As always, I wanted to give a mention to the music I enjoyed this year that didn’t fit the traditional “album” format, or else that was released in 2016 and I didn’t catch up to it until this year. Either way, none of it’s eligible for my Top 20 list, but all of it is definitely worth checking out if anything I have to say here piques your interest.
Artist: Flint Eastwood
Album: Broke Royalty EP
In Brief: While this EP features a bolder sound than 2015’s Small Victories, the production tends to de-emphasize the songwriting. It’s fun, but I don’t connect with it as deeply as I do with some of Flint’s earlier songs. Also, the re-inclusion of two of those songs is mildly distracting.
Everything in Slow Motion – Laid Low EP
This North Dakota band was a recommendation from the same brother who got me into Thrice all those years ago, and much like Thrice circa Vheissu, these guys seem to be in a transition period between post-hardcore and a more melodic, but still heavy, approach to modern rock music. While I think they’re still in search of a sound that truly sets them apart from some other bands in the genre, they do show potential on songs like “Coma”, which moves effortlessly from up-tempo anthem to heavy breakdown, or “Runaway”, which shows off some more progressive time signature and tempo shifts, particularly with its doom-y slowdown at the end. (Hey, the band has to live up to their name somewhere, right?) I’d like to see how this approach translates to a “full album” listen next time these guys put out an LP, but for now, this is an interesting first taste.
The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
The first New Pornos album without Dan Bejar streamlines their sound quite a bit. This is a lean & mean power pop record, much heavier on the keyboards than their past stuff, but still full of lively drums and guitars, that never really slows down to catch its breath aside from one or two mid-tempo tracks. It’s a lot of fun, and I love how well integrated the three remaining vocalists (A. C. Newman, Neko Case, and Kathryn Calder) are on pretty much every song, but I kind of miss the experiments and odd detours heard on some of Bejar’s material. Without that, and without any slower tracks to speak of, the album lacks highlights as strong as “The Bleeding Heart Show” or “Adventures in Solitude” or “My Shepherd”, which were some of my favorites on their past records. But this one’s still a fun romp.
Tennis – Yours Conditionally
Tennis’s music might legitimately earn the term “yacht rock”, since the married duo that fronts the band has a love of sailing, which inspires many of their songs even if that’s not what the actual subject matter is about. The carefree, sunny tone of 70s and 80s soft rock colliding with modern-day indie pop is a good starting point for describing their sound, with female vocals that are reminiscent of Nina Gordon or Gwen Stefani in certain places. Think of a less gloomy, more upbeat Beach House and that might help. While the record settles into a bit of a lull of samey-sounding songs after a while, it definitely opens with its best material, and underneath the sugary-sweet vocals and laid-back instrumental work, a few of these songs actually offer a bit of subversive commentary on gender roles, while others are as straightforwardly lovey-dovey as they seem to be on the surface, reminding us that dissatisfaction with how the world defines husbands and wives doesn’t have to mean dissatisfaction in their own marriage.
Michelle Branch – Hopeless Romantic
The 14 years in between Hotel Paper and Michelle’s latest solo album haven’t been entirely unproductive – I actually really enjoyed The Wreckers’ lone album, and her attempt at a similarly country-flavored solo career on the Everything Comes and Goes EP. But she probably wrote and then ended up having to scrap a good three albums’ worth of material between then and now, due to the extreme cycles of development hell she apparently went through with multiple record labels. She’s got a good arsenal of 14 songs now that she’s finally managed to put a record out, but the bad news is, they’re pretty boring. Her guitar-driven pop style in the old days wasn’t exactly innovative, but it was energetic and fun and occasionally had some real bite to it. A lot of these new songs are keyboard-driven, with weak hooks and limp drums. (That last bit’s extra-frustrating, given that she’s dating Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who played on the record.) The first few listens to this one were a real chore. It just seems designed to blend into the background, and that’s not a good look for a comeback album when you’re trying to reintroduce yourself to a fanbase that has probably almost doubled in age since they last heard from you.
Flint Eastwood – Broke Royalty EP
The electropop sound I feel in love with on Small Victories has been further tweaked here, adding in hints of hip-hop and R&B influence, a bit of vocal distortion, and a generous helping of triumphant attitude. it’s a fun mixture, but the production gimmicks almost threaten to drown out the songwriting at several moments, making it harder for me to get into a lot of these new tracks, compared to how quickly her old material caught on. For some strange reason, “Glitches” and “Monster” from the previous EP show up again here, without much if anything changed from the original recordings. So you’re really only getting five new songs instead of 7… but those 5 are an intriguing attempt to expand on Flint’s sound.
