2016 In Review

25 Great EPs From 2016

In an age when major-label artists are putting out bloated albums in an effort to rack up the most streaming equivalent units, it can sometimes feel like brevity is becoming a lost art form. But that’s really not the case outside of the pop sphere, as the releases below will attest. Most of these EPs come from smaller, less-established (or at least leveled-out) artists, and the ones from bigger names tend to be from those that value art over commodification, or at least don’t feel as though the two can be easily negotiated.

These EPs run the gamut between debuts and farewells (in fact, a particularly high number of farewells this year) and, as was the same with the 2015 list, it’s hard to pinpoint a trend or through-line for the releases below, except that they’re all really good and well worth a listen.

We collectively voted on these as a staff, though I personally wrote about all of them and made the hard choices between inclusions where I saw fit, which means the results definitely trend towards my tastes and should by no means be considered exhaustive, so please leave your picks in the comments.

If you haven’t already, check out our best albums of the year list, and read on for Stereogum’s list of 25 great EPs from 2016, presented alphabetically.

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ABRA – Princess (True Panther)

Gradually, ABRA made her way out of the shadows of Awful Records. Last year’s full-length Rose gave way to Princess, her first release for Matador Records imprint True Panther. That shift of labels is telling, a transition from being the pop-leaning R&B stalwart in her more clamorous Atlanta-based collective to a potential jumping-off point for something more wide-ranging and accessible. The six songs on Princess don’t differ much from the sleepy beats and circular hooks that the singer has been offering for years now, but they do feel sharper and more fully-realized than ever before. Standouts “Crybaby” and “Pull Up” represent ABRA at her very best, equal parts beguiling and commanding.
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Aphex Twin – Cheetah (Warp)

There’s no arguing with a master of the form. When Aphex Twin made his grand return with SYRO in 2014, it wasn’t clear whether he’d stick around past that, but the enigmatic electronic pioneer has been releasing a steady stream of weirdo one-offs and EPs since to keep his diehard more than satisfied. Cheetah dials back his wild experimentalist streak on the first half to provide a syrupy take on four-to-the-floor, but he ramps things back up again for the CIRKLON side, with the glitchy, zingy standout “CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]” serving as the backdrop for yet another classic music video that captures the simple joys of Aphex Twin better than words ever could.
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Braids – Companion (Arbutus)

Braids albums have a tendency to sneak up on you, and they linger far longer than most. It wasn’t until earlier this year that 2015’s full-length Deep In The Iris really clicked, and it happened to be right around the time that the Canadian band released the Companion EP, four songs written alongside the album and recorded shortly thereafter. The first two songs show off the band at its best: the precariously beautiful title track, which details the conflicts that happen when an internalized pain becomes external, and “Joni,” a forceful squelch forward into the throes of unknowing. As Braids’ sound has matured over the years, they’ve added layers of emotional complexity as their songs have become sparser and more singularly confident.
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Carly Rae Jepsen – E•MO•TION Side B (Interscope/School Boy)

Carly Rae Jepsen’s E•MO•TION was a bountiful gift, the result of an intense period of collaboration between a razor-sharp pop songwriter and a bevy of top-tier behind-the-boards talent. Jepsen’s said that over 250 songs were written for the album, and Side B contains a few that didn’t make the final cut. Not all reach the same euphoric heights of E•MO•TION’s best, but the ones that do are well worth the price of admission: “Store” turns a humdrum chore into a squiggly earworm of emancipation, “The One” finds Jepsen playing against type and rejecting the pressure of a long-term relationship, and “Cry” is one of her most open-hearted and vulnerable. It’s a crystalline collection of songs from our reigning Queen Of Pop, and provides more than enough to chew on while we wait for LP4, where the stakes and expectations will be higher than ever before.
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Charli XCX – Vroom Vroom (Vroom Vroom)

