For an avid music consumer, these year-end lists can be both exciting and stressful — exciting in that you often hear of albums you’ve yet to discover and stressful because you blew it by not getting to those tunes yet and now you have a whole lot to absorb. Phew, don’t sweat it y’all. This exercise is admittedly more cathartic for the person making the list than anyone else, so thanks for indulging us again this year. Hope you guys pick up a few new loves for yourself.
Without further adieu, here are our writers’ favorite releases — from local acts and beyond — of 2016. And here’s to more where that came from next year.
Slow Runner, New Monsters
In a year with a lot sadness and frustration, the return of Slow Runner was a welcome salve. Michael Flynn and Josh Kaler have long proven to be shrewdly adept at tugging at the heart strings with their swirling, subtly adventurous brand of pop-rock, and their time apart seems to only have emboldened their best tendencies. While the record leans a bit more traditional than their last effort Damage Points — as if Flynn got all of his electronic, more cerebrally-minded creativity on his 2014 solo effort — New Monsters proves that these guys can still produce nostalgic longing with careful sensitivity and gorgeous, synth-assisted melodies.
Kanye West, The Life of Pablo
Mr. West has had a crazy year, and the fact that he digs Donald Trump and supports Bill Cosby is enough to send me into swearing fits, but damn it if The Life of Pablo isn’t a great album. Show-stopping moments abound thanks to brilliant guest features from the likes of Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, The Weeknd, Chris Brown, and more, but it’s still the irascible producer and emcee himself who brings this record to life. The would-be closing trio of “FML,” “Real Friends,” and “Wolves” are some of the rapper’s most affecting and honest work yet as he dives deep into his own psychoses. As he raps on “Feedback,” “name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
Frank Ocean, Blonde
Of the many excellent records of 2016, Frank Ocean’s Blonde is the one I wanted to spend the most time alone with. This is a record that is pop and R&B in its most interior spaces, with drums kicking in only half the time as Ocean tests the full limits of his imitable croon and 21st-century Brian Wilson predilections.
TOBACCO, Sweatbox Dynasty
There’s a warm hiss to every track on Sweatbox Dynasty. Among all the warped synths and heavily processed vocals that don’t sound like vocals is the type of grungy dance music that you can flail awkwardly to in your living room. It’s ugly, but fun. Compressed, but sweeping. Basically, Sweatbox Dynasty is a hot, sticky mess of an album that you can feel pumping as it plays.
Chaquis Maliq, Resilience Eludes Death
I came across Chaquis Maliq by chance one day while she was performing in Marion Square. From what I remember, she took the stage with only a guitar and a makeshift kickdrum to back herself up. I was on assignment downtown, but something about Maliq grabbed my attention enough that I took a seat at the foot of the stage and just listened. I couldn’t stay long that day, but her soulfulness, equal parts pain and sweetness, stuck with me.
The Sword, Lowcountry
It’s rare that a metal band can pull off the “five-man acoustical jam” formula without sounding hokey. So when I heard that The Sword was releasing a stripped-down version of their 2015 album High Country, I had less than high expectations. But they managed to pull it off. All the lyrics about witches, wizards, and dreamthieves somehow hold up in what sounds like a mystical front porch jam session.
Halcyon Fields, Bubble Boy EP
Columbia needed a band like detail-obsessed space rockers Halcyon Fields. Their debut EP shows the band doing what they’re good at: playing furious, layered, and melodic rock with a lo-fi aesthetic. Throughout the five tracks, they show their penchant for keyboard voice-leading, enough tempo changes to make Rush say, “Damn,” and riffs, riffs, and riffs. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of greater things for Halcyon.
Show Me the Body, Body War
Body War is unpleasant, political, and violent. And I loved every second of it. It’s the kind of record that makes you want to write your congressman — just to tell him how much of tool he is. Sonically, the album’s a mutt. SMTB use garage rock fuzz bass as the anchor, choppy and sharp banjo riffs, and old-school rap lyrical delivery to create one of the most creative things I’ve heard in a while. It may not be album of the year, but it’s absolutely the most refreshing and cathartic record I spun (again and again) in 2016. Plus, they’re a hardcore band on a hip-hop label. That’s the objective definition of cool.
Aesop Rock, The Impossible Kid
Dear Aesop, We missed you. Don’t leave us again for four years, especially if you’re going to keep making rap music like this. You’ve always increased the public’s vocabulary exponentially with your dense lyricism, but you’ve never been this personal before. Your songs find equal amounts of smiles and heartache, like “Kirby,” in which you dedicate a song to your cat and how she helps you cope with depression. “Dorks” and “Supercell” both show us how you’ve alienated yourself from everyone around you, but then you still find time to make one of the most fun songs of the year with “TUFF.” Keep doing what you’re doing, Aes. We appreciate the honesty. God knows we won’t get it from Kanye.
