The 2016 LEO Playlist: Our favorite local songs of the year

While contributing to this list and editing it, I noticed a few things:

1) There are a lot of different bands playing a lot of different styles of music in this town that are really well-versed at mixing experimental and catchy elements — individualistic and strange sounds, mixed with melodies, hooks and riffs that stick. There’s dense, atmospheric dream-pop; black metal with audio samples from the singer’s childhood; focused, stylish hip-hop; addictive grunge-pop… and that’s just a few things from this list of 20 songs. There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around the city right now.

2) Like anytime I put together one of these lists, directly afterward there’s so much more that I want to add. Just off the top of my head, music from Frederick The Younger, Ron, Harpy, Twenty First Century Fox, Billy Nelson, Scuzz Master and Black Birds of Paradise… But, at least to me, these end-of-the-year lists are never about making self-righteous statements — like this is better than this, or that is more important than that. They’ve always been about discovering something new, or remembering something great from earlier in the year, that eventually was buried in all the noise. I hope this article accomplishes one or both of those things for you.

So, here are our favorite songs of the year, in no particular order. —Scott Recker

Brenda — “Top Shelf”
With rushes of sugary hooks, waves of fuzzed-out guitar riffs and a general grunge-pop disposition that walks the line between gritty and catchy, “Top Shelf” is a smart and savvy piece of music, that, in its brief two and a half minutes, squeezes in all kinds of ideas, twists and turns. There’s a lot of depth to the song, but it’s presented in a clear and concise way, which speaks volumes to Brenda’s chemistry. At the same time, the song lets loose with pounding drums and reverb-soaked guitar. “Top Shelf” is packed with compelling contradictions — addicting chants meet mysterious poetics; clean, inviting rhythms meet walls of distortion; pop patterns meet rock-’n’-roll attitude. Brenda bends its sound in all sorts of ways, and that’s what makes this band so interesting. —Scott Recker

RMLLW2LLZ  — “Keep The Faith”
In a year when we saw the strong return of A Tribe Called Quest, Louisville doesn’t have to look national to find a confident, laid back ‘80s/‘90s stylist like Q-Tip… we have RMLLW2LLZ.  His vast experience in the art is obvious from the first few seconds of “Keep The Faith,” as RMLLW2LLZ delivers a verse over the intro. With just a light piano and a slow bass acting as the backdrop, RMLLW2LLZ announces he has more to say than most, and no time to wait for the song to kick in. The drums arrive, and RMLLW2LLZ’s words attach to the percussion like glue — both stick and bob with the same thump, word by word and beat by beat. One of the hardest things to do is make talent seem effortless, and that’s RMLLW2LLZ’s style, an audible ease because he’s an artist who has already put in the work, so now it comes across as muscle memory.  This track is a marathon of RMLLW2LLZ’s word play with zero filler. Very short chorus breaks exist, but this is almost five minutes of RMLLW2LLZ playing with words, manipulating ideas and themes, ultimately cementing himself as one of the most exciting musicians in town. —Zach Hart

Kaleidico — “Ordinary Men”
The brainchild of Matt Moore, Kaleidico balances sonic exploration with pop sensibilities for a project that defies any easy comparison… although Radiohead certainly comes to mind. There are traditional qualities to the music here: Guitars and vocals, for example, are often mixed with lush synth work, and always with electronic drums. It’s that cyborg hybrid that defines “Ordinary Men,” part of a B-side collection, a snapshot of a band in transition. This doesn’t lean quite as heavily on the electronic qualities of Zoetic, the band’s sophomore release, but is far less conventional than the material on Free Falling Waltz. —Syd Bishop

Anagnorisis — “Disgust and Remorse”
There are many reasons that metal connects with people. But overall, it has more to do with the emotions the music conjures, and less to do with the lyrics, something that is generally the opposite in other genres. Still, even in metal, groups that merge powerful music with meaningful lyrics are prone to capture your attention. A focused alignment between words and sounds greatly shaped the new Anagnorisis album, Peripeteia. Most notably on the record’s best cut of anguished black metal, the emotionally raw and moody “Disgust and Remorse, Pt I.”  The individual instrumental performances on “Disgust and Remorse, Pt I” rain down like a storm of jagged ice, aided by haunting audio clips from vocalist Zach Kerr’s difficult childhood. Meanwhile, Kerr’s howling cries scald over the top, hammering home his remembrance of familial loss and existential confusion. The sadness hits so close to home that it hurts. —Austin Weber

