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.
The final days of 2016 are upon us, and that can only mean one thing – it’s time for some long lists that try (perhaps in vain) to sum up the best music I was listening to this year. As always, I’ll start with the individual songs that stood out to me the most. The in-depth reasons why I love these songs so much are mostly spelled out in the album reviews I’ve linked to from here, but in addition to the usual video evidence, I’ve also included a quick blurb for each of the Top 30 entries, just to keep it from being a long list with no explanation whatsoever, I guess.
I’ve also made a Spotify playlist that collects a lot of these highlights, if you’d like to spend a few hours following along. (That one’s ordered more as I discovered the songs, not so much how I’d rank them now, and it’s limited to one track per artist.)
Artist: Andrew Bird
Album: Are You Serious
In Brief: While Bird’s unique blend of violin, guitar, whistling, and live looping still has a tendency to hint at brilliance more often than he actually demonstrates it, the solid string of performances at the front of this album and the intriguing songwriting throughout remind me why he’s continued to pique my curiosity for over 10 years now.
Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution
I really had no idea what to expect from an Esperanza Spalding record. All I knew about her was that she was the jazz bassist who somehow managed to beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy a few years back. None of that really tells you what you’ll be hearing on this record, which is an amalgamation of jazz, folk, funk, soul and rock stylings that often goes to unexpected and occasionally uncomfortable melodic places, but that continually surprises me with its kaleidoscope of sounds. It’s a horizon-stretcher for sure, and it’s already shaping up to be one of my favorites of 2016.
Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive
Thao Nguyen and her band are talented people. I really believe that they are. I just can’t stand her voice. I keep trying her on for size and deciding that she just doesn’t fit. I’m sure it’s an affectation rather than a lack of precision, perhaps a protest against the expected melodic nature and conventional structures of pop music, but on so many occasions, her attempts to do something different just sound like aimless caterwauling. It takes a lot of patience for me to get through a record like this as a result, despite the overall style and instrumentation being the kind of quirky indie rock I normally get very excited about. I guess I’ll try again once in a blue moon. I got over my vocal misgivings about Björk, after all.
Gungor – One Wild Life: Spirit
The middle section of Gungor’s One Wild Life trilogy focuses on… matters of vague spirituality? Honestly, I’m not sure what the difference between the Soul and Spirit themes was meant to be, as this record is as much of a genre-hopping exercise as the last, perhaps a little more weighted toward the upbeat side of the spectrum this time around, but there are a number of songs that I feel could have gone on either record and they wouldn’t have felt out of place. I appreciate the Gungors because I feel like they try to approach their Christian faith intelligently, even if that means deconstructing it and stepping away from all that they believe for a season just to find it all over again. But sometimes when trying to present their findings in song format, it’s just sort of this general wonder at the world around them, and a lot of generally happy-sounding esoteric stuff, mixed with the occasional cautionary tale like “Let Bad Religion Die”, a sentiment I agree with that might be stated too didactically for its own good. A few nods to previous songs that give this album continuity with Soul are a nice touch, but overall I’m finding that I connect with the music more than the message on this one.
M83 – Junk
It’s hard to criticize an album that calls itself Junk, from a band like M83 that excels in mining cheesy stereotypes from the realm of 80s music and presenting them with bold-faced sincerity, and that was even stated by the artist to be a collection of songs that don’t really belong together. There’s some good space-pop here in the vein of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, but there’s also a cavalcade of guest vocalists (French singer Mai Lan does her part to kick up a few of my personal favorite tracks here) and some instrumental segues that feel like they could have been part of the soundtrack to some unaired 80s sitcom or Lifetime original movie. I’ve developed a pretty high tolerance for nostalgic cheese over the years, which is weird because I missed out on most of the stuff we’re now nostalgic for back when it was new. But even given that tolerance, a few of these songs are so corny that they’re hard to stomach. It’s a mixed bag, and by all indications, it was meant to be.
The Gray Havens – Ghost of a King
Wait, there’s another Gray Havens record out already? I’m still not as familiar with Fire & Stone as I’d like to be. This time out the husband & wife duo seems to be have improved in pretty much area, from songwriting to melody to vocal delivery. Guitar and piano are still at the forefront, but there’s more grace and gravity to the arrangements now, at least if you can forgive the somewhat dorky synthpop indulgence on “Diamonds and Gold”. I still wish they’d trade off lead vocal duties rather than the husband always singing lead and the wife always singing backup, but despite that, they show some real growth on this record.
Andrew Bird – Are You Serious?
I tend to get into individual songs more than full albums when it comes to Andrew Bird. His unusual brand of violin-fronted, live-looped indie pop is often very downbeat and pensive, relying on wry wordplay more than big pop hooks to communicate whatever mood he’s in. When he does something more up-tempo, I tend to love it, but for the most part that’s not where he spends a lot of his time. This records favors the up-tempo a little more than his previous ones did, meaning there’s more immediacy to it at the outset, which helps me to remain patient through some of the subtler and softer moments. There’s a duet with Fiona Apple right in the middle of the album that really changes things up, too. It would be easy for Bird to settle into a formula after all these years, but this record reminds me that he’s a relentless tinkerer, and I have tons of respect for that.
The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
This neo-traditional country duo swings back and forth between peppy “girl group” songs from a bygone musical era and more brooding alt-country ballads, with a heavy emphasis on songs about breaking up with good men and wishing you knew how to break up with the bad ones.
