Here’s my list of the albums I enjoyed most this year. I’ll just note, as I usually do, that these choices reflect my fondness for roots-y music, especially Americana. But as you’ll see, my interests extend beyond that. Let me know, of course, if anything catches your ear.
10. Orphée, Jóhann Jóhannsson — This set of moody, impressionistic sketches from the well-loved Icelandic composer was the soundtrack to much of my 2016. Highly recommended!
9. Cleveland Summer Nights, Wink Burcham — Oklahoma comes through again this year with a real contender. On Cleveland Summer Nights, Burcham gives you the tour, too. For instance, you can hear near-textbook Tulsa Sound on songs like “Case of the Blues.” But it’s the folk and honky-tonk sounds that kept me coming back. Highlights: “I’ll Never Leave the Honky Tonks” and the title track.
8. Christian Kjellvander’s A Village: Natural Light — What if I said that today’s greatest country singer was from Sweden? What if I said he had a new album?
7. Por Favor by Brett Dennen — Fair warning: Dennen’s voice is quirky and, well, (like every review ever written about him says) an acquired taste. But I’ve acquired it. And that voice pairs awfully well with this set of relatively adult, not-so-upbeat songs. His best album yet? I’d say so.
6. Mount Moriah’s How to Dance — I put Mount Moriah’s second album, Miracle Temple, on my Best of 2013 list, so it’s clear that I was already a fan. But I found some real surprises on How to Dance, not least among them just how much more comfortable Heather McEntire sounds. In 2013, I thought of her as a bit of a hipster who was trying on/out, if successfully, a country voice. She owns that voice now. Highlights: “Calvander,” “Baby Blue,” and the title track.
5. Good Advice by Basia Bulat — In the past, I’d always admired Bulat’s pretty voice. I’m enjoying it now, perhaps because the songs on Good Advice are her best ever; they’re smart, relatable, and just poppy enough to bury themselves—in a good way!—in your skull. I hope this is a breakthrough album for Bulat, a Canadian who isn’t nearly as beloved in the States as she ought to be. Check out: “La La Lie,” “Let Me In,” and “Fool.”
4. Buenaventura, La Santa Cecilia — I don’t know southern California all that well, but this album is what my mind wants it to sound like—a glorious mash-up of Spanglish, rock, norteño, pop, accordion, R&B, conjunto, and on and on. And the vocals on Buenaventura, especially from lead singer Marisol Hernández, are beautiful and infectious. It’s hard to choose favorite tracks from an album this strong, but you can’t go wrong with “Nunca Más,” “I Won’t Cry for You,” and “Sucede.” Aside: Seeing La Santa Cecilia (upstairs) at Philly’s World Café Live was my favorite concert experience of 2016. I didn’t leave my chair, but—like everyone else in the room—I was dancing.
3. Robert Ellis by Robert Ellis — Ellis’s debut, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, was my favorite album in 2014, so I had high hopes for this follow-up. Expectations exceeded! The new album rests on a quality set of songs—written largely from the point of view of a heartbreaker. And Ellis’s quirky delivery is as charming as ever. Swoon. Highlights: “Perfect Strangers,” “California,” and “You’re Not the One.”
2. Drive-By Truckers’ American Band — I’m not going to get into the politics of the album (you’ll have to buy me a beer to get into that!), but it’s obvious that DBT is energized. The hard-driving guitar matches perfectly with the topical, passionate lyrics. I didn’t need any more proof that DBT is a national treasure, but, well, here it is. Standout tracks: “Ramon Casiano,” “Surrender under Protest,” and “Ever South.”
1. Steve Reich by Third Coast Percussion — I have a real thing for percussion ensembles, and I have another thing for so-called “minimalist” composers like Steve Reich. So I was probably destined to love Third Coast’s survey of Reich’s pieces for percussion. The entire album is a treat, but I really can’t resist Third Coast’s treatment of Reich’s Mallet Quartet. There’s a warmth there to the sounds that you don’t always get with Reich. Highly, highly recommended!