Curio Key Club — “Keep On Telling Myself”
Curio Key Club (once D’Arkestra) is an experimental septet. Their first album arrived in early February on the always-intriguing AuralgamiSOUNDS label, a nine-track LP featuring familiar blends from the group’s past life — wandering guitar tones, brass lines and lyrical contemplations by alto saxophonist Drew Miller — with added tenacity in its structure. Lead single “Running Man” is a heavy anthem for the refreshed project, which may desire more directions than studio time can handle. But good melodies are not hard to find with Curio Key Club, and the instrumental “Keep On Telling Myself” stands out both as an exciting revelation within the album and a delightful composition outside of it. Miller’s emotional playing matches tenor sax Graeme Gardiner and Ken Allday’s harmonic, pouty guitar, while drummer Zack Kennedy is close to the front line throwing down a spread. Intense expression, without saying a word. —Lara Kinne

Murals — “Smoke Follows Beauty” 
“Smoke Follows Beauty” drops you straight into a hazy, melancholy rabbit hole of surreal-sounding, kaleidoscopic psych-pop that sounds like the soundtrack to a stoned daydream. For as wavy as it is, there’s definitely still a sense of fluidity in the song: It just adds, subtracts, at one point stops and then starts over — its structure shifts all over the place, but it never loses your attention. While some songs are described as cinematic — something I’ve always taken as meaning it sounds like how a moment in a movie feels in some emotionally-driven way — “Smoke Follows Beauty” plays like the entire score, as it develops different characteristics throughout, while still gravitating around something central. From an excellent album, Violent City Lantern, this song is a good entry point — it’s strange and addicting, something that you can listen to over and over, and almost always discover a new layer. —Scott Recker

Joan Shelley — “Cost of the Cold”
Joan Shelley spent much of the fall on tour with Wilco. While she didn’t have a new album to promote, she did release a beautiful holdover single. “Cost of the Cold,” which also has a mesmerizing hand-drawn video, works even better when the weather mirrors the sentiment, but Shelley’s knack of description could put you in a wintertime mindset in the warmest of climates. While the playful guitar riff reflects the quietness of falling snow, the lyrics take you on a stroll through the woods amid Shelley’s own reflections that her companion dogs lead the way, with or without guidance. She follows the birds in migration, the flowing streams and, eventually, the crackling fire that brings us all back to the warmth. It’s a song about direction, one that I look forward to following for a long time. —Kyle Meredith

Jaye Jayle — “Heaven is Cold”
There are few bands, locally or otherwise, that blend the blues, classic country and indie in such a satisfying way as Jaye Jayle. “Heaven is Cold” transports you to a barren landscape, a dust bowl with tumbleweeds, slowly traveling on a cold breeze. Jaye Jayle peddle in a tight restraint as their primary currency, an urgency quietly seething just below the surface. That tension drives the narrative along, not just on this track, but as a common thread throughout their entire run. You drink whiskey straight with no chaser to this, in the dark, on the porch — a slow burn in the back of your throat, and breath like fire, fighting your demons the best you know how. Band leader Evan Patterson shows a powerful command of his craft here, from his haunting lyrics, to the attention to atmosphere building evident in the multiple layers of sound. —Syd Bishop

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Quiet Hollers — “Broken Guitar”
“Broken Guitar” wasn’t written by the same Quiet Hollers that wrote their 2015 self-titled album. This Quiet Hollers isn’t quite from Louisville anymore, as they are a wandering tribe from the road. They have grown in restraint and frustration, like a significant other who lived away for months. You’ve changed, man… or have we? How disappointing it must be to perform night after night in cities where it’s imperative to impress people who are impossible to impress, only to come home to the same. It is the fear that, as singer Shadwick Wilde states, “Left him dry heavin’, barely breathin’.” The fear of being away from that “girl like you with a few home truths.” It translates into a piano line that flutters around, as if on a lonely breeze from an open window, shored up by stifled guitars, faint violins and a stray trumpet. Like the wheels of a van, drums roll consistently underneath and above the music, providing the only explosive device in the song with the use of cymbals. Tragically beautiful in its own rugged way, it tells where this band is heading in the future. And the future is near. —Nik Vechery