This shouldn’t work is all I can think when I listen to Vroom Vroom, the first chapter in Charli XCX’s era of collaboration with SOPHIE and her ongoing flirtation with PC Music’s maximalist aesthetic. For some, it undoubtedly won’t coalesce into anything approaching listenable, but these four songs hit buttons for me that I didn’t even know needed pushing. Charli’s transition to sleazy excess has been a mixed bag, but paired with SOPHIE’s metallic clatter and whittled down to a clean 13 minutes, it works wonders. There’s the invigorating title track, which takes melodic math to the next level, and there’s “Trophy,” the cavernous, Pulp Fiction-sampling shattered declaration of dominance. There’s no telling how or if this sound would hold up stretched to the limits of a full-length, but the fact that Charli and SOPHIE pulled it off so well here gives me confidence in whatever they cook up next.
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Cleo Tucker – Looking Pretty At The Wall (Self-released)

Girlpool will release their sophomore album, Powerplant, sometime next year, but in the downtime between that and their 2015 debut, Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker have been quietly putting out impressive solo material that builds a stronger identity for both songwriters outside of their fruitful collaboration. Tividad has been experimenting with auteurist art-pop, while Tucker has opted for contemplative singer-songwriter fare. Across Looking Pretty At The Wall’s four tracks, she projects a warmhearted earnestness that manifests itself in captivating ways, like on “The Wall”‘s lilting escalation, “Loo”‘s distorted wails, and the nostalgic dexterity of closer “Fast Dust.” If these sonic ingenuities are any indication of what’s to come from her main project, we’re in for a treat.
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clipping. – wriggle (Sub Pop)

Daveed Diggs left his Tony- and Grammy-winning role in Hamilton earlier this year, which coincided with his refocused energy on clipping., the deliriously great rap project he’s been a part of since 2010. Wriggle is something of a throat-clearing moment — made up of tracks that didn’t make it onto the group’s 2014 Sub Pop debut CLIPPNG and didn’t fit into the narrative of their Splendor & Misery concept album from earlier this year — but it stands strong on its own, with William Huston and Jonathan Snipes’ endlessly inventive white noise beats providing the backdrop for Diggs’ breathless MC act and aggressive assertions that, yeah, you’re still listening to clipping., bitch.
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D∆WN & Kingdom – Infrared (Fade To Mind)

D∆WN’s batting average is unbeatable. In 2016 alone, the forward-leaning R&B auteur released a new album, did some memorable guest spots on other people’s tracks, and made headway into the world of virtual reality through her music videos. She also teamed up with Kingdom — the producer who’s made a name for himself through his work with Kelela and his own great label, Fade To Mind — for a sultry collection of tracks called Infrared. His spacey productions place D∆WN’s acrobatic vocals against a backdrop of pillowing beats and white space, as she coos out some of the sweetest-sounding lines about dead end loves of recent memory: “Loving you is like smoking spliffs: temporary high with side effects,” “Even if I wanted to, I could not be with you/ How did you paint it blue?” D∆WN’s output this year is incomparable, and Infrared is just another example of her immense talent.
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Dawnbringer – XX (Ektro)

Dawnbringer is just one of Chicago “Professor” Chris Black’s many outlets for expansive, riff-heavy metal anthems, but it is his most enduring. Black released “North By North” earlier this year and quickly followed it up with XX, a five-track stunner with that song as its center. And though “North By North” is definitely the titanic planet around which the rest of the tracks orbit, the other four push and pull in interesting directions that demonstrate how well Black uses retro sounds to contemporary ends.
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Fake Boyfriend – Mercy (Milk Beard/Covered Bridge/Sad Cactus)

Abi Reimold made one of the best albums of the year with Wriggling, and she also had a hand in another great project in 2016. Fake Boyfriend called it quits earlier this year, which makes this their one and only release, but Mercy stands as a snapshot of unrealized potential. The conceit of the band was as such: each member played a different instrument than the one they were most comfortable playing, and that makes Mercy’s off-kilter, seasick quality both an act of discovery and intentionality. Their songs are powerful testaments to resilience and retaliation, and when the three members — Reimold, Ashley Tryba, and Sarah Meyers — come together to harmonize, they present a united front that is powerful and intoxicating. Though they may never follow up on the intensity of Mercy, this small piece feels worth it.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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Flasher – Flasher (Sister Polygon)

