The 10 Best Alt-Pop Albums Of 2016
Silent Shout is our recurring dispatch from pop’s fringes. It may not be music for the masses, but — to paraphrase *NSYNC — this might be pop.
The great irony of 2016’s biggest TV surprise, Stranger Things, is that it wasn’t actually strange. It was quite familiar. The show’s entire fabric was weaved out of dozens of references to prior works and a past era, all combined into some Frankenstein monster of homage-pastiche that was so blatant about its influences that it felt like a new form of TV easter egg delivery. None of which even matters because the bottom line is that the show was just really entertaining.
But it wasn’t strange. And that’s the challenge for music with the nebulous “alt-pop” label: can it be strange while referencing the familiar? Pop music is normal, safe, approachable — so any alternative spinoff of it can only sustain a certain degree of strangeness, lest it leave the pop realm entirely and become “experimental” music. It’s a complicated balance, and all of the albums on this list managed to retain some sort of clear tie to what we now deem “pop” music by offering mutated, fantastical and exaggerated versions of it. Some sound familiar, some sound like new forms, but compared to the big-tent pop of 2016, they’re all strange.
And so with that in mind, here is one person’s survey of the 10 best alt-pop albums of 2016.
10. Tobacco — Sweatbox Dynasty
This under-the-radar producer does the music for HBO’s Silicon Valley, but his fare for that show is much slicker and snappier than his album output. Sweatbox Dynasty is everything synth music in the 2010s isn’t — queasy, gummed up and imperfect. This is tactile electronic music that sounds like it was once shiny and vibrant until it was neglected, left in a dank basement to grow mold. The songs here have an intense richness and body, but that body is formless and gooey. There are moments of clarity, like “Fantasy Trash Wave” or the chiming key melody on “Hong,” but they are almost immediately subjected to all kinds of degradations and damages, resulting in pretty music pocked with grime and stains.
9. Abra — PRINCESS
For the second straight year Abra makes this list with a project she wrote and produced herself. Right now there’s maybe nobody better at making lo-fi bedroom production sound so versatile: She crafts a warehouse dance party on one track (“Crybaby”) and a darkwave nightmare on another (“Big Boi”), often while using warped Whitney grooves. Her vocals have this intangible combination of innocent charm and invincible maneater, and with such a command over her talents, she’s just getting started.
8. Various Artists — PC Music, Vol. 2
PC Music used to be considered the clickbait of pop, nothing more than insular internet music meant to feed the music #content echo chamber. But this compilation transcends all that by finally allowing listeners to judge the output without all the meta winking baggage.
In the PC Music universe, Hannah Diamond is the superstar. But on opener “Fade Away,” it’s the first time she sounds like she could actually be a superstar in the real world. Carly Rae Jepsen injects their plastic play-acting with her doe-eyed romanticism on “Super Natural,” and it’s not even the best song here — that’s the kind of sweet spot we’re dealing with. But it’s not all toothache sugar bombs, with “Poison” and “A New Family” showcasing the label’s abrasive, industrial-leaning side. Vol. 2 magnifies everything PC Music is known for with less of the artifice, good enough to win the label new fans and convert old detractors.
7. Kilo Kish — Reflections In Real Time
Kilo Kish is sort of an an industry secret, having worked with Vince Staples, Donald Glover, A$AP Ferg and more, but this album feels like the Kilo Kish origin story. And it also doubles as a meta look at the messy habits of the digital life. Kish previously said the album’s writing process amounted to riffing about random thoughts, which could be seen as a careless approach — or you could see it as a conscious choice to subvert the manicured art and content we’re all drowning in. Most of the album is tied to hazy R&B and synth music, but there’s rock, cheeky chamber pop and all kinds of unpredictable tangents, so that listening to it feels like you’re hearing some secret scrapbook entry held together by pieces of tape. Kish’s unvarnished, quiet vocal delivery makes you lean in further to hear it, and even makes the moments that approach commercial viability, like “Fullfillment? or “Relief!”, feel off-kilter and outsider.
Also the track titles are stupendous.
