Best of 2016: Tampa Bay's best local music, including Polyenso, Underoath, Merchandise and more
When it comes to year-end lists, it’s tough pitting local acts against nationals. As much as you want to recognize cool accomplishments by Tampa Bay artists, let’s be honest, it’s hard to compete for ink with the likes of Beyonce and David Bowie.
So I’m switching things up with this list dedicated to the year in local music. It’s far from comprehensive, and it’s not a simple best-albums or best-songs list. It’s just a compendium of 14 great things about the Tampa Bay music scene, past and present, in 2016. It’s a little bit of everything.
Polyenso, Pure In the Plastic: It took years to make, but it was worth it. Pure In the Plastic, the second full-length from St. Petersburg alt-rock trio Polyenso, is not only the best local album of 2016, it deserves consideration for national year-end lists, too. Songs like 17 New Years and Osaka Son are not only intricate and adventurous, but surprisingly catchy as well. Billboard compared its watery, electro-alternative textures to Radiohead and Alt-J, which may have helped them book gigs at Bonnaroo and Atlanta’s Shaky Knees, not to mention a fall tour with PVRIS. Through it all they returned to play several local shows and oversee their new live-in performance space and headquarters, Paper Crane. It was the maybe the best year of any local artist, and thanks to Pure In the Plastic, they deserved it.
The Safety Harbor Art and Music Center: After years of labor, fundraising and collaborative art-making, Safety Harbor artists Kiaralinda and Todd Ramquist in November opened their grandest project yet, a performance space, gallery and walk-in art project that is destined to become one of the most talked-about venues in Tampa Bay. Countless singer-songwriters will want to play this aesthetically and acoustically gorgeous space, and you will want to go see them.
Set It Off’s Something New: Another group of Tampa expats, Set It Off, went from pop-punk to full-on pop for their latest album Upside Down, which kicks off with this ebullient party song. It strives unabashedly for mainstream acceptance, but like Paramore’s Ain’t It Fun, that only works in its advantage. Shoulda been a hit — and if the right ears hear it, maybe it still will.
Merchandise’s Lonesome Sound: Speaking of hit singles, the last band you’d ever expect to write one would be Tampa(ish) indie punk group Merchandise. But the swoony pop sensibilities they dabbled in on 2014’s After The End came even more into focus on A Corpse Wired For Sound, especially this driving, buzzing single. Was there a more surreal moment all year than seeing these guys pop up to perform Lonesome Sound on morning television?
Underoath’s secret show: Underoath’s powerful reunion show at Jannus Live was one of the highlights of the Tampa Bay music scene in 2016. But even cooler was the secret hometown show they threw a few nights earlier at Crowbar. Announced just a couple of days in advance, and stocked to the gills with longtime friends and fans who’d traveled from afar, this was the band working out a few last-minute kinks before embarking on a hugely successful world tour. Another thing Tampa got that no one else did.
The Hip Abduction, Gold Under the Glow: The Hip Abduction practically dare you to lump them in with other world-beat or reggae-rock groups, but you do so at your own risk. Gold Under the Glow has a sleek indie-pop sensibility (think St. Lucia or Walk the Moon) that led to several national tours and festivals. They remain a top draw in their hometown of St. Petersburg, but they have a sound, style and growing national network that might take them even further in the years to come.
Wolf-Face giving away their catalog for free: Let’s face it, everything cartoonish, lycanthropic punks Wolf-Face is pretty great, and deserving of attention on year-end lists. But in another year of fun, silly achievements (like their Teen Wolf-set new video for Boof Ain’t Too Loose or cover of Real Human Being from the Drive soundtrack), the best move was offering their entire catalog as a free download on Bandcamp in celebration of their gig at Gainesville’s Fest. There’s no excuse not to grab it, then make time to see them in concert.
J.T. Brown’s Phantom Heart: Just under the radar slides this mid-December entry by the consistently busy singer-songwriter and former frontman for the Groves. With rambling guitars and full-bodied horns, Phantom Heart has echoes of soul and alt-country, of Sturgill Simpson and Deer Tick and My Morning Jacket.
Florida Metal Fest: The holy grail of Central Florida metal shows might be a festival that unites Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, Deicide and Morbid Angel (and as long as we’re dreaming, maybe a reunion set by Savatage or Nasty Savage). The inaugural Florida Metal Fest at the Cuban Club might be the closest thing we’ll see to that in a while. Obituary and Deicide led a bill that featured several notable national names, including Corrosion of Conformity, Madball, Malevolent Creation and Trouble. FMF isn’t returning in 2017, which is a shame, but it gave us hopes to keep dreaming of that holy grail.
Matt Hires’ whistling on Begin Again: After moving from Tampa to Nashville, Hires dropped American Wilderness in October. The whole album is worth a listen, but it’s his acoustic single Begin Again that makes the most devastating impression, particularly that tender whistling solo in the middle. It’s 20 of the most earnest seconds of music you’ll hear all year.
The Florida Bjorkestra: All bands are a labor of love, but think of the effort and hours it took Jeremy Douglass to bring the Florida Bjorkestra to life. It’s a collective of (at any given time) around 15 rockers, singers and classically trained instrumentalists bringing to life the music of Bjork, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush in intimate St. Pete fans that draw packed houses every time. All those instruments and voices on stage bring far more depth and texture to the music than your average cover band, and their decision to cover such unique artists has inspired something of a cult following in the ‘Burg. Keep your eye out for their next show coming this spring.
Kristopher James’ Find Me: The astonishing title track of this Bradenton singer-songwriter’s April EP, a folk duet with Sarasota singer Sam Robertson, is a beautiful meditation on love and loss and holding onto painful memories. It hurts to listen to, but in a good way.
Piss Ghost: After founding in 2015, this female alt-punk trio Piss Ghost made bigger waves in and around Tampa Bay in 2016, playing pulsing shows powered by the driving drums of Susan Dickson (also of Permanent Makeup). Their gigs can be unpredictable, from late-night performances at the Bends to an afternoon set at Microgroove’s fifth anniversary, but once you see them, you won’t forget it. Here’s hoping for a full-length album in 2017.
Four Star Riot’s cameo in Deadpool: Long-running Clearwater alt-rock outfit Four Star Riot had a pretty good year, delivering a Prince tribute at WMNF Tropical Heatwave, playing gigs alongside Living Colour and Rusted Root, and releasing the funk-flavored album Waves. But the most unexpected highlight might have been hearing their 2003 song Something So Right pop up in the smash film Deadpool. It’s barely audible, but it’s there. The Tampa Bay music scene is officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
-- Jay Cridlin