15 Great Albums You Didn't Hear in 2016 - Rolling Stone
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15 Great Albums You Didn’t Hear in 2016

Rolling Stone critics choose LPs that flew under the radar

15 Great Albums You Didn't Hear in 2016

These albums may not have burned through your playlists in 2016, but a Rolling Stone editor or contributor thinks at least one should have.

Haley Bonar, ‘Impossible Dream’

Don't let the title of Haley Bonar's seventh album fool you into mistaking this St. Paul singer-songwriter for some quixotic optimist. From the regretfully resigned "hometown goes wherever you go" to the wistfully self-deprecating "I was impossible when I was beautiful," the past clings heavily to her lyrics, an unwelcome anchor that her band's warmly churning guitars, subtle keyboard ripples and forthright beat battle to dislodge. The characters who populate these songs have varying degrees of success in leaving yesterday behind – Bonar repeats the title of "I Can Change" in a futile attempt to convince herself, but ends the album with a full-throated, and at least momentarily credible, chant of "You can be whatever you like." Reverbed into soft-focus, Bonar's voice radiates out from the mix in a manner that suits lines open-ended and allusive enough to read your own history into or as cryptic as an overheard conversation between strangers. Keith Harris

Elephant9 With Reine Fiske, ‘Silver Mountain’

Prog not only abides but flourishes on Silver Mountain, the second album on which Norwegian trio Elephant9 is joined by Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske of Dungen. It's hard to say exactly when Scandinavia grabbed the prog baton from England, but they're running like the cosmic wind with it on this five-track album containing a pair of 20-minute suites and a 10-minute cover of Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" that sounds teleported over from Bitches Brew. Elephant9 blends the virtuosic precision of King Crimson and Yes with the jazz-fusion explorations of electric Miles, Weather Report and the Tony Williams Lifetime. Key and time signatures change constantly as the quartet helters and skelters between tightly composed sections, driving kosmische interludes and bucolic Canterbury excursions. Maze-like without being mystical, Silver Mountain is a thoroughly approachable gateway to the tantric delights of post-Crimson progressive rock in its myriad incarnations. Richard Gehr

Peter Evans Quintet, ‘Genesis’

Peter Evans is the rare virtuoso player who's willing to take real musical risks. The New York trumpeter boasts deadly classical and jazz chops – in 2014, as part of the group Mostly Other People Do the Killing, he participated in a freakishly painstaking full-album cover of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. However in his own projects, he prizes batshit maximalism as much as technical dazzlement. Genesis is the latest document of his electroacoustic quintet, a band that – thanks in large part to the real-time electronic processing of Sam Pluta – can sound like a bebop combo blasted by a sci-fi scrambler ray. On the four-part "Genesis/Schismogenesis," one of two lengthy suites that make up the majority of this 90-minute-plus behemoth, lockstep prog-jazz intermingles with wild textural tangents, such as in the third movement, when pianist Ron Stabinsky's solo turns into a burbling robot chorus. During Genesis' many similarly surreal moments, Evans and his crew make musical implosion sound positively ecstatic. Hank Shteamer

Failed Flowers, ‘Failed Flowers’

2016 wasn't good for much, but it's been an absolutely fantastic year for indie rock (just like 2015, 2014 and 2013 were), and yet even amongst all the Lvl Up and Human Performance and Sunflower Bean and Mitski and Big Thief and the Hotelier and Pity Sex going around, I kept coming back to this tiny record by this Ann Arbor, Michigan band, and its pretty zippy hey-whatever guitar tunes – nine of them in 18 minutes. Singer-guitarist Fred Thomas was in the good Sixties-garage pop band Saturday Looks Good to Me. This is garage-y too but looser, with a Flying Nun/Maxwell's/C86 vibe and a warmly small sound like it was recorded at the bottom of Ira Kaplan's sweater drawer. They rock out a little on "8AM," hit reedy harmonies on "Coke Floats" and bask in "the regular mundane anxiety" of whatever their life is like on "Ready for the Break." Bassist-singer Anna Burch sings lead on the breakout drive-time bomb-drop of a focus track "Supermarket Scene," where the guitars ring like tiny cathedral bells and she imagines the kind of meet-cute that takes years to unfold: "Maybe when we're older/Maybe when we both get paid/We can find a place that feels like home." Shopping day looks good to me. Jon Dolan

Steve Hackett, ‘The Total Experience Live in Liverpool’

