Sunday, December 11, 2016

Top 30 Records of 2016: 30-21

Depending on who you ask, 2016 will go down as one of the worst years in history.  Yes that's a hyperbolic statement of great exaggeration but a lot of bad shit did go down this year.  The world lost a slew of great musicians and cool people including Oklahoma's own Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Vanity, Maurice White (of Earth, Wind & Fire), Glenn Frey, Phife Dawg (of A Tribe Called Quest), Mr. Fuji, Micky Fitz (of The Business), Anton Yelchin, Blackjack Mulligan, Muhammad Ali, and most devastatingly (as far as the music industry is concerned) Prince and David Bowie.  On top of all that there was an ugly presidential election here in the United States that further divided an already fractured nation.  One of the truly bright points of 2016 was the music.  Not the stuff you heard on the radio or awards shows, but the music coming out of small venues and bars, showcased festival stages in college towns, played on podcasts hosted by music nerds, and released by artists who took to heart the ideal of doing it yourself.  While the state of the music industry may still be in flux, the state of music itself is as good as its ever been...if you know where to look.

On a personal level, I turned to music a lot this year.  When stress or sadness or anything else had me feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and worthless, music kept me sane, gave me solace, and provided me a light for the darkest of days.  A number of releases really hit me this year, become constant soundtracks, emotional crutches, and pick-me-ups.  In fact all five records at the top of this list touched me on very deep, emotional, and almost religious levels.

This list consists of the 30 records, albums, and EPs that I think are the very best that 2016 had to offer.  There's punk, folk, rock, indie, and alt country found herein.  There are singer-songwriters, melodic bands, quirky bands, poppy bands, and rockin' bands, and every single one of them deserves your support and attention.  As with previous years lists, I have broken this into three posts with 10 records each and a list of honorable mentions.  

20-11, Honorable Mentions, 10-1

30.  Your Rock and Roll by Northcote
Official, BandCamp, iTunes, Spotify
Okay, this one might be a little bit of a cheat but I don't care.  Northcote's EP Your Rock and Roll is a two song release with the title track, a full-band re-recording of a song from last year's brilliant Hope Is Made Of Steel, and a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere."  The EP is the perfectly captures everything that is great about Northcote and makes me wish Matt Goud and company would hurry up and put out some new music!

29.  Cobblestones by Nothington
Amazon, iTunes, Spotify
The Cobblestones EP is as much a primer for the band's upcoming full-length as it is its own standalone release (similar to the way 'Merican was the primer for the Descendents' 2004 album Cool To Be You).  Either way this two-song release is outstanding.
From my review --
The new song "Cobblestones" is pure, classic Nothington filled with gruff vocals, incredibly infectious hooks, and that southern tinged take on melodic punk that the band has become synonymous with over the years.  In fact, it is this sound that has become hugely influential on many newer bands (see Arms Aloft, Shallow Cuts, Red City Radio, Timeshares, Deforesters, MakeWar, Habits, Wolves & Wolves & Wolves & Wolves) and with this song they showcase just how good they really are and why so many have followed their lead.

28.  The Great Thieves Escape II by Walk the Plank, No Fun, Such Gold, Harker
No Panic Records, Flix Records, BandCamp
From my review --
What's great about splits like The Great Thieves Escape II is that they introduce you to bands and artists you might otherwise have missed and if you're lucky, you find a new favorite band or two in the mix.  [...]  The Great Thieves Escape II has introduced me to two bands that I have immediately fallen for in No Fun and Harker.  I can't wait to explore their other releases (which I have already picked up via their BandCamp pages) and anxiously await whatever it is that they do next.  These are two bands to watch.  The other great thing about The Great Thieves Escape II is that every track was different.  Often splits get crammed with a lot of bands that have similar sounds and that is simply not the case here.  Even the two melodic hardcore bands, Walk the Plan and Such Gold, have drastically different sounds and that makes for a much more compelling listening experience.

27.  Reaction by American Television
BandCamp, Google Play, Spotify
From my review --
Following up last year's excellent Let's Play Two, American Television take things in a darker direction with songs that tackle the loneliness of being an outsider and misfit, the flaws of memory, the monotony and disappointment of daily adult life, and self destruction bringing a new found maturity and serious urgency to their music.  Sonically the band still hits that melodic punk sweet spot that is somewhere in-between The Methadones, Pegboy, and The Explosion.