Flasher posed a pressing question when they presented their EP through The Media: “What happens when the continuity of self and the worlds you come to depend on shatter?” The answers that the DC post-punk band provides across its debut are wiry and inchoate, and the inquiry has only gained more potency after a disheartening election demonstrated that our world was set up to fail us. Flasher make dreamy, needling, ominous music that sets itself up to dismantle institutions and organize new guiding principles, and they’re a part of a new wave of punk bands based in the nation’s capital who are attempting to do the same. By building on a shared legacy of Fugazi and Rites Of Spring, Flasher are finding “new ways of navigating unaccepting and oppressive narratives,” and they just so happen to sound spectacular while doing it.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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G.L.O.S.S. – Trans Day Of Revenge (Total Negativity/Nervous Nelly)

G.L.O.S.S. admirably broke up after they felt as though the heat of the spotlight was compromising the band’s integrity and ideals, but they’ve left behind two fantastic EPs worth of fiery hardcore anthems that will surely make waves beyond their brief two-year-long existence. Trans Day Of Revenge was released the week after the Pulse shooting, and it will always be intrinsically linked in my mind to the devastation and powerlessness that followed in the wake of that tragedy. Instead of backing down or second-guessing their standing, the Olympia-based group offered a much-needed kick in the ass to remain proactive, a push forward against the self-preserving instinct to retreat into the shadows. Sadie Switchblade urges us to “give violence a chance” and inspires us to “fight for your life” and “live and die against the grain,” directives that feel all the more important for the dark days that are undoubtedly ahead.
STREAM IT: Bandcamp

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GFOTY – Call Him A Doctor (PC Music)

Call Him A Doctor was written and recorded in just two days, and it shows. It’s restless and ramshackle, all over the place and oddly cohesive at the same time. It’s the best PC Music release of the year, equal parts eternal and disposable. The hooks are tight, inventive, and endearingly goofy, from the pop-punk riffer “Mr. E” to the cock-rock composite title track to “The Argument,” a melodic duet with a boy named Johnny that turns gibberish into catchy, endlessly repeatable gold. GFOTY even taps into some sickeningly sweet emotions on “Wood U,” a sentimental love song hinged on the existential musing, “If I never met you, would you still exist?” It’s a line that’s both sappy and affecting, demonstrating the line between sincerity and perceptivity that PC Music has always toed.
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Gioia – Gioia (GODMODE)

The ripples that kick off “Circling,” the opening song on Gioia’s debut release, tell you all you need to know about the project. This is haunting music, designed to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up. Gioia is a collaboration between Eddi Front’s Ivana Carrescia and GODMODE founder Nick Sylvester — the former’s voice casts a dark pall over the whole affair, while the latter’s production touches tease themselves out in drips and drabs. Over four tracks, the two evoke a teeth-clenching atmosphere, culminating in “Tessa,” a dreamy, wispy 7-minute sprawl that seems to encompass all of the loss, pain, and frustration that the preceding tracks crept toward.
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gobbinjr – vom night (JMC Aggregate)

Being saddled with the burden of having so-called relatable lyrics is a blessing and a curse. It’s a struggle that Greta Kline thinks about as Frankie Cosmos — “Everybody understands me, but I wish nobody understood me,” she says on a track from this year’s Next Thing — and it’s a concern echoed by gobbinjr’s Emma Witmer as well: “I know your feelings and I make them rhyme,” she sings on “firefly,” a sagging pop song from vom night, her second release under the name. gobbinjr’s music is also hyper-relatable to a certain type of anxious person (me), expressing painful sadness as a means to cast it away entirely. Her songs are filled with joyful sounds offset by dark undercurrents, from the squealing anticipation of “undies” through to the serene “may we all have space.” Witmer has an ear for swirling, unshakable melodies, and the songs on vom night contain some of her best yet.
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Gordi – Clever Disguise (Jagjaguwar)

