Best Vancouver albums of 2016

The December holidays are a time of merriment – except when the yearly avalanche of best of lists hits. Vancouver Weekly gifts to all of you one more list to raise blood pressures and to start arguments about glaring omissions, undeserved praise, and predictable choices. But at least we have the good grace to calm the flames a little by listing our picks alphabetically instead of ranking them.

Here once again are our top 10 picks for best Vancouver albums of the year.

Adrian Teacher & the Subs – Terminal City (You’ve Changed Records)

Terminal City finds former Apollo Ghosts and COOL TV member Adrian Teacher at his pop rock finest. Joined by the Subs – drummer Amanda P. and bassist Robbie N. – Teacher zooms through 10 glistening gems. But the immediately gratifying music is a veneer for his polemics against Vancouver. Granville Street punks, Emily Carr punks, top buns, breweries, and coffee shop economy – almost nothing seems safe as he laments the shuttering of mom & pops but celebrates delicious bowls of pho from his favourite Vietnamese restaurants.

Terminal City feels like an album for Teacher’s “friends that cannot make ends meet.” But he dispenses his commentary with a degree of if not humour then at least self-aware culpability: “This city / is sick / But I’m not / Sick of it / It’s your fault / It’s my fault,” he sings on the funky “Forget America”. If he has stepped on any listeners’ toes, those individuals can at least appreciate him for being honest about himself.

Standout track “Charmless Babes”

Adrian Teacher and the Subs courtesy of the band's Facebook page.
Adrian Teacher and the Subs courtesy of the band’s Facebook page.

DUMB – Mustang Law (self-released)

As catchy as DUMB’s debut album Beach Church is, those songs feel a bit like sketches compared to those on their follow-up and second album of the year Mustang Law.

For act II, DUMB has offered up tighter punk numbers that feel more thought out in their relative structural complexity; the songs are more than just enjoyable, scrappy surf-romps. Over an unchanging bassline and whining guitars, the vocals on “And PC” flip between spoken and yelped. “Untitled” is another high point: tension swells before the song takes a 90 degree turn into Andrew Savage-style rhapsodizing over some of DUMB’s most muscular guitar-work.

With Mustang Law, it makes a lot more sense why DUMB opened for Parquet Courts at the Rickshaw Theatre last February. Get smart: don’t sleep on DUMB, or you might miss them next time they hit the big stage.

Standout track – “Untitled”

Photo courtesy of DUMB Facebook page
Photo courtesy of DUMB Facebook page

Elka – Chants (1080p)

Elan Benaroch has been DJing and producing electronic music in Vancouver for over a decade-and-a-half. As a testament to his fluid skills, Chants, his 1080p debut as Elka, constantly moves forward without stumbling over skittish electronics like those that fizz up on “Fairbeat”. Buoyant, bass-y keyboards not only keep “Pass Groove” afloat but propels Chants along at a comfortable pace. However, a track like the polyrhythmic “Expander” undeniably packs an extra snap with its clapping percussion. Yet Elka’s unafraid to – and equally adept at – slowing down a notch to give the tracks some useful breathing space, a touch that heightens the ears’ attention to details including the subtly ringing cymbal-play on “Excursion 909”.

Clean, sharp blips that almost mimic bird chirps on “Closer” and entomological rattles on “Silver Beach” imbue Chants with a natural, living feel. 1080p describes Benaroch as introverted, but the world he inhabits is colourful, full of life, and full of surprises. We’re lucky he lets us in.

Standout track – “Pass Groove”

Photo courtesy of Elka Bandcamp page
Photo courtesy of Elka Bandcamp page

Malcolm Jack – Inner Circles (self-released)

If you caught Malcolm Jack’s solo sets around town this past year – at the Lido or the West 4th Avenue Khatsahlano Street Party to name a couple – you likely witnessed him jam on an uninterrupted, meandering, 30-minute-long guitar exploration. You likely witnessed him work out his second solo release Inner Circles.

