For a variety of reasons 2016 was a tough year. Thankfully we had a ton of great music to help get us through it all. Below you’ll find (in alphabetical order) 30 of my favorite non-metal albums of 2016. This is by no means a “best of” list. I make no claim that I’ve somehow listened to everything that came out this year or that I’m some sort of judge and jury regarding the art of music. But I know what I liked and I want to share it with you in the hopes you find something you like as well. (Please also note that there were a ton of albums I really liked on first listen but just didn’t spend enough time with to include here. Maybe a post for another time?) Happy listening…
And The Kids – Friends Share Lovers
One of indie rock’s most underrated acts returned with their sophomore release in 2016. Equal parts dance-inducing and thoughtful contemplation, Friends Share Lovers is an album that slyly combines a wide array of influences into a tight-knit package. If you like anything even remotely considered “indie rock” or “new wave” this is an album that should be on your radar.
Anneke Van Giersbergen & Arstidir – Verloren Verleden
One of several collaborative efforts in 2016 to catch our ears. Take the progressive and lush neo-classical sounds of Iceland’s Arstidir and combine them with one of the most magnificent voices around and you get an album filled with enough wonderment and joy to sustain you for days on end. Easily one of the most downright beautiful pieces of art you’ll hear all year.
Belle of the Fall – Earthbound
Not the first group to form out of a studio collaboration, probably not the last, but certainly one of the best. Promising singer/songwriter, Julia Autumn Ford, emerged from Tracy Walton’s studio with a band mate as well as a new album. After touring to SXSW and back under their own names they branded themselves Belle of the Fall and proceeded to release an album’s worth of stellar pop and Americana-infused folk music. Looking forward to seeing where this duo continues to take their sound on their upcoming release. https://belleofthefall.bandcamp.com/releases
Charles Bradley – Changes
You will find no man on the face of the Earth that embodies and carries forth the soulful sounds of the 60s and 70s the way Charles Bradley does. He begs and pleads his way through eleven tracks of Motown-influenced soul/r&b, and manages to rip off a spectacular Black Sabbath cover in the process. An absolute gem of a record that hearkens back to simpler times and some of the best music ever put to wax.
The Brazen Youth – The Ever Dying Bristlecone Man
The first rule of these year end lists should be: Don’t talk about year end lists. But the second rule should be: Don’t put one together until as close to the end of the actual calendar year as possible. Otherwise you might miss something amazing. Exhibit A of that woul dbe the newest album by Connecticut act, The Brazen Youth. Released at the end of November, The Ever Dying Bristlecone Man is a stunning album, one that literally stopped me in my tracks upon first listen. Mixing ambient indie folk with various elements of pop, rock, and Americana, The Brazen Youth have truly pieced together something very special and worthy of multiple listens. Glad I followed the second rule…
The CarLeans – Drowning Moon
Looking for something a little “rootsy” to listen to? Look no further than Connecticut’s The CarLeans. Sweet harmonies, deft picking, and down-home aesthetics give this album a welcoming vibe. The CarLeans definitely deliver music you can wrap yourself up in like a warm blanket and just take it all in. It’s a toe-tapping affair that fits in perfectly with the rest of your Americana music collection.
Darkher – Realms
One of several albums this year that I went back and forth on including under the metal banner this year. Despite the intense, brooding nature of the album I decided not to, but metal fans will find a lot to like in these songs. Darkher is the moniker of UK singer/songwriter, Jayn H. Wissenberg, and a project that perfectly captures the power and beauty of the ‘dark folk’ movement. There are heavier moments here where Wissenberg allows in a flood of bombastic electric guitar and full band backing. But the deceptive serenity of it all makes it a wholly ambient and ethereal affair. Turn the lights low, light a candle or two, grab the headphones, and allow yourself to be taken away by it all.
The Girls From Ruby Falls – Tennessee Wildflowers
Two amazing musicians (with an amazing backstory) came together to form an absolute powerhouse of a project. The Girls From Ruby Falls are a little more country-fried than any of their previous projects. However, you don’t need a cowboy hat and Western wear to appreciate the sweet as honey harmonies and the overall musicianship captured on these recordings.
Samantha Glass – Preparation for a Spot in the World
Wisconsin native Samantha Glass (aka Beau Devereaux) has a fairly impressive back catalogue, yet released possibly her most accomplished and intense piece of work in 2016. It’s an often dark and surreal journey through impassioned electronica. The musical expressions here carry a certain emotive weight to them, as if you’re being given a look behind someone’s personal magic curtain. It can feel off-putting and uncomfortable in the best way at certain points, yet wholly mesmerizing in the end.
Glass Skeleton – What Have I Become?
Every year there are bands that just simply aren’t on my radar who surprise me in a good way. Count Connecticut’s Glass Skeleton as one of those acts in 2016. Their debut album is a raucous and rowdy mix of punk and garage rock. They play it like a band with virtually zero inhibitions about who they are and what they do, which is the perfect attitude to have when writing music of this ilk. If you’re looking for something a little discordant and a little noisier than your neighbors care for you’ve come to the right place.
