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.)
Artist: Mumford & Sons
Album: Johannesburg EP
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.
House of Heroes – Colors
While there’s nothing that radically different here from what we heard on Cold Hard Want, I do think this is a tougher HoH record to get into as first because the hooks don’t stand out as quickly as some of the band’s classic material. The song structures are a bit more complex in several places, and a few of the heavier songs are borderline metal, making the contrast that much starker when the harder stuff segues into softer material, and then back again. This is all for a very good reason, as the central concept of this album revolves around two cousins – one a bad boy who committed some sort of crime, and the other trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow but finding himself caught in the middle after witnessing a crime – and so Tim Skipper basically has to play both characters and let the mood of the song and the intensity of his vocals tell you which one’s which. It’s not an easy concept to grab hold of at first, but once you’re aware of the backstory and you come back to listen to the album again, several of these songs can have a surprisingly emotional effect, and this is something that I think HoH doesn’t get enough credit for, due to a sound that seems like meat-and-potatoes “standard rock trio” when you only listen to their music on a surface level.
Sara Watkins – Young in All the Wrong Ways
For her third solo album, Sara Watkins decided to go the “sour and slightly sardonic breakup album” route. It’s tricky territory for an artist I’ve typically viewed as being more on the bright, cheery, optimistic side, but it’s not like she hasn’t done this as part of her dayjob with Nickel Creek, either. Here she gets to employ whatever style best suits the song, whether it’s bluegrass-inflected folk music reminiscent of Nickel Creek due to her brother Sean pitching in on guitar, or it’s something more angry and brooding, bordering on rock territory, or even a brief foray into straight-up country. It’s a mixed bag, but everything here seems designed to suit a greater purpose, making it a more unified listen than her past two albums. Whether that makes it a stronger album than Sun Midnight Sun is debatable, but it certainly feels like a more complete one.
Switchfoot – Where the Light Shines Through
After nearly a decade of expecting way more than I got from each new Switchfoot album, I’ve learned to lower my expectations. Maybe I’ll get a few catchy new songs in the usual fuzzy, surf-inflected, but mostly just good-natured pop/rock vein that Switchfoot has comfortably settled into. I figure the more articulate and thought-provoking songs Jon Foreman writes will end up on his solo EPs or a Fiction Family record. So I was quite surprised to find my expectations exceeded by both a willingness to experiment with their sound and stronger songwriting all around, all of it definitely still recognizable as Switchfoot, but very little of it coming across as generic filler material, which is a huge relief to my ears. The off-kilter single “Float” and the Lecrae rap verse on “Looking for America” are perhaps the most pleasant surprises, but even some of the more straightforward and earnest material sounds like they’re trying harder to not repeat themselves, and it does a lot to fend off the fatigue I was starting to feel toward the band after Vice Verses and Fading West.
The Temper Trap – Thick as Thieves
The Temper Trap is one of those bands that seems to want to be taken seriously, address the big issues in their songs, and have a stadium-sized sound to carry it to the masses, all while maintaining an indie-rock, do-it-yourself sort of vibe. It doesn’t really work as well as they seem to want it to, but I do find myself drawn into the overall mood and tone of a lot of their songs, even if I can’t say most of them have a profound effect on me. Apparently this record was an attempt to get back to basics after their self-titled record was poorly received. I actually thought that record was a huge improvement over Conditions, so I wasn’t sure what that assessment plus the loss of their lead guitarist meant for the sound of their third album, but really the only difference is less of a reliance on synths. The album still feels more cohesive than Conditions, which was so much of a hodgepodge that it’s hard for me to go back and listen to nowadays. They may have gone back to their early hit “Sweet Disposition” for inspiration, but to their credit, they don’t seem to have directly aped the sound of that song in any of their new ones. After a while the new songs seem to be following a template, as some of the lesser songs on their self-titled did, but a few highlights like the title track, “Alive”, and “Ordinary World” do show an attempt to push their sound to a higher level of intensity.
Steven Page – Heal Thyself, Pt. 1: Instinct
The pattern since Steven Page left the Barenaked Ladies seems to be that the BNL has gravitated toward the middle of the road, while Steven Page has become more comfortable speaking his mind in the margins than trying to appease the mainstream. His music still very much resembles the dorky, anything goes pop/rock style of his former band, but he’s able to delve more unflinchingly into personal issues, as he did on 2010’s Page One, and he walks that fine line of admitting he can be a bit of an unlikable schlub sometimes while knocking those who would judge him for it off their high horses and also gleaning some genuine wisdom from his past failings. He throws a lot of different sounds at the wall here, and not all of them stick, but sometimes it takes a little patience to see the overall plan for this record falling into place, especially when the (literally) one-note opening track comes back around to develop into a wonderfully melodic composition near the end of the record.
