For one reason or another, we’re already halfway through the year again. Although I’m not entirely sure how that happened, it does mean it’s time for us to step back a little and reflect on some of the best albums of 2016 so far.
So buckle your seatbelts, and let the people of Cultured Vultures point out all the albums you never knew you always wanted to listen to.
In the world of Scottish rock, anyone who isn’t Biffy Clyro can be easily overlooked all too often. Twin Atlantic do a good job of sticking their heels in, but it’s Fatherson who are the biggest victims of this phenomena, and the least deserving. After their debut album I Am An Island was released in 2014 they’ve steadily grown their fanbase and pushed their DIY roots out of their homeland. Open Book is a brilliant follow up with personal lyrics, fierce energy, and the good solid backbone that made their first full length so brilliant. ‘Wondrous Heart’ is a stand out track that shimmers with compassion.
Andy Shauf – The Party
Canada’s roots musician Andy Shauf is building up quite a back catalogue, with The Party being his fourth release. Whilst there are echoes of his previous album, The Bearer Of Bad News, The Party is the perfect example of how to keep progressing your work without ever drifting too far from where you started. Shauf adds a dusty oil lamp of light into the darkest corners of the soul and brings out a certain beauty in the dreariest edges of everyday life. Attention to detail, grace, and talent all blossom in Shauf’s work, and The Party is not an exception.
The Summer Set – Stories For Monday
When it comes to seeing the best in the word, no one does it quite like The Summer Set. Their latest album Stories For Monday is just as fun loving and optimistic as every other mark in their work, looking back on their youth through rose tinted glasses and embracing the future with open arms and close knit friends. Whilst not pop punk, they undeniably fall in the gap between the categories. Pop vocals and melodies meet the relatable lyrics and real emotion of punk songs. Perhaps they should invent a new genre called “emo chart music” just for The Summer Set.
How do you follow up the best album in your career with something that united and new fans alike? If I knew the answer to that, I would be a much richer man, but Astronautalis must have the formula. Cut the Body Loose is anthemic but gritty, a combination that few apart from the Florida rapper have mastered. If you’re looking for an excuse to start listening to some hip-hop with smarts, put Running Away From God on your playlist.
letlive. – If I’m the Devil
As accustomed to the heavy, sometimes ugly sound of letlive. as I was, I could be forgiven for thinking that the lead tracks off If I’m the Devil… proved that they were losing their edge. It’s true that they’ve lost a touch of the barely controlled rage that anchored their sound for years, but this new album shows that they can mix maturity and anger with ease. Check out Copper Colored Quiet, a percussion-driven thing of beauty.
Bear Hands – You’ll Pay For This
The always approachable Bear Hands should be absolutely huge by now – it’s almost a crime that they aren’t. The American act have a sound that’s hard to categorise, jumping from straight up indie rock to lo-fi disco without breaking a sweat often, and You’ll Pay For This showcases them at their very best. Just when I thought they couldn’t top 2014’s sublime Distraction, Bear Hands surprised me, as any progressive band should. Listen to 2AM for an idea of how much they own this album.
The Manchester based Gondwana Records have been absolutely on fire this year, with strong releases from almost all their signees, but perhaps unsurprisingly it’s their front line champions GoGo Penguin who have made the most lasting impression. The three piece’s aptitude for blending their jazz sensibilities with more outlandish influences continues to advance, and while it might not be their best album, Man Made Object is still a marvel. The swells, attacks and slow descents make for an exhilarating experience, and it’s not often that an album which makes perfect driving music will also make you burst into tears if it catches you off guard.
Ocean Wisdom – Chaos ’93
The buzz around Ocean Wisdom has been gaining ground for the past 2 years or so, and now with the support of High Focus we have his first full release. This isn’t just the best UK hip-hop album of the year, it’s one of the best albums of the year full stop. Wizzy’s flow is, to put it mildly, intimidating, and beat production from Dirty Dike and a pantheon of legendary featured artists like Foreign Beggars and The Four Owls all come together to create one of the most mind shattering opening salvos in hip-hop history. Wizzy has smashed the door down and declared his presence in the game, you’d better pay attention.
Anderson .Paak – Malibu
Since I first heard him featuring as a guest vocalist on the TOKiMONSTA track, ‘Realla’, I knew that Paak was going to take off. Following big presences on Dre and The Game’s most recent offerings, as well his collaborative project with Knxwledge – NxWorries, Paak has released Malibu, his second LP under that name and my absolute favourite release thus far this year. His wavering between deep, Dilla influenced hip-hop, funk, soul and disco has enabled him to define a style which is unique and impossible to ignore. The thematic drive of it, the relentlessly warm vibe, the social commentary, it all shares the weight of a record that will not let you stop listening to it, and every time you hit repeat, you uncover something new. This would be a career defining moment for anyone, but I feel like Paak is just getting started.
