I can’t recall another year from this decade that has been this consistently good, across the board, among all genres in music. There may be a lot of depressing things happening in the world every way you look, but there is an abundance of goodness to be found in original music coming at us on a weekly basis. As with every year, there are plenty of albums that get overshadowed along the way for a variety of reasons, and in 2016 there are more than usual that I feel the need to call to your attention. We’re only 2/3 of the way through the calendar, but if I had a legitimate vote, I would nominate this year as the most impressive of the decade in music. Here are six albums from the first half of 2016 that may not have received much attention, but they absolutely deserve more.
Allan Kingdom – Northern Lights (released 1/6)
Hip-hop is perhaps the toughest genre to stand out in this year if you aren’t already an established name in the business. Over the last several months, the genre has seen headline-dominating efforts from the likes of Kanye West, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and many others. It has been a year with hovering giants (Lemonade, The Life of Pablo, Coloring Book) that loom large and take up the majority of the discussion. This, combined with being released in the first week of the year, has caused Allan Kingdom’s Northern Lights to unfortunately be tucked in the back of the pantry. Allan Kyariga, the Canadian-born rapper, turned just 22 on the same day his fourth mixtape was released, and it shows off some considerable range and long strides to immediately call attention to his future. Tracks such as “The Ride”, “Fables”, and “Hypocrite” still operate on regular rotation on my personal player for the year, and overall this record inches him closer to an artist to be reckoned with in the years to come.
Florist – The Birds Outside Sang (released 1/29)
With a direct vocal styling that is painted like a mix between Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell and Frankie Cosmos’ Greta Kline, Emily Sprague conveys an achingly honest and minimal portrait focusing on appreciating the smaller moments in life on Florist’s debut, The Birds Outside Sang. Although you can find evidence on this very website (see Rob Patrick’s glowing review from earlier this year) that we have not overlooked this quietly amazing record, it has most assuredly not received the kind of recognition on a wider scale that is deserves. If there is an audience and critical acclaim for the aforementioned Frankie Cosmos, then Sprague’s project should be seeing the same if we live in a fair universe. This album is the skeletal culmination of an extensive recovery following a life threatening bicycle wreck two years prior that left Sprague with a broken neck and arm. The end result is a set of simple, introspective songs from an artist forcing herself to look at the minute details that we’re all guilty of taking for granted. Don’t sleep on this one.
Matt Kivel – Janus (released 2/5)
Now three albums in, it’s hard not to immediately think of Cass McCombs as a major influence when listening to the work of Matt Kivel. Though he is also an artist with specific qualities all his own, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Kivel had toured with McCombs before, or that he happened to work with him at some point. He takes all of the great hushed qualities of the great songwriter’s style and paints portraits from his thoughts, which so often come back to the theme of mortality and inevitably facing it. What makes Janus his most effective record to date is the feeling of unpredictability it possesses that his first two did not necessarily have, at least on a sonic level. Working with Alasdair Roberts on the producing end, Kivel add’s counteractive moments of chaotic surprise to his calmed vocals. There are hidden spurts of explosive sounds lurking around any corner on the album, and it makes it one of the more rewarding and overshadowed folk collections of the year.
Operators – Blue Wave (released 4/1)
There was a moment on the second Handsome Furs album where Dan Boeckner peaked into the exploration of a dark underworld. I’m talking about the semi-gruesome and bleak-but-shrill electric track, “I’m Confused”, which came complete with an undead-themed music video where his bandmate and then wife Alexei Perry ran frantically away from a virus infected zombie version of Boeckner, first at a house party and then throughout the streets of a neighborhood. There was a dangerous, hazy underworld vibe to the track, but Boeckner wouldn’t really go near that specific type of territory in any of his projects…until now. On his first full-length record with Operators, Blue Wave, the entire set fully explores what it would be like if he expanded on that exact underworld setting. The synths are prominent, explosive, and simultaneously of the 80’s and right now. Boeckner has already amassed a prolific career that feature a ton of impressive songs in several projects, and to say that Blue Wave tracks like “Cold Light”, “Nobody”, and “Space Needle” stack up with the best of anything he’s done, is a major statement. Here’s another record, and band, that I think our editor, Rob Patrick, would agree need a lot more exposure than what we’re currently seeing them receive. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the recent announcement of the recent reunion of Boeckner’s most successful project, Wolf Parade, but Operators have every opportunity to be as good or even better.
David Bazan – Blanco (released 5/13)
During the height of his time with the indie darling group, Pedro The Lion, head songwriter David Bazan released a full-length album of electro-driven tunes under the moniker, Headphones, in 2005. A little over a year later, Pedro The Lion announced their breakup, and Bazan went on to release music as a solo act, which he continues to do to this day. Although we have still never had the chance to hear another Headphones outing, there are plenty of aspects to his new record, Blanco, that would satisfy those craving more from him in that vein. Heavy synth focused tracks like “Oblivion” and “With You” are among his most energetic tracks ever, and his storytelling talents sound revived on the powerful closing tune, “Little Motor”. It seems that Bazan has been mostly forgotten out in the mainstream since Pedro The Lion saw its demise, but it appears that he is more comfortable with that reality. Blanco is arguably his finest hour, and a nice reminder that he remains one of the more resilient songwriters among the mid-late 90’s class of Jade Tree artists like The Promise Ring, Joan of Arc, Owls, Alkaline Trio, and others.
Mock Orange – Put The Kid On The Sleepy Horse (released 5/20)
Emerging at a time in the late 90’s when their contemporaries (The Dismemberment Plan, Pinback, The Promise Ring) were striking fire to jumpstart their careers, Indiana’s Mock Orange stood there as prolific as the rest of the pack, yet never saw the type of success that so many others did during that span. That didn’t stop them from releasing a consistent string of albums, and they remain as hard working as ever to this day, outlasting many of the alums of that era. Put The Kid On The Sleepy Horse is a well polished pop-rock record, bringing the thought to one’s mind that a double-bill tour with Maritime would be an ideal pairing. There’s a ton of life injected into the kinetic hooks of tracks like “Nine Times” and “Too Good Your Dreams Don’t Come True”. I’ve only been aware of the band for a short period of time (big thanks to my buddy Bob Mathison for turning me on to Sleepy Horse), but they have the type of sound and an origin story that helped me feel instantly connected, like I’ve been familiar with them since my teenage years. I’m not only adding the album to this list of overlooked material, but it must be said that as a band entirely, Mock Orange is one that has more than done their part in gaining more recognition.