It's now been 41 years since Peter Gabriel left Genesis, and its time for the cult that surrounds the prog-rock group to accept the fact that he's never coming back. Guitarist Steve Hackett is the only member willing to keep the music alive, and he's been doing an amazing job over the past few years with his Genesis Revisited tours. The last one, chronicled on this live LP, mixed in old-school solo tunes like "Ace of Wands" and "A Tower Struck Down" with an entire set of 1970s Genesis super-deep cuts like "Aisle of Plenty," "Can-Utility and the Coastliners" and "Get 'Em Out By Friday." Frontman Nad Sylvan has the difficult task of recreating Gabriel's vocals, but he does a stellar job while bringing his own twist. For Genesis freaks, this is as close to real thing as it's gonna get. Andy Greene

Heavy Metal, ‘LP’

The general idea is punk – all of it, at once, a history in 31 minutes. This Berlin trio recorded their debut in their practice space after just six rehearsals, confident that the brute simplicity of knuckle-dragging guitar would get the job done, as always. Their Googleproof name is a way of hiding in plain sight, but dial them up on Bandcamp and you'll get 13 songs of unstoppable snarl, 11 of them under three minutes. A rinky-dink keyboard nods to punk's garage roots, a squawking saxophone signals kinship with the Detroit and Cleveland kids who fought boredom with dreams of art, an iced-out synth and dub bassline connect to post-'77 disillusionment. Over a terse dot-dash-dot guitar line, the album closer "Total Bullshit" offers another angry summation of the 12 months of disappointment that we called 2016: "Work is bullshit, meaningless bullshit. Belief is bullshit. Life is bullshit." Joe Levy

Inverloch, ‘Distance Collapsed’

A quartet of morbid Australians with the warm-and-fuzzy name Disembowelment put out a handful of releases in the early Nineties, combining doom metal and death metal for a unique funereal stew, only to break up the same year they put out a proper full-length, 1993's brilliant Transcendence Into the Peripheral. Nearly two decades after Disembowelment's disembowelment, the rhythm section regrouped to become Inverloch, a rare sequel that's almost as good as the original. Depending on the song, their first full-length, Distance Collapsed, grumbles and gurgles like a death rattle; it trembles with tremulous guitar and soars with moody, Dead Can Dance–like melodic solos; it howls with all the anguish of hell. As a whole, it evokes a certain depressed mood beautifully – sort of like a gloriously horrifying negative image of new age. Kory Grow

Jambinai, ‘A Hermitage’

On A Hermitage, South Korean alterna-metal crew Jambinai does for the Korean geomungo what Sepultura's Roots did for the Brazilian berimbau: harnessing the primordial grooves of a folk instrument, exploring its all-too-obvious similarity to electric guitar, and crunching on both with neck-snapping brio. Though their post-Neurosis majesty and ear for atmosphere technically make them a post-rock band, the best moments on their second album are the concise, tightly coiled tracks."Deus Benedicat Tibi" turns a piece of royal procession hyang-ak music into microtonal sludge metal; and "Wardrobe" and "They Keep Silence" are hard-grooving Amphetamine Reptile-style noise-rock that uniquely sproing along with zither-esque strings. Christopher R. Weingarten

Shooter Jennings, ‘Countach (for Giorgio)’

With this mesmerizing and unexpected tribute to dance-music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, Shooter Jennings finally finds a way to combine all of his diverse influences. There's outlaw country (a snippet of dad Waylon's "Outlaw Bit" opens the album), moody prog rock (David Bowie's "Cat People" with Marilyn Manson) and soaring Eighties pop ("The Neverending Story," as sung by Brandi Carlile). It's all tied together by the pop-culture geek mind of Jennings, who hides sonic Easter eggs throughout: Sam Kinison's scream, amusement-park commercials and the speeches of video-game visionary Richard Garriott de Cayeux. But the heart of the project remains the songs of Moroder, which Jennings interprets with reverence. And a whole lotta synthesizer. Joseph Hudak

Terrace Martin, ‘Velvet Portraits’

This is a classic producer album, not in the post-millennial, Mark Ronson-writing-a-hit-song sense, but the kind of thick, woolly soul-jazz tapestry that Quincy Jones made in his pre-Michael Jackson days. There are a few boldfaced names here (Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington), but it's mostly Martin, fresh from assembling Kendrick Lamar's world-beating To Pimp a Butterfly, and a few session musician friends showing off what they can do as they explore California vibes as easily as David Axelrod once fused post-bop with orchestral ambition. From the down-home blues of "Patiently Waiting," where Uncle Chucc pairs with the Emotions (yes, of "Best of My Love" fame), to the vocoder G-funk of "Push," to the too-smooth yacht jazz of "Valdez Off Crenshaw," Martin and company do as they please, and the listener is all the better for it. Mosi Reeves

