Over the past two days we have shared the first 20 of our Favorite 50 Albums of 2016. Today’s group of 10 is diverse and complex, featuring some of the most devastating lyrics and the most creative music of the year. The list is alphabetical, and then re-visit Parts 1 and 2.
Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack (Atlantic Records)
Big, bold hooks that hit you with the force of a cannon blast – that’s one way to summarize Frightened Rabbit‘s 2016 release. On their fifth studio album, Painting of a Panic Attack, the Scottish indie folk-rockers plumb the depths of emotion.
From the explosive “Get Out” to the melancholic “Death Dream” and “Die Like a Rich Boy,” this is an album of storm clouds that, however bleak on the surface, stops just shy of becoming a full-blown hurricane. Its pathos-rich content packs a wallop, so it’s not a departure from their style in any way. But with production from The National’s Aaron Dessner, Painting of a Panic Attack takes on a serene quality. Frontman Scott Hutchison – an underrated songwriter if ever there was one – pours heart and soul into these songs, giving the album its intimacy. The rest of the band are also at the height of their talents here, and the finished product is a testament to their chemistry. These guys make heavy music, both lyrically and sonically, yet it’s their raw honesty that makes this album a rewarding endeavor from start to finish. ~~ Hollie
HÆLOS – Full Circle (Matador Records)
In March 2015, we were introduced to the interstellar world of English three-piece HÆLOS when they released “Earth Not Above”. Those four-and-a-half minutes have long been etched in our minds as we eagerly anticipated something new. Fortunately, HÆLOS have delivered every single time, and the love affair escalated when they released their debut full-length, Full Circle.
The album is a beautiful compilation of the band’s dark, cosmic electronica, which blended the sensual and captivating trip-hop of Massive Attack and the otherworldly soundscapes of M83. To experience the LP, one must be completely invested in it, as the album is a slick, cohesive effort of complementary songs. The songs are lush and breathtaking with the experience often ending in ethereal exhilaration. The perfectly titled “Cloud Nine,” for instance, takes the listener to a place of euphoria with the soaring vocals of Lotti Benardout and simple yet scintillating synth and drum beats. “Pray” and “Dust” are mesmerizing and hypnotic, casting a spell that should never be undone. With Full Circle, HÆLOS prove their talent. It’s not simply an album that is among the best of the year, but it is one that marks a great band making their imprint on music. ~~ Wendy
Half Waif – Probable Depths (DZ Tapes)
There will always be some new, brilliant thing among the old standbys in every year-end list. This year, New York-based Half Waif has finally found a foothold in the gigantic music world thanks to their excellent second full-length. Probable Depths has many strange similarities to other albums this year like Bon Iver’s 22, a Million, that focus on voice manipulation. Obfuscating the voice of a singer with such a gorgeous natural gift is brilliant in how frustrating it is. Nandi Plunkett’s breathtaking, chameleonic ability is on display as is producer Zubin Hensler’s prismatic approach to showcasing it.
The natural ease with which Half Waif paints the world around them is expanded and enhanced this time around, even after a gigantic leap forward in Kotekan (2014), their first full-length. It would be easy for Plunkett and companty to write simple, sugary ballads and finger-snapping grooves, but this time around they tear it all apart, recolor it all, and put it back the way it was before, sort of.
Standout tracks: approach from the middle. Listen to the title track and continue to the subsequent “Overgrown.” Then continue to the beginning of the album and start again. ~~ Nick
Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee (Merge Records)
For over a decade, M.C. Taylor – the man behind Hiss Golden Messenger – created music that was more like stories about ordinary folk facing everyday problems. He was the every-person singer-songwriter. For his sixth album, Heart Like A Levee, however, Taylor puts himself and his bandmates at the center of this immensely personal and captivating record.
The album reflects the difficult emotional decision Taylor had to make between being a full-time musician or fully committing to an exciting job in ethnography, where he was recording indigenous music and culture. He opted for the former, and something remarkable was the outcome. While the setting of the songs is in the past, the album focus on issues with which we are all familiar: guilt, honesty, fear, and chasing dreams. And as expansive thematically the album is, sonically it is a musical treasure trove of campfire tales to soulful funkiness. The funky “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer,” the soulful “Highland Grace,” and the country-folk-rock of the majestic duo “Biloxi” and “Cracked Windshield” are just samplings of the brilliance of Heart Like A Levee. Hiss Golden Messenger knocked this album out of the park and we cannot get enough. ~~ Zac
The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust (Thirty Tigers)
Despite having to split and reform with numerous new members, The Jayhawks released a stellar record, Paging Mr. Proust. Although this is the band’s first record since 2011, it is memorable and full of rich songwriting. While the album may have to grow for some, long-time fans will devour every second of the 12-track collection, as each song is filled with the recognizable harmonies and twangy guitar that made The Jayhawks a staple of Americana and American roots-rock.
The record, however, also offers something new and exciting. Glimpses of pop-rock and even some glam rock shine through to provide the songs both a retro and anthem like quality. On “The Devil Is In Her Eyes,” for instance, a great roots rock anthem emerges and resembles something Tom Petty in his prime would sing. In this case, it is The Jayhawks who display that they are not ready to pack it in; they’re just getting started. ~~ Zac
Jim James – Eternally Even (Capitol Records)
Jim James is a chameleon of sorts, who changes his colors depending on the project he is working on and the audience in front of him. With his main outfit, My Morning Jacket, the Louisville resident is a fierce frontman and guitarist in the mold of Jerry Garcia (and not just because of the beard) and Robert Plant. With side projects like Monsters of Folk, The New Multitudes, and The Basement Tapes, he transforms into a bassist and complementary perfectionist to ensure the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan is respected. As a solo artist, James evolves into a combination of philosopher, poet, and music manipulator. His debut solo album, Regions of Lights and Sound of God, showcased a meditative even ambient quality. For his follow-up LP, Eternally Even, however, James ratcheted up the volume, infused more soul and R&B, and even unleashed his crooner side.
