I use the word “favorites” in place of “best” on my lists anymore. It’s way more appropriate and less arrogant. That said, I found that my Top Ten for the year stretched to 29 albums, and I had to do a bit of paring to get it that “low.” That’s one killer album every 12.6 days for the entire year - nice! These are listed in two sections - the first section being the seven albums I listened to most in the past year, probably as good an indicator of my favorites as exists. All the others are listed after, and each section is alphabetical by artist, the way I file my stuff in my collection (and yes, I’m aware I do it wrong).
The links are to YouTube videos, and I didn't once ask permission to do that.
I hope I'll be forgiven. That said, the albums I listened to the most in 2016:
For my taste, Obel is way at the top of the list of the best young songwriters out there. This is her third album and I have yet to hear a song I don’t care for. She’s good with both her melodies and her words and navigates a lot of moods well; she does longing, introspection and hope with equal ease. What excites me most with this release is the huge leap forward the album’s production took. Sometimes, piano-based artists seem like they have fewer options available to them (in regards to tone and mood), so the creative production here bodes well for the future.
Favorite tracks: Stretch Your Eyes, Red Virgin Soil, Citizen Of Glass
Looking at this year’s list, there are two constants - my love of good female vocalists and my appreciation for “neo-psych” music, drawing heavily on the late sixties and early seventies without being copycat. From the second perspective, BJM has been kicking out some of the most consistently amazing music album after album for a long time now. The matching of mood with production is strong on this release, which is not unusual for Anton Newcombe and whoever he currently surrounds himself with. I’d love to hear a collaboration with Flaming Lips some day. Newcombe is a prolific and twisted genius; no wonder BJM are perennial favorites of mine.
Favorite tracks: Government Beard, O Bother,
Like Describing Colors To A Blind Man On Acid
I like a really good female vocalist who can handle a variety of song styles. Boom - got it here. I like wonderfully catchy melodies and well-written lyrics, including frequent forays into the realm of clever. Boom - got it here. I’m a lifetime Stones fan, so I don’t need my rock to sound pristine; a little grit and grind in there does my soul good. Boom - got it here. I like when a band understands that the tone and mood of the recording can take a good song and make it great. Boom - got it here. As a little extra added accolade, if “amount of times sung loudly and badly in the shower” is any indication, "Heartful of Love" from this record is my favorite song of the year.
Favorite tracks: Heartful of Love, Spaced Out Like An Astronaut,
River City, Pick A Knee
What a great year for female vocalists! Rose is somewhat similar to Obel in that she’s constantly catchy and works through a lot of emotions well, but they both have distinctive songwriting and performing styles, both superb. Between the two, Rose is a little less produced on this album, relying on her voice to carry these melodies way deep into your soul, and the results are hauntingly good. I probably connected to this album more than many because I understand the idea of connecting with a river, and obviously, so does she.
Favorite tracks: The River (Drifting), Songbird, Margo
(warning: the video is emotionally intense)
This is sort of a perfect combination of my female vocalist and neo-psych passions all rolled up in one album. Richards (who used to sing with Brian Jonestown Massacre, by the way) had released a couple of albums prior to this; both showed a lot of promise, and everything just jelled perfectly here. This is one of the best overall collections of gorgeous songs in a good long time, and her commitment to depth of emotion filtered through a seemingly pure spirit makes every performance here a delight. The more I listened to this one, the more I loved it; this will be a part of my "old hippie and no apologies for it" life forever. Extra points for the stunning cover.
Favorite tracks: Colours So Fine, Julian, Tokyo’s Dancing, Already Fine
I will never abandon my love of good electronic music, and this album was my favorite of all the electronic stuff I heard this year. He’s been making records for quite some time, though I only found out about him this past year. How much do I like his work? I bought all TWENTY-TWO of the releases in his discography after hearing this one, and I’m glad I did. This is hauntingly eclectic and shows a fine understanding of everything from ambient to Berlin school techniques, from cinematic to minimal, all merged into a style distinctly his own.
Favorite tracks: Art of Forgetting, Erroor, Space Train
(but this is an album best listened through beginning to end, non-stop)
This is likely the album I listened to the most this year. Four sisters, all accomplished musicians on a variety of instruments who can write, arrange and certainly take advantage of the astonishing vocal harmonies that seem to come only from talented siblings. They’re also a blast to follow on social media - it honestly feels like they’re having fun with all this, and yet take their craft ultra-seriously. Creativity flows freely from their very souls; the songwriting, the performing, their videos… every step of the way is clever, fun and endearing. Extra kudos for my favorite video of the year with “Rooftop.” The future truly looks bright for these four ladies.
