Backtrack: 2016 – Steffan Decker and Beau Poehlman (The ISM Machine)
The ISM Machine’s Beau Poehlman and Steffan Decker each run down their top 10 albums of 2016
Steffan’s #10: Hot Hot Heat – Hot Hot Heat
Hot Hot Heat holds a very special and important place in my heart. In fact, bold as it might sound, it is possible there would be no The ISM Machine without them. The song “Bandages” started my path into Indie/Alternative music, and Elevator (2005) was the first album I ever bought for myself. This self-titled album marks the end of the road for Hot Hot Heat as they have reported plans to disband after the release of the 2016 album. For Hot Hot Heat, they took a little bit of sound from the outlier-album Future Breeds (2010) and mixed it with the classic Hot Hot Heat sound from the early days. Thanks for the music Hot Hot Heat; I’ll miss you. – S.D.
Beau’s #10: The Avalanches – Wildflower
A triumphant return for the Avalanches, who for sixteen years kept everyone guessing about the possibility of a follow-up to the dazzling Since I Left You. It possesses a complex, urban, busy feeling to it, and yet has a lightness that I can’t resist. This album has fun playing with your ears. – B.P.
Steffan’s #9: Phantogram – Three
This album is a really good time. I’m not as big a fan of electronic music as I once was, but this album has just the right kind of sounds to make me reconsider. Additionally, every time I hear “Run Run Blood,” I think of the week the single released and it played on The ISM Machine, Alt Night Long, AND X-Rated: Women In Music all in the same week. – S.D.
Beau’s #9: Miniature Tigers – I Dreamt I Was a Cowboy
Miniature Tigers just can’t do wrong, no matter how hard they try. They developed a fun 80s synth-pop sound on their last two albums, but this year they took those influences a step further by melding them with Beach Boys-esque love and… country? Yes, it works. Trust me. – B.P.
Steffan’s #8: Islands – Taste
We had an interesting year with Islands. While reasonably common for singer/songwriters to release two albums in the same year, it rarely happens with full rock bands. Islands released Taste as well as Should I Remain Here At Sea?, a spiritual successor to Return To The Sea (2006). While both are good, my preference goes to Taste. Even though Islands didn’t break top 5 on my list, it is worth noting that the song “The Joke” is probably my second or third favorite song of the year. – S.D.
Beau’s #8: Saint Motel – saintmotelevision
More than any other album in my list, this one is just pure, unadulterated fun. Saint Motel add to their ever-growing roster of party anthems with hits like “Move” and “Getaway” while still tugging the heartstrings when they can with sweeter songs like “For Elise” and “Happy Accidents”. It makes for an all-around great package. – B.P.
Steffan’s #7: Grouplove – Big Mess Whereas Spreading Rumours
(2013) put all of its strongest tracks at the beginning, Big Mess picks it back up non-stop-freaking party. There’s little more fun than driving to work and just BLASTING “Welcome To Your Life” and “Don’t Stop Making It Happen.” Grouplove is actually coming to town in April and I am VERY excited to see them again; they put on an AWESOME show. – S.D.
Beau’s #7: Whitney – Light Upon the Lake
A new artist rises from the ashes of Smith Westerns. This is a fantastic debut for Whitney, with Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich putting some of the year’s best folk-rock on display. The vocals and instrumentation bounce around in my head long after listening. It’s an LP filled with confidence and joy, attitudes I found refreshing in a year full of despair and uncertainty. – B.P.
Steffan’s #6: Radical Face – Family Tree: The Leaves
Where the hell did this one come from?! I always strive to bring in music that the audience will like but, secretly, my bigger goal is for Beau to walk away with a new favorite because of the music I brought in. Beau pulled that off on me with Family Tree: The Leaves, and then some; my wife is a big fan of the album as well. As far as I’m concerned, the best track to start with is the first one: “Secrets (Cellar Door).” – S.D.
Beau’s #6: Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust
Singer/songwriter K Ishibashi has a way with transporting listeners to other worlds. A big inspiration for this album is sonder, the discovery that other people’s lives are as detailed and complex as one’s own. The record is influenced by some of Mr. Ishibashi’s recent personal relationship issues, and the result is a kind of big, glorious mess. It’s his most electronic solo album to date, accompanied with flutes, strings, gaming sound effects, and his signature falsetto. – B.P.
Steffan’s #5: Big Deal – Say Yes
This is the third full-length album by Big Deal. June Gloom (2014) was one of my favorite albums from that year. It’s hard to pin down a super-specific genre for these guys. I’d have to say something along the lines of post-punk pop? All the same, this album is a good time. Unfortunately, this is another band on the list that had to call it quits this year. If you want to acquire this album or any of the others (which I recommend you do), you had better get on it quick. As soon as they are all sold, that’s it. We’ll keep you informed about the future projects of these talented musicians. For an entry point, try the song “Veronica.” – S.D.
Beau’s #5: Bon Iver – 22, A Million
Justin Vernon’s releases are few and far between. With 22, A Million, he diverts from his signature indie folk sound in favor of something more dramatic. It’s purposefully rough around the edges and possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps me coming back. – B.P.
Steffan’s #4: The Lumineers – Cleopatra
The Lumineers is our favorite ISM Machine artist that everyone has heard of. In a year with a lot of our favorite artists releasing highly-anticipated albums, The Lumineers stand out. Instead of adapting to the musicians around them on the Top 40 stations, The Lumineers maintain the sound we all know and love with some new and beautiful songs. The Lumineers was featured in our first “best of” playlist twice, and I’m proud to have The Lumineers here again! “Ophelia” is the most popular single, and I think that is the best entry point. – S.D.
