Top 20 LPs of 2016: 10-1 (Jarvix’s Big 50)

For info on the Big 50, head over here.

10. Every Little Thing She Does Is Tragic by Magnificent Bird

Heavily atmospheric, slow-paced and occasionally ghostly, Magnificent Bird’s sprawling opus drifts between acoustic folk and post-rock ambience to stir a ruminating abyss. Every Little Thing She Does Is Tragic emotes through detachment.

While it is clearly rooted in woe, the album doesn’t quite sulk in depression. The lyrics tend to be matter of fact, not slinging loaded words but making whispered observations while the music brings the tone they represent. Occasionally, there is a wry note of humor on the album, as indicated by its title. “Colorado”, for instance, has a recurring, distant line about how its landscapes are “pretty”, but later adds, “if you have money”. This sort of humor is muted in the same way that the narrator’s well of sadness is muted. When one is detached from all emotion, even the various notes of the spectrum start to sound the same.

The only track that starts to break the mold is the standout upbeat number “Saying What You Mean Is How To Get What You Want”, which is as close to a full rock song as the LP gets. Even then, billowing strings and echoed vocals clamor at it until it goes down in mild chaos. The next track, “Don’t Lose Hope”, then picks up with a sober banjo line that spend nearly three minutes of finger picking before the drums return.

Every Little Thing She Does Is Tragic could be a trying listen for anyone used to more immediate, tangible forms of music, but for a meditative mindset, Magnificent Bird lingers beautifully.

Recommended tracks: “Don’t Give In” / “Saying What You Mean Is How To Get What You Want”

9. Power House Sessions Vol. 1 by Various Artists

Recorded at and in cooperation with Power House Bar near downtown OKC, this double compilation album captures a snapshot of Oklahoma music in 2016 that shows both where it has come from and where it is going.

Featuring a who’s who of singer-songwriters making waves of late, Power House Sessions does tend to favor a folk aesthetic through artists like Annie Oakley, Kalyn Fay, and Travis Linville. However, the producers make a point to bring in bands such as Horse Thief, Oklahoma Cloud Factory, Allie Lauren, and Bowlsey to add mild rock and soul elements to the blend.

It all balances out surprisingly well, thanks in part to the excellent tracking. All of the artists are on point in their live takes, and it’s great to finally hear some songs on record that have previously only been played live. These songs steal the show and make great songwriting the most common thread of the album.

There is something special about catching a group of artists, most of whom know each other well, in a zeitgeist of local music presented against the backdrop of one of the scene’s bustling new underground venues. Power House Sessions also serves as a great, easy way to introduce newcomers to a music community that’s as welcoming as it is talented. Either way, it’s an album not to be missed.

Recommended tracks: “Orion’s Belt” (Chase Kerby) / “The Water” (Allie Lauren)

8. Networks by Softaware

Networks opens with a narrated crane shot of its concept with the track “Flow”, which describes, “These are the veins of the city / We are the blood circulating / Thirsting and starved to find the heart.” The scope of the album then zooms in over a quote about social networks to sift through the broken state of romantic love in the modern age.

Softaware’s signature blend of pop, rock, and electronic music is the perfect soundtrack to the paradox of “disconnected connection”, as the sprawling “Foil Teeth (Ghost Embrace)” observes in a combination of live and manipulated vocals.

Networks is brimming with interesting sounds, longform arrangements, and thoughtful production. Part way through, it becomes evident that a number of songs will lyrically be mirrored presentations of the same idea, but that’s where the music helps the LP stay fresh as it builds to its masterful dual centerpiece, “Tender” and “Mists Above Palo Alto”.

Despite its cynicism about the role of technology in intimacy, Networks secretly finds exhilarating hope in its hunt for reconnection.

