The 40 Best Albums by Phoenix Bands in 2016, Part One

We're counting down the best local albums of the year this week, and it's an amazing array of rock, pop, and hip-hop, but a fair amount of folk, Americana, and country made its way to the list as well. There were also a lot of surprise albums this year that didn't really fit into a regular genre that were worthy of many listens. It's been an amazing year, and I like to think this list, as all the others have been, are a testament to a wonderfully vibrant and diverse music scene in Phoenix.

40. Joshua Hill — Hill Never Sing Again

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.

39. 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. But 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 music steeped in classic country sounds, bluegrass, and all the other kind of music you would expect to hear at a hootenanny. 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.

38. Dave Vitagliano
This was a late release in the year that I only recently got a hold of, though I had a sense it was going to be a pretty solid album when a handful of musicians had asked if I had heard it yet. Grey is a moody, introspective album in no uncertain terms, but it's filled with authentic confessions of a lifetime. It starts off on the Americana/country side, but by the time you hit the center of the album with tracks like "Worth Something Again," "Ride," and "Won't Be Long," it comes across as more like Laurel Canyon rock with a latter-day Warren Zevon sensibility. It is an interesting listen from a local music veteran.

37. The Apaches Musica Surfica Vol. I & II
There are a lot of bands in town that play a sort of "surf rock," which generally means indie rock with some attribute that makes them sounds a bit like the Pixies, or they have a fair amount of reverb on the guitar and vocals so that it has a "surf" flair to it. The Apaches, on the other hand, make "surf music," actual surf music in the vein of the Ventures or Dick Dale, and it's pretty impressive. They released their debut full-length album, Musica Surfica Vol. I & II, last spring, but this sounds perfect all year long in Arizona. The Apaches are Eric Hirsch (lead guitar), Adam Gold (drums), Sully Sullivan (bass), and Jack Escobar (rhythm guitar), and together they put out an entire album of original surf music that could have been pulled from a 1964 collection and you would be none the wiser. In short, this shit is magically out of place in Arizona 2016, but it is so delicious to the ears that I'm just happy the Apaches have even happened.

36. The Darling Sounds
I've been keeping an alert ear on the Darling Sounds much of the year, but somehow missed the preview singles for their recently released album, Haunt. Before I ever heard them, the band's name suggested that it should sound like a fantastic indie pop twee band. It turns out that they are exactly that. If this band had arrived 40 years ago, it would have been the rage all throughout the British Isles, joining the likes of the Primitives and the name-compatible Darling Buds. There are also influences of the minimalist indie pop that originated on K Records and Kill Rock Stars. There is an immediate intimacy and innocent dreaminess to the whole album, which I suppose is where the affectionate "twee" reference comes from. If you want a sound that will make you feel at home in your own head, I'd recommend giving the Darling Sounds a spin immediately.

35 . 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.

34. 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. 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. 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.

33. Timothy O'Brien
When Timothy O'Brien told me he was leaving Celebration Guns, I was at least left knowing that it was to pursue his own musical projects. I did not quite expect him to turn around on that promise so quickly, but the man always delivers. I also had no idea what to expect, since I've only known O'Brien as the drummer for Celebration Guns. Mantra is a study in the beauty and texture of music, and it is one of the most soothing listens of the year — not in a "put you to sleep" sort of way, rather a "start your day with a cup of coffee" kind of way. "Locomotive" immediately draws you into the album, and with each song growing more and more hypnotic it becomes an entire experience to enjoy from beginning to end.

32. Shepherds & Sailors
Shepherds & Sailors is singer/songwriter Adam Reed's project, and after a tremendously successful crowdfunding campaign, Reed released two albums at the start of December. Both are fantastic efforts, but I dig Spill out of the pair. It's simply the more catchy, hook-heavier of the pair, so I find myself returning to it. I suppose Spill collects Reed's more pop-leaning compositions, and that's the attraction. One thing that stands out above and beyond the multi-instrumentalism, or his dizzying guitar, is his voice. Reed just has a velvet tone that defies description. This may be an 11th-hour release, but it is a necessary listen.

31. Carol Pacey & the Honey Shakers – Eyes On The Prize

When Carol Pacey & the Honey Shakers released fan favorite "One For Your Heart" as the first single from Eyes On The Prize, I knew it would live up to every bit of the Americana-thrash pop they created on their debut two years ago. It's an album steeped in the alt-country sound to be sure, but there's this amazing friendly aggression behind all of Pacey's best songs (as well as guitarist Andy Borunda) that takes you to tempos you would never anticipate. Add to that Pacey's speedy delivery of sharp, cynical lyrical wisdom, and you're just waiting for each song to explode. And most of them do. Borunda's guitar wails, Ben DeLuca's drums detonate with excitement, and Dante Fiorenza's bass groove kicks in. The album is not only a showcase for Pacey's songwriting, but the brilliance of Borunda's sweltering guitar. I've always loved their cover of Dramarama's "Anything, Anything" and it's just the icing on the cake for this wonderful ride.

30. Joe Vito
State Street
State Street is the debut album from young talent Joe Vito and it's a fascinating study in chamber pop. "Be Something" was the first single from the album, and I was immediately drawn in by the fascinating percussion that starts the track, then bowled over by the good, easy vibe of both his acoustic guitar line and his warm, vocal lilt. What was even more surprising is that Joe Vito is only 17 years old. He is, without exaggeration, an actual prodigy who started with bassoon and sax at age 10 and now plays guitar, mandolin, keys, bass, and drums. It's one of those albums you can just walk inside of and find yourself staying there for days. Check out the intense, intelligent delivery on "It's Okay," where he comes on like a younger, gentler Elvis Costello. His lyricism is wise beyond his age and his talent is hard-coded into every song. If Joe Vito has the ambition, I'm pretty sure he can go as far as he wants.