Hanging Hills – Sewn
In the dark days of Winter, back in February, Philadelphia based folk rock outfit, Hanging Hills, released the follow-up to their exceptional 2014 debut. Five songs of bouncy, soulful, indie-infused folk rock that were the perfect response to the icy grip and billowing winds at our back doors. This album was the perfect precursor to the coming blooming of the world where the days were longer and the nights were more festive.
Klimt1918 – Sentimentale Jugend
A dual album from Italy’s Klimt1918 featuring 20 tracks of amazing, ethereal post-rock. The two albums (Sentimentale and Jugend respectively) are meant to be companion pieces to each other in a way, yet can stand alone perfectly on their own. Regardless of whatever slight differences you cull from each half of this release, the overall vibe is a brooding one that often hearkens back to the the halcyon days of the 80s Euro Goth scene. Perfect music to sink into as the bright hues of Autumn fade into the darkness of Winter.
Lines West – The Ghost For You
Another in a long line of exceptional alt-Americana acts that flowed out of Connecticut in 2016. Bridgeport’s Lines West though aren’t your typical folk rock act. Mixing in a definite pop sensibility that takes their music on a joy ride far away from the proverbial barnyard, Lines West write music that is accessible to a wide array of music connoisseurs. Catchy hooks abound on this album and the overall vibe is an uplifting one. Easily this band’s best work to date and one worth owning for anyone with an ear for both indie pop and indie folk alike.
Mount Moriah – How To Dance
If you asked me which albums I listened to the most in 2016, this one would be right towards the top of the list. Simply put, Mount Moriah are one of my favorite bands in the world right now. How To Dance was yet another triumph of indie Americana. Here’s a snippet of what I had to say in a full review earlier this year: “Somewhere on a dusty back road, top down, sun shining, this album is blasting from car stereo speakers and it’s perfectly placed among the green grass, the lush forest whizzing by, the hair billowing, and the smiles flashing. Somewhere on a dance floor in a lonely bar, lights dimmed, two lone bodies clutched tight to one another in the name of love and comfort, this album finds a home. Somewhere a good deed is done, something so simple yet something so profound and life-changing, and this album will be playing in the background. How To Dance is all of these albums and more. Mount Moriah has seen to it yet again that your most remembered moments – the most painful, the most cherished, the most beautiful – could all have a soundtrack if you wanted them to.” This is a band firing on all cylinders and one that is building quite the amazing back catalogue of material.
Muscle and Marrow – Love
Two years ago this band occupied the top spot on my year end list I was asked to put together for Metal Insider. While they aren’t a metal band per se, their doom like tendencies can lend them to be an act that most metal fans can identify with. So it goes without saying that this was yet another act that I struggled with whether to include the on my metal or non-metal list. Regardless of where they were going to land it should be stated for the record that this album is a dark, almost cathartic journey through some of the deepest reaches of the human condition. It is downright apocalyptic at certain turns (i.e. “Black Hole”) and soaked in somber, often depressive, outbursts at others. It’s an album that challenges one to look inward upon themselves, fully knowing they are probably not going to like what they find, yet somehow finding beauty in the journey itself. It’s a fascinating and spellbinding record from note one to the last.
Marissa Nadler – Strangers
Boston’s Marissa Nadler has always written music that floats and glides through these ethereal moments, ever so elegantly. Yet on Strangers we find Nadler’s musical dreamscape to be all the more mysterious. It’s an album that feels darker and lonelier than any of her previous material. It feels like the smoke in the room has grown so thick that only Nadler’s shadowy figure is visible, her voice slicing its way to you ever so slowly and meticulously. It’s a somewhat enigmatic record in the best way possible as you try to feel your way around it. Just remember the beauty is in the journey, not necessarily the destination.
Olive Tiger – Until My Body Breaks
One of the more unique and intriguing albums to come out of Connecticut this year was courtesy of neo-classical/indie folk/electronica outfit, Olive Tiger. Bringing together cello and more traditional rock-oriented instrumentation with looping and various electronic playfulness, this New Haven act put themselves into the ears and collective consciousness of a lot of people looking for something entirely fresh and different. On paper the mishmash of influences this band pulls from probably should work, yet Olive Tiger undoubtedly pull it off with aplomb.
Omega Vague – Obsolescent
Over the last few years, Hartford’s Omega Vague has been a somewhat quietly proficient act. The “quiet” part needs to go away as it’s time for this highly underrated act to find a wider audience. Pulling from shoegaze, dream pop, and various progressive influences, Omega Vague writes music that stretches out across space and time, yet at its core retains a distinct pop edge to it. Obsolescent is one of the best records from an impressive catalogue and holds your attention from start to finish.
Riley Pinkerton – Do You Have A Car
We’re reaching all the way back to last January for this one. My first ‘favorite album’ of 2016 came from singer/songwriter, Riley Pinkerton. One of the sweetest sounding voices around laments five tracks of delicate and desire-filled indie folk. I said almost a year ago that I thought big things would be in store for Ms. Pinkerton if she continued to write the thought-provoking and emotive music found on this EP. I still hold onto and swear by that opinion today.