Pinkshinyultrablast, ‘Grandfeathered’

In Russian noise-pop outfit Pinkshinyultrablast, crashing drums, wildly feeding-back guitars and the luminous presence of vocalist Lyubov Soloveva come together on songs that double as treasure hunts for delightful sounds. On the dizzying "I Catch You Napping" and the breakneck "The Cherry Pit," Pinkshinyultrablast combine shoegaze's tendencies toward piling on the distortion with twee pop's heavenly melodies, with the occasional detail – a ping-ponging bass line, a chiming guitar riff – poking its head amidst the frenzy. Offerings like the precipice-dangling "Mölkky" and the glittering "Kiddy Pool Dreams" take the band's kitchen-sink approach in thrillingly unexpected directions. Maura Johnston

Phony Ppl, ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’

I would have missed this album myself except for a chance December encounter in the Columbus Circle subway station. This Brooklyn future-R&B quintet – an evolution in personnel, direction and hard-ball touring since 2011 – was performing for commuters and promoting an after-midnight residency at the Blue Note. I stopped because the first number I heard was hard, sharply cut funk – vintage Living Colour with garage-rock force – and stayed because the soul got bolder and deeper in "Why iii Love the Moon," an instant knockout of velvet-Seventies romance and Kaya-era Bob Marley. Phony Ppl have a long library of internet drops, but this 15-track album, released in January and including that killer "Moon," is the band's true declaration of arrival – a matured fusion of modern-pop songcraft, live-band hip-hop drive, classic-R&B singing and instrumental Steely Dan poise. Guitarist Elijah Rawk, bassist Bari Bass, drummer Matt Byas, keyboard player Aja Grant and singer Elbee Thrie have history and ties with Theophilus London, the Roots and Erykah Badu. They are now ready for their close-up. David Fricke

Princess Nokia, ‘1992’

Share this mixtape with a powerful girl in your life – and fork over your lunch money, too. Nuyorican MC Princess Nokia is not just a Calvin Klein model, a black feminist crusader and a D.I.Y. evangelist: She is the future. The Spanish Harlem native evolved from anime cyber-fairy to earth mother in her eclectic 2014 debut, Metallic Butterfly. She then served vintage Donna Summer goodness in last year's Honeysuckle. Now Nokia goes full New York underground in her unrelenting mixtape, 1992 – her Sailor Moon cosplay gloves are off this round, and she's not holding back punches. In "Tomboy" she wears a schoolyard taunt like a badge of honor; in "Brujas," Nokia taps into the mysticism garnered from her Yoruban and Taíno roots to cast a level-hundred curse on all her haters and oppressors with a fire-spitting incantation: "Don't you fuck with my energy." We wouldn't dare. Suzy Exposito

Barbra Streisand, ‘Encores: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’

For Barbra Streisand's 35th album, the iconic vocalist teamed up with movie stars to sing selections from classic Broadway shows like A Chorus Line, Annie Get Your Gun and The Sound of Music. While Streisand is a clear standout, it's the moments of unearthing musical talents from stars who haven't previously shown off their singing chops that carry the LP to the next level, like Melissa McCarthy's perfect comedic timing on "Anything You Can Do" and Star Wars: The Force Awakens breakout star Daisy Ridley holding her own against the Funny Girl and Anne Hathaway for "At the Ballet." Brittany Spanos

Adia Victoria, 'Beyond the Bloodhounds'

Adia Victoria, ‘Beyond the Bloodhounds’

It would be a mistake to try to neatly classify Nashville-based Adia Victoria's debut Beyond the Bloodhounds as country or Americana, since it doesn't seem particularly intended for either audience. Songs like "Mexico Blues" and "Head Rot" bear unmistakable traces of country, folk and blues, but they're shocked with dissonant blasts of electric guitar and set on fire with Victoria's trenchant observations about life in the South as a woman of color. "I don't know nothin' 'bout Southern belles/But I can tell you something 'bout Southern hell/When your skin give 'em cause to take and take," she chants on "Stuck in the South," recalling Nina Simone's activism from a corner of contemporary music where voices like hers remain under-represented. Jon Freeman

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