There are many highlights of living in Boston, but by far the best is witnessing the growth of our music scene every passing year. Established acts continue to break national coverage, while small bands, even DIY ones who released their music under their own power, climb a similar direction. We live in a state with artists whose voices are so powerful that they warrant worldwide discussion, and by the time outsiders catch on, there’s a whole new roster that’s risen.
Picking the best releases of the year is, of course, rather difficult. A plethora of emo and garage rock acts (Somos, Black Beach, Dinoczar) battle it out alongside freeform bands (Birthing Hips), indie rock staples (Hallelujah the Hills), folk friends (Mutual Benefit), and jazz greats (Grace Kelly)—and pitting them as such clarifies the ridiculousness of saying which is “better.” Hell, we even thought about picking Converge‘s reissue of You Fail Me Redux because it’s so damn good.
So we present you with 30 local albums that impressed us. There’s no order. No ranking. Just remarkable records to make you proud of your roots — as if you weren’t already.
HEAVY ROTATION RECORDS
Walk to the crossroads of progressive folk and traditional barnhouse dancing and you’ll find Honeysuckle. “It’s Getting Late” opens the record with everything the group boasts: full harmonies, tricky banjo lines, lush percussion, uptempo guitar. On the band’s self-titled full-length, Americana goes into full charm mode, skipping through Dark Dark Dark vocal swiftness on to the uplifting melodies of the Avett Brothers. It’s hard to write Americana that doesn’t sound flat to Northerners, but the Boston group varies each track with effortlessness—though it does sneak a serious holler into “Vagabond” for kicks.
No word exists that can encapsulate the beauty and awareness that give Kiid, the debut LP from Mal Devisa, its glow. It’s full of soul and dreams, the type of songwriting that makes you question how this is just one girl with just one bass, and she refuses to let up whether singing quietly or belting for her life. Her voice acts as both a storyteller and an instrument, telling intimate lines in a soft-spoken voice on “Fire” and then getting guttural for rap on “Next Stop”, complete with afro-pop rhythms. Mal Devisa is Mitski with more soul, tUnE-yArDs with more tears, and Jaco Pastorius at his most intimate. Most of all, she’s her own character, someone who’s bringing soul back to the forefront without falling in the R&B genre.
WOLVES OF WANT
Ben Potrykus is a local hero for a reason. He writes songs fit for House of Blues-sized crowds but never grew an obnoxious personality that demands fame of that level. Instead, he writes music that deserves to be on the radio for people who rarely turn their radio on. His indie pop punk group Bent Shapes returns with Wolves of Want, a record ripe with miniature overindulgences, be it fake record skips on “86’d in ’03” or the slip of dusty dictionary vocab on “What We Do Is Public,” and production by Titus Andronicus’s Elio DeLuca primes the release for repeat listens. The album’s sunny songs and dark penmanship are worth playing all year round for people too bitter to enjoy summer when it’s actually taking place.
Grammy-winning bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding decided to go big on her fifth album. The results, a combination of rock and funk, lurch with daring moves on Emily’s D+Evolution. From “Good Lava” to the spoken word of “Ebony and Ivy,” Spalding maintains her warmth in a record of art-rock funk, pushing farther than her bass strings have ever allowed her to prior, and her vocals leap with similar bounds. It’s a lot to swallow, but it tastes mesmerizing going down, especially when you’re in the mood for mentally rich music.
WE BOTH BECAME THE SKY
Kevin King treats his solo material like a diary left out in a living room. The frontman of short-lived emo act Maura now performs alone as Saccharine, where he combines acoustic guitar with the comfortable buzzes of lo-fi drums and keys. As his debut LP’s title suggests, We Both Became The Sky is as much about surviving in this world as it is about accepting what can’t be changed, offering up advice to curious onlookers who flip through his coffee table prose. Whether you need it or not, that advice sticks in your mind, and you may even pen a line or two down before falling asleep.
HEAVEN IS YOUR LAST DREAM
By now, Haasan Barclay is a household name in certain Boston circles because of how much production work he’s done. On this year’s full-length, he lets himself loose, dealing out doses of avant-garde hip-hop that saddles the line between rap, R&B, and experimental electronics. The first half puts the listener in a trance with dramatically different instrumentals, be it the vintage R&B puffs of “Fly With Me” or the hard-hitting percussion of “The Exorcist”. But Haasan circles back to hip-hop on the album’s second half where rising rapper Khary, The Samo D, and Michael Christmas lay down additional verses without ever overshadowing Haasan. It’s a perfect balance of beats and words that let the producer get the spotlight all to himself. Finally.
