I love all kinds of music. This year we made the decision to begin a Spotify Premium family subscription, so I have access to even more music than ever before. As always, there are a couple of albums that especially resonated with me. Here’s a list of my favorite albums released this year.
- Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool opens with a song that’s been floating around since the Hail to the Thief days entitled “Burn the Witch.” Lest you mistake the song for 15-year-old leftovers, know this: “Burn the Witch” is easily the most prescient song of 2016. “This is a low-flying panic attack,” Thom Yorke sings over a bed of frenetic strings played to maximum eeriness under the direction of Jonny Greenwood. Radiohead’s ode to paranoia, xenophobia, and fearmongering perfectly encapsulates the tenor of this topsy-turvy year. And that’s just for starters. The rest of the album follows suit, playing off these existential themes. A darkness creeps into your life, leaving you nowhere to hide on “Decks Dark.” Broken hearts make it rain (and rain, and rain…) on “Identikit.” On the piano-driven “Daydreaming”, Yorke warns that “dreamers / they never learn” before the song closes with words “half my life” sung / spoken backward — seemingly an allusion to Yorke’s recent break-up with his longtime girlfriend. But these dark themes are contrasted by the music, some of the most gorgeous and sonically arresting arrangements in the band’s lengthy canon. Depressing music has never sounded so beautiful. The album closes with another live favorite, “True Love Waits”, appearing for the first time as a studio cut. The arrangement here is sparse — a piano and bass are the only accompaniment for Yorke’s forlorn falsetto. “I’ll drown my beliefs / to have your babies / I’ll dress like your niece / and wash your swollen feet / Just don’t leave.” You’ll be hard pressed to find a more raw love song recorded this year. From start to finish, there’s not a false note or line in the whole album. A Moon Shaped Pool ranks right up there with Radiohead’s classic albums. Download this: “True Love Waits”, “Burn the Witch”, “Glass Eyes”, “Decks Dark”, and “Daydreaming.”
- Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. This was the year I really fell in love with the music of Sturgill Simpson. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is Sturgill’s ode to parenthood, a loose concept album written to his young son. Simpson builds on his trademark “real country” cred — the guy channels 1978 Merle & Waylon — with an expanded pallet, including horns and a string section. The result is an album filled with tenderly poignant moments, such as “Breakers Roar” (“Open up your heart and you’ll find love all around“) and “Oh Sarah” (“I can’t get past the pain of what I want to say to you / I’m too old now to learn how to let you in“). The album’s highlight is Simpson’s reimagining of the Nirvana classic “In Bloom,” visaged here as a string / pedal steel heavy Americana ballad. He tweaks the lyrics slightly in the refrain: “But he don’t know what it means / to love someone.” The addition is significant and it adds new flourishes of both depth and nuance to a song firmly entrenched in the consciousness of many listeners (like me). In an album filled with special moments, Sturgill’s cover is the pinnacle, perhaps the song of the year in my opinion. Download this: “In Bloom”, “Sea Stories”, “Breakers Roar”, “All Around You”, and “Keep It Between the Lines.”
- Whitney, Light Upon the Lake. Whitney is my new favorite indie band. Formed by members of the defunct Smith Westerns, Whitney specializes in the kind of atmospheric, dreamy guitar-and-piano-and-falsetto sound popularized by Fleet Foxes a decade ago. But this kind of earnest folk rock is one of my favorite genres these days. Pitchfork refers to Light Upon the Lake as “a great warm weather rock’n’roll record.” That’s a great description of this album. The instrumentation is typically crisp, whereas the vocals are softer, fuzzier, warmer. But that’s not a bad thing. The perfect mix of positive vibes and melancholy, Light Upon the Lake is precisely the kind of record I needed for 2016. There’s just enough self-reflection here to leave me wanting a lot more. Download this: “No Woman”, “Golden Days”, “Follow”, and “No Matter Where We Go.”
- Michael McDermott, Willow Springs. McDermott has long been one of my favorite artists. It’s really a travesty that he’s not a household name. His self-titled album from the late 90s still stands as one of my 10 favorite albums ever. Willow Springs continues to build on his canon of fantastic songs. McDermott’s trademark is his ability to make you feel. I broke down the first time I heard “Shadow in the Window”, written in the aftermath of the death of McDermott’s father. The final refrain of the song — a stream of countless “I love you”s — is both heart wrenching and moving. Download this: “Soldiers of the Same War”, “Shadow in the Window”, “What Dreams May Come”, and “Let A Little Light In.”
- Amos Lee, Spirit. I’d never been a huge fan of Amos Lee until this record. But I LOVE his sound on Spirit. Equal parts 70s soul throwback and contemporary R&B, Lee is fully in his element here. Download this: “Spirit”, “Running Out of Time”, and “With You.”
- Lee Dewyze, Oil and Water. Yes, that Lee Dewyze. Like most people, I lost track of Dewyze when his American Idol run came to an end, with the exception of that one song of his that was featured on The Walking Dead a few years ago. But I came across this release back in January, a time of year when there just aren’t very many good albums being released. It became an instant earworm for me, portending Dewyze’s potential as an alt-rock, singer-songwriter once more. Download this: “Stone”, “Oil and Water”, and “Same For You.”
- Augustines, This Is Your Life. I fell in love with Augustines a few years back when they released their self-titled sophomore album. Sadly, this release is the Brooklyn-based band’s swan song. While This Is Your Life lacks the overall grandeur of Augustines, it’s a great way to draw the curtain on the band’s short-lived run. I’m gonna miss these guys. Download this: “Hold Me Loneliness”, “Running in Place” and “Days Roll By.”
- Kings of Leon, WALLS. The Kings have never sounded finer. This is what “staying in your lane” sounds like. Kings of Leon know exactly who they are and they don’t mess with the formula. I didn’t expect to love this album as much as I do. Download this: “Muchacho” and “WALLS.”
- John Paul White, Beulah. If I were the President, my first executive order would be to reunite The Civil Wars. But until that happens, we can take solace in the fact that John Paul White will be putting out starkly beautiful music like this record. One NPR reviewer noted that White’s clear articulation made every Civil Wars record seem like a conversation. That same intimacy transfers to this solo record. Download this: “The Martyr.”
- Margo Price, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. I first encountered Margo Price on the Nashville episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. A quick search on Spotify led me to her debut album, an “authentic” country album in the vein of Loretta Lynn. It’s good to see Nashville returning to her roots. Download this: “Hands of Time.”
Honorable mention: Just missing the cut were new releases from Wilco, Bon Iver, The Head and the Heart, and the Lumineers.