ARE YOU LISTENING? TOP 10 OVERLOOKED ALBUMS OF 2016
We know: That Beyoncé album was incredible. Yeah, just like the life of Kanye, “The Life of Pablo” was weird and captivating. And that Radiohead LP? We shed enough tears to fill “A Moon Shaped Pool” of our own. The fact is, if you’re reading this, odds are you’ve already seen dozens of other best-album lists this year. We figured, in a season of giving, it’s better to share the wealth than pile on the popular kids. Below, dig into 10 of 2016’s unjustly overlooked albums.
For all those of us who harbor a secret love of emo the angsty, verbose style of music favored by suburban middle/high schoolers country-wide circa the early aughts New Jersey’s Pinegrove is an exciting prospect. The octet has repackaged the genre’s hallmark squealing vocals, self-interrogation and crushing riffs for the quarterlife crowd. “Cardinal,” its sophomore effort, is a near-perfect execution of that, and a heck of a lot smarter than any of this year’s other rock albums. Frontman Evan Stephens Hall somehow manages to be conversational in an album about how hard it is to communicate: “I’d pace around the place so quiet in myself / I’d wake the next and see my silence went unfelt,” he sings on standout track “Aphasia.” For the sake of that: The album is really good. Enough said.
John Prine, “For Better, or Worse”
Bob Dylan might have pulled down the Nobel Prize this year, but John Prine — who Dylan counts as an influence — will always be the people’s songwriting champ. On “For Better, or Worse,” his latest, he takes from the songbooks of his mentors, re-imagining them via duets with female singers that gussy up Prine’s crumbling voice. For fans of “In Spite Of Ourselves,” his 1996 album in the same vein, this one’s a no brainer. Iris DeMent sang that album’s stand-out titular song, and she returns to help Prine take on the country-western “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out,” a bickering duet between irascible lovers that was first popularized by Loretta Lynn and Ernest Tubb. Beyond DeMent, Prine gathers a smartly curated batch of female singers from yesterday and tomorrow. Susan Tedeschi puts her searing vox to George Jones’ “Color of the Blues”; On “Mental Cruelty,” he
wisely taps rising country singer Kacey Musgraves, who’ll join him on tour in 2017.
There’s a lot of Chance the Rapper in “Telefone,” MC Fatimah Warner’s debut as Noname. That makes sense: They’re in the same circle of Chicago musicians that swirl funk, gospel and hiphop into hyper-aware rhythm poetry. But through familiar horn stabs and marching-band rhythms, Warner is her own artist, with a poetic sensibility that eclipses most rappers her age. She lets her inner child take the pen — “unorthodox paradox in a pair of Doc’s,” she raps on “All I Need” — as often as the wise matriarch on her shoulder. “When I remember memories don’t last forever / When I deny my empty with an open letter / Who gon’ remember me? / My satellite, my empathy,” she sings on “Yesterday.” With no use for a name, she sets her focus on her art, a worthwhile venture by any yardstick.
Band of Horses, “Why Are You OK”
Band of Horses is what happens when a band stays on course instead of trying out a wildly new direction — a decision that usually alienates its fanbase. “Why Are You OK” is merely a variation on the emotive stomp-a-longs that the altAmericana rock outfit has been putting out for the last 12 years, and that’s more than all right. The band has cut a niche for itself that few others can claim: The drunk punk with the heart of gold, up one day and down the next, but always worth your time. Here, that materializes in songs that weigh emotional damage control (“Hag”) and the value and harm of a critical voice always barking in your ear (“Solemn Oath”).
Michael Nau, “Mowing”
Solo debuts can be tricky business, but fans of Michael Nau’s since-retired project Cotton Jones can take heart with “Mowing.” As on past projects, melody is the Marylander’s strong suit here. With just his voice and a six string, “While You Stand” buoys with simple resonant beauty, invoking his relation to the mountains, ocean and night sky as a precious few constants in an ever-evolving life. Pigeonholed as he may be by his folk roots, “Mowing” explores more than just his Appalachian trappings. Wife Whitney McGraw joins in for songs like “Maralou,” a down-tempo tiki lounge foxtrot tacked up by shimmering synths. The album doesn’t reach for anything too far outside of its indiepop wheelhouse, which is probably why it flew under the radar. But if you’re looking for an album to keep you company on a lonely winter drive, look no further than this digestible-yet-distinct folk album.
Weyes Blood, “Front Row Seat to Earth”
Was there an album released this year with a more loaded title than Weyes Blood’s “Front Row Seat to Earth”? The album is effectively a modern meditation in an emergency, when end of days — be it a personal (“Diary”) or societal one (“Generation Why”) — comes in the fear of losing the person that defines you, or the bliss of knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Weyes Blood (real name: Natalie Mering) is tellingly resigned in the face of horror, sounding like a depressed Shania Twain riding side saddle on a hydrogen bomb falling to Earth. It’s far from an upper, in other words, but don’t let that dissuade you.
J. Cole, “4 Your Eyez Only”
The longer J. Cole’s hair, the better his music — or so the theory goes. It’s all-but proven on “4 Your Eyez Only,” the rapper’s best yet. More specifically, he sounds like Kendrick Lamar lite, rapping about the same great injustices but with more concern for pop value and less of a mind for wordplay. “Change,” a highlight, has him on one of the album’s finest beats, bemoaning the horrors du jour in an attempt to materialize someone — anyone — who can catalyze evolution. As serious as that sounds, the album is as fun as it is frank, like on the indelible “Foldin Clothes,” which cuts true romance down to its maturest essence: “I wanna fold clothes for you!” Marital duty never sounded so sexy.
Andy Shauf, “The Party”
Andy Shauf ’s latest album sounds like it was written from the lonely corner of the last high school party of senior year. Through failed come-ons and awkward conversations, the Saskatchewan native makes you feel for his wobbly attempts to navigate love, even after you realize he’s something of a social anti-hero. Over chintzy lounge jams, Shauf writes songs for the generation weened on Wes Anderson’s precious aesthetic — songs that might as well be written about “Rushmore’s” precocious Max Fischer, and could score every one of Anderson’s films thereafter.
KING, “We Are KING”
KING’s debut album feeds ’90s R&B through a distorted lens. The genre’s simmering rhythms drag that much slower at points, its major keys pitched down almost imperceptibly. It sounds like a nightmare based on a memory. Elsewhere, the Los Angeles trio’s modern yet faithful reproduction of the genre furthers this sense of misremembering. Take single “The Greatest,” for example, which could fool anyone into thinking that they’d heard the song blasting through the speakers of their turquoise Eagle Talon way back when. Nineties nostalgia is ontrend right now, but as Erykah Badu and The Roots’ Questlove could tell you — the living R&B legends gave the group their seal of approval early on — KING is sharper than just sentimental taste-making.
Nicolas Jaar, “Sirens”
With “Sirens,” experimental Chilean producer Nicolas Jaar has expanded on the chilly headspace he popularized with guitarist Dave Harrington in sideproject Darkside. One part sound collage and one part dance music curriculum — house, techno, South American cumbia and many other styles scrape against one another here — “Sirens” is Jaar’s most ambitious album, one as listenable as it is intriguing. Infusing songs with disquieting tales of injustice (“Killing Time”) and a literal (if reductive) “History Lesson,” the producer has attempted to weaponize dance music for political engagement. A night at the disco already brings people of farflung backgrounds together in one room, Jaar figures. Why not wring some conversation out of it? Live or through headphones, the album succeeds there, and then some.
Weyes Blood’s “Front Row Seat to Earth” is one of 2016’s best overlooked albums..