Top 20 EPs of 2016: 20-11 (Jarvix’s Big 50)

For info on the Big 50, head over here.

20. The EP by Gabrielle B.

Backed by sparse R&B instrumentals, Gabrielle B.’s silky smooth voice takes center stage in her debut, The EP. Soft in hue but sturdy in skill, her vocals gracefully paint her thoughts along slow jams decorated with sizzling percussion, jazzy guitar, and cool synths. The often stripped down way that these sounds are presented clears the way for Gabrielle B. to shine, but she makes sure to never hog the spotlight.

The EP offers a pocketful of songs relating thoughts on love and life that go down easy.  “Undercover Lovers” is a mellow tune about the the back and forths of relationships that blends clean guitar noodling, bits of backing vocal, and finger snaps. On “Wonderful”, she writes from an angle of introversion but performs without much hint of it. That track features fat synth bass that juxtaposes the delicate lead melody while twinkled flourishes swarm and dissipate.  “Sweet Escape” is the busiest of the five cuts on the album, but even as its ear-catching R&B brims with confectionary goodness, Gabrielle B. doesn’t overindulge.

The titles of “Sweet Escape” and “Wonderful” could just as well describe her performances on The EP, so here’s hoping she continues on to bigger projects.

Recommended track: “Sweet Escape – Intro”

19. [Untitled] by Keeper

Keeper, one of Oklahoma City’s foremost emo groups, disbanded this summer with little warning. Months later, its anticipated 2016 album quietly hit Bandcamp as the band signed off for good. [Untitled] is similarly understated with its minimal album art, title, and music. It’s solid in its own right—Keeper is good at what it does even when things are falling apart—but what helps further convey the mournful tone of the EP is its context.

Previous efforts from Keeper featured heavy guitars, throat-shredding cries of anguish, and attention-seeking presentation. The band had a fire that ignited with a passionate fanbase. Because of this, the new material’s more subdued approach has an extra layer of starkness that it otherwise wouldn’t have. The track “Spiral” mutters, “I’d like to think that I am done with this, and that it’s okay to let myself fall back to what got me here in the first place.” Lines like this carry an extra resonance when released posthumously.

While Keeper has long rejected verse/chorus tradition, [Untitled] drops any sense of lyrical format, letting unstructured confessionals pour out across clean guitars and distant harmonies. “The Clearing” at times feels like an emptier shell of previous work, but all other tracks meld well with each other. Opener “Focus” is the most ambitious, offering a dramatic choral preamble and an instrumental that treads post-rock territory. The promise of such choices will be sorely missed.

Recommended track: “Fluid”

18. The Kinda Like Beau Live (w/Duggle in the Hizzy) Album EP by Beau Mansfield

Beau Mansfield puts his outsider persona on full display in this ridiculously titled and wildly eccentric EP. He says as much on “Where You Can Get Things Done”, a pros-and-cons look at Oklahoma life that says “I probably just don’t belong here, but then I probably don’t belong much of any place else”. This track includes brisk drums, backing guitar, and Mansfield’s trademark piano in a rare traditional arrangement that makes sure not to take focus from the delightfully wry songwriting.

Other cuts are practically the opposite. “The Album Song” is a 6-minute whacked out partial improvisation that is barely a song, for instance, but it still feels in place with the anything-goes tone of the EP. Note that the whole setlist kicks off with a song called “Breakfast Sandwich” that somehow manages to combine organ with reggae and make that one of the least insane aspects of the track. The album’s bells and whistles frequently come dated to modern ears, but if anyone can make a 90s-styled preprogrammed synth beat work with genuinely impressive ivory tickling, it’s Mansfield.

The songs tend to be highly self-referential, sometimes poking at the songs while singing them and often breaking the EP’s fourth wall. Musically, the album is about as all over the map as its title suggests, but there’s a uniform, deeply witty perspective behind the zaniness. The same guy who sings about going to Sonic for breakfast with no metaphor in sight also has a metaphoric song called “Time to Move My Car”, which strips all of the strange aesthetic for an intimate round of humorous and sobering self-reflection.

