2016 has been a banner year for local music and it's only halfway over. This year feels like the year where a lot of the old-guard bands from the scene have passed the torch to new, up-and-coming bands, with dazzling results. It's refreshing to find all these new sounds being made and watch these bands pursue their passions to the fullest. Sure, there have been a few seasoned veterans putting out good records too, but the new crowd is gathering the audiences, and it's an exciting time.
These are the best local albums of 2016 so far, listed chronologically. This is an impressive list, sure, but there are still many more releases slated for the rest of the year. One note: Due to the fact that KONGOS are on Epic Records and tour the globe, I did not include that band's 2016 release, Egomaniac, in this list. It is one of the best albums of the year, but I thought it best to leave this list to the bands still trying to make it.
Joshua Hill — Hill Never Sing Again
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Joshua Hill is the visionary behind the esoteric chamber-pop combo known as The Hill In Mind. At the start of the year, he released the uniquely intimate solo album Hill Never Sing Again. Six months later, I still put this album on either in the later hours of the night or the early hours of the morning. Like his work with The Hill In Mind, it's an eclectic affair, but it's also a stark record, with sparse arrangements of Hill's voice, his acoustic guitar, and the sounds of the street outside of Flying Blanket Recording. This album is a bit like comfort food for the soul, gentle on the ears yet provocative for the mind. While little pop gems like "Little Boy Liar" and "Little Sparrow" are found throughout the album, it is the powerful lyrical story of the finale, "All That I'll Ever Need," that remains on my mind whenever I think of this charming album. Looking for the perfect album for a soft wake-up over coffee and breakfast in the morning? Look no further than Hill Never Sing Again. It takes a lot for me to love a solo acoustic album, but this album keeps it weird enough to be thoroughly engaging.
Ruca — This Garden
It feels like I was waiting forever for this album (and a few others on this list), but Ruca has been doing so much with Scattered Melodies and other projects that her own releases faced a bit of a delay. To be fair, the band that is found on this recording is virtually no different than the band found on many of my favorite Scattered Melodies songs, with Haley Grigatis singing and slinging her guitar, Jake Johnston on bass, Josh Montag on drums, and Jack Howell on guitar and keys. That said, while this same band did perform key tracks as Scattered Melodies, it's great to hear an entire album of that amazing lineup. The entire album is one of the most consistently feel-good records I've heard in a long time, with no downtime, no filler, and lots of love across all 11 tracks. The entire album is a delight, and there are fantastic moments on every single song. It's also nice to see Grigatis taking the reins of the band, because this is entirely her show. Recommended tracks include "Get It Back," "The Leavin'," "We Are All One Love," and "Sirens," though you'll just want to start at the beginning and let it roll to the end.
Cait Brennan — Debutante
If you are looking for an album that puts a new spin on the songwriting styles of the early 1970s, you absolutely must check out Cait Brennan's fabulous debut record, Debutante. If you admire the kind of tunes that were penned by Harry Nilsson, Elton John, David Bowie, Linda Rondstadt, Queen, and Stevie Nicks, I can't urge you enough to pick up this record. It's like the very aural poptopia I was raised with, as though Brennan has channeled a radio station from an alternate universe where it's always 1972 and the sound keeps you buzzing with smiles for miles. While it may have been released in the dead of Arizona winter, this album has such a magnificent springtime feel to it that I have found myself giving it repeated listens over the last few weeks. The album is so impressive that when a friend of Brennan's gave it to Seymour Stein at Sire/Warner Bros., he offered her a demo deal to be produced by the legendary power pop maestro Andy Paley.
Wyves — Spoils Of War
Last year, right from the start, Wyves quickly became one of my favorite live bands in town. Its members are frontman Corey Gloden, joined by Nick Sterling, Brenden McBride, and Evan Knisely, and together they form a kick-ass, straight-up rock 'n' roll band. Every show of theirs got better and better with growing, visceral intensity until at last, in February, they released their debut album, Spoils Of War. It was far greater than I had anticipated, and it has honestly been in my heavy rotation of albums. Loaded with singles like the title track, "Bitch Has Got Problems," "Jump Into The Water," "Puppycat," and "Bad Reputation," it's a rock 'n' roll juggernaut that never lets up once. It's also one of those great rock albums that actually captures the energy and drive of a band as they are found live in their native habitat on stage in a club. That's difficult to come by these days, when albums are often something of a letdown compared to a live show. Wyves have no issues kicking just as much ass on a record as they do on stage.
