Staff List: Eli’s Top 5 debut records of 2016
Posted: by The Editor
Over the next few weeks, The Alternative will be publishing numerous EOTY staff lists leading up to our site-wide ‘Top 50 Albums of the Year’ article. Why so many lists? Well, we believe in giving as many bands/artists exposure as possible, and with so many great releases in 2016, more lists will cover more ground. Our goal is to help you find something new. Thank you for reading.
Rather than trying to stuff all of my favorite releases into one long article, I’ve decided to break up my take on 2016 into four different categories: top five debut records, top five EP’s, top ten songs, and top ten albums.
The following albums are what I believe to be five of the best debut records of the year. Although none of these made it into my extremely competitive top ten, each one of these young artists/bands left a bold impression on me this year and demand a place on your radar going forward.
5. Turtlenecked– Pure Plush Bone Cage
The Portland, Oregon scene seemed to erupt out of nowhere in 2016 with great releases from Strange Ranger (FKA Sioux Falls), Cool American, Blowout, Snow Roller and others. For whatever reason, Turtlenecked, the project of multi-instrumentalist Harrison Smith, slipped through the netting of the music press and didn’t get the coverage that his Portland peers did.
This is a shame because Smith’s full-length debut Pure Plush Bone Cage is one of the most bizarre and exhilarating indie rock records of the year. Excluding the nine-minute closing track, the other eleven songs collectively clock in under 20 minutes, each frantically jumping to a new idea. Smith’s all over the place stylistically—the album begins sounding like The Strokes before quickly transforming into a demented concoction of The Talking Heads and Pavement—but the pacing is perfect, placing sweet little indie pop numbers like “Mondrian” in between the sloshy “Vile” and the feral “Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown.”
The production is lo-fi as hell but the ambition is there: Turtlenecked has put out three EP’s and a single in addition to Pure Plush in this year alone. Keep an eye on this artist because we might have the next Car Seat Headrest on our hands.
4. Florist– The Birds Outside Sang
Given the album’s timid character and January release date, The Birds Outside Sang was unfortunately overshadowed by many other bedroom pop releases throughout the year. However, none possess the special ability Florist has to construct incredibly emotional, picturesque songs that are also comfortably simple and bare.
Many of the arrangements are built upon a soft synth or keyboard line and songwriter Emily Sprague’s gentle singing (or speaking, depending on the song), and her mentions of mountain ranges, streams and sunny parks are juxtaposed by frequent references to blood and thoughts that wrestle with mortality—thus pulling the listener into this bittersweet soundscape and placing them right next to Sprague on her hospital bed. It’s an intimate album and it’s one that’s best served on a cold night alone with a hot cup of tea. It’s also a grower, and each time around it leaves more of an impact.
3. Coupons– Number One Hit Album
In this industry it’s difficult to convince someone they absolutely need to listen an album by a local band with a kitschy name, who has no intention of touring and a future that’s completely up in the air. With that said, listen to this album. Coupons are four of the most talented musicians to come out of Albany, New York in recent years and Number One Hit Album is one of those Bandcamp gems that honestly could be in rotation at top 40 alt-rock stations if it fell into the right hands.
The band make contact with every corner of the melodic alt/indie rock spectrum with these nine songs, somehow ending up with an output that’s pleasantly familiar yet refreshingly difficult to pinpoint. They have acute senses of melody, harmony, dynamics, and pacing, and each member shreds at his respective instrument—demonstrating raw talent and chemistry that rarely shines on a band’s debut. Standouts such as the fast-paced rocker “Twenty One,” the swaying “Smile,” and the shamelessly infectious, semi-electro “Honestly” are a great sampling of the band’s range and songwriting abilities.
Most people don’t know this record exists but I can’t vouch for it enough.
2. Jouska– Topiary
Jouska are another extremely talented Albany, New York foursome, but their approach to crafting slow-burners is darker, muddier, and more cunning than the clean, straightforward Coupons. Topiary is an album that burrows its way into your head and wears you down with its steep slopes of intricate crescendos—ultimately feeding you generously once you reach the peak with an otherworldly flush of sounds.
Tracks like “In Vestal” and “Voyeur” emanate a heavenly radiance that sets Jouska apart within the alt/emo circle. No other band is this pretty while also this lo-fi. There’s also loads of shoegazey reverb throughout this record (“Friend of a Friend”) as well as departures from emo, and into Alex G-esque bedroom pop (“Changeling”). Refined production on a future release would actually benefit the band because they have the chops to accentuate their playing abilities—rather than depend on a blurry mix to mask their inaccuracies. This band is better than that. Indie powerhouse label Tiny Engines thinks so too, as they scooped Jouska and re-issued Topiary mere months after its self-release.
1. Lucy Dacus– No Burden
Lucy Dacus is one of those artists who came out of nowhere and was then suddenly everywhere. Originally self-released in February, No Burden quickly landed her a deal with Matador Records and received gushing reviews by nearly every major music outlet throughout the year. For me, the best compliment I can give the record is that I was legitimately shocked when I learned Dacus is only 20 years old.
Her knack for penning lyrics as wise as “I wanna live in a world where I can keep my doors wide open / but who knows what’d get in and what’d get out,” and ability to write songs that meticulously tear at the seams before bursting wide open (“Map On A Wall”) put her in a league right alongside Hop Along and Angel Olsen—both of whom are over half-a-decade older. Most of the melodies on No Burden aren’t easy, immediate pop hooks, but she proves she can do that exceptionally well if she wants to on opener “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”—and then ditches that simplicity entirely for the remainder of the album.
Despite the record’s 35-minute runtime, it actually feels longer due to the sprawling nature of the songs—but that’s a good thing in this case. It means that Dacus is an artist who can make something that lasts; something that’s meant to be savored. Hopefully No Burden is only the beginning to a remarkably promising young artist’s career.
Eli Enis | @eli_enis