7 Overlooked Albums of 2016

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2016 has been a pretty incredible year for music, depending on what you’re into. We’ve had “surprise” albums from Beyonce and Radiohead, Guns ‘n Roses reforming with most of the original lineup (and Axl Rose jumping in the lead singer spot for AC/DC), Kanye continuing to be Kanye (and we’re fortunate for that), and were left reeling from the deaths of multiple artists, most notably Prince and David Bowie.

It’s also been a really creatively fertile year for albums, with artists taking chances, or going in new directions, or returning to form after learning whatever it is they needed to learn from experimenting, often with newfound confidence (or at least getting the bugs out of their systems).

Some of those albums have been overlooked, though, and need a little bit of light shone on them. This is by no means a complete list, but here are some albums worth your time that warrant more attention.

Thank You Scientist: Stranger Heads Prevail

I first saw this band as part of a prog rock lineup. The frontman, Salvatore Marrano, completely won me over with his cross of punk rock, vocal prowess, and general attitude, something you don’t see much in prog, and the band has horn players in it, making it a bit of an oddity, and probably not very “prog” at all.

This album is only their second, but they’ve evolved at a pretty astounding rate already, especially in terms of arrangement.

Thank You Scientist have a lot less common with old Genesis or Jethro Tull records, and are forging a way into something that sounds more like heavy big band music with clever lyrics.

The Monkees: Good Times!

This one’s a throwback, in the best possible way. It sounds like a Monkees album, broadcast into the present from the ‘60s. But better. Produced by one of the guys from Fountains of Wayne, I expected it to be super slick pop, but the songs shine here with little adornment. It helps that you have songs written by Harry Nilsson (in a posthumous duet), Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer), Andy Partridge (of XTC), Noel Gallagher (of Oasis), and many other of the greats.

Plus it’s just, as the title suggests, a good time all the way through.

Mark Pritchard: Under the Sun

Like most people, this first came to my attention because of the Thom Yorke collaboration “Beautiful People,” but over time the rest of the album has sunk in, and it’s a rambling (in the good way), hour-long soundtrack to modern life in a nutshell. Pritchard knows how to let things take their time, and a lot of the instrumental tracks have come to overshadow the vocal ones with repeated listenings.

Very chill, good for relaxing and going introspective, without just becoming audio wallpaper.

PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project

With another change-up in instrumentation that has her playing predominantly saxophone, and a focus on calling out those trying to bulldoze over the homeless problem, Harvey courted controversy with this socially conscious album. She was criticized as bringing problems into the light without offering solutions, but isn’t shining a light on the less fortunate what folk singers have done forever?

Managing to be direct in message without getting preachy, this is brave songwriting that remembers to put melody and poetry to the social commentary.

Bat For Lashes: The Bride

Natasha Khan, who goes by Bat For Lashes, released her fourth album this summer. She’s someone whose work I’ve followed since her first record, and she has yet to disappoint. This album sort of builds on the songwriting aspect of her previous album, incorporates a concept (a bride’s fiance dies on the way to their wedding, and the bride goes on the honeymoon alone to cope with the tragedy), but also pulls back in some of the ornamentation she used to such great effect in her early work.

It does require that themes of love and death are your jam, but if that’s the case, give The Bride a spin during your summer musings.

Brian Eno: The Ship

This one’s probably not for everyone. It’s Eno at his most droney and experimental, a return to ambient with him narrating a loose tale based on the sinking of the Titanic, a representation of mankind’s greatest technological achievement, humbled by the power of Nature.

Any comparisons to climate change are merely coincidental.

It’s great to hear Eno stretch a bit again, after producing megahits for the likes of Coldplay in recent years.

The Avalanches: Wildflower

In production since at least 2005, this is only The Avalanches’ second proper album. The samples and arrangements used here sound like this record must have taken them forever, too, so you can hear where that time went.

If you can imagine pointing a sampler at world music and capturing all of it, putting it in a blender with hip-hop and disco, and then running it through a technicolor prism of production, that will get you in the ballpark of this fascinating album.

Sprawling and adventurous, Wildflower is also pretty good about keeping the dance party going.

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Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.