Favorite tracks: Rooftop, Enter Sandman (yes, the Metallica song),
You Could Be My Baby, I’m Just A Shadow
...but there were PLENTY more…
She and Miranda Richards could tour together and I’d be awfully happy. Her voice perfectly suits these songs, most of which have a feeling of distance, a mood enhanced by the production. The words are generally pretty powerful throughout and her delivery has a tendency to be almost nonchalant at times, which somehow gives the words even more power. I guess it helps to have a gorgeous voice. Her video for “Tonight” is an excellent bit of work, well worth checking out.
Favorite tracks: Tonight, Blurred Views, In Shadows
I’ve felt for a long time that Beth is a woefully under-appreciated songwriter and performer. She can sneak up on you at times; some of her infectious, bouncy melodies can hide deeper, darker emotions. Much like Suzanne Vega, she’s very much an observer and journalist as opposed to a preacher. I enjoy the fact that her songwriting keeps progressing with her life experience; she also does a superb job of writing to the strength of her voice.
Favorite tracks: Snow, Moon, Dawnstar
Britta has been kicking around for a while, perhaps most notably as a member of Luna. The album seems to center around the correlations between opposing elements; passion and anger, longing and fulfillment… Even the cover photo is intentionally slightly out of focus. It’s odd in its way that this album makes the list, as five of the ten songs here are covers, but she does a good enough job of interpreting the material and making it her own that she belongs here.
Favorite tracks: Luck Or Magic, Do It Last,
Landslide (the Fleetwood Mac song)
David Cross (ex-King Crimson) and Sean Quinn (Tiny Magnetic Pets) have released an album that appeals to the throwback in me; moody, textured and layered and lots of interplay between instruments I love (synths, violins, percussion). They also bring in a few guest vocalists who add quite a bit to the songs they perform on, particularly Beth Hirsch on the title track. From start to finish, this is an album reminiscent of the gentler side of prog, where melody and introspection are the focus, as opposed to breakneck playing; both idioms have their place, and Cross and Quinn are masters of the former.
Favorite tracks: Cold Sky Blue, Arc En Ciel (Parts 1 & 2),
Counting All The Stars
Daevid passed early in 2015; this album represents the final recordings made during a lifetime of creative, whimsical energy and genius. Stealing from the description on Amazon (because I can’t do better), “Elevenses finds Allen mixing styles from throughout his career, including blues, Irish folk, ambient and post-punk.” That shouldn’t work, but it does, all glued together with Allen’s trippy, whimsical little-boy-innocent vocals. As already alluded to, we’ve lost so many in the music world of late, and I miss Daevid Allen as much as any of them.
Favorite tracks: Imagicknation, Dim Sum In Alphabetical Order,
Secretary Of Lore
This album was my introduction to Jurado’s work, even though he’s been around for a while. When that happens, I never know whether to feel like I got cheated out of all those years enjoying him or whether I should just appreciate the goldmine of new music. He is one of the most consistently catchy songwriters I’ve come across in quite some time, and he surrounds himself with good people who are unafraid to venture into some unusual production spaces. This gives the album a lot of legs; repeated listens continually show off various subtle aspects of the album, and it’s one of those amazing releases that are almost completely different albums on headphones or speakers. For a while, this was one of my “I don’t want to hear anything but this” albums in 2016.
Favorite tracks: November 20, QACHINA, Walrus
Just for the record, I was very much in love with this album even before he died…
So many levels to this record, not the least of which is the idea that Bowie knew his end was near, and he made every effort to give this as a parting gift to the world.
This is a jumble of wisdom, resignation, passion and observation, all filtered through a musical vision that’s a logical extension of his Heroes/Low ethic. It’s a lyrical and sonic masterpiece… and yes, the tears are welling in my eyes as I type this (and I still have Leonard Cohen left to list...).
Favorite tracks: Lazarus, I Can't Give Everything Away, Blackstar,
’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore
Of all the obscure artists I’m a passionate fan of, I think I most wish the world would discover Green Isac. They’re not prolific - only six albums dating back to 1990 - but I have yet to hear a single track that wasn’t superbly crafted. They’re completely instrumental, mixing elements of world music, synthesizer sensibilities and eclectic percussions that wow me every time I hear them. They added “Orchestra” to their name for this release, giving credit and credence to their willingness to find additional musicians with a similar vision. They have continually explored new ways to express their emotions. I may well have to name them the best band that most people have never heard of.