Mumford & Sons feat. Baaba Maal, The Very Best & Beatenburg – Johannesburg EP
A set of songs Mumford & Sons recorded with several African artists while they were touring together in South Africa. My snarky one-liner for this one is “I really like it, except for the Mumford & Sons part.” Honestly, I’m surprised at how quickly I went from being excited about this band when 2012’s Babel first came out, to being thoroughly weary at the thought of yet another gravelly, soaring chorus coming from the mouth of Marcus Mumford. Even when presented with a completely different musical landscape such as the various styles of African music and the slight electronic overtones that their collaborators bring to the table, Mumford & Sons still have that annoying tendency to drop in these predictable, yearning-for-radio-play choruses that mix like oil and water. I’m all for an artist having an out-of-genre-experience and broadening their horizons by collaborating with someone whose sound and artistic approach are quite different from their own, but that doesn’t mean you can just overlay your own songs, apparently written in a fully Westernized bubble, on top of some exotic-sounding world music and hope it’ll all work out OK.
Relient K – Air for Free
RK had a real identity crisis on Collapsible Lung. Most of the songs weren’t written in-house and it felt like an ill-conceived attempt to merge modern trends into their quirky pop/punk sound by way of scavenging songs rejected by more chart-friendly mainstream artists. The similarly long gestation period between that album and Air for Free had me expecting something similarly disastrous, but man, this one might be even more of a pleasant surprise than the new Switchfoot. It was clearly a very personal record for Matt Thiessen to write, as was Forget and Not Slow Down, a record that seems to be mirrored in its scope and the kind of story it tries to tell, if not so much the style, by this one. 16 new tracks is a lot to take in at once, and they cover a lot of stylistic ground, some of it getting a bit silly, but all of it feeling believable given the personality that the band has established so far, which is saying a lot considering how out-of-character Collapsible Lung was. I don’t love everything about this record, but I respect the band as artists again, and it’s been seven years since I’ve been able to say that about Relient K.
Kevin Max – Playing Games with the Shadow
So Kevin Max is back to making sort-of-artsy rock music, I guess. I only half-heartedly keep track of him at this point, to be honest, but that’s still more actively than I keep track of the rest of dc Talk. I appreciate the attempt at something not as obviously geared toward CCM radio as last year’s Broken Temples, but there’s honestly nothing as surprising here as some of the wonderfully weird stuff he did on Cotes d’Armor or his solo debut Stereotype Be. Also, it’s only 8 tracks – Kevin seems to have trouble cobbling together enough studio time to get a full-length album out all at once these days. I guess that’s why he agreed to the dc Talk reunion cruise? The less said about that anti-climax, the better.
Before I get to the albums that got me most excited this year, I figured I should take a quick look back at the albums that were so disappointing that it was hard for me to even muster up the courage to give them a second listen. Of course I did eventually go back to these records to see if a little time and more carefully managed expectations would change my perception of these them, but for the most part, they failed to deliver. Not everything about these records is bad, and the worst of the bunch merits a D minus rather than a hard F in my book, so I’ve certainly heard worse in previous years. I’ve also heard something genuinely enjoyable from everyone on this list in previous years (or in one case, this year). But I can safely say that all of these artists fell short of their potential this time around.
The first order of business as 2015 comes to a close is to sift through all of my favorite songs that I first heard this year (or perhaps late last year, and it just took me a little longer to appreciate them) and attempt to put them in order, which as usual starts to get a bit silly below the top 30 or so. Music videos and some live performances are embedded for that first chunk of the list. As I’ve done in previous years, I’ve also got a Spotify playlist that covers a lot of these, limited to a song per artist and more in chronological order of when I discovered them.
It’s time to kick off my yearly obsession with counting things that it really makes no sense to put in order. More detailed write-ups on the full lengths albums that captivated me this year are to follow, but for now, here’s a haphazard list I’ve compiled of 100 songs that moved me this year… some physically, some emotionally, some both.
For those who’d like to follow along and listen to some of my picks, I’ve compiled a playlist (limited to one song per artist, because it’s crazy long enough already), that hits a lot of the year’s highlights, in roughly the order I came to discover them.