16 albums you shouldn’t overlook in 2016
The thing about year-end lists, though. Stuff gets left out. Incredible records are forgotten, or simply don’t make the cut when ranking around consensus. Sure, consensus can be a powerful tool in uncovering the things that your trusted sources can agree upon, framing these things as, definitively, “the best.”
But the idea of hierarchy is in itself exclusionary. “Best” does not equal “only.” We brought you our 15 best albums of the year earlier today, but by no means are these the sole albums that are impressive or important or worthy of your ears in 2016. They’re more of a starting point.
In a lot of ways, I’m more excited about this list: 16 albums that you should not overlook in 2016. These are releases that didn’t appear on more than a single list turned in by The Key’s contributing staff – most of them aren’t ranking on year-end lists elsewhere – but they were obviously striking enough to that person that they made their personal cut. So we asked them why.
These are all excellent records. Many of them are very important records, in the same way that Chance and Solange and Tribe and Beyonce are important. And they’re not getting talked about enough, by any stretch. Start listening, start talking. – John Vettese
Big Thief – Masterpiece (Saddle Creek) – Adrianne Lenker’s voice is the thing that hooks you in. Classic American country-soul, a bit tender and a bit desperate, but with a gravely punk rock sneer taking the piss out of objectifying duderock bros. As a band, Big Thief’s music has a similar dichotomy: roaring and tight, teetering on the edge of collapse, then retreating to dark corners while lyrics trade off between sensitivity, sentimentality and surrealism. – John Vettese
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp) – Artists with less talent or bravery than Danny Brown might try to glorify their destructive tendencies as worth aspiring to. But the Detroit rapper, who’s built a career on showing the highs and lows that accompany severe lifestyles, exposes the emotional dislocation of self-medication with more clarity than ever before on Atrocity Exhibition.
Long-time fans will find Easter Eggs that weave Brown’s fourth album together with his previous three. For newcomers, welcome to “The Downward Spiral” of spitfire showmanship and chemistry-shifting anxiety that is this rapper’s canon. Razor-edged lyrics and frenetic beats (sourced from the gamut of post-punk, jazz, electronica and hip-hop that famously speak to deteriorating self-control) gird songs that, even when pitched towards bravado like on mid-album banger “Dance in the Water,” only exposes the person drowning beneath the weight of a life that outpaced their hustle. It’s no wonder that the album’s opening track and title respectively reference Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division/J.G. Ballard classics that unashamedly indulge the unacknowledged horrors lurking in so many people’s psyches. Even the energetic group song “Really Doe,” which features guest spots from Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt, feels less like a boast track than four emotionally exhausted men who can’t stop defending their throne.
Brown’s stark confessionals wouldn’t be so shocking if we lived in a country that openly dealt with mental illness — especially for people of color who grew up in cities as starkly impoverished as Brown’s Detroit. Until we reach that place, albums like Atrocity Exhibition remain important and as confrontational as we need. – Sameer Rao
Camp Cope – Camp Cope (Poison City) – What’s most startling of Melbourne, Australia trio Camp Cope’s self-titled debut is not its collection of tightly wound and written indie rock songs. It’s the sneaking, sinking feeling you get from poring through someone’s well-hidden diary while listening to the damn thing. In the record’s eight tracks, singer Georgia Maq lets us in far past the point of oversharing; the frustration, fear and grief expressed in “Lost (Season One)” and “Song for Charlie,” delivered through her thick Aussie accent and complemented by her bandmates’ ragtag percussion, feel like the kind of things we learn to keep locked up in private. You could call that radical transparency, or tenderness, or both. But it makes for startlingly good singalong fodder. Particularly impressive is Maq’s pen. Her knack for reworking lengthy, unwieldy thoughts like “I’ve been desensitized to the human body / I could look at you naked and all I’d see would be anatomy” (“Flesh and Electricity”) into effortless hooks is demonstrated all across Camp Cope, through songs that tackle sexual harassment, personal tragedy. But through its heavy subject matter, Camp Cope’s inaugural statement of a debut album is, above the mud and murk, to persist and survive. – Marc Snitzer
Cub Sport – This Is Our Vice (Nettwerk) – Reminiscent of Depeche Mode’s mid-career work – catchy tunes disguising dark feelings – the full length debut from Brisbane, Australia pop-rock four-piece Cub Sport was criminally overlooked here in the states. The album tackles the exploitation of women (“It Kills Me”) as well as the complicated feelings of making music (“Come On Mess Me Up”) and of being in a relationship (“I’m On Fire”). Despite the tough subject matter, the entire album seems effortless. Tim Nelson’s angelic voice and his bandmates’ supporting harmonies and musical layers present new surprises with every listen. – Maureen Walsh
Mal Devisa – Kiid (self-released) – Deja Carr has quite possibly the most engulfing voice that was set to tape in 2016. The Massachusetts artist released her first full-length with Kiid, a collection of songs that attack the world with an acerbic understanding wrapped in lyrical and sonic poetry. By definition, many of the songs on the Bandcamp release are sparse – just a voice and one, maybe a few, instruments (often just her bass). But the completeness of Carr’s voice, its ability to soar to velvety heights on “Everybody Knows” or “Sea of Limbs” and then turn around and deliver a biting, frenetic rap on closer “Dominatrix,” is just so intoxicating and salving, even moreso for its approach from two ends of the spectrum. This is certainly only the beginning of Carr’s rise, but it’s enough to happily hold us over for quite some time. – Julie Miller
Joyce Manor – Cody (Epitaph) – Every Joyce Manor studio album starts with all the instruments playing at once. (Barring the first two beats on “Never Hungover Again,” but that’s being nitpicky). The California pop-punkers’ fourth, Cody, is no different, wasting no time pulling listeners into the powerhouse opener, “Fake I.D.”, a song that has more hooks than every bait shop and coat-check room in the United States combined. It’s catchier than Velcro.
