For the final ten days of June, I’ll be counting down the ten best albums that fell within my radar during the first half of 2016. Each day, I’ll reveal the next album on the list along with an informal review. This will lead to July 1st, a major release day for albums, when I’ll post an updated version of my Most Anticipated Albums of 2016 list. Enjoy!
While compiling my top ten albums, I recognized a heavy slant toward albums released in January and February. That said, there have been some great releases more recently that didn’t make this list primarily because I haven’t spent enough time with them yet. So I want to honor those albums, along with others that were quite good:
Architects, All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us
Aubrie Sellers, New City Blues
Brian Fallon, Painkillers
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
Craig Manning, A Way to Get Back Home
Direct Hit!, Wasted Mind
Dustin Kensrue, Thoughts That Float On a Different Blood
Into It. Over It., Standards
Jared Deck, Jared Deck
Jesca Hoop & Sam Beam, Love Letter for Fire
K. Michelle, More Issues than Vogue
Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered.
Lucius, Good Grief
musiq soulchild, Life on Earth
Nick Jonas, Last Year was Complicated
Pup, The Dream is Over
Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Steven Curtis Chapman, Worship and Believe
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Vince Gill, Down To My Last Bad Habit
Weezer, The White Album
#1: Dissonants by Hands Like Houses
Released February 26 by Rise Records
There’s an alternate reality where I never heard this record. Change one tiny decision in my past and I likely would’ve never heard Dissonants, the third LP from Australian post-hardcore unit Hands Like Houses. I’ve written about this band before, in my 2014 piece Genres as Colors, where I celebrated how well they’d reinterpreted their own songs from post-hardcore to soft-rock on the aptly titled Reimagine EP. Based on this impressive display of versatility, I was bent on seeing Hands Like Houses follow up 2013’s Unimagine with a multi-genre set showing off the skills I now knew the band possessed. Lead single (and what would be the album’s opening track) “I Am” was revealed in March of 2015, eleven whole months ahead of Dissonants, and while I liked the song, it was a merely a minor pleasure, not terrifically impressive. As the months passed, anticipation faded. This past January, I chose to leave the imminent release off my “Most Anticipated of 2016” list. When reviews of the album began popping up, though albeit largely positive, they confirmed the band had done the opposite of what I’d hoped for: according to critics, Hands Like Houses had made a consistent album, with twelve songs squarely fitting into the post-hardcore-tinged alt-rock mold. Disappointed, I didn’t bother to listen to the album for myself. It took a long time for me to realize that I was breaking one of my own rules for music-listening: don’t enter in with preconceived notions of what an album “should” sound like, but instead try to understand what an artist has created and what he/she/they were trying to accomplish. In March, while shopping on Amazon, I happened across Dissonants and nonchalantly listened to the song samples. Surprisingly pleased by what I heard, I threw the CD in my shopping cart and had it shipped my way. If I hadn’t done this, it’s definitely possible that, to this day, I could have never heard what has become my favorite album of 2016 thus far.
Interestingly, Dissonants contains many elements I would normally hold against an album, not in its favor. Chiefly, I’m referring to the album’s sonic and lyrical consistency. This is a collection of back-to-back bangers, twelve nonstop rockers with only one song (“Momentary”) that comes close to flirting with the midtempo. If I were being cynical, (as is clearly so easy for me), I’d accuse the band of recording and releasing the single “I Am,” seeing that the song was successful and well-received, and crafting an album’s worth of knock-offs to imitate what worked so well with the single. If that was the game Hands Like Houses were playing, surely some producer or label exec would’ve stepped in to convince the band to pander even more desperately to their audience. What about the one super heavy song to wink at the band’s roots? How about a piano ballad to end the record, or at least a clean-cut power ballad that could easily be pushed to radio? None of that’s here. What Dissonants goes for, and quite frankly what it accomplishes better than anything I’ve witnessed before, is nailing a specific sound a dozen times over. By sticking to such a precise style–(I stand behind the aforementioned “post-hardcore-tinged alt-rock” but apologize for all the hyphens)–the band is able to present an album with an overarching tone that functions like a well-made film, the kind of movie that never exits the realm of “drama,” or one where each scene has a specific hue and lighting scheme (see: The Social Network or Whiplash). Concerning the lyrics, what could sadly be disregarded as a one-note discourse or a limited scope comes together as a whole to present a sophisticated, logical argument. What’s presented as a question in “I Am” is explored over the course of ten songs and brought to a conclusion on “Bloodlines,” with terrestrial analogies (ground/earth and sea/sky, predominantly) tying the entire affair together in novel-like fashion.
