the 10 most exciting eps of 2016

Often, amazing things come in smaller packages — just ask Abra, Kelsey Lu, Gaika, Moses Sumney, Aphex Twin, and Vince Staples, who released some of the year’s standout EPs. Take a look back at some of our favorites, from ambient electronica to girl...

by Emily Manning
26 December 2016, 7:05pm

Abra, Princess: The self-dubbed "darkwave duchess" is among friends at Awful Records, the Atlanta collective making some of today's most standout, singular sounds. Yet Abra has long been in a class of her own (before Alexandria joined the roster — and released her own fantastic EP this year — Abra was Awful's lone siren): she makes sounds unlike anyone else's. Princess, the six-track EP Abra released this summer through Matador imprint True Panther, is a sharply constructed work of art that we have not been able to turn off since its debut in mid July (our Fashion News Editor even got me Princess on vinyl for my birthday). Like its full-length predecessor, 2015's excellent Rose, Princess is reminiscent of lo-fi 80s alt-pop: it's built on a blend of mesmerizing synth melodies and intersecting harmonies. Though it's Abra's major label debut, Princess still boasts the DIY qualities that make her first two releases — records she made in her bedroom closet — so urgent and exciting. "Vegas" is a clear standout, destined for someone's runway soundtrack, as are"Crybaby" and EP closer "Thinking of U."

Kelsey Lu, Church: True Panther released another standout EP, Kelsey Lu's stunning Church, the week before Princess. Though the releases have little in common sonically (Lu is a classically trained cellist who recorded Church live in an actual church; Abra is a wiz on a drum machine), the EPs' creators are both steadfastly committed to the unique sounds they craft. Lu has a mighty circle of friends: she spent the year touring with Wet and Sampha, opened for Grimes and Florence and the Machine at Madison Square Garden, soundtracked Grace Wales Bonner's spring/summer 17 show, and appeared on two of the year's most highly regarded records — Blood Orange's Freetown Sound and Solange's A Seat at the Table. But behind a massively impressive resume stands a sublime, haunting six-track EP. If Church's opening track, the near-eight minute "Dreams," doesn't hook you with its engulfing vibrations and shattering, gorgeous vocals then have your ears checked. "Visions of Old" and "Liar" are equally thrilling. Lu's full-length will doubtlessly be triumphant.

Swan Lingo, Spirit Plug: In June, i-D premiered the grainy VHS video for "luv is true" — the lead single off Swan Lingo's EP Spirit Plug. At the time, i-D described the DC-based multi-instrumentalist's sound as "if Daniel Johnston, Dean Blunt, Elliott Smith, New Order, Aphex Twin, and Lil' B played a game of tag — weaving, bobbing, chasing, colliding, running out of breath, starting up again." We stand by the statement (and enjoy imagining it happen). Though Spirit Plug is just four tracks long, it collects experimental keyboard synths, evocative vocals that move fluidly between song and speech, and hip-hop-leaning drum hits. Its final song, "Meditacion," contains a gorgeously simple loop that almost sounds like Nguzunguzu playing Spanish guitar. No wonder forward-thinking, eclectic electronic collective WEDIDIT jumped at the chance to release Spirit Plug, and bring Swan under its wing.

Vince Staples, Prima Donna: Having released his knockout debut album Summertime 06 in summertime 2015, Vince Staples had everyone watching his next move. And — as anyone familiar with the sharp-witted, realist lyricist would expect — it was a wise one. In late August, Staples dropped Prima Donna, a seven-track EP that pushed the limits of the somewhat sinister sound he established with Summertime. Featuring production from heavyweights like No I.D. and DJ Dahi (as well as surprise contributions from James Blake), the EP comprises beats that are ambitious and experimental. But the 23-year-old Long Beach rapper remains in complete control — his knockout, cerebral verses flex no matter how left-field the hook. On Prima Donna, Staples proved just how much he could do with less.

Aphex Twin, Cheetah: Richard D. James's fans are masters of the waiting game. In 2014, the enigmatic ambient maestro returned with his first album in 13 years; just last weekend, he performed his first live show in the United States in nearly a decade at Day for Night. And earlier this year, James released his first music video 17 years. In true Aphex Twin style, it was directed by an Irish middle schooler with a passion for Apple Photobooth effects. That video was for "CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ]," a track off Aphex's July EP Cheetah. The seven-track record shows a simpler side of James's complex sound. As Pitchfork noted: "crucially, with his beats less busy, it has left James more room to focus on spine-tinglingly rich tunings and timbres. And that's where Cheetah really stands out."