Cody has enough of the mosh-pit ready urgency of previous Joyce Manor. They cram a lot of emotion into just 24 minutes. Joyce Manor has that ability to make every album sound like a live set. They perfected the set list, and they do their best to make the most of the time they have. But I don’t want to make it sound like they sound careless or sloppy. Cody is arguably the band’s tightest release to date. Case in point is the driving and shimmering “Make Me Dumb.” And despite the short run time, it’s clear they really took their time making this record.
I wouldn’t call Epitaph a major label, but the band is certainly showing glimpses of really hitting the big time more than before. The production quality is up, and there’s even a guest spot from Nate Ruess of The Format and fun. fame. But the fans who’ve been with Joyce Manor since their beginning will still have everything they’re looking for, like shout-along choruses and guitarist/vocalist Barry Johnson’s heart-on-his-blacked-out-sleeve lyrics. – Brendan Menapace
La Femme – Mystére (Born Bad) – La Femme’s ability to dance across the spectrum of genres in their latest album makes it an instant standout of 2016. Mystére‘s opening jam, “Sphynx”, is a galloping techno groove accompanied by singer Clémence Quélennec’s bright vocals, directly followed by “Le vide est ton nouveau prenom,” an acoustic track with tambourine flourishes and spooky vocals. All throughout the collection, Quélennec pays homage to classic surf rock styles (“Où va le monde”), early pop (“Septembre”), spacey psych rock (“Always In The Sun”), and even throws drifty, ambient tracks in the mix (“Vagues”). What makes the album cohesive throughout its many influences is its use of dissonance. Eerie, murky synths are joined by strong, conversational vocals that trade French narratives throughout it’s entirety and keep listeners immersed in La Femme’s dark, twisted fantasy. – Sarah Hughes
Lady Gaga – Joanne (Interscope) – In 1993, Ice Cube told us “check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Joanne, Lady Gaga’s fifth full-length, is an intense rendering of Gaga “checking herself,” so to speak. If 2013’s Artpop was her spiraling into depths of super stardom, Joanne is her tether back to Earth, no small part in thanks to drastic changes in her life this year involving the death of her beloved aunt (also named Joanne, which happens to be one of Gaga’s middle names), and the dissolution of her relationship with actor Taylor Kinney. This stripped down Stefani Germanotta is vulnerable and raw, and even as a longtime dance pop aficionado, I’ll vouch that it’s her strongest effort yet.
The emotional album remains true to Gaga’s pop roots in every way, with radio ready anthems like “Diamond Heart” and “John Wayne” reminiscent of *good, not iconic* Madonna records (think: Music era), while “Just Another Day” and “Hey Girl” err on the side of quirky but catchy. On the flip side, the fun retro influence on the hook in “Come to Mama” sounds like something straight from the Hairspray soundtrack, but the lyrics spread a deeper social message of loving and lifting each other up in spite of differences. My favorite momens on Joanne, “Million Reasons” and “Sinner’s Prayer,” fit right in with the western persona Gaga’s adopted on the three-stop Dive Bar Tour she performed while promoting this album. – Skye Leppo
Lushlife – Ritualize (Western Vinyl) – The most aurally delightful moment in hip-hop 2016 is an orally elegiac moment of shifting sonic movements between the soft cotton of I Break Horses whispers, and Lushlife’s jolt to a life of loneliness on “The Waking World.” After 2 minutes of solid spitting, Lushlife backs off and allows I Break Horses to speak gently to the world fading away, before MC Raj Haldar crashes back in to show us some desolation, then, stepping back once more, letting Maria Linden and CSLSX fly us back out to the clouds with the most spectral pop chorus you’ll hear on a hip-hop album all year. When it’s over, there is still 90% of the damn album left.
