Back in June we listed out some of the best albums of the year so far. But these lists always tend to include a handful of superstars, who, due to their higher profiles, extensive resources, or tabloid narratives sometimes just eclipse local performers. Those local musicians deserve some shine too, though, so here is a list of 20 of the best records to come out of our fair borough so far this year. Hopefully you’ll find a few you weren’t familiar with, and remember that there is great music happening everywhere, but more than ever before, in this grand and alien, ever-shifting place we call home.
Big Thief — Masterpiece
Release date: 5/27
Record label: Saddle Creek
Big Thief already stole our hearts, mostly because Adrianne Lenker is fearless when it comes to baring her own. Masterpiece is a collection of warm and spooky songs that clearly sprang from the cold Minnesota soil, fuzzed-out songs tracks like “Interstate” and the folky “Randy” emerge like the small green growth that surfaces after a long winter. Lenker has worked on musical projects of other iterations before, but this is her debut as Big Thief, and sometimes all it takes to hit your stride is a small change. Here’s to all her future masterpieces, bought and paid for with countless years of Midwestern work ethic–and that effortless heart of gold.
Quilt — Plaza
Release date: 2/26
Record label: Mexican Summer
Quilt are a bunch of Boston expats who formed in college and have since created a psych-pop folk sound that encompasses the entire American expanse. For their third album, Plaza, they culled their archives and drew upon touring experience to create an album that distills burnished ’60s pop and ’70s folk-rock with personal lyrics and modern flourishes. Woods’ drummer Jarvis Taveniere produced the record for the quartet, and when they’re at their best, these songs careen off into the desert in a way that’s similar to Taveniere’s band. Plaza is full of dust and wildness and plenty of psychedelia–the perfect summer record for a country mouse trapped in the city.
Bambara — Swarm
Release date: 4/1
Record label: Arrowhawk Records
Bambara were one of our 9 NYC bands you need to hear, and Swarm remains one of the best black-hole noise albums of this year. The trio–which includes twin brothers twin brothers Blaze and Reid Beteh and their long-time childhood friend William Brookshire–originated in Atlanta but have been living in Brooklyn for the last few years, soaking up the clamor and clang of the the city around them and spewing it back out in molasses-slow, heavy drips. Their debut album, entitled Dreamviolence, accurately summed up the gauzy intensity of their music, and Swarm builds on that–amassing a thousand tiny sounds into one heaving mass that could just overtake you, if you aren’t careful.
Japanese Breakfast — Psychopomp
Release date: 4/1
Record label: Yellow K Records
Yet another entry off our 9 NYC bands to watch, after releasing their debut studio album Psychopomp on Yellow K Records, Japanese Breakfast were signed by Dead Oceans, who will be releasing the album outside of North America. If that isn’t a compelling cosign, I don’t know what is–a storied indie label thinks this record is so good that the entire world should have access to it. In all seriousness, Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner swoops between piercing elation and wistful joy across the brief nine-track album. It’d be easy to call this dream pop but the trick is, Zauner doesn’t mind singing about nightmares either. In her capable hands, both are equally enticing.
Florist — The Birds Outside Sang
Release date: 1/29
Record label: Double Double Whammy Records
As part of the Epoch, Emily Sprague and her band are nestled among some of the best and brightest young minds currently making music in Brooklyn. “Nestled” is the word that comes to the mind most when I listen to The Birds Outside Sang, the debut album from Sprague and co. I profiled Florist as a Band to Watch for Stereogum late last year off the strength of their initial Holdly EP, and Birds builds off the soft, spare sounds of that release nicely, embracing the healing power of the nature world to restore childlike grace and ease to our tired, hardened adult minds and bodies. For putting out a record that is marked by its gentleness, Sprague never once shies away from the harsh realities and pitfalls of inhabiting a body in this treacherous city. Above the din, if you listen, the birds are always there.
Told Slant — Going By
Release date: 6/17
Record label: Double Double Whammy
Felix Walworth has been involved with countless other bands you already know and love, including another entry on this list, Florist, and other Epoch groups Eskimeaux and Bellows. But Told Slant is their (Walworth uses gender neutral pronouns) own personal project and Going By is the second official release from them–they previously shared an album via Bandcamp, 2012’s Still Water. The fragility of Walworth’s voice belies a quiet strength and introspection that typifies the songs on Going By, whether it’s the whispering tremor of “Delicate” or a hushed triumphant epiphany on “Low Hymnal”: Felix, you can battering ram this life. This is intricate, intimate folk-rock for the tender-hearted and downtrodden, skeptics need not apply.
