12 of San Diego’s Best Rock/Pop Albums of 2016

We take a look back at the year's 12 best rock/pop albums released by San Diego bands

John Audley

San Diego acts release a wealth of musical material every year, and 2016 was definitely no different. While there was a multitude of excellent rock/pop records that came out of our scene this year, we look back on 12 albums (EPs and LPs) that memorably moved the needle in our frigid hearts. We don't presume to say that these are the only ones worth mentioning -- merely ones we enjoyed quite a bit. If you have an album (or a bunch) in mind that we didn't mention here, drop some knowledge on us in the comments.

Alive & Well, "From Basements to Beaches" (released June 3): Pop-punk kids, eat your hearts out. On their four-song “From Basements to Beaches” EP, Alive & Well mine the genre deeper than most of their peers -- delivering songs that are deceptively complex and unassumingly heart-wrenching -- all with hooks that are far tastier than anything I’ve heard in recent memory. Highly anticipating their 2017 follow-up that’s reportedly in the works. [Listen/buy it here] -- Dustin Lothspeich

Creepseed, "The Undertone" (released Dec. 7): As the “beach goth” phenomenon grows, more bands join the ranks, including Joshua Kmak’s relatively new project, Creepseed. Kmak first made a name for himself in the San Diego scene with the manic-garage-spook-rock of the Shady Francos. Since the Francos have taken a break from live shows to record a new album, Creepseed has managed to creep its way onto the web and into the dark tropics of our consciousness. All that is not to say that Creepseed is actually scary in sound. “The Undertone” -- with its slightly distorted acoustic guitars, occasionally phased-out vocals, theatrically emphasized syllables and beefy lead guitars -- has more of a T. Rex glam flavor than anything else. Weird? Maybe, but not in a creepy way. Like Bowie, [the album] is melodic and catchy as hell, and it’s very well produced, too. At some points, I forgot that I was even listening to a local band. Featuring guitar solos by Pat Beers and Brian Reilly of the Schizophonics, “The Undertone” demonstrates Kmak’s viability outside of the Shady Francos and outside of the merely local. [Listen/buy the album here] -- Rutger Rosenborg

The Donkeys, "Midnight Palms" EP (released Feb. 12): Guys, let's be real -- 2016 was the year of the Donkeys. They came out kickin' with the February release of their first-ever EP, "Midnight Palms," which blurred the lines of aural sobriety (yes, ears can get drunk too) across five buzzy, warm tracks that swaddled me in a sea of chill. Fast forward a few months to December and their single "Down the Line" [watch the video] even made it onto a road-trip playlist in "National Geographic Traveler" -- sure, I created said playlist, but there was some serious competition. And yeah, it doesn't hurt that they're like the nicest dudes you could hope to stumble across poolside at Harrah's (you know what I'm talking about, SoundDiego Summer Splash party goers). That's all to say, hell yeah, Donkeys. I'll stay up until midnight with you anytime. Keep on with that bad style. [Listen/buy the EP here] -- Hannah Lott-Schwartz

The Frights, "You Are Going to Hate This" (released Feb. 12): The Frights? Yeah, those fools are liars. Don’t believe s--- they say. Especially when it comes to this new record of theirs. It’s all in the title: “You Are Going to Hate This.” Right. Rarely have I heard anything more misleading. Because this new record? You’re going to f---ing love it. “You Are Going to Hate This” was produced by FIDLAR frontman Zac Carper, and appropriately so. Both bands share that infectious onstage energy, and with this album, the Frights dip into a FIDLAR-esque debaucherous party-rock sound. But there’s still the doo-wop wa-was that fans of the Frights’ older material can keep pace with. Maybe it’s reverse psychology or something, but I’m pumped AF on the album and on the Frights in general. [Listen/buy the album here] -- Hannah Lott-Schwartz

Le Chateau, “Brutalism” EP (released Oct. 28): The second EP by this electro/pop trio features six more tracks of what endeared us to them on their 2015 debut -- namely Laura Levenhagen’s soaring vocals, grinding beats, washed-out atmospherics galore and a pendulum-like swing between contentment and despair. No sophomore slump for Le Chateau here. [Listen/buy the EP here] -- Dustin Lothspeich