David Robert Jones introduced the world to David Bowie as a space oddity, and as he left us – still very much an oddity – he did so with the parting gift of a space odyssey in his full-length swansong, Blackstar. Perhaps the only thing befitting the signing off of the genre-defying alien come to earth, and a self-aware signing it is. It’s easy to attach meaning to art in hindsight, but it is impossible not to take note of how very brazenly Bowie was dealing with his own mortality on Blackstar. Instead of sufficing himself to wait it out and welcome peace at last, Bowie worked right until the end and lyrically dealt with his past, his present, his legacy, and what it all meant in the context of his imminent death. All underscored by one of Bowie’s most sprawling, ethereal, alien, abstract, sincere, and challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, albums. A fitting epitaph.
Death Grips – Bottomless Pit
Possibly the band most likely to implode on purpose, pissing you off in the process but sporting a purposeful and satisfied smile all the while. For fans of the band, following Death Grips has almost been as turbulent as the confrontational music they’ve been producing ever since they first exploded with Exmilitary; an experimental mixtape of in your face, abrasive noise rap. Having quit tours, disbanded, re-banded, delivered final albums, and more, this may technically be Death Grips 2.0 but it feels at least a 3.0. Bottomless Pit in name alone suggests that there is a deep well from which Death Grips can mine, and sonically the album proves it. Calling to mind a collation of all the directions Death Grips have dabbled in so far, Bottomless Pit is at times their most aggressive and most accessible, their most hip hop and most punk rock, their most melodic and their most dissonant. Their best yet?
Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
In the four years between his last album, Skelethon, and The Impossible Kid, Aesop Rock has predominantly spent his creative time collaborating with others. Whether it be through guest verses and production spots, or full on collaborative efforts, releasing albums and EPs as part of a duo or in groups alike, Rock has been very much a team player these last four years. However, on this, his seventh solo album, Aes delivers his most significantly solo album to date boasting no features and his lone production duty throughout. It’s perhaps understandable as The Impossible Kid offers up the most openly personal album Aes has released. Renowned for his encyclopaedic vocabulary, Rock’s lyricism can often be seen has abstract, dense and impenetrable. However, here we find bars no less verbose but the lines themselves are no longer so extensively masked in metaphor or multisyllabic rhymes. Aes hasn’t dumbed down his lyrics but opened their meanings up instead. It also helps his production skills are at their peak, wrapping the album in a cohesive and coherent musical whole.
Holy Fuck returns with innovative and catchy beats that come together as a beautiful blend of intensity and melody. What’s most exciting here is how the band explores brand new territory. This is a much more “vocal” album, with the band blending voices into the pulsating electronics. It’s not the first time that words have appeared in Holy Fuck songs, but the band does a lot more with them this time around. The vocals are treated as another instrument, and they work perfectly to paint the grand aesthetic of the album. The album is packed with highlights, especially standout tracks “Xed Eyes” and “House of Glass,” the latter of which will rip your chest apart.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
A Moon Shaped Pool is a gorgeous piece of music that rewards each subsequent listen. No, it’s not OK Computer Part 2, and it sure as hell isn’t the “natural” follow-up to The King of Limbs. This is an album filled with surprises that will satisfy fans for years to come. The strings are haunting, there’s a damn guitar solo, and the absolutely gorgeous studio rendition of “True Love Waits” is what Radiohead fans have been desperately wanting for well over a decade. Even after dozens of listens, it’s tough to say if this is a cohesive album as opposed to a collection of carefully arranged beautiful songs. It might be that Radiohead has just redefined exactly what an album is.
Deftones – Gore
Gore combines heavy, melodic, and emotional in a way that few albums manage to do without seeming cheesey. After the classic-sounding opener “Prayers/Triangles,” the album sounds like an odd yet cohesive combination of everything Deftones have done over the past 20 years. But it’s not a Deftones-by-the-numbers package. The band reaches new heights on what is surely their most consistent effort since White Pony. “Hearst/Wires” features one of the best intros of the decade. The title track contains the most intense screams of Chino’s career. And “Phantom Bride” has an incredible guitar solo from Jerry Cantrell. It’s a diverse, powerful, and brilliant record that most bands couldn’t dream of after two decades.
After becoming sober and making a triumphant return to music with 2014’s PRhyme, and the deluxe edition of the same album in 2015, Royce 5’9 has come back with his most transparent album yet. While previous albums have been filled with sharp lyricism, clever rhymes and silly comedy, Layers has Royce getting more autobiographical and putting all aspects of his personality into his music. The lead single “Tabernacle” has been turning heads not for the usual witty raps Royce is known for, but for the way he’s able to immerse the listener with a story about the most significant day in his life. Not only does he have a more honest appeal on this album, but he’s still slaying beats with an unorthodox style of rhyming, and still has great comedic timing. Becoming sober has given Royce 5’9” more clarity in terms of crafting an album with direction and purpose, and the different layers of his character go deeper than simply spitting dope raps over dope beats.
