John Paul White – Beulah: There’s always a second time around.

2016_JohnPaulWhite_BeulahArtist: John Paul White
Album: Beulah
Year: 2016
Grade: B-

In Brief: White continues to demonstrate strong songwriting chops as a solo artist, though the bare-bones folk sound sometimes undersells that skill. A few more full-bodied, up-tempo tracks help, but since I know him as the guy from the Civil Wars, I can’t help but think that he shines brightest when he has another vocalist in the mix to play off of.

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What Am I Listening To? – January 2017

2016_phantogram_threePhantogram – Three
You know I’m a sucker for female-fronted electronic acts, right? This duo sometimes reminds me of Metric, if they made more club-friendly bangers and more oddball experimental songs. The beat-heavy singles “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” and “Same Old Blues” will likely grab most of the attention here, but the exploratory opening track “Funeral Pyre” might just barely edge them both out as my favorite, and I’m also drawn to some of the sample-heavy downtempo moments later in the album. The male vocals come as a bit of a surprise later in the album, bringing to mind Peter Gabriel of all people on the string-heavy “Barking Dog”, and then the next several tracks feature both vocalists, playing them off of each other in interesting ways. The album stays fresh throughout, and really the only thing I can find to complain about here is the total trashiness of the closing track “Calling All”, which is a bit too blunt for its own good.

2016_lisahannigan_atswimLisa Hannigan – At Swim
This Irish singer-songwriter got her start working with Damien Rice before embarking on a solo career. I’d never heard of her until this record, which is a largely down-tempo and intimate acoustic affair, with a hint of a Celtic lilt on a few of the more uptempo tracks, but also a bit of earthiness and smokiness that emerges in her vocals from time-to-time, while at other times she’s as clear and pristine as the still surface of a lake. This combination makes a few of the ballads real hidden gems. I have to be in the right mood to listen to this one all the way through, but when the timing’s right, it’s a thing of sublime beauty.

2016_tomhummer_dystopianbluesTom Hummer – Dystopian Blues
The above two albums were year-end recommendations from the Velocities in Music podcast, which I’ve been following on YouTube for a few years now. Just a couple guys from Iowa who listen to a ton of music and whose personal tastes constantly surprise me. Tom Hummer is one of those two guys, and he’s a recording artist in his own right, now on his fourth album. While his past stuff was already pretty experimental, this album is particularly out there, taking his music in a post-rock direction with almost no lyrics, and only 5 tracks, most of them on the long-ish side. The sound of it ranges from semi-doomy drones to tranquil piano and acoustic guitar pieces, and sometimes one morphs uncomfortably into the other, all of it in deliberate defiance of conventional song structure. (There’s even a recording of Tom as a child talking to his dad that comes up in one track, which brings an odd feeling of innocence and nostalgia to the otherwise challenging musical landscape.) It’s interesting listening to something like this when you know so much about an artist’s personal likes and dislikes, and you can hear bits and pieces of his influences creeping into the music, while at the same time he tries to resist taking those influences in any predictable direction.

2016_timbetold_friendsandfoesTim Be Told – Friends and Foes
Tim Ouyang pretty much is Tim Be Told at this point. I’ve known of the band for a while – piano-heavy sound, smooth R&B-style crooner for a frontman, that sorta thing – but I’ve never listened to one of their albums until now. My church’s senior pastor has been a big fan for a while now, and recently interviewed Tim for the Asian America Podcast, which is what piqued my interest in this particular record. He’s sort of a double minority, since you don’t see a lot of Asian-Americans in this genre, and he’s also a Christian whose music doesn’t fit neatly into the CCM market. On this record, as he deals with the topic of relationships that went sour and his attempts to reconcile some of them, a little bit of brave commentary on the topic of sexuality and gender identity emerges in a few songs, and since these are questions a lot of Christian artists are afraid to ask in their songwriting, I find myself wanting to support him just on principle. Plus the guy’s a really solid vocalist. Having said that, the instrumentation seems a bit sterile and polite given the conflict apparent in some of these songs. That happens a lot with singers in this genre working on an indie budget, unfortunately – but I hope one day Tim hooks up with a producer who can emphasize the balance between pretty and painful that is apparent in a lot of his lyrics.

2017_theflaminglips_oczymlodyThe Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
No, that’s not a typo. It’s not Cozy Moldy. Those are Polish words. The Flaming Lips are sort of back to doing dream pop like they were when I first got turned on to them in the early 2000s, but there’s something a bit more aloof and experimental about this album that sets it apart from a classic record like The Soft Bulletin. There are a lot more electronic drums and synths, for example, and the track lengths are more drawn out, not quite to the alienating level that they were on The Terror, but I guess it’s somewhere in between that, their more accessible stuff, and Embryonic. That is to say, it’s a mixed bag with a lot of oddball lyrics on apparently whatever subject matter came to mind. (And Reggie Watts speaking sexily about unicorns… because why the hell not?) I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the band due to the sense of whiplash I can get as they switch from dreamy to trashy to downright horrifying without warning, and hanging out with Miley Cyrus for a few years seems to have ramped up that tendency (she even makes an appearance on the closing track, “We a Famly”, which surprisingly isn’t as obnoxious as I was expecting). I could probably dig a few melodic gems out of this weird wasteland of words and sounds and call them favorites, but it’s likely not an album I’ll go back to nearly as often as Yoshimi or Mystics.

