The term “overlooked” is so incredibly subjective. I love that about the word. Almost anything could be considered “overlooked,” it all depends on the beholder. But like these are for sure objectively overlooked. There is no debate. They’re all things that I don’t see enough about on my news feeds. They’re all things that I don’t hear my friends talk about enough. They’re all records that are really damn good and it’s possible that you might have missed them in the rapid stream of records that flows without an end.
1. Anna Meredith – Varmints
Varmints is really something else. This record has successfully evaded an accurate, single-genre label from me so far this entire year, which is usually something I like to establish right away. There are elements of chamber pop, synth pop, artful indie rock, upbeat electronic, unsettling electronic and plenty more hype words to add onto those present here. But the most perplexing thing is that even with all these differing sounds, the album easily flows together and makes one of the more cohesive statements of this year. That and the songs are so freakishly well done and are catchy as well, despite their interesting qualities. This is just gonna be classified as “real dang good” from now on.
2. Charlie Hilton – Palana
Usually known for fronting dream pop band Blouse, Charlie Hilton’s first solo pursuit is a journey into familiar territory, but pushes deeper into plusher textures, calling upon weightless synths that sufficiently cloud up the soundscape, while lone strings and horns wander their way around the mix. The biggest draw for me is Hilton’s voice, though, which reminds me of the late Trish Keenan of the band Broadcast. At certain times it feels as though Hilton is channelling Keenan from beyond, calling upon her great talent for guidance through the dreamy fog. Many Julia Holter comparisons to be drawn here as well. A half-drowsy, luscious layer of dream pop never hurt anyone, so give this a try.
3. El Guincho – Hiperasia
Inspired by the clamor of Madrid’s Chinatown, El Guincho traded in his sunny island vibes for a neon-draped futuristic pop outfit on his first album in six years, Hiperasia. An album functioning as a high speed advertisement for a reality that does not exist, Hiperasia is a hyperextension of a glitzy commercial world as seen on TV. The album is blasting to the brim with propulsive electronics that interact with Spanish-spoken & rapped lyrics that build upon this fantasy reality, touching upon methods of escape, the balances between our physical and digital lives, completing this vision of commercialism nicely. This album really doesn’t sound like anything else out there that I know of – the only thing coming close are some of the more forward-thinking beats from the UK grime scene. I can only imagine this ultra-globalized pop will become more of a thing in years to come, so get on the hype train now before it takes off. Also shout out to the main bruja herself Mala Rodríguez for the guest feature on “Comix.”
4. Kedr Livanskiy – January Sun EP
Hailing from Moscow, Kedr Livanskiy, AKA Yana Kedrina, has enraptured me like no other project this year with January Sun. Why now? Why Russian bedroom pop? For one, it arrived at the perfect time – during a winter that wasn’t particularly known for its coldness or snow accumulated, but it’s bleakness. This winter was harsh in a demoralizing way, not in a forceful way. Chilling synths whip like winds on tracks like “Razrushitelniy Krug (Destructive Cycle)” and “Sgoraet (Burning Down),” carrying minuscule amounts of snow, layering outer wear with unwanted moisture. The skies are steeled shut. There is no end in sight. At some points, the music is eerie and unsettling, as if you’re outside being swept up by the elements. However other times it feels as though you’re inside, like on closer “April,” with the only light being from a candle or two and a computer screen. The warm, homespun feel to the record makes any enclosure feel like a safe haven, however dingy it might be. And even though the winter has passed and I could still be moving towards more summer-centric records, January Sun keeps calling back to its icy abyss.
5. Kino Kimino – Bait Is For Sissies
For those thinking that good old-fashioned guitar music has truly gone out the window, please escort yourself out that same window you think it’s gone out of. Bait Is For Sissies is the best rock record that no one is talking about this year. Led by Kim Talon and backed up by Sonic Youth members Lee Ranaldo & Steve Shelley, Bait succeeds by avoiding potholes that other rock bands are so prone to falling into during this decade. Nowhere is the facade of lo-fi, lackadaisical songwriting, and the feeling of sweaty try-hardness from the other side of the coin is absent as well. It’s a naturally flowing and honest record that works well by not doing too much, but letting the natural skill and intelligence of the performers do that talking.
6. Lionlimb – Shoo
Previously known for being Angel Olsen’s backing band, Lionlimb struck out on their own for a bit to make a name for themselves and create some deliciously groovy indie rock. Shoo, their debut album, is proof that they succeeded. There are plenty of dime a dozen, disaffected dude indie rock bands, but something about Lionlimb’s approach to the formula of laid back, retro-influenced jams really makes them stick out for me. There are just so many great layers to the sound; from the keyboards & piano, the horns, the knockout hooks, the sick drum fills, the guitar solos… I could go on, but I digress. Sounds like there’s a lot more love put in this record, it’s not just some dudes dicking around in a studio. They’re in it to win it.
7. Lycus – Chasms
With four tracks, three of which are over 10 minutes, Lycus lay down some of the heaviest, most atmospheric “guitar music” I’ve heard thus far in 2016. The best elements of doom metal records are here. The guitars are as slow-moving as ever, layering tracks of thick sludge across the vast landscape this record inhabits until it feels like you’re enveloped in some kind of graveyard swamp, with guts and mud and bones and death piling on top of you. The drumming jumps from appropriate accompaniment, like driving march patterns and skillful fills, to total insanity blast beats that make your skull rattle. Two vocal styles show up here as well, one that sounds more like a droning, hooded monk and one that’s more of a slow motion death metal growl, telling tales of pagan lore from within the din. But the unique moments here are what does it for me, like occasional patches of strings, or the angelic choir vocals, or the bright glints of harmony strewn about among the chaos. If you’re looking for a metal album that will immerse you in a universe of slow-burning anguish, consider this.
