The “best of” lists that come at the middle and end of each respective year are great because they highlight and promote discussion surrounding what people feel are the most important records of that time. Where those lists falter, is that they can’t possibly include every album that deserves to be mentioned. For every amazing project on a “best of the year” list there are ten noteworthy releases that slipped under the radar of the majority audience.
With this in mind, I decided to put together a short list of projects that I believe have flown under the radar. Some will likely end up among my personal favorites of the year. Others, I really enjoy and think should be in the current conversation a little more often. Without further delay, here are ten great albums from this year that have not received the attention they deserve.
Honorable Mentions: SALES – Forever & Ever, MorMor – Heaven’s Only Wishful
Lauren Ruth Ward – Well, Hell
In a music world saturated with studio tricks and electronic production, talented rock vocalists stick out. Lauren Ruth Ward doesn’t only fit the mold of a traditional rock ‘n’ roll singer, she embodies it with charisma and guts. Her vocals soar with colorful passion, subtle and deep-cutting on tender acoustic cuts, wild and loud on blaring guitar songs. On Well, Hell, she finds a comfort zone between spacious folk tendencies of Fleet Foxes and the psychedelic-tinged garage jams of Angel Olsen, her artistic persona completed by ‘60s inspiration. She’s naturally retro, but her emotion is so original that she transcends those gaps in time as a singer alone.
Essential tracks: “Sideways”, “Make Love To Myself”, “Did I Offend You?”
The Shorelines – Sides of Us
It’s hard to pinpoint what triggered the psychedelic renaissance of the 2010s. The abundance of musical output in this genre, specifically on the independent scene, has made for repetitive records and uninspired outtakes on a historic sound, but there are still many artists doing the craft justice. Santa Barbara psychedelic outfit The Shorelines rearrive on their second record Sides of Us with a fresh, coastal fusion of pop, rock and jazz. This time around, the duo provides an array of upbeat and groovy tunes, while maintaining their dreamy aesthetic. Stay tuned for solo material from both band members.
Essential tracks: “Lips”, “Fostering Thoughts”, “Stay”
U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited
Where do you even start with the new record from U.S. Girls? In a Poem Unlimited is nothing short of stellar. The most impressive thing about this album is the eclectic production and the massive scope of genres the music touches on. Meghan Remy dips her toes in retro dance pop, lo-fi synth pop, noise rock, electronic music and even elements of hip-hop. Each of these styles are executed so colorfully and tastefully, it’s hard to pinpoint a weak spot. This review wouldn’t be complete without nodding to Remy’s singing as well. She uses so many different vocal inflections, a lot of the songs become their own individual experience.
Essential tracks: “Rosebud”, “Incidental Boogie”, “Pearly Gates”
Kiefer – Happysad
A recent addition to the Stones Throw roster, Keifer projects to be one of the underground’s favorite producers. On Happysad, his woozy bass lines and reverb heavy keys feel like a bedside bong rip on a warm summer morning. His instrumentals have a hazy texture that turns each beat into a fuzzy comatose of sunshine and good vibes. Keifer’s keyboard magic isn’t just limited to head-nodding background music though, he jumps into alternate lanes with funky and classic interpretations of instrumental hip-hop as well (“Upwards”). The constant: his piano tells the stories.
Essential tracks: “Dope Nerd”, “Memories of U”, “Thinkin of”
MGMT – Little Dark Age
MGMT has always had a penchant for crafting catchy psych-pop songs. On their newest LP, they make the conversion to glitzier sounds: the synth-laden, hypnagogic pop of Ariel Pink. They bring forth a fresh sense of rhythm, each song coated in swirling synthesizers and hypnotic vocals. Even with this switch up, the band is still able to maintain their accessibility and their likeness for writing melodic indie pop appears as strong as ever. It may not suit their entire fan base, but a majority of these songs are so catchy, it’s hard to resist their anthemic nature.
Essential tracks: “Little Dark Age”, “When You Die”, “Days That Got Away”
Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe
Port Saint Joe is firmly rooted in the country stereotypes of toking, drinking and paying homage to old heroes (“Weed, Whiskey and Willie”), but for this go-around, the Brothers Osborne pack an extra dosage of hard rock and southern twang. It’s an enjoyable mix of slow burners, dirt road anthems and straight shredding. Their writing game is elevated for this record too, showcasing thoughtful penmanship on a number of tracks (“Pushing Up Daisies”). This LP is pretty mainstream, and its country radio tendencies ensure it’ll have a positive and lasting impression with the genre’s mass audience, but the artistic efforts of the band on this record are well worth acknowledging.
Essential tracks: “Tequila Again”, “Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive)”, “A Little Bit Trouble”
Jackie Cohen – Tacoma Night Terror Part 1: I’ve Got the Blues
With assistance from indie rock specialists like Jonathan Rado, Jackie Cohen’s debut EP is a splash of creativity, melded by the hands and heart of an old soul. Her eloquent lyrics suggest she has the makings to be a dynamic writer, and her cadence – at times unpredictable – is weirdly charming. Even on such a short EP, her band wears many different hats, backing Cohen through clunky meditations on love (“Ladies’ Man”), acoustic chamber ballads (“Darlin”) and delicate desert jams (“Bold”). Largely inspired by the aura of classic rock and country, Cohen’s anti-folk songs echo everyone from Stevie Nicks to Neil Young. Her vocal presentation also rides on interesting stylistic combos. At her lowest points she is furiously poetic. In moments of certainty and self-assurance, she can be downright cold blooded.
Essential tracks: “Maddy”, “Bold”
SiR – November
As one of Top Dawg Entertainment’s newest signees, there’s undoubtedly big expectations for SiR. In spite of the pressure, he delivered big time on his debut. November is another entree in the bunch of solid contemporary R&B releases to come out in the last couple years. Impressively, SiR carries almost the entire weight of the project on his shoulders. Some of the deep cuts are a little dry and lack the same excitement as other songs, but his smooth vocal chops hardly ever grow old. I think few fans would be opposed to hearing more R&B records from TDE. Mark it as another victory signing for the label.
Essential tracks: “D’Evils”, “Summer in November”
Haiva Ru – Wildflowers
Another band descending from Santa Barbara, Haiva Ru is poised to make noise on the indie rock scene. Following their popular single “Work It on out”, the quartet fronted by Allie Page have released one of this year’s breeziest EPs. Mixing soft acoustics and dreamy instrumental arrangements, Wildflowers is filled with charming and catchy pop songs from cover to cover. Paige’s songwriting coupled with the band’s tight but gentle performances makes for an easy and enthralling listen throughout, especially on “Apple Trees.”
Essential tracks: “Apple Trees”, “Wildflowers”, “You Don’t”
The Honeysticks – The Honeysticks
The Honeysticks’ music generally has a very positive feel, but the most engaging moments on their self-titled EP come when they venture into somber territory. The moody tones on “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and “Out Like a Light” mesh well with their usually sunny vocal style. Still, this mini-project is filled with potent bursts of feel good noise. The ritzy pop melodies lead songs of adolescent desire and regret into having heavy replay value. If you’re into light, groovy pop tunes, this EP is sure to fit right in with your summer playlist.
Essential tracks: “I Don’t Love You Anymore”, “Out Like a Light”
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Featured image by Light and Sound Photography