Lushlife has an abstract lyricism that would have been at home with heavy hitters on the Definitive Jux label (fitting, since a few associates make appearances). Even when more straightforward rappers stop by, it’s never stilted or out of place. If anything, it punctuates how welcome his style is, especially amongst the playfulness of the indie-synth-shoegaze melodies that CSLX crafts. The album is not afraid to chase epics of cinematic standards, as with “Toynbee Suite” (told in 4 “movements”), or keep it loose and casual (see the DJ Premier inspired “Strawberry Mansion.”) Welcome to Philadelphia, haters check your coats at the door. – Matthew Shaver
Moor Mother – Fetish Bones (Don Giovanni) – In a detailed analysis, writer and political theorist Adetokunbo Pearse frames “Ark Of Bones,” a classic short story by mythic poet, science fiction writer (and Sun-Ra affiliate) Henry Dumas, story in the context of a living continuum of traditional African and diasporic folk tales. These are stories that have helped us make sense of time, space and a history marked by tragedy, pain and resilient joy.
“It is a story plagued by attempts to dodge the deadly blows aimed at the cultural life of the people,” writes Pearse. “In aspects of theme, atmosphere, language and characterization, the story ‘Ark of Bones’ brings to life the dream-like nature of the history of Africans on the planet Earth.”
In the hands of North Philly based recording artist and Black Quantum Futurism collective co-founder Moor Mother (aka Camae Ayewa), this historical dream that Pearse describes becomes a very real and ever-present nightmare. It is a history that stretches back to the dawn of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and European-American Colonialism. This complex history of slavery, systemic oppression, creativity and rebellion exists as a living thread that informs every aspect of our lives up to the present day. The ghosts of this history reveal themselves in the headlines and videos of police killings of innocent black men, women and children that pop up on our social media feeds. It walks with us to the corner store, it helped us hold up signs at last week’s protest, it comes to sit with us on a lonely, dark highway when blue and red lights are flashing in our rearview mirrors.
Opening with the soft and somber tones of “Creation Myth,” Ayewa invites us into her world of collage-crafted sonic dysmorphia. The softly sung hymnal feel of the track’s intro is slowly subsumed by the menacing synth pulse that lay beneath. Ecstatic Gospel shouts, cut and pasted alto sax riffs and a mournful string parts taken straight from the RZA / Wu-Tang playbook all rise up and fight for space within the song’s arrangement. Riding this densely packed and ever-changing soundscape, Ayewa’s graphic poetry walks through a laundry list historical tragedy. By the end of this four and a half minute tour-de-force, Ayewa’s prose winds itself up in gut-wrenching tribute to the many black women and girls who have been killed by police. “….only God knows how I made it to Ferguson. Rekia [Boyd, age 22] didn’t make it, Aiyana [Jones, age 7] didn’t make it, Yvette [Smith, age 47] didn’t make it, Sandra [Bland, age 28] didn’t make it…”
Calling on the names of the recently deceased as well as the ancestors of past, Moor Mother crafts a poetic vision in which the weight of history and tragedy manifest themselves as an essential lifeblood of contemporary works. In this sense, Moor Mother’s work is not unlike that of famed Black Arts Movement poets like Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez & The Firespitters and Amiri Baraka.
Flowing on top of thumping 808 kick drums and swirling maze of distorted samples, Moor Mother’s vocal performance on “KBGK” bares the closest resemblance to “traditional” rapping. Aiming a verbal shotgun at white liberal academics and the black professional class who hope to “respectfully” negotiate racism out of existence, Ayewa spits the song’s hook with righteous venom and abandon: “Hands up, don’t shoot, that’s YOUR occupation. Kill, black girl, kill, that’s my dissertation!” Ebbing and flowing between moments of radical outrage and transcendent relief and spirituality, the album’s modern production aesthetic is tempered and diversified with deep nods toward gospel and the blues.
Long recognized as the twin progenitors of American popular music and a common thread connecting black music with the musical legacy of the African continent, these two musical traditions consistently reemerge throughout Fetish Bones, fighting for space and working their way up through the cracks of noise and violence. On songs like “Valley of Dry Bones” (which features a magnificent vocal sample of gospel legend Mahalia Jackson) and “DIY Time Machine,” Ayewa explores gospel music, and the mythos of black church. She strips both of institutions of their bombast and paring each down to their rawest and most personal essence as the spiritual safe houses of the people.