Favorite tracks: Emmesity, Dr. One, Hapi, Algebra
Actually, no… I want the wisdom and light I enjoyed for almost fifty years while you were establishing yourself as among the finest and most visionary songwriters ever. Like Bowie’s Blackstar, this is a fitting farewell. Cohen is often thought of as a dreary visionary, but I always felt like his darkness was masking the hope he never seemed to abandon, even during some very difficult days. Here, Leonard is obviously saying goodbye to us and to this worldly dimension. With his age, he had to rely on talking these lyrics as much as singing them, but he was gifted a voice for exactly that. For me, the underlying emotion here wasn't so much sadness or resignation at the end of his years, but a content reflection of what has been and what is to come. He was ready; we weren’t.
Favorite tracks: You Want It Darker, It Seemed The Better Way,
If I Didn’t Have Your Love
Lindsey is one of those absurdly talented humans (violinist, composer, dancer, performance artist) who is amazing at a lot of things… and not the least of them is knowing how to combine them to completely delight her audience. The music here is a wonderful combination of complex dance pop with touches of classical, and “complex” is a very key word here. Her talent shines through on every track without over-barraging the listener with frantic solos and the like. It’s there when she needs it, but I truly respect that the complete song is what matters here, not just the moment. By the way, her videos are well worth checking out, if for no other reason that she really really REALLY looks like she’s having fun with all this.
Favorite tracks: Lost Girls, The Phoenix, First Light
I’m a little late on the bandwagon here, as this was released in late 2015, but they have VERY little presence on the internet and it took me a while to find them. That said, I’ll be checking frequently, hoping for new stuff (already bought the whole back catalog, an additional three albums). This is good, proper old hippie music, leaning more towards the mellower side of psychedelia. It’s also another album that’s a completely different experience on headphones, and in this case, I prefer that mode of listening here. Introspective, intricate, intriguing instrumentals that have a long-lasting feel.
Favorite tracks: The Planetarium, Tethys, Red Light Green Light
1) I listened to this almost out of respect for the band that essentially introduced me to pop and rock music, and wound up blown away with one of the best pop albums I’ve heard in a long time. They can still sing, AND they kept the formula intact here - work with great songwriters and great producers and let their instincts for the songs take over. Unforgettable pop genius from beginning to end here. 2) Chuck all the arguments and put these folks in the Rock Hall of Fame. I can’t even BEGIN to imagine how many humans were the same as me in that these guys opened up the world of rock to us. I don’t care how they were formed, I don’t care about the politics… the music is great and timeless. They belong.
Favorite tracks: Good Times, Me And Magdaleena, You Bring The Summer
Nick is the strongest candidate, in my opinion, to hold the throne held by Leonard Cohen for so long. He has a similar ability to take darkness and desolation and make fascinating art of it. One of the things I enjoyed from Cohen for so long was the spirit of hope and refusing to give up that was an undercurrent to his entire career, and I hear the same thing here. Between the Bad Seeds and his solo work, Cave has released a half zillion albums (very UNLIKE Cohen in that regard) and his work retains the edge that made him notable to begin with.
Favorite tracks: Jesus Alone, Anthrocene, I Need You
Look closely at the cover, and you’ll see a man and a woman, passing one another while traveling in different directions, on what looks to be a lonely, desolate and dusty road. That’s the single most perfect analogy for this album I could ever hope to envision. The sound is big and lonesome at the same time, reminiscent of production worthy of a David Lynch soundtrack. There’s ghosts of everything from Johnny Cash country to post-punk to pure, sheer isolation put to song here. Very much a record for a brutally hot summer’s day… the dust is a little more obvious in that situation.
Favorite tracks: Never One, Dead Balloons, Blackbird, Autumn Leaves
I could steal from Nick Lowe here and call this “pure pop for now people,” but that wouldn’t entirely do this album justice. It’s well-grounded in jangly pop sensibilities, but there’s plenty in the production and presentation of the songs to keep the listener hearing more and more with each listen. Perhaps the complex pop of, say, XTC would be a better comparison. Super strong songwriting and vocals help this one to shine., and I’m pretty sure I heard something like a mellotron on a track or two, so yeah… I’m sold.