Incubus – 8
While it’s nice to hear these guys returning to an edgier sound after the extreme bore-fest that was If Not Now, When?, I still feel largely uninspired by this record after my first few times through it. A few of these songs sound like they could have fit on Make Yourself or A Crow Left of the Murder, but I’m not hearing the restless creative energy that was present on albums like Morning View or Light Grenades. I don’t need Incubus to return to an old sound, so much as I need them to continue thinking outside of the box in amusing and intriguing ways. I saw glimpses of that on the better tracks Trust Fall (Side A) a few years ago, which excited me far more than anything I’m hearing on this one.
Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Intelligence
The three light-as-a-feather tracks on SAL’s latest Atlas installment attempt to describe the roles that the body, heart and mind play in the human experience and in our decision-making process. As usual, it’s pretty stuff but I’m not hearing a lot of new ideas. The light electronic undertones of “Mind” probably make it the most interesting track; it contrasts nicely with the expected sentimentality heard on “Heart”. I guess at this point all Ryan O’Neal has left to finish is the 9-song Enneagram suite, and Atlas: Year Two might actually stand a chance of being wrapped up within the span of two years.
John Mayer – The Search For Everything
It’s been a full decade since I last considered a John Mayer album to be tolerable. I hated Battle Studies and was largely indifferent about the two laid-back acoustic records that followed. The Search For Everything feels like John’s acknowledgment that he can’t escape the mainstream; while there are some folksy tracks here and even a country influenced one, he mostly returns to the lightly bluesy pop of Continuum. The results aren’t terribly exciting, but they also aren’t terrible. The two things that make it hardest for me to engage John Mayer’s material these days are that his reputation as a guitarist far exceeds the actual talent displayed on his records, and his reputation as a womanizer with a big, stupid mouth makes it hard to sympathize with his songs of lost love and loneliness. That’s mostly true here, though a few moments of vulnerable soul-searching, most notably “In the Blood”, have managed to catch me off-guard.
Mew – Visuals
Mew cranked out a follow-up to 2015’s + – faster than they ever have to any of their previous albums, and superficially, it feels a lot like a companion to that album at first, to the point where I actually forgot that guitarist Bo Madsen had left after that one, because most of these songs could easily co-mingle with tracks from that album and a lot of us would be none the wiser. There’s nothing epically long here, which might be a first for Mew, but the surprisingly heavy opening riffs of “Candy Pieces All Smeared Out” and the uniquely tropical feel of “Twist Quest” serve as strong reminders that Mew is still very much in exploratory mode. This just came out a few days ago, and I’ll need a few more concentrated listens with headphones to really let its intricacies sink in, but I like what I’m hearing so far.
Artist: Flint Eastwood
Album: Small Victories EP
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.
I don’t like a lot of hodgepodge in my year-end lists of favorite albums. But sometimes the good songs don’t end up on full-length LPs, or else they do and I just don’t discover them in time to put them on that year’s list. This is where all of that stuff goes.
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.)
Flint Eastwood – Small Victories EP
This is a really fun set of electropop songs that came out last year. I hadn’t heard of Flint Eastwood until she cropped up on MuteMath’s “Vitals” remix from the Changes album a few months back. The style of that song fits pretty well with the stuff she does with her own band (or as a one-woman band; I’m still not quite clear on this point) here. The hooks and melodies are downright infectious here – you can easily dance to pretty much anything here, but it’s all very thoughtfully written as well. The percussion on “Find What You’re Looking For” is downright hypnotic, and the five songs following it continue to grab my attention. Can’t wait for a full-length album from her!
Jim James – Eternally Even
This isn’t the first time the frontman of My Morning Jacket has put out a solo project, but it’s the first time I’ve checked one out. He seems to follow the Thom Yorke method of scrapping together barely enough songs to call it an album, extending them in a trancelike sort of way beyond what the content really supports, and being a bit too sleepy with it overall to really make much of an impression. There are some mellow grooves here that I could probably learn to love over time (“Same Old Lie” in particular might help me work through a little of my post-election angst), but honestly, nothing much is jumping out at me here on the first few listens.
Skillet – Unleashed
I’m gonna be honest; I expected this to be horrible and I listened to it just for the LOLs. And there are are definitely some cringe-inducing lyrics and cheesy middle-of-the-road ballads that warrant that exact response. However, it actually isn’t as terrible as Awake or Rise. Some of the riffs and rhythms, and especially the fun little guitar breakdown at the end of the album, at least momentarily reminded me that I can’t always expect Skillet to scrape the bottom of the barrel. They’re still unsubtle as all get out. They still don’t write great songs. They sure as hell won’t bring me back into their fandom with this album – that ship sailed after Comatose. But they occasionally rise to the level of making something tolerable. That’s progress, I suppose.