Hello February and hello readers, but I offer no “hellos” yet to 2017. (Not that I’m in the popular business of personifying years or anything.) For now–in fact, for the whole month of February–I’ll be reflecting back over 2016 and everything that happened in the worlds of music and film, as well as in my own life. Hopping back on the train that I rode last year with my 15 of ’15 series, I am starting today with the first installment of sixteen essential albums from 2016: music that captivated me when it was released and still has my attention today. Without any further ado…
16. Relativity by Archabald
There wasn’t a single independent album on my 15 of ’15 list, nor is there anything else this obscure on the remainder of the 16 of ’16. Nevertheless, this random rock band from Albuquerque, New Mexico fought and won for this #16 spot, beating out some very strong contenders (The 1975, Weezer, Kishi Bashi, Hiromi, Dawes, Craig David, American Football, and A Tribe Called Quest, if we’re being specific) with the debut LP Relativity. It’s not really fair that such a diverse list of artists had to go head-to-head with my a fresh, new band that plays my favorite music genre, but hey, that’s why these are “my” essential albums, right? By all means, if you like chamber pop and electronica, check out Kishi Bashi; if you like jazz and virtuoso keyboardists, check out Hiromi; if you like modern R&B and pop, check out Craig David. But if you like post-hardcore and indie-progressive rock, you must give Archabald a chance. The young band balances the best aspects of artists like Circa Survive and La Dispute, with a highly effective two-singer approach: a Cove Reber-like (see: Saosin) frontman leads the way but occasionally steps back for the keyboardist to present his poetic lyrics with a delivery that’s part singing, part screaming, part spoken word. Relativity didn’t click until the second listen, but when it clicked, I knew I’d found something special. The single “Cannibal Heart” and the opening one-two punch “Kyros” and “The Great Composer” are the album’s headbanging highlights, all three of which should function as deal-sealers for fans of the genre. But even if you don’t love heavier rock, take heart! The album saves its strongest, most affecting moments for the latter half, with softer, more ambient tracks like “Dissolution.” While the track-4 appearance of “The Glassy Sea”–a song comprised almost entirely of spoken word–might seem random (and maybe even desperate) at first, there’s redemption to be found on the album’s final two numbers, “Miss Leigh and Finding the Way” and “April 1902.” Don’t ask me what either of those titles mean, but the songs themselves find a perfect balance of the two vocalists in a really neat way, a model that I’m hoping is further explored on future releases. This is the sort of album that should, if there’s any justice in the world, get a band a record deal and widespread attention, but don’t wait around to give them a listen.
(My thanks go out to a user in a Chorus.fm forum thread, the guy named Lucas whose name is actually Ben, who wrote a post that turned me on to Archabald. He’s a stellar dude who, as far as internet relationships go, is becoming a good friend. And it’s all thanks to Relativity, so it’s all relative, I suppose.)
15. The Fall of Hearts by Katatonia
Moving from the most obscure album on my list to the newest album on my list, we arrive at Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts. I don’t mean new in the sense that John Legend’s Darkness and Light and J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only are new, though; I mean new in the sense that I didn’t know this album existed until January 2017. If I had released this list in December like the rest of the world, The Fall of Hearts would’ve been absent. Yet if I’d been listening to this album since it’s May 20, 2016 release, it would probably be much higher on my list. I’m kinda crazy about this album. Placing it at #15 is an act of restraint–an active measure against recency bias. And this is coming from someone who’s only marginally ever been a Katatonia “fan.” I’ve listened to two or three of the band’s albums in the past, and I think–I think–I’ve seen them live once. I happened across the Swedish band’s tenth album in one of my favorite avenues for music discovery: Amazon mp3’s $5 albums. After digging what I heard from the 30-second clips of a few songs, I wasn’t worried at all about risking five dollars on this purchase…and oh my!, how it did not disappoint. I was caught off guard by the absence of screaming from the 25-year-old death metal group, but much evolution has occurred in the Katatonia kamp, leading to this astounding late-career creation. In fleeting moments, the overall sound of this record sounds like a close cousin to modern rock radio, but the dynamics and showmanship displayed on every song truly places this music in a different class. The single (the single!) “Serein” has a key change halfway through the chorus hook that has never lost its flair, and the seven-minute-long opening track “Takeover” goes into a massive and memorable guitar solo in a thoroughly unexpected, off-timed fashion; these are but two examples of the sort of adventurous musicality Katatonia never lets up on across the album’s 67-minute duration. Included in this category are the singer’s inventive melodies and harmonies, although when I’ve tried to share my excitement about this album with friends, most have been put off by the singer’s voice. I, personally, like it, but my friends find that he sounds boring or that he truly sounds bored. I understand the sentiment, but it won’t dissuade me from being so ecstatic about the incredible progressive-metal that I so luckily bought for only five bucks.