Bear Ghost — Blasterpiece
If you are a fan of great local music and you haven't heard Bear Ghost's full-length debut album, Blasterpiece, I'm going to assume that you've spent the first half of this year in a cave. First of all, Bear Ghost is probably the most fun band in town to see live or listen to on record. "Fun" is an element that seems to be lost on a lot of indie bands, and it's damned refreshing to be excited about going to see a band for the sheer sense of joy they will impart in their performance. Luckily, for Bear Ghost, they were able to translate the fun factor into every moment of Blasterpiece, and it's a lot like their stage show come to life. I feel like I should always keep a spare copy of this album around for those occasions when someone tells me they've never heard of them. Their blend of pop, rock, prog rock, punk and even hip-hop defies the senses, and the assimilation of these styles creates something wholly unique that is all their own.
i.am.hologram — Rejecting The Program
I'm going to say right up front that I have no love for one-man-bands. The exception is Richard Nihil, aka i.am.hologram. Not only does he pull off the one-man-band concept with a drum machine, synthesizers, pedals, and other gear, he does this while slinging guitar and singing his heart out. Favorite weird record of the year? Easily. So it must be said that while he's doing all that crazy shit with his hands and feet, he's also using his voice in a way that no other local singer can or will. His voice is one of the most fascinating elements to his music, and the greatest asset he has in his arsenal of musical madness. His neurotic uncertainty controls you as he guides you through the album, which culminates in the finale of the near nine minute "Osiris (Remind Us)." Rejecting The Program is one of the most challenging albums of the year, but once you get inside it, it's also one of the most rewarding.
The Haymarket Squares — Light It Up
The Haymarket Squares released their finest album to date with Light It Up in February, and in light of the political climate this year, it's been on blast for me from the start. Seriously, this the most politically astute and hilariously wry local album for those leaning to the left since, well, maybe since the release of their last album. Musically, the band's patented punkgrass sound is as strong as ever, espousing the virtues of their working-man causes with sardonic wit scattered liberally throughout. My only issue with this album is that The Haymarket Squares should be promoting this album during this year with a vengeance, because it is the perfect soundtrack to all that is occurring politically. This should be sent out to every public radio station and liberal media stronghold, if for no other reason than to provide a fitting soundtrack to the decline of the American empire. Every song could be used to emphasize its own worthy cause, and while it's probably against The Haymarket Squares' ideals, the licensing money for these songs would be simply obscene.
Surf — Islands
Aaron "Surf" Tijerina is experiencing something akin to his own personal music renaissance. In April, he released his finest album to date with Islands, has since followed this up with an entirely instrumental album called What You Wanted, and may even get another album out before this year is over. Surf's music is the aural equivalent of always carrying a couple Xanax with you. Islands is my chill-out music, whether I'm skating, swimming, or relaxing. This has been my soundtrack for good vibes and mental sunshine since Tijerina slipped me an early copy. Please be mindful that this isn't surf music in the Dick Dale sense; this is music that crashes like waves, rolls up the coast, and ebbs and flows with the tide. You can damn near smell the salt air as you listen to this gentle, beautiful vibe. Tijerina becomes the sea, the beach, and the breeze, and transmits that directly to your soul. That's his gig and he does it well.
Snake! Snake! Snakes! — Tranquilo
There is a feeling of both anticipation and secret dread that occurs when you've been waiting six years for a band to release their follow up to their first record. Will it live up to the hype that you've created in your mind for more than a half-decade? Even though I've been mindful of Snake! Snake! Snakes! from the start and watched their transformation as they traded their synths in for more guitars and their indie pop sheen for garage rock madness, cheering them on every step of the way, rarely missing a show, there was still the question of how it would translate to the album. The proof is in the pudding with Tranquilo. Snake! Snake! Snakes! have finally found their sound, and it's a tremendous blend of proto punk and indie rock with plenty of garage rock snarl and lyrical vitriol. If you happen to be looking for a soundtrack to the apocalypse, this would be my pick.
The Breaking Pattern — There Are Roadmaps In Our Veins
The Breaking Pattern are bringing emo back, and they are doing a damn fine job of it. I've never verified whether their debut album, There Are Roadmaps In Our Veins, is supposed to be a concept album, but damned if it doesn't sound like one. The songs certainly have enough connective tissue between them that if you allow your mind to wander enough, a full-fledged story emerges across its 11 tracks. Still, their mix of explosive guitars, ambient orchestrations, and full-on, hook-heavy indie rock just sits right with my soul. The album is supremely single heavy, and they already have culled four songs in that regard. Still, even the songs that aren't obvious singles bolster the breadth and the depth of the album as a whole. Of note, though the album was released in April, this Friday, July 1, will be the release show for There Are Roadmaps In Our Veins at The Rebel Lounge, with the fantastic lineup of Sundressed, Holy Fawn, and Mimelight.