Capping off the album with the sickly sweet gem “Time Float” Ayewa sings a soothing lullaby for the dead: “they left me here to die and there ain’t no reason to cry, you know? We been buried alive before. We been caught hanging from trees…” Bursting at the seams with raw power and fire, Fetish Bones is the album length primal scream of an artist raging at the spectacle of black death and immersing herself in the pain and anguish that it creates. Refusing to observe these tragedies as a mere spectator on the sidelines, Moor Mother digs up the bones of the dead calls their spirits into the room, demanding that we all sit down and live with the ghosts that she has conjured. – John Morrison
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression (Loma Vista Recordings) – In the springtime of a year defined by brutal, blindsiding loss, Iggy Pop gifted us out of the blue with Post Pop Depression, sending a reminder that The Godfather of Punk is still very much alive. It’s not the kind of reminder with which most artists in the twilight of their career reemerge onto the public conscious. You know the ones – unsubtle declarations that a band is “Not Dead Yet” or “Still Breathing.” With Post Pop Depression, we hear a stoic, poetically graceful admission that “Time’s so tired, closing in” on Iggy Pop’s “masquerade of recreation”.
But its profundity also lies within Iggy Pop’s recruitment of young blood – Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita and Arctic Monkey’s Matt Felders helped create an album that stands on its own integrity as a piece of modern rock, at the same time seamlessly completing a trilogy Iggy began forty years ago with his first two solo albums, The Idiot and Lust For Life. Coupled with a North American tour of theaters and opera houses, which stopped at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in April, the Post Pop Depression crew became the undisputed royalty of rock ‘n roll in 2016. – Wendy McCardle
Purling Hiss – High Bias (Drag City) – InHigh Bias lies every incarnation of Purling Hiss. The nine-song album is teeming with pounding overdriven riffs, guitar noise and its subsequent shredding and grooves throughout. All of which have become mainstays for the Mike Polizze-led power trio. This album doesn’t wax poetic around anything, so let’s be clear here: High Bias is loud.
2014’s Weirdon brought a more accessible pop-tinged Hiss to the light, ushering in this year’s three-song Something EP. While both were certainly welcomed and nothing felt out of place, it left something to be desired for the camp that shows up for Polizze’s frenetic soloing at Purling Hiss shows. And High Bias is probably the best example, as far as albums go, of their live performance to date.
They come out swinging with “Fever,” a grungey rocker that can fit into nearly any phase of the Purling Hiss catalog, while the tense “Teddy’s Servo Motors,” trades noise and heavy riffs. Polizze steps up his vocal range on the mid-tempo “Follow You Around,” without missing a step. It’s refreshing to hear him grow as a vocalist that’s often been a bit held back, or maybe reserved, up until now. “Get Your Way” swaggers, hooking you in its verses and bangs on its guitar lead, before completing with an overdriven bridge.
High Bias reaches upward on the astral segue of “Ostinato Musik,” before the reaching proto-punk royalty status on “Everybody in the USA,” a blast that features more layers of guitar noise than stripes on our nation’s flag. High Bias is stacked with every part of Purling Hiss that leaves your ears ringing in the ways you recognize best, while keeping ringing to tones you haven’t felt yet. – Brian Wilensky
Saba – The Bucket List Project (self-released) – “Remember they ain’t show no love, now it’s only PDA”, Saba reminds himself on “Stoney”, the second track off his debut record. A rising star in the Chicago scene after 2014 mixtape ComfortZone, and nationally acclaimed after guesting on Chance’s “Angels”, we find here a changed Saba; one who dreams less, relishes in the limelight more, but still lets his raps do the talking.
With flow styles reminiscent of Twista and Kendrick, there’s still “rarity in his realness”, as he reps the west side as only he and the Pivot gang can. Hip-hop’s greatest voices are the ones that rest at an inflection point, avoiding production as a crutch, but rather using it to take flows higher, to add instrumental depth to immense lyrical prowess, and Saba knows this well; his instrumental SpareChange! EP prepared him to produce multiple tracks on the album. The ethereal choruses, muted trumpets, and electric pianos of “In Loving Memory” aid Saba’s introspection, and the swung, percussive beat behind “Church/Liquor Store” grounds his words in the street. Saba, like fellow Chicago success story Chance The Rapper, takes ample time on the record to dissect his success, and count his blessings; on the aptly titled “Bucket List”, he says to us “if I die before I can make change, least I made a tape, and I pray someday you’re inspired by it and make your way.” – Cameron Pollack
Skating Polly – The Big Fit (Chap Stereo) – Never underestimate a duo. And never underestimate musicians just because they happen to be young. Step-sisters Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse are veterans in the music world at the ages of 16 and 21, respectively. They formed Skating Polly in 2009 when they were just 9 and 14.
