The internet has made more music instantly available to more people than ever before. But it’s also made it possible for everyone to focus their attention on the same thing at once (which can make annual “best of” lists a bit homogeneous). Nothing against David Bowie or Beyoncé, but the uniformity of enthusiasm surrounding certain releases can make us nostalgic for a time when we were a little more disconnected, and everyone didn’t instantly know what they were supposed to be listening to right this moment.
That’s also a big part of why I’ve been obsessed with Bandcamp over the past 12 months. There are lots of ways to access music online, but most are set up to make sure you can find the artist or genre you already know you’re looking for. Bandcamp, on the other hand, wants to help you stumble upon the anonymous Swedish occultist collective you never knew you needed in your life.
Unlike streaming services like iTunes, where you pay per song or album, the site allows you to listen to nearly everything for free. This makes listening to things you never heard of easy, low-stakes, and even addictive. Artists upload and manage their own music, which means you can end up with fairly prominent performers a click or so away from newcomers. You can search by genre or browse labels, but the feature that is dearest to my heart is the one that allows you to see what’s been uploaded most recently. Clicking the “new arrivals” button replicates the experience of diving into the recently arrived section of a used record store.
Below are my ten favorite albums on the site from 2016, almost all of which are unlikely to make it into your year-end Spotify playlist. And if you end up clicking over and getting buried till December 2017—well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
- Elza Soares —The Woman at the End of the World (Mais Um Discos)
At 79, Elza Soares is one of the giants of Brazilian samba, though she’s not a household name outside of South America. Certainly, I hadn’t heard of her until I searched “Brazil,” and Bandcamp put her in front of me. The Woman At the End of the World pairs Soares with young musicians who provide a stinging background of filthy guitar and electric squall for her rough, throaty vocals. The music is jittery, fun, and raw; a joyous album whether you’re a newcomer, like me, or a longtime fan.
- Oranssi Pazuzu— Värähtelijä (Svart Records)
Black metal, death metal, grindcore, sludge, doom, industrial—metal on Bandcamp is overwhelming, not to mention legion. Värähtelijä was my favorite release in the genre this year, though. Oranssi Pazuzu is a Finnish psychedlic black-metal band that sounds like Pink Floyd being devoured by insects. The album’s heavy, detuned classic-rock riffs boil and shriek toward some wind-swept pit. The apocalypse will be distorted, and it will be groovy.
- Saito Koji—My Guitar Can Sing (self-released)
Japanese experimental guitarist Saito Koji released eight full-length albums on Bandcamp this year, but I think his most recent one (so far!) is my favorite. My Guitar Can Sing is two 50-minute tracks, each built around a simple guitar figure repeated over and over with slight variation and effects. I know that isn’t a description designed to pull a mass audience, but the dreamy minimalist results are surprisingly involving, not to mention gorgeous. Unfortunately, (perhaps because he is experimental and alienating) , Koji seems to have taken down My Guitar Can Sing. His Bandcamp is now given over to 20 short numbered tracks, but they’re worth listening to too.
- Mukqs — Walkthrough (Hausu Mountain)
Max Allison is co-owner of the independent Chicago experimental/electronic/folk label Hausu Mountain. His album, Mukqs, is perhaps their best release of the year. Walkthrough is electronica performed live in one continuous take, and it has a loose lyrical ease as blips and bloops and feedback swirl and sway into melodic bliss. If a robot could grow a soul, this is what it would sound like.
- Fatou Seidi Ghali and Alamnou Akrouni —Les Filles de Illighadad (Sahel Sounds)
Sahel Sounds is a wonderful label dedicated to releasing recordings from the Sahel region of North Africa, best known for the mesmerizing guitar playing of the Berber Tuareg people. This first half of this release by southern Nigerian guitarist Ghali and vocalist Akrouni is devoted to a series of intricate and highly rhythmic acoustic guitar tunes. The second half is more celebratory, complete with drumming, shouting, and unrestrained yodeling.
- Be Steadwell— Jaded, Dark Love Songs (self-released)
Jaded, Dark Love Songs is low-fi, downbeat, queer R&B. Steadwell’s voice is part vulnerable indie pop, part jazzy sophistication, and it’s placed against a background of sparse, darkwave beats and Steadwell’s own multitracked, disembodied voices. She sounds like she’s spiraling down into her own skull—or her own grave. “This bed is built on hallowed ground/the bones of lovers come before/they are never gone.” Plus there’s a song about how Netflix will ruin your sex life. How can it not be one of the best albums of the year?
- Horse Lords —Interventions (Northern Spy Records)
Baltimore-based Andrew Bernstein is the current leading champion of brainy, swaggering art rock. Interventions touches on the Velvet Underground’s cool drone and Steve Reich’s fevered repetition, but adds squalling sax and a proggy math-rock edge. The result is noisy, crazily textured adrenaline dance music, one of the most distinctive sounds in indie rock.
- clipping.—Splendor and Misery (Sub Pop)
Daveed Diggs’s Hamilton fame has raised the profile of his group clipping. (spelled with a period) considerably, but they’re still not as well known as they should be. Splendor and Misery tries to change that through sheer ambition—it’s a sort-of concept album about a daring escape from an interstellar slaver. Diggs delivers his flow at light speed, referencing Kendrick Lamar, Ursula K. Le Guin, Carly Simon, and the Middle Passage with equal dizzying ease. The music is a mix of electronic feedback and heartfelt gospel, hammering together past and future freedom songs into a single gleaming Afro future.
- Chema64—Viziers (self-released)
This album was actually released at the very end of 2015, but I didn’t hear it till this year, and it was too good to leave off the list. Mexican chiptune artist Chema64 assembles computer sound effects into assaultive collages of robot burbs and ear-shattering space blasts. Listening to it makes you feel like you should rampage through Megatokyo, or at least run really, really fast around your cubicle. A ludicrous, wonderful album.
- Claire Keepers — Curious (self-released)
Keepers released this album as a way to raise money for a summer internship. I don’t have any idea of if she’s planning on a career in music, but Curious overflows with talent. There’s a bit of Brian Wilson in the careful songcraft, some Joni Mitchell in the jazzy little-girl vocals, and more than a little Linda Perhacs in the ravishing multi-tracked harmonizing. The indie folk gets turned into pop R&B and back again, becoming sincere, pure bedroom cool. When you find a completely unknown, unexpected, and marvelous album like this on Bandcamp, you feel like the year of searching was worth it.