26.  You Can Have It All by Billy Pettinger
BandCamp, BandCamp, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify
Billy Pettinger (f.k.a. Billy the Kid) released two records in 2016: I Have To Do This and the EP You Can Have It All.  I Have To Do This was originally recorded as home demos for her then record label.  Things with said label didn't work out and then after a few other opportunities that never came to fruition, the Canadian by way of Alabama singer-songwriter took matters into her own hands and self-released the recordings in February.  The record is a bit of a departure from Pettinger's previous work mostly due to its lofi production, but what is the same is her beautiful and haunting voice.  In April she followed up with the even better You Can Have It All.  The five song EP is powerful and thoughtful and soulful and a tremendous release.  Pettinger is probably best known for the acoustic covers of punk songs she posts on her YouTube channel but she is so much more than that and this EP showcases exactly why she is like a modern day Dusty Springfield.

25.  Demonstrations by Grieving
BandCamp, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify
From my review --
Demonstrations, the debut EP from Cambridge, England's Grieving is a five-song powerhouse.  Reminiscent of early '90s acts like Sunny Day Real Estate, Fugazi, and Seaweed, Grieving have perfectly straddled that divide between indie and punk rock by mixing elements of post hardcore, melodic punk anthems, and indie rock, with great pop sensibilities.  The end result is a sound that is distinct, powerful, poignant, catchy, familiar, and really stinking good.  [...]  Demonstrations does what every great debut record should do: it showcases the band's strengths while highlighting their excellent and diverse songwriting, super tight musicianship, and serves as a primer getting listeners excited for this and future releases.  Grieving is an obviously tight, diverse, and talented band, a fact made abundantly clear on this EP.

24.  E.P. III by Broken Gold
BandCamp, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify
From my review --
Broken Gold is a band that perfectly harnesses the power, essence, and sensibilities of the college, indie, and punk rock of the late 1980s and early 1990s creating a sound that is equal parts modern, nostalgic, and timeless.  The Austin, TX band's latest effort E.P. III is a stunning and cathartic release of anxiety and desperation via tight hooks, great melodies, and incredible pop sensibility resulting in a hopeful reassurance that only great rock 'n' roll can give.

23.  Freedom, Love, And The Recuperation Of The Human Mind by Ben Lee
Amazon, iTunes, Spotify
From my review --
Ben Lee's 11th proper studio album Freedom, Love, And The Recuperation Of The Human Mind is an indie folk pop masterpiece.  Perfectly picking up where last year's excellent Love is the Great Rebellion left off, this record dives even deeper into the spiritual nature of love, the human mind, and the entire notion of self.  An incredibly simple album, Freedom, Love, and... is driven by Lee's gentle acoustic guitar work and passionately unique vocal delivery resulting in a tranquility that eases the mind, body, and soul.  Lee has always been at his best when writing undeniable pop songs and while this is some of his most stripped down material to date, it certainly still showcases his brilliant sensibilities.

22.  Meow by The Fairweather Band
Specialist Subject Records, BandCamp, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify
From my review --
Hailing from Exeter, England The Fairweather Band play a hybrid style of late '80s / early '90s influenced indie folk punk rock.  The band's full-length debut Meow is a 13 song collection of off-kilter, short, songs that are catchy and poppy but not in a power chord, power pop kind of way.  The guitar work is intricate, the lyrics are sometimes off-putting with their uncomfortable metaphors, the vocals have that perfect British every-man quality (like a modern-day Billy Bragg or Robyn Hitchcock), and the harmonies are spot on bringing added depth to the songs.  The result is a wholly fulfilling and satisfying album though it might take a few listens for one to come to this conclusion, but that is not a bad thing.

21.  Another Life by Joe McMahon
SmartPunk Records, Gunner Records, Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, Interpunk
From my review --
Joe McMahon's full-length solo debut is a powerful, intensely personal record.  [...]  The record is obviously centered around McMahon's vocals and acoustic guitar but this isn't your typical punk-singer-goes-acoustic folk record.  There are elements of power pop, hints of indie rock, moments of folk, but really this is a singer-songwriter rock 'n' roll record.  What makes Another Life a standout debut is the emotional power and intensity behind each and every song.  The entire record feels like a lifetime of emotional highs and lows, heartbreak and hope, joy and pain.  There is desperation, defeat, compassion, and optimism all crying out in these songs.  McMahon's impassioned delivery perfectly punctuates each moment driving you from one song to the next.  If this record doesn't touch your heart, I have to question whether or not you have a soul.

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