I don't think anyone who pays any attention to music trends could've have predicted that after last year's terrific year that we were poised for another great year for music and yet here we are. 2016 offered up an absolute smorgasbord of releases for music lovers of every possible type: Rihanna, Gaga, and Zayn for the pop obsessed; ANOHNI, Okkervil River, Radiohead, for the indie lover; Beyonce, Blood Orange, and Solange for the politically minded. And yet this year, like almost every year, my favorite stand out albums happen to be ones that I felt were unfortunately overlooked. Considering how many good albums came out this year that's hardly surprising but hopefully this list of favorite album ranked in no particular order helps you find some truly great records that came out this year even if it's just a brief job down memory lane. Enjoy and as always feel free to chime in with your own.
Alex Izenberg - Harlequin
It's happened more times than I can count - an artist releases a single or several singles and either that single is the best song on the album by a strangely large margin or is just dramatically inconsistent with the songs on the album. In the case of Los Angeles singer/songwriter Alex Izenberg's debut full length Harlequin the singles "To Move On" and "Grace" do not prepare you at all for album in the best way. They paint a picture, intentionally, of your standard singer/songwriter crooning over guitar or piano with just the right amount of strings to ornament the song and give it added depth. And they're not entirely off base as Izenberg sets himself up to be just that but in an exciting twists glimpsed just barely in "Grace", Harlequin offers up something different: a wonderfully off-kilter experimentalism that finds itself in the wide majority of Izenberg's songwriting efforts. There's no attempts to hide it - album opening track "The Farm" sets the scene with dramatic string flourishes and highlighting Izenberg's distinct vocals. "Libra" and "Archer" inhabit that same realm of vivid dream-like imagery and its effectiveness heightened due to collaborator Ari Balouzian's arrangements. On Harlequin, Izenberg essentially breaks down many singer/songwriter tropes just by virtue of being himself - experimenting with sounds and textures as much if not more than his inventive lyricism.
Andy Shauf - The Party
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Andy Shauf's latest effort The Party is just how steep his learning curve was that led to its creation. His debut full length The Bearer Of Bad News was the end result of 100 songs whittled down and still capable of forming coherent narratives and a cohesive flow. On The Party not only did Shauf work with far less songs but he aborted his original plans to record with an orchestra in favor of essentially handling the whole record himself while working although somewhat loosely in a concept. The Party succeeds on so many levels: the concept is simple but Shauf is able to do a lot with it: crafting characters and weaving tales that occasionally reoccur and intersect. His touch is light in every respect from the lyricism to the arrangement that it's immediately clear that's by design not lack of skill. It's impressive and engaging from start to finish and proof that Shauf is definitely a songwriter to watch.
Bayonne - Primitives
With an affinity for bedroom as well as experimental pop, I'm no stranger to loop based music and yet Primitives, the latest album from multi-instrumentalist/composer Roger Sellers, reinvigorates it in such a bold, yet understated way. The first album under his newly adopted Bayonne moniker, Sellers' manages to marry his study of minimalist music with pop songwriting and the result is a next level album that's intricate as well as exciting from beginning to end. Part of that is Sellers' own enthusiasm as he takes an active part in the layering and sequencing imbuing the electronic base with a live, human element that highlights the strengths in both while creating a sound that's new, exciting, and absolutely fascinating to dip into.
Big Thief - Masterpiece
My discovery of Big Thief is purely the result of their label Saddle Creek putting out releases from several of my favorite artists in the past that when they released the news that they were releasing Big Thief's debut album I made a note to check it out and I'm incredibly glad I did. Songwriting is nothing new to Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek who in addition to making music on their own also had another project together, and yet there's something in the alchemy of the full band that pulls even more intriguing songwriting out of Lenker and Meek. It's hard to imagine "Real Love", a beautiful song just lyrically speaking, without the rock grit. Masterpiece doesn't just succeed on those harder moments but also its lovelier, softer folk moments.
Chance The Rapper - Coloring Book
After his amazing second mixtape Acid Rap, the only people who weren't eagerly anticipating not only its follow up but anything the man did next were people who hadn't heard his music before. From guest appearances on fellow Save Money members mixtapes to last year's Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment record, Chance The Rapper has been building up a golden reputation. Add an appearance on probably the best song on Kanye's Life Of Pablo "Ultralight Beam" and that's pretty much solidified it. Coloring Book finds Chance The Rapper in a considerably different place than he was three years ago and it shows. Coloring Book is a winning combination of fun and spirituality, social commentary and self critique. With an all star cast as well as highlighting some of Chicago's best up and comers, Coloring Book is a mature work of self growth. Chance is counting his blessings but literally and figuratively and sharing the fruits of his labor in a fashion that's downright celebratory. Each song paints a definitive picture of what Chance The Rapper's been up to for the last couple years and it's a joy to hear him return so absolutely triumphant. Label woes and brushes with drugs behind him, Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book celebrates the music, his city, his family and God in a way that even the most resolved atheist can get behind. In fact the most spiritual moments on the mixtape tend to be its highest points.