The Lulls, "Island of Daughters" (released Nov. 25): Let's get this out of the way: I'm mandated to say each time I mention the Lulls on SoundDiego that the band's frontman, Rutger Rosenborg, is also my colleague and fellow SoundDiego associate editor. Nepotism at its worst, you might be thinking. It's OK, I'd think that too. And I guess you'd be right if after just one listen to this eight-song collection of experimental indie-pop you didn't agree that the songs are simply incredible. There ain't a bad track in the bunch and it's impressive how the band moves from hypnotic lullers (lolz) like "Calafia" to bubbly toe-tappers ("Paris") and washed-out, minor-key psych dirges ("Tyrant"). Deliciously captivating -- and on repeat. [Buy the album here] -- Dustin Lothspeich 

The Midnight Pine, self-titled (released Oct. 7): I am not a fan of indie-folk -- at least, not the way it’s popularly done. The big folksters all follow the same trope: lots of woahs, ohs, heys, recycled melodies and trite lyricism. Meanwhile, thoughtful, lyrical songstresses like Jessica Pratt are labeled “freak-folk” and pushed to the margins of a rich tradition that they should rightfully inherit. The folk well has become rather tainted as of late, which is why I am so grateful that a band like the Midnight Pine exists in San Diego, reminding me that all is not lost in the genre. On Oct. 7, the Midnight Pine released their new self-titled album via Redwoods Music, following up their critically-acclaimed 2014 album, “Buried.” The album includes just as much attention to emotive storytelling and just as much of Shelbi Bennett’s atmospheric boom-crooning but with the added benefit of occasional horns and -- dare I say -- a danceable groove. When you do get the album, I guarantee you "Vice" will be one of your favorite tracks. This is what popular folk should be today -- not an ouroboros of woah-hey-hos and mind-numbing platitudes. [Listen/buy the album here] -- Rutger Rosenborg

Small Culture, self-titled EP (released June 2): Small Culture’s music is infused with both the tropics of Hawaii and the commerciality of Southern California -- electro-pop meets post-rock meets alternative. It’s accessible, it’s well produced and, most importantly, it’s interesting. Frontman Jerik Centeno has surrounded himself with some of the most relevant musicians in the San Diego scene right now, and as he grows with his music, so will his appeal to Los Angeles record labels and national press. He’s got the sound, he’s got the charm -- let’s just hope he’s got the stamina. [Listen/buy the EP here] -- Rutger Rosenborg

Soft Lions, "XOXO" (released Oct. 28): Soft Lions came off of a West Coast tour last month, and we're glad they're back, because this EP is the (big) cat's pajamas. Channeling riot grrrlers like Sleater-Kinney, Soft Lions' "XOXO" delivers raw, noisey pop/rock that starts you in the packed garage of a raucous house show and leads you into the warmer recesses of the less-crowded living room -- it's there that frontwoman Megan Liscomb really shines. "Freeway" is a fun single, but "Run in Dreams" is the gem of the 6-track endeavor. [Listen/buy the EP here] -- Rutger Rosenborg

Taken by Canadians, “we eat you like a person” (released June 2): This North County quartet’s latest oddly-named album cemented them as one of San Diego's favorite rock 'n' roll groups. Evolving (as great bands always do) over the course of the last few years, the new album serves up slightly less alt-country licks than we're used to hearing from them amid a greater infusion of psychedelic indie-rock vibes instead -- and a hearty helping of "Hell yea!" Dig in. [Listen/buy the album here] -- Dustin Lothspeich

Trouble in the Wind, "Lefty" (released April 26): It’s almost hard to believe how great this record is. Shades of pop, alt-country, folk and good ol’ fashioned rock 'n' roll burst out of this 13-song masterpiece by these North County lads, where each song is more delectably tasty than the next. Sweeping back-porch ballads hang alongside buzzing barnyard rompers with ease, alternating quite nicely between "Harvest"-era Neil Young love letters and old-school Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers-esque power-pop gems. I thought the band's 2014 album, “Slide Rock,” was good -- turns out it was just an appetizer. [Listen/buy it here] -- Dustin Lothspeich

The Verigolds, "For Margaret" (released March 26): Recently awarded Album of the Year in our 2016 SoundDiego Music Awards, all I can say is the accolade is well-deserved, and the impact this band is making locally just further proves how undisputably good their music is. As I wrote back in July: "On 'For Margaret,' the band takes majestic strides across blissed-out psychedelic soundscapes -- in turn fusing the best parts of rock, pop, chillwave and subtle electro together for a Technicolor journey that's nearly impossible not to get lost in." [Listen/buy it here] -- Dustin Lothspeich

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