Well, that was an interesting year.
Political, cultural, and human-decency deficiencies aside, this was also one of the worst years in recent memory for music deaths—hence our above banner. And it didn’t stop with music….RIP to Princess Leia and Willy Wonka, too.
Still, there were solid offerings this year which deserve note, even though in 2016 I fell short of my normal goal of discovering lots of new music. Most everyone on this list is a veteran of it from years past, save for a couple who probably should have appeared before (like St Paul and the Broken Bones and Radiohead).
Thanks to my lack of time to pontificate on these records, this year’s listing relies more heavily on the comments or reviews from other publications which, quite frankly, do a better job than me of illustrating my own thoughts. Congrats to all of these artists: your checks are in the mail. – J.G.
Best All- Around Album of the Year
Hiss Golden Messenger
“Heart Like a Levee”
As noted in Rolling Stone, Heart Like a Levee started out as a commission project, when Duke University enlisted Taylor to write a song cycle to accompany a set of pictures – stark black-and-white portraits of life in a coal-mining camp in Eastern Kentucky, taken in 1972 by documentary photographer William Gedney. The project then morphed into an album about dad guilt, love, family and emotion. ‘Heart Like a Levee’ and ‘Biloxi’ seem to be getting the most attention, but my favorite is ‘As the Crow Flies’, in part because I have no idea what it’s about but I love the vibe.
All in all, this is the best start-to-finish record of the year, and is nearly equal to 2014’s genius record “Lateness of Dancers”. There is little I can add to the feeling of this record that is not stated beautifully by front-man MC Taylor’s own words about the album:
The writing of the songs that became Heart Like a Levee started in a hotel room in Washington, DC , in January of 2015 during a powerful storm that dark-ened the East Coast. At that time I was feeling—more acutely than I had ever felt before—wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music. Forgetting, momentarily, that for me, each exists only with the other. How could I forget? Though maybe my lapse was reasonable: I had just quit my job, the most recent and last, in a series of dead-end gigs stretching back 20 years, with the vow that my children would understand their father as a man in love with his world and the inventor of his own days. They would be rare in that regard. And then—driven by monthly bills and pure fear— I left for another tour, carrying a load of guilt that I could just barely lift. But in that snowy hotel room I found the refrain that became my compass: I was a dreamer, babe, when I set out on the road; but did I say I could find my way home? … I have dedicated every day to song. I have been traveling all my life. And I understand that I am so lucky, and I am thankful. Money is easy enough to find if you want it bad enough; but art, true deep art full of grace that shakes and terrifies the soul, is an elusive spirit and damn near impossible to come by. So sitting in this sunny backyard at the end of this journey that I took with my friends and family, everyone that I love and some of whom did not even realize they were on this trip, I’m thinking: We found it. Goddammit, everybody: We found it. And that’s a rare feeling indeed. And it’s all just a moment.
Best Addition to an Already Legendary Canon:
I feel badly for Radiohead. There must be a great deal of pressure felt by the band which has already in the past 20 years released three staggering masterpieces: OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000), and In Rainbows (2007). The surprise release Moon-Shaped Pool is an excellent addition to their portfolio, and like their earlier albums its legend is likely only to grow in coming years as more fans are able to dedicate more time to every word, note, and layer. It is probably the year’s most sonically pleasing album, which Radiohead somehow manages to do on every single release.
Best Dance Party Record of the Year
St Paul and the Broken Bones
“Sea of Noise”
Part Steve Wonder, part Mavis Staples, part Red Hot Chili Peppers, part Bootsy Collins, part James Brown, part D’Angelo, part Otis Redding, part Bee Gees. If you aren’t sold reading that description, somethin’ wrong witchoo.
My Kids’ Pick for Album of the Year
This is an interesting category. I really like “True Sadness”, but it’s difficult for me to listen without reminiscing back to the dozens of times my kids put on the CD and danced and acted out each song. I love that they (my kids, that is) are beginning to drift away from Kidz Bop, but at the same time they are also prone to grab hold of things I like and overplay them—right into the ground. Ultimately though, this record is solid enough on its own manages to avoid that fate. The Avett Brothers I first met over a decade ago are barely recognizable at this point, but every record is still strong as hell.
Atmospheric Album of the Year
“In the Magic Hour”
Aoife O’Donovan is accustomed to defying genres. As front-woman of Crooked Still, the quasi-alt-bluegrass-jazz group, she probably often heard the argument about how and where to classify their music. “In the Magic Hour” was in part an elegy to her late Irish grandfather, and it feels like an appropriate homage to a loved one. It couldn’t be more different from Crooked Still or even the fantastic “Fossils” for that matter, and that’s just fine since it stands on its own. My suggested tune: The beautiful ‘Not The Leaving’, where she is joined by Sara Watkins, Tony Furtado and Laura Viers. O’Donovan probably has the most distinct (and my favorite) voice in folk music, and is a perfect pair with the music on “In the Magic Hour”
Country Album of the Year
“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
The best compliment I can pay Sturgill Simpson is that if Carl Sagan were reincarnated as a country musician, this would be the music he’d make. Simpson is so passionate about making genuine country music that something tells me he is probably kinda pissed about this record being nominated at the Grammys as Best Album of the Year. Janine Schaults from Consequence of Sound framed it well: Simpson “runs circles around any other performer in the genre with his devilish punk attitude. That’s why his 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is awash in psychedelia and rockabilly. This fluid configuration of musical styles is even more pronounced on his highly anticipated follow-up, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, where gritty Skynyrd rock makes out with tarnished Memphis soul while hip-swiveling Elvis plays hall monitor.” My picks for top tunes are ‘Call to Arms’ and ‘Keep Between the Lines’.