The Paranoyds, After You: Though Los Angeles garage punk outfit The Paranoyds — who count model Staz Lindes among their four members — have been playing local live shows together for a while, the band released its debut EP in May. After You seeps with lo-fi buzz and riotous energy, but The Paranoyds have honed a full, focused sound on the four-track release. It blends raw garage rock with sludgy surf pop guitar, and propels the melodies with aggressive basslines. Layered keyboard loops and gritty, 60s girl-group style vocals combine to compelling effect, especially on opening single "Rat Boy." "I really like the idea of EPs a lot instead of one big full length," Lindes told i-D when we met up in the summer, just as The Paranoyds were wrapping a coast-to-coast tour with DIIV. "We want to do a couple more split comps with other bands, and write a whole other set of songs to keep on playing. A West Coast tour with all of our friends is the dream."

Young Thug, JefferyNo, My Name is JEFFERY: an EP? A mixtape? A movement? A phase? Young Thug's third release in 2016 — following I'm Up! and Slime Season 3 mixtapes — was nothing if not a well-dressed enigma. For many, it marked a high point in Thug's uncommon, chameleonic evolution. Featuring eight tracks named after the Atlanta maverick's idols (including Kanye West, Wyclef Jean, Rihanna, and Harambe), Jeffery enshrines the idiosyncratic rapper's most exciting sounds. Its lovelorn vocals are daring, its production entrancing, even if it is as enigmatic as any of Thug's previous releases. And with a Mortal Kombat-esque Thug posing in a bright blue Alessandro Tricone dress on its instantly viral cover, Jeffery is perhaps most major release to date despite its abbreviated length. 

Moses Sumney, Lamentations: Just 19 minutes long, Moses Sumney's sumptuous EP Lamentations is a short but oh-so-sweet listen. The record's five tracks span mellow electro-funk, trippy neo-soul, and evocative acoustic guitar riffs, each sound woven together by Sumney's other worldly voice. With Lamentations, the Los Angeles-based Sumney demonstrates just how elastic his vocal can be, and multiplies its effects through masterful use of loop pedals; "Proud to Be" lands somewhere between Cee-Lo's dizzying range and the magnetic synchronicity of Lucius's co-vocalists. Though Thundercat's bass grooves are a winning element of Lamentations's unmatched standout "Lonely World," it's Sumney's whispers that are positively goosebump-inducing. Don't skip this one.

Princess Nokia, 1992: Destiny Frasqueri, perhaps better known by her millennial moniker Princess Nokia, has built a truly global hip-hop sound — thanks largely to her eagerness to experiment with the unexpected. But on her recently released nine-track banger 1992, the Bronx-based rapper pays nuanced tribute to her native New York. And this homage isn't simply sonic (though the big, gritty beats, razor-sharp lyricism, and pure vocal power that make the rotten apple's storied hip-hop tradition so dastardly shape Nokia's knockout EP, too). But with 1992, the 24-year-old also celebrates the city's richly diasporic, cross-pollinated cultures — specifically its constellation of vibrant Afro-Latinx communities. On standout effort "Brujas," Nokia touches on her own family history, spitting: "I'm that Blackorican bruja/Straight out from the Yoruba/And my people come from Africa-diaspora Cuba" in a single breath. With 1992, Nokia triumphantly waves the banner for a new generation proud to carry the traditions of the past, but unafraid to rip up the rulebook.

Gaika, Spaghetto: Gaika Tavares hails from Brixton — the south London neighborhood home to one of the city's most thriving Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean communities, and currently experiencing rapid gentrification. Gaika's outstanding EP Spaghetto is rooted in his neighborhood's dancehall and reggaeton tradition. But gentrification's turbulent industrialism (and the fractured displacement bound to it) is equally present in the dark, glitchy futurism his sound enshrines. It's been compared to Clams Casino, Death Grips, and Rizzla, but somehow defies even this winning combination — muddying riddims with dystopian ambient fuzz and a bit of gothic gospel. It's unsurprising that Awful Records ringleader Father loved Spaghetto's high point "Glad We Found It" so much that he directed an O Brother, Where Art Thou? inspired video for the compelling, entirely unique track.


Text Emily Manning

Young Thug
Vince Staples
Moses Sumney
Aphex Twin
Princess Nokia
Prima Donna
Kelsey Lu
The Paranoyds
swan lingo
after you
eps of the year
spirit plug