The Nowhere Bros Albums of 2016 countdown is happening daily over on our facebook page – Sam & I are posting our 30 favourite albums of the year each day in December. Here are my first ten picks.
#30 – D.R.A.M. – Big Baby D.R.A.M.
The debut album by Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, aka D.R.A.M., aka “Does. Real. Ass. Music.” is my first pick for the best of 2016. If this was a special list just for cheery, upbeat, joyous and catchy pop-rap it’d be hard to displace Big Baby D.R.A.M. from the top of the pile. D.R.A.M.’s slightly cartoonish rapping and crooning draws comparisons to Biz Markie but his charming comedy-gangsta persona is where he has managed to carve a critically and commercially successful niche in a year saturated with quality hip hop. Three of the year’s best feature spots are on here, too – Young Thug jumps on the Billy Joel-esque, piano-rockin’ “Misunderstood”, Erykah Badu sweetly harmonises about sensual internet connections on “WiFi” and the captain of the sailing team Lil Yachty drops a few hot and controversial bars on the breakout banger “Broccoli”. Ain’t… no… tellin… what… I’m… finna… BE ONNNNNNNN!
#29 – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity
Aussie psych-rock outfit King Gizzard managed to pull off one of the most ambitious concept albums of the year – ‘Nonagon Infinity’ plays as an infinite loop. Beginning with opening track “Robot Stop” and right through until the closer “Road Train”, this album is a non-stop hi-octane kaleidoscopic frenzy of rabid guitars, feverish chants and pounding motorik-style beats. This album just keeps accelerating and accelerating, slowing only as the final moments loop back to the intro, providing some extra value for the oft-neglected replay button. It floored me on first listen, and it’s still one hell of a chaotic ride to experience in just 41 minutes. If any of their five planned albums for next year can match this, 2017 is going to be in great stead for music.
#28 – The Drones – Feelin Kinda Free
The 7th studio album by Australian avant-garde punk/garage rockers The Drones contains some of the most emphatic political and personal statements I’ve heard this year, with subject matter ranging from Indonesian executions to shutting down the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life) and the mysterious Taman Shud case. It’s not much of a guitar-based album either, featuring distorted and hard-hitting drum loops layered with eerie electronic backdrops, making for an unusual but compelling canvas for the band to experiment with during its brisk 40-minute duration. Lyrically astute and completely unique, nothing else quite sounds like it – and I love it!
#27 – Elzhi – Lead Poison
Veteran Detroit street rapper and wordsmith Elzhi battled years of depression to produce ‘Lead Poison’, a project that was funded through kickstarter in 2013 and delayed until March this year. The result is an emotional and introspective collection of hard-hitting Boom Bap and Soul-tinged beats with Elzhi hitting solid rhyme after solid rhyme, regardless of the harrowing subject matter – the MC lays it all bare, from his scarred past of growing up in Detroit streets, to dedicating an entire track (“February”) to reminisce about his closest friend and Slum Village associate J Dilla. Depression and vulnerability are topics seldom covered in hip hop, and ‘Lead Poison’ is the kind of release that I wish was more prevalent in the genre.
#26 – Leisure – Leisure
Easily one of the best pop records of the year, Leisure’s self-titled debut is a concise yet explorative project that covers ground from the likes of funk, R&B, soul, psychedelia and synthpop, creating a fresh, groove-oriented sound that has garnered widespread acclaim and attention, and richly deserved. I love how tight and infectious the grooves are throughout each track, but what I particularly enjoy are the absolutely killer vocals, whether solo (“Deeper”) or harmonies (“Know You Better”) that have kept me revisiting ‘Leisure’ over and over since its release. Their laid-back approach to the creative process might mean it could be a while until a potential follow-up release, but I’m sure the wait will be worth it.
#25 – Mitski – Puberty 2
Mitski is among the brightest stars in the American Indie Rock scene, and ‘Puberty 2’ is a perfect illustration of her talent and ability as a songwriter, instrumentalist and singer. Utilising a soundscape that channels the fuzzy and powerful distortions of 90s alternative rock (specifically Blue album-era Weezer – lead single “Your Best American Girl” has several shades of “Undone (The Sweater Song)”) as well as slices of dream pop, folk punk and 60s-esque vocal melodies, Mitski tackles the complexities of self and identity, loneliness, the tenuous duality of happiness and depression – again, it’s not dissimilar to hearing Rivers Cuomo, but I find Mitski to be far more relatable and refreshing, particularly as voices of solo female artists are rarely seen or heard in the rock world.
#24 – Yumi Zouma – Yoncalla
After two more-than-substantial EPs filled with ethereal, dreamy pop goodness, Yumi Zouma’s debut album is an expansion and exploration of the group’s sound, despite all four band members withdrawing from far-flung corners of the globe and recording in the same physical space for the first time. The band’s development is evident, tracks like “Yesterday” flaunt the soft, catchy sensibilities of Fleetwood Mac, and undercurrents of synthpop in “Text From Sweden” and “Short Truth” remind me of Vince Clarke’s signature keys in Yazoo and Erasure. It’s a delightfully brisk album at just 34 minutes, but immensely memorable, and slots in as one of the best NZ releases this year, easily.
#23 – Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things, Volume 1
Stranger Things, the 1980s-themed sci-fi/horror/mystery/adventure Netflix-exclusive series that caught the internet by storm this year owed a lot of its success to the original soundtrack composed by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein. Primarily utilising synthesizers to correspond with the 1980s atmosphere of the show, the score is remarkably diverse – each of the 36 tracks has a distinct personality, which is a sign of a commendable release, let alone an original soundtrack. The gorgeously eerie title theme summons goosebumps without notice, the 5-minute epic “The Upside Down” is just as dark and unsettling as its manifestation in the show, and “She’ll Kill You” is the ultimate electronic victory fanfare for the show’s protagonist Eleven. I’m a huge fan of scores and soundtracks, and I would usually never consider placing one on a year-end list, but this one is special.
#22 – Angel Olsen – My Woman
Angel Olsen is a great example of how misleading and inaccurate ‘indie’ and ‘lo-fi’ tags often are, because her third studio album is anything but indie or lo-fi. ‘My Woman’ illustrates the depths of Olsen’s musical palette, showcasing dreamy synth ballads, garage rock-driven foot-stampers, 70s-style glam rock, 1960s countrified pop – and that’s just in the first half! Side B’s moody, intimate pieces are equally captivating, particularly the penultimate track “Woman” which has the same kind of unsettling beauty as Julee Cruise’s contributions to the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Anyone lucky enough to have snagged tickets to her King’s Arms gig on the 14th is in for an absolute treat, this would easily be one of 2016’s best albums for live performance.
#21 – Goat – Requiem
Swedish experimental-psych-folk group Goat are masterful method musicians, their identities cloaked in mystique with music that is equally strange yet compelling, crossing borders and continents in their fourth LP ‘Requiem’. In concept, an album with so many exotic and wide-ranging influences is almost impossible to pull off successfully, let alone blending the likes of afrobeat with traditional European folk music. The result is a hypnotic, psychedelic whirlwind of a listening experience that is unlike any other album I heard this year. This group would be a total blast to see at a festival like WOMAD, and I reckon they would boss the show.