Honorable Mentions: Modern Country, William Tyler; Alejandro Escovedo’s Burn Something Beautiful; St. Lenox’s Ten Hymns from My American Gothic; and The Very Last Day, Parker Millsap.
I always post a list of my favorite albums of the year—I’ll do that shortly, I promise—but I begin this year with a list of my favorite songs. (These are in alphabetical order. It took me a week to rank my Top 10 albums, and I just can’t bring myself to tackle another ranking project.)
“California,” Robert Ellis
“Drone Bomb Me,” ANOHNI
“Gardenia,” Iggy Pop
“Hands of Time,” Margo Price
“Heaven,” Lydia Loveless
“I Got off the Bus,” Richmond Fontaine
“I’ll Be Your Woman,” St. Paul & the Broken Bones
“I’ll Never Leave the Honky Tonks,” Wink Burcham
“I’ve Been Drinkin’ More,” Jason James
“La La Lie,” Basia Bulat
“Marfa Lights,” Paul Cauthen
“Moon River,” Mark Kozelek
“Morning Blues,” Parker Millsap
“No Problem,” Chance the Rapper
“Old Friends,” Pinegrove
“Ramon Casiano,” Drive-By Truckers
“Simple Song,” John Paul White
“Steve McQueen,” Brian Fallon
“Thurgood Marshall,” St. Lenox
“Young in All the Wrong Ways,” Sara Watkins
If there’s one tradition around here, it’s that I procrastinate and procrastinate (ok, and procrastinate) but eventually get out just about one dang post every year. Here it is! Woo hoo!
Given my track record (and, ahem, the title), you surely know that this post reveals my favorite 10 albums of the year. As you also probably already know, I’m particularly a fan of Americana, honky tonk, Red Dirt, and roots-y music of many stripes. Those interests are reflected here, of course. Listener, beware.
Here are the albums I enjoyed most in 2015.
10. Derek Charke: Tundra Songs, Kronos Quartet – The Kronos Quartet has been bringing new sounds to listeners for over 40(!) years. This year, in an album featuring Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, whose own album made my Top 10 last year, Kronos takes us to the tundra. The pieces were composed by Derek Charke, and they marry Kronos’s discipline, Tagaq’s sensibility, and field recordings from, erm, the North. My favorite piece is probably “Cercle du nord III.”
9. Lucero’s All a Man Should Do – Lucero is an alt-country band from Memphis, and this is its 11th studio album. It’s one of the band’s best. The gravelly vocals of Ben Nichols, Lucero’s lead singer, pair so well with this set of slow songs—many of them about relationships and, well, love. I’m smitten. Check out “I Woke Up in New Orleans” and “Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles.”
8. Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians by Ensemble Signal – Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is one of the landmarks of 20th-century music, and this is probably the best recording of it. The piece demands virtuosity and energy, and Brad Lubman’s Ensemble Signal brings both. After I spend an hour with this CD, I feel alive. And, well, sorta self-actualized. If a CD can do that for you, you ought to listen, right?
7. James McMurtry’s Complicated Game – McMurtry is, of course, a respected singer-songwriter, and Complicated Game is largely an album about love, a traditional domain of the singer-songwriter. But the love on this album is not what you usually hear from the singer-songwriter. Nearly every narrator on Complicated Game is some kind of man’s man’s. To be sure: By “man,” I mean something on the order of “traditionally masculine.” Your—or my—mileage may vary, of course. But, anyway, among all the love songs on Game are references to motorcycles, hunting, cussing, blood, roadkill, taking a piss, fishing, Red Bull, and reenlisting. That sounds like it might be a bit much. But it’s not. In the end, these are really stories that anyone can to relate to—even if, like me, you’re not hoping to take another doe during deer season. Personal favorites: “Copper Canteen” and “Long Island Sound,” a song about a Tulsa boy who finds himself living the suburban life on Long Island.
