Written by: Dave Cantrell
Sometimes traditions begin by accident and then, apparently, continue to…evolve. Last year at this time, I attempted to shoehorn the twelve preceding months of 2015’s immodestly marvelous outpouring of full-lengths by the thriving worldwide post-punk/darkwave/etc community into the commonly more digestible format of a Top Ten list. Among the many fool’s errands I’ve ever embarked upon, that may have been the most laughable, and before I knew it the number had doubled almost without my knowing. And then, then, comes this year. So many worthy releases what’s a poor boy to do? Well, cheat, of course. Hence the crafty use of the tired old ‘tied for third’ kind of trick. But y’know what? Who cares and whatever. In the end it serves our purposes here just fine, as 2016 has, in a word, been one inspiring year, which isn’t, we’re sure you’ll agree, an assessment one might apply to any other aspect of this dreadful trip around the sun. So spark one up, pour a draft, do whatever you might do when you ready yourself for some ‘very bracing music indeed,’ as we present 2016’s finest, untraditional number be damned.
20. KOBAN Abject Obsessions
Hailing from the Northwest hotbed not named ‘Portland, OR,’ the Vancouver BC-based Koban, consisting of the resourceful duo Samuel Buss and Brittany West. who have already featured on SEM’s ninth NEXT list, should not strike anyone that’s heard them, live or on record, as a surprise inclusion on this list. Abject Obsessions, their second LP, simply solidifies them as one of this part of the world’s foremost practitioners of icy moody synth-scaped wonderment. Entire movies live within each of the ten tracks on AO, their scenes swirling with the foggy glare of film noir soundtracked for the ever-nervous 21st century.
19. MAYFLOWER MADAME Observed in a Dream
Coming on like a wicked mix of Echo and the Gun Club, feeding their paranoid dreams with an unrepentant dose of edgy psychedelia, this Oslo-based band rather surprised everyone by presenting an album full of rich, sinuous texture like not too many manage or even dare to consider in this realm. From that vantage, it should not in the least be a shock that the band will almost certainly be touring up the West Coast of the US this coming spring with Long Beach CA’s simpatico stylists Swampland. Tour details available the minute we know them.
18. THE AGNES CIRCLE Some Vague Desire
Another duo, this one from London and named Rachael and Florian, The Agnes Circle, immortalized on SEM’s sixth NEXT list, are simply among the most consistent sound merchants in the coldwave/post-punk world. Their sound, driven by something of a restrained splendour, its depth and liquid dynamism caught somewhere between dream and dread, has never been more realized than on second album proper Some Vague Desire. Definitely seek it out if you want to know what it feels like to be young, preternaturally talented, and caught inside the bright glare of absurdity that marks out our world’s current state of affairs.
17. VATS Green Glass Room
Edging down the coast a ways from Vancouver BC, slipping across the border, we come to VATS-land, better known as Seattle, but on the strength of long-waited debut Green Glass Room we think that, if not a renaming, at least an officially city-sanctioned ‘VATS Day’ should be considered by whatever municipal council is in charge of these matters. Their sound sporting a brand of kinetic attack that traces the delicate but infrangible line between canny insouciance and choppy-direct, highly purposeful (and punching) post-punk soul, the results tend to embrace both the brash and the brittle, reminding us that there’s a gritty pulse beating beneath every emotion, no matter how fragile.
16. BOOTBLACKS Veins
Some dances dance with the utter joy of being alive, pinballing around your heart with a double time pleasure like it’s some sort of terpischorean sprite high on helium. Other dances dance in more…menacing ways, coming at you with something of an unnerving insistence, its steps erratic but driven. There’s compulsion and shadowy intent involved, think Baryshnikov in an animal mask as he demonstrates the true meaning of feral desire. While it’s tempting to ascribe the latter variety to Brooklyn’s Bootblacks – and in truth there is something on the edge of unhinged in their sound – the truth we think lies more in a melding of the two, the band perfecting the fine art of ‘dark light’ with a sorcerer’s ease. Plus? They are, as SEM found out in November, fabulous live.
