The 10 Best EPs of 2016

Music Lists Best of 2016
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The 10 Best EPs of 2016

You’ve heard all the old sayings: Great things come in small packages. Size doesn’t matter. There’s perhaps no greater evidence of this than the EP. Whether it was to tease an upcoming full-length or find a home for some odds and ends that didn’t quite make the cut during the last album cycle, the EP was alive and well in 2016. We polled our writers and editors, and these are the ones that drew the most votes—the 10 best EPs of 2016.

10. Speedy Ortiz, Foiled Again

Sadie Dupuis made 2016 her year between her debut solo LP, Sad13’s Slugger, and this EP from her main project, Speedy Ortiz. Foiled Again, a play on the name of 2015’s Foil Deer, features two outtakes from those sessions, as well as two remixes of “Puffer,” which appeared on that record. The Lazerbeak remix with Lizzo serves as the high point on Foiled Again; the Doomtree founder and Minneapolis rapper give this track a veneer more suitable for pop radio and show off the power of two strong women collaborating with and elevating each other. —Hilary Saunders

9. Hiss Golden Messenger, Vestapol

We already lauded Hiss Golden Messenger’s sixth album, this year’s Heart Like A Levee, on our Best Albums of 2016 list. But those 4,000 folks who bought physical copies on CD or LP (and those who bought the deluxe digital edition) were in for a surprise. Frontman and songwriter M.C. Taylor composed eight more songs during that time that have since become known as the Vestapol EP. Performed almost completely solo/acoustic in motels on tour and in his North Carolina home, these songs showcase the intimate structure of Taylor’s music upon which full band arrangements build. —Hilary Saunders

8. The Strokes, Future Past Present

When the Strokes surprise-released their first EP since 2001’s The Modern Age this year, it couldn’t help but come off as a little odd, especially considering New York’s premier retro-rock revivalists’, well, past. But the four-song output also signified the band’s future, since it was also the first to come out on frontman Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records. Now that the five-piece has presumably turned a corner, they can show off the stylistic ways in which they perceive their Future, Present and Past. If bombastic opener “Drag Queen” is the future, then the twirly-stringed “OBLIVIUS” is the present and vintage Stroksian “Threat of Joy” is almost certainly the past. What the EP says about the band’s ultimate destiny is anyone’s guess—but this year’s soon-to-be antiquity offers a satisfying hint at what’s to come.—Rachel Brodsky

7. Colleen Green, Colleen Green

Most EPs act as stopgaps between full-length albums—a little taste of what’s on the horizon. But Colleen Green’s standout self-titled extended play was more like a half-album with six majorly memorable cuts that sound like if The Ramones asked Kim Deal to guest on vocals (and they replaced their live percussion with a simple drum machine). But that’s not to say that the Los Angeles singer is derivative. The shades-wearing singer/songwriter communicates in her own straightforward language of shrugging self-deprecation and clever wordplay (“You coulda been an A / But you’d rather be a D / Oh, oh, oh baby / Why can’t you C?” she sings on the deflated opening track). Later, she chugs out what could easily be the opening chords to the Ramones’ familiar rallying cry “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!”, then pivots to unfurl a beachy surf-pop anthem about a long-distance flame (“sun sun, fuckin’ up my love now”). Truly, Green’s self-titled is so unusually tight and addicting in its utter simplicity, its only detractor is that it must end at all.—Rachel Brodsky

6. Lizzo, Coconut Oil

The formidable Lizzo strikes back just a year after last year’s LP Big GRRRL Small World with her major label debut, the Coconut Oil EP. The six-track collection showcases the musical diversity of the Minneapolis-based songwriter, rapper, singer and flautist. The title track opens with a flute solo and culminates with Lizzo singing the same notes as the guitar solo. Lead single “Good As Hell” (which also appeared on the Barbershop: The Next Cut soundtrack) is an empowerment anthem with a feminist bent and single “Phone” is an EDM-tinged banger with a laugh-out-loud ending. Lizzo has carved a niche for herself by embracing her identity and encouraging fans (especially women and those in marginalized communities) to do the same; Coconut Oil’s greatest strength is that it continues that mission tenaciously. —Hilary Saunders

5. Hoops, Hoops EP

Indiana-based quartet Hoops are Fat Possum labelmates of Day Wave, and that’s not their only similarity. Both released excellent EPs this year, evoking nostalgia and other longings through dreamy indie-pop that feels both hand-crafted and ethereal. “Cool 2” starts Hoops EP off on a particularly inviting note, with its woozy melodies liable to bounce around in your head long after the song ends. Hoops’ tantalizing EP has us heavy-breathing while waiting for a full-length.—Scott Russell

4. Day Wave, Hard to Read

Jackson Phillips is an indie-pop prodigy out of Oakland, Calif., and his second EP under his Day Wave moniker hasn’t left my head since its March release. There is no weak spot to be found in this polished five-song set—Hard to Read starts at infectious and only digs in deeper from there. Phillips’ knack for hook-laden, subtly electro-tinged pop that never cloys will take him a long way, and one listen to this undeniable EP will all but ensure that you, too, are along for the ride.—Scott Russell

3. Sheer Mag, III

Philadelphia’s Sheer Mag has released a killer EP a year for the past three years. Yet, the band has kept these offerings close, only releasing them independently via Bandcamp. Carried by frontwoman Tina Halladay’s snarls and strong sense of melody, Sheer Mag tunes find the sweet spot between ‘70s rock ’n’ roll bombast and punk scrappiness. In particular III highlights the band’s concise structure (lead track “Can’t Stop Fighting” clocks in the longest at 3:38) and Halladay’s DGAF lyrics like on the anthemic “Nobody’s Baby.” Here’s hoping we finally see more from this band in 2017. —Hilary Saunders

2. Carly Rae Jepsen: E.MO.TION Side B

Culled from the sessions that gave us last year’s still-impeccable E.MO.TION, Side B should put to rest any lingering doubt that the quality of a Carly Rae Jepsen record lives or dies at the hands of its producers. Though it’s way less stylistically risky than its spiritual predecessor—and in some ways more in tune with the pop-radio-shameless Jepsen of “Call Me Maybe” fame, a phase of her career she’s thankfully decimated by hooking up with folks like Blood Orange and Ariel Rechtshaid—this EP is so much more given to the vicissitudes of modern love. It’s not like Side B is a “friends with benefits” kind of record where E.MO.TION was about cookie-cuttier romance, but here Jepsen seems all the more game for seeing what happens. In “Higher,” she equates emotional satisfaction with visceral pleasure, all against what would be a steadily mounting, club-friendly beat were it laced with the cynicism that counts as Saturday Night electro-pop anymore (it’s not—and it’s produced by Greg Kurstin of Adele’s “Hello” fame). Then, in “The One,” in the pocket of a full-blown ’80s vibe most of Side B enjoys, Jepsen laments a boy’s co-dependence, which, followed by “Fever,” might strike as some serious cognitive dissonance (“Go on and break my heart tonight / I’ve got your fever, I’ll be feeling it forever”). But over the course of Side B, Jepsen builds an inimitably mature mindset: Just because we’re not dating it doesn’t mean that sex has to be an empty emotional experience. Then there’s “Store,” which might be the earworm equivalent of the sad “I’m going out for cigarettes” dad abandonment cliché. Contradictory and complex, Carly Rae Jepsen has proven to be an essential songwriter working in that wonderful grey area between traditional monogamous values and the inconsiderate licentiousness of whatever side of the black-and-white divide most chart-topping musicians take anymore. That Side B is also as coherent and catchy as any full-length pop album this year is proof positive that CRJ needs us to put “Call Me Maybe” behind us as much as she has. —Dom Sinacola

1. Vince Staples, Prima Donna

2016 has featured two rap projects that begin with a reference to the gospel staple “This Little Light of Mine.” On Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo the song was quoted by Chance the Rapper, setting the mood for a wayward album about using faith to reckon with temptation. On Vince Staples’ Prima Donna, the song is quoted as a final reckoning: stretching out the words, a quasi-fictional rapper sings the song right before blowing his brains out.