Sophie Payten — the young Australian songwriter behind Gordi — attracted the attention of esteemed label Jagjaguwar because of her elegant folk music, which repackages familiar sounds with pointed intention. “I like there to be some sort of progression of the story throughout the song rather than just tack on a verse here and there,” she said in our interview with her, and it’s that narrative thrust that makes Clever Disguise hang together so remarkably. There’s a sense of forward momentum here, or at least a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of ebb and flow. Payten has a vision of reconciliation that is never clean-cut or easy, but her songs have a tendency to act as a calming force, demonstrated on her standout single “Can We Work It Out” or the digging-in-the-heels of “So Here We Are,” both of which contain enough off-kilter oddities that make you wonder where she’ll head next.
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Majical Cloudz – Wait & See (Matador)

Devon Welsh and Matthew Otto retired the Majical Cloudz name soon after Are You Alone?, but before they officially disbanded, the duo shared one final dispatch from their world of shadow and sinew. Wait & See is ostensibly made up of tracks that didn’t quite fit on their sophomore album, but they all feel of the same part, acting as a sort of footnote on the project as a whole. Its five songs distill their dynamic — Welsh’s maudlin voice and Otto’s sparse production — to its most immediate and powerful. The Montréal group’s depressive slow dance music blossoms in the short form (see 2012’s Turns Turns Turns), and Wait & See proves that, side-stepping heavy-handedness by embracing brevity.
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Moses Sumney – Lamentations (Self-released)

There are a lot of beautiful voices in the world, and Moses Sumney’s is one of them, but it takes a special sort of talent to move past that voice, to make wild and transcendent leaps with it, confident enough in its own essence. On Lamentations, his first EP after a long gestation period of one-offs, Sumney harnesses the magic of his voice and pinches and twists it (“Lonely World”), trills it with Renaissance faire (“Incantations”), and gives it the ol’ Bon Iver treatment (“Worth It”). He displays a flair for composition and restraint that’s intoxicating. For how few elements are present on each of his tracks, they all come across as weighty and impactful, bearing the full brunt of the voice behind it.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

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Naps – The Most Beautiful Place On Earth (Viridian Sounds/It Takes Time)

Naps broke up shortly after The Most Beautiful Place On Earth came out, but it stands as a promising development for the Floridian band, who already had one other great release under its belt. The four songs on it see them adopting Radio Dept.-like sonic tapestries constructed out of glitchy samples and an overwhelming sense of displacement and dread. The obvious standout here is “Social Skills,” a medicated haze that feels surprisingly even-keeled for how well it captures anxiety’s nail-biting isolation, but the two other originals and one Danny L Harle cover display the same rich hold on scratchy sonics and whirling interpolations. Though we may never hear what could have followed in the wake of this, Naps left us with an apt message to soundtrack their dissolution: “You destroy what you create/ And you created me.”
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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serpentwithfeet – blisters (Tri Angle)

Josiah Wise’s debut as serpentwithfeet establishes him as a force to be reckoned with. There’s the voice itself, which is splendid beyond all description, but there’s also the warmly-realized visual aesthetic that he’s cultivated, and the measured contributions from producer the Haxan Cloak. On blisters, Wise crafted five theatrical, melodramatic songs about queer love and heartbreak in which he always gets the final word, a spiritual reclamation of power from those who have wronged him or not shown the desired affections to him. “Pretend me loving you was not a big deal,” he sings on the title track. “How can I touch somebody who won’t touch themselves?” he asks on another. serpentwithfeet twists grandeur into something fleeting and fulfilling, and makes the moments when we’re most vulnerable sound like something to aspire to. Beauty in pain, longing in tenuous connections.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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Sheer Mag – III (Static Shock/Wilsuns RC)