Political Animals – Egobese
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no expert on hip-hop music, but I know what I like and I really like New Haven’s Political Animals. After spending three years teasing fans with singles that would all wind up on this album, Political Animals dropped their first full-length record in September. The juice was worth the squeeze. Every track on this record could double as the next single as there’s not one piece of filler to be found. When you have one of the best live acts going in your scene the pressure is on to make it work in the studio. Let’s just say that Political Animals passed the test with flying colors.
Quilt – Plaza
We’re heading back to February for this one as this long-running alternative outfit delivered an absolute gem. Quilt has been kicking around for quite a while now, first dropping demo material all the way back in 2009. They’ve grown and their sound matured with each successive release, culminating for now in their best work to date, Plaza. Trippy, dreamy, psychedelic pop rock is probably your best set of descriptors, but don’t let it completely define your expectations. This is an album with one foot planted in the earliest psych rock incarnations and another heading towards a blazing bright future. It’s a splendid array of psych and pop influences melded into a wholly unique take on the genres.
The Right-Offs – Quiet Down
If truly pressed I may confess that my favorite record out my home state in 2016 came from punk rock outfit, The Right-Offs. Hearkening back to when punk was still an infant suckling at rock n’ roll’s teat, The Right-Offs play it loud and aggressive without scaring off the kids. Equal parts catchy and bombastic, Quiet Down could and should find a home on the shelves of anyone who likes their music with guts and grit. “Every punk has a soul,” so say The Right-Offs, and these three punks certainly do.
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
Another album that kisses and flirts with various metal elements before continually drifting back into dreamy pop and shoegaze territory. This album can get crushingly heavy at times in many different ways and was again an album I thought about shifting to the metal side of the ledger. But when you title you album Marked For Death it only makes sense that there will be passages that lash out. Lyrically one of the darkest and most sombre records on this list, Emma Ruth Rundle pulls no punches and gives zero shits when it comes to creating art that is both challenging and gorgeous. This is the type of album that I loved more and more with every listen, shifting from passive curiosity to active and meaningful acceptance. It’s as powerful a record as you’ll hear this year.
Se Delan – Drifter
This will be the second time in three years that England’s Se Delan will show up on one of these lists for me. This time around it was the Gothic-infused alt-pop of Drifter, an album that showcased their ability to write songs that were both poppy and shadowy at the same time. With siren-like vocals on a bed of murky post-rock, Se Delan write songs that are often a surreal trip, and a trip worth taking every time out.
Soft Kill – Choke
Another album I listened to on repeat for weeks on end upon its release. Portland’s Soft Kill have put together an album that’s a little dangerous, a little haunting, yet a whole lot of unforgettable. Combining post-punk, post-rock, and new wave and then drizzling it with various Goth aesthetics, Choke is the type of album that goes heavy on the black eye liner and nail polish and feeling completely genuine and freeing while doing it.
Sun Dagger – American Night
New Haven’s Sun Dagger dabble in psychedelic, instrumental, experimental, stoner rock where the goal is definitely the journey and almost never the destination. American Night was actually the second album Sun Dagger released in 2016, a follow up to January’s Invisible World. What you have from one release to the next is a band continuing to expand and progress to new levels while maintaining a core of psych rock inventiveness.
S U R V I V E – RR7349
Sophomore full-length from Austin synth masters, S U R V I V E. They recently gain acclaim when half of their line-up was responsible for penning the exceptional soundtrack to the Netflix hit Stranger Things. But creepy kid with special powers aside, this album stands on its own as an absolute stunner. Sweeping, space-age soundscapes abound on this record as S U R V I V E put on an analog synth clinic. It’s a sprawling, picturesque vision come to life over the course of nine amazing tracks.
Them Damn Hamiltons – Smoke From The Well
Filled with sea chanteys and gypsy folk yarns, Smoke From The Well is a love letter to the entire Americana pantheon penned by Connecticut’s Them Damn Hamiltons. It’s a rollicking record where the bar is always open and everyone is welcomed to hit the dance floor as hard as possible. Recommended for anyone who likes their floors with a bit of sawdust on them.
Troller – Graphic
Remember above when I mentioned there were a small handful of albums fighting for the title of which one I listened to the most this year? This would be one of those other albums. It took four long years for Austin’s Troller to reemerge from a self-imposed cocoon, but when they did they emerged with a leather-clad butterfly of an album – one part delicate, beautiful creature, one part seductive, sensual, and a little too dirty for virgin ears. Honing in on everything intriguing about darkwave and melding it with post-punk and metal sensibilities, Troller delivered an album that is as visceral as it is alluring. Downright shamanistic at certain junctures, this is an album I simply cannot get enough of, even eight months after its release.
Woljager – Van’t Liewen Un Stiawen
The lyrical content of this album was originally conceived as a theater production about a German clairvoyant who can only foresee misery, and was later set to music. The music itself is rooted in Germanic folk and played with somber, weighty edge to it. (Which considering the story makes perfect sense.) Brought together the entire thing is a compelling ride, and despite the lyrics being in a very specific dialect of German the power behind them isn’t lost at all.