Art & Entertainment

Riffed and Ripped: 2016’s Best Guitar Rock

by Joshua Templin

Photo of Angel Olsen by Bruce

Last year was an incredible year for guitar-based rock music, despite its minor presence on the pop charts.

With the Grammy Awards now in the past, last year might go down in history for the many ways in which pop and R&B artists became agile again, while the industry played catch-up. The nominees of Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album were mostly awful, proving that the Grammy judges were as clueless about good rock as they were good pop and R&B.

The obstinate judges from the Recording Academy only enhanced the image of rock as a dinosaur act to outsiders. But this shouldn’t be a reflection on the genre itself so much as another sign that the record executives have no idea what is still vital about rock music. Critics have claimed to hear the death rattles of rock and roll many times before now. Yet it lives on.

The same accelerating modernity that gives us surprise albums and overnight stars has made it easier than ever for listeners to seek out every possible micro-genre and niche artist. What’s being talked about online among music fans is often not reflected in the charts. This same online community and infrastructure has also empowered musicians to record and output as much or as little as they like.

So a band like Car Seat Headrest can develop their chops across multiple collections, allowing us an insight into their growing pains as a band. G.L.O.S.S. can explode in just a few short years off the back of two incredibly solid EPs. The band Thee Oh Sees can be as prolific as they want and fans can take their songs a la carte by throwing together a Spotify playlist from their daunting catalog.

So while pop music seems to be progressing toward a monogenre, the best rock musicians have embraced their position at the fringes. Rock musicians are fighting back with idiosyncrasy; following their impulses down the rabbit hole wherever their impulses take them.

This list details a lot of the ways that rock bands are forging their own path through the din of modern music hype. Sometimes that means embracing the chaos, and sometimes it means taking time for reflection and journeying inward.

Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen makes sadness seem like magic. It’s not cool to be depressed, but if you live there long enough, you start to appreciate the decor. That’s not to say that Olsen is only capable of drawing on melancholy, but she’s only capable of wearing her heart on her sleeve. She joins a growing number of songwriters who are embracing earnestness, with little pretension  Her warbling croon and reverb-heavy production channels The Ronettes, while her rock roots show through fuzzy guitar lines that channel Neil Young. Even with all that throwback charm, Olsen is brazenly contemporary with a voice worth listening to.

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

On paper, the Car Seat Headrest formula seems like it would be simple, and possibly annoying. Will Toledo plays ’90s-indebted guitar rock with self-absorbed lyrics about post-teenage growing pains and getting high. But it’s a deceptively dumb front for some of the most inventive musicality and humane and humorous writing in indie rock. Toledo’s deep knowledge of guitar pop is apparent in every aspect of his oeuvre, and not just in the obvious parts like the wonderful Cars-cribbed ending of “Just What I Needed / Not What I Needed.”

G.L.O.S.S. – Trans Day of Revenge

G.L.O.S.S. seemed to spring out of a moment of necessity: in a world where transphobia is so pervasive and insidious, these D.I.Y. hardcore punks pointed the way forward. G.L.O.S.S.’s righteous anger was a vital rebuttal to the entrenched powers of oppression. But in the aftermath of the band rejecting a potential record deal with Epitaph last year, the band called it quits. It’s unfortunate that, in the era of Trump, G.L.O.S.S. will no longer be here to raise hell, but we’ll be lucky if whatever comes next from the members of G.L.O.S.S. is half as badass.

Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion

There’s nothing trendy about psychedelic folk-rock; it was passé by the time Neil Young went solo in 1968. So it had to be by sheer songwriting power that Heron Oblivion became a buzz band on the back of their self-titled debut album. The music mixed stoned amp worship a la Loop with the progressive folk of Fairport Convention. The power of Heron Oblivion lies in their control over dynamics, inhabiting loud and soft and all the spaces in between. “Beneath Fields” moves effortlessly from elegiac arpeggios to blasts of noise over its riveting seven-minute runtime.

Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow

Although it starts with an icy, processed synthesizer melody, Jet Plane and Oxbow is not Shearwater’s foray into trendy synthpop. Mostly, the album is built around a skeleton of traditional rock instruments and the electronic elements are just ornate flourishes. It’s a shame that the album isn’t more of a departure for Shearwater, if only because critics seem to have grown a little bored of the formula. Still, Jet Plane and Oxbow is an excellent tableau of Jonathan Meiburg’s mastery of simmering tension. “Quiet Americans” demonstrates Meiburg’s surprising restraint when it comes to building Earth-shaking bombast.

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