2016 is finally coming to an end, and with it another year of me sinking deeper into the swamp that is Indie Rock. I listened to countless albums, saw 35 bands live (excluding festival performances) and annoyed my friends with never-ending recommendations. The following list will showcase my five favourite new musical discoveries of this year. Not every album listed here was released in 2016, as I feel l´d leave some important artists out if I would just focus on very recent albums. I’d actually say that all of these albums in some way represent what this year was about: politically, sociologically and/or even personally.
Number 5: Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack (2016)
Spring 2016 was very exciting. Nature was blooming, I managed to finish my bachelor thesis and while doing that I somehow ended up exclusively listening to Scottish bands. While I had already delved into the back catalogue of acts such as The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks and Mogwai, I didn’t until then enjoy more than one or two songs by fellow Scotsmen Frightened Rabbit. But then I heard that their newest album was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National and so they finally got the attention they deserved. Painting of a Panic Attack is actually their fifth record, and like the ones before its theme is quite the opposite of what Spring normally promises. Scott Hutchison sings of death dreams, dissappointing relationships and addictions, his band mates back him with mid-tempo and synth-laden arrangements which would almost make them sound American if it weren’t for the singer´s strong Scottish accent. Even though the album is depressing, it achieves what only few depressing records do: It lifts listeners to a different level and gives you the impression that no life issue is insurmountable.
Number 4: Beach House – Bloom (2012)
Though in line with conveying both depressing and uplifting sentiments at once, Beach House´s
music is totally different to that of Frightened Rabbit. The only instruments used on their third album Bloom are synthesizers, almost heavenly guitars and quite simple drums. All of these are outshone by Victoria Legrand´s vocals, whose lyrics are as mysterious as her style of singing. Fittingly, the cover art of the record seems to contradict the album title and there’s not one real radio compatible single on the album. Out of the five releases I’m presenting here Bloom is probably the one you need to listen to in full in order to grasp its full potential. Careless listeners might just call it background music, but for me it’s transcendental.
Number 3: Built to Spill – There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (1994)
As by far the oldest record on this list, there must be an interesting story to me discovering the second album by Built to Spill twenty-two years after its release, right? Well, there isn’t. I had never heard of this band until reading another Top-List, this time Pitchfork’s Top 50 Indie Rock albums of the Pacific Northwest. Very specific, I know. There’s Nothing Wrong with Love managed to surpass legendary acts such as Nirvana or fan favourites like Death Cab for Cutie and was ranked fifth. After thoroughly listening to it I get why the author felt he needed to commit that sacrilege. This album takes you right back to High School – and I don’t mean to the school you probably went to in the new millennium but to High School life in the early 1990s. And singer Doug Martsch somehow manages not to be cheesy about it at all. He and his band members meanwhile also accomplish to combine genres like Garage Rock, College Rock and even Grunge onto a single album. The Pitchfork author actually implies that this album invented Indie Rock, and while I would tend to disagree, I most certainly acknowledge the general importance of this album and would urge you to give it a listen.
Number 2: Wild Beasts – Boy King (2016)
As we enter the higher numbers on this list my recommendation techniques become “subtle like a lion’s cage” and I wish to apologize. However, doesn’t the album cover of Boy King by Wild Beasts already awaken your interest? It instantly reminded me of Get to Heaven by Everything Everything, probably my favourite record last year, and led me to give it a try even though I had already seen Wild Beasts live in 2014. Back then, I thought their gig was rather disappointing and I had not listened to them since. Musically, Boy King isn’t a revolutionary step away from their previous work, still heavily relying on the high falsetto of the two singers, intense drumming and synth loops. The most interesting aspect of this album definitely is it´s lyrical foundation. Like the title already implies, the whole record revolves around genders, song titles such as Tough Guy, Alpha Female or He the Colossus underline this. Don’t get me wrong, though. There seems to be no political background to this theme, since both singers just seem to experiment with the shake-up of gender roles to satisfy their sexual needs [Ed: This might in itself already be political]. Okay, that might sound problematic. But it’s actually refreshing to hear such a casual, almost naive perspective on this controversial topic.
Number 1: Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves (2015)
So here we are: My favourite album of 2016 is an album that came out the year before. Modest Mouse managed to encapsulate the issues of mankind today in just 56 minutes, and that’s just one of countless reasons Strangers to Ourselves grabbed the top spot. Band leader Isaac Brock has his own distinctive way of singing far to optimistically about nature going to waste and humanity’s capacity for large scale denial. He does this by inventing space travel or even time machines. Brock takes the concept of denial to a point where the listener is urged to compare his or her own rejection of problems to the ones described in the incredible lyrics of this record. And if Climate Change and Denial aren’t enough, Brock also predicted the rise of Donald Trump to be elected President of the United States. Note, this album was released three months before Trump even announced his candidacy and Brock was already singing about someone wearing his “smile like it’s some stupid toupee”. While Modest Mouse’s only constant member is Brock himself, he surrounded himself with an above-average number of quality musicians to record Strangers to Ourselves. By working with two drummers and three guitarists, for instance, there are much more musical layers to dive into than is usually the case. Some might feel overwhelmed by all the instruments. But if you open yourself to this record it just might be your new favourite album of next year.