Written by: Matt Sloan
2016 was a year loaded with a lot of darkness…and a lot of gold.
There were so many excellent surprises this year for lovers of the dreampop genre, including the fact that Lush reunited and went on tour. However, they eventually announced they would break up, which was a perfect scenario to depict what a bittersweet 2016 it was.
I can’t finally sign off on the outgoing year until I have a go at presenting my favorite releases from 2016 and what better way to do so than to dive into the bliss that was presented to us by a notable pool of great dreampop artists.
The Veldt – The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur
One band to enjoy the resurgence of interest in dreampop/ shoegaze we’ve seen over the past few years is The Veldt, a four-piece originally from North Carolina (now 3 members from the original team plus Hayato Nakao from Japan). Unlike most, if not all, other bands on this reunion upswing from the lot of first wave shoegazers, The Veldt didn’t ever actually disband. They did, however, change their name from The Veldt to Apollo Heights for a while, but then back to The Veldt again. Now for the music – 2016 brought us their first release under this name since the 1990s – The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur is perhaps their best ever release, which might be disputed by Pitchfork, who included their album Afrodisiac in their top 50 shoegaze albums ever. With just 5 tracks, the band leaves us wanting more on their next album, which is expected in 2017.
Lush – Blind Spot
Like many, I very much missed the awesome dynamism that existed between Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson and I was super happy to learn of their return. They released one last EP for their discography before packing it in for a second time now in 2016. These first-generation shoegazers have respectfully been sharing the reunion spotlight over the past few years with Slowdive, Ride, and My Bloody Valentine. This new EP Blind Spot sounds so in synch with their past output that it very well might have come out in the early 1990s. With four tracks to drool over, Blind Spot suffices well as a final parting gift to their fans.
Daniel Land – In Love With a Ghost
This is the latest long-player from Manchester native and London resident Daniel Land, formerly of The Modern Painters and Engineers (yes, that band led by Ulrich Schnauss, with whom Daniel enjoys a long-standing songwriting relationship). On some tracks (both on this album and previous releases), Land sounds a bit like the Robin Guthrie of dreampop (were he able to pull off male vocals as smooth as Liz Fraser’s to accompany himself). Of course, on other tracks, he sounds nothing like Guthrie, exploring really pleasurable and unique territory. There is not a single filler or throw-away track on this release. While Land’s previous focus was more on guitar-buzzed shoegaze, this release brings his lovely self back down to earth just far enough to tap into Cloud 9 for the sake of this smooth, diverse and dreamy offering.
Ummagma – Winter Tale and Frequency
Ummagma is one of those bands that easily falls under the radar for those who only have eyes on the live scene. Considering they split their time between Canada and Ukraine, it’s unlikely you will see them playing live in your hometown. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a listen. In 2016, this duo had two releases – earlier in the year they released their 8-track Frequency EP, featuring contributions from Cocteau Twins’ kingpin Robin Guthrie and OMD’s Malcolm Holmes. Later in the year, they collaborated with trailblazing 4AD artist and dreampop pioneer A.R.Kane on their latest Winter Tale mini-EP. Ummagma’s music is different than other bands on the scene (and in their native Ukraine). Their music is deep, refreshing, generally always positive, and if you could express their sound in something you could see or physically feel, surely the words twinkling and pulsing would be suitable. I look forward to their collaborative release with Dean Garcia of Curve in the spring and then full album towards mid-2017. These are all excellent reasons why Ummagma should be on your radar. Besides, when else have you heard a band from eastern Europe sounding so consistently great and unique? Makes you wonder what other hidden gems this region has to offer.
Here’s Ummagma on Bandcamp:
DIIV – Is the Is Are
Zachary Cole Smith sings about addiction, recovery, and inner turmoil, using his voice to speak loudly. Is the Is Are is the sophomore release from Brooklyn-based DIIV. With a four-year gap from the debut album Oshin, this one details many personal struggles in the making for Smith (formerly of Beach Fossils), including a much-publicized arrest and time in rehab. With 17 tracks to indulge in, this is a real feast for those who passed the years in anticipation of this delightfully dark music. Essential Tracks include ‘Blue Boredom’, ‘Dopamine’, and ‘Healthy Moon’.
Ask For Joy – Private Window
Of all the artists featured in this list, there is one that seems to keep shy of the public (or at least social media). Ask For Joy is the stage name for the solo project of Aaron Rosetto of Austin, Texas. He is somewhat of a lone wolf, though he has collaborated in the past with the likes of Daniel Land. Although I could dish out praise for pretty much every track on this album and reflect on who and what each composition reminds me of (in a good way), I will just highlight some of my absolute fave tracks from this collection: “Pinprick Eyes,” “Lovers Interred,” and “Cherry Popsicle.” The first two were released as singles, while the third leans more towards the shoegaze end of the dreampop spectrum. The final track on this album “When Your Heart Stops Beating (An Amp Of Epinephrine)” is perhaps the best track on this album and maybe even ties Lush’s “Out of Control” as my fave dreampop/dream rock track of 2016. Unfortunately there is no video for any of the tracks from this album, which is likely Aaron Rosetto’s best work to date.
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions – Until The Hunter
One of the CMJ chart toppers of 2016 (from this genre but not only), this long-awaited album from Mazzy Star frontwoman Hope Sandoval brought quite a bit of delight this year. Despite the involvement of Colm Ó Cíosóig of My Bloody Valentine, it is clear that Sandoval’s vocals are the main element on this album. This is actually their third album together. Ó Cíosóig seemingly made room for her vocals, rounding them out with warm mainly textures, mainly grey and melancholic with a few exceptions. I was also excited to see that the lead track from this album was her “Let Me Get There,” a duet with Kurt Vile, but this wasn’t even my favorite track. That honor goes to “Isn’t It True.”
