Summer’s over, friends. Long days are disappearing, leaves are turning, and with it, the second big push for major releases this year is upon us. September into October tends to be a huge time release-wise, as it’s past the lead-up and meat of summer when people’s attentions are more scattered (or simply more interested in finding the best “summer jams”), and it’s still early enough that it gives listeners ample time to absorb and obsess over the music before everyone goes into end-of-year list mode. This September has certainly not been a disappointment in that regard. In particular, this past Friday, the 30th, was simply so jam-packed with incredible new releases across the musical spectrum that we specifically delayed compiling and publishing this post until after the weekend to allow our editors to wade through it all and revise our picks for the month. The albums highlighted here truly display the best of the best, both for the month and the year at large. Expect many of these albums to wind up either in our personal end-of-year lists or our aggregated staff list. 2016, you guys. What a time to be alive.
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
There’s certainly no formula for success in terms of album release schedules; some artists can pump out a seemingly endless stream of gems every year or so, while others latch on to the album gap to tour, write and perfect the next stage of their craft. In my view, modern artists could find virtue in the latter approach – not everyone can mimic the Miles Davis or Smiths discography of literal back to back classics released within months of each other. To be fair, allowing fans to fully digest releases and build anticipation is an admittedly risky, time-intensive venture, and in the interim, there’s a real risk that fans will lose interest by the time a follow-up finally drops. And then there are artists like Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens, who’ve set two clear precedents in their career – an extended gap between albums and an absolute guarantee that the wait will surpass any expectations fans could have had. Sufjan proved this with last year’s exceptional Carrie & Lowell, and Justin Vernon has come back in 2016 to prove that wait after Bon Iver, Bon Iver was worth it so that fans could experience what 22, A Million has to offer.
What’s most striking about Veron’s third record under the Bon Iver banner is how its brand of folk feels simultaneously synthetic and intimate. Thanks to the potent emotional core Vernon structures each of 22‘s ten tracks with, all of his digital treatments makes the album’s brilliantly simple instrumentals feels more like abstract musings occurring in the mind during a deeply personal life moment. Vernon does this most often with autotune, a potentially dreadful device which he pulls of with surprising aplomb, namely on a capella cut “715 – CRΣΣKS.” What could have instead been a Kanye West-esque digitized rant is instead a strikingly unique and gorgeous vocal display which feels like a dynamic soulful musing heard from every angle. This is one of many instance of Vernon successfully manipulating his voice, nor is the only instance where he duplicates this process with an instrument in his arsenal. The breezy saxophones on “____45_____” are fairly plain in their composition, but after Vernon shifts the woodwind like a petal in the breeze, the closing piano can easily sweep the listener out into the album’s haunting conclusion on “00000 Million.”
Despite a run time that barely exceeds a half-hour, Vernon wastes not a single moment on 22, A Million, an album which will undoubtedly go down as one of the finest offerings of 2016 and Bon Iver’s discography. Unfortunately, Bon Iver’s status as a “Pitchfork Band” may cause some folks to write off the album; it’s a justified feeling to be turned off by the massive amount of hype generated by the indie blogosphere. But if you can spare a brief moment to sample the exceptional album Vernon’s spent the last five years crafting, it should become abundantly clear this in this case, the praise its received is more than warranted.
clipping. – Splendor & Misery
It would take a lot to outdo Aesop Rock’s new opus The Impossible Kid for most thought-provoking hip-hop release in 2016, but if anyone could come close, it’s L.A. experimental hip-hop outfit clipping. With frontman Daveed Diggs coming hot off a Tony Award win earlier this year and enjoying a certain newfound celebrity status, clipping. doubled down in the theatrical with Splendor & Misery, an afrofuturistic concept record about the sole survivor of a brutal slave uprising on an intergalactic cargo ship and the on-board AI that falls in love with him.
With a backdrop of cosmic ambience, mechanical chirping, and harsh noise provided by producers Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, Splendor & Misery plays more like a cinematic soundtrack experience than a hip-hop record. Let’s face it; there’s a total of one potential banger, and that’s space-trap battle anthem “Air ‘Em Out.” However, the record is a feat in sci-fi musical storytelling that showcases Daveed’s technical rapping skills (“The Breach”) and poetic lyricism (“All Black”) in a number of vignettes that lead our characters into the glorious and welcoming nothing, flipping Lovecraft by finding comfort in the great unknown.
It will take multiple spins to penetrate Splendor & Misery’s cold and esoteric nature, but even non-rap fans can appreciate what this record is trying to accomplish in terms of experimental artistry and sound production. This is easily one of the most captivating spins we’ve had this year; don’t let genre keep you from this experience.
