It’s that time of year again where we roll out our top tens and other albums I feel deserve a little more recognition. Quite frankly, this is a tough list to make. If I had my way, I would have three or four #1’s but I’ve decided to force myself to pick a list with one at the top. Out of the 100’s of albums this year, these ten stick out for me and deserve all your hard earned cash or Christmas money. Admittedly, there were many albums that have yet to be heard by me. What I do know is that these albums, no matter how many more I listen to, are worth all the praise I am able to lavish on them.
TOP 10 ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
1. Signal Hill: Alturas (AM800Sound, 2016)
Our album of the year is by Signal Hill. Alturas is their third full-length and demonstrates a maturity in both playing and composing their music. They combine ambient moments with post-rock finesse that results in masterful compositions that are both sparse in places but also complex in others. I had never heard of the band before Alturas but was blown away by the band’s ability to construct mature and expressive moments. The album, and I will use this phrase more than once in this list, is a masterpiece. Signal Hill have produced an inspired piece of art and anyone who loves music should buy a copy of this album. I am looking forward to what they come up with next!
2. Landing: Third Sight (El Paraiso, 2016)
Landing put out two albums this year: Third Sight and Complekt. I have limited myself to one album per band for the list and for me, Third Sight is this layered masterpiece (there it is again) that is unrivaled in the genre. They excel at being epically nonconformist while presenting the listener with the most soothing of musical aural pleasures. Third Sight contains four tracks, two long-form compositions that are the bookends to the album with two much shorter pieces making up its center. While Complekt is also worthy of a high ranking on any list, Third Sight simply beat it out because I loved the non-conformist nature of it all. Brilliant work Landing, brilliant work.
3. Shield Patterns: Mirror Breathing (Gizeh Records, 2016)
Shield Patterns takes our third place slot. Yes, this is why I was thinking of making four number ones because it was painful to put the top four in any order, but here it is. Shield Patterns straddles the line between amorphous, ambient experimentation and beautiful constructed classical pop melodies that bring an accessibility to the tracks. The electronic music is sparse, exposed, and exquisitely arranged. Shield Patterns’ Mirror Breathing is a masterclass in the balance between the organic and the synthetic, between the formless and form, between rough textures and silky soundscapes. Brentnall and Knox have, indeed, produced a masterpiece.
4. Loscil: Monument Builders (Kranky, 2016)
Loscil‘s new album Monument Builders comes in at number four and is the project of Scott Morgan. The album is inspired by Philip Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi, the anti-humanist writings of John Gray, and the photography of Edward Burtynsky. Each inspiration explores that destructive nature of humans along with the inertia of fate or the lack of control humans have in this life. Mortality is at the center of this album, with the hopeful angst of survival amid the brokenness, the diseased, and the uncontrolled. Monument Builders is contemplative and timely. Scott Morgan is no stranger to composing deep, inspiring, and thought-provoking soundscapes. As an ambient artist, he is in a class of his own. On Monument Builders, Morgan deftly spins aural tales that evoke contemplation from the listener. It has separate, suggestive pieces that hold together in an atmospheric, cohesive whole.
5. The Album Leaf: Between Waves (Relapse Records, 2016)
The Album Leaf is the project of Jimmy LaValle who has included a rotating cast of musicians both in studio and in live performances throughout the project’s 18 years. The Album Leaf’s Between Waves is the first disc for the band on Relapse Records and is their sixth studio album. But the move to another label isn’t the only unique thing about this particular disc. For the first time, LaValle’s project consisted of a full band in the studio. Along with LaValle, Matt Resovich, Brad Lee, and David Lebleu have joined the band both in the studio and as members of the live tour in support of Between Waves. The album is lush, spacious, careful, and just downright beautiful in it’s scope and tone. Pick it up if you haven’t already.
6. Daniel Land: In Love with a Ghost (Hinney Beast Records, 2016)
Daniel Land was a welcome and incredible surprise for me. I, embarrassingly, had never heard of Land‘s work and, as a music journalist, that was a huge oversight. He was the former member of Daniel Land & The Modern Painters, and a previous member of bands The Steals and Engineers. He also makes ambient music as Riverrun. In Love with a Ghost is a masterclass in sophisticated pop composition. The songs on the album are moving and cogent. The individual tracks are impressive but, together, they are a larger expression of an artist that is open and honest. Here, Daniel Land’s compositions are both accessible and simple, in that perfect pop way, but at the same time express a carefulness that proves Land’s mastery of his craft. Further, his dulcet vocals draw you into his world as he takes you on trips among skyscrapers and through the complicated and messy terrain of relationships. A top 10 album this is indeed!
7. All in the Golden Afternoon: The Fog is Filled with Spirits (Magic Lighthouse, 2016)
All in the Golden Afternoon consists of two members, one of shoegaze royalty status and one of indie royalty status. Rachel Staggs of Experimental Aircraft and Carlos Jackson of the Polyphonic Spree have put together a psychedelic shoegaze extravaganza with The Fog is Filled with Spirits. They have crafted an ethereal, psychedelic, blissed out jewel. The Fog is Filled with Spirits is a swirling journey filled with psyched out bliss, ambience, and a hint of electronica. It is twelve tracks of blissed out, psychedelic dream-pop and brings the listener on a tripped out journey filled with depth and emotion. An album that all should give high marks! Get yourself a lovely vinyl copy before they run out!