Sleeping at Last – Covers, Vol. 1
Have you ever heard goofy 80s songs like “Safety Dance” or “Private Eyes” and thought, “Gee, what this really needs is a stripped-down, sensitive, acoustic arrangement, so that I can really focus on the heartfelt lyrics?” What do you mean, “No”? Well, too bad, because someone somewhere thought it would be a great idea to have Ryan O’Neal record these songs to underscore sensitive scenes in dramas like Grey’s Anatomy. Yeah, even for an SAL diehard like me, this is a bit difficult to defend. One or two of these songs might benefit from the arrangement, I guess. (“Total Eclipse of the Heart” has some pretty awesome key changes no matter how much you strip it down.) But for the most part, when listening to this, I’m slightly embarrassed for him. But then I figure, if it pays the bills and makes it possible to continue cranking out mostly excellent original material at such an ambitious rate, then soft rock on, dude.
Linkin Park – The Hunting Party
It’s interesting to hear Linkin Park set aside the laptops for most of an album and focus on more of a raw, hard rock sound. Despite getting off to an awful start and wasting a few of its celebrity cameos, The Hunting Party shows a heck of a lot of growth for an album that they’re describing as a Hybrid Theory prequel.
Umphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin
These guys’ albums are usually a bit of a buffet – you’ll get all sorts of tasty sounds mixed together with little rhyme or reason, and a bigger helping of all of them than you can easily digest in one sitting. With this album, they reined in some of their more out-there forays into funk, R&B, and acoustic instrumental music, and aimed to make a solid rock album from front to back. It still seems a bit all over the place at first, with songs like “The Linear” and “No Diablo” not quite fitting into the overall aesthetic (even though both are quite good). But once they hit the title track, they just knock it out of the park clear from there to the end of the album (especially when guitarist Jake Cinninger takes over on lead vocals – dude coulda fronted a metal or stoner rock band back in the day!) If you’ve avoided these guys in the past because you fear anything that sounds “jam band-y”, then this one might demonstrate how they can tighten up their studio performances a bit and wisely let some of their poppier songs wrap up more concisely, without losing the progressive, exploratory nature that makes their longer tracks such an adventure to listen to.
Ed Sheeran – x
I’m pretty easily impressed with anyone who can wow the crowd with hyperactive acoustic guitar playing and a bit of a funk/rap affectation on a genre of music that might otherwise be considered “coffeehouse”. That makes it easy to get into Sheeran’s catchier songs like “Sing”. And he’s no slouch on the mellower ballads, either (“Tenerife Sea” is an early standout that makes me want to take a flight to the Canary Islands right the heck NOW.) But then I listen closer to the lyrics and there’s just way too much getting drunk/high and screwing going on here. I guess I sort of appreciate the self-censoring on an otherwise harsh song like “Don’t”, which was allegedly so his daughter could listen. But then why write the song that way in the first place? I feel like Sheeran’s heart is in the right place, but there are too many voices dictating what enigmatic pop icons are supposed to do in this day and age, that cloud his judgment when he’s in the middle of writing a song that would’ve been perfectly effective without the posturing.
Andrew Bird – Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of…
It can take a long time for me to fully grasp what’s happening on any given album by Andrew Bird. The man is a poet and a multi-instrumental genius who excels at creating mesmerizing songs from the sparest of ingredients. But sometimes, given all that raw talent, his music is surprisingly subdued. He’s just not a “wall of sound” type guy, and so some of his most clever moments can take me forever to notice. Here, I’m one additional step removed from the apparent genius behind the material, since this is a tribute album to an act called The Handsome Family, whose work Bird has apparently covered quite a bit over the years. I know nothing about them, and while at first glance I might have not even known these weren’t Andrew Bird originals, I suspect that some of the same personality quirks that have stood out to me in tracks of his I’ve enjoyed in the past might not show up in full force here. Time will tell.
Parker Millsap – Parker Millsap
I discovered this gravelly-voiced country singer from Oklahoma on a total fluke. I was searching Spotify for songs about various places in California, and his track “Yosemite” came up in the search, and I fell in love with it. That gave me little warning about what the rest of the album was like – the dude isn’t afraid to show his red state (or is it red man state?) roots, and some of these tracks are real howlers. We’ll see how much of it catches on.
We returned to California in July to find summer in full blast. Maybe it was the sudden change of environment, or maybe it was just a sense of “What now?” after fulfilling that lifelong dream by going on the Alaska trip, but I got sick and rather depressed for most of July, and I felt this general sense of weakness and unidentifiable malaise most days, especially if I put off eating a meal. It took me a while to figure out that it directly correlated to mealtimes, but I also think there was an emotional/spiritual component to it that led me to make more of a deliberate effort to reconnect with friends in my faith community, and especially with my wife, with whom I celebrated two years of marriage that summer.
In with the New:
Andrea Corr (as a solo artist – appears previously with The Corrs)
Out with the Old:
Listen on Spotify:
In late June 2007, I finally achieved my lifelong dream of taking a trip to Alaska. I had been obsessed with the far-flung corners of our country since first learning about the 50 States as a child, and being with Christine had given me ample opportunity to explore Hawaii, but this far-off northern land eluded me due to the logistical difficulties of getting there. We finally took the plunge and flew into Anchorage (with a few days’ layover in Seattle to hang out with Jennie and her husband Dave), rented a car, and took a road trip throughout the southern and western parts of the state – excluding the Panhandle, most of which you can’t drive to. The trip still dominates my memories of that summer, as one of the absolute most superlative places I’ve ever laid eyes on.
In with the New:
Out with the Old:
Listen on Spotify: