Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Vanity

16 of ’16: The Best Albums of the Year

Mitski XXV

At long last, we arrive at the end of the 2016 lists with this reflection of the year’s best albums. A lot of criteria need to be met for a record to make this list, for example: a record can’t be primarily composed of reworks of older material (this is the reason Talons’ sublime “Driving Home From Shows” didn’t make the songs list). To be eligible for a featured slot on this list, the record also can’t come from a clearly-established artist, which is the only reason Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree is being excluded. The Radioheads and David Bowies of the music world all received more than enough positive press and this site has always aimed to give an additional leg up to emerging or unknown artists.

With all of that said, 2016 was an exceptional — and exceptionally diverse — year for music provided you knew where to look. As has been the case, no numerical assignments were given to the below selections. However, the field of titles was so abundantly strong that instead of merely selecting one Album of the Year, there are five. Those five records managed to stand out in an unbelievably exceptional year and picking one of the five to give a singular Album of the Year designation proved to be impossible. That being said, virtually all of the titles below are worth time, investment, and praise.

Once again, the majority of the embedded players belong to bandcamp so be mindful of where the records start (a small handful auto-start at odd points in the record). There’s a fairly wide-ranging display of music to be found below so dive on in and go exploring. Enjoy the list and stay tuned for the third edition of A Year’s Worth of Memories.

Bent Shapes – Wolves of Want

After a string of promising releases, Bent Shapes hit new heights with the galvanizing Wolves of Want, a pitch-perfect basement pop record teeming with memorable hooks. A lovingly crafted work, Wolves of Want finds the band hitting an eyebrow-raising stride and cranking out a formidable batch of songs good enough to grace any mixtape.

Crying – Beyond the Fleeting Gales

One of the most unique and compelling releases of the year, Crying took a bold new step with the riveting Beyond the Fleeting Gales. Taking their early approach and gleefully exploding it into something barely-recognizable, Beyond the Fleeting Gales winds up as one of 2016’s most refreshing, exhilarating, and utterly singular listens.

Mitski – Puberty 2

Embracing the bruising, unforgiving introspection of the breakout Bury Me at Makeout Creek, site favorite Mitski returned with a powerful and acute examination of identity. An artistic leap forward, Puberty 2 saw Mitski wielding an expanded musical palette to arresting effect. Warm, moving, and accepting, it’s not difficult to see why it was one of the year’s most beloved records.

Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Parquet Courts records have made a habit of appearing on year-end lists since the band’s formation several years back. While, admittedly, those were solid records, they don’t come anywhere close to Human Performance, the band’s crowning achievement. The band shed their blood all over this record and it shows in every beautiful, cracked, messy, ramshackle moment.

Mannequin Pussy – Romantic

Another record on this list that saw a band make a staggering leap forward, Romantic was — by some distance — the most impressive work of Mannequin Pussy‘s burgeoning career. One of 2016’s most ferocious records, Romantic saw the band firing on all cylinders on levels that may have even surprised their most devoted fans. It’s a molotov cocktail of a record; hit play and get obliterated.

Big Thief – Masterpiece

One of the year’s most welcome surprises, Big Thief‘s Saddle Creek debut Masterpiece found the band conjuring up the open-road spirit that their label built its name peddling. Gorgeous songwriting, unavoidable emotional intensity, and a clear commitment to the material defined Masterpiece. When all was said and done, the record succeeded in living up to its ostensibly tongue-in-cheek title.

Swim Team – Swim Team

One of the strongest records to come out of Infinity Cat‘s cassette series, Swim Team‘s self-titled is a gamut run trough the punk sub-genres that have defined the past three decades. All of them are successful and infused with the kind of grit and determination that characterize great bands. It’s an unforgettable warning shot from a band that seems hell-bent on using the past to elevate the future.

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Easily one of the year’s most celebrated releases, Teens of Denial earned every trickle of positive press that came its way. A landmark record from a project that could have withered under a massively-increased spotlight instead finds Car Seat Headrest operating on an entirely new level. Epics, ballads, and stormy punk numbers abound, illuminating one of 2016’s best coming-of-age stories in virtually any format.