6. Old Time Reverie by Mipso – Mipso is a young bluegrass band from North Carolina. And—trust me here—it’s a band on the verge. On the verge of Something Big™. (Hey, the band was featured in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade!) Like all good bluegrass bands, Mipso’s harmonies are tight. And the musicianship is exquisite, too. But even if you aren’t drawn to any of that (wha?!), consider the strong songwriting. “Marianne,” which opens Reverie, is about the dilemmas faced by a young interracial couple in the South in the 1960s. “Momma” movingly considers the scars left by the untimely death of mandolin player Jacob Short’s mother.
5. Two Universes, Feufollet -Now that I think about it, Feufollet has a little bit in common with Mipso. Feufollet’s members are young, too, and, like Mipso, it’s devoted to roots-y music. But as the title of Feufollet’s new album suggests, it has its feet planted in two traditions—Cajun music and Americana. Like its predecessor album, the Grammy-nominated En Couleurs, Two Universes retains its footing in Cajun tradition (often with a modern twist). But, apparently spurred on by the addition of fiddler Kelli Jones-Savoy, Feufollet has taken a turn toward Americana, too. The result is delightful. Although I’d probably prefer an album that was a little more Cajun than Americana—we get the reverse here—there’s no resisting the lively honky-tonk vibe that Jones-Savoy brings to her vocals. Chris Stafford, the band’s original lead singer, remains a strong force, too.
4. How to Die in the North, BC Camplight – One of the best concerts I ever saw was given by BC Camplight at the Tin Angel, a tiny venue in my Philly neighborhood. It was like Motown exploded all over that little room, and I mean that in the best possible sense. That was years ago, and, fittingly, How to Die in the North actually sounds quite a bit different. Since that concert, BC Camplight—who is actually Brian Christinzio, a Philly/S. Jersey native—has moved to Manchester and sorta restarted his career. [Disclaimer: Christinzio and I are the mildest of Facebook acquaintances.] But Die in the North still sounds like the 60s and 70s, if remolded, in the best possible way, for now. It’s downright beautiful pop music. Highlights: “Just Because I Love You” and “Why Doesn’t Anybody Fall in Love Anymore.”
3. The Blade by Ashley Monroe – Good God, why doesn’t country radio still sound like this? Monroe is the Loretta or Tammy or Dolly for our age. Really. She’s country, sings like the devil, and knows when a song, probably one about heartbreak, will grab you. Highly, highly recommended. Standouts: “On to Something Good,” “Bombshell,” and the title track.
2. Darren Hayman’s Chants for Socialists – And now for something completely different… Hayman, a British singer-songwriter, set poetry of William Morris, a 19th-century activist, to music. And no matter what you think about 19th-century socialism—this is not the place for a discussion of that—the result is stunning. Hayman sets a mood and commits himself to it. The chants are beautiful and musical. They’re what a 19th-century socialist would want to hear if she were reborn in this century. Highlights: “May Day 1894” and “The Day Is Coming.”
1. High on Tulsa Heat by John Moreland – I was transfixed the first time I heard High on Tulsa Heat, the third proper album from Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland. His lyrics are raw, both confessional and unsentimental, and they pair so well with his raspy delivery. You can’t hear Tulsa Heat without feeling something real, maybe loneliness or abject heartbreak, and how often can you say that about an album? I’m an Oklahoman, of course, so the reference points—the “tornado” of a girlfriend, the “Indian Nation sky,” the “Tulsa heat”—resonate. But you won’t need to pay heed to the Okie Talking Points™ to appreciate Tulsa Heat. If you’re living and breathing and feeling, you’ll recognize yourself in Moreland’s music. Highly, highly recommended. Standouts: “Losing Sleep Tonight,” “Cleveland County Blues,” “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” and the title track.
P.S. Moreland gave one of the best concerts I heard in 2015, too. If you have a chance to see him live, grab it.
Honorable Mentions: Jimmy LaFave’s The Night Tribe; A Forest of Arms by Great Lake Swimmers; Fast Forward by Joe Jackson; Bird Calls, Rudresh Mahanthappa; For One to Love by Cécile McLorin Salvant; and Son Lux’s Bones. Dust-to-Digital’s Excavated Shellac: Reeds, a collection of reed sounds from 78 rpm records from around the world, was a real contender, too.