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Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Real Enemies
Of all the seemingly obscure and “irrelevant” styles of music we could pick for this list, big band would probably be near the top. The jazz artists and composers making music in the big band ensemble format today though are far-removed from the classic swing of its heyday (and probably even further-removed from the overly-glossy pastiche of the 90s swing revival), and no one is a better illustration of this than composer Darcy James Argue and his band Secret Society. I’ve been a fan of Secret Society since stumbling upon them and their debut album Infernal Machines by chance in 2009. Though well-versed in the big band classics of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, and more from my years performing in such ensembles in high school and college, I had never heard anyone attempt to blend the deep harmonic and complex compositional traditions of the format with modern elements in rock, classical, electronic, and more in the ways Argue could. More precisely, I hadn’t heard anyone do so in a way that feels natural and not ham-fisted or cheesy – most jazz or classical composers’ attempts at incorporating things like rock guitar and distortion are cringe-worthy at best – in the way Argue has. Whether he’s grabbing sounds from large jazz ensemble greats like Ellington, Jim McNeely, and his mentor Bob Brookmeyer or pulling from the likes of Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and far more, he demonstrates a deft ability to bring it all together into something new and far more fascinating than a mere sum of its parts.
Now on their third album, Real Enemies is quite possibly the densest and most complex collection of music Argue and Secret Society have put out. It’s a labyrinthine, paranoid and at times deeply uncomfortable set of tunes, all of which is fitting for an album dedicated to exploring the mindset and history of the American people’s love affair with conspiracy theories. Employing 12-tone theory – a composition technique created by Arnold Schoenberg in the wake of WWI and employed by many American composers after the conclusion of the second World War in the 1950s – the music is designed to be creeping with tension, but Argue brilliantly incorporates it as only one of many influences, creating a modern profile of the paranoid psyche that is at times alien, at times very familiar, and all-around entirely listenable and thrilling. Like the classic political film scores Argue claims he drew influence from for this, Real Enemies is full of bombast and luring intrigue that will draw you in and ensnare you as it drags you down deeper and deeper into the pits of madness.
Like their previous album Brooklyn Babylon, Real Enemies was originally performed as a multimedia spectacle, with the music serving as live accompaniment for a constant onslaught of visual collage from 12 screens providing a loose “narrative” in montage. But the music on its own does more than enough to thrive divorced from its original context, especially since the album retains the same historical soundbites and spoken-word performances from the original performance, providing key pieces of context as well as explanations and dissections of the subjects and people Real Enemies focuses on – starting with Edward Snowden and government surveillance and eventually winding up at weather-control machines, FEMA camps, and lizard people. Ultimately, Real Enemies is less about endorsing or ridiculing any particular conspiracy or the people who endorse them than demonstrating how easy, or even logical, it is to fall prey to the conspiratorial mindset in an age when the public’s trust in institutions of power – in government, business, law enforcement, and elsewhere – is at historic lows. With this album, Darcy James Argue and Secret Society have created a perfect soundtrack for the times, perhaps one of the most culturally relevant pieces of music in 2016. Quite a feat for an ensemble format most people likely assume has long been dead.
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The Dear Hunter – Act V: Hymns With The Devil In Confessional
I’m sure every regular reader of the site expected to see this album on here (whether or not people expected to see someone besides Mr. Cusworth writing about it is another matter entirely). There’s a reason The Dear Hunter is such a fan favorite here: combining high concept lyricism, beautifully written alternative/indie rock that has a slightly progressive bent, and a flair for musical theater-type incorporation of strings, piano, and brass, they somehow manage to mix a mind-boggling amount of influences into something that has no right being as consistent (and consistently good) as it is.
Hymns With The Devil In Confessional (henceforth Act V) is perhaps the darkest and moodiest record the band has committed to record yet, running the gamut between playfully spooky and downright grim, and somehow making it all into a cohesive The Dear Hunter record that offers as many ballads, anthems, and bangers as they have in the past. Violins, trumpets, and even banjos mingle with the mellifluous tones of Casey Crescenzo and the powerfully emotional rock instrumentation for some of the most emotional moments possible within the constraints the band works under, and the subtle-yet-constant experimentation with what the band is capable of keep the record interesting throughout.
The greatest feat Casey Crescenzo and company (try saying that three times fast) manage to accomplish on Act V is making every second of the album feel absolutely essential. As what is, basically, the second installment of last year’s also hour-plus Act IV, one would expect a record like this to feel cripplingly self-indulgent and in love with its own existence, but not once does this album-killing intuition come across.
To end this on a cliche and hyperbolic note, Act V is the best album from The Dear Hunter thus far. It’s the fully-realized version of what their sound has been this whole time; it’s the ideal version of the band’s existence; it’s the zenith of what these post-hardcore-turned-indie-rock veterans can accomplish in their current incarnation. Listen to this record.
Hannes Grossman – The Crypts Of Sleep
The exodus of talent from Obscura following Omnivium was definitely a shame at the time, but the years have been kind to fans in the end. We got the first Hannes Grossmann solo album a few years ago, then we got Alkaloid, and now Hannes is back with a second solo album. These projects are worth mentioning as a block, because they all share some DNA. Hannes was a big contributor to the Obscura sound, and his influence is present in Alkaloid as well. If his first album The Radial Covenant was his take on more Obscura material, The Crypts of Sleep is his take on Alkaloid. Featuring most of its line-up and then some, this album takes the “extreme progressive death metal” sound established in The Malkuth Grimoire and explores it further. Maybe this release isn’t as avant-garde as its predecessor, but what it lacks in exploration, it gains in focus.