Many passages on Inner Circles are certainly reminiscent of those performances, except on record, Jack has dressed them up with wistful, airy flutes and serene, graceful harps creating illusions of streaming water. Enough space and variation – enough ebb and flow – exists throughout the single 27-minute-long self-titled track that it never feels arduous or too repetitive. Find inner peace with Inner Circles.

Standout track – “Inner Circles”

Photo courtesy of Malcolm Jack Facebook page
Photo courtesy of Malcolm Jack Facebook page

Shitlord Fuckerman – Teen Repellent Noise Laser (self-released)

If the name Shitlord Fuckerman doesn’t grab you right away, then how about the immediately heart-throttling, tubular doom of “dark refill” that opens Teen Repellent Noise Laser? How about the pop culture-referencing song titles like “crisping lover”, “David Lynch’s pro skater 4”, “Robocop judgement day”, and “Danny Elfman enema”? (Speaking of Elfman, Noise Laser ends with a cover of Oingo Boingo’s “controller” that manages to sound even more panicked than the original.) Or how about the other titles that some people might deem straight-up bizarre like “sweaty pop tart hands” or simply crass like “dear god: please forgive me for my terrible wiener”, “return to anus island”, and “worried I’ll shit myself at VGH outpatient”?

A laptop and a battery-powered Casio are all Shitlord Fuckerman uses to create essentially snippets of video game music. (You’ll hardly find a track that exceeds two minutes here.) Teen Repellent Noise Laser collects 24 glitchy 8-bit tracks that had previously been scattered across four years’ worth of EPs and singles. Even then, the at-times exuberant, at-other-times agitating compilation only clocks in at 33 minutes.

The only thing missing from Shitlord Fuckerman’s oeuvre on Teen Repellent Noise Laser is their sample of a Macho Man Randy Savage promo, a common feature at their live performances. But like Fuckerman’s terrible wiener, I can forgive them for that.

Standout track – “controller”

Photo courtesy of Shitlord Fuckerman Facebook page
Photo courtesy of Shitlord Fuckerman Facebook page

Skye Wallace – Something Wicked (self-released)

Although Skye Wallace’s 2014 debut album LIVING PARTS existed in perpetual twilight, a runaway energy exuded from its expansive landscapes in which she could easily have been imagined riding horseback across dewy, misty terrains. Producer Jim Bryson picked up on this triumphant kinetic energy when he saw her perform at last year’s Calgary Folk Music Festival and helped her maximize it in the studio.

The resulting album, Something Wicked, is bolder, stronger, and more daring than its predecessor, landing closer to folk rock and even twangy blues rock. Strings and uptempo percussion and rhythms are less preoccupied with creating ambience. Wallace’s voice rises to match her band’s energy and volume as she sings with disarming vigour and greater candor: for the first time, she’s largely traded narrative fiction & non-fiction for tales drawn from her own life.

Whether inspired by the living history that surrounds her throughout her travels across Canada or motivated by events in her personal life, Skye Wallace is a storyteller at heart. Maybe we can never truly tell fact from fiction in her writing, but it’s always alluring to imagine something wicked.

Standout track – “Not Ready for This to Start”

Photo courtesy of Skye Wallace Facebook page
Photo courtesy of Skye Wallace Facebook page

Sophia Danai – Love Royale (self-released)

The three years that followed Sophia Danai’s 2013 debut album Wishing Well were filled with immense personal growth. She moved to Los Angeles, ended a long-term relationship, returned to school, and worked with numerous artists, expanding her list of collaborators to include SonReal, Madchild, Shad, Purity Ring, Chin Injeti, and even Talib Kweli. All of those emotional, educational, and creative experiences have culminated in her second full-length Love Royale, an honest and motivational album on which she doesn’t just dwell on her past but marches forward with confidence and an optimistic, independent spirit, hopeful about new beginnings.

Downtempo electronic beats and R&B grooves fill Love Royale, especially during its more tempestuous moments. But she shows off her more tender side with sparse piano pop-ballads like “To All the Lovers” and the airy “Permanent”. Still though, the album’s centrepiece is Danai’s dynamic, powerhouse voice.