Apathy – Handshakes With Snakes
We all know (or we should) that Apathy is one of the fiercest lyricists in hip-hop today, and Ap proves this yet again with his new album. What will really turn heads about this album is the production, and the way Ap has developed this skill over the years. The first song “Pay Your Dues” might be the best display of hip-hop sampling in 2016 (I won’t spoil the fun of trying to guess where the samples came from), and the album doesn’t look back as it takes you on a classic 90’s vibe. Ap lyrically critiques the current state of hip-hop while also having some fun and showing off his versatility, whether it’s by flowing at speeds matching Twista and Bun B or trading punchlines with Celph Titled. This is another dope addition to his growing catalogue.
Royce 5’9″ – Trust The Shooter
I know this is a free EP and not an album, but it’s still better than most hip-hop albums I’ve heard this year. While Royce saved his more introspective songs for Layers, this EP is filled with rap chaos as he mostly performs lyrical exercises with non-stop rapping. When it comes to just spitting sharp rhymes over dope beats, Royce is sounding hungrier than ever. After collaborating with Black Thought on the deluxe edition of PRhyme, the two are back with another epic track here that also teases the inclusion of Eminem – something that’s sure to excite fans for what they may have in store for the rest of the year. Even though some of the songs are shared between Layers and Trust The Shooter, the ones exclusive to this EP are among some of the best rap verses of 2016.
Australian producer Flume a.k.a Harley Streten pushed his innovative and refreshingly unique sound to the next level on this, his sophomore album. Gelling pop with future bass to great success, singers and rappers including Tove Lo, Vince Staples and Little Dragon all shine when set alongside the offbeat, electrifying production from Streten. Every track is full of surprises and each offers plenty of replayability, with Helix appearing to be a standard, epic album opener before ascending into a chaotic, bass-driven banger. Personal but vast, emotional and intense, Flume has once again proven himself to be at the pinnacle of the electronic scene with Skin.
Baauer – Aa
The long-time trap producer Baauer has never been one to play it safe. Proving to be a perfect definition of the hip-hop inspired, bass heavy trap scene, Baauer’s Aa is not afraid to take risks, varying from brief, experimental bursts to more finely honed tracks. The highlights ‘Day Ones’ and ‘Temple’ are both punctuated by bold, bravado brass sounds that perfectly complement the brash vocals of Novelist and M.I.A respectively. Kung Fu, featuring Future and Pusha T, also goes to illustrate Baauer’s impressive range, producing an infectious backing for the two rappers.
James Blake – The Colour In Anything
Posterboy for the post-dubstep movement, English songwriter and producer James Blake’s soulful, melancholy style and incredible singing voice has earned him many well-deserved plaudits, culminating in a Mercury Prize for his stunning album Overgrown. While that album was Blake at his most accessible, The Colour In Anything is the polar opposite, an extremely personal and lengthy album that has a predominantly sombre tone. ‘Radio Silence’ is the perfect introduction, showcasing the range of Blake’s doleful voice, the powerful piano chords that make up much of his work and the intricate, stylised drum patterns. Other highlights include ‘My Willing Heart’, a slow-burner that picks up for a powerful finale and was co-written by Frank Ocean, and Timeless. Simply put, The Colour In Anything provides a welcome change of pace.
Almost one year after releasing his critically acclaimed album, To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar quickly returned to the top of the charts through the release of untitled unmastered, a compilation of eight demo tracks recorded during the making of To Pimp A Butterfly. untitled unmastered serves as another strong demonstration of Kendrick’s distinct flow and lyrical abilities, backed by some pretty smooth funk and jazzy beats. Some might argue that untitled unmastered should not even be considered an album and that it is merely the ‘scraps’ from To Pimp A Butterfly, but it has drawn considerable praise and demonstrated that Kendrick Lamar is still a powerful figure in hip hop and that he’s pretty far from retiring. In fact, he’s just getting started.
Skepta – Konnichiwa
Although it might have not received much mainstream attention and airplay, Konnichiwa not only debuted at number two in the UK charts and proved that grime is far from dead as a force in UK music. Cementing Skepta as the ‘voice of grime’, this grime masterpiece and the intense underground media coverage around this album (through outlets such as VICE) really put Skepta back in the game after a five year absence. Consistent features in this album such as a unique flow, decent lyrics and a raw authenticity, complimented by dark, distinctive beats, showcase an admirable British brand of hip hop that has even received surprising popularity in the United States and Canada.
TUFT – Look Look
LA indie-rock band TUFT made a powerful debut in 2016 with their album Look Look. Although this album has not charted significantly or even broke out into the mainstream yet, its quality is still evident. TUFT frontman Casey Trela describes the album as lyrically dealing thematically with “a cathartic unpacking of moving into adult life — a sometimes anxious meditation on the valleys between life’s peaks.” Its sound is reminiscent of indie bands such as The XX and The 1975, although certain songs on this album give it more of an alt-rock feel.
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