Greys – Outer Heaven

2016 found Greys continuing to determinedly  push their boundaries outward and succeeding with the kind of wild abandon that defines their adrenaline-inducing live show. Outer Heaven was their biggest moment and saw the band effectively blend their delirious energy with a refined sense of atmosphere that enhanced already-great songs. An absolute triumph from one of today’s more fascinating acts.

Hovvdy – Taster

A remarkable, understated, near-flawless record, Hovvdy‘s Taster never received the recognition it was due. Front to back, there are no false moments on this record, only a series of unassuming grace notes that bind it into a gentle, spellbinding whole. Punk-informed bedroom pop, Taster is the product of meticulous dedication to craft and an enormous reserve of genuine feeling. It’s sincerity is a large part of its strength and its strength is overwhelming. Give it innumerable listens and the estimation it deserves.

John K. Samson – Winter Wheat

A painfully beautiful record, Winter Wheat marked the welcome return of John K. Samson. The former Weakerthans bandleader turned in another sorrowful, damaged collection of songs that contained enough glimmers of hope (apart from the devastating opener, which nearly made this year’s song’s list but was abandoned in favor of the record’s emotionally shattering closer) to make the impact even more severe. An atmospheric masterstroke from one of our greatest living songwriters, Winter Wheat is as comfortingly calm as it is completely unforgettable.

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

Mo Troper – Beloved

In focusing on the dark corners while establishing that darkness wouldn’t exist without some lightness as well, Mo Troper winds up wearing a very tattered heart on his sleeve. While that heart may be showing a considerable amount of scars, it’s still valiantly beating. Pathos, gravitas, and an incredibly inviting structure all combine to make Beloved a must-own but it’s Mo Troper himself who makes this record a masterpiece.

Original feature review here.

PUP – The Dream Is Over

PUP‘s The Dream Is Over, the band’s jaw-dropping sophomore outing, was a release where nearly every song was considered for this year’s best songs list. In the end, the record proved so uniformly excellent across the board that it became literally impossible to define a standout. This is as a complete a punk record that anyone will be likely to hear for a very long time. Narrative focus, overall consistency, composition, conviction, production, sequencing, pacing… in every conceivable aspect, PUP absolutely demolished what were already ridiculously high expectations. One of the most defiant, triumphant releases in recent memory, The Dream Is Over was the shock to the system that the punk genre has sorely needed for years. Unbelievably consistent and weirdly empowering, PUP were able to put their name on one of the most vital records of 2016.

Doe – Some Things Last Longer Than You

Meticulously composed and teeming with unchecked aggression and greater meaning, Doe have offered up something that’s impossible to ignore. At every corner, there’s a breathtaking moment that continuously heightens the overabundance of impact present in Some Things Last Longer Than You. Whether the listener tethers themselves to the record’s multi-tiered narrative functions or to the artistry present in the composition, they’ll walk away contemplating its awe-inspiring depth. In short: Some Things Last Longer Than You isn’t just one of the year’s best records, it’s a full-blown masterpiece.

Original feature review here.

Weaves – Weaves

It’s not just that no one does what Weaves are doing as well as they do, it’s that no one else is even making an attempt. Should Weaves inspire some attempts at this particular eclectic blend of songwriting styles, genres, and cornerstones, this record will retain — and most likely remain in — a position as the gold standard. Grab onto something close and hold on tightly because Weaves is an unpredictable, exhilarating, and ultimately deeply satisfying thrill ride that knows no borders or boundaries. Greet it with an anxious smile and give in to its myriad charms.

Original feature review here.

LVL UP – Return to Love

All told, Return to Love is a document of a band determined to continuously better themselves, a new career high, and a bona fide statement release from one of this generation’s most consistently exciting acts. It’s a series of sustained, connected grace notes that never wavers, even as it openly acknowledges it doesn’t have all of the answers. Not a single second of its run time is wasted and each of the songs are memorable for a wildly varying list of reasons. LVL UP aren’t the type of band to be dissuaded from taking action by a daunting challenge and Return to Love is an assured, steadfast piece of proof.