8. Mikael Seifu – Zelalem EP
Unfortunately “world music” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s always to try out new things, right? Mikael Seifu’s Zelalem EP is an intriguing patch of traditional Ethiopian melodies, instrumentation and ethos fed through a modern electronic lens. Songs range from intoxicatingly hypnotic like “The Solpsist” t0 invigorating with “How To Save A Life (Vector Of Eternity) and “Vector Of Light.” It’s a psychedelic & spiritual journey, one unlike any other record I’ve heard. It’s very exciting to hear a new voice that sounds like nothing else going at the moment, so keep an eye out for this guy in the future.
9. NZCA/Lines – Infinite Summer
There’s nothing completely revolutionary here, but Infinite Summer is undeniably one of the best synth pop records I’ve heard in a long time. A great variety of tones and textures work in tandem here, all arranged in interesting and innovative patterns on each track, making the whole album snap together nicely. The synths can vary from a swaying wash, to buoyant blasts of arena-filling energy, to complex, arpeggiated algorithms. All these types manage to fit the whole style of the album without sounding out of place. The 80s definitely called NZCA/Lines and asked for their pop stylings back, but Lines spin these retro synths into something futuristic sounding to match the dystopian concept storyline the album follows. I’ve been returning back to this album all year long over more high-profile releases, so I urge you to check it out if you’re looking for something delightfully pop-minded.
10. Olga Bell – Tempo
This is a super fun electronic pop record that sure needs some more ears on it. It’s definitely leaning towards some heady-leaning electronic vibes rather than accessible ones, but it still bangs and easy to get deep to. It’s mad groovy, danceable and has some smile-inducing moments, whether it be the infectious grooves or hearing Bell laugh in the background of some tracks. Don’t you think some things are too dang serious sometimes? Don’t you want a totally unabashed fun-time album that won’t make you want to gouge your eyes out with spoons, but rather get real sweaty on the dance floor, smiling through the heat and pain of everyday life? Well slap this one on, DUDE!
11. Sarah Neufeld – The Ridge
If the world were under my control, I’d make music as a whole have more strings in it. In my world, nothing is better than a good ole rusty violin solo, or a sweet violin aria, or a lamenting dirge. Now this world we’re in: if you take the thought of a violin, the wonderful, classic instrument that it is, and put it into a modern, dynamic, action-packed world, it would be perceived as something foolish, something silly, something naive. But nah, check this album out. Sarah Neufeld narrates a gripping “modern-classical” record powered by my favorite stringed instrument, along with the help of her voice, percussion and a bit of other added instrumentation. The constant voice of the violin is like following a character through a movie, with all the other accompanying voices being the supporting cast, guiding the character through its journey. And what a journey it is. The first and last tracks on here are some of my favorite musical moments this year has to offer yet, allowing this album to be one that I always have to listen to start to finish. Hopefully this will get your taste for violin on the map as well.
12. Troller – Graphic
I don’t want to write an entire blurb on this band about other bands, but I have to dip into it occasionally here. Troller is what I would think of if someone were to put Beach House and TRUST-level darkwave into a mashup machine. Similar vocal timbres and slow and dreamy song layouts are the easy Beach House comparisons to make, where the instrumentals are dark and pulsing, much like Trust. So there we go. Other than that, this record is peppered with unsettling ambient interludes that organize the album nicely, allowing the listener to get into the mood of something real slimy, yet beautiful. At the very least, listen for the crown jewel “Storm Maker.”
13. Ytamo – Mi Wo
Mi Wo starts off with a simple, vibrating bell pattern. You can hear other sounds hiding in the floorboards after a bit of this, shuffling around in anticipation while the pattern continues on. Eventually all the sounds reveal themselves in a messy, unprepared fashion, each personality putting on a miniature show for the listener all at once. Things don’t seem to fit right, but all the sounds seem to be so happy to meet you. Over the eight tracks of Mi Wo, you help all these precious sounds get to know each other better and find each of their right places in the universe.
The first half finds them still experimenting: horns tooting at different angles, looking for the right position and timing, while bubbling synths try and get in line to get the groove just right. Finding a time to let other sounds shine is also an important part of the process. It’s a learning experience for the sounds, as well as the listener, trying to organize all the stimuli occurring around you. By the second half, most of everything has clicked into place. The little sounds have established their routines and are now putting on a delightful show for you. They’ve aligned into perfect little pop songs, complementing each other wonderfully. But you have to realize – this is only for you, not anyone else. The sounds are here for you, since you did so much for them – putting them in their favorite spots and introducing them to all their best friends. All you need to do is enjoy and let them do what they were made to do. It’s a self-contained, celebration of all that you do in life that you can revisit time and time again, much like a picture of a loved one or childhood memento.
SOME OTHER ONES YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE GOTTEN TO YET:
- Amnesia Scanner – AS
- Aoife O’Donovan – In The Magic Hour
- Astronoid – Air
- Esmé Patterson – We Were Wild
- Huerco S. – For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
- Lovespeake – DNA
- Lucy Dacus – No Burden
- Margaret Glaspy – Emotions & Math
- Maria Usbeck – Amparo
- Mt. Si – Limits
- Perturbator – The Uncanney Valley
- Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
- Solar Bears – Advancement
- William Tyler – Modern Country