In the ten years the Riverfront Times has been running the Homespun column, we've reviewed more than 500 local releases from all corners of the city, representing untold movements, scenes and styles. In the past year, we began mixing in artist interviews alongside critical analysis, but the goal of the column remains the same: to tell the story of St. Louis music through the songs of its citizens. This alphabetical list represents the ten best local releases we reviewed this year — even this thin of a slice represents our town's vibrant and evolving hip-hop, folk, soul, metal, Americana, pop and rock communities.
Adult Fur's Ryan McNeely first caught our ear as a producer and beatmaker, but he stepped forward as a vocalist on µ — though he's still somewhat dependent on guest vocalists and rappers to front many of these songs. Tef Poe, Sixela Yoccm and Damon Davis all contribute to individual tracks, which, when taken together, outline a story with a grim outlook on human advancement.
The arc of the album is too knotty to explain fully in this space, but McNeely says that the opening title track "is basically about the world is coming to an end and everyone trying to jumpstart the next phase of human evolution." What's more immediately engaging is McNeely's cinematic approach to his songs, which have a more lush and grandiose quality this time around. His synth-scapes owe a little to Vangelis in their resonant, wiggly warmth, and his beats range from punchy to minimal.
Kevin Bowers, whose skill as a drummer has placed him behind the kit in a number of rock, jazz and blues outfits around town, has made a marvel of a record with Nova, pulling from a years-long fascination with Brazilian music ranging from gentle bossa nova to psych-friendly tropicalia to blistering batacuda. To achieve this, Bowers — a multi-instrumentalist who teaches lessons on guitar, piano and bass as well as drums — called on bandmates from his many projects. While he has sung on records before, this time Bowers wrote for other vocalists (including Jimmy Griffin and Paige Brubeck), casting them as characters in an imaginary road movie.
"I had this vision: What if this was a movie?" Bowers says. "What if this was Fred Astaire and Lena Horne trotting around Spain or Brazil, and Fellini was directing it? I wanna make the soundtrack to that."
While much of the production on hip-hop duo the Domino Effect's eight-song Satellites leans toward silky retro jams, Cue and Steve N. Clair's verses are rooted in the here and now. Some of the tracks on the group's 2015 album, Unknown, were in direct response to Michael Brown's killing and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, and those issues and others are also present on Satellites. "We talk about real things," says Cue. "We talk about things that are relatable; we always give you that subject matter."
The clearest message comes through the track "Chainge," which uses a ballad tempo and uncluttered, piano-led production to make its bones. "From our perspective, there ain't nothing new under the sun," explains Clair of the song, which traces a line from slavery through the present day. "We spelled it like 'chains' for a reason. It's kind of like a reaction toward all the police brutality and things like that."
Thousand Year Fire
An overriding tension throbs in the heart of the Gorge's latest album, Thousand Year Fire, and there's a fertile patch of dissonance that the progressive metal quartet mines and refines throughout the LP. The dichotomy between precise control and utter abandon guides many of these tracks: The Gorge's music has some of the earmarks of traditional metal, but its deployment of its arsenal is often as metered and measured as any math-rock outfit.
For singer, songwriter and guitarist Phil Ring, the new album gives him space to define his role in the group. "I've always viewed it as an outlet for aggression, for me personally," Ring says of his singing. "But it's always been a cathartic experience to play a song or play a show. Performance-wise, I'm trying to leave it all out there and get that aggression out that builds throughout the day."
Got Dressed Up to Be Let Down
For his latest full-length, Got Dressed Up to Be Let Down, southside resident Jack Grelle and his band employs their brand of ad-hoc twang and ragged country tropes, but a sense of activism shines through in places. For Grelle, who first cut his teeth in socially aware punk bands as an undergrad in Columbia, Missouri, the marriage of country and politics isn't so foreign.
"I think in all my songs I try to be genuine to a degree, and have some form of truth, whichever way I might spin it," Grelle says. "With this one, I think a little more of my ideals came through, as far as politically and socially, and being a little more conscious as a songwriter."Turn the page for five more great 2016 releases.
Goodbye Terrible Youth
The past eighteen months have seen an accelerated maturation process for American Wrestlers: the project has has evolved from Scotland native Gary McClure's one-man work to a full-fledged foursome capable of translating his initial home recordings into nervy, muscular songs that can bristle with fuzz or peel back to reveal tender, tuneful centers. On its sophomore release, Goodbye Terrible Youth, the band has amplified the forcefulness of its grunge-era antecedents while narrowing in on an effervescent lightness that highlights McClure's high tenor voice.
"Vote Thatcher," the album's first and most blistering track, carries with it the long view of history. "So much of the world never changes; it just repeats itself," says McClure. "So really the song is about her being dead and not being dead, and the things that happened during her reign are happening again."
For the entirety of the 68-year-old performer's career, soul and R&B singer Roland Johnson has been singing other people's songs. There's not an ounce of shame in that, but his new CD, Imagine This, marks a milestone in his long career. Working with songwriters and musicians Paul Niehaus IV and Kevin O'Connor, Johnson recorded and co-wrote ten original tracks.
Thanks to his spirited performance and the producers' deft touch, the album is a warm, rich and personal document, a high-water mark for St. Louis soul in 2016. "I just want to tell a story, man," Johnson says. "The way I came up, you just told the story just how it was. People wanted to hear the truth. I try to stay in that feel."
On Forbidden Fruit, acoustic folk duo the Leonas recast the Biblical story of the fall of man by focusing on Eve, the woman often relegated to the sidelines. "The reason that we were so attracted to the creation story is because of how minimal a role Eve plays in the story and how her character is demonized," says violinist and vocalist Sarah Vie, who helms the band along with singer and guitarist Steph Plant. "I wanted to see Eve as a more dominant character. I wanted to see her actualize herself. I wanted to see the fruit as a different meaning."
Several songs speak to the intersection of religious faith and feminine identity; the second track, "Girl," is a fitting follow-up to the opener, as the titular "girl" is given a litany of instructions from a force that purports to protect her but instead limits her access to her sexuality, freedom and identity. On this album, those concepts of feminine identity are central to the Leonas' message.
MIDDLE CLASS FASHION
With iii, Middle Class Fashion continues its embrace of danceable, darkly tinted pop songs. On songs like "Runway" and "Schoolboy," the quartet amps up the BPM and turns out slinky and pulsating pop tracks; these songs seem to summon questions of gender, sexuality and identity, topics that singer and pianist Jenn Malzone's beguilingly opaque style has touched on over the years, but rarely this directly.
"We've really made a conscious decision to embrace that a bit more as a band," Malzone says, referencing what she calls the group's "gender-bending" image. "I always would avoid it because I like to keep my personal life pretty private on social media and stuff, and I figure it doesn't really matter in a pop song. It's made me really happy — even with our image, changing up our style and trying to make sure that everything we do feels really comfortable and genuine and honest."
As the singer and songwriter at the center of the gentle Americana quartet Prairie Rehab, Lacie Williams has a habit of using an Oxford English Dictionary-sized vocabulary to populate her tracks. For Conformateur, Williams crafts her lyrics with the same poetic precision, but the content strikes closer to the heart. Over eight songs, Williams explores the pain, uncertainty and joy in leaving one romantic relationship for another. It's a path that Williams knows well — she and her bandmate, guitarist and pedal steel player Scott Swartz, turned their musical relationship into a romantic one. The pair was married in 2014.
"Initially we wrote Conformateur as a way of purging these emotions, and facing them and confronting them and saying, 'There's nothing we can do about them, so we're going to write songs about them and work it out of our systems,'" says Williams. "Obviously it didn't work very well."