It’s that time of year again, time to review my favorite music from the year. This last twelve months has been particularly difficult to strum through due to not having Last.fm on my phone since March. Last.fm keeps track of all your played music retroactively, however lately I’ve been playing significantly more music through my Sonos system at home which doesn’t work with the app to my knowledge. I need to look into getting the application working again on my phone and through Sonos, but this year it’s out. Due to that, this is a much more manual review than data centric.
This was another really good year for music generally. I’m listening to fewer albums, I think partly because podcasts are becoming a much more prominent use of my time. They are an excellent way to learn about new things while in the car or at work while doing otherwise menial tasks like updating spreadsheets, etc. Music isn’t becoming less important, but it is getting harder to keep up with all the albums from bands I used to listen to more frequently and the new bands discovered in the course of the year. The fact that my year end lists reflect albums from different periods and outside the sequential chronology of a musician is a good thing as it provides more of a rounded view on the content over time.
TLDR: great year, tough to choose, here we go:
Chvrches – Every Open Eye: Another gem from the synth keyboard rock set from the United Kingdom. This band puts out rich synth pop with many layers, and most songs are of such catchy, replay value high intensity that it’s surprising they aren’t top ten. Tough cut, but it was a good music year.
Okkervil River - Away: Likely an album I’ll return to in the future, Away was a beautiful deviation from the previous Okkervil records, due to altering the band. Will Sheff compiled some truly amazing songs and lyrics in this one. He believes it to be his best record. I don’t currently feel that way over a few earlier records, but have to feel this album will outlast them. Okkervil River RIP, Comes Indiana Through The Smoke and a few others are timeless. That is very difficult to do.
Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds In Country Music: The first modern country album I’d bought in, well ever really unless you count alt country rock bands…and I don’t. I’d heard some rumblings about his 2016 relase A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, listened to a bit of it on Amazon but never bought it for some reason. This album was on sale about a month back and I figured it a good time to get in. It’s really well done and was a prompt for my last tangent on music throughout my life simply for the fact that country hasn’t had a prominent place, yet that seems like it will change if artists such as this exist and put out material. Good music is good regardless of genre. I have a feeling his 2016 release, by most accounts his best work, may find it’s way on to my 2017 list.
Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN: Heady, sultry singing and rock music from a new voice with lots to add. Songs touching at the core of human emotions in relationships while still jamming out a bit.
The official list of top ten albums from the year:
#10: Aesop Rock, The Impossible Kid - Ian Bavitz is aging, much like the rest of us. Seems unlikely for this one, a veritable walking dictionary explaining concepts in crossword rap, colored by mood altering backgrounds wont to alter at any moment, for the better or worse depending on the direction he wants to guide you. Rap is a young mans game, it would seem. Of course, to a certain extent, music is as well. Aes is aging extremely well. He is human and copes with multiple issues on record. He brings you in and shares difficulty, the effort needed to move on, and more. The Impossible Kid may not be his best album, but it’s as good as any of them, if that makes any sense. His craft is mastered at this point, he’s just picking his spots. And you shouldn’t miss any of it.
#9: NOFX, First Ditch Effort – A long time favorite. Definitely in my top five bands all time. They put together another punk gem, rife with funny subject matter that is always worth listening to. It’s catchy punk, but Fat Mike pulls no punches either–he’s still at odds with a great deal of American policies and many who promote them.
This is their best effort since Coaster for certain, and perhaps better than Wolves in Wolves Clothing. Probably only a good buy for someone who already likes the genre.
#8: Modern Baseball, Holy Ghost – This is the first album of this band I’ve purchased. It took quite a few listens to get into the thick of it. Once I did, it was pretty obvious why so many people think they are the next big thing in alt rock. It’s fast, energetic music yes, but it’s also honest and forthright about what’s happening in the lives of the band members. They wear their emotional hearts on their sleeves and put out an honest record with enough variety to keep you coming back.
I’ll likely purchase some other albums to see what else they’ve cooked up, but the quality for this album is very good while still being a high energy work. There aren’t enough of those bands right now.