Here we have some of the most impressive tech/prog death committed to record by one of the world’s best musicians. Not only Hannes is an incredible drummer, but he also has a grasp on songwriting that is tighter than most guitarists. Crypts provides more variety and character than his first album, with tracks ranging from technical and weird to crushing old school death metal. For fans who have been following the German tech death scene and have enjoyed any of Hannes’s work, this album contains some of his best and is a must-listen.
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Shokran – Exodus
To see a genre on its ropes and somehow transcend its calamity is one of the most admirable things a band can do. Great albums are made even greater when the releases around them are that much staler, forcing the musician to dig deep into their own minds for inspiration. Such much have been the case for Shokran, whose immediate surroundings are the by now stale scene of progressive deathcore. Into this fallow field, Exodus brings vitality and power, a cohesive albums which eschews many of the genre’s tropes for excellent musicianship and execution.
Most notably “outre” are the vocals, an insanely rich upgrade from their previous album. The vocals on Exodus are made up of three parts: the first, and most dominant, are aggressive, lower scale growls. These might not be innovative but they carry so much strength that they don’t need to be. The second are higher pitch growls, from the same vocalist, that are utilized like highlights. They often sit on top of the lower growls, accentuating them with brief bursts of increased energy. Lastly, clean vocals provide much of the meat of the immense choruses replete across the album.
The instruments follow suit, ducking and weaving between interesting and dynamic breakdowns and a host of leads, drums fills, bass touches and more that make the whole thing come alive. These elements, vocals and instruments both, make Exodus a full, extensive album that somehow manages to stay light and engaging. Clothe this in a non-embarrassing concept (unlike many of the recent releases in the genre) and you have what is simply a masterpiece of modern metal and progressive deathcore.
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Other Notable Releases
Alcest – Kodama (post-black metal)
After a problematic release with Shelter, Alcest have chosen to marry the shoegaze that was the core of their previous albums with some of their older stylings. The result is an enchanting, haunting and beautiful album that just barely did not make the main list above.
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Insomnium – Winter’s Gate (melodic death metal)
Putting aside the gimmicky one-track format, Winter’s Gate is probably going to come out the best melodic death metal release of 2016. Swirling, icy synthesizers and spontaneous bursts of blackened death metal build onto the already supremely solid melodeath foundation for exactly the right ratio of adrenaline and contemplation needed to really make a melodeath release stand out from the crowd.
Solange – A Seat At The Table (R&B, hip-hop, art pop)
In a year of notable capital-B Black releases by notable black artists offering their own takes on what it means to be black in America in 2016, not least of which includes Beyoncé‘s triumphant Lemonade, Beyoncé’s own sister, Solange, surprise-released her own bombshell album this past week, her first proper release since 2012’s True EP. A Seat At The Table is a brilliant and beautiful meditation on Solange’s own experiences and issues of race, creating one of the most pointed and momentous pieces of r&b this year.
Tycho – Epoch (post-rock, IDM)
After endlessly teasing fans with a remix album in January, Scott Hansen is back with another full-fledged Tycho project full of dreamy, post rock-tinged IDM. Imagine listening to a playlist of electronic-era Mogwai and the breeziest Classixx dance cuts on a sunrise plane ride and you’ll conjure a glimpse of what Epoch has to offer.
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Oathbreaker – Rheia (post-black metal)
In the myriad haze of post-black metal that has been washing over the scene (and mainstream) in the past few months, Oathbreaker’s Rheia rises far above the cut. Coupling quieter moments of introspection and sorrow with aggressive, fast-paced riffs, it injects the post-black formula with the variety is so desperately needs.
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Wovenhand – Star Treatment (gothic folk)
In our review, the term “cowboy doom” was used to describe the latest album from alt-country outfit Wovenhand’s new record Star Treatment; it’s an apt descriptor as any, as the record sports a massive sound that can be compared to Earth or Swans if they came from a background in folk music. Immensely psychedelic, Star Treatment takes cues from post-rock, post-punk, and doom to create gothic americana that is unlike any other act out there.
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Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (abstract hip-hop)
The Gaslamp Killer – Instrumentalepathy (instrumental hip-hop)
How to Dress Well – Care (R&B, pop)
Jenny Hval – Blood Bitch (art pop)
Jóhann Jóhannsson – Orphée (modern classical)
Master Boot Record – C:\>CHKDSK /F (electronic metal)
Mick Jenkins – The Healing Component (abstract hip-hop)
Neurosis – Fires Within Fires (post-metal)
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (experimental rock, dark ambient)
Nicolas Jaar – Sirens (ambient, microhouse)
Oddland – Origin (progressive metal)
Preoccupations – Preoccupations (post-punk)
serpentwithfeet – Blisters (experimental R&B, soul)
Virvum – Illuminance (technical death metal)