The result is an album that drew applause across the music world, including the majority of us celebrating James’ achievement. It wasn’t just the mosaic of sound and influences (which range from Curtis Mayfield to Prince to Leonard Cohen) but the messages he conveyed. This was not an ordinary record; the talented musician and prolific writer released an uplifting protest album. “Here in Spirit” is written in response to the Pulse Night Club shootings. “Same Old Lie” tackles the issue of gun violence in America and the failure of politicians to act, yet calls on people to make positive changes. The Otis Redding-inspired “The World’s Smiling Now” offers a glimmer of hope, yet James reminds us we all have a responsibility for the present and future. Eternally Even is ambitious, thoughtful, and imaginative, further cementing James’ legacy as one of today’s most influential and important artists. ~~ Wendy & Ben
Kaleo – A/B (Elektra)
Kaleo formed in 2012 in Iceland, and their live radio performance of the traditional Icelandic song “Vor í Vaglaskógi” in 2013 became a viral hit. In 2014, the stellar dream-folk track “All The Pretty Girls” was released (think Hozier) and Atlantic Records came calling. After signing with Atlantic, Kaleo relocated to Austin, Texas, to finish up their debut album. 2015 marked their SXSW debut which garnered tons of buzz around the blues/folk inspired band. We hear a Delta blues vibe throughout A/B, yet they also master folk very well with “All The Pretty Girls” and “Save Yourself”. Vocalist Jökull Júlíusson has an extremely versatile voice that swings between beautiful falsetto and strong baritone.
A/B demonstrates Kaleo’s diversity as it floats between blues (“No Good” and “Way Down We Go”), rock (“Glass House” and “Hot Blood”), dreamy folk (“All The Pretty Girls” and “Save Yourself”), and even a hint of bluegrass (“Broken Bones” and “Automobile”). Overall, A/B is a strong and solid debut from these four Reykjavik natives. Standout track “Way Down We Go” is the perfect mix of folk and blues and is a great single that garnered massive radio play. They also include “Vor í Vaglaskógi” which is in their native language. Even though we don’t know the words, it is a beautiful and emotional track. The closer is “I Can’t Go On Without You,” a blues rock-infused breakup song that can help you wallow in your sorrow a bit with Júlíusson’s heartfelt vocals and lyrics. ~~Wendy
Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust (Joyful Noise Recordings)
Even months after its release, Sonderlust remains one of those albums that continues to reveal itself. And despite this album being much darker tonally than Kishi Bashi‘s previous efforts, that contrast is what makes it so engaging. We called it his “most personal effort yet” back in September for a reason. These are the songs of an artist willing to reveal his more vulnerable side. Listening to these songs takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride. The rapturous (yet quirky) joy of “Say Yeah” is the daybreak to the somber twilight hues of “Flame on Flame” with its “learn to love the rain / learn to fight the pain” lament. In a year that has been full of grief, this album offers a therapeutic effect: it’s equally sympathetic, comforting, and inspiring.
Although Sonderlust is not present on many critics’ lists, we feel this album will prove to be one of Kishi Bashi’s best. Years from now, when other albums have grown stale and faded from memory, this one will remain in rotation. ~~ Hollie
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony (Nonesuch Records)
The eclectic music of Lake Street Dive was able to steal our hearts with their new album, Side Pony. An album full of retro, soulful sing-alongs that is louder and bolder than previous efforts, it’s hard not to love. Powered by the strong, smoky vocals of Rachael Price and the perfect instrumentation of Bridget Kearney, Mike Calabrese, and Mike Olson, Side Pony is flawless. The dynamic performance and complex harmonies are done with ease. The most enjoyable part of the album, besides the great musicianship, is that every song is something fresh and new, such as the emphatic “Call Off Your Dogs” and the funk-jazz of “Side Pony.” The record is simultaneously a trip into the past while looking through the crystal ball at what the future of music holds. This is an amazing record that comes to life when witnessed live. Do yourself a favor and pick up the album, spin it, and then catch them at a gig near you. ~~ Zac
Lissie – My Wild West (Cooking Vinyl)
This year, there was finally a shift in indie circles away from using the term “indie folk.” Many in the business will be delighted when that term finally hits the bin. It was the sub-genre of choice for non-electronic rock bands, and it was shorthand for “good songwriting” in an era where style and performative personas have been taking over. But bands have been remembering that you can be influenced by old country and folk music without overdoing a back-porch vibe that may not be authentic to who you are. Lissie‘s simple, expansive My Wild West is a great example of this.
The album is an honest folk/pop/rock record with an incredible vocalist at its center. That description could be any record but it’s the proportions that are important. The “rock” comes from Lissie’s immense, focused, and powerful voice and the excited, electric nature of the album. The “pop” comes from how hooky and singable the album is. The opening hook to “Hero” gets stuck in your head every day. The chorus to “Don’t You Give Up on Me” sounds like it was a song you loved twenty years ago. The “folk” is not the main focus of this record. It’s there around the edges, in her accent, in the simplicity of her delivery, and in the very bones of who Lissie is. It’s not the stylistic guidepost, though, which allows Lissie to roar and whisper and sear through 42 minutes of thoroughly modern American popular music. ~~ Nick
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