14. To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere by Thrice
If you follow this blog and are surprised to see the #3 album from my midyear favorites drop down 11 spots, let alone an album by this author’s all-time favorite artist, well, “Hi, hello, I’m surprised, too.” There’s always a bias when it comes to me and Thrice. I’m wearing a Thrice scarf while I type this, and I couldn’t be happier that the band is back in business for the foreseeable future, with consistent new music to be expected on a regular basis. I’m fine with that, and I no longer need Thrice to record albums that change my life. If all I get from the rest of the band’s career is comfort food, I’m pretty sure I’ll find more contentment in their continued success and growing popularity rather than contentment in how I personally (selfishly?) feel about the music. When it comes to this, 2016’s To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere, I never expected a follow-up that could outdo 2011’s Major/Minor, which now stands as one of my favorite albums of all-time. I have such a love for that last record, I’m not sure if Thrice even can record an album that might compare to the lofty status it holds. So as good as this album still is, the last seven months have only made it more clear how TBEITBN is not Major/Minor. Again, that’s okay. But if you’d like to read all the glowing things I do have to say about this album, I happily invite you to read the midyear review I wrote in June.
13. The Dream is Over by PUP
One of my favorite stories to tell about any artist is a conversion story: conversion on my part. I absolutely love being able to say, “I used to hate this band, but now I love them.” When PUP re-released its self-titled debut in 2014, I immediately shrugged it off as “not my thing.” I can’t recall, when the follow-up premiered on NPR’s First Listen in mid-May, whether curiosity or recommendation drove me to give The Dream is Over a chance, but I did. PUP’s second chance almost didn’t last very long, either. I remember sitting at the dinner table, with my seat landing in the entryway to the kitchen, exactly where I’m sitting now to write this review, thinking to myself, “Do I care?” Two songs in, I was not impressed. The style was so brash, with a rough-around-the-edges sound to match. I had no idea at the time that PUP was working again with producer David Schiffman, who produced (along with music by many high-profile artists) that aforementioned Major/Minor album I’m so enamored with, but this just sounded bad. Thankfully, I’m not a quitter. Song by song, my heart softened. Yes, just as the LORD hardened the Pharaoh’s heart in the Book of Exodus, so PUP softened my heart in the month of May. By “Can’t Win,” the album’s catchiest song, inextricably couched 8/10 of the way into the album, I realized that I might be a fan after all. Cough, cough…well...maybe the second half of the album is just a lot better than the first half. By the time the somber, expertly crafted closer “Pine Point” had ended, I had to swallow the confession that I had nearly given up on an incredible album. How often must I learn the same lesson? How many times over the past decade has a beloved artist started as one I hated? And how many times have I thought I “hated” something only because, in fact, I didn’t understood it?! Lesson re-learned, I purchased The Dream is Over on release day and, later into the summer, it became a healthy obsession: an album that starts out as punk, ends up as reflective, yet slowly reveals it’s both punk and reflective for all ten songs. The band bounces back and forth between “happy” songs and “dark” songs with a tasteful dexterity, making the track list flow so effortlessly that the opening tracks “If This Tour Doesn’t Kill You, I Will” and “DVP” seem like one combined piece. Even as I write this, I can’t wait to explore the thrills of songs like “Sleep in the Heat” again. What other bands working today are so flippantly willing to play a guitar solo that goes out of key, yet somehow sounds brilliant? These tunes may be short and brash and unsuitable for grandparents, but they also transcend the punk genre with the size of the choruses and the passion that’s ever-present in all ten tracks. Not to mention, the gang vocals are so well-executed, they practically function as a fifth band member. While I still wouldn’t say there’s a song that better exemplifies the strengths of this album more than “Can’t Win,” there also isn’t a song I’d want to lose. Canada should feel proud for giving the world PUP, and if we have to wait another two or three years for a follow-up, The Dream is Over will continue to satisfy during the wait.
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