After counting down the Best Songs and Best EPs last week, our year-end look back comes to a close with the Best Vermont Albums. This list could easily have been twice or three times as long, but for the sake of concision – and offering a brief scene intro for outsiders – I limited it to ten. The cream of the crop, the albums with not an ounce of flab or filler.
Genre-wise, they run the gamut, from instrumental bass funk to snappy power-pop, from horn-flecked Americana to roaring slacker-punk. Some tackle current events with wit and insight. Some focus more on chilling, eating sweets, or doing laundry. The only unifying characteristic here is quality.
10. Aram Bedrosian – A Dark Light
To be frank, an album of funky bass instrumentals sounds awful. You imagine a dystopia where the Seinfeld theme runs half an hour long. What makes Bedrosian’s new album work are not his technical abilities – which he has in spades – but his gift for melody. Over ten tracks, he conjures sweeping soundscapes, bringing out sides to the bass the casual listener may not have known existed.
9. The Snaz – Sensitive Man
The Snaz disbanded earlier this year, which is a shame because the quartet was just hitting its stride. The School of Rock novelty of a band featuring high school kids had long since worn off, and what remained was a damn fine rock band for any age. Main songwriter Dharma Ramirez has a way with a hook, churning out insanely catchy power-pop nuggets like “Summer Underground” and “Strung Out on Candy Bars.”
8. Justin LaPoint – Bear Country
It’s the little touches that make this one something special. Like the muted trumpet that fades in two-thirds through the 1970s Laurel Canyon-channeling “Drive.” Or the high-and-lonesome fiddle sawing over the top of the woodsy stomp “Dead Man Walking.” LaPoint’s songwriting is airtight already – amazingly so for a debut record – and the flecks of magic producers Yasmin Tayeby and J. Luke Young add pushes it over the top.
7. Liam Dailey – Get It When You Can
“Is this Frightened Rabbit?” my wife asked when I played Liam Dailey’s new album. Not a bad guess. Dailey may have that thick brogue, but he shares the band’s melodic smarts and way with a massive chorus. His new album offers a modern update of a retro sound. “Down To The Graveyard (Part I)” sounds like a catchy spin on an Irish murder ballad, while “I Have Seen the Angels” could be Ed Sheeran covering an Appalachian folk song. In an era where Vance Joy can tour with Taylor Swift, Dailey’s sound is well positioned to blow up.
6. Josh Panda – Shake It Up
We named “After the Smoke Clears,” an early single from Josh Panda’s new album, the best song of 2016. Luckily, the rest of the album lives up to that very high bar. From to the Stax-tinged “We’ve Come Too Far” to the southern-rock ballad “Angel,” Panda explores soul, country, and rock and roll across ten taught and hook-filled songs. He gets political on “Guns” and the LGBT anthem “Stick a Fork in Me,” which he first released in 2015 after same-sex marriage became the law of the land.
5. Apartment 3 – Apt. 3
Like the Snaz, Apartment 3 recently announced their breakup. And they’re going out like the Sex Pistols: with a perfect record of one killer album. Their sound sounds like Johnny Rotten drinking cough syrup though, loud as hell but hazy and warped. Whispers quickly turn into screams, and if a guitar starts out palm-muted you know it’s only building towards an explosion.
4. The Pilgrims – No Focus
The dumb-joke song titles on this garage-rock quintet’s third album don’t inspire much confidence. “Fuckuitude,” “Treap Chick,” “The Millennial Whoop” – and that’s just the first three. But the wiseguy attitude belies some serious pop smarts. Channeling Thin Lizzy and T. Rex, the Pilgrims roar through ten insanely hook-loaded rock jams.
3. Jinxbox – Relief
On paper, the lyrics of Jinxbox’s debut album read like Nine Inch Nails, full of anger and depression and self-loathing. But the music is much sweeter, a dreamy meander through the Cocteau Twins and Mazzy Star catalogs. Singer Zara London-Southern’s voice floats easily above it all, providing more than a spoonful of sugar to help the darkness go down easy.
2. Henry Jamison – The Wilds
All signs point to Jamison as Vermont’s next breakout artist. Six songs from this debut album already top a million plays on Spotify. His breakout, “Real Peach,” is sitting at 22 million as I write this! It’s a remarkable success story, and it couldn’t have happened to someone more deserving. Jamison looks the part of the bearded acoustic strummer, and if you see him live you might get some of that. But on record, he brings in delicate electronic production flourishes that bely the “singer-songwriter” stereotype. Like Prince or Stevie Wonder, he does it all himself, blending finger-picking with synthesizers, programmed percussion loops, and complex string arrangements.
1. Swale – There’s No One Here
This double-album magnum opus not only showcases the best of Swale, it showcases the best of just about every prominent Vermont genre: rock and roll (“Release Your Records”), Americana (“Burnt Anchor”), pop (“Elevator”), punk (“Drug Laws”), experimental (the nine-minute epic “Every Last One of Us”), and more. Swale long ago solidified their status as the state’s favorite hidden treasure, a band beloved by locals that rarely tours outside the Northeast. It’s tempting to hope a record this good breaks them out nationally, but really, it doesn’t matter. Swale is in it for the long haul either way. Whether or not they ever get that elusive “big break,” people will still be discovering and loving this record for decades to come.