Chameleon of the Year
‘Shape Shifter’, the first tune on the record, is a good descriptor of Lynn’s approach to each new album. “Resistor” feels like it might have been created by her foreboding character from HBO’s True Detective, which is one of the reasons it’s great. The whole vibe of the record right down to the album artwork creates a specific mood, and it is a terrific followup to “The Avenues”. As NPR put it, “To describe her singing approach as a vocal attack wouldn’t ring true — it’s more like a vocal caress, a suggestive softness, a physicality made more alluring by the way she withholds its full force.” Having seen her perform live, I can confirm every word. (Side note: I am now the owner of a signed copy of this CD thanks to my pal Rex!)
Protest Album of the Year
I always likened Drive-By Truckers to ass-kicking hippies. Southerners who are proud to have hailed from the south, but not necessarily proud of all southern attitudes. NPR phrased my feeling on this band well: “More than anything, Drive-By Truckers’ examination of the Southern psyche is a microcosm of how Americans respond to triumph and tragedy.” On “American Band” they tackle everything from gun control to racial struggles to mental health and the confederate battle flag. Doing all of this in the context of great songs is not easy, but the Drive-By Truckers always make it look that way.
Americana Record of the Year
The Stray Birds
The evolution of The Stray Birds is a lot of fun to follow. They keep putting out records which seem to evolve from one to another, yet retain a distinct Stray Birds stamp. On “Magic Fire”, they rip into a few rollicking tunes more than years past and “Shining in the Distance” may be the best kickoff song to an album in recent memory. As No Depression put it, “one track in and I’m sold, sucked in by the high wailing vocal harmonies straight out of the mountains and overlaid on a bed of solid rock.” Like Best Medicine (2014), The Stray Birds have assembled another record full of heart and full of talent. All the songs are great, but my top pick is ‘Sabrina’.
Best Soundtrack to Summertime
“City Sun Eater in the River of Light”
Woods shook up their reign as music’s best psychedelic folk rock band with “City Sun Eater in the River of Light” by infusing reggae, Latin vibes, and even jazz, which culminates into an album that is the perfect summer backdrop. As described in their press release, City Sun Eater in the River of Light is “a dense record of rippling guitar, lush horns, and seductive, bustling anxiety about the state of the world. It’s still the Woods you recognize, only now they’re dabbling in zonked out Ethiopian jazz, pulling influence from the low key simmer of Brown Rice, and tapping into the weird dichotomy of making a home in a claustrophobic city that feels full of possibility even as it closes in on you.” ‘Sun City Creeps’ and ‘Can’t See At All’ are my picks for best tunes.
Songwriter Album of the Year
“My Piece of Land”
“Down Fell the Doves” was one of the more unique records from 2013 and at the time was totally unexpected. So it was a welcome change to already be familiar with her style and talents when Amanda Shires released “My Piece of Land”. A literal student of music and poetry, she was joined by husband Jason Isbell and other Nashville vets in studio to record. But much like her previous record, the songs on “My Piece of Land” (most of which she wrote alone) are well-written enough that they themselves stand out. “These songs would be impressive regardless of the supporting cast. But the class and respect the players display on Shires’ work elevates this album and helps bring the singer-songwriter’s pensive, sympathetic and poignant visions into full bloom” (American Songwriter). My picks for top songs are opener “The Way it Dimmed” and the deep (and kinda uncomfortable) “Harmless”.
Best Pop/Rock Album of the Year
Head and the Heart
“Signs of Light”
Many reviewers are noting that he Head and the Heart’s third album is a notch or two below the first two, probably because the Seattle band is no longer a surprise. But I tend to agree with Jaan Uhelszk from Relix: “The 13 songs on this album tremble with vulnerability, emotion, discovery and the kind of hard-won wisdom that they only hinted at in their first two albums. Where their last offering was dark with apprehension, Signs of Light throws open the shutters and reveals a new dawn for this group of dreamers.” They have been through a lot in the last year as a band, are still currently down one man, and put managed to put out a phenomenal, radio-ready record.
Best Modern Americana Record
Jarosz has spoken of this record as the first she’s put out as a “grown-up” in the sense that she was no longer in school or college when writing and recording—which explains its mature sound. But that doesn’t mean it’s stuffy; as Steven Horowitz noted, “She may be pondering the heavy questions, but she evidently takes great joy from her talents. There’s a looseness to the album that prevents her from ever being pretentious. She just looks at the world around her, the people she knows, her thoughts and feelings, and turns these into song.” The badass ‘House of Mercy’ is my top song pick.
HONOR ROLL: The Rest of 2016’s Best Albums
“For Better, Or Worse”
The Infamous Stringdusters
“Ladies and Gentlemen”
A Tribe Called Quest
“We got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your service”
“Lovers and Leavers”
Shovels & Rope
“The Very Last Day”
“Stranger To Stranger”
“The Cracks That Built the Wall”
“Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…”