15. (tie) BLEIB MODERN Vale of Tears
One characteristic you can count on with German band Bleib Modern, as they themselves admit, is an undying note of romantic melancholia. Imagine if you will Smashing Pumpkins without the mopiness but with a seemingly bottomless trove of slowly searing melodies that pull the listener inexorably through shifting dimensions of modern dread and timeless emotionality. Entrancing and innately beautiful, if you ever wondered what goth would sound like if it were injected with Byronic sensibilities and slowed down to the speed of poetry, Vale of Tears is your answer.
FOREVER GREY The Alabaster Chamber
The problem here, as it often is with this inimitable Michigan band – another duo, Kevin Czarnik and Sam Kubiak, from Grand Rapids – is which album to choose, as the Grey released two in the past 12 months, our ultimate choice above on July 13th – the perfect sound for the height of summer, no? – and the improbably-named Autumn Calling that, as you might guess, dropped on the night of the spring equinox. Both drenched in their signature effects-laden atmospherics, essaying the dreamier, more saturnine fall-out of their home environment’s industrial hangover, laced throughout with an effortless grace that has brought them worldwide attention, our opting for The Alabaster Chamber, admittedly, was more or less the result of a coin flip. Sublime.
14. SHADOWLANDS 001
An audacious title for a debut album, you must admit, but judging by what we know of this Portland band, there’s every reason to believe that the font of creative energy that produced this album from conception to recording in the space of six months has every potential to continue that album odometer ad infinitum. Largely that’s due to the band’s inveterate ‘bandness,’ the fact that the four of them seemed in a very real sense joined at their common brain stem. As we said in our review last summer, “[o]ften, with a quartet, you can point to an individual member as being crucially key to the power of the band’s sound, something you can do with this lot as well, you just need to point with four fingers.” A somewhat unusual proposition for this list, in that they frequently incorporate an organ-heavy foundation that lends them an almost early-70’s veneer, Shadowlands nonetheless prove the value, within any framework, of solid inspired songcraft. They’re one of the many bands that make us proud to be among the community in the always-invigorating Portland scene.
13. SIERPIEN Stench Up to Heaven
Anytime this post-punk/positive punk band from Moscow releases a new full-length it’s pretty much guaranteed to land on end-of-year lists of this type. Relentless and yet restrained, bursting full of all the tasteful portent that makes a band like this nothing less than essential, Sierpien proved it again on this most recent outing, a record named so as to make certain we understand their basic – and, one would say, reasonable – worldview, wherein one can’t help but catch a whiff of a certain unmistakable scent exuding from the corridors of power. That olfactory suspicion is always strong but now, quite pungently, we can all sense it building in the air, not least between Moscow and Washington DC. And yet Stench Up to Heaven was recorded at the tailend of 2015. Hmmm…prescient much?
12. SPECTRES Utopia
Somewhere recently we seem to recall mentioning Vancouver BC. Oh yeah, right, it was just up above. Though one can locate the ‘scene’ in Gastown fairly easily now, it hasn’t always been the case. As recently as 2010, when Spectres first released their instantly promising debut (Last Days), this wasn’t so much the case, which is perhaps why the band shared such an affinity with the Estranged, whose launch in Portland around the same time was in a similarly barren landscape. But all that’s changed now, and though it’s Spectres many would have to thank for this improved state of affairs, they themselves just keep getting on with it, and doing so with an undaunted, revved-up aplomb that sees them stinting not at all from the vigor that attended their earlier material. Moody, with a grab-you-by-the-throat immediacy and literate lyrics evoking the constant simmer of dystopia lurking beneath our shiny existences, they’ve only become more dynamic as they’ve aged. Rather than speculate how they manage that, we think we’ll just content ourselves with some dark languishing in Utopia‘s shuddering depths.