Freakwater — “What The People Want”
Louisville’s longstanding, neo-traditional country duo Freakwater released their first album in over a decade, Scheherazade, this year. The album gets its title from the virgin queen in the story “One Thousand and One Nights.” Scheherazade is a woman with 1,000 spellbinding tales. But, as the story goes, Scheherazade is also doomed to lose her head, which adds a bit of dark mystery to the album’s title. But, we find with the opening track, “What The People Want,” with fiddles ringing low and lonesome over a banjo’s strum, that darkness and doomed women are core elements in the album. This song is about a hunted and murdered woman, with the opening line, “They slit that girl from stem to stern / Who’s baby are you?” The 10-year wait for Scheherazade was well worth it. Now, we patiently wait for Freakwater to write another set of spellbinding songs. —John King

Brooks Ritter — “Stereo of Steel”
With his 2009 debut album, The Horse Fell Lame, Brooks Ritter made every song seem transcendent through a voice that was so passionate and present at the same time. The lyrics were soulful, spiritual and romantic in a way that didn’t feel contrived or insincere. All of those same qualities are still present seven years later on his third record, 2016’s Stereo of Steel, in which he explores soul and blues influences with enriching depth and clarity. The place where Ritter’s old tricks and new stimuli coalesce is perhaps best reflected in the title track. The song is a nostalgic romp that remembers the songs and memories that make us. Filled with vivid imagery that takes you down memory lane, recalling all of those nights we remember but have a hard time pinning down. —Brent Owen

House Ghost — “Gold Watch” (ft. James Lindsey)
“Gold Watch” is one of those songs you have to keep going back to, because it has taken up permanent residence in your memory. This track is a perfect combination between a smooth chorus and a bubbling synth verse that allows the endless talents of James Lindsey to bloom effortlessly. I love songs that can be just outright fun, but add elements of artistic vision to give the band/artist a unique voice. Around the one-minute, 30-second mark, House Ghost seems to freeze time by slowing the melody and creating a dreamy soundscape of relaxed pop. Lindsey builds the song back up with one last victory lap, causing the climax to echo the start — a perfect sonic loop. “Gold Watch” marks House Ghost as great builders of sound and Lindsey as a master wordsmith. Simply put, it is one of the most enjoyable songs of 2016. —Zach Hart

littledidweknow — “Equilibrium”
“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion,” philosopher Albert Camus once said. littledidweknow intrinsically understands that concept on a visceral level. They have always created frighteningly-manic music that feels like a reflection and commentary on the absurdity of life in the fast-paced modern era. It is a trait exemplified best on “Equilibrium,” from their 2016 EP Ultimatum. Where some see empty rage in a song like  “Equilibrium,” others see the mirror looking eerily back at them, pushing reality’s harshness at you through unhinged vocals, frenetic fretboard acrobatics and pulverizing drumming. With each brain-scrambling moment, “Equilibrium” assembles a sonic collage of sanity and insanity co-existing uncomfortably. Sometimes it’s best to let the faux mask of sanity slip and give in to all that chaos (in musical form) has to offer. —Austin Weber

I Have A Knife — “Fuck Shit Up”
The second track off of Stupid and Futile Gestures, “Fuck Shit Up” pretty much sums up what I Have A Knife are about. This is blistering punk rock that screams, snarls and freaks out in the best, most heinous way possible. You put this on to unnerve squares, making this the perfect anthem going into the New Year in the face of so many soulless lunatics steering our country into oblivion. This is the soundtrack to punching those folks in the face, literally or metaphorically, and it succeeds on every level in inspiring you to follow the song’s central thesis: don’t take shit, give it. The guitar squeals, the bass plods with a distorted fury, the drums pound it out and local luminary Sean Garrison is your guide into insanity.
—Syd Bishop

Otis Junior & Dr. Dundiff — “The 1”
Dr. Dundiff has worked with a lot of people this year — even over a dozen artists in one single song — but his collaboration with Otis Junior has proven to be the most fruitful and gratifying. “The 1” announces itself with a playful yelp at the song’s start and continues with a breezy, somewhat sexy bounce. Junior takes us all back to that moment when you’ve honestly fallen head over heels in love, a smile plastered on your face no matter how much you try to hide it. It’s when there’s no real sense of time, or at least no concern for it. “What’d you do with all my blues?” he asks with a wink. What’s more, the whole 1Moment2Another EP is just as good, with a worldwide release on Jakarta Records. These two have tapped into a groove with each other, which only amplifies their own strengths. —Kyle Meredith