BOUND TO MEET THE DEVIL
DIRT FLOOR/FAME RECORDS
Baby sing the blues. On her debut album, Julie Rhodes ropes her arms around soul and blues and swings forward in an impressive leap. Though the record is stacked with star-studded names (Spooner Oldham, Sara Watkins, Greg Leisz), Rhodes holds her own, proving she’s a force in Americana blues that won’t be moved anytime soon. Whether that means tapdancing over “Collector Man” or letting out jazz flairs on “Hurricane,” Rhodes owns it, lassoing up listeners with a raspy voice worth cuddling up to.
SEVEN PSYCHOTROPIC SINEWAVE PALINDROMES
Electronica is too vast a genre to write songs without limitations. Jake Meginsky took that to heart. On this tape (can we please acknowledge the cheeky title?), he only uses sine waves, square waves, white noise, and an 808 kick drum to melt his own brand of minimalist music, the results landing between meditative and disorienting. It’s bleak and twisted. Know that going into it, otherwise the shaking notes and dial phone rings call for goosebumps on par with a thriller flick. Maybe that’s what Meginsky aimed for from the beginning.
BY ALL MEANS EP
It’s been a long wait for Flat Swamp’s new EP, but now that it’s here, it feels well worth the wait. When not busy playing in Ovlov and Spook the Herd, Theo Hartlett spent the time writing crunchy rock with a power pop angle as Flat Swamp. On By All Means, he channels the sounds of old labelmates Two Inch Astronaut as well as the glossy alt-rock of Mae, even roping in Ovlov bandmate Morgan Luzzi for extra guitar to push things into old-school Weezer territory. When you need a rock fix, turn to Flat Swamp. You get more than your fill.
HORSE JUMPER OF LOVE
HORSE JUMPER OF LOVE
Snap your fingers and the world can come crashing down. The same happens in Horse Jumper of Love’s music. The sludge rock trio’s debut LP is quick to transition from intimate folk to noise-riddled rock, a shift in sound that mirrors the depressed anxiety of frontman Dimitri Giannopoulos. Their self-titled is a sloppy hurl and then a pensive cleanup, and come the end, you’re left wondering if your heart can bear to go through with it again. Hint: it can and it should. Think equal parts Mount Eerie and Silver Jews and you’re halfway to the rickety intensity of this full-length.
Indie psych group Quilt knows how to turn crystalline vision into an acidic daze that doesn’t prevent you from walking straight. Plaza sees the band tying itself up in pop, combining warm tones with smooth jazz percussion, and roping up a ’60s style that’s trippy enough to fall into but just distanced enough from an overly heady sound. They finally brought their old days of Jamaica Plain lazing into the sun for a baked finish, polishing their psych rock with the right amount of pop to have us sing the LP all through the winter.
Though the cover is hues of black, Marissa Nadler is more than a gothic folk musician. The singer-songwriter opens her songwriting to let light bleed in on Strangers, in part because she’s spying on neighbors (“Shadow Show Diane”) and digging through personal friendships (“Janie in Love”). It’s a welcome change for one of Boston’s most consistently mesmerizing acts, and one that promises more for her in the coming years, too. At last, Nadler layers strings with rock-styled folk, making her, ironically, less of a stranger than usual.
BABE CITY RECORDS
Self-described as “ugly pop,” Lady Pills crafts simple lo-fi punk songs that feel good even when they’re rejecting misogyny and charging forward with angry lyrics. Because it sticks with simple structures, the trio can make “Irrelevant” sound like Mitski and “Seven Days” like ’70s rock, creating a quick album to pop in when you just can’t deal. But don’t pass it off as wholly simple, either. It’s pop rock that clings to summer and twists every last drop out of the season with the efforts of a veteran musician.