8. Tears Run Rings: In Surges (Deep Space Recordings, 2016)
Tears Run Rings is a shoegaze band made up of Dwayne Palasek (drums), Ed Mazzucco (guitar), Laura Watling (vocals & bass), and Matthew Bice (vocals & guitar). In Surges appears on Deep Space Recordings and sees the band return at the top of their game. They are a long-distance band where members live in Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, and Los Angeles, CA, Tears Run Rings writes, records, and shares tracks over the long-distance wires of the internet until the band is satisfied with the results. This is why there were so many years between albums, with their last full length appearing six years ago in 2010. If you are a lover of shoegaze or bliss-pop, this album should certainly be in your collection. In Surges is an ethereal aural delight that no music fan should miss!
9. Oh Hiroshima: In Silence We Yearn (Fluttery Records, 2016)
Oh Hiroshima is a post-rock band hailing from Örebro, Sweden. In 2014 and 2015, Oh Hiroshima entered the studio with all four members contributing to their latest full-length, In Silence We Yearn. Oh Hiroshima, while they sit firmly in the vein of the post-rock genre, do not eschew vocals nor do they sound like a carbon copy of so many others. There is a bright subtleness to their arrangements that evokes both a hopefulness and a melancholia at the same time. In Silence We Yearn is a spacious, cinematic post-rock tour de force that moves between a melancholy cinematic feel to spacious, glittery soundscapes. They create movements from eruptive, heavy walls of sound to quiet, pensive delightful moods with ease. Oh Hiroshima easily deserves a place among the greats in the post-rock canon.
10. Psychic Twin: Strange Diary (Polyvinyl Records, 2016)
Last, but surely not even close to least, is Erin Fein‘s Psychic Twin. Of all the albums, this one is most personal, open, and emotionally moving. Strange Diary is a series of songs written by Fein over the course of four years: during her last years in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and then in her new home of New York City. Fein has been forthcoming about the context of writing these songs. They stem from her relationship with her former husband and basically catalog her feelings/experiences between being married, the dissolution of that marriage, and moving to a new place and starting over. Quite honestly, I’ve never been moved to tears listening to an album like I have been listening to this one. It’s a powerful album and anyone who likes electronica, pop, or music in general should pick it up as soon as they can!
EP OF THE YEAR
Bloodhounds on My Trail: Haunted Isles (Moon Sounds Records, 2016)
I found Bloodhounds on My Trail‘s EP Haunted Isles just this week. So its inclusion here is a recent development. I’m not sure I can shower enough praise over this EP to get into words what I think of it. Every track on this EP is exceptional and shows a strength in writing, composition, and choices this band possesses. Bloodhounds On My Trail is a Melbourne shoegaze band consisting of Johnny Green (Vocals / Guitars), Nik Donaldson (Drums), Chris Donaldson (Guitars), and Che Walden (Bass). They burst on the scene in 2014 and have since become quite well received in Australian shoegaze circles. Haunted Isles is the sound of greatness!
Best 7″ Vinyl Single
Seasurfer: If You Leave 7″ (Saint Marie Records, 2016)
The honor of best 7″ goes to Seasurfer for their If You Leave single. Seasurfer is a shoegaze/post-punk band hailing from Hamburg, Germany which began as a project by Dirk Knight in 2013. The current line-up consists of Dirk Knight, Julia Beyer & Volker Zacharias. On Halloween of 2016, they released their newest 7” single If You Leave. This is three tracks that preview a forthcoming LP and the 7” is limited to only 50 copies. Seasurfer has produced a salivating teaser for their next full-length album. If this band isn’t huge on the shoegaze scene soon, I will be shocked. It won’t be because they aren’t worthy. Spread the word, buy their last album, and get this single. You will not be disappointed.
Best Vinyl 12″
Bloody Knives: I Will Cut Your Heart Out for This (Saint Marie Records, 2016)
Our best vinyl 12″ goes to Bloody Knives I Will Cut Your Heart Out for This. Saint Marie Records did an incredible job with this release. It’s a gorgeous Oxblood / Electric Blue vinyl with an inner-sleeve artwork that is a special slip cover for the disc. Further, the album is loud and violent in that My Bloody Valentine vein. They also verge into the dreamy, ethereal side of shoegaze. Get the vinyl before it’s sold out!
12″ Vinyl Re-Release of the Year
The Emerald Down: Scream the Sound (Saint Marie Records, 2016)
It’s become a new thing for albums to be re-released on vinyl. From huge bands like Depeche Mode to smaller indie bands like Orange, vinyl re-releases are becoming more common. Some of these albums are being released on vinyl for the first time or are being remastered and repressed. This year, a number of these re-releases came to my attention but the one that I most treasure and think is one of the most important is The Emerald Down: Scream the Sound. If you are a fan of shoegaze and haven’t encountered The Emerald Down’s Scream the Sound, you should correct this oversight. It’s an unlikely album given its band’s birthplace is Olympia, WA. It was a hotbed of raucous indie and punk music with no shoegaze scene to be found. The band formed in 1995, about the time the founders of the genre were breaking up and going their separate ways to different kinds of projects. The Emerald Down would not release Scream the Sound until the British press had all but killed off shoegaze in Britain in the early 2000’s. In terms of shoegaze in the U.S., The Emerald Down were trailblazers in the genre, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Saint Marie Records has done all shoegaze fans a huge solid and re-released Scream the Sound, preserving what, for diehard fans, is the triumphant return of an important record.