Favorite tracks: O’Connor’s Barn, Roller, Passersby, Padova
For me, by the time OK Computer had been acknowledged as a masterpiece, Radiohead starting releasing albums that were good, of course, but beginning to sound “just like Radiohead.” When 2011’s The King Of Limbs was released, it was the first album in a long time that was radically different for the band; I loved the more distant, more electro feel to the album. That trend continued with this release, and I’m still very taken with this facet of the band. The last two albums, I’ve heard it argued, are “too much like Thom Yorke solo albums,” but I dearly love his work outside of Radiohead, so I’m not bothered by that in the least. Through it all, they’ve maintained a constant reputation of releasing quality work that demands attention and repeated listenings to truly enjoy. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for them.
Favorite tracks: Burn The Witch, Glass Eyes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich
Much like Damien Jurado, I somehow remained ignorant to this man’s work until I heard this album. My loss, but I get to make up for it now. Ouroboros drips with raw emotion throughout - if you can listen to this record without being moved in some way, I’d be concerned for your health and well being. He doesn’t have the strongest voice in the world, but he compensates by writing to his own abilities and augmenting it with excellent playing and on-the-mark production. Perhaps an acquired taste, but one I’m glad I got.
Favorite tracks: Homecoming, While It Still Beats,
Wouldn’t It Make A Lovely Photograph
I’ve been a fan of hers since her debut release in 2009, and I’d have to say this is her most realized and complete album yet (which, I guess, makes sense). I’ve seen instances where a young artist was nearly ruined by attention and accolades early on (she was all of 18 when she released that debut), but it feels like Jarosz has used the attention to broaden her circle of friends, which in turn has seemingly furthered her development as a songwriter, singer and player. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert this year (another one off the bucket list!), and was impressed with how well she was able to bring her music to a live stage. It feels like she has a long and amazing career ahead, and I can’t wait to see what her musical future brings .
Favorite tracks: Green Lights, Everything to Hide, Jacqueline
Having had the pleasure of seeing them live three times now, I was more and more convinced that their debut album simply did NOT capture in the studio what these guys are capable of on a stage. Man. talk about the benefit of being on the road and honing your craft… this album nails it. This is as huge a leap forward for a sophomore release as I can ever recall. At this point in time, St. Paul is the standard for blue-eyed soul singers; his passion, persona and… well, his old school soul always shine on stage, and on this album, they hit every nuance in the studio as well. An instant classic.
Favorite tracks: Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like), All I Ever Wonder,
Call Me, Midnight On The Earth
Apparently, they can. Sixteen years, a few lawsuits and plenty of bad blood since their last album, the Femmes released a gem. This is every bit as whimsical, poignant, irreverent and flat out fun as their debut all those years ago; talent is talent, I guess, and overcomes all odds. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I feel like Gordon Gano is maybe the best smartass out there in songwriting land; I tend to take him as sardonic even when I imagine he’s being serious, all of which keeps the edge to his music. Besides, how can you hate a band that so often sounds like a bunch of drunks out for a good time on the town? I can honestly file this one under “I sure didn’t see something this good coming…”
Favorite tracks: I Could Be Anything, Foothills, Memory
Don’t be fooled by the title… this is an instrumental album full of melody, sparse soundscapes and virtuoso playing. “Virtuoso” can take many forms; here, it’s not shredding as much as finding the right space and time for the notes in these songs. I can’t imagine I’m far off with a guess that Robert Fripp is one of his influences; I wouldn’t call these tracks ambient, but Fripp’s understanding of space in music and his patience with composition are distinct earmarks of the music here. I’ve enjoyed this album on two different levels - careful scrutiny with headphones on, and as uplifting background music (so maybe it is a little ambient, but more in theory than sonically).
Favorite tracks: Highway Anxiety, I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me)*,
The Great Unwind
*song title of the year!
I’ll close the list with yet another artist who eluded me until this year. I’m told by fans of longer standing than me that this is not their best effort, more of a hodgepodge release than anything else. If that’s the case, I cannot wait to dive in to the rest of the catalog. What I’m hearing here is very catchy songs with exemplary vocals in a style that carries hints of influence from poppish folk to Americana to the occasional nod to synth culture and even a bit of controlled mayhem. Perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that this doesn’t sound choppy or pieced together, even with so many styles and influences to consider.
Favorite tracks: Too Right, Out Of Nowhere, Watching The Waiting
This is the first time I’ve made a list like this since late 1999, when I was asked to contribute a “favorite artists of the 20th century” article to a regional mag. I have to say that I enjoyed it, especially being reminded of how much music I absolutely adored in the past year. Dontcha just LOVE looking over a list that reminds you that, no matter how bleak some things get, there’s always something good and/or interesting in the universe of music to console yourself with? 2017… bring it on!