The countdown of our Favorite 50 Albums of 2016 continues today. Ten more great records are on display. Two of the LPs have been included on several lists by major sites while many others have flown under the radar yet should definitely be picked up. As a reminder, the list is in alphabetical order. The first ten can be found here.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (Mama Bird Recording Co.)
For years, Courtney Marie Andrews rotated between her solo career and as a touring side musician for artists around the world. During this time, she released five albums that went largely under the radar. Her sixth album, Honest Life, though may make her a household name, as it unquestionably one of the most perfect folk-country records this year.
Honest Life beautifully captures the emotions of her past in one of the best songwriting performances of the genre today. Andrews heart-wrenching dynamics and simple instrumentation lend itself perfect to country’s Golden Era of the ’60s and ’70s. Acoustic guitar, pedal steel, and piano help drive the rhythms as she narrates with her elegance. She can be compared to many female legends (Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn), and it is only a matter of time before Andrews receives the recognition she deserves. ~~ Zac
Damien Jurado – Visions of Us on the Land (Secretly Canadian)
The final chapter in singer/songwriter Damien Jurado‘s allegorical dream-folk Maraqopa trilogy, Visions of Us on the Land is a vivid journey to a mythical place. In our March review of this album, it was clear that these songs provide a fulfilling conclusion to the tales begun on the trilogy’s 2012 first installment, Maraqopa. The imagery, the characters, and the slightly psychedelic palette used to paint their stories then is even more vivid here. The dusty hues of this album are evocative and guide the listener on the adventures contained therein.
Full of mystical exploration, Visions of Us on the Land remains at year’s end the same stunning piece it was at first listen some 10 months ago. On “Exit 353”, Jurado “lives out the voices in my mind” and reminds us that he is a master storyteller. The bluesy “Walrus” and the gently folksy “Queen Anne” with its echoes of Simon & Garfunkel prove Jurado is also a superb musician whose talents will stand the test of time. ~~ Hollie
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia Records)
Are you looking for hope this winter? Yes, you probably are. Did something break your heart this year? Most likely. Well, this album is the final publication from one of history’s foremost experts on hope and the power of positivity. His death broke all of our hearts, and this album still gives us hope. Recorded while David Bowie was in and out of the hospital, Blackstar is the creative arts’ monument to 2016. We think most will agree. The Duke was at his old creative heights, producing groovy, blighted tunes and singing with all the power and weakness of a dying genius. Even the album art and packaging is a gift that continues to give, with fans still finding easter eggs.
David Bowie evokes death in the music, rebirth in the lyrics, and weakness in the vocal performance. Witness that last sentence retaining a present-tense verb despite the artist sadly being past-tense. The best voices will always sing. ~~ Nick
DIIV – Is The Is Are (Captured Tracks)
DIIV experienced a tumultuous three-year span before making a triumphant return in 2016. The band faced numerous obstacles before delivering Is The Is Are in February, including arrests, personnel exits, and stints in rehab. Those challenges might cripple creativity in some artists, but not Zachary Cole Smith. Looking back on the events that led to this album, it’s safe to say Smith made lemonade from a particularly sour batch of fruit. It’s easy to bandy about the term “comeback”, especially in reference to an artist who has battled addiction. But one listen to the lush dream-pop gem of “Dopamine” warrants such a descriptor.
Its radiance reflects Smith’s post-rehab focus. This “growth album” (as we described it in our February review) explores deeper sonic soundscapes, from the shoegaze haze of “Waste of Breath” to the edgier tones of “Bent (Roi’s Song).” The 17 substantive songs demand your attention. In addition to its depth and density, the subject matter gives it a purpose. If listeners heed Smith’s cautionary tale, perhaps his music can help prevent others from emulating the very actions that inspired the songs. ~~ Hollie
Dori Freeman – Dori Freeman (Free Dirt Records)
By now, everyone who loves the country roots genre should know the name. Dori Freeman dropped a stunning self-titled debut album that instantly is a classic. The album gives a glimpse into the life of a modern-era Appalachian woman surrounded by rural mountains and a rustic lifestyle. Honesty and passion are wrapped together in 10 amazing songs. Freeman’s pure voice and reflective lyrics shine, which are best exemplified on “Ain’t Nobody”. Immediately, you fall in love with Freeman’s voice and get hooked for more. Her vocals are very traditionalist but with her own personal touch. A debut this strong rarely comes around, and we are lucky to have this timeless record. ~~ Zac
Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO Records)
You wouldn’t expect a band of white, middle-aged, southern American, alt-country rockers to make an album with an overarching Black Lives Matter theme. But that’s exactly what Drive-By Truckers did. Their eleventh album, American Band, is a gritty, emotionally charged effort that tops many critics’ lists for one simple reason. Even the cover art of an American flag at half-mast frames its somber tone. Fueled by moral indignation, American Band is an indictment against hatred and violence. More specifically, it’s a wake-up call to rally against apathy. Principal songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood lead the charge with hard-hitting songs that address racial inequality and gun control – not exactly popular sentiments among their demographic. But this band from Georgia with Alabama roots doesn’t fear the status quo. They want to change it.
