We’re at the halfway mark of 2016, and it has already proven to be one of the most surprising years for music in recent memory.
In the first six months we’ve heard long-awaited releases from Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna and David Bowie, and been surprised by offerings from Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar. Musicians like The 1975, Ariana Grande and M83 all finally emerged from the studio with different takes on the pop landscape.
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1. “Juke Jam” feat. Justin Bieber & Towkio - “Coloring Book” - Chance The Rapper
2. “Wolves” feat. Vic Mensa and Sia - “The Life of Pablo” - Kanye West
3. “In Bloom” - “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” - Sturgill Simpson
4. “Paris” - “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it” - The 1975
5. “Two Deliverances” - “Goodness” - The Hotelier
6. “Open Casket” - “Standards” - Into It. Over It.
7. “Miyazaki” - “Ology” - Gallant
8. “Love Me Like That” feat. Carley Rae Jepsen - “55” - The Knocks
9. “All Night” - “Lemonade” - Beyoncé
10. “Hiding In The Melody” - “Pennied Days” - Night Moves
So much interesting music means it’s easy to miss some top-notch stuff. So, instead of doing a regular “best-of-the-year-so-far list,” I decided to look at some lesser-known works — music that doesn’t get much radio play, but represents the best of the year.
My only selection criteria was the albums had to be released in the past six months, and none could be featured in my “Clarke’s album of the week” selections.
BJ The Chicago Kid — “In My Mind”
It’s entirely fitting that Bryan Sledge (better known as BJ The Chicago Kid) released his major-label debut on Motown Records, since Sledge is one of the best contemporary examples of why soul is an ageless genre.
The album features classic Motown vibes on songs like “Turnin’ Me Up,” adds some hip-hop with Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. on “The New Cupid” and “The Resume,” and taps into gospel on “Shine.”
In short, there’s a flavor for every palate.
James Blake — “The Colour in Anything”
James Blake works in grays.
He has a voice not dissimilar to Sam Cooke’s, but Blake takes his soul leanings and runs them through synths and electronic music, instead of gospel or funk. The result is music that can be icy and skeletal at times, but is the perfect match to Blake’s ghostly vocals. “The Colour in Anything” is Blake’s best album yet, perfect headphone music for cloudy days or nights in.
Like a glacier, it moves slow, but makes an indelible mark on the listener.
Car Seat Headrest — “Teens of Denial”
Will Toledo, who records under the name Car Seat Headrest, is one of those enormously talented artists that the world may not have ever heard if not for the internet. He’s been recording for four years and posting albums online, and his label debut displays a razor-sharp indie pop sensibility.
Toledo joins musicians like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Conor Oberst, all with untraditional voices boosted by novelistic songwriting. The sheer amount of observations packed into these songs is astounding, made all the better by the fact that the music rocks.
“Teens of Denial” sounds like the first step of a talent with limitless potential.
Diarrhea Planet — “Turn to Gold”
One of the oddest band names in recent memory, Diarrhea Planet’s “Turn to Gold” is a no-frills, no-filler rock record.
These guys tap into the guitar rock of Bruce Springsteen, The Replacements and T. Rex and in the process create one of the best albums for blasting out of car windows. The lyrics are, at times, clever and heartfelt, and simple enough to shout.
After all, that’s how rock music started.
dvsn — “Sept. 5th”
Some music just sounds better in the dark.
The duo of Paul Jefferies and Daniel Daley, who record under the name dvsn, make just that kind of music. Almost all the songs on “Sept. 5th” are R&B slow jams, with beats that skitter and buzz like neon lights.
Together, the tracks create layers of atmosphere, not unlike the work of The Weeknd. And just like him, dvsn seem obsessed with the deeds of the dark. With this album, they’ve made a soundtrack for the rest of us.
The Hotelier — “Goodness”
You probably have never heard of Massachusetts-based The Hotelier, but that should change immediately, because they’ve made the best rock album of the year-so-far.
“Goodness” is a relationship record, and on its 13 songs track a relationship from the sunny early days to bittersweet ending. There are hooks layered into hooks in the songs, and each song manages to sound familiar, even though you’re hearing it for the first time. But it’s the warmth of the lyrics and musical tones that make it something special.
Into It. Over It. - “Standards”
There is never a shortage of albums about hitting a milestone age and trying to find one’s footing. Evan Weiss, who makes music under the name Into It. Over It., adds to that canon by tackling entrance into his 30s with humor and grace.
Weiss is a keen observer of both those around him, and his own personal growth. You can hear it in lyrics from album opener “Open Casket” - “My friends from where I’m from are all a wreck” to “And then there’s me, as always, just a mess/Just like always, I’m just a mess.”Instantly relatable, and honestly said. And that’s just the first song.
Pinegrove — “Cardinal”
Is the music of Pinegrove punk? Is it folk rock? Some kind of alt-country? Yes, yes and yes.
One of the most unique albums of the year is a note-perfect example of musical alchemy done right. By so effortlessly blending folk-style acoustics guitar with modern sensibilities, songwriter Evan Stephens Hall has made music that can be embraced by all. It’s one of the most generous musical gestures of the year.
Pity Sex — “White Hot Moon”
Another ridiculous band name, but don’t let the silliness cause you to ignore one of the year’s best rock albums.
The Michigan-based group makes music the same way my bloody valentine and The Cure did — with lots of reverb and fuzzy guitars. But what makes “White Hot Moon” so special is the beauty the courses through the music. The album is awash in romance, and is home to several contenders for best song to end a high school dance.
Corinne Bailey Rae — “The Heart Speaks in Whispers”
We were given the year’s best autumnal album in the spring, but Corinne Bailey’s Rae third album sounds heavenly all the time.
In the vein of Marvin Gaye, Rae blends jazz and soul together and creates moments of startling warmth and loveliness. “Do You Ever Think of Me?” could easily have come from the era of Sarah Vaughn, and “Been to the Moon” is one of the year’s best love songs.
Clarke Reader’s column on how music connects to our lives appears every other week. A community editor with Colorado Community Media, he was definitely a teen of denial. Check out his music blog at calmacil20.blogspot.com. And share your favorite music of the year so far at email@example.com.
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