Considering the depth of quality albums released in 2016, it’s no surprise that the year produced a healthy number of releases that went unheard and under-appreciated by the vast majority of music fans.
So here’s my list of the year’s best overlooked albums. My selections lean decidedly toward rock, pop and Americana, which reflect my musical tastes and the fact that the standout hip-hop and soul albums tend to register in the mainstream and the press.
No. 1 — Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.” This newcomer sounds far more seasoned than her brief discography would suggest. The song “Hands of Time” spins a well rounded story about battling hard times while recalling the classic country-pop of Dusty Springfield. Other songs, like the frisky two-step “About To Find Out,” paint smart (and frequently funny) character portraits. And the love lesson of “Since You Put Me Down” is set to a country swing that’s more pleasant than the barbed lyrics Price sings.
No. 2 — Death By Unga Bunga, “Pineapple Pizza.” This band’s fourth album in five years, “Pineapple Pizza” comes roaring out of the gate with “I Can’t Believe That We’re Together,” a riffy rocker in the glorious tradition of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain.” The rest of the album is just as good. Highlights include the driving rocker “Best Friends,” which rides some twisting guitar leads into a hooky garage pop chorus; “I Can’t Hide,” another high energy hook-fest that’s laced with Farfisa-like organ; the melancholy surfy pop of “Make Up Your Mind”; and “Wasting Time,” a rocker built around shimmery guitar leads. Put it all together and “Pineapple Pizza” stands as the best power pop album of 2016.
No. 3 — Paranoid Style, “Rolling Disclosures.” Elizabeth Nelson (who essentially is Paranoid Style) sounds a bit like Jenny Lewis as a vocalist and shares her talent for pithy, knowing and frequently humorous lyrics. But where Lewis leans toward alt-country, Nelson is a power pop ace, rocking through caffeinated guitar-driven tunes like “Certain Lists,” “Daniel In The Basement” and “The Thrill Is Back!” and turning out hook after hook on this first-rate album.
No. 4 — LVL Up, “Return To Love.” The rumbling fuzzed out “Return To Love” is invigorating in its own right, but the sound never overshadows the hooks or energy of the material, which is what makes this album stand out. LVL Up does vary the sonics from time to time on this, the group’s third album. The band opts for a chiming guitar pop setting for “Spirit Was,” some rough acoustic textures on the ballad “Cut From the Vine” and starts with a spare sound before blasting away on “Five Men on the Ridge.” The balance between noise and melody and between structure and experimentation makes “Return To Love” a compelling listen. And the buzz this album has started to generate may soon translate into the wider attention the band deserves.
No. 5 — Margaret Glaspy, “Math and Emotion.” Glaspy writes jagged and ear-grabbing songs that range from the rocking title track to the just plain ragged “Parental Guidance." That’s a perfect setting for her lyrics, which suggest someone who has been around the block enough times to see things for what they really are. More prickly than Courtney Barnett or Lucy Dacus and more grounded than Fiona Apple or Stevie Nicks, Glaspy looks poised to be a strong and distinctive female voice on the rock scene for years to come.
No. 6 — The Wild Feathers, “Lonely Is A Lifetime.” This consistently enjoyable album ranges from the epic Beatles/Oasis-esque pop of “Sleepers” through the ringing guitar rock of “Happy Again” and the folk-tinged pop of the Byrds-ish “Goodbye Song.” It’s accessible stuff that makes one wonder why the Wild Feathers remain a relatively undiscovered treasure – despite being on major label Warner Bros.
No. 7 — The Hotelier, “Goodness.” There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about “Goodness,” the Hotelier’s third album. But with melodic guitar rock songs as solid as “Settle the Scar” and “End of Reel” — which have a bit of jangle — and amped up tunes with a little punk edge like “Piano Player,” “Soft Animal” and “Two Deliverances,” that’s not an issue. There’s plenty to admire — and enjoy — in the no-frills guitar rock of “Goodness.”
No. 8 — Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound.” The third album from Dev Hynes (formerly known as Lightspeed Champion) as Blood Orange takes on weighty issues about race, homophobia, self worth and feminism, but does so against a musical backdrop that is far more pleasant than the subject matter would suggest. Silky, melodically rich ballads like “I Know,” “Thank You” and “Hands Up” sound like they could be a soundtrack for romance, but deal with thornier struggles. And the occasional uptempo tune (the poppy “Augustine” and “Best to You” and the Prince-ish banger “E.V.P.”) are deceptively peppy. Hynes doesn’t find many answers to the issues he addresses, but he manages to entertain while spurring thought about problems in today’s uncertain times.
No. 9 — The Lemon Twigs, “Do Hollywood.” One of the more inventive new acts on the scene, duo Michael D'Addario and Brian D'Addario can sound baroque with the Rufus Wainwright-ish “I Wanna Prove to You” one minute, the new wavey “Baby, Baby” another, and theatrical the next with “These Words," which echoes Queen with its vocal harmonies and grand instrumentation, and "Frank" has a bit of Broadway in its wide-eyed personality. The brothers have zany streaks as well. If the descriptions of the preceding songs don’t suggest that, then try the funhouse frenzy of the song “Haroomata.” What keeps things from crossing the line into novelty territory is the solid songcraft and big hooks the D’Addario brothers bring to the songs. It will be fun to hear where this pair goes from here.
No. 10 — White Lung, “Paradise.” Fronted by Mish Way Barber, White Lung’s frenetic guitar rock makes for a relentless listening experience. But there are enough attention-grabbing riffs and vocal melodies in songs like “Vegas,” “Kiss Me When I Bleed” and “Demented” to make “Paradise” (the group’s fourth album) a blissful album for fans of high-energy rock that splits the difference between punk and metal. Think of Pretty Reckless with a bit more of a pop bent.
Honorable mentions: The Julie Ruin, “Hit Reset”; Thermals, “We Disappear”; Parker Millsap, “The Very Last Day”; Joseph, “I’m Alone, No You’re Not”; Dressy Bessy, “Kingsized”; All Boy All Girl, “Slagroom”; Joyce Manor, “Cody”; Sunflower Bean, “Human Ceremony”; Willie Nile, “World War Willie”; Heliotropes, “Over There”; Pinegrove, “Cardinal.”