10 Overlooked Albums of 2016
It's the last Friday before the holidays, and the Notable Releases of the Week column is gonna go into hibernation until the new year. There actually are some cool new albums out this week -- the new Krallice album, the Yasiin Bey album, and the Nine Inch Nails EP -- but I'm gonna take a break from the new stuff this week and look back at the year with ten overlooked albums of 2016. I'm not saying they're the most overlooked, just ten great albums that I didn't get a chance to talk about in the Notable Releases column and that didn't get much (or any) coverage on BrooklynVegan.
For more year-end stuff, check out our Top 45 Albums of 2016 list, the 20 best emo/punk albums of 2016, the best metal of 2016, and the best new(ish) rock bands of 2016. Browse our 'best of 2016' tag for top 10s from artists, and more.
Let us know what other albums we overlooked this year in the comments. Check out my picks below, in alphabetical order.
A lot of modern bands channel '60s psychedelic rock, but few sound as interesting as Hexvessel do on their latest album and first for Century Media, When We Are Death. Singer Mat McNerney (who also fronts or has fronted Beastmilk, Grave Pleasures, Gangrenator, Dødheimsgard and Code) has a low, booming voice that reminds me of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the band uses plenty of Nuggets-y organs, though When We Are Death never sounds quite like it could've come out in the '60s. Hexvessel really know how to make those 50-year-old influences their own. And it only takes a few seconds into album opener "Transparent Eyeball" to realize When We Are Death is a noticeable shift from its folky 2012 predecessor, No Holier Temple. In place of drifting acoustic passages, Hexvessel are now writing bold rock songs with huge melodies from McNerney. It's sort of a spookier, more modern version of the stuff Paul Kantner started doing in the early '70s. The songs sound so big and so strong on this album that I'm kind of amazed there weren't more people talking about it. A lot of modern psych bands like to appear introverted or detached, but not Hexvessel. On this album, they sound like a band that wants to take over the world.
Itasca is the moniker of Kayla Cohen, who was from New York but is now based in LA, and she's been making quiet psychedelic folk albums for a few years now. Open to Chance, her first for Paradise of Bachelors and her first with a full band, is her latest and best yet. If you like early Joni Mitchell, or that new Weyes Blood album, you should really check this out. On some songs, like "G.B.," she hints at a love of country and bluegrass too. Kayla taps into those styles so naturally and sings like such an old soul, that Open to Chance really could pass for a lost '60s/'70s album. It's very familiar sounding too. The first time I heard it, I felt like it was an album I'd known my whole life. It's so easy to listen to and so instantly-enjoyable. It's one of the most likable albums in this style that I heard all year.
If you're familiar with Ka, you probably know his story at this point. He spent the '90s in the New York hip hop group Natural Elements and then resurfaced as a solo artist in 2008, producing his own music, releasing it on his own label, and not seeming like he had any intention of entering the spotlight. (You probably also know that he's a firefighter.) He actually did work with an outside producer on last year's Days With Dr. Yen Lo, which sounded even more minimal than the music he makes alone, but for this year's Honor Killed The Samurai, he's back in the producer's chair and making some of his best sounds yet. The samurai theme shows up in some lyrical references and some samples, but mostly this is an album about New York and about Ka's own life. Ka told Rolling Stone, "Of [hip-hop], I'm a samurai. I'm holding on to something that's not treasured anymore: lyrics." He then goes on to cite Rakim, KRS-One, Slick Rick and Tupac as influences on his storytelling, but don’t let that fool you into thinking Ka is trying to relive hip hop’s golden age. His introverted, minimal music wouldn’t have been in style then and it’s out of step now too.
In that same interview he says his beats are minimal so you'll hear his words better. That's smart because his delivery is as hushed as his production. While a lot of rappers go for loud and in-your-face, Ka almost sounds like he's talking to himself. It's also necessary because Ka has a lot to say. So much of the album reflects on the violent New York City he saw growing up (or as he puts it, "vicious verbs emerge from being this disturbed / as a kid observed on curbs where they twist the herb"). He taps into his experiences as a younger person without sounding too nostalgic, and he does it with a wisdom he couldn't have had back then.
If you dug the 2016 albums from Michael Kiwanuka, Laura Mvula, and KING but missed Kadhja Bonet's debut The Visitor, that's worth changing. Like those albums, it's a soulful record that blurs the lines between retro and modern. The songwriting swings somewhere between '70s psychedelic soul and '60s vocal jazz, and it's fleshed out by Kadhja's gorgeous string arrangements. But the electronics in the background reveal it to be something that could only come out today. It's an overwhelmingly accomplished album, especially for a debut. You can probably partially thank the fact that she's classically trained in violin and viola, though it's clear that as a singer and a songwriter, she's a natural.
LA-via-NY artist Katie Gately released her debut album on the trusty Tri Angle Records, and she's been recommended by Bjork (who also had her contribute to the Vulnicura remix project). That’s enough info to guess that she's something special. And it’s true. Tri Angle is known mostly for finding some of the world's most talented production wizards, but they also manage to find a few great singers, like serpentwithfeet and Katie Gately. Anyone who likes Bjork will surely like Katie's warped, challenging art pop, though a closer comparison is someone like Holly Herndon. Like Holly, Katie is making pounding dance music one second and delicate avant-pop the next. She incorporates bits of middle eastern melodies, jazz sax, and other found sounds that are atypical to pop music, all while keeping Color something that remains strangely accessible. Katie insists in interviews and press releases that she has no background in music and mostly has no idea what she's doing. Maybe that lack of experience is what makes Color so refreshing. It certainly sounds like she's highly skilled.
