The Most Underrated Local Records of 2016

Our music critics on the Seattle-area sleeper albums that didn’t get the love they truly deserved.

IVVY | Diamond Eye

IVVY’s debut album exemplifies Pacific Northwest techno: cold, bleak, and a little spooky, like the foggy treeline looming behind any Washington city. Maybe that’s why IVVY tours far more than they get booked at home; they’re almost too Seattle for Seattle. But Diamond Eye has more surprises than people realize. Dig deeper than the title track for the real gems. “Celebrate,” the album’s best track that’s perfect for warming up a dance floor, sounds like the strange approach of something panic-filled but not unfriendly when you’re alone on a dark night. Let it get closer, circling you until you’re in the eye of the drones on “Level 106.” The ominous drums on “Motion” then turn timbral and dance-inducing, with distant rattles, growls, and machinated voices reminding you you’re not out of the woods yet. Enjoy that freaky, oscillating jaw-harp sound throughout—it’s a brand-new PNW classic. CATE MCGEHEE

Hissing | Cairn/Husk

Can Hissing’s Cairn/Husk qualify as a full album if it has only two tracks? It sure can, considering each individual track is so dense and satisfying that they both feel like full albums in themselves. You’ve probably seen this band on show flyers for every touring metal act passing through; you might have missed them play at the Highline or Obsidian a few times. Make no mistake: Hissing has squarely inherited Seattle’s blackened-death-metal mantle, left unclaimed since death-doom powerhouse Anhedonist called it quits. Metal as a genre often feels like near-identical bands vying to reinvent the same wheel, but Hissing comes out on top of the fray. Every note on this album sounds heavy, physically heavy, like slimy manifestations of negativity wriggling out of a guitar. Through every cracking snare and swarm-of-bees progression, Cairn/Husk makes a familiar modern metal formula sound alive again. LEE NEWMAN

Nail Polish | Authentic Living

In the event of Seattle’s inevitable zombie apocalypse, the debris of what once was Chophouse Row will still be a landmark for all the city’s young professionals. The apex of chic adaptive reuse, its artisan ruins will be a fitting place for millennial businesspeople to meet when the Seattle built in their image is crumbling around them. With its harsh tone both musically and lyrically, the penultimate track on Authentic Living—titled after this symbol of our city’s gentrification sweep—should be an anthem in 2016’s Seattle punk pantheon. As should the album from which it has sprung—a piece of jagged, jittery no-wave highlighting the dread of inhabiting a city under the sweep of callous economic change. Unapologetically noisy and bitterly satirical, Authentic Living runs a brisk 16 minutes, less time than it would take to walk from downtown to the Central District while counting construction cranes. At the juncture Seattle is in, it’s unfortunate this release is regarded merely as a solid local punk album instead of what it really is: the dying gasp of a civic culture on the brink of being swallowed whole by the corporate ogre. MARTIN DOUGLAS

Trowa Barton | Post Romanticism

Without a doubt, the Seattle / Tacoma hip-hop scene produced some of the most consistently original, boundary-pushing music in Washington this year. But few came close to the singular, breathtaking alchemy of rapper/producer Trowa Barton’s Post-Romanticism. There’s an occult undercurrent to a lot of local hip-hop nowadays, and Underworld Dust Funk, the Seattle collective Trowa runs with, certainly fits that bill with its penchant for esoteric symbology. But Post Romanticism is one of the few records that legitimately sounds magickal. It commands a unified palette of minimal trap drums trickling on top of mysterious, elegant synths and foggy atmospherics that, taken altogether, evoke images of windstrewn lace curtains, full moons, and witches casting spells by candlelight. That lush, floral, femme-magick vibe makes a brilliant tonal counterpoint to Trowa’s gruff, masculine, low-register vocal delivery. The elemental mix of the two energies is stunningly potent. Every time I’ve listened to “Revolution”—an ode to the ancient goddess of wisdom Sophia—the gorgeous, unfurling opening chords paired with Trowas’s breathy declaration “Screaming out revolution!” gives me chills, without fail. KELTON SEARS

Gifted Gab | Gab the Most High

The completeness of Gab the Most High took Seattle’s Gifted Gab to another level as an artist. Her ability to transition seamlessly from pure in-your-face MC to sensual and seductive love songs gave listeners a fully dimensional dose of Gab at her best. She also brought us back to the golden age with funky tracks like the D.O.C-sampling “Gettin Smokay,” a trend that continued locally with “G Funk” on Mackned’s Born Rich and Mario Casalini’s Quadruple Funk. Not to mention Childish Gambino, who recently took the funk to a whole new level with Awaken, My Love, a record that abandoned rap and went full-on Funkadelic. But don’t forget—the wave started with Gab, the first lady of the Moor Gang, and her excellent record full of G-Funk rhythms set in none other than Seattle’s Central District. M. ANTHONY DAVIS