2017_colonyhouse_onlythelonelyColony House – Only the Lonely
The adult sons of Steven Curtis Chapman front this four-man band whose main goal seems to be rocking out and having a blast without as much of a deliberate agenda as you might expect, given their lineage. Sure, I can hear echoes of the overly peppy, youth-group friendly anthems SCC used to hook me with at the beginning of nearly all of his albums, but Colony House doesn’t just play rock music to try on a different hat every now and then. They’ve got some pretty good chops, and they aren’t afraid to flex their muscles on occasion by changing up the tempo mid-song and going into a heavy, garage-bluesy sort of breakdown that sounds kinda like what Band of Skulls might do in similar circumstances. A few of their songs are still kinda goofy, but I’m impressed at how consistently they manage to keep the energy level up and the songs genuinely engaging, to the point where my favorite tracks actually show up near the end, which is where you’d expect the filler to go on most albums in this genre. It’s the most addictive thing I’ve heard in 2017 thus far.

2016_variousartists_hiddenfiguresthealbumVarious Artists – Hidden Figures: The Album
I don’t normally get into movie soundtracks. But I saw Hidden Figures a few weeks ago and loved it, and I was impressed at how well Pharrell Williams’ original compositions fit into the backdrop of segregated 1960s Virginia. Listening to the songs on their own reveals that the lyrics wander a great deal from the actual plot of the movie, but the songs that were paired with the most iconic scenes in the movie still prove to be memorable when listened to on their own. It has a bit of a “mixtape” feel to it, since Pharrell sings lead on four songs and hands the other six off to prominent female African-American entertainers such as Alicia Keys and Mary J. Blige. (And of course Janelle Monaé. She was actually in the film, so she gets two songs.) My only real complaint here is that some of the odd melodic choices in a few songs can fall a bit flat, and I don’t know that I needed to hear pretty much every style of music from classic soul to Gospel updated with 808 drums all over the place. Besides that, it’s one hell of an uplifting listen.

Out of the Grey – A Little Light Left: Let the music span the distance.

2015_OutoftheGrey_ALittleLightLeftArtist: Out of the Grey
Album: A Little Light Left
Year: 2015
Grade: B

In Brief: While it’s quite different from the glossy, catchy and quirky pop tunes of their 90s heyday, Out of the Grey has created a mellow and mostly acoustic record that feels authentic to who they are now. It’s not so much a comeback as it is a welcome visit from old friends you haven’t seen in ages.

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Crowder – American Prodigal: Out of the ruins, back to communion.

2016_crowder_americanprodigalArtist: Crowder
Album: American Prodigal
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: The genre mash-up works a lot better here than it did on Neon Steeple, feeling more like a statement of identity than a mere gimmick. What Crowder may lack in lyrical specificity, he more than makes up for by bringing urban and rural sounds together in intriguing ways.

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Flint Eastwood – Small Victories EP: Who needs psychotherapy when the Internet will listen?

2015_flinteastwood_smallvictoriesepArtist: Flint Eastwood
Album: Small Victories EP
Year: 2015
Grade: A-

In Brief: Flint Eastwood fits nicely among some of the other female-fronted dance-pop and electronica artists that I listen to, who emphasize wit and songcraft above mere sex appeal in their quest to get their music heard.

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Future of Forestry – Awakened to the Sound: In my voice you will know the sound of home.

2016_futureofforestry_awakenedtothesoundArtist: Future of Forestry
Album: Awakened to the Sound
Year: 2016
Grade: B

In Brief: It’s a stretch these days to call Future of Forestry a “rock” band. This album is much more like a film score. Exciting, climactic percussion sounds abound on a few tracks, bringing back fond memories of the Travel series, but as a whole this record is something else, weaving Eastern-styled strings, drums and vocals into a much more classical-oriented take on the Future of Forestry sound.

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Obsessive Year-End List Fest 2016: Favorite Albums (and Honorable Mentions)

This is the music I’ll remember the most when I think back on 2016. Not just the great singles (though these albums have plenty of those) or the dark horse picks buried deep in the track listings (tons of those too, though), but the way these records all flow from song to song, creating a continuous listening experience that makes spending nearly an hour of time with each artist (or more, in a few cases) worthwhile. On my most cynical days, I’d say that thanks to both terrestrial radio doing its thing and the ephemeral lifecycle of most songs and artists that go “viral” on social media, the single is a much more easily digestible and obtainable format for popular music nowadays, putting the album in danger of becoming a lost art. But from the very obscure to the decidedly mainstream, every record on this list would be here to prove me wrong.

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