I know, I know it’s a little late in the game at this point for a Best Of albums list as we’re several weeks into March of 2017. I’m still so shocked by where the time is gone that I initially typed February into the title before I realized my mistake.
But since my last post, I feel like it’s time to do some catching up and to broadcast many of the thoughts I’ve had about the best of music from the last year. I get a lot of time to listen to albums these days since I’ve started working as a full-time news reporter with an equally full-time commute to match it. So it goes without saying, there’s certainly a lot of time for thinking.
But without further ado, let’s get into it. First up…
Honorable Mention: Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 3
RTJ’s latest only gets an honorable mention on this list as it’s technical wide release occurred in January of 2017. The reason it gets a mention though is, as they’ve done in the past the duo of Killer Mike and El-P dropped their latest for free early on their website in 2016 as a “Christmas Fucking Miracle” to hip hop fans everywhere.
Not only did it make for a great gift for (some) of the whole family, but in a year marred by the passing of many beloved cultural figures and a Trump presidency it couldn’t have emerged at a more needed time. RTJ 3 is a mesmerizing, unrelenting sledgehammer of an album that’s political without being preachy, fiery with a greater maturity, and as cohesively strong as anything they’ve done to date.
Plus, despite the maturity it still knows when to be an absolute smartass. You’re gonna be seeing this one on the 2017 list no question.
10. Brent Cobb, Shine on Rainy Day
In the last few years, super-producer and rising Nashville music icon Dave Cobb has had a massive string of hit albums with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Anderson East, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the brilliant country music compilation Southern Family. Well if you listened thoroughly enough to Family, you might have also heard Cobb’s musician cousin Brent.
Much like Stapleton, Brent Cobb was originally more widely-known in music circles for writing songs that went on to large scale success with other country music artists. And also similar to Stapleton’s 2015 smash Traveller, Shine on Rainy Day is Cobb’s chance to finally shine the spotlight on himself.
Rainy Day is subtle, melodic, heart-wrenching and just oozes goddamn talent. Cobb hits the ground running from the first track, and whether he’s solo or going with a full band he’s unstoppably one of the best things happening in country music today.
Whatever he sings, I believe in every note of it.
9. Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep
Listening to Bonnie Raitt is like going home again or sitting down for lunch with a long-unseen friend. Not just in the sense of reconnecting to the comfort of her music or the place it’s had in my life, but also in just how timeless her style and voice has remained despite the fact she’s now well into her late 60’s.
Even after 40 years of making music, Raitt still shreds like a Zen blues master on the guitar and sends chills up my spine with her husky rasp of a vocal. She hasn’t lost a step, and Dig In Deep just emphasizes that at every turn. Whether it’s covering INXS with “Need You Tonight”, breaking out the full blues brash, or bringing it down to the heart and soul of “Undone” or “The Ones We Couldn’t Be”, Bonnie Raitt is just as much a force still to be reckoned with as any time in her history.
The blues is still alive and well.
8. Butch Walker, Stay Gold
Butch Walker first broke into my consciousness during a joint tour with Ryan Adams in which Butch was promoting songs that later became one of my favorite albums of 2015 Afraid of Ghosts. I felt like Ghosts showed Walker in a more vulnerable position, ready to ditch the uptempo rock n roll abandon in favor of a singer songwriter who could let his songs speak without a guitar workout to guide them.
And while Stay Gold does return to Walker’s more familiar center, it’s yet another reminder of why this is what Butch does best. Songs like the title track, “Irish Exit” and “East Coast Girl” are just unhinged levels of gleeful fun, while “Descending” with country starlet Ashley Monroe still shows the songwriter Ghosts put such an emphasis on.
Cause you gotta stay gold, pony boy.
7. Bon Iver, 22, A Million
Justin Vernon’s mysteriously titled (and mysteriously coded) return to the spotlight as Bon Iver after 5 years away on 22, A Million may have been as equally welcomed as rejected depending on who you ask. The record found Vernon taking the more experimental notions of prior release Bon Iver, Bon Iver and letting it become the main focus.
Gone were most of the guitars and folk-rock sentiments, replaced by an almost Kanye West-like lean towards synths, samples and a sense of struggle in one’s own skin. It takes time to grow into and listen to all the layers on 22, but I can tell you with the right ear and some patience it makes sense. Added kudos to Vernon for sampling one of the great under-appreciated Irish folk singers Fionn Regan on this record too.
6. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
When A Tribe Called Quest rolled out their first record in 18 years in 2016 with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, I was immediately intrigued enough to listen given the musical backstory as well as the hype behind their long-awaited return. As an utter newcomer still to both the rap and hip-hop world I was not at all familiar with Tribe’s musical past, but the story of it all was hook enough for me. And the hooks didn’t stop there.