Wild Powwers | Hugs and Kisses and Other Things

At the time of this writing, Wild Powwers has a paltry 314 monthly listeners on Spotify. That’s a shame, because its brand of scuzzy, riff-laden rock merits a much wider audience. Front woman Lara Hilgeman’s husky, full-bodied voice ranges seamlessly from sweet, low melodies to scorching, raspy, Corin Tucker-tinged wails and snarls. Bassist Jordan Gomes provides rhythm while drummer Lupe Flores anchors the whole affair with impeccable beats. The trio’s irresistible second album, released in February, features the kind of crisp, fizzy hooks that go down easy and that you’ll find yourself reaching for again and again. On the boozy rocker “Party Song,” Hilgeman howls, “When I’m drunk, I just can’t stop,” coming back, she swears (with fingers crossed behind her back), for “just one more.” After one listen, you’ll feel the same way about compulsively pressing the replay button. JULIANNE BELL

Noo & 10.4 Rog | Inner G

The one-on-one rapper / producer combo is a distinct subgenre which I celebrate wholeheartedly. These projects generally seem personal and focused, less like a collection of songs and more like an artistic mission statement: “Here’s exactly what I want to do, with someone I think is really dope.” Locally the best example this year was Dave B.’s Tomorrow with producer Sango. But that got a lot of shine. How about Inner G by Noo—did you listen? People in Seattle don’t know Noo. He’s from Tacoma and doesn’t perform here often (maybe just once ever). But luckily, always-listening producer 10.4 Rog from Renton (Oakland-based for now) found him and made this album. Musically it’s stoned-sounding, jazz-adjacent, and at times willfully weird—a perfect showcase for Noo’s straightforward and witty raps. Not many rappers around here relish straight-up wordplay like he does. It’s kind of a lost art. And while Noo’s already made great music with other producers since Inner G, Noo + Rog is a beautiful partnership that deserves another chapter. ANDREW MATSON

Meridian Arc | Aphantasia

Seattle’s love affair with lo-fi rockers Terminal Fuzz Terror comes as no surprise to anyone. You’ve probably talked to at least one chilled-out metal dude at a party, with a blunt in his hand and a cat on his lap, who has raved about the band’s distortion-drenched psychedelia. What may be a little more surprising is this electronic ambient album by Terminal Fuzz Terror’s drummer, which, while similarly retro, leaves behind bong-water riffs in favor of realms unknown. Aphantasia is pure analog-synthesizer showmanship. These songs piggyback on the enduring popularity of synthwave, but are shot through with veins of deep suspense that set them apart from the well-trodden ’80s nostalgia that drives the genre. Aphantasia is the kind of album you’d play over 2001: A Space Odyssey or Dune to see if they synch up. In the future, when we’re all riding SpaceX commercial rockets through interdimensional wormholes, this is what we’ll be listening to. LEE NEWMAN

The Exquisites | Home

Lots of bands sing about the idea of home, but it’s so much more emotionally satisfying when you hear it from a local band—that immediate registering of a common denominator. It’s something power-pop punks the Exquisites navigate masterfully on their latest LP, even if the “home” spoken of is more emotional than literal. Core members Jason Clackley and Gavin Tiemeyer have been making raucous noise since their teenage halcyon days in the Bremerton band Valley of the Dinosaur. On Home, they come into their most realized musical selves. The introduction of horns into the mix provides a layer of glory-days nostalgia, but it never hijacks the DIY flavor of the record. Clackley’s booming voice stomps across the blown-out guitars and Tiemeyer’s seismic drumming on tracks like “Faith” and “Make a Song.” The quieter moments pack just as much wallop, with Clackley crooning over a piano on the closer “Send a Word Home.” He repeats the title again and again, each time sounding more broken than the last. This is a record that exudes the creature comforts of the band’s physical Puget Sound home as well as the internal conflicts of the familial home. DUSTY HENRY

Jarv Dee | Red Eye Jedi

With this seven-track EP, Jarv Dee put together a small package that packed a huge punch. My first listen to Red Eye Jedi was on the Cannabus, a stunt he pulled to celebrate the album’s release, so initially, as you can imagine, I remembered only a few jams. After the smoke cleared and I took another listen, I was blown away. The record hits so close to home and the concept was too relatable: a record about struggling through the day-to-day bullshit just trying to get home, smoke, and create some art. All those ideas come together on standout track “Smoke 2 Much,” a song that’s essentially about Jarv’s navigation through everyday life. “Lay Low” is a masterful track about not kicking it. He explores his need to take a step back from the distractions of friends and girls in an attempt to dedicate his time to music. This down-to-earth project about smoking weed and focusing on your passion is truly an album made for the people. M. ANTHONY DAVIS