Parquet Courts — Human Performance
Release date: 4/8
Record label: Rough Trade
At first it was hard for me to believe this was Parquet Court’s fifth full-length release–that’s one a year since 2011! (And that’s not even counting EPs, or their live album, or the Parkay Quarts foray) But then again, the fact that they’ve had so much practice helps explain how goddamn good this band has gotten. Human Performance is full of glimmering and gritty art-rock that interrogates the façade of the slacker aesthetic and emerges from the conversation more confused than ever. Which is exactly what a great rock record should do in 2016–keep raising questions. Often, great music is the question, not the answer; Parquet Courts pose many, and pose them well.
Woods — City Sun Eater in the River of Light
Release date: 4/8
Record label: Woodsist
At this point, it is hard to imagine a Woods record that isn’t flawless. They have refined the folk-rock psychedelia that defines them to such a degree that it seems pointless to point out individual elements that make the band great. But here are a few: their songs are bright but never sunny, they pull of musical interludes that are just as interesting as verse and chorus structures, and above all, Jeremy Earl’s cellophane tenor. My favorite Woods songs are the ones that feel like they could soundtrack one of The Dude’s trips in The Big Lebowski and it will only take you a couple spins through City Sun Eater in the River of Light to realize–that’s all of them.
Mutual Benefit — Skip A Sinking Stone
Release date: 5/20
Record label: Mom + Pop Music
When I last spoke with Jordan Lee of Mutual Benefit he was feeling like an alien. Given the horrific events of the last few months–or, hell, all of human history, but particularly now because we have video footage of many of the recent atrocities–plenty of people are feeling a bit alienated from their environments right now. I wouldn’t call Skip A Sinking Stone a cure for that, but it’s the soundtrack I turn to when I must remind myself that gentleness exists somewhere in the world. It exists, at least, in Lee’s landscape poetry and wide-eyed devotion. It exists, at least, in Mutual Benefit’s shimmering and revolving folk orchestra. That won’t fix the world, but listening might bolster your heart enough that you can face the brokenness again, and continue working to end it. Music as medicine, not a cure–that’s a tender philosophy to ascribe to.
Wet — Don’t You
Release date: 1/29
Record label: Columbia Records
The debut album from Brooklyn-gone-Western Mass trio Wet has been several years in the making. But when Don’t You was finally released this spring it was met with a rather lackluster response and a scathing record review from the most influential music site of our current era. When the album came out, I agreed with a lot of what was written in this negative review, and I still think it’s a brilliantly written essay. But then, I kept listening to the album in the coming weeks, mostly because “Don’t Wanna Be Your Girl” is my favorite kiss-off, even for non-romantic things. For all the wintry and sultry tones here, the cooling, smeared R&B that Kelly Zutrau, Marty Sulkow, and Joe Valle make as Wet is ideal for humid months. As the summer stretched on, Don’t You became one of my favorite things to listen to in the high heat of noon, a mirage of stillness in a frantic midday moment.
Emmy The Great — Second Love
Release date: 3/11
Record label: Bella Union
On Second Love Emma-Lee Moss makes soft and silvery songs about growing up. You can find her wondering at the heart of love on “Algorithm,” toying with the interconnected pull of relationships on “Social Halo,” or examining the filter of blue madness that infatuation brings on “Swimming Pool.” Moss is also a member of the Brooklyn music-writing community, bringing her expertise occasionally to this site—and others–but whether it be in music or in written word, Moss’ voice is stately, graceful and lucid. We would be wise to listen to more voices like hers on a regular basis.
Chairlift — Moth
Release date: 1/22
Record label: Columbia Records
Moth was one of the first albums in 2016 to indicate that this year was going to shower us with a wealth of absolutely magnificent music. It’s honestly not my fault if you were still hungover from New Years and haven’t listened to it yet, but you really really should. Recorded in the converted Pfizer building in the heart of Brooklyn, Moth is an album that’s dedicated and devoted to the city were it was cocooned, but never stops pushing outward into the global consciousness of the internet era. And as much as it is a love letter to New York, it is also a love letter to love itself. Caroline Polachek, who was recently married, and her constant collaborator Patrick Wimberly have outdone themselves with a collection of sweeping, elegant, playful pop songs that will endure even when the foundations of Manhattan crumble. If it hasn’t clicked for you yet, just keep flying toward the flame. It will.