The members switch up instruments on songs and share duties on vocals. The Big Fit is their fourth LP release, and it is impressive. The melodies create a super-catchiness to every song. Trust me, the lyrics stick in your head for awhile. At times, there’s some early Sleater-Kinney-esque vibes on the album, particularly on the song “Morning Dew.” The Big Fit does have a youthful quality of working through new emotions and the general frustration of teenage-life, but it doesn’t feel irrelevant. The songs make you understand how they’re feeling. Sweet melodies transition into raging, screaming vocals in the matter of one second (for example the song “Perfume for Now”).
The Big Fit takes you back to the 90s with some early punk added in for good measure, but it doesn’t sound dated. It is timeless. Expect Skating Polly to be around for quite a while. – Maura Filoromo
Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A High Note (ANTI-) – In a year dominated by legends – resurgent, triumphant, fallen – Mavis Staples, who’s still in the process of gradually (re)gaining the stature and recognition she so richly deserves, slipped one in relatively under the radar. Livin’ on a High Note doesn’t have the hooky comeback narrative of her last few records, which she cut with Jeff Tweedy; it’s simply a logical continuation of that latest chapter in her remarkable story – recounted in the excellent 2016 documentary Mavis! – this time in collaboration with a different fresh-faced indie-roots young gun: M. Ward. There’s a few things that make this Staples’ best album of the 21st century, apart from the fact that, at 76, her voice remains an utterly spine-tingling powerhouse. One is her band; a group that (per the documentary) she’s been steadily touring with for the better part of a decade, and is by this point an unfailingly tight, understated, well-greased groove machine. Even better are the songs: atypically for Staples, it’s a set of all new, highly personal bespoke material, lovingly penned for her by an impressive assortment of notables including Nick Cave, Justin Vernon, Valerie June, Ben Harper, Neko Case, Laura Veirs and Philly’s own Son Little.
And in a year when racial tensions and injustice were further at the forefront of the national conversation than they’ve been in decades, it’s a precious, vital gift to hear the woman who was – Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone arguably excepted – the voice of the civil rights movement, not only singing songs of joyous uplift (Benjamin Booker’s exultant opening celebration of friends and family) and inspiration (Aloe Blacc’s “Tomorrow” – “if life gives you lemons/go and make lemon cake!”), but also exploring the searching, conflicted topicality of Case/Veirs’ “History Now” (“How do we dismantle the sorrow and rage/and pick up our scars off the ground”), imparting the tenderly introspective words of Dr. King (the stripped-down, Ward-penned “MLK Song”) and delivering the emphatic, breathless urgency of Merrill Garbus’ “Action” (“This is an emergency / of the highest and the furthest and the final degree”). This is precisely the kind of rallying cry that we need, now, more than ever. – K. Ross Hoffman
The Stray Birds – Magic Fire (Yep Roc) – Only four short years ago, the country-folk / Americana trio, The Stray Birds, released their debut album. The self-titled record helped to fuel nationwide attention for three passionate musicians hailing from the small, but artsy town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This year, the trio released their latest, Magic Fire, to positive reviews from various media outlets from American Songwriter to Mountain Stage. The trio, comprised of Oliver Craven (steel guitar/vocals), Maya de Vitry (fiddle/vocals), and Charlie Muench (upright bass/vocals), have proven on Magic Fire that anything can happen to anyone with a dream.
The record is an infectious celebration of American roots music that showcases each member strongly where any one of them can easily take center stage. Opening with “Shining in The Distance” the beautiful, soulful vocals of de Vitry shine with Craven and Muench joining in to create perfect harmonies. On the track, the trio questions “…is it not time?” On “Third Day in a Row,” the trio takes you on a journey behind what life’s like for them on the road. The opening fiddle is so infectious and Craven’s vocals pair perfectly with the arrangement. He sings about the life of a musician and traveling constantly: “this dusty road side ain’t your home / it’s just a place that you found a room.” The country roots of the band also shine brightly on “Sabrina,” an upbeat, a catchy ode to Yuengling beer and Pennsylvania.
The Stray Birds know how to write, arrange and deliver a performance unlike no other band I’ve heard or seen before. Magic Fire is truly a strong collection of songs from top to bottom. The recordings are incredible, but you really have to experience this band live. To hear them perform “When I Die” in person spectacular and moving in a way that no recording can capture. – Lauren Rosier