear that they were an innovative, sincere rock band that didn’t rely on the showy pop gimmicks that Legends favors in it’s openers.
Their performance warranted a Spotify search. I realize that “Formative Years” wasn’t one of the groundbreaking events of 2016, but it offered something our favorites list is mostly missing. Where most of the acclaimed albums this year are jam-packed with eclectic sounds (think A Tribe Called Quest, Avalanches or even Bon Iver’s latest), The Social Animal’s honest indie-pop built on simple melodies and clever lyrics is refreshing. The space to breathe makes this album even more emotionally effective, especially on the track “Cold.” It’s nostalgic yet fresh, and even on first listen it gives that comfortable feeling of an old favorite.
Yung Lean — “Warlord” & Bladee “Eversince”
By John Darr
“If you liked hearing slurred, broken English trap rap music that’s super auto-tuned and lifeless, give this thing a shot.”
Anthony Fantano’s dismissive review of “Hennessy & Sailor Moon” isn’t intentionally an endorsement of the new track by Swedish cloud rappers Yung Lean and bladee, but it functions as one anyway. The diss has not only brought the track attention but also identified what makes the artists’ output so uniquely engaging. Lean and Bladee’s “sadboy” aesthetic fully engages depression in both form and content; the artists spin earnest confessions of mental instability and drugged-out numbness over gauzy instrumentals. In such a way, the artists create tracks that are indeed “lifeless,” riding the razor’s edge between the sensual possibilities of continued life and death. “Hennessy & Sailor Moon,” like most tracks in the artists’ discographies, manages to reconcile the simultaneous sensory escapism and grayed-out emotionality experienced those who attempt to self-medicate in the face of overwhelming pain.
It’s no wonder that both Yung Lean and bladee have found a cult following among listeners who have experience with depression, yet their appeal spreads far beyond that niche. Behind the rappers are a battery of startlingly talented producers to whom they owe no small share of their success. Beat makers Yung Gud and Yung Sherman have been churning out beats for Yung Lean since they met at a Stockholm park in high school, while producer Whitearmor has presided over the production for both of Bladee’s LP releases. Each member crafts beats that oscillate between ambient music, trap music and industrial, allowing Lean and Bladee to jump from gorgeous ballads to relentless bangers over the course of their records.
Regardless how it has been as a whole, 2016 has been a wonderful year for Bladee and Lean. Both artists released LP’s, “Eversince” and “Warlord” respectively, that presented the Swedish artists at the top of their game. Topping them off is Bladee’s latest EP, “rip bladee,” which features Lean twice over its spellbinding five track run. Lean and Bladee’s latest productions are among some of the oddest (“7-Eleven”), prettiest (“Hennessey and Sailor Moon”) and catchiest (“50SACINMYSOCIDGAF”) tracks they’ve ever crafted. We can only hope that there are many more to come.
Kevin Morby — “Singing Saw”
By Mike Donovan
It may not seem like it at first, but “Singing Saw” is an urban record. While Kevin Morby’s sweet and somber Americana arrangements evoke the mountain air and woodland silence, his topical undercurrents flow straight from the dense chaos of the city. He dances intimately with controversy and intrigue, imposing order on insanity and laying the concise, digestible package at our doorstep.
If you take a little time to unpack the album, “Singing Saw” shows itself to be a powerful meditation on the systemic limits of the American dream. The lead single, “I Have Been to the Mountain,” fires direct shots at police brutality, making explicit references to the writings of Dr. King and Eric Garner’s controversial death at the hands of the NYPD. The closing epic “Water” delivers bleak predictions about humanity’s inevitable self-destruction, which Morby attributes to the propagation of violence and social apathy in our cultural mainstream. Lyrically, Morby refuses to restrain himself to the placidity of his instrumentation.
“Singing Saw” certainly isn’t the only 2016 record to explore volatile sociopolitical themes. Danny Brown, A Tribe Called Quest and Parquet Courts all released incredible works of socially conscious pop music, each tackling the year’s most divisive issues through a unique artistic lens. “Singing Saw” earns its place among these records because it looks for truth in detachment. Morby documents the city from another world, a realm where we have the space and clarity to make sense of the constant disarray. Morby’s social criticism, unlike the aforementioned records, occurs at a methodical pace. He embraces reflection as a necessary prerequisite to action.
Joey Purp — “iiiDrops”
By Jack Riedy
In a year crowded with great Chicago albums, Joey Purp’s latest stands out on the strength of his voice. It’s forceful yet weathered, fitting for a 23-year-old who has already stopped selling drugs and started raising a daughter. In his songs, choices and consequences collide simultaneously. Purp begins the album with a triumphant fanfare called “Morning Sex,” only to open with the line, “I done been on both sides of the burner, I done witnessed both sides of the murder.” Chance The Rapper, who is practically the mayor to anyone under 25, can’t even get a ride home on bubbly Neptunes-core banger “Girls @.” Between those two extremes, the beats careen from lush piano waves to aggro squawks. This eclecticism might be overwhelming for a lesser artist, but Purp is merely showing off his range. He distills all the great fears and tiny worries of young black Chicagoans into “Cornerstore,” the centerpiece of the album. Fellow rising star Saba’s simple declaration, “I left my house this morning with the intent of returning” only becomes more powerful on each listen. Purp’s booming baritone takes listeners from small talk with a cashier to phone calls with his locked-up brother. With an album this compelling, he can go anywhere he chooses next.
Hinds — “Leave Me Alone”
By Augie Collins
Hinds, the Madrid quartet, started to gain traction with the release of their demos in 2014. These recordings were rough, but possessed a certain playfulness that defined the band. With their first full length effort, “Leave Me Alone,” Hinds stayed true to this nature, while also proving their growth with a clearer sound.
Despite the title indicating a lack of affection, Hinds summed up the album as the various “faces of love” they experienced during the course of compiling their debut. For this reason, the album presents an array of more textured emotions, something that had been lacking in their original happy-go-lucky singles. “Leave Me Alone” deals with uncertainty in relationships, admissions of vulnerability and the pain of unrequited love. As much as the wailing vocals of Carlotta Cosials and Ana Perrote often induce pangs of sadness on tracks such as “Bamboo” and “And I Will Send Your Flowers Back,” the overarching message of “Leave Me Alone” is that all of these feelings — whether joyful or dismal — are beautiful in their own way.
Stop that overthinking ladies and gents; “Leave Me Alone” is gritty, silly and a declaration that love need not be complicated.
Olga Bell — “Tempo”
By Adrian Mark Lore
Olga Bell’s “Tempo” follows the richly introspective “Krai” (2014) in relatively close succession, yet is a significant departure from the latter’s impressionistic self-discovery — and even more from her work as a member of Dirty Projectors. In fact, “Tempo” differs from “Krai” in almost every respect: while the latter is larger-than-life and heavily orchestral, the former is down-to-earth, rooted in wonky electronics; where the latter is inward-looking, the former is charismatic and boisterously performative. Solely in common is their rejection of classification: Like “Krai” before it, “Tempo” is an aesthetic grab-bag of musical styles, yet it likewise manipulates these to great effect. “Power User” and “ATA” feature oblique electronics that recall the avant-garde electro-pop of SOPHIE and his contemporaries, “Randomness” has the bad-girl spunk and retro house aesthetic of early Bjork, and the ballad-like “Ritual” feels extracted directly from a Eurodance club in the nineties. In an oblique way, it is both an embrace of and a stab at electronic dance music, accomplished so skillfully that its irony never sells out or turns sappy.