With III, Sheer Mag’s third release in as many years, they’ve offered up their strongest collection of Thin Lizzy meets blown-out punk music yet. Christina Halladay remains an electrifying presence, a lightning rod in the middle of chunky riffs and padded rhythmic swagger. “Can’t Stop Fighting” is a rallying cry against vulnerability in the face of the patriarchy — “We’re striking back, baby, and you can find me in the vanguard” — and “Nobody’s Baby” stands as perhaps the young Philadelphia band’s best song, an ’80s outcast-at-the-prom narrative framed in a snarling bite: “You don’t dance with the one that you brought?/ You don’t treat me the way I deserve?” Over three short releases, Sheer Mag have proven themselves to be a dominating presence, and ones to keep an ear out for when they finally put out their long-awaited full-length next year.
STREAM IT: Bandcamp

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Sorority Noise – It Kindly Stopped For Me (Topshelf)

On last year’s Joy, Departed, Sorority Noise offset the heavy topics of depression and addiction in Cameron Boucher’s lyrics with sharp hooks and melodic bursts. There’s no such place to hide on It Kindly Stopped For Me, the stark and heart-wrenching collection of four songs that Boucher recorded at his parents’ house over the week of Thanksgiving and released earlier this year. “Fource,” which incorporates a field recording of Boucher breathily walking through the woods, demonstrates the project at its most urgent and queasy as he tries to come to terms with his friend’s recent suicide: “I think it might be OK/ I’ll be OK,” he unsteadily assures himself. It Kindly Stopped For Me is all twinkling pianos and spare acoustic guitar, Boucher’s voice as isolated and conflicted as the grief he’s actively processing throughout.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music | Bandcamp

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Strange Ranger – Sunbeams Through Your Head (Self-released)

At the beginning of the year, the band formerly known as Sioux Falls released Rot Forever, a sprawling and ambitious 73-minute debut. After that, the Portland-based group pared down its lineup to just two people and changed its name to Strange Ranger. On their follow-up, they made something more compact, singular, and potent. The six songs on Sunbeams Through Your Head occupy the same muted mindset: impressionistic moodpieces that reflect the hollowed-out feeling life can also evoke, while still remaining warm and approachable. The closing track knocks me out, when Isaac Eiger pushes his voice to a gravelly breaking point: “Do you still feel honest when you’re crying? Stupid when surviving?,” expecting no sufficient answer in response.
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Vic Mensa – There’s Alot Going On (Roc Nation)

Vic Mensa’s quick rise to notability didn’t give him much breathing room, but on There’s A Lot Going On, he’s had some time to reflect in the extended period since 2013’s Innanetape, and the release demonstrates the progression he’s made from the warmer tones he parroted from his Chicago contemporaries to the darker road he’s veered down since. “This ain’t conscious rap, this shit ignorant,” he says on “16 Shots,” a highlight and a prime example of the leaps and bounds that Mensa has made over the last few years. On the closing title track, Mensa lays bare the demons, both creative and personal, that he’s been struggling with since being in the spotlight, but finds his center in a grounded message: “There’s a lot going on, but I stick to the ones I love.”
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Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Def Jam/Blacksmith/Artium)

“Sometimes I feel like giving up/ Don’t say you feel my pain ’cause I don’t even feel myself/ Blood rushing through my brain/ Sometimes I wanna kill myself.” The internal monologue on “Smile” sees Vince Staples scratchy-voiced and worn-out, a stark contrast to the vibrant presence he upholds even on tracks where he confronts the darkest of situations. Prima Donna is filled with those moments of vulnerability, when the facade drops completely and he blurs the lines between his outward-facing personality and his own private existence. It also features some of his boldest, most experimental sounds yet: “War Ready”‘s bubblegum smacks with assists from James Blake and a well-placed André 3000 sample and the aforementioned “Smile”‘s enthralling crunch-rock. Prima Donna sees Staples moving away from his hometown, portrayed so acutely on Summertime ’06, and grappling with fame and the weighty expectations placed on him as a figurehead.
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