Beau’s #4: Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Leaves
In this final album of his Family Tree series, Ben Cooper draws parallels between the fictional 19th-century Northcotes bloodline and his own family. The result is something tragic and full of beautiful narrative, leaving the listener eager to fit all the pieces of his trilogy together. I’m overjoyed about Steffan sharing my adoration for this album. – B.P.
Steffan’s #3: July Talk – Touch
br> This one surprised the hell out of me. I first discovered July Talk back in late 2014. Their sound was off-putting to me at first. It was a much more bad-ass sound than I was usually attracted to. Something switched for me with this album. Numbers two and three on my list of what makes a song great are dynamics and originality; Touch takes those aspects to a new level. My favorite track is “Strange Habit,” but I recommend “Push + Pull” as it better reflects the album as a whole. – S.D.
Beau’s #3: Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
One of indie rock’s coolest collaborations masterfully combines some of the best genres of the last century: rock n’ roll, folk, soul, country – even doo-wop. It’s like a crash course in music history, but the way it pulls its influences together is something that could only happen in 2016. There’s something here for everyone, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. – B.P.
Steffan’s #2: Side Saddle – Stunner
The LP follow-up to last year’s Young Professional, Stunner is just great. They remove some of the folky sound from Young Professional in favor of just a straight alt-rock sound, but return with the same great vocals that made me fall for them in the first place. If there is one downside to this album, it is that it is hard to track down a physical CD (as opposed to vinyl) for listening to in the car. My one track recommendation for Stunner would have to be “Connected.” – S.D.
Beau’s #2: Lucius – Good Grief
It’s hard to make a good second album. An album that says, “Hey! We’re still here and we’re still awesome.” Lucius followed up to their 2013 Wildewoman debut with a full-length release that is full of pop, glitz, and insanity. Every song is memorable, and Lucius brims with good taste; just when you think the best is over, they cover the late, great David Bowie at the tail end of the deluxe edition of this release. They were the most charming and creative band I had the pleasure of seeing live this year. – B.P.
Steffan’s #1: Big Little Lions – Just Keep Moving
Just damn… In these reviews, you’ve heard a lot about what I think are the most important things to make a good song- these guys DOMINATE every single check box, with great skill, in order. The vocals are absolutely incredible- If two voices were ever meant to be blended it is the voices of Helen Austin (Vancouver Island, BC) and Paul Ottin (Cincinnati, OH). This album also displays a delicate mastery of unique dynamics, both within each song and across the entire album. There isn’t a lot out there like Just Keep Moving. Just like The Colourist in 2014, I am ADDICTED. Just Keep Moving came out in early May, and I am STILL not tired of it. Not only is this my favorite album of the year, I expect that it will remain in my top 20 for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to recommend just ONE song for newcomers to wet their feet, but if I had to pick JUST ONE, I’d say try the title track “Just Keep Moving,” but you absolutely CANNOT SKIP “Fills Me Up,” and “Our Space, Our Time.” These two are already working on a new album, and I just know it will be incredible. Big Little Lions absolutely deserves every bit of success they find, and then some more. – S.D.
Beau’s #1: Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
People listen to music for many different reasons. You can use music to jam out, relieve stress, identify with an idol, or construct that perfect party playlist. Music was all these things to me until this year, when I found another reason for music: escape. 2016 was remarkably terrible. I don’t remember another year when the news was as depressing, when we lost this many wonderfully inspiring artists in the entertainment industry, or when our country felt more divided. Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw gave me insight into all that. It’s an album about duality: the idea that lightness cannot exist without the dark; that after a valley comes an ascent to the peak. I turned to this album many times to escape, and each time I came out on the other side ready to conquer the world. It has a lot to say about us and our ability to do good and bad. The titular object can be used for beautiful music or swift destruction, and both instances are on display in the instrumentation and the lyrics. It’s an immersive listening journey – at times haunting and foreboding, at other times spiritual and optimistic. – B.P.
The Boxer Rebellion was as good as ever with Ocean by Ocean. We played every single song from this album on our show, and if I could have the Avalanches share my #10 spot with them, they would totally be two peas in a pod right now. – B.P.
Roll Out by Transformers is a bit of an odd compilation album. This isn’t on here just because it is sponsored by Transfomers (I AM a huge Transformers fan), but it is because it features a lot of unique alternative artists performing original tracks that work for a Transformers compilation album, and also stand well on their own. – S.D.
Caveman followed up to their 2013 self-titled album this year with Otero War. This album was originally pretty high on my list, but then just barely missed it after I had a change of heart. There are some great tracks here – “The State of Mind” and “Never Going Back” – that I’ll keep playing into the new year. – B.P.
Kept is an album by the group Stolen Jars. This album makes honorable mention because we featured this album heavily in 2016, but it was released in 2015. Kept is, retroactively, my favorite album of 2015, and I think that is worth mentioning. Honorably. – S.D.
Junk by M83. My god, what a fun one! Another release that just barely missed my list. I have to stop talking about honorable mentions before I have another change of heart and drastically rearrange my list in a post-show mutiny. – B.P.
And the ISM Machine Album of the Year Award goes to…
Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Leaves
January 1st, 2017