British singer/songwriter Keaton Henson has been releasing albums for all of the current decade, but he didn't cross my radar until appearing on a song with Mitski and Ryan Hemsworth earlier this year. Two months later, he released his newest album Kindly Now, which also slipped past me until both Julien Baker and Cam from Sorority Noise listed it as one of their top 10 albums of 2016. It's not hard to see why it touched them, especially considering how intimate Julien's own music is and the similar direction Cam took on this year's It Kindly Stopped For Me EP. Kindly Now is one hell of an intimate album. It sounds like Perfume Genius covering Conor Oberst alone in his bedroom at 3 AM, with the lights mostly dimmed, trying not to disturb anyone else in the house. (The bedroom scenario might literally be true -- Keaton has discussed his anxiety about performing in public.) It's intimate, but it's not bare. Keaton fleshes the album out with electronics and string arrangements that show, for someone who hides away from the world like Keaton does, he's pretty ambitious.
On Leon Vynehall's first album (or "mini LP" as he prefers to call his album-length releases), 2014's Music for the Uninvited, Leon was inspired by the music he heard as a child, from cassettes his mother would play in the car to video game soundtracks. For this year's Rojus (Designed To Dance), he's got a much different concept driving the album. "Rojus," which translates to "paradise," was the name of a book that caught his eye at the Contemporary Art Centre in Lithuania. Days later, he watched a National Geographic documentary called Designed To Dance, which examined the courtship rituals of birds of paradise. Leon saw a similarity between the birds' courtship rituals and that of humans trying to impress potential partners on the dancefloor in the club, so he made a record that's designed to mirror a club night from doors to close, using samples of bird calls. He also intended it to be "functional dance music," so it could not only mirror a night out but also literally soundtrack one. It's a fun concept to think about while listening to the record, which certainly does succeed as dance music. There's a thumping house beat running through much of Rojus, though Leon never likes things to sound too synthetic. Plenty of the music you hear is sourced from records that he dug up at charity shops, and he always tries to keep things sounding organic. Whether it's a layer of strings, or some light piano, or particularly lively drums, Rojus always sounds natural and gorgeous.
Irish folk singer Lisa Hannigan hadn't released an album since 2011's Passenger, but finally returned this year with At Swim. It's her first produced by The National's Aaron Dessner (who has also performed some duo shows with her this year), and it follows her contribution to The National's Grateful Dead tribute album. It's not miles away from what Lisa had done before, with her lovely voice and melodies leading the way, but the Dessner touch is apparent. It has a bit more in common with, say, Sharon Van Etten's Aaron Dessner-produced material, than Lisa's other material. His rich, modern sounds meld wonderfully with Lisa's style, but she keeps her interest in traditional folk firmly intact. Take "Anahorish," an old 1944 poem by Seamus Heaney that Lisa set to a choral song. It's about as traditional as it gets.
If you thought the whole "atmospheric black metal" thing had nothing left to say, 2016 proved you wrong. The best example was Oathbreaker's boundary-pushing Rheia (our 28th favorite album of the year), but another great example was the new album from California one-man band Mare Cognitum, Luminiferous Aether. Vocally, Jacob Buczarski is fairly straightforward as far as this type of sound goes, harsh, reverbed out, and low in the mix. But where Mare Cognitum stands out is the truly beautiful melodies he works into his otherwise heavy arrangements. Maybe the album's best song, "The First Point Of Aries," opens with a tremolo-picked riff that could pass on an Explosions in the Sky album. Later on that same song, Jacob climbs the fretboard with a lick that feels imported from classic heavy metal, over an uplifting, fists-in-the-air chord progression. He uses a similar technique on the last song, "Aether Wind," to equally great effect. I don't mean to paint Mare Cognitum as too much of a softie though. "Occultated Temporal Dimensions" is dark and dissonant, and parts of "Constellation Hipparchia" have him almost sounding like a punk band. If you like any type of loud, powerful rock, Mare Cognitum is for you.
NYC musician Xenia Rubinos has been a staple in the city for her highly eccentric, impossible-to-pin-down sound that most people tell me you have to see live. (I still haven't seen her.) If you're wondering just how eccentric her show is, consider this group of artists who had her open their shows over the years: Battles, Deerhoof, Man Man, and CocoRosie. (Not to mention she's a frequent performer at the improv show series The Hum.) She's gotten comparisons to tUnE-yArDs because both artists defy genre labels and make multi-layered sounds with few collaborators, but on her sophomore album (and first for ANTI-), Black Terry Cat, the comparison I hear again and again is Beyonce. Granted, it's an anti-commercial, DIY version of Beyonce, but the Queen Bey's influence is here nonetheless. And I don't just mean the critically acclaimed, album-oriented Beyonce. My favorite song on Black Terry Cat, "Right?," sounds like a modern indie rock update of Dangerously In Love or Destiny's Child.
What Black Terry Cat does have in common with Lemonade (and a lot of other major 2016 albums) though, is that it's relentlessly political, which is the kind of thing that's been resonating especially hard this year. Take the charged-up "Mexican Chef," a song that takes on racial inequality without any metaphor or subtlety. It's the kind of song that should make you angry and make you wanna get out and create change. For all the strong messages, there are so many addictive choruses too. On "Don't Wanna Be," one minute Xenia is dishing out a soulful croon and the next minute she's basically rapping. Then there's a song like "Black Stars," where she backs her soul/hip hop hybrid with distorted bass that recalls the punk influence on her first album. A lot of albums this year were unique, or had a strong message, or were highly accessible. Black Terry Cat was one of the few that was all three.