Esperanza Spalding - Emily's D+Evolution
Despite being a Grammy award-winning artist, Esperanza Spalding is an artist that certainly no one is talking about as much as they should be. Perhaps it's because she's a jazz musician and most people only pretend to listen to jazz? Whatever the case, Spalding put out one of this year's best albums in the form of Emily's D+Evolution. It's a concept record of sorts but even without really knowing the concept which is Spalding inhabiting an alter ego of Emily, it's a record steeped in imagination as well as talent. Separated from the live show which plays much like musical theatre and provides context, it's songs are still just as strong. Beginning with an ode to creativity energy, Emily's D+Evolution is an album of rich ideological ideas and inventive lyricism that uses its roots in funk and jazz fusion to move it along. Spalding tackles deep subjects on the album but in such an unpretentious way that it's easy for the listener to miss them. It's an album that reveals more about itself and it's multitude of wonders the more time you spend with it.
Jinja Safari - Crescent Head (Crescent Sun/Crescent Moon)
Though singer/songwriters Marcus Azon and Pepa Knight met and formed the jungle pop quintet Jinja Safari in 2010, it wasn't until 2013 when they released their debut self-titled. Sure they had released two EPs and compilation double EP in the years prior but Jinja Safari was a milestone moment for the band after several high profile shows and festivals. Unfortunately it also signaled a sort of beginning of the end, the band took a hiatus to work on side projects and otherwise alleviate industry pressures and expectations. When the band reunited they started recording the tunes that would form their double album Crescent Head. Named after Azon and Knight's hometown and split into two parts Crescent Sun and Crescent Moon, the double album functions as love letter to the music they painstaking crafted, the fans that enjoyed it, and the band itself. It's deeply ambitious: Crescent Sun a collection of the more upbeat pop songs they're known for and Cresccent Moon a more restrained affair and yet it's masterfully done. Jinja Safari embody both the primal rhythms and jubilant energy and also making subtler, more mature musical choices. It's a shame it's their swan song since Crescent Head as a whole paints a picture of a band not only comfortable with their sounds and their choices but also a band that would continue to push itself in service to creating truly entertaining, enjoyable, and most importantly interesting music. It's a hell of a way to go out especially considering most band breakups don't come with such a thoughtful finale.
Kevin Morby - Singing Saw
Considering how practically flawless Kevin Morby's sophomore record Still Life was, I had high hopes for Singing Saw that even then were exceeded beyond my wildest dreams. Singing Saw finds Morby going grander and more cinematic with help from Sam Cohen of Yellowbirds refining his sound with effecting arrangements. Morby continues to be in rare form and his songs are as thoughtful as they are beautiful - capturing emotion stirring moments rather just telling interesting stories. There's a shift subtle as it may be in Morby's lyricism as Morby turns his gaze towards invoking a rich, balanced portrait of the human experience. And yet, there's still a little of both the reverential and referential in Morby as he calls back themes and subjects of Singing Saw on "Black Flowers" much like did on Still Life.
Kishi Bashi - Sonderlust
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about following the career of multi-instrumentalist/producer Kishi Bashi is that none of his releases have sounded all that similar to one another. Sure two songs from his debut Room For Dream EP found their way on his debut full length 151a but were in an excitingly new context with newer songs. His sophomore effort Lighght somersaulted into Ishibashi's love of jazz fusion and prog rock and String Quartet Live! reimagined songs with string quartet accompaniment. Sonderlust is where Ishibashi hit the wall that so many artists normally hit between their first and second album. Where could he take his lush technicolored take on psychedelic dream pop while still staying true to his core sound as Kishi Bashi? The answer was inward. Ishibashi grounded his songs in his life and looked outside of his trademark violin gymnastics for inspiration. The result is an album rooted in real hopes and dreams that resonates. The sound is ambitious and yet not wholly detached from the jazz fusion and prog rock of Lighght. The lightness of tone and melody that characterized a lot of both 151a and Lighght is all but snuffed out returning briefly in the delightful album ender "Honeybody" and its use there is cathartic: the light at the end of the tunnel. Kishi Bashi believes in love and by focusing not only the bright butterflies fluttering feeling but on the actual work that must be put in to maintain it, Sonderlust ends up as an honest, sincere ode to it.
Lucius - Good Grief
Considering how all around great their debut record Wildewoman was Lucius had quite the task ahead of them avoiding a sophomore slump and less time to gather the songs to do so. But by staying the course even when they thought it would drive them insane, Lucius crafted a wonderful follow up that further expands their diverse sonic palette. The 60's girl group influence is still there but updated and not relied upon too heavily. Lucius focus on the real tumult and strife found in relationships to inform their songwriting and it elevates the moments of joyous celebration to ecstatic heights. Good Grief emphasizes the role of pain and struggle in making the moments of ease and comfort feel truly special.