Recommended tracks: “Future Escape” / “Tender”

7. Cleveland Summer Nights by Wink Burcham

Wink Burcham is one of many artists carrying the proud tradition of Americana songwriting polished with Tulsa lacquer. His LP stands out, though, for its casual versatility. From the classic country of “I’ll Never Leave the Honky Tonks” to the acoustic folk of “Made to Laugh” to the soulful “Hallelujah (Gonna Rest My Soul)”, Burcham traverses a winding mother road of moods with a warm mixture of wit and wisdom.

There isn’t any particular angle to the album other than the desire to just write and play great songs, and that’s exactly what Cleveland Summer Nights does. It works in the way a greatest hits album does; it spans a range of tracks that represent a well-rounded career, offering a composite picture of an artist at his height.

The difference, of course, is that Wink Burcham still has plenty of music left to make, and this album indicates he won’t be fading out any time soon.

Recommended tracks: “Cleveland Summer Nights” / “Lawn Mower Man’s Blues”

6. To Be Human by Blake Lusk

Blake Lusk wears many hats and has a degree of involvement in many projects, so it’s notable when he puts a record out under his own name. He is a figurehead in the experimental underground, and To Be Human is essentially his calling card.

It’s strange, frenzied, and subversive, but his attention to traditional structure makes it palatable in a way that noise rock and art rock don’t always manage to be. Lusk’s manic manipulations with electric guitar and synth dials are often over the top, but the album’s context helps ease the listener into the world through flavors of familiar genres like post-punk and psychedelic rock.

This blog’s full review of To Be Human from July characterized Lusk as a mad scientist distined for cult fandom. Since then, his music has been featured on the radio and was even one of the select few recommended in The Oklahoman’s year-end review in local music. Perhaps people find it more accessible than that review initially thought, or perhaps Lusk has a fanbase in high places. Either way, it all bodes well for the thriving experimental music movement in Oklahoma. With To Be Human, one couldn’t ask for a more suitable gateway drug.

Recommended tracks: “Can’t” / “Creatures”

5. Far Cries and Close Calls by John Calvin Abney

Oklahoma is a huge nest for talented singer-songwriters. A top 20 list could easily be made of only such solo artists that happen to have a folk lean and a collection of heartland songs. John Calvin Abney rises to the top not for his skills alone but for the unique way he chooses to use them.

He is a renowned guitarist, but he conceals his showmanship from the studio. He has the songwriting ability to whittle complexity down to a few bars, but he prefers to expound on it until it branches off into the unknown. He is a familiar figure with a familiar voice, but his sophomore LP–his best to date–presents a less familiar perspective. It doesn’t seem that way at first or even second glance, though, and that’s what makes repeat listens so rewarding with Far Cries and Close Calls.

There isn’t much left to say that wasn’t already said in the album review that this blog put out a few months ago, so check that out for a deeper look at the mystery Abney hides in plain view.

Recommended tracks: “Beauty Seldom Seen” / “Imposter”

4. Thanatopsis by Dischordia

Death metal isn’t for everyone, but for those open to the harsher side of rock music, Dischordia’s latest is a feast for the ears.

Filled with rapidfire kick drums, shouted growls, and technical guitar work, Thanatopsis is notable not just for its intensity, but also for its restraint. It smartly works in variations, some overt and some subtle, that break up what could be a monotonous listen. It is, on the contrary, incredibly engaging, and that’s no small feat for a three-piece metal act.

The band’s use of dynamics strengthens its edge while making efficiently unexpected use of its soft points; final track “The Traveler”, for instance, has a couple of brief interludes that incorporate elements of jazz and classical, even using marimba.

Dischordia is just as creative with its myriad of complex meters, something the band incorporates seamlessly. Foremost, though, is the album’s overall repertoire, which prompts headbanging while offering something more considered, conceptual, and artistically inspired below the surface. Two words of advice: dive in.

Recommended tracks: “The Road” / “Madness”

3. Small Creatures Such As We by Dorian Small

Dorian Small admittedly does a lot of winking at the camera, but it’s hard to say that he doesn’t earn the right.