6. LIZ — Cross Your Heart
There are people who will listen to this and think LIZ lost the narrative, but they’re wrong because there is no narrative (said in Neo “There is no spoon” voice). Nothing is sacred on this mixtape. She puts no effort into developing a cohesive sound or “vibe” or natural track progression. It’s just super juicy, sticky sounds hyper-blasted one after the other with no time to process it. The fact that it’s laid out as a 33-minute track only augments that chaotic feeling. Like with Kanye’s TLOP, LIZ plows through a bunch of brash ideas like they’re little candy samplers. It’s harried and hectic pop for the age of distraction.
5. Cellars — Phases
Chillwave was known for its cloudy sounds and whispered words. But Cellars brought the male-dominated micro-genre into the concrete realm on Phases, with words that not only came into focus but were the focus. Since the emotions aren’t just implied based on the shade of synth tone, much of her Ariel Pink-produced album is downright romantic. “Stircrazy” and “Do You Miss Me?” are infatuated pleas filtered through kitschy warped-cassette psych, while tracks like “Real Good Day” and “Still In Love” are bedroom pop curios refashioned as ’80s bedroom jams. In 2016, Cellars proved chillwaves don’t die.
4. Chairlift — Moth
With last week’s announcement that Chairlift are breaking up, Moth has become a memorable final statement from one of indie pop’s trailblazing acts. It’s full of yelps and yips and squeals and squiggles and syncopations, but nobody made so many odd sounds seem so inviting. And that warmth is mainly due to Caroline Polachek, who’s singing her heart out through the whole thing. Despite the head-spinningly intricate arrangements, the album is really a showcase for her underrated vocal talents. Oftentimes the problem with the hyperactive computer pop of the 2010s is the lack of human touch, but Chairlift easily cleared that hurdle.
3. Francis And The Lights — Farewell, Starlite!
Honestly I thought Francis And The Lights would be a major force back when his Peter Gabriel-channeling “Darling, It’s Alright” video hit in 2010. More than half a decade later, the payoff came with this year’s collabs with tastemaker-masterminds Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Chance The Rapper and Bon Iver. His album/mixtape comprises 10 clinically pristine, deconstructed synth-pop tracks. And while it has some of the richest synthesizer tones you’ll hear (“See Her Out,” “Can’t Stay Party”), the most remarkable thing is the singer’s uncanny ability to simultaneously project Steve Winwood-style over-emoting and post-Kanye dissociated digital blues. It’s a grand little statement from an artist who deserved to break through after years of gradually chipping away.
2. ANOHNI — Hopelessness
This is music for staring into the abyss and falling down into it, for when you’re sick of the optimistic takes and just need to embrace the despair because it’s time to stop ignoring it. People complained about the AP History student preachiness of the lyrics (as if normal pop lyrics weren’t clunky), but at least they’re about something. Real things. The wretched shit that few others in the pop culture space have the guts to talk about, from drone warfare to misogyny. Even when ANOHNI’s voice is at its most fluttering or operatic, she’s spouting bracingly bleak truths about the nightmare scenarios that have become reality. This is the version of pop music you’d hear in the Upside Down, which is a reference that definitely won’t age well — but with the election of Future Impeached President Trvmp, the issues ANOHNI tackles here will be ageless.
1. Kero Kero Bonito — Bonito Generation
In 2016, the very concepts of diversity and equality became a threat to the old powers, knowledge was shunned and pure bitterness seemed to be the only coping mechanism. So it makes weird sense that one of the year’s best releases was a Japanese-British band’s chipper pseudo concept album of global pop about graduating and learning to be a “real” adult.
Bonito Generation is an exercise in therapeutic positivity, facing down 2016 with an unironic ear-to-ear grin even if that was never its intention. It’s an earnest celebration of growing up surrounded by touchscreens, and the cultural exchange that comes with that, typified by the LP’s mishmash of J-pop, EDM, early ’00s production tricks, brat-pop, video game soundtracks and basically anything else that sounds upbeat. It’s tastefully overblown, somehow, so that a song like “Graduation” crams in 808s, cat sounds and regal organs without feeling crowded. Bonito Generation is the emotional opposite of Hoplessness, but no less memorable and essential for coming to terms with this demoralizing slog. The lyrics don’t get much deeper than “Yesterday was so sweet,” but when that repeats like a mantra to close out “Picture This,” it feels like the most existentially loaded line of this current moment.