11. BERNAYS PROPAGANDA Politika
Spurred on by the hopelessly restless Vasko Atanasoski, the latest album from this Macedonian outfit cunningly named after the 20th c.’s ‘father of public relations’ almost certainly takes this list’s prize as the most adventurous and therefore most unexpected. Adopting a wider palette of texture, from what would appear to be a Soviet army band leading us into the title track to the restless, synth-jumping dark pop of “Sakay da se zaljubam,” Bernays aren’t so much all over the map – the record actually boasts a tightly-wound cohesion – as they are simply drawing their own, creating new boundaries, blending once disparate territories into a taut, singular region known for its brocaded sounds, unique pop architecture, and graceful, hook-draped bridges. In short, invincibly ace.
10. SCULPTURE CLUB A Place to Stand
Speaking of taking trophies, we’d have to nominate this Salt Lake City-based band as the one most likely to take the award for the ‘relatively out-of-nowhere’ award. While some fault for that sense of them seeming to emerge suddenly out of the ether, fully-formed and ready to take on all comers is due our own incidental blinders – keeping tabs on every corner of the world is a bit of a challenge – it’s nonetheless true that Sculpture Club not only appeared on our horizons as if brought there by an unpredicted sandstorm, they also did so with a debut album firmly in hand. That it included a winking nod to post-postpunk darlings Wedding Present (“End of the World”) only solidified our love. Meanwhile, check out this unabashedly self-referential paean to their debt to their sometimes lonely goth aspirations. We can’t help it, we love ’em.
9. SOFT KILL Choke
In a number of ways, this has been Soft Kill’s year. From touring with the likes of Modern English, Clan of Xymox, and the Chameleons (sorry, we refuse to attach either that always silly ‘UK’ designation nor the more recent, and distinguishing ‘Vox’) to delivering what has to be considered their most crowning achievement to date, what has been up to this point little more than dizzying potential has, in 2016, become the absolute real deal. Soft Kill has fully and incontrovertibly arrived, and it’s up to us to deal with it. Basically, the US has one of its most premium and powerful post-punk bands within its midst, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
8. BELLICOSE MINDS The Creature
Basically, ‘Oh my god what can we say?!” Bellicose, as they tend to be known, have been the ‘band most likely to’ for ages now. While their debut LP The Spine made any- and everyone that heard it perk up their ears and go ‘What the hell is this?’, the fact is that a year or two too many passed between that insolent debut and the ‘whatever’ that was assumed to follow. Well, come 2016, we finally got our follow-up, and oh my but was it worth the wait. As we said about The Creature upon its release, it’s “[p]acked to its rafters with one cracking track after another,” and we weren’t lyin’. While Nick Bellicose has been busy with his university studies, it appears he and his bandmates Andrew and Mira have also been squirreling away riffs and song ideas the entire time. The result is one, well, bellicose record, full of riffs and attitude just like we like it. One of those records that helps make our overall impression of 2016 a little less severe, and for that we thank them.
7. PERRALOBO Grita Cuando te Quemas
When a band arrives from Valencia, Spain, it’s rather assumed that they may be a bit, well, sedate. Nada could be farther from the truth when it comes to Perralobo. Evincing strains of dark desperation and rage, Perralobo put paid to any idea that the only worthwhile post-punk bands from Spain originate in Barcelona or Madrid. Turns out that any band from any region of that passionate country is capable of producing angst-ridden sentiments that resonate with any of us attuned to the more desperate political vagaries of modern life. Said another way? Perralobo were among 2016’s most riveting arrivals, and bloody hooray for that.
6. NAKED LIGHTS On Nature
Due perhaps to its famous crossbay neighbor essentially sealing its borders – economically-speaking – to the artists and writers and general all-around freaks that helped make it so eccentric and notorious in the first place, Oakland’s scene has been on such an upswing these last five to ten years that all this ‘no there there’ nonsense, always spurious to begin with, is now just utterly ridiculous. Exemplifying the other City by the Bay’s renaissance, Naked Lights bring an adventurous, if organic, sense of experimentation to the form, splaying out in multiple aesthetic directions all at once while maintaining a focus that perfectly blends the restless with the grounded. On the one hand a startling release, on the other, not so much, since, y’know, they’re from Oakland.