Doctor Girlfriend — “Trouble”
Doctor Girlfriend’s Silent Screen was the unexpected debut record that blew me away in 2016. And “Trouble” — an art-rock tornado with guitar freak-outs, wild percussion and a manic vocal performance — is example No. 1 in terms of why. Doctor Girlfriend can manage to kind of remind you of the late ‘70s Talking Heads, without sounding like a knockoff, a testament more to their ability to fuse genres and ideas into a chaotic whole, rather than be some sort of continuation. And, there’s a really nice balance to “Trouble” — while the intro (and most of the song, actually) is a shot of adrenaline that almost brings you to the brink of sensory overload, it has this way of getting stuck in your head. I noticed this after playing it for a friend, after which he randomly started singing the chorus to himself 10 minutes later. —Scott Recker

Good n Filthy — “Kevin Costner — We Outchea”
Over the last few years, producer Filthy Rich has created some of the grimiest, rugged beats I’ve ever heard, which makes “Kevin Costner — We Outchea” quite the anomaly. This silky-smooth track is laced with slick guitar samples and a foxy bass groove, making for a clever, mafioso-style hip-hop beat. To say that this output was unexpected would be an understatement, but certainly more than welcome, proving he’s got plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Meanwhile Mr. Goodbar, aka Thurgood Bartholomew, makes his Skyscraper Stereo crew proud as he lays down another fantastic trio of verses and a clever hook that’ll have you howlin’ at the moon, no doubt. Demolition Derby City is one of the finest hip-hop records to come out Louisville this year, and for me, “Kevin Costner — We Ouchea” is the main attraction. —Phillip Olympia

Axel Roley — “rumble in tha jungle”
Axel Roley’s mixtape Tha City of Gahd. is a magnificent tribute to the late Muhammad Ali, and “rumble in tha jungle” is the crème de la crème from it. Coming in at a mere minute and 44 seconds, the song starts with a recording of Ali reciting a poem about, well, how he’s the greatest boxer of all time. Imagine hearing this recording flowing into a party beat where a crowd chants “Ali! Ali!” It makes you feel like a part of a parade following the boxer down the streets to a famous fight, where everyone is jubilant, the sun is shining and the man is still alive and well. Fans of MF Doom and Quasimodo will hear familiar grooves in Roley’s production. He keeps a sublime needle scratch in the background throughout the mixtape that not only adds an atmosphere but keeps a thread through every song. I seriously propose that the Muhammad Ali Center spends the $10 and plays this mixtape in its building. Roley has much love and respect for the boxer, and it shows in every jam on this record. —Nik Vechery

Eons D & Jordan Jetson — “Forever” (ft. 1200)
The closing track to Inner Space, the collaboration between emcees Eons D and Jordan Jetson, “Forever” is an epic banger, the perfect closer to this or any other record. The production is reminiscent of the very best of OutKast — hip-hop evolved to include a host of nontraditional references. And the lyricism is incredibly top-notch. Joined here by 1200, the trio absolutely slaughter this track. At just a little over seven minutes, everyone is entirely on point, from the slick verses spit by all involved, to a beat that will give you whiplash, as it demands an almost non-stop nod. There is a quiet cool here — you put this on to impress people that you have the inside scoop on something so fresh and so dope. —Syd Bishop

Twin Limb — “Gold From Teeth”
From one of the most highly-anticipated local records of the year, Haplo — Twin Limb’s long-awaited debut full-length — “Gold From Teeth” is proof positive of why their careful approach to the release was smart. They’ve kept their dark, ominous, yet ethereal, sound that brushes folk, psych and (sometimes) pop, but they’ve rounded out their sound, adding and building to form a thickly-layered final product that didn’t subtract from their initial magic: It just adds a few new textures that were just out of reach all along. After the first version of Haplo was recorded in 2015, Twin Limb decided to scrap it, make producer Kevin Ratterman a full-time band member and rerecord it. “Gold From Teeth” is a roller coaster ride that shows exactly how ambitious this record is. It’s weird to say in 2016, but they sound like nothing else. —Scott Recker

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