I’m tempted to dive deeper into the philosophical argument Dissonants builds throughout its lyrics, but what matters most at the end of the day is that these are some darn good songs. These choruses are so compelling, so melodic, so immediate, I’m even tempted to call this, of all things, the best pop record of the year. Call me crazy, but to counter my “cynical” idea of how these songs were written, hear my “idealistic” idea for how these songs came to be. Pretend that all these songs started out as simply words and melodies. Maybe there were some basic acoustic guitar chords or piano parts. Maybe the songs were a cappella. This is reductive, I know. But let’s place these song skeletons in front of a dozen people and ask the following questions: “What’s the meaning behind these songs?” “What are the emotions emitted by these lyrics?” “What mix of instruments would best represent these songs to the world?” “What style of playing would best color these songs to match their meanings and emotions?” After discussing these questions amongst themselves, the team collectively decides upon a dense mix of rock instruments and synths. This mix would utilize electric guitars for atmosphere and muscle rather than showing off with numerous solos or complicated riffs. The bass and drums would provide a sturdy, grooving backbone to the songs, occasionally hinting at breakdowns without ever going fully hardcore. The synths would be largely ambient but also ever-present, giving each song a different synth to evenly flavor the album without songs blending into one another. To pull it all together, the vocals would sit in the middle of the mix, not on top of it, marked by passionate performances where the singing selectively evolves into a quick scream. Use these decisions to place flesh and life atop your song skeletons, and there you have it: Dissonants.
As preposterous as this may sound, the results are the same. Also, I’ll tell you who those twelve people in the room are: vocalist and keyboardist Trenton Woodley, whose powerfully emotive range and Australian accent help him stand out from the pack; guitarists Matt Cooper and Alexander Pearson, who are talented and smart enough to keep the songs simple and never overplay their parts; drummer Matt Parkitny, who shines throughout; bassist Joe Tyrrell, who might be the most impressive player here, especially when his bass licks cut through the mix as on early favorite “New Romantics”; co-writers Beau Burchell (of Saosin), Caleb Shomo (of Beartooth), and Lynn Gunn (of PVRIS); co-writers and assisting engineers Mike Green, Erik Ron, and Blake Harnage (of Versa Emerge, who also co-wrote and produced PVRIS’ White Noise); and producer James Paul Wisner. Wisner has been gifting the scene with great albums for a long time; for some decade-old evidence, check out both of the criminally-overlooked Forever Changed albums as well as Lorene Drive’s Romantic Wealth and My American Heart’s Hiding Inside the Horrible Weather. What Wisner has produced here is, strangely, extremely similar to last year’s Bring Me the Horizon album, That’s the Spirit. When I ranked Spirit as my 13th favorite album of 2015, it seems this was only a foreshadowing, a precursor of how much I would love Dissonants, an album with extremely similar elements and execution, yet where a stronger sense of purpose helps the latter ascend beyond being merely a collection of very strong singles.
What Wisner has also helped Hands Like Houses do is make a modern-sounding and modern-feeling post-hardcore record that, alongside bands such as o’brother and I the Mighty, is re-contextualizing the genre for new generations. These powerful, memorable songs get better with each listen, synthesizing enough sub-genres of rock to charm fans from multiples crowds and scenes. “Bloodlines” have gang chants that could please any punk or hardcore fan. Gunn and Harnage did such a great job co-writing “Motion Sickness” that the song could easily fit on PVRIS’ record. “Colourblind” deserves to be a modern rock radio staple. “Degrees of Separation” suffers from having “too many cooks in the kitchen” in the best way possible, namely that it’s annoyingly catchy. And after months of analysis, I’ve come to the conclusion that, if only marginally, the album’s best track is “Stillwater,” which starts with some of the clearest, most crisp hi-hat recordings this side of Steely Dan’s Aja, leading to a heartbreaking chorus with the lyrics, “We built as only children know to build… How did we get so old and never notice? How did we gain the world and lose the moment?” As Hands Like Houses attempt to answer these questions, we should thank everyone involved for making a piece of art daring enough to package such difficult philosophical queries within something so sensually satisfying. Living in a generation where we all function based on immediate gratification while simultaneously longing for more, Hands Like Houses have done the best thing an artist can do: create a work that gratifies both in the short-term and the long-term.
“I am dissonant.”
Check out “I Am” on Youtube.
Read the review for album #2.