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5 Denver musicians and albums not to miss from 2016

With so much great local music created this year, we’ve curated a list of a few top picks.

December 22, 2016

Cory Phare

Long an outpost for artists and outlaws, Denver’s continued growth continues to bring with it an explosion of arts and culture. Newcomers and the old guard form a creative stew putting the Mile High City on the map as a modern musical hotspot. 

2016 saw the launch of DIME Denver, a partnership between MSU Denver and the Detroit Institute of Music Education. And while we’re happy to see local artists like the Lumineers, the Fray, and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats springboard to national acclaim, the city also teems with talent that flies comparatively under the radar.

That’s why we’re highlighting (in no particular order of preference) a handful of artists and albums from the past 12 months as some genre-crossing ear candy. From funk to hip hop and metal to experimental, there was no shortage of great Denver music in 2016.

Because of the sheer scale of Denver’s creative community – and the indisputable subjectivity of taste – any year-end list will invariably overlook some key contributions. We’d love to hear from you: What albums and artists were your favorites from 2016?

The Motet – “Totem”

Tight, funky grooves never go out of style – and the Motet proves it with its new release, “Totem” (along with a Red Rocks-recorded album, also out in 2016). Equal parts jam band, jazz fusion and ‘70s clavinet keyboard-inspired groovers, it’s almost impossible not to dance to the Fela Kuti-esque rhythms from these regional rockers. “Totem” kicks off with “The Truth,” a toe-tapper that encapsulates everything the Motet (definition: “a highly varied choral musical composition”) does in one song.

Wheelchair Sports Camp – “No Big Deal”

Fronted by emcee and beat-maker Kalyn Heffernan, Wheelchair Sports Camp explores issues of ability, identity and gentrification via lexically intricate blueprints of life in a rapidly growing city. And with “No Big Deal,” the group has cemented its legacy as a foundational mainstay of Denver’s justice-rooted artistic community.

Mixing downtempo boom-bap with borough-rooted classic rhythm and blues instrumentation, drummer Gregg Ziemba and trumpeter Joshua Trinidad are joined in the pocket by a litany of renowned Denver musicians, including Rubedo, Qknox and Felix Fast4Ward. The result is an eclectic mix of social consciousness and head nodders, as displayed by lead single “Mary Had a Little Band.”

Inner Oceans – “I Don’t Mind”

Denver-based Inner Oceans purportedly crafts songs to find “the ghost” that lives within them. For those of you without a Ouija board handy, that means marrying the synthetic and analog to construct reverb-drenched textures that evolve and undulate across three to five minutes.

The results are evocative and haunting. Minimal masterworks channel Peter Gabriel through Lynchian electro-impressionist dreamscapes of Panda Bear and the Knife. Paying homage to P.M. Dawn and akin to Gayngs as more tribute than satire, Inner Oceans’ circuit-bending soft rock is vaguely what I remember the ‘80s sounding like. Listen to “Wild” above.

Khemmis – “The Hunted”

Clocking in at 43 minutes, 49 seconds across only five songs, “The Hunted” is a simmering cauldron of doom metal. Khemmis traverses the amplifier-crackling sludge of Pelican to the soaring harmonies and melodicism of Iron Maiden, with discordant southern riffs and dragon-slaying harmonized scale work thrown in for good measure. This is one lumbering mammoth (mastodon?) of a record.

The Denver band’s second effort was recently named Decibel magazine’s Album of the Year, and rightfully so. The opening track, “Above the Water,” has for my money one of the top album kickoff riffs of the past decade. With each song painting an elegiac molten hellscape, this Baroness-esque brawler is probably playing on repeat in the Upside Down (and Scandinavia). How do I get this guitar tone?

Various/Youth on Record – “Y.O.R. Sessions, Vol. 1”

As an educational organization, Youth On Record is committed to helping at-risk youth graduate high school and advance in their college or career through hands-on learning from accomplished professional creatives.

Founded by Denver band Flobots in 2008, the social empowerment group’s home in the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood boasts a full-scale recording studio, production lab and community center. And last May, Youth On Record released “Y.O.R. Sessions Vol. 1,” an album featuring local, national and international musicians, such as Arrested Development, HONEYHONEY and Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds – with all proceeds going back to YOR. Listen to Haitian activist Mona Augustin’s track “Skweekee” above.

Cory Phare is a staff writer with MSU Denver’s Marketing and Communications department. A (slightly) reformed punk rocker, he has appeared in Alternative Press, the Van’s Warped Tour and on MTV Networks.