Rebounding from heartbreak and taking back control of her life also meant taking creative control of Love Royale. Not only did Danai self-release her album, but she co-produced it with Vancouver rapper Matt Brevner. “Daytime Dreaming” is the exception, featuring the touch of Grammy Award-winning producer Jon Brown who has worked with pop stars including Meghan Trainor and Pink.

Love Royale is a self-aware, empowering album, a record of an artist coming into her own both musically and personally.

Standout track – “How I Roll”

Photo courtesy of Sophia Danai Facebook page
Photo courtesy of Sophia Danai Facebook page

Usd. – Kola Dubs (ISLA Records)

Under the new moniker of Usd., former Nervous Operator Spencer Davis has embarked on a totally enthralling tonal exercise with Kola Dubs. Precisely controlled tides of static spur queasy inertia on “Tired Blood”. A steady beat topped with squeaky accents and hollow, resonating percussion quickly fades in on “Punks in Bloom”; the track’s nearly single synth chord repeats hypnotically.

Kola Dubs sounds wholly industrial until a hallucinogenic, soft-edged keyboard wafts in on the jungly “Potter’s Field”. Ventilation drones eventually blow over the track, but Davis retreads from those mechanical sounds and continues prowling on the barer “Adiz Temple”. And if any melodies weave their way through the album, closing track “Katabatic Wind” blasts them all away. Harsh noise infiltrates the final few minutes of Kola Dubs, poised to penetrate the listener’s chest cavity. But even the intensity of this final distorted passage subtly modulates. Everything comes to an abrupt end though, like air suddenly being sucked out, creating a vacuum, or like Spencer Davis suddenly pulling the plug on the generator that’s powering Kola Dubs.

With enough beat-oriented moments, listening to Kola Dubs feels like dancing on a cold factory floor, under flickering fluorescent lights controlled by a dimmer-switch.

Standout track – “Tired Blood”

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Whitney K – Goodnight (Maple Death Records)
On Whitney K’s debut record, Goodnight, he refines the broken cowboy blues and outsider folk he began experimenting with on his previous Mixtape and Pony EP. Goodnight’s cover art mimics classic country records with a scratchy black and white seated portrait of the performer. However, Whitney’s face is pasted over that of a cowboy’s like a Sleeveface entry.

Musically, think Beck’s low-fidelity mutations of country on One Foot in the Grave: wilted vocals croon over distortion and feedback that sound like they’re blowing through a weathered transistor radio. Whitney’s hollow voice lingers like an apparition on “when yor blue” and even more so on “running up that hill”. Compared to the rest of the album, the skeletal “ode to the old ways”, the title of which could quite accurately describe Goodnight, is loaded: harmonica, roughly recorded vocals, guitar vamps, and tambourines collide in a ramshackle pile reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”.

Whitney K has traced some well-trodden musical paths on Goodnight, but in doing so, he has taken bold steps towards perfecting the styles in which he’s recently been entrenched.

Standout track – “ode to the old ways”

Photo courtesy of Whitney K Bandcamp page
Photo courtesy of Whitney K Bandcamp page

You’re Me – Plant Cell Division (1080p)

The still life that’s featured on the cover of Plant Cell Division appears hardened, frozen black, perhaps entirely synthetic. But choosing to depict a twiggy plant form this way illustrates the mood that You’re Me, the duo of Yu Su and Scott Johnson Gailey, set on their debut tape: Plant Cell Division is naturalistic but rooted in nuanced electronics.
Su and Gailey give sonic expression to the ambience of the Gulf Islands where they recorded Plant Cell Division. Like the Islands, the album is a mental getaway: peaceful, insulated. Textures and patterns unfurl from kernels of ideas, like single cells multiplying. Su and Gailey may have isolated themselves amongst natural surroundings, but from the audio to the visual, Plant Cell Division could not be more aesthetically cohesive.

Standout track – “Applet W.”

Photo courtesy of 1080p Facebook page
Photo courtesy of 1080p Facebook page

 

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu

Contributor