Soda City Riot, The First EP
Everyone around me is sick of hearing about the awesomeness that is Columbia’s Soda City Riot, but I can’t stop talking about them or listening to their debut release. What we’ve got here is three songs in eight or so minutes, a platter of classic, early-’80s-style punk with blinding speed, tight riffs, gang-vocals, and attitude to spare. And talk about content; there may not have been any better political broadside this year, whether it’s local or national. “Burn This City” takes on the devastation and frustration of the Columbia flooding, “Yachts & Wars” flips the bird at the wealthy and powerful, and “Structure Fuck” takes aim at televangelists. Brutal, and brutally honest.
A glowing, gorgeous collection of blissfully melodic songs, tied together by the vocal harmonies of three incredible singers: kd lang, Neko Case, and Laura Veirs. That the voices and songs are beautifully done shouldn’t be a surprise. All three of these performers have done similar work on their respective solo albums. What’s amazing is how well their three styles mesh: lang’s impossibly sensual voice and dramatic delivery mixes perfectly with Case’s stark, haunting wail and Veirs’ quieter, more emotional tone. Just listen to the shimmering, mesmerizing “Blue Fires” and be amazed.
Adia Victoria, Beyond The Bloodhounds
Kicking off with a delightfully fractured a capella version of Ray Charles’ “Lonely Avenue,” Adia Victoria’s debut album is a tour de force, moving from the propulsive, primal garage rock of “Dead Eyes” to the grimy stomp of “Stuck in the South” to the ethereal dream-pop of “Mortimer’s Blues.” The atmosphere can go from hypnotically hazy to stripped-down and primal in a heartbeat, and Victoria’s voice is a wonder; she can be alternately childlike and fierce, and she’s just as comfortable playing with a song’s melody, pushing and pulling at its edges, as she is losing herself in the music.
Aubrie Sellers, New City Blues
In a Nashville not known for being particularly kind to its female country artists, Sellers chose the difficult path on nearly every option she could take on her debut disc — going the indie-label route instead of using her mom’s (award-winning vocalist Lee Ann Womack) connections for a bigger deal; opening on multiple small venue tours throughout the year; and embracing the Americana genre, instead of playing the game of wooing mainstream radio. What she has to show for her 2016 is the best country album of this year, and the best debut of the decade.
Dex Romweber, Carrboro
For nearly three decades Romweber has been a fixture on the indie-rock scene of the Carolinas. With Carrboro, his first solo album in a decade, the rockabilly roots-rocker embraces the influences that have led him to be called everything from demented to visionary as he put splinters in the stages of every rock club along I-95. This is the musical testament of an artist in his fifties continuing to find inspiration in the obscurities, from Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Tomorrow’s Taking My Baby Away,” with the vocal weariness that five decades can bring.
Young Mister, Young Mister
For as young a singer-songwriter as Steven Fiore is, the years spent developing his talent across vast genres of music has served him well on the debut of his new rock project, Young Mister. Drawing upon his six years spent writing for Universal Music Publishing, Fiore has an ear for melody, as apparent in the album’s ability to, from song to song, jump forward decades at a time. After the first couple of songs echo the best of ELO, you’re hit with the best song the Shins’ James Mercer never wrote.
Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution
It’s an album unlike anything I’ve ever heard. There’s some jazz in it, some funk, some math rock, and still something indefinable, yet it’s wholly cohesive. Spalding’s virtuosic bass playing is matched by her soaring vocals, and her lyrics are thought-provoking treasures to be unearthed and examined. Pushing the limits of accessibility with complex arrangements, harmonies, and meters, but still formatted with a pop song mentality in the verse-chorus-verse-chorus layout. At times it rocks, at times it’s soft and beautiful, and other times it’s a complete funk-out. But always, it’s jam-packed with heart and soul.
Lera Lynn, Resistor
Singer-songwriter Lera Lynn broke onto the scene with the songs she wrote for the first season of True Detective. Think about that and get a quick idea of the mood her music evokes. She’s grown even more as an artist with this new album. Americana chord progressions altered just enough to make it interesting but not so much as to alienate the casual listener. The sparse production perfectly complements the intimate nature of the songs, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes fuming with anger. The haunting, earworm melodies last long after the album is over. It is dark. It is deep. It is a pit that is lovely to get stuck in.
Thomas Kenney, Sleep Inertia
As the title suggests, this is, at times, sleepy jazz. But it is beautiful — bottom line. Reminiscent of Bill Frisell, guitarist Thomas Kenney’s debut album is moody and layered with textures. It’s a trio album featuring Kenney with Ron Wiltrout on drums and Christian Wood on bass, though Mike Quinn does appear on saxophone for a fun little ditty entitled, “All the Pretty Women.” The sounds go from serene, beachside relaxation to noisy and suddenly progressive riffs, and all the compositions are written by Kenney and cater to his clean, decisive, and melodic playing.
Band of Horses, Why Are You OK
There was a point in time a few years back where the only albums I could listen to were Band of Horses’ Cease to Begin and Infinite Arms. BOH’s mixture of indie-rock sensibilities, folk-influenced guitars, killer harmonies, and Ben Bridwell’s intensely honest lyricism hooks me everytime, and I was excited when their fifth album Why Are You OK signaled a return to form. I’m still stoked on the Pink Floyd-esque opener “Dull Times/The Moon,” the Southern-rock twanger “Throw My Mess,” and probably my favorite set of lyrics the band has put out on “Barrel House.”