To put it as succinctly as possible: it’s a masterpiece.

Original feature review here.

Nine more worth hearing:

Tancred – Out of the Garden
Pinegrove – Cardinal
Oh Boland – Spilt Milk
Dark Thoughts – Dark Thoughts
Eluvium – False Readings On
Told Slant – Going By
Mothers – When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired
Jean-Michael Blais – II
Minor Victories – Minor Victories

Other honorable mentions:

Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing | Yucky Duster – Yucky Duster | Vanity – Don’t Be Shy | Kane Strang – Blue Cheese | Steve Adamyk Band – Graceland | Lydia Loveless – Real | Touché Amoré – Stage Four | Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math | Jeff – Rosenstock – WORRY. | Lucy Dacus – No Burden | Summer Cannibals – Full Of ItNopes – Never Heard Of It | Florist – The Birds Outside Sang | Susan – Never Enough | Abi Reimold – Wriggling | Mal Devisa – Kiid | Julianna Barwick – Will | Mutual Benefit – Skip A Sinking Stone | Big Ups – Before A Million Universes | Diarrhea Planet – Turn To Gold | Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp | AJJ – The Bible 2 | Angel Olsen – My Woman | Drive-By Truckers – American Band | Charles Bradley – Changes

Jack – Resting Places (EP Review)

JACK

Grief is a fearsome beast. At its worst, the emotion can become all-consuming and open up doors to spiteful resentments, severe depression, and bursts of misplaced anger. At its best, grief can lead to an expanded sense of empathy and a deeper understanding of the things that are legitimately important in life. More often than not, though, grief lingers in between that spectrum, forever at odds with its own qualities. All of those areas are explored in Jack’s jaw-dropping EP, Resting Places.

That’s precisely the reason why — despite absurdly strong showings from Vanity, Notches, Honey Bucket, Turtlenecked, Carl Sagan’s Skate Shoes, and Liam Betson —  the EP finds itself in this post’s featured position. Jack, a project spearheaded by Brittany Costa, came about by way of a difficult situation. That situation informs every millisecond of Resting Places, as Costa created the project as an outlet to confront the loss of a loved one.

Anyone that’s lucky enough to be familiar with Costa’s past work will undoubtedly find reason to be interested in Resting Places but will likely be caught off guard. This is, by some distance, the most vital work of Costa’s impressive career. Resting Places is an unflinchingly intimate, honest work and those qualities are all but necessitated by the circumstances leading up to its creation. What separates Resting Places is Costa’s overwhelming conviction. At every turn, each of the five tracks on the EP feel like they were born out of a fierce need to purge the thoughts they contain, at any cost.

Drawing from a variety of musical genres and utilizing the talents of Flagland‘s Nick Dooley and Bethlehem Steel’s Becca Ryskalczyk, Costa ably conjures up a maelstrom that becomes a mirror of Resting Places‘ bruised and bruising narrative. From the very opening line of the EP — “What the fuck did I do to make you turn away?” — there’s an aggressive tilt that never wavers, even in Resting Places‘ quietest moments.

A feedback swell precedes that opening salvo, establishing the discord that the EP draws on and rails against. For around 24 minutes, Costa veers in and out of folk, punk, Americana, and pop sensibilities, tethering everything into a genre-demolishing approach that thrives on a sense of unease. It’s a trait that permeates through all of Resting Places, as bleary-eyed and frantic as possible. All of those qualities come crashing to a head at climactic moments like the desperate affirmation of “I have fucking value” that closes out opener “Rightful Rage” or the repeated aversions to inflicting and experiencing suffering on the devastating “Harbor”.

