Artist: Mumford & Sons Album: Johannesburg EP Year: 2016 Grade: B+
In Brief: Surprisingly strong, given the unlikely collaboration between an English “folk” band and three stylistically divergent African artists. I still think Mumford & Sons are poseurs of a sort, wandering the world in search of a sound they can actually master, but this EP at least proves that they’re excellent collaborators.
Artist: Switchfoot Album: Where the Light Shines Through Year: 2016 Grade: B+
In Brief: A strong comeback from Switchfoot after a trilogy of mediocre to mildly good albums. It doesn’t radically revamp their sound, but the new things that they do try here do a lot to revitalize it. It just feels like they tried a lot harder with this one, and that’s all I need from a band that could easily just keep repeating itself at this stage in its career.
Artist: Relient K Album: Air For Free Year: 2016 Grade: A
In Brief: Relient K dodges the expectations created by both their pop/punk heyday and their abysmal attempt at pop crossover on Collapsible Lung, and comes up with their best album yet in the process. It’s less guitar-oriented and more piano and arrangement-heavy than classic RK, at times feeling like a spiritual successor to Forget and Not Slow Down. But the hints that RK had an album like this inside them somewhere have really been there since the beginning.
John Paul White – Beulah Joy Williams’ first post-Civil Wars record last year was more of a mellow pop album with hints of folk around the edges, so purists who liked the often stark acoustic sound that the duo found so much success with will probably find more to relate to in White’s solo work than in Williams’. Personally, while I appreciate White’s voice and songcraft, something feels missing when he’s all by his lonesome, with no one to harmonize. That’s probably why the guest appearance of fellow Alabama musicians The Secret Sisters makes their collaboration on “I’ve Been Over This Before” an instant standout. The inclusion of electric guitar on a few tracks brings to mind the grittier approach of “The One that Got Away” and “I Had Me a Girl”, but White’s more sensitive side is effective on tracks like “I Hate the Way You Love Me” and “I’ll Get Even” that don’t sound from their titles like they’d be so darn tender.
Out of the Grey – A Little Light Left Out of the Grey remains a nostalgic favorite of mine for their early 90’s CCM albums, the first of which I’m still quite comfortable labeling as an example of “the perfect pop album”. But unless you count 2009’s Voyage, which was really more of a Christine Denté solo album, they hadn’t put out anything as duo in almost a decade and a half, up until this new crowd-funded effort was quietly released last year. Since under-the-radar indie-funded releases often don’t make it into Spotify’s database, I had no chance to hear this one without actually buying it, but not having a whole lot else new to listen to this month, I finally took the chance and got it from iTunes. Like Voyage, it’s a very mellow effort centered mostly around Christine’s piano and Scott’s acoustic guitar, but unlike the devotional focus of that record, these songs are very relational, and unlike the bulk of Out of the Grey’s work, Scott’s vocals are much more prominent in the mix this time, making them feel like a true vocal duo and not just “she sings, he does his guitar magic”. I still miss the old glossy 90s pop sound, though I would never expect such a thing to come back into style or want an artist to feel stuck in the genre they started out with. I am pleasantly surprised by the country overtones and the interesting lyrical turns a few of these songs possess. Despite how different they sound now versus how they sounded in 1991, it still feels like a welcome visit from old friends whenever I hear them perform, so I’m happy that they’re still at it after all these years.
Artist: House of Heroes Album: Colors Year: 2016 Grade: A-
In Brief: Though the hooks aren’t as immediate as we’re used to and the story woven throughout these 13 tracks doesn’t quite take hold at first, there’s a lot to like about Colors once you take the time to really appreciate the dual perspectives it’s coming from and where each song fits into the narrative. The End Is Not the End remains their best work… but this is darn close.
Artist: Sherwood Album: Some Things Never Leave You Year: 2016 Grade: A-
In Brief: The newly reformed Sherwood makes a stellar comeback on their first album in seven years. No wheels are reinvented here by any means, but by injecting some surprisingly aggressive rock moments into an otherwise “perfect pop album” mentality, they’ve improved on an already winning formula.
Artist: The Gray Havens Album: Ghost of a King Year: 2016 Grade: B
In Brief: Some subtle (for the most part) electronic touches and more of a focus on keyboard and layered arrangements add a fair amount of drama to the duo’s very warm, relateable style of storytelling. At times they can overplay their hand and come across a bit cheesy, and I still wish they were a true vocal duo rather than just a guy with his wife on backing vocals, but this is still an improvement on the folk-pop sound they established on Fire & Stone.