Boston’s biggest rising rapper returns on Monda, his newest mixtape. Though it’s 14 tracks, the album speeds by thanks to Stizz’s confidence and cadence. He tackles neighborhood sovereignty, deceased friends, and Boston references with a gruff tone, and this time he means business. As he flies solo with ease, lacing slow-burning beats with verses that suggest you lean back, take a breath, and take a look around. If you’re moving as fast as Cousin Stizz is, you could miss every reference and uppercut he throws here.
RUBY ROSE FOX
It’s hard to believe Ruby Rose Fox hasn’t released a studio album as a band—well, at least up until this point. The local staple recorded, mixed, and mastered her LP with the full band thanks to help from fans, whipping together a crowd-sourced album that’s full of inventive rock pop and bold storytelling. Ruby Rose Fox spent the last few years introducing her music to potential fans. On Domestic, she doesn’t need to. The fans are already here.
CHARM SCHOOL EP
True to title, halfsour’s Charm School EP wins you over with power pop chords and alt-rock riffs. In description, it sounds like another clump of feel-good but mediocre songs, but the trio carves its own voice in cuts like “Ten Year Tenure” and “Day Dogs” by singing about everyday bores until they become endearing. Not every pain is figurative, either. “Vinyl Siding” came to fruition when Matt Mara got a case of the shingles and doctors sent him home with painkillers, so he took a pen to paper while his leg throbbed. Nothing’s more charming than a drugged-up guitarist having an epiphany in sing-song form.
Freak-folk has a place in your heart if you let it. Luckily, Emma Jones makes that easy. The modest musician keeps quiet under the moniker Magellan, but her songs will have you singing praise on the regular. The solo project is full of looped beats, ukulele, haunting vocals, and cryptic piano, all layered on top of one another in ways that recall CocoRosie and Antony and the Johnsons. There’s little known about her, but that adds to the intrigue, making Little Caw all the more exciting to pick apart.
COUNTER INTUITIVE RECORDS
Massachusetts-via-Maine trio Weakened Friends performs straightforward indie pop dolled up in dramatics. On “95,” that means shaking vocals the way Sleater-Kinney would and rushing through a jolt of early ’00s emo guitar chord progression. Elsewhere, it’s about sticking to its guns, rolling out rock that’s cozy in its emotional state. Crushed is their record of punchy comebacks, bitter resentment, and feel-good melodies that make each chorus one you can’t wait to put on a mixtape for a friend.
THE BALLROOM THIEVES
No folk trio harmonizes the way the Ballroom Thieves do. The local folk group spark spirit in its songs, even when it’s scrubbing the bottom of a lonely barrel, which is exactly what it turned to when touring got the best of it. The result, Deadeye, is slower and deeper than the three have ever exposed, but the bitter core at each is devilishly addicting. Think slow dancing in a cabin during springtime with someone who broke your heart, that dance is interrupted by the person you love endlessly, and then you leave both people to dance by yourself with bold, though budding, confidence.
AND THE KIDS
FRIENDS SHARE LOVERS
The best pop has rock at its heart. And The Kids takes that method and runs reckless with it on its new LP. It’s an ambitious bundle of playful, catchy, fizzing songs that are as much of a rally cry as they are a chant for people to strive for more in everything they do. One listen to “Kick Rocks” is all it takes to fall in love with the trio’s sound, but the longer you listen, the deeper their music fills you with an energy and happiness that lasts for hours.
SPOOK THE HERD
THE SMALL WINS EP
EXPLODING IN SOUND RECORDS
When great minds come together, great results come out of it. That’s the case for Spook the Herd, a supergroup of sorts that sees Jesse Weiss, Abe Kimball, and an assortment of fellow local musicians stopping by to expand their sound. They go full fuzz on “App Tofu” but slink into acoustic guitar immediately after for “Running In Place.” Palehound mastermind Ellen Kempner swings behind the mic for opener “Slurpee Surf” and, in turn, gives the EP a welcome introduction to the band: pop punk riffs, a heady rhythm section, and melodies that only get better the more each song develops.
FUDGE (MICHAEL CHRISTMAS & PREFUSE 73)
Though they’re both outliers, local rapper Michael Christmas and IDM producer Prefuse 73 found middle ground as Fudge. Christmas raps lines as if they’re jokes and Prefuse usually produces for stiffer delivery over drugged-up beats, but here, they flirt with each other’s styles, trying to complement each other on a record of surprisingly bold, unexpected cuts. It’s spotty at times, but when both fall in sync, they create work that’s wild and wicked, adjectives that fit snugly within Boston’s vocabulary.
