Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 of 2016

2016 was a year to make you believe in astrology. I don't know very many people for him 2016 was an excellent year. As I've hinted at throughout the year, I've been through my own share of upheaval. Here's the music that helped me hold it together.

For this list, I only cite what I've actually written about (or in the case of one album, will write about next week.) But if I was doing an overall list, Sturgill Simpson's A Sailors Guide to Earth would certainly be on here. I chose not to write about it because the guy certainly doesn't need publicity from me. But while the album deserves its nomination, I still believe Bey's Lemonade should win -- as a package, it is a tour de force of human creativity and expression and it has some truly important things to say. It's not just pop music. While I did not connect to it as much personal, Solange's A Seat at the Table is also a work of beauty that is worth your time, particularly if you don't find yourself listening to R&B too often.

These albums were not the ones I necessarily listened to the most this year. They're the ones that I still remember months after listening to them. The ones where artists took a brave step in a new direction. The ones that I think about the subway even when I'm listening to other music. Interestingly, this is the first time that women represent the vast majority of artists on the list. You might not see these folks elsewhere, but that's why this blog exists.

Here's to courage, fortitude, and solidarity in 2017 and the bold voices that will lead us.

10. Freakwater -- Scheherezade -- I had not been familiar with this band before, but they blew me away with their expansive, experimental southern Gothic flair. The intimacy in the collaboration can only come from folks who have spent twenty years playing together, which is exactly what Freakwater's been doing. It's an amazing listen.

9. Two Cow Garage -- Brand New Flag -- You might not be surprised that this is here but, with all due respect to the band, I am. It took me a while to get into the album itself even though, as always, Micah and Shane have an uncanny knack of hitting me in all of the feels. Compared to their previous work, Brand New Flag's lyrics and guitar hooks are much bolder than I was expecting. But that worked in the band's favor. Not a day has passed when an errant lyric or bar of music from this album hasn't crossed my mind. There was lots of great political music this year, but Brand New Flag is the one I can truly wave as my own.

8. Lydia Loveless -- Real -- I wrote in my original review of this album that I find that Loveless' music can be a bit inaccessible. To be honest, I think Loveless and her band are best live -- the careening energy just translates better. But Real is the best studio effort the band is put forth to date, daring listeners to follow them down paths that are usually avoided by folks who play guitar music. Real shows us a band firing at all cylinders and pushing relentlessly pushing themselves to use music to cross the bridge between their interior selves and ours.

7. M. Lockwood Porter -- How to Dream Again -- I've waxed poetic about this before. Porter's How to Dream was impressive for its restraint. The album could have easily been strident, it could have easily been a stream of oft-repeated platitudes about the system, how racism is bad, we need to stick together, etc. It's not like these things aren't true, but sometimes it's hard to care when stated too bluntly. Instead, Porter connects the personal to political in ways that should make white people, cis people, men, etc. (and particularly songwriters in all of those groups) take notes.

6. Robert Ellis -- Robert Ellis -- This was the year where alt-country decided to get weird. Sturgill, Austin Lucas, Lydia was a treat to see Americana incorporate more of what America actually sounds like (hint: not just white music.) Robert Ellis is a somewhat melodramatic (in the best way) recounting of a failed "serious" relationship and the directionlessness of one's 20s. If that's a time you're living through or, for some reason, want to relive, Ellis makes my struggles seem beautiful after all.

5.  Ana Egge and the Sentimentals -- Say That Now -- This album grew on me over time. Like Brand New Flag, it's an album that just seems to follow me around. Egge's got a gentle forcefulness to her songs that stay with you long after the last note fades. This album followed me through depression, romance, heartbreak, more depression. It's what I needed for all of those emotions, though, and for that I greatly appreciate it.

4. Kate Tempest -- Let Them Eat Chaos -- I wrote about this one not too long ago. A truly stunning piece of art that needs to be listened to from start to finish.

3. Becky Warren -- War Surplus -- Warren's a stunning songwriter -- smarts to boot and a real empathy for her characters. Soldiers are often ignored and, when written about in music, tend to be portrayed as victims at best, unrepentant messes at worst. Warren's portrayals are nuanced and sympathetic. Certainly one of the better anti-war albums out there.

2. Anna Tivel -- Heroes Waking Up -- This is just a stunning, strange, album that really will stay with you for a long time. I knew from the moment I listened to this all the way through back in the spring that it would make its way here. Tivel has a knack for storytelling, and these characters' desperation is plenty dramatic.

1. Jamila Woods -- HEAVN -- The review for this one is forthcoming, so I won't say too much about it. But just go listen to it. I have yet to hear a more compassionate and authentic recounting of depression, trauma, dissatisfaction with body image, and resistance to lopsided relationships. And the music itself is truly beautiful.

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