With his treasure trove of unconventional musical choices and wordy musings, he has made a pop/rock album that feels like a tour through a whimsical but studiously curated art museum. Much like its album art, Small Creatures Such As We follows a clear yet explorative path, indulging in frequent spots of color that appear in unexpected twists and turns. Its palette is boundlessly interesting, yet it is bound into intricately woven compositions.

The unifying element is Small’s voice and Josh Raymer’s drum work, which drift and sizzle respectively. The rest of the arrangements fill out with a cornucopia of instruments that include organ, violin, analog synth, saxophone, and pedal steel guitar, often in uncharacteristic styles.

Dating back over a decade, Small’s catalogue has proven to be no stranger to self-serious mischief, but this is the most inventive he has been. That’s saying something. He slaps together disparate musical worlds in a way that seems reckless, but because of how well everything fits, that is revealed to not be the case at all.

Small Creatures is a triumphant creation and an endless delight the likes of which could only hail from a true craftsman of music.

Recommended tracks: “Bobo” / “Stitches”

2. Lonesome Goldmine by Annie Ellicott

If the uncanny valley had a soundtrack, it would be Lonesome Goldmine. Jazz singer Annie Ellicott takes a breathtaking, hauntingly beautiful 180-degree turn for the avant-garde, and the result is a surreal chamber work of musical poetry.

The atmospheric arrangements make imaginative use of what sounds to be piano, strings, chimes, ukulele, accordion, keys, toy piano, saxophone, whistling, and field recordings. Every note played has a 50% chance of subverting traditional key, chord, and melodic structure. There is also very little percussion, which enables the music to drift into its own strange stratosphere. Most notably, Ellicott withholds her natural vibrato and frequently overlays her voice with unconventional harmonies that further distance it from familiarity. Through this, the songs remain human yet become otherworldly.

Ellicott describes the album as “a living entity that we simply midwifed into the world,” but unlike other births, this one came only after years of pregnancy. Through dedication to a vision mysterious even to its creator, Lonesome Goldmine has come to fruition, and what a bold, divine new fruit it is.

Recommended tracks: “The Going Prayer” / “Shadows Live”

1. Black Future by Jabee

Believe the hype.

This monumental labor of love from OKC’s hip-hop father figure is stuffed to the gills with time-travelling instrumentals, choice features, and most noticeably, bold messages. It takes everything that Jabee has done up to this point and raises the bar, and folks have taken notice–this record very nearly made the Billboard genre charts from online sales alone. That hype is meaningless, though, without the work to support it, so it’s good that Jabee is one of the hardest working people around. Black Future isn’t some flash in the pan that got lucky in coinciding with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is a great album in its own right full of everything that makes hip-hop important, and it is the manifestation of a career that has climbed to reach what feels like a moment of destiny.

On Black Future–the extended title of which is In the Black Future, There’s a Place So Dangerously Absurd–Jabee works with a diverse collection of beats and voices. Some instrumentals make a point to sample watermark sounds from black history, while others tap into present-day production trends that hint toward the future. His incredible team of producers, vocalists, and guest rappers range from fresh-faced locals like Deus to Chuck D himself. Jabee is at the core of it all, of course, relating his personal experiences with the plight of an entire culture while doling out tough love where appropriate.

Jabee willingly shares the spotlight on tracks like “Black Magic” and “Blessed”, knowing that when everyone is orchestrated according to their strengths, it brings out the best in the album. This is also characteristic of his perspective, which has always been about the importance of community; Black Future stands for love and togetherness as much as it hails work ethic and fights for justice. There is unabashed pride in all of these things, and in a rare turn of the genre, it isn’t for show.

There are some criticisms to be had of Jabee. He doesn’t have the most technical flow, the wittiest lyrics, or the trendiest beats, and in attempting to appeal to such a diverse audience, he inevitably will be too watered down for some. He transcends all of this, though. Fueled by the enduring strength of heart and ambition as well as some help from his friends, Jabee has assembled not just the greatest work of his career, but also the best album to come out of Oklahoma in 2016.

Recommended tracks: “Monument” / “Black Magic (feat. Allie Lauren)”

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