Costa’s impressed as both a lyricist and a composer in the past but what she accomplishes on Resting Places doesn’t just top everything she’s done, it stands as some of the most impressive work that 2016 has yielded to date. Every track on the EP contains a handful of extraordinary moments, whether its in terms of dynamics, turns of phrases, or unbridled feeling. There’s a knockout punch lingering at every turn that’s ready to knock the listener down to Costa’s level. At no point over the course of its run does Resting Places halt its merciless swinging.

In Resting Places‘ penultimate track, “Sister System”, Costa addresses that pain directly, providing the EP with its most vulnerable moment. Even when Dooley’s intuitive drumming — one of Resting Places‘ finest additional assets — opens the song up a little, there’s an unwavering sense that Costa’s completely alone. The command to “pick up that dignity you threw across the floor” that brings the song to the end feels like less of a request and more of a reminder, again drawing the listener nearer to Costa’s position in a stunning, effective manner.

“The Look” brings the proceedings to a close in hair-raising fashion, giving Resting Places its severely battered, barely-beating heart. The song was the first to be released from Resting Places and managed to be breathtaking in a standalone capacity. Placed in the context of the EP, “The Look” becomes one of the most devastating songs to have emerged in recent memory. It’s a surging, climactic, tour-de-force of repressed feeling, unchecked frustration, and excessive exhaustion.

As Costa nearly screams “I tried to choke myself to stop the hurried breathing” in that final track, as the music surrounding the narrative threatens to go off the rails, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Resting Places isn’t just a necessary excursion for Costa to confront some lingering demos, it’s an artistic masterpiece. Eventually, it all leads up to what may be an inevitable summation. As “The Look” brings Resting Places to a close, Costa gets caught in a loop, repeating over and over “I am not afraid to die.”

It’s a powerful statement that holds even more weight measured against the rest of the EP. It’s a frightening moment of awareness and may even betray a dark desire but that final line also encapsulate how definitive of an exploration Resting Places is of personal grief. In that last line, the deceptively expansive breadth of grief is evident and can be opened up to many interpretations. A few of those interpretations may even prompt immediate revisits of the EP, providing the opportunity for re-contextualization.

As the music fades away into the ether,  Resting Places solidifies its place as one 2016’s most powerful releases for any format, leaving a mark that lasts. It’s a difficult EP that sparks an empathetic response that’s a little harrowing but likely nothing in comparison to what Costa went through while forming these songs. A special kind of generosity and bravery is required to put those feelings on display, so for that, we owe Costa a thanks, because Resting Places is just about as unforgettable as they come and, suitably, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to leave.

Listen to Resting Places below and grab a copy here.

Happy Diving – Holy Ground (Stream)

happy diving

Omni, Earth GirlsVanity, Total Slacker, Eluvium, Navy Gangs, Skinny Blonde, Kindling, Few Bits, and Sleepy all released songs in the past two weeks that came incredibly close to being featured on this site. In the end, the featured spot for this post wound up going to a band that’s been featured here several times before: Happy Diving. Following up one of last year’s best 7″ records, the band’s started unveiling incredibly promising pieces of their forthcoming sophomore effort, Electric Soul Unity.

Most recently, they released the surprisingly gorgeous “Head Spell” — which easily could have claimed a feature spot of its own if there were more time — but the spotlight here falls to the first glimpse of the record they offered up to the public: “Holy Ground”. Clocking in at under two minutes, “Holy Ground” hits with all of the unrelenting force that defined their best work but also equips itself with a more nuanced finesse that nicely underpins the song’s more beautiful, if extremely damaged, aspects.

Soaring guitars, swirling feedback, an absolutely vicious rhythm section, and impassioned vocals constitute the foundation of “Holy Ground” and the band opts to not only embrace but emphasize those traits. Everything Happy Diving does exists happily in the red and they’ve figured out how to make that aesthetic beneficial to their compositions. Punishing, unapologetic, and oddly soothing, “Holy Ground” is the rallying cry of a band at the peak of their powers, warning anyone in earshot to either get out of the way or to fully commit to being trampled.

Listen to “Holy Ground” below and pre-order Electric Soul Unity from Topshelf here.