Mansfield’s creative tone is probably a love-it-or-hate-it scenario, but one thing is certain. There is nothing remotely like it.

Recommended track: “Time to Move My Car”

17. Give It All by Stephen Salewon

Stephen Salewon has a voice that is familiar yet fresh. What sets him apart from the hundreds of other males with acoustic guitars is faint, organic, and hard to distinguish. It could be subconscious mannerisms or the way his tone carries his melodies without too much or too little effort.

Regardless of what lies under the smooth skin of his sublime vocal takes, his EP would be little without solid material to back it. Salewon mostly brings breezy, pop-sensible love songs that don’t tackle new lyrical territory, but his ear for good melody and blossoming arrangements takes the solo roots of these songs and further embeds them in rich musical soil.

He plays with different guitar styles along the album, even dropping it to the background on the piano-led “Honey”. Meanwhile, unintrusive percussion, backing vocals, organ, and strings take turns spinning an aura around his solo performances. Give It All is a lovingly crafted, blissfully quaint effort that brings out the best in Salewon’s material and talent.

Recommended track: “Give It All”

16. EP by WIFI BOIZ

A random sampling of Bandcamp will typically net a plethora of amateur output, usually in the electronic or rock genres. The latter tends to be especially rough around the edges, so it’s a pleasure when a DIY garage rock recording is as fun and easy to listen to as it was to make.

Enter the short-lived duo WIFI BOIZ, who carried no pretense in slapping together a 4-song EP titled EP. What the album lacks in studio finesse, it makes up with competent performances, a contagious element of on-the-fly energy, and, believe it or not, well-written songs.

“I Can’t Skate” is about exactly what it says it is, but while the topic’s casualness is typical of its sound, the self-deprecation is more unexpected. “I Don’t Like Much (But I Do Like You)” drops the line “I don’t like Minions” at one point with a straight face in a list of oddball items building up to the unromantically shouted “But I like you!” By contrast, “Boner Champs Forever” is simply, well, absurd. It has no discernable meaning and was probably some sort of in-joke, but it’s catchy, funny, and even makes time for an acoustic outro in its 2:18 runtime.

EP is less than 10 minutes, but second for second, it provides more enjoyment than many EPs at twice that length.

Recommended track: “Can’t Skate”

15. When You Need Me by Oklahoma Cloud Factory

Since releasing its excellent full-length debut in 2014, Oklahoma Cloud Factory has found itself in the midst of a transition.

The band’s acoustic elements are now practically gone, and the brooding, languishing tempos have kicked into a higher gear. The sulky tone of the lead singer’s grizzled-folk vocals still wander from deadpan to anguish, however, and the band’s songs are still built around solid, introspective rock structures.

On When You Need Me, Oklahoma Cloud Factory shows off this revision with opener “Flip the Record Over”, which is a reference greater than the song itself. It represents a changing of the guard to a more upbeat electric feel, which comes midway through the song and energizes the EP in a welcome and unexpected way.

The remaining two tracks continue to sonically fight back the depression that has often characterized OCF’s work, but that isn’t to say the indie rock band is completely turning a new leaf. The pleading uncertainty of “Leave Me” and the cynical perspective of “Portland” reveal a deeply rooted pessimism that won’t be going anywhere any time soon. The lead vocalist/songwriter seems to be in a more hopeful place while not entirely trusting it, and When You Need Me captures that doubtful moment of transition in a fantastic way.

Recommended track: “Portland”

14. Ides by Samuel Regan

Experimental sound artist Samuel Regan likes to dabble in ambience, found sounds, and audio manipulation. All of those show up on Ides, which is classifiable by runtime as an EP despite having eight tracks. Each track feels like a separate window into a different world, only allowing the listener a quick gaze before moving to the next. The worlds presented are so frequently dark and strange that it’s hard to conceive of their creation. That many of Regan’s compositions spring from natural and musical samples is even more intriguing.

