Cross-posted at Shadows & Noise. My “Year In Music” doesn’t say anything about what was important in 2016. If it did, then Beyoncé would be #1, followed closely by several other powerful hip-hop records: A Tribe Called Quest, Chance the Rapper, Common, Solange, and Blood Orange. But this list isn’t about important things; it’s a record of what I was listening to in 2016. This year, I didn't seek importance from music; I sought solace. I understand why people turn to music when the world is in upheaval, when they sense a darkness descending upon us. In fact, I'm often one of those people, but for some reason, this year, I didn’t. Perhaps it was because of my necessary turn toward the domestic with the birth of my first child. Whatever the reasons, I only emotionally connected with music that would return me to myself and settle my spirit even if only for a moment. So here's my list of the albums that made my year in music:
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine
- The Range, Potential
- Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee/Vestapol
- Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
- William Tyler, Modern Country
- Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life
- Parker Millsap, The Very Last Day
- Adam Torres, Pearls to Swine
- Amanda Shires, My Piece of Land
- Local Natives, Sunlit Youth
A few more albums worth getting to know:
- Billie Marten, Writing of Blues and Yellows
- Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
- Bon Iver, 22, A Million
- Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
- Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
- Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
- Sarah Jarosz, Undercurrent
- Underworld, Barbara, Barbara, we face a shining future
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine continues to grow on me. When I first heard “In a Black Out,” I was moved. When it ended up in an iPhone 7 commercial, I was not surprised. It’s immediately evident that Hamilton and Rostam are true lovers of pop music. They draw on the tradition and allow their own eclectic vision to unify those sounds. They refuse to smooth out the sound with overproduction, and the rough edges give it a personal, warm feeling. The result is an album that rewards the deepening familiarity of repeated listens.
The cool story behind The Range’s Potential is the hook. The documentary about its making, Superimpose, is worth checking out. However, if the music didn’t stand on its own, then I’d have forgotten it after a few listens. Perfect for city walks, early morning commutes, or late night drives. Potential fits with several albums like last year’s Jamie xx and Underworld’s excellent Barbara, Barbara; they sound modern, of the moment, while reviving the electronica I fell in love with twenty years ago. Blood Orange achieves a similar updated-classic vibe with hip-hop on his great Freetown Sound.
Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee is heavy and psychedelic, at least for a HGM record. I dig the expansion of the sound. It works without sacrificing anything in MC Taylor’s songwriting. (And he has Tift Merritt singing backup throughout!) The sister album, Vestapol, is a quiet, intimate affair every bit as compelling as Heart Like a Levee. If you're digging this vibe, also check out Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate. If you like it a little more prophetic, then Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw will serve you well. If you want it a little folkier, then try Parker Millsap’s energetic The Very Last Day. And for something else that stays in the folk orbit, check out Adam Torres' high-desert-night-out-there epic, Pearls to Swine. I find it really captivating.
The narrative around Radiohead is that A Moon Shaped Pool is a return to form. I happen to have really liked 2011's “maligned” (a relative term considering the lavish critical praise reserved for Radiohead) The King of Limbs. My argument is that TKOL and AMSP represent the two branches of later Radiohead’s sound. Whereas TKOL is the deep dive into electronica, AMSP reaches for the “pretty,” string-soaked side. The result is, unsurprisingly, stunning.
In 2016, I confirmed that I’d reached middle age by starting to listen to American primitive guitar (instrumental acoustic guitar). For good measure, I also started listening to more jazz. William Tyler’s Modern Country was my entry-point to primitive guitar. It’s a beautiful, meditative record that evokes the landscapes of America that inspired it.
Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life is a recent discovery for me, but I haven’t put it down in the last two weeks. The songs feel lived in, like the best of Laurel Canyon folk. Amanda Shires’ My Piece of Land feels like a breakthrough for her. Dave Cobb keeps the production unfussy and focused on Shires’ lovely country-folk songs. Andrews and Shires stand in this list as representatives of all the great records by singer-songwriter women this year, including Billie Marten, Sarah Jarosz, and Margo Price.
Local Natives’ Sunlit Youth is difficult to pin down. The LA band’s third album continues to develop their harmony-driven indie sound with satisfying results. It’s one of those records that I can spend the whole day listening to. It takes over and gives even that low moment of the afternoon when you’re at your most distractible and sleepiest a vibrant but relaxed energy.