ROAR — Impossible Animals
This is indie pop at its finest, in line with the Elephant 6 Collective from the turn of the century, with a reliance on Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, and every band influenced by those sounds since. It's not difficult to see why this took Owen Evans four years to make. It also features a who's who of some of the greatest local pop musicians either playing on it or behind the mixing board with Evan Bisbee, Jef Wright, Robin Vining, Ryan Breen, Lonna Kelley, Stephen Steinbrink, Jim Adkins, and more. This entire album will be on my summer soundtrack forever, and it is a fantastic and beautifully arranged record.
Nanami Ozone — Desire
You ever have a band that you adore so damn much you just want to put them in your pocket and take them everywhere you go? That's how I feel about Nanami Ozone. Nanami Ozone is Colson Miller (The Thin Bloods), Sophie Opich (Numb Bats), Mo Neuharth (Numb Bats), and Chris Gerber (Sun Ghost), and they put out some of the best indie rock of the entire year with their debut album, Desire. If they had existed in 1992, they would have had an instant record deal with K Records and gone on tour with Beat Happening and Bratmobile. Part of it is the musical foundation that varies from surf vibes to twee pop to early alternative recollections of The Blake Babies and The Breeders. The vocals are passed for the most part by Miller, Neuharth, and Opich, which serves as their emotional strength and keeps your attention rapt to the record. It's another stunning debut album for 2016 and an essential album for your summer soundtrack. To be honest, this should be the kind of music I hear when I turn on the alternative radio station — not corporate bullshit, but the indie-as-fuck sonic aesthetic of Nanami Ozone.
Genre — Legendary Rock Act
Zac Markey and Corey Gomez of Genre have released their first full-length album, and while the title Legendary Rock Act may be delivered with a grin, they're not far off the mark. Every time I've listened to it I cannot believe how good it is, how fully realized it is, and how consistently exciting it is as it makes wry commentary on society, aliens, metaphysics, crass commercialism, soulless capitalism, and many more hot topics that are of subversive concerns. It's also apparent on this album that Markey is captain of the Genre ship at this stage in the game, and the addition of Trevor Denton to their lineup was essential to the biggest bang this band has ever made. The album is an instant indie rock classic on the local roster, and I won't ever doubt the vision or direction of Genre again.
Red Tank! — Bio/Feedback
Have you ever listened to a band's record knowing full well that you loved their last one, with the thought that there was no way that it could be topped and then you play the new disc and you stare at your stereo for the entire thing with your jaw dropped and your eyes wide in stunned amazement of the blazing sounds exploding from your speakers, losing any sense of time and space, forgetting that you even have a nervous system or that your body exists while the album wraps around your entire being, raising and lowering your blood pressure, nearly sucking the breath out of your lungs at times, controlling your heartbeat with the kick drum, while the guitars wreck your soul and every vocal laceration is committed to your emotional memory, while sparks arc in the deep recesses of your mind until at last the challenging din of what you just heard fades from the air, leaving you feeling gratified and wholly satiated on a level that you can't quite comprehend? That's the only way I can sum up how I felt the first time I heard Bio/Feedback by Red Tank! There isn't a way to embed the album here, but you can listen to it here.
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Some Dark Hollow — Destination Unknown
I get a lot of albums sent to me. Because I'm addicted to the sense of discovery, I check every one of them out. I also get a lot of Americana music sent my way. I don't get a lot of straight-up country music sent my way, and maybe that's why Some Dark Hollow's Destination Unknown caught me completely off guard and why I find it so compelling. Though country music is not really my bag, this is some damn fine music with its roots deeply steeped in classic country sounds, bluegrass, and all the other kind of music you would expect to hear at a hootenanny. I guess it's more surprising for me because I keep listening to it, just to see if its glory fades beyond the novelty shock of my initial enjoyment. This is music for a lonesome highway or nearly any other lifestyle trope you associate with country music, but it's also clearly made by individuals who have an emotional investment in the genre.
Moons Eat Stars — Exile
The last band that made an album of all-rock instrumentals that I couldn't get enough of was local legends Underground Cities. Well, this time around Moons Eat Stars is doing the trick for me in that regard. I'm not one for instrumentals, really at all, much less an entire album dedicated to ambient, post-rock sound collages with guitars, but if I could just have a loop of Exile, released just last week, playing in the background at all times, I would arrange for that immediately. You could compare them to Explosions In The Sky as well. Exile is a fascinating ride across the entire album, and Moons Eat Stars are somehow able to make their instrumental passages memorable on a visceral level, which is no easy trick when you have no lyrics or vocals to anchor you to the song. Check out "Lilting Echo." I guarantee it will creep into your dreams, and it will take a bit to place it, but you'll realize the musical power of Moons Eat Stars.