The High Violets – Heroes and Halos
The High Violets hail from Portland, Oregon, once again here is another band that came together for a reunion tour. In the late ’90s and early years of the next decade, they were an essential part of the shoegaze movement in the Pacific Northwest, which also included Seattle bands Voyager One and the Melody Unit. Heroes and Halos is the band’s fifth album, demonstrating that they have not lost the golden touch in all these years and also that they produce some of their best work, Cocteau Twins-influenced and all, in the recording studio. It comes as no surprise that this album was released on Texas-based Saint Marie Records, which has become a serious go-to spot for shoegaze and dreampop.
SPC ECO – Dark Matter and Anomalies
2016 was a big year for SPC ECO, led by electronic rock legend Dean Garcia (one half of groundbreaking band Curve, along with Toni Halliday). So too was it a big year for Saint Marie Records, who released not one but two albums by SPC ECO in 2016. The first was Dark Matter, followed by Anomalies. While the best of each would have potently combined to the extent to bump them higher in this ranking by several spots, both release is great in its own right, so I have included both of them in this year-end personal tally of what is hot (at least in my own mind). Singer Rose Berlin always goes the distance with a morphing of style that parallels that of Toni Halliday with a conveyance of emotion that even surpasses her predecessor. The long-running professional relationship between Dean Garcia and Rose Berlin demonstrate that there are likely many years ahead in this fruitful collaboration (they have accumulated quite the massive discography over the past decade); all the more since they are actually father and daughter – not something you see every day in the music world.
School of Seven Bells – SVIIB
SVIIB was released on February 26 by School of Seven Bells – their fourth and likely their final release, due to Benjamin Curtis’ death in 2013 from sudden-onset lymphoma. Written shortly before that, these songs were eventually completed by his partner and the band’s other co-founder Alejandra Deheza. This is dream pop with a bigger dose of electro pop than many of the other releases featured in this rating. In my opinion, even though “Open Your Eyes” is the lead track, I see “Ablaze” as the best track from this album. Also, I may be wrong, but this also feels like their most ‘poppy’ album to date. I’m not complaining – I’m just happy that SVIIB exists at all and that, surprisingly enough, it is so full of joy.
Wild Nothing – Life of Pause
With 11 tracks on offer, Life of Pause is the third studio album by American indie rock act Wild Nothing, released on February 19 on both Captured Tracks and Bella Union. Recorded over several weeks in Los Angeles and Stockholm (mostly by primary member Jack Tatum), it was preceded by four singles: “To Know You,” “TV Queen,” “Reichpop” and “A Woman’s Wisdom.” This Virginia-based trio never fail to impress. Here the band are not resting on its laurels, putting forth an album that demands repeated listens, sometimes creates delightful confusion, and jumps from one influence to the next. A kind of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink band, but I can appreciate that. This music seems effortless and is loaded with hooks in what is this band’s dotingly familiar dreampop bubble.
Novanta – Hello We’re Not Enemies
Released by Seashell Records, this is an album by Milan-based electronica outfit Novanta. With seven tracks, Novanta explores a wide range of beautiful and elegant alternative genres – a kind of fusion between dreampop, shoegaze, post-punk, electro, and darkwave. This is a shimmering release from an artist committed to an art form, each song building a certain mood with sufficient space to bounce off the previous track. It flows really well, offering a unique style of synthwave. A refreshing, interesting and great listen, apparently heavily influenced by the time this artist spent in Iceland (hence the spaciousness, I guess). While the production, mixing and performance is excellent right across the board, the key reason this release does not rank higher in this list is that most tracks do not specifically fall into the range of dream pop. They are all, however, quite delightful.
Novanta on Bandcamp:
Daughter – Not to Disappear
As prolific as 4AD gem Daughter has been over the past few years, it’s surprising to realize that this is only their sophomore album, following up their debut If You Leave. With references to severe winters, frozen hearts, and tumultuous floods, there is a melancholy in this album that simply overtakes it’s entire mood – quite the dangerous album to put in the hands of the depression-prone, I say. Melodic, swooning work.
The Radio Dept. – Running Out of Love
The Radio Dept. released this latest album on October 21. At 10 tracks, they introduce some newer elements here, apparently a bit under the influence of deep house in parts, along with dashes of old school New Order, but all of these extras thrown in combined with the fact that they have lost their dreamy hazey appeal on this latest release somehow makes them less interesting than they used to be. Still they make our year-end chart because they are still mighty rad and still register in the annals of the year 2016 under recommended listening. We do, however, hope that they bring the haziness back into their music for their next release.
Twin Haus ‘Nothing Lavish’ (Bedlam Records)
Whimsical ‘Brought To Light’ and ‘Beautiful Virtue’ (Saint Marie Records)
Bloodhounds on My Trail ‘Haunted Isles’ (Moon Sounds Records)
Dead Leaf Echo / Did You Die ‘Split’ (Moon Sounds Records)
Julianna Barwick ‘Will’ (Dead Oceans)
Warpaint ‘Heads Up’ (Rough Trade)
Klangstof – Close Eyes To Exit (Mind of a Genius)
Doprah ‘Wasting’ (Arch Hill Recordings)
Still Corners ‘Dead Blue’