Mal Devisa - Kiid
In this the age of the surprise album I think it's been forgotten that that's largely how music was released from less high profile artists. Indie bands that had no marketing budget, especially in the old Myspace days would just kind of release their music and hope that it'd reach the listeners that wanted it. And that's essentially how Mal Devisa released Kiid. Although truth be told it was a bit of an event among people who had actually seen her live and had been eagerly awaiting for her to release music. And Kiid doesn't disappoint. It captures Deja Carr's eclectic tastes and interests and offers them up in somewhat tidy package. Kiid goes from folky singer/singerwriter to fiery social commentary to deeply moving soul without ever feeling like it's trying too hard or doing too much. The album moves quick but it's not trying to lose you, Carr just has a lot to say and trusts your ability to keep up. It's a trust more art should have in its recipients and the result of that trust is a diverse offering of powerful songcraft.
Margaret Glaspy - Emotions and Math
I have a bad habit of ignoring music my friends are listening to until an embarrassingly long time after the fact. My introduction to Margaret Glaspy was an attempt to course correct. My friend Jeanette of The Miscreant/Miscreant Records have nothing but good things to say about her and so I jumped into her music around the time of her second single and didn't look back. Glaspy is an amazing singer, songwriter, and guitarists. What charmed me, aside from the absolutely infectious melodies she builds her songs around, was a kind of don't-give-a-fuck quality to her singing that reminded me of Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel.... On that album in particular Apple contorted her voice: howled and screamed with no regard for sounding pretty. What mattered was a sincere portrayal of the emotions and Emotions and Math finds Glaspy embarking on a similar journey. It's a portrait of complex woman - a fierce badass still capable of being hurt and wanting to be loved.
Mothers - When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired
With singer/songwriter/poets like Laura Marling and Johnny Flynn ranking among my favorite artists, it's hardly surprising that upon learning that Kristine Leschper, the frontwoman of Athens, GA four piece Mothers, is a poet why their songs resonated so much with me. But while Marling's poetic lyricism tends toward vague realism and Flynn's often detached from the self entirely, the most enthralling aspect of Leschper is that many of the lyrics feel lived in. There's also the packaging: complex rhythm and intricate guitar riffs catapult quiet emotive moments into action. When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired tells many stories: of love wanted and rebuked, of crippling self-doubt, of those questionable choices we make despite swearing we know better and yet ultimately, it's one long quest of the self: of finding yourself within yourself and reckoning with it. That's why despite the album's numerous tales of fractured, failing relationships, it manages to be so hopeful and inspiring. Leschper's charted journey isn't about boyfriends and girlfriends - it's about disarming and reversing one of the album's first eye-opening lyrics: "I hate my body/I love your taste". By album's end the certainty of the self is all that's left; all that's real.
Wye Oak - Tween
The fact that Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have elected not to call Tween an album while initially confusing probably aids in its digestion. Essentially a collection of songs they had no home for, the fact that they don't consider it a full length or even a EP enables a sort of lowering of expectations that seems unworthy of how good Tween actually is. Recalling both Jenn Wasner's other side projects as well as Wye Oak's growth in general, it populates a unique place in the band's history in that it paints a picture of Wye Oak in transition. It might be an album of experiments and yet it's clear both in their decision to release it and the fact that songs like "If You Should See" and "Watching The Waiting" have made its way onto their setlists that it's a work of strong songcraft even managing to flow despite its various changes in sound and tone. With the exception of "Out Of Nowhere" which functions more as a place setting piece, Tween is a veritable feast of rock pop stunners. Wye Oak might not consider Tween to be a proper album but they've approached its creation with the same innovation and ear for melody that's made favorites out of their other proper albums.
Adult Jazz - Earrings Off! EP
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
And The Kids - Friends Share Lovers
Angel Olsen - MY WOMAN
Christopher Tignor - Along A Vanishing Plane
Conveyor - Ready Not Ready
Damien Jurado - Visions of Us on the Land
Golden Suits - Kubla Khan
The Heligoats - Back To The Lake
Hiss Golden Messenger - Heart Like A Levee
Jenny Hval - Blood Bitch
Julia Jacklin - Don't Let The Kids Win
Kris Orlowski - Often In The Pause
Kyle Morton - What Will Destroy You
Laura Gibson - Empire Builder
Lucy Dacus - No Burden
Mandolin Orange - Blindfaller
Marissa Nadler - Strangers
Marlon Williams - Marlon Williams
Moses Sumney - Lamentations EP
Noname - Telefone
Peter Broderick - Partners
Pinegrove - Cardinal
Psychic Twin - Strange Diary
Radiation City - Synesthetica
Steve Gunn - Eyes On The Lines
Sur Back - Kitsch EP
Tiny Ruins - Hurtling Through EP
Tuskha - Tushka
Uni Ika Ai - Keeping a Golden Bullseye in the Corner of My Mind
Weyes Blood - Front Row Seat To Earth