5. ROSALUX Rosalux
Here’s how we began our review of this album back in early February of this year: “Rosalux are from Buenos Aires but create a beautifully ruined sound that could conceivably place them just about anywhere on this trouble-plagued planet of ours. One suspects, in fact…that this fearless little trio has figured out a way to read the scars on our collective heart and translate them into song.” Well, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Moody, possessed, genuinely transfixing, Rosalux more or less came out of nowhere and simply captured us. Waiting for their next album has become an office-wide fixation, and getting them to take the leap and agree to tour the West Coast of the US is, for me, now a obsession. One can only dream.
4. AVIARIES Aviaries
By this point on this list – and in truth, anyone on this list could be included in this – every album is jousting for the top spot, with little but the most paper-thin of subjective margins separating one ranking from the other. With that in mind, we come to Wroclaw, Poland’s immensely impressive Aviaries, a quartet of musicians barely in their twenties who just happen to make an epochal noise that not only arrests us in place but also, in the interstitial spaces between those grand slabs of sound, give us permission to feel immortal. Should any doubter challenge our contention that the worldwide wave of post-punk grandeur is arguably as strong as it’s ever been, we can simply, with wordless conviction, point them in the direction of Aviaries. Assured, poignant, and powerful, we feel fortunate to be living in their time.
3. (tie) LITHICS Borrowed Floors
Don’t mean to brag or be cocky, but holy hell does Portland have a thing going on. See, while there are a veritable teeming plethora of great bands quite well known among the post-punk cognescenti both in the US and abroad – Arctic Flowers, Shadowhouse, Bellicose Minds, LUNCH, etc etc – our little bursting scene here is such that a band like Lithics can sneak into our consciousness via live shows and a quick cassette and just tear the whole thing wide open. Echoing Pylon at their mostest coiled and Au Pairs if they were trying to do a James Chance impression in the style of Kleenex (or is that Delta 5 on an odd Zappa-esque bender?), they rather took this town by storm, if a discreet, kind of cerebrally feral type of storm. Enigmatic as they are, they nonetheless left our mouths agape.
Well, this goes almost without saying, doesn’t it? The work of one Eva Moolchan, few albums mesmerized fans of any genre the way that Gymnastics did, seducing those of us hooked on that addictive ESG-grooved, Gang of Four-ish heavy DIY funk vibe. Very little this year regardless of taste or inclination felt as fresh as this. Both naive and knowing, primitive and precocious, full of attitude that not only wasn’t ‘in your face’ but, refreshingly, welcomed you to a world of wonder, joy, and funkitude, it’s pretty much impossible to think of a record that made us happier to be alive. We are wowed.
2. ESCARLATINA OBSESSIVA Drusba
Officially released in late December 2015, we include this because it’s a FRICKIN GREAT RECORD and because, given its release date, wasn’t going to be heard by anyone until early 2016. Eclipsing every parameter we would have expected from them based on previous efforts, Drusba completely turned our heads, filled as it was with ecstatic, troubled songs that had a confidence about them that, as our review stated, “appears to [contain] a profound gelling of intention, drive, and execution, producing as a result a piece of work that coalesces into one of those singular albums that surpasses the sum of the band’s previous efforts even as it absorbs and repurposes them.” Suffice to say, it sustained us through a very difficult year, for which we thank them profusely.
1. BELGRADO Obraz
Sorry, but allow me to say: Oh…my….god…YES! In truth, nothing compared. As strong an album as could be asked for from any band in any genre, Obraz therefore transcended itself, suggesting via the very nature of its convictions that a separately arrived-at nature could be supported by the very strength of its material. As asserted in our review, an updated Au Pairs thrill was central, but even with that touchstone laid open it didn’t matter, as the sound that Belgrado managed on this LP transcended influence. With great fortune that conclusion was verified via a live performance here in Portland, where they simply commanded the night, in the process turning the concert promoter’s decision to cut their live feed into an audience-driven demand to turn it the fuck back on, at which point Belgrado commenced to completely own the night. In short, we have our winner.