You only get one shot at a debut record. Kicking off our Best Music of 2016 series, we explore 10 of our favorite first efforts of the year. The list traverses many genres, so there’s a little something for everyone among this list. Check it out and let us know which ones we missed.
DMA’s – Hills End (Mom + Pop)
If we are never to get an Oasis reunion, at least we have Aussie rockers DMA’s to take care of our Britpop needs. I caught them at Bonnaroo in 2015 on the very first day and I couldn’t believe that along with the Oasis sound, these guys were decked out in Adidas jumpsuits. Lead singer Tommy O’Dell even has a Liam Gallagher quality to his singing. I must have played opening track “Timeless” 100 times in a row when I got an advance copy of this record in January. It became a favorite song of mine this year even though it took talking to the band directly to find out what the fuck they were saying in the song’s chorus. The debut record approaches Definitely Maybe levels of volume. The album is just so fucking loud in the best way. But they also know how to dial things back on their acoustic numbers the way Oasis did. “Delete” and “Step Up the Morphine” are those pace-changing tracks. This album’s final song “Play It Out” is just as good as anything on the record, which is strong from beginning to end. Even better is that these songs translate wonderfully to a live setting.
Lapsley – Long Way Home (XL Recordings)
That this record was released when Lapsley was only 19 is a testament to her maturity beyond her years. She’s been hailed as the next Adele by more than a number of outlets — and is also on the same label as the chart-smashing singer. It’s hard to pinpoint a genre that she fits in. It’s adult contemporary but there’s also an electronic twist to it. There’s a lot of room for her to grow but this record is a great starting point. Just a few years ago she was recording in her bedroom as a teenager and now she’s touring around the world. One thing she does that’s unique is she’ll sometimes sing a duet by using a voice modifier on one of the verses, as she does on “Station.” She even does a little doo-wop on the vintage-sounding “Operator.” A lot of her songs seem to be about loneliness and heartbreak, but the singer proves she’s quite adept at doing things on her own on this debut record.
HAELOS – Full Circle (Matador)
UK outfit HAELOS’ brand of dark melancholy electropop is as dancey as it is entrancing. Singer Lotti Benardout’s high-pitch vocals provide a nice contrast to the male vocal parts of their grooves. There’s a bit of Ace of Base in their sound, if the tunes were slowed down a bit and more synthy. Their sound also has a bit of that after-hours vibe, perfect for the comedown. This is still solid dancefloor fodder from beginning to end. “Dust” and “Earth Not Above” are the two standout tracks amongst 11 really solid ones.
Julia Jacklin – Don’t Let the Kids Win (Polyvinyl)
I first discovered Aussie singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin this year opening up a stacked bill at the El Rey headlined by Julien Baker, whose own debut album was perhaps the best of 2015. Jacklin hit me in the feels immediately as she played songs from her debut record, just her and her electric guitar. The lead track from the record, “Pool Party” sounds like a more melodic version of Angel Olsen’s “Unfucktheworld.” Olsen is the most common comparison that I’ve seen Jacklin get in writeups of her music, but I also draw a connection to Jenny Lewis, as well as Lisa Hannigan. “L.A. Dream” sounds like Jenny Lewis’ “It Wasn’t Me” from her first, country-ish record with The Watson Twins. The recurring theme amongst those is a series of women that know how to write a killer tearjerker.
HINDS – Leave Me Alone (Mom + Pop)
Spanish garage rockers HINDS’ debut album is a mess — but it’s a beautiful mess that perfectly catches their dynamic and vibe. I interviewed band leader Carlotta Cosials last October for Grimy Goods, just a few months before the debut record would come out. She described their sound perfectly as “lo-fi, lo-fi” and how the producer was the same on their demos, it being the biggest thing he’s worked on. The inexperience comes across as a positive because of their sound. It’s almost like beginner’s luck, they didn’t overthink things and kept it simple and their energy really shines. It’s no surprise they are a big hit with the younger kids. They both embrace imperfection. I love the way Cosials and Ana Perrote duel on vocals across many of the tracks, particularly on “Bamboo.” Their broken English is adorable but make no mistake — these girls are all certified bad asses that will outdrink and outsmoke you.