Death Grips, Bottomless Pit
Since my introduction to industrial, experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips with their 2012 studio debut The Money Store, I haven’t been able to get enough of their uber-abrasive, unapologetically intense projects. Their most recent effort Bottomless Pit reminded me of why I fell in love with this group in the first place. The group pairs crazy-good production with genre-bending song structures, meshing hardcore punk, noise, post-punk, and rap into an irresistible hellhole of utter chaos. Favorite tracks are “Giving Bad People Good Ideas,” “Hot Head,” “Eh,” “BB Poison,” and “Ring a Bell.”
Heyrocco, Waiting on Cool
This year, Heyrocco took the pop-grunge sound from their debut album Teenage Movie Soundtrack and made it a little more rough around the edges while still amping up the earcandy hooks. Their EP Waiting on Cool feels like an homage to Pavement and old-school Weezer, but we still get Heyrocco’s confessional lyrics on the joys and despairs of being young, in love, drunk, and everything in between. Definitely a great summer album. I’ve been a fan of the group since the Comfort days, and I have to say the new cut “Perfect World” is probably my favorite track of theirs to date.
KELLY RAE SMITH
Zero is a five-song EP that clocks in at just under 16 minutes, but the nostalgic rock ‘n’ roll is strong, and lasting, with this one. INDIANOLA formed last year and comprises some of the who’s who of Charleston’s Shrimp Records: frontman Owen Beverly (formerly of French Camp), Michael Trent (Shovels & Rope), Jack Burg (PunksNSnakes), and Andy Dixon. Together they channel Roy Orbison from the get-go, in addition to Buddy Holly, the Ramones, Sun Records, and more, with harmonized, old-school ballads and the kind of rock ‘n’ roll that makes me wanna come out of my skin. Favorite track: “Another Thing Coming.”
Joseph Coker, After the Volcano
Charleston’s Joseph Coker is good at a lot of stuff — I know that. Comedy, hosting a podcast, teaching Jiu Jitsu to kids. I was even aware that he played a mean slide guitar. But nothing could have prepared me for how great he is at writing, arranging, and performing music. Under one minute into “Pompeii,” the violin and piano-led leadoff track on his debut EP, and I was floored. Dead. And it doesn’t stop there — every song showcases Coker’s vocal talents in both quiet and soaring moments as well as his ability to create incredibly catchy and beautifully layered compositions. Spotify indicates I’ve been obsessed this year, and I’d be remiss to disagree. Favorite track: “Pompeii.”
The Explorers Club, Together
When I first discovered one-time Charleston band the Explorers Club, it was after their first heyday had come and gone, and they’d broken up. I had even, unbeknownst to me, befriended a couple of old members. A few months later, a Scottish friend and fellow Beach Boys obsessive urged me to have a listen. Of course, I fell for the band’s 1960s-style melodies, instrumentation, hooks, and harmonies and mourned the fact that I’d missed out on experiencing my new favorite band live. That was over four years ago. Luckily for us all, Explorers Club founder Jason Brewer, now a Nashvillian, brought the group back to life this year with the immaculate LP, Together. Armed with a partly new crew and a different lease on life (Brewer is married with a daughter now), he created some his best work yet. Together is full of the kind of sunshine-inspired sounds that made the band soar before, and the arrangements as always are clearly inspired by the king of complex and heavenly harmonies, Brian Wilson. There are even a few members of Wilson’s band (a.k.a. some of the best musicians in the business) who worked on the record, and Wilson himself has given the band a thumb’s up. If that’s not evidence of the bliss that awaits within this collection and the future of the Explorers Club, I don’t know what is. Favorite track: “Together.”
Ray LaMontagne, Ouroboros
Jim James may be the best thing to ever happen to Ray LaMontagne. The New England bard has been able to do whatever he wants since the success of 2004’s Trouble, and he’s consistently shined, but by injecting the My Morning Jacket mystical sauce into his tremoring baritone and slow-build symphonic compositions, he’s created an opus that’s modern soul here, psychedelic trip there, and groovy just about everywhere.
Hammock, Everything and Nothing
No other band has changed the trajectory of my musical taste over the last five years than Hammock. When a coworker first gave me a burned disc of their music, I popped in it on a dark drive home and remained in my driveway for an extra ten minutes, melting into my seat. With Everything and Nothing, the Nashville electro-instrumental duo have taken epic ambiance to the next level of greatness. This album will uplift your spirit, relax your soul and take you away to another universe of peace and wonder—something that’s come in very useful in the final months of 2016.
Marcus King Band, Marcus King Band
There’s a reason this 20-year-old whiz kid out of Greenville has Derek Trucks lending slide guitar to his sophomore release, and that Warren Haynes has taken him under his wing. Like Trucks before him, the kid is a prodigy who can wail without pause on a six-string. Setting King apart though, even from his mentors, are his heartfelt lead vocals. He’s a total package. There’s virtually no doubt he’ll be on the main stage at Wanee festival within a few years, as the Allman Brother’s Southern soul torch passes seamlessly to this worthy keeper of the flame.