Worcester band the Hotelier champions the emo revival, but on Goodness, it embraces those roots more firmly. Christian Holden sings with urgency and pain, as if he’s overcoming loss while simultaneously standing knee-deep in it. Yet it does move on, and it helps listeners do the same. Goodness is an album seeking light in a world of darkness at a time when the world is trying to do the same—and momentarily finds a steady beam to cling to.
Instead of narrowing their sounds, electro freak-folk duo Skinny Bones has only widened its sound. On the band’s second full-length, audio samples and dark electronics swirl in mysterious ways. On “Dropped Bench Press,” frontman Jacob Rosati tampers with his vocals so they flit between Satan and a corner lunatic. On “Stupid Slow,” audio loops call to mind Nicolas Jaar and dark techno without ever getting too thick. It’s a balance of black and white, shadows and sunshine, and on Ponta Delgada, the two get weirder than ever without sacrificing accessibility.
DEALING WITH THE WEIRD
Every screech of guitar feedback on Fucko’s first proper full-length gives the album more edge. Forget sloppiness. The band’s heavy pedal work makes for an album of grunge revival without the pretentiousness of Kurt Cobain wannabes. They’re driven by matured angst, and when listeners give in to it, Fucko’s music carries them back to the ’90s when it was totally acceptable to throw your hood up, plug your earbuds in, and deny people the chance to talk simply because you didn’t feel like it.
If Oompa’s voice sounds familiar, you may be a poetry fanatic. She performed at this year’s National Poetry Slam and killed it, which is why she’s just as ferocious and moving behind a microphone when rapping. The Roxbury native is a lyrical genius. On her first full-length mixtape, November 3rd, Oompa tackles family miscommunication, nostalgia for her childhood, and the empowerment that comes from the Black Lives Matter movement, waxing words with seeming ease while beats drop heavily behind her. With a political darkness looming, mixtapes like hers offer solidarity and hope for communal resistance moving forward.
MIDNIGHT WEREWOLF RECORDS
Somewhere between the ugly pop song structure and the scratchy howls, Lady Bones commit to production. The alt-rock trio have always been on top of their recording game, and the farther they crawl in their career, the better their music sounds. The band’s latest EP ties their talents together in a bow. “Ice Cream” snaps between tempo changes, “Horror” slides gracefully up the guitar strings, and “Don’t Call Me Sassy” demolishes itself come the end, throwing punches in a fit of self-destruction. Lady Bones can’t stop improving and Terse is a phenomenal slice of proof.
No one embraces DIY the way Sadie Dupuis does. The Speedy Ortiz frontwoman went solo under the moniker Sad13 and self-produced a pop album that’s all about sex positivity and standing up for yourself. Sure, those topics sound sophomoric in text, but on the album, she pulls it off, singing about consent on “Get a Yes” and overcoming emotional abuse on “Devil in U” in a way that makes you happy to sing along. Bring it to the bedroom and maybe you’ll get the results you want there, too.
LIFE IS ALRIGHT, EVERYBODY DIES
EXPLODING IN SOUND RECORDS
It may not seem like it because of the title, but this LP is the most optimistic Kal Marks has ever been. The cynical rock trio, one that explodes with volume comparable to heavy metal acts, shifts from letting life beat it up to accepting life is brutal, and on cuts like “Coffee,” that weird form of inner peace rips with authenticity, providing a bleak look that’s unexpectedly cathartic. Carl Shane finally seems to have found himself on a tidal wave of stormy, groaning, black metal rock that doesn’t leave him smashed into a million pieces when it hits the shore of reality.
Each year, I struggle to explain the warmth that accumulates at the center of Space Mountain’s music, and right when I think I have it figured out, Cole Kinsler releases a new recording under the moniker and I’m struggling once again. How do you articulate the beauty of a finger-plucked song like “One Morning” where birds chirp in the background? How do you point out that each slightly-off beat note in “Nowadays” feels positioned at the exact right moment? How do you explain the emotional punch his voice gives on songs like “Faded Blue” where a hint of Stephin Merritt lingers in his delivery? Maybe you don’t. You just tell people to listen and then they understand.