Compared to his more continuous efforts, Ides is choppy from segment to segment, but it works in this intentional context. Moreso, when the second to last composition, “Improvisation for Telecaster, Bow & Delay” arrives, its sudden indulgence feels meaningful. It runs thrice as long as its neighbors, and it provides a meditative focal point to the album.

Regan’s work is derived from off-the-cuff experimentation, which could be a turn off for compositionally minded listeners. Similarly, his enthusiasm with harsh textures may overshadow the beauty within them in some minds. For the more adventurous, though, he is an exciting prospect, and Ides is a great way to become acquainted.

Recommended track: “Ancilia”

13. Restless EP by Beach Language

Celebrating the pop side of indie rock, Beach Language conveys danceable tunes with deceptively casual performances. Its rhythms play loose but not lazy as keys and guitars share in the grooves on Restless EP.

Other embellishments help further the band from typical four-piece rock format. The 80’s-tinged synth on “Fear is a Restless Creature” is thick and inescapable, “Youth Desert” has some piano and chime bits that come and go nicely, and “Shook” has an unexpectedly funky electronic bass line. Some of the songs use an internal swing beat, and while those tend to play best with the band’s dance elements, closer “Rust” proves there is more in the arsenal with its focus on soft, glimmering pop songwriting.

A number of bands in this style are either guitar-heavy and keyboard-light or keyboard-heavy and guitar-light. Restless EP, however, is somewhere in the middle, which is to say that it’s balanced and, in many ways, the best of both worlds.

Recommended track: “Shook”

12. Single's Awareness Day II by L.T.Z.

It took a bit for folks to catch on to L.T.Z. and his stellar LP from last year, Barcelona ’92, but it did happen over the course of 2016. Not one to lose a beat, he put out multiple singles this year in the wake of his increasing popularity.

To help tide fans over until his next full-length, he also put out Singles Awareness Day II on Valentine’s Day. With confectionery throwback samples and styles, L.T.Z. cleverly works through some personal history while referencing the past musically as well. There is a radio show framework that lands a few laughs, but the EP spends more time solemnly dealing with emotions than it does partying.

As with Barcelona ’92, his lyrical strengths lie more with his unique perspective and inspired concepts than with the nuts and bolts of his rhymes. Even so, he holds his own on all fronts and proves with his quickly growing catalogue that the old quality vs. quantity debate is moot when one can pull off both.

Recommended track: “Hit Me on My RAZR feat. Cooki Turner”

album art for Untie My Tongue by The Fairweather, released 2016

11. Untie My Tongue by The Fairweather

Stuffing five tracks with a wide palette of contemporary alt rock trends, The Fairweather shoots for the moon on its first release under the new moniker. Formerly Aftermidnight, the four-piece rocks upbeat jams with frontman swagger on tracks like “Streetcar” but settles down for others such as “I’d Be a Fool”, which hints toward arena anthem territory. With some cuts stretching beyond the five-minute mark, the band takes its time to soak in the glory of its brand of rock. It rarely feels as long as it is, though, and that’s always a good sign. That may have something to do with the way some of the tracks lead into one another without breaks, which helps the continuous listening experience.

The Fairweather’s influences are plentiful, and while that’s hardly a negative quality in itself, it can be troublesome if the band doesn’t mix in enough originality. That occasionally happens on Untie My Tongue, but the band compensates with production value and, more importantly, talent. When the proving grounds of emotional closer “Drifting Home” comes, the lead vocalist/guitarist knocks his performance out of the park as his bandmates swell in support.

For bands shooting for the big time, EPs are often a way to show range and ability, and The Fairweather fires on all cylinders with Untie My Tongue. It wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see a label swipe this group up.

Recommended track: “Untie My Tongue”

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