We Got It From Here… keeps up hip hop’s reputation as music’s most blunt purveyors of truth. Whether political (“We The People”, “The Space Program”), pointed (“Kids”, “Melatonin”), or sentimental (“Lost Somebody”), folk music has a long way to go to reclaim its Woody Guthrie roots from the genre that’s taken Woody to the next level of protest.
Oh, and don’t miss “Solid Wall of Sound”. Wrapped in a slinky groove, an Elton John sample from Benny & The Jets and sinuous rapping lines it’s one of many standouts in this standout of a return.
5. Brian Fallon, Painkillers
Following The Gaslight Anthem’s 2014 release of Get Hurt, the album received a less than stellar reaction from fans and critics. At one time my girlfriend and I claimed we were the only people who actually liked what that record did. But still, it raised the question: did frontman Brian Fallon and the rest of the band need some time apart?
Well take time apart they did, and that led to the Butch Walker-produced Fallon solo album Painkillers. It felt like the most faithful pursuit of Fallon’s original aborted solo effort with Molly & The Zombies, as well as a truly honest expression of the loss of Fallon’s marriage that didn’t quite hit an emotional resonance on Get Hurt. And while the Springsteen elements of Gaslight still shine through (“A Wonderful Life”), a Lou Reed “Pale Blue Eyes”undercurrent of gentle ambition flies here too.
I think it was the best career choice Fallon could have possibly made for himself.
4. BJ Barham, Rockingham
Speaking of Bruce Springsteen, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham took a slice of Springsteen’s American storyteller dirge Nebraska and adapted it in 2016 into his own realm of lovers and losers on his first solo record Rockingham. Unlike Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem, Rockingham is less of a need for a break and more for a switch of tone.
It’s hard to imagine this aspect of Barham’s creativity meshing with his traditionally country-rock outfit American Aquarium, so what better place to let these songs breathe? As solo tracks songs on Rockingham are free to tell their stories with vague tracings of guitars, bass, banjo and brush drums giving the words their distance. It gives Barham free reign to become his characters and live out their stories for you in his world-weary growl, and that’s the best place to live within this record.
Its true folk music doing devastatingly strong work.
3: Hard Working Americans, Rest In Chaos
I still consider Todd Snider to be one of the greatest artist recommendations I’ve ever been randomly granted. The lengthy catalogue of brilliantly strong music is one thing, and the on stage stories are CERTAINLY another (there’s quite a book that can fill you in on that in fact). But what I’ve also really enjoyed is Snider passing me an invitation into another genre of music: jam bands.
Of course Dave Matthews Band has helped me with that a lot already, but the Snider-helmed Hard Working Americans are right up there as well. With heavy hitters like Neal Casal, Dave Schools and Duane Trucks in tow, HWA went from a one-off covers album project debut into a full fledged, hard-hitting followup in 2016 called Rest In Chaos. This album not only rocks and knows how to jam, but are some of the closest lyricisms that touch on the collapse of Todd Snider’s recent marriage.
I mention it because I feel it fuels a greater passion here, and Rest in Chaos reaps the benefits.
Now TECHNICALLY the album 25 had already come out by late November 2015, but it feels like Adele has remained such a part of our musical consciousness through 2016 (and into 2017) that she’s worth including one more time. Some might say that 25 is weaker than her prior albums, but I beg to differ towards the opposite. 25 not only continues to flash Adele’s startling consistency in her recorded work, but shows that she’s capable of adapting herself in ways that continue to adhere to the roots of her style.
And true, while I could see Adele play a simple instrument and croon beautifully on every record every time out, variation is the key after a point. Some fans might not see eye to eye with that, but I feel like 25 is her most appealing record to date that’s rife with hooks, piano lines, smoky sentiment, and that signature voice that could turn water into wine and back again.
And “When We Were Young”… one of the best songs in her whole catalogue. Take that to the bank.
1. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Much like several of the other artists I covered on this list, we conclude this Top 10 for 2016 with yet another musician who experimented by taking their sound to the next level. And no one better exemplified that within this past year than Sturgill Simpson and his Grammy-nominated record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.
Written on behalf of Simpson’s still newly-born son, Sailor’s Guide feels like an almost voyeuristic look at a father trying to prepare his son for the world he still has yet to experience. And I only say voyeuristic because it does feel like such a deeply personal reveal in a style that travels far from Simpson’s country rock familiars and lands deep into string sections and horn fills. And while some fans of Simpson have expressed relief to see him ending this period of his music, I’m just glad we got to witness how truly versatile Simpson is as a musician.
Look no further if you wish to see one of Nashville’s truly great last of the outlaws. And not at all a tough choice for this year’s #1 slot.