Vats | Green Glass Room

Judged on its surface or in passing, Green Glass Room is just a very good post-punk record. Its rhythms are lockstep to the point of being militaristic, while its guitars careen wildly like a sedan with a blown-out wheel. You’d be hard-pressed to find a rock song in 2016 anywhere as endlessly replayable as “Uncanny Valley,” the band’s cover of “Your Turn to Run” (originally by German band Malaria!), or the album’s title track. But a deeper study finds ruminations on the pratfalls of consumption, the longstanding and unnecessary debate over what women should do with their own bodies, and a mystical realm replete with emeralds floating in the sky. Green Glass Room is a startling achievement in form, both musically and lyrically, and the soundtrack of both dreams and the long nights which precede them. MARTIN DOUGLAS

Budget Cuts Records and Tapes | Extreme Couponing Volume 1

Budget Cuts Records and Tapes is a brand-new label aiming to highlight regional electronic music. The first two of its three 2016 releases were “splits” (albums split between two artists); the third was a compilation called Extreme Couponing Volume 1, which included tracks from nine Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia producers. Splits may be common, but compilations are rare and underrated. Maybe we don’t see comps very often because they’re somewhat counterintuitive for labels to release, especially the way Budget Cuts did. When only one of the nine artists on your comp has a release on your label (Tacoma’s Varial), it’s like handing out eight free samples of products your store doesn’t carry. But Extreme Couponing is a PNW goody bag that defines this new label’s scope and sound, and, hopefully, redefines the value of a good comp for everyone. Highlights include US41’s drifting ambient track, the cheerful, springy beats of René Najera, and DJ Rat’s percussive finish. CATE MCGEHEE

Eric G and Mackned | Atlantis

Another great rapper / producer combo: Mackned and Eric G, whose Atlantis is perfectly named given our wet city. It’s not a combo I would have predicted, but Eric G’s production turns out to be a great fit for West Seattle icon Mackned, who raps like Lil B circa “Age of Information” and eschews his normal trap/goth hybrid for a glowing patchwork of samples. It’s Eric’s album officially (and it’s an EP, actually). But let’s give it up to Ned: This year his dad died—Seattle music legend Tony Gable, percussionist for Cold, Bold and Together—and my heart goes out to him while my speakers sing Atlantis. ANDREW MATSON

Remember Face | Remember Face

“Nothing you say I would do, I’d rather die,” Chimaroke Abuachi snarls on the opener to Remember Face’s self-titled debut EP. Abuachi and producer Andrew Savoie are both members of local hip-hop group Nu Era, but on this side project they’re able to indulge themselves in their most sinister notions. The duo feed off of each other’s menacing impulses—each industrial-tinged beat Savoie throws out is met with venomous verses from Abuachi. Seattle’s hip-hop scene is vast and getting broader every day, and Remember Face is helping expand those sonic boundaries. They don’t sound like any of their local peers, feeling less conscious rap and more guilty conscience. The cold, gurgling synth-bass rumbles of “My Tigers Name Is Lion” becomes a platform for Abuachi to channel his anger in a year that gave us a lot to be mad about. Abuachi’s voice and Savoie’s production match that mood in a way no one else could. DUSTY HENRY

Miscomings | Bag of Knives

Punk has a tendency to take itself incredibly seriously. But there’s also an inherent humor in its embrace of chaos and dissonance—the knowing wink in creating art out of trash. In a year when, as Merriam-Webster recently noted, “surreal” was the most looked-up word, Miscomings’ Bag of Knives was the psychotic grin of an album 2016 demanded. Front man Joe Ross establishes himself as a distinct new voice in the most literal of ways on the record, his contorted, high-pitched wails and Dada lyricism sounding something like “SpongeBob SquarePants huffing helium,” as I wrote back in January. That cartoon menace leaked into the record’s genius, jarring songwriting as well. Tracks like “Ding Dong” and “Needle Nose” woozily teeter around Nicole Murillo’s powerful caveman drumming with an unpredictable, back-and-forth tango of no-wave nonsense, crushingly focused riffery, and an ever-present off-kilter warble. I’m not surprised Bag of Knives didn’t get a lot of shine locally—it’s intentionally atonal, harsh, and bizarre. But you know what? Bless this mess. In the era we’re living in, we need more folks who can wrangle discord and rubble into compelling new forms, and nobody did that better than Miscomings this year. KELTON SEARS

Skating Polly | The Big Fit

Recent Oklahoma transplants Kelli Mayo and Peyton Bighorse of Skating Polly deserve your attention. The shredding stepsisters, who moved to Tacoma early this year, have been playing since 2009, when they were just 9 and 14 years old. In that time, they’ve caught the interest of Exene Cervenka and Calvin Johnson and opened for acts like Babes in Toyland, Deerhoof, and X, to name just a few. In March, the duo released their fourth album, The Big Fit. Mayo has said the title is a nod to the baggy, oversized shirts she likes to wear, as well as the way that the eclectic mix of songs strangely makes sense together. The cathartic, vulnerable opening track, “Oddie Moore,” crackles with sublimated rage, while Mayo taunts a possessive admirer on “Pretective Boy.” Don’t miss the standout gem “Nothing More Than a Body,” Bighorse’s morbid and heartfelt ode to meeting her hero Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. JULIANNE BELL