The first song on Summertime ‘06, Staples’ ambitious debut album, also ended with a gunshot, but the targets were varied. There, strafing between his past and his present, Staples wove a rich tapestry of adoration and alienation, a love letter to his hometown of Long Beach, California written in the blood that stains its streets. Prima Donna is much more narrow in scope. The brief EP finds Staples playing puppeteer to a rap star who finds fame to be unfulfilling. Nearly every song is appended by an acapella coda in which the forlorn rap star speaks directly, his voice heavy yet hopeful. It’s unclear whether the codas are song demos or confessionals, but that seems to be the point: the same art that gives the rap star life is slowly killing him.

Death is a vital force on Prima Donna. Chronologically, the album moves backward in time from the rap star’s death, beginning with him committing suicide and ending with him as a gangbanger, each successive track contextualizing his suicide. “War Ready” begins with a sample from Outkast’s “Atliens” where Andre 3000 proclaims he’s found a stronger weapon than his glock: his words. The sample is looped three times, 3000’s voice becoming more clear with each repetition, the rapper inching away from self-destruction. But the kicker is that what he inches toward isn’t particularly vitalizing. Staples peppers the first verse with a punishing string of desolate imagery. Unflinching, he raps “Heaven hell, free or jail, same shit/ County jail, bus, slave ship, same shit/ Wise man once said/ that a black man better off dead.” Death has always been a theme in Staples’ music, but here it’s a refuge, a perfectly reasonable consideration, not a consequence. And that’s just two minutes in.

As the EP proceeds, Vince sketches out the rap star through sharp vignettes. “Loco,” a spiritual sequel to Summertime 06’s “Loca,” finds the star simultaneously in the middle of a fling and an existential crisis, his mind and his trousers bursting at the seams. Effortlessly, Vince sets the scene, the rhymes packed tight: “Out of my mind, she out of red wine/She woozy, bitch bougie, straight from Dubai/She love to hip pop, she love the slick talk/Gave head then begged the boy to Crip walk.” The tension is devastating, amped up tenfold by the instrumental’s glitchy whir of warped sirens and screeching alarms. On “Pimp Hand” Vince details the rapper’s days in Long Beach, totally removed from rap. “No Boot Camp Clik’in, we was food stamp flickin’” he hisses, a world away from underground rap.

The final track, “Big Time,” features the rap star at his happiest, established in the streets and loving it. “Man, I love this Crippin, man my homies wit it,” Staples boasts in the opening verse, full of pride. Lines like this put the earlier suicide into sharp focus—something was lost as the rap star became famous—but Staples doesn’t offer easy outs. Despite the pre-fame rap star clearly being proud of his fiefdom, he’s annoyed by what lies beyond his reach. “Sick of these rappers not selling no drugs, sick of the industry playing these games, sick of my enemies saying my name,” Staples raps, his voice pitched up to a manic, almost prepubescent shriek.

It’s here where it becomes most clear that the unnamed rap star is an alternative version of Vince himself, from the Long Beach origins, to the past life as a gangbanger. In interviews and public appearances, Staples has repeatedly scorned the significance of entertainment, pivoting questions about his music toward issues he cares about, like police violence, miseducation, and poverty. Staples is deeply skeptical of fame and its costs and Prima Donna raises that skepticism to existential heights. The EP reportedly is constructed to be played forward or backward, and both directions are bleak: you can either experience a black man spiral away from death or toward it, knowing that he hates his life.

This should be the coldest nihilism, but Vince Staples makes it entirely compelling. And it’s not just the protean instrumentals, which skid between hip hop, blues, industrial rock and abstract electronica and sound like nothing in rap today. Neither is it the impeccable rapping, which is some of Staples’ best work to date. What clinches this EP is its audacity. In an era of hyper-public black death, Vince Staples builds his case against our society not by detailing how these deaths occur, but by describing a tragic life, one that’s so unsatisfying that death is its zenith. The Roots’ undun and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly also wrestled with the weight of black death, but for them death was always tragic. In the world of Prima Donna, black death is radical. Author Paul Beatty came to the same conclusion in his satirical novel The White Boy Shuffle, but Vince does it in 20 gripping minutes. Never has so much been done with one little light.—Stephen F. Kearse