29. The Gentle Hits
The Gentle Hits
To tell you the truth, I was beginning to think that the one-off Gentle Hits show back in 2014 was a dream. The Gentle Hits are Metzger and Mark Kulvinskas from Dear and the Headlights, James Mulhern (What Laura Says), and Wayne Jones (Twin Ponies), which is to say that they are something of a local supergroup. To my ears, Metzger's voice has never sounded better, and it's been far too long since we've heard him on record. It must be said that if you've been in tune with local music for the last decade, there is a strange, wonderful comfort in hearing Metzger's voice coming across the stereo once more. It's not something that can necessarily be placed, other than that it's great to have Metzger back. And with the Gentle Hits making that possible, it feels like he never really left at all.

28. 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.

27. SURF
Intentions For Intimacy
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 then topped all previous efforts with Intentions For Intimacy. Surf's music is the aural equivalent of always carrying a couple Xanax with you, and his third album of the year is only a slightly edgier time, but also slightly better. This record takes it up a notch on all fronts and includes collaborations from actual bandmates. Still, "New Ocean" is a song that could have fit on nearly any of Tijerina's previous releases and it would have still stuck out like the single in the bunch. And while each album has had a clear single, this one is full of them.

26. Qais Essar
Tavern of Ruin
I haven't listened to this much sitar music since I went through a psychedelic raga phase in college. When Qais Essar was set to release the new album, I checked out 2014's The Green Language to get an idea of what was approaching. I couldn't stop listening to Tavern of Ruin for about three weeks straight this summer. At the time, I didn't think there was a single to be had. But hindsight is 20/20, and the harpsichord-laden "Poppy Flowers Bloom in the Springtime of My Love" is literally the centerpiece of the album. This is an album to simply get lost in and enjoy the sonic effect it has on your soul as American and Indian traditions meet in fascinating ways.

 Paradox Valley
Wolvves has proven to be the most charmingly unpredictable band in the entire Arizona music scene. Last year, they immediately broke up upon the release of their full-length debut album, Whatever. Then Aydin Immortal said they would be calling themselves Paradox Valley. Then, at the start of the year, they started releasing singles as Wolvves from the forthcoming album Paradox Valley. Then they released an entire EP called Songs before Paradox out of the blue with none of the singles from the year so far. Finally, with no announcement or hype, they released Paradox Valley, and it's one of the finest albums of the year. That's the brief history of why they just seem to be constantly full of surprises. The finale is that upon releasing this album, Wolvves have relocated to New York City. At least they left us with this stunning parting gift that is as much indie rock as it is hip-hop. Brilliant.

24. Painting Fences
Through Glass
Painting Fences recently released an amazing full-length album this year, and when I got it, I figured I'd give the first few tracks a spin, and then went through the album twice. Painting Fences is Seth Norman (bass and vocals), Johnny Norman (guitars), and Nick Martin (drums). At first, my go-to track was "Here I Stand," because it crosses KISS with Cheap Trick, with wonderfully strident vocals by Norman in the vein of Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks or Feargal Sharkey from the Undertones. Now, I just play the album on repeat. Still, right from the opener of "Southwestern Feel," there is just an immediate ease with which this band blends metal and power pop. Simply a fantastic debut.

23. Soft Deadlines
Go Dark
I totally have a thing for the post-punk, art-rock sound typified by bands like Wire, Gang of Four, Mission of Burma, and many others. Soft Deadlines hones in on that sound and makes their own synthesis with it. Go Dark is a fantastic showcase of neurotic rock that keeps you on edge the entire time. Soft Deadlines is exploring weirder territory within the confines of their sound. And that makes this pretty damn exciting. It may not be as catchy as last year's Critic, but it's a far better album, as Soft Deadlines really start to come into their own. It's a dark record for sure, but it's a damn rewarding one.

22. Young's Modulus
Young's Modulus released one of the best debut records of the year last summer, and the entire Somnabulist album is a fantastic romp through modern takes on the band's influences from the '90s. The opener "Laces Untied" is the obvious single, and an easy second single is "Selfish." The band's name refers to a mechanical property of elastic solids that defines the relationship between stress (force per unit area) and strain (proportional deformation) in a material. Math aside, what they do is play some damn good post-grunge alternative rock in the vein of the earliest Kings of Leon records. If '90s music comforts your soul, you will want to get a hold of Somnabulist immediately.

21. Dogbreth
Second Home
Dogbreth's new album dwells in indie pop, lo-fi glory. Once more, national press pounced on it immediately, and the AV Club debuted "Steeping." Previous songs from the album have been featured in Spin, Stereogum, NPR, and more. It's not surprising that so many bastions of "new music" are quick to alert their readers to anything Dogbreth releases these days. They make laid-back slacker rock for indie kids, songs filled with undeniable hooks, wavery vocals, quirky lyrics, and a pop sheen that doesn't sound overproduced. This album was three years in the making, and in retrospect, it was well worth the wait, but I really hope that they don't make us wait that long for the next one. Dogbreth, along with erstwhile partners in crime Diners and ROAR, have cultivated a strange niche for some of the most clever indie pop in this town.

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Mitchell Hillman