Diiv — Is The Is Are
Release date: 2/5
Record label: Captured Tracks
My favorite way to describe Diiv is as “Brooklyn superstars.” When you live in Brooklyn, there are certain bands who, no matter how big they get, will always feel like they belong only here, in our neighborhoods and rundown venues. Diiv are the epitome of that for me, and Is The Is Are is a grungy but dreamy examination of what a life in Brooklyn really looks like–all the way down to the gritty grappling with addiction, sobriety, failure and shame that so many of us who make a home here have lived through. Kudos to Zachary Cole Smith for writing about what he knows, and letting the rest of us find escape in his murky but determined dream pop gloom. Smith lets us know we aren’t the only one struggling, and by listening, we let him know–he’s not alone either.
Flatbush Zombies — 3001: A Laced Odyssey
Release date: 3/11
Record Label: Glorious Dead Recordings
It is unreal how slept on 3001: A Laced Odyssey is. Aside from the impeccable pun in the album title, even the trio member’s names sound a bit woozy: Antonio “Zombie Juice” Lewis, Meechy Darko, and Erick “Arc” Elliott sound like they could be Kubrick characters themelseves, and perhaps that’s part of what drew them to A Clockwork Orange and hallucinogens. All three members are Brooklyn natives, and just as influenced by the city’s experimental, aggressive rock scene as the hip-hop one, which means 3001‘s menacing psychedelia is just as compelling as the fluid rapping that they all spit. The year is only half over, so maybe there’s still time for the city to wake up to its own future.
The Hairs — While I Hated Life, Barbarian
Release date: 6/24
Record label: Old Flame Records
If you’ve listened to a King Tuff song and loved it, you should listen to Kevin Alvir. Like Kyle Thomas, the mastermind behind Tuff, Alvir draws just as easily on humor, oddball adlibs and epic storytelling as he does guitar riffs and bouncy melodies. While I Hated Life, Barbarian is the group’s first release in a while, but it sounds just as fresh and breezy as any of the newer bands who are just emerging on the freak-pop side of things.
Yeasayer — Amen & Goodbye
Release date: 4/1
Record label: Mute
It’s hard to underplay the influence Yeasayer had on late 2000s indie psych-pop. All Hour Cymbals (2007) and Odd Blood (2010) both helped pave the way for the proliferation of ’80s-indebted indie acts that cropped up everywhere in the last five or six years. So on later albums, including their most recent, Amen & Goodbye, Yeasayer have been vying with a cohort that is, in some ways, of their own design. The competition hasn’t stopped them from releasing inventive, ambling electronic compositions that are spiked by Chris Keating’s distinctively yearning vocals. Amen & Goodbye is proof that doubling down on what you’ve already locked in isn’t necessarily a bad idea.
Steve Gunn — Eyes On The Lines
Release date: 6/3
Record label: Matador Records
There are some artists you will always find yourself rooting for, regardless of output, collaborators, or commercial success. Just because they seem like good people, and their art is continually getting better and better. Steve Gunn is one of those, and fortunately, his star is on the rise. After signing with Matador records late last year, he returned this spring to put out the best record of his lengthy career. Eyes On The Lines is a reflection on traveling, living in New York, and preserving artistic wildness, complicated themes that might fall flat in other hands. In Gunn’s though, these topics are tackled with deftness on the folk rocker’s noisiest record to date. Turning it up to eleven seems to have won him even more diehard fans. Nice.
Xenia Rubinos — Black Terry Cat
Release date: 6/3
Record label: Anti Records
The first time I sat and listened to Black Terry Cat all the way through I couldn’t move for several minutes after it was done. Xenia Rubinos is unflinching in her assessment of racism and sexism in the larger American consciousness, but she does so while embracing the wealth of her Afro-Latina roots, seamless fusing jazz, soul, rap, and blues to suit her own needs. The result is an album that is one of a kind–Black Terry Cat sounds like nothing else out, and that’s a good thing. Watch the “Mexican Chef” video below and see if it isn’t stuck in your head for the entire weekend–then consider that it’s a pop song about the racialized expectations of the often unjust American job market. Who said pop has to be mindless? Rubinos is making some of the smartest, catchiest songs out, it’d be smart to listen up.
Frankie Cosmos — Next Thing