“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks / well, I guess that means that you ain’t black” from “What It Means” could be in reference to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Keith Lamont Scott, or any of the hundreds of black men killed by police in 2016. Equally powerful is “Ramon Casiano”, inspired by the tragic murder of a Mexican teenager by the head of the NRA. It’s not the album’s only anti-gun song: “Guns of Umpqua” focuses on the school shooting in Hood’s new home state of Oregon. While the topics on American Band document current events (much like Neil Young’s “Four Dead in Ohio”), this album isn’t great for that reason. It’s great because Drive-By Truckers, who have always been politically aware, speak truth to power not for their own gain but to effect change for the greater good. Armed with guitars for weapons, these southern rebels are “united in a revolution” to ensure America’s future is brighter than its dark, divided past. ~~ Hollie
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death (Sargent House)
There are albums that embed themselves in the listener for months. Records that you can spin in their entirety without even having to hit play. Emma Ruth Rundle‘s third solo LP, Marked for Death, is one of those rarities. It all begins with the devastating opener, “Marked for Death”, that treats a dance with the Grim Reaper as a parlay between two friends. “Protection” and “Heaven” radiate with the lyrical prowess and gripping, brooding indie-rock of P.J. Harvey while the mesmerizig “Medusa” is storytelling at its finest. Despite all of the album’s great songs, “Real Big Sky” stands above them all. Through the minimalist approach that features Rundle’s voice and acoustic guitar, the song defines the album’s power and Rundle’s wonderful artistry.
As we continue to come back to Marked for Death, its emotional beauty and everlasting effects make it more than just another record. It is a masterful and moving piece of art that would stand alongside the likes of Dylan Thomas and James Joyce. In other words, Marked for Death is an unforgettable literary work by one of the most brilliant songwriters around today. ~~ Ben
Fear of Men – Fall Forever (Kanine Records)
If The National are credited for making brooding indie rock anthemic, Fear of Men make it beautiful. They dazzled people with their debut, Loom, but with Fall Forever they enchant us and make our dreams come alive. There isn’t anything fancy with the English band’s approach. There aren’t any overriding guitars, elongated solos, or other special effects, but this minimalist approach is what makes Fall Forever so captivating and impressive. The music is delicate and even sprawling, creating soundscapes that are euphoric, breathtaking, or both. “Undine” and “Island” reveal the band’s brilliance to marry the two while “Ruins” and “Trauma” provide tranquil hypnotism. Then there is the surreal “Sane”, which feels like being suspended in mid-air as we evaluate our place on this planet.
Fall Forever is unlike any album this year. No bells, no whistles. Just a simple, beautiful record with the songwriting that would make Sharon Van Etten envious. With such a formula, we had no choice but to take notice. Now it’s time for everyone else to recognize the rare masterpiece that Fear of Men have created with Fall Forever. ~~ Ben
Field Mouse – Episodic (Topshelf Records)
Philly’s Field Mouse released their third full-length album, Episodic, in August. It was recorded during some lean and tough times for the band. Lead singer Rachel Browne’s sister was diagnosed with cancer, a close relationship dissolved, and both became driving forces behind Episodic’s songwriting. The result is a record that is loud, emotional, and cathartic.
The energy of Episodic is almost uncontainable. The record kicks off with this huge ball of explosive energy on “The Mirror”. What makes Episodic so cathartic is how easy it is to scream along to some of these songs “I’ve lived more lives than you” in “Half-Life”, or “I’ve got you back and I put you under glass” on “Over and Out”. The musicianship is fantastic as well, from the driving drums to the early ’90s vibe to the guitar work. The record ends with another huge track, “Out of Context” which builds into a huge wall out sound which is burst through by Browne repeating “It hurts…” as the song slowly disintegrates. Episodic captures emotion quite raw, and the result is one of the year’s best records. ~~ Rich
Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing (Bayonet Records)
It may be impossible to find someone who has released as much music in a short period of time as Greta Kline. Over the last few years, she has amassed over fifty releases on her Bandcamp, as either Ingrid Superstar, Zebu Fur, or Frankie Cosmos. In 2016, she released Next Thing, Frankie Cosmos’ second major label LP, which is a full realization of some of those 50 Bandcamp releases.
Each song is short, which Kline describes them as jingles. It’s true, the longest track on Next Thing is barely over two-and-a-half minutes. The result is fifteen short songs that will get stuck in your head, much like commercial jingles. Each number is a whimsical short story, from about wanting to own a dog and take pictures of it (“If I Had a Dog”) or maybe a love letter to her friends (“Embody”). The lyrics are honest, at times silly, but always meaningful and incredibly inviting. On the two-part “Is It Possible/Sleep Song”, Frankie Cosmos delivers one of the year’s best lines, a simple “Goodbye forever, what the fuck?”.
The musicianship on Next Thing is also fairly simple, but packs a big impact. From the seriously killer bass sound from bassist David Maine to the hard driving drumming from his brother Aaron (of Porches) to the dreamy harmonies supplied by Gabrielle Smith (eskimeaux), Kline surrounded herself with the perfect personnel to bring her songs to life. Thanks to its 15 incredibly catchy songs and brief 28-minute runtime, Next Thing is a record to keep on repeat. ~~ Rich
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