Roosevelt – Roosevelt (City Slang)
If you told me this album came out in the ’80s, on first listen I wouldn’t doubt it. But despite the fact that this record would’ve made a great companion to driving a boat in GTA Vice City (a video game set in the Miami Vice era). But this album is a bit more sophisticated than any of the synthpop you would’ve found back then. Marius Lauber is the man behind Roosevelt and he hails from Cologne, Germany. His roots aren’t surprising when you take into account electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! both come from the same country. The layering on this record is pretty incredible and it will also make you want to dance from start to finish. There’s a bit of disco in it — if Boogie Nights came out today, Roosevelt’s “Moving On” would be in the film somewhere. I hope we get to see him on some lineups in 2017, he’d be perfect for a mid-day tent slot at any major festival. His brand of alt-electronic strays from mainstream EDM, which means he’s ahead of his time.
Marian Hill – Act One (Republic)
Electro-pop duos are becoming a regular thing these days. You’ve got Phantogram, Purity Ring, Sylvan Esso, AlunaGeorge, Oh Wonder. Marian Hill is another one, but they’ve got something different from the rest. There’s a certain jazzy element to go along with a bit of a folksy one. I’d call this Marian Hill record electro R&B at its finest. Some of their songs take on a minimalist approach closer to Sylvan Esso than any of the other previously mentioned acts. They know how to write a catchy hook and they stray from the usually trap drop, which is very much welcome. They use a lot of brass sounds throughout the record as beats — just listen to “Talk To Me” for a good instance. “Were you invited are you in off the street? Cuz’ you smoked up all the weed and now you’re grinding up on me” from “Wild” is one of my favorite lyrics of 2016. Vocalist Samantha Gongol shines all over this album.
Wet – Don’t You (Columbia)
Wet is in a similar alt-R&B vein as Marian Hill, but without the jazz aspect. It’s got a more reflective vibe than a dance floor one. Many of the songs from their debut record are on the quiet side with vocalist Kelly Zutrau’s singing and songwriting at the forefront. Zutrau proves silence is golden — using it often to cut dramatically before launching into another heartwrenching verse or chorus. These moments occur all over the record but are particularly strong on the first bit of “Weak,” before the song adds a bit more instrumentation to carry a different rhythm.
Banks & Steelz – Anything But Words (Warner Bros.)
This may have been the most unlikely awesome debut albums of the year. Who would have thought Paul Banks of Interpol and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan would make such a killer match? If you ever heard Jay-Z’s mashups with Linkin Park about a decade ago, which were awesome, this takes what made those great and steps it up a notch because it’s all original music. Interpol is one of the bands that led the indie rock charge at the turn of the century — who knew that he would help author one of the best rap-rock records in recent years? If you’d paid attention to his non-Interpol work, you might have. The guy once released a mixtape called Everybody On My Dick Like They Supposed to Be, which featured El-P and Talib Kweli. Banks’ brand of vocals are unique as hell and it turns out he’s got some good flow to go with it. RZA brings as much to the table as Banks and it’s a true marriage. The production is of a high level. Seeing them perform live at FYF Fest this year makes me hope this isn’t just a one-off, there’s a real future for these two together if they want it. Also, what other album could nab an eclectic mix of features from the likes of Florence Welch, Kool Keith and Ghostface Killah and Method Man?
Gallant – Ology (Civil Music)
Gallant didn’t just have one of the best debut albums of 2016 — he had one of the best R&B records of the year to boot. He released his first EP in 2014 but took his time on his first full release, and boy was it worth the wait. “Weight in Gold” was a massive inescapable smash, but the record is strong from top to bottom. There were probably more babies made to this record than any other in 2016. Gallant’s falsetto is nearly unmatchable — from the album’s first full track “Talking to Myself” and through the remaining fifteen tracks on the record. The record ins unmistakably R&B — but it also features some triphop, rock, even some downtempo electronic. His album helped make the wait for Frank Ocean’s latest easier to pass. It also takes bits and pieces of the best 90’s R&B — from the likes of Jodeci to the likes of Boyz II Men and even Babyface. This is one of the best bedroom albums of the decade in my opinion. He’s definitely proved he’s here to stay.
Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math, Harriet – American Appetite, Lewis Del Mar – Lewis Del Mar, Matt Corby – Telluric, Kevin Gates – Islah, NAO – For All We Know