Welcome to the dark underbelly of the pretty unfair industry cycle that shoves Radiohead and Queen Bey and Views and that Apple Music independent contractor Chance the Rapper down our collective throats. You can’t really engage with music in 2016 without knowing about those records, but now that the dust has settled, the SPIN staff is throwing some shine to seven very good-to-amazing records that deserve more attention than they’ve received. Quick, get familiar before the next Event Release drops.
The Goon Sax, Up to Anything (Chapter Music)
“I want people to think about me,” is the very first refrain Louis Forster sings on the Goon Sax’s incredible debut album, as if to explain why he started a band. But it’s also why people do a lot of things, and pretty disarming that a 17-year-old would be so succinct about it. Toward the end of Up to Anything, he surveys the listener: “Does it mean anything to you? / Am I doing what anyone else could do?” In short, he speaks for the teens — not just of Brisbane — when he wants to know how he could matter more in the world.
But Forster’s wry monologues, James Harrison’s indelibly circular guitar patterns, and Riley Jones’ month-of-lessons drumming (check those “Heroin”-esque speed-ups on “Telephone”) would ensure their place in history even if Forster’s dad wasn’t a Go-Between. Sweetly alienated knockouts like “Ice Cream (On My Own)” and “Sometimes Accidentally” lend a gravitas to twee as shruggily out of place in 2016 as Tallulah was in 1987 — and every bit as necessary. — DAN WEISS
case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs (ANTI-)
Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs did not need to reestablish their bona fides. But few upstarts could have made an album with the meticulous artisanship of this unexpected-yet-undeniable alt-folk supersquad. The triply self-titled case/lang/veirs encompasses 14 songs, each more deft and lush than the last, but the proliferation of talent never feels overstuffed. Occasionally the women fill out a full harmony, but mostly, they parcel out lead vocals like an expert ensemble cast. Case’s voice stands out in just about any crowd, as do the songs she leads (“Delirium,” “Supermoon”); still, there’s no stage-stealing here. It’s not at all certain that this lovely, gentle record will ever get a follow-up — fortunately, it already sounds damn-near timeless. — ANNA GACA
Nite-Funk, Nite-Funk (Glydezone)
Aiming for atmospherics is a risk when you’re selling instant thrills; if it fails, you get sonic mush. But Dâm Funk has remained consistently engrossing when his funk conjures intoxicating hazes. With Nite-Funk — a pairing with Los Angeles-based singer Ramona Gonzalez (a.k.a. Nite Jewel) that’s been seven years in the making — the keytar maestro reimagines sleek ’80s noir as if Miami Vice focused strictly on the sand and waves.
This homemade world-building is far easier with a vocalist like Gonzalez, who imbues her vocal curlicues with purpose and passion. Highlight “Let Me Be Me” doubles as a danceable mission statement (“I wanna go out in the street / I wanna let out my inhibitions”) and “Love 2x” feels genuinely transformative in its breathless delivery. On Nite-Funk, Gonzalez is the romantic tour guide as Dâm Funk pilots through a vivid nighttime expanse in just 20 minutes. — BRIAN JOSEPHS
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, A Man Alive (Ribbon Music)
“You don’t look for me, but I will look for you,” anti-folkie Thao Nguyen mutters on the opening track to her emotional labyrinth of a fourth record. It’s an innocuous promise, but one that’s buried in subtext: Produced by sometime-collaborator and polyrhythmic virtuoso Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs fame, A Man Alive mainly grapples with Nguyen’s father (or lack thereof), who exited the picture early in his daughter’s life. It’s ironic that such a painful backstory has birthed this crop of relatively cheerful-sounding — not to mention industrious, and never dull — tracks, the most entertaining of which include the spoken-word “Meticulous Bird,” the shapeshifting “Slash/Burn,” and the uptempo but lyrically distressing “Guts” (“You know I’m so easy to find / You won’t come get your girl”). I’m not crying, you’re crying. — RACHEL BRODSKY
Let’s Eat Grandma, I, Gemini (Transgressive)
There might not be a better-named new group this year than Let’s Eat Grandma, a duo of British teens whose music reflects the surreal whimsy and cartoonish violence implied in their moniker. One minute they sound like Daphne & Celeste throwing an EMF dance party, the next they’re play-acting the creeping dementia of Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd — and that’s before they even move on to the next track. Not everything works, and the second side maybe gets bathed in one too many foggy organ dirges, but I, Gemini is like the chorus subject in weirdo-pop single of the year “Eat Shiitake Mushrooms”: Never invincible, but never predictable. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Psychopomp is a 25-minute-long dream-pop album that feels like much more: a sharp-edged exploration of how loneliness and longing form into brittle personal shields. Japanese Breakfast, a.k.a. Michelle Zauner of Philadelphia’s Little Big League, wrote the album at her childhood home following the premature death of her mother, and many of her songs build from the experience of being alone with one’s memories. Crystal-radio jams “In Heaven” and “Everybody Wants to Love You” are rightfully celebrated, but the Frances Quinlan-like pain of “Rugged Country” and the moody keen of “Jane Cum” are equally deserving. “A pure woman is hard to find / To come by these days,” Zauner sings on closer “Triple 7,” and it sounds less like a judgement of others than grief for a lost sense of self. — A.G.
Anna Wise, The Feminine: Act I EP (self-released)
When we weren’t looking, this born superstar (two-ish albums from now, yup, we’ll wait) somehow topped the year’s most casually patriarchy-dismantling hook (“If I say no I’m a bitch / Say yes I’m a slut,” from, you guessed it, “BitchSlut”) with the audacious closing suite “Girl, Mother, Crone”/”Go.” The tunes’ combined six minutes feature the impossible victory of a tribute to Frank Ocean’s gauntlet “Pyramids” (complete with fake John Mayer guitar solo), but the righteously named Wise adds sax and selfie backing vocals straight out of Björk’s “Pagan Poetry.” Those obvious peaks don’t overshadow the rest of this 16-minute tour de force, either: not the rippling D?WN soulydelica of “Precious Possession,” not the brief interview skit with a hideous man, and not the indignant “Decrease My Waist, Increase My Wage.” — D.W.