#7: Bon Iver, 22, A Million - Justin Vernon has been a favorite of mine for some time. Regardless of the project, from Bon Iver to Volcano Choir to his other multiple collaborations, his works are always very good. I heard this album in its entirety at Eaux Claires Music Festival in the summer, and at the time stood under rapture for roughly an hour as he put on one of the better live performances in my recollection. At that point in time it seemed this was destined to be album of the year. It took another few months for it to arrive officially, and at that point something was lost. The album is good, but there are enough points of disconnect throughout that as an entire work it does not seem as good as either of his prior releases. Many will disagree with this thought as it has been cited as his best album.
This is still an excellent record. The opening track is one of the better introductions to a piece of music in recent memory. The risks taken, although sometimes altering the cadence of the record negatively, not outside merit. The final track is also extremely good. Everything in between is interesting and strong musically speaking. Hopefully, Bon Iver continues to put out music and I’ll be able to judge this new record against future albums; it’s divisive for me in that the changes from album to album are difficult to discern. The bottom line is that, though this was an interesting work, it didn’t get as many repetitions as it should have and I can’t shake that.
#6: Elliot Smith, Either/Or – I’d gotten into Elliot Smith a few years back, actually quite a few years back considering it as around the time I began dating Teresa. I’d picked up his self titled offering, A Basement on the Hill, and XO. I did not pick up Either / Or, and that is unfortunate as in my esteem it’s probably his best album! Elliot was renowned for his songwriting most, his musicianship shortly thereafter and a very soft singing voice was his calling card. Elliot Smith made truly beautiful music. The reason I stopped listening to him was mostly that the sadness of the songs occasionally put me in a mood I wasn’t aiming for. It says nothing of the product itself, however that’s the main reason his albums and songs aren’t played more often. This album was EXTREMELY well put together and basically played one month straight (March) as my wait for the next album on this list extended. Just a great album and if you’re a fan of good singer songwriters, an easy choice.
#5: Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield, Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliot Smith - It was actually somewhat of a fluke that I’d purchased the Elliot Smith record; it just happened to be on sale at the right time. This album, however, I’d been waiting for for roughly six months since getting wind of it via the interwebbery. Seth Avett is the lead singer of the Avett Brothers and Jessica Lea Mayfield is a singer songwriter with a beautiful voice and Southern accent which is incredibly endearing. A fan of both of their works, and Elliot Smith’s songwriting in general, I couldn’t wait to hear what they did with his catalog. They did not disappoint. This album is one of the better offerings for late nights and a drink I’ve ever heard. It’s very much like Smith’s early material, however drawn out with the vocals of both these accomplished artists. Front to back, the whole of it is well done and an absolute must for any Smith fan. Strangely, it did not receive a great deal of notoriety–most likely due to being a covers album, from non mainstream artists of a deceased non mainstream artist. Regardless, it’s a welcome addition.
#4: Conor Oberst, Ruminations – Conor has made many appearances on my list of best albums over the years. Two years ago he had my top listing for 2014, and this year he put out Ruminations, which actually might be a better album overall, although it’s a close call at that. He created this record after having a cyst found in his brain while on tour with the Decaparacidos, whose last album was #7 last year. This album is completely stripped down, it’s really only Conor, a piano, harmonica and guitar. It’s all focused on his stellar writing and sparse organizations of music which I assume he can play all on his lonesome in front of a crowd (hopefully he’ll tour this release.) Like most of his music, this is a fantastic piece of art which is listenable over and over due to the writing and composition.
#3: Willie Nelson, The Essential Willie Nelson – It’s kind of unfair to have an all time great like Willie on this list, because in all reality his greatest hits album would almost unanimously be voted the best of all included offerings by most. However, since it’s actually a listing of my favorite albums in a year, it’s all good. And I mean that about Willie–I’ve always liked his music, but this double album is so full of amazing music that he’s probably joined my top ten all time. I’ll make another list of that some other day I’m feeling ambitious.
I’m not usually a big fan of “essential” or “best of” albums. Listening to albums put out a certain point in time from an artist is so telling of what their doing and their evolution. It’s the best way to listen to music in my esteem. I own another four albums of Willie. They are all pretty darn good. But he has so much music put out over so many decades that my eagerness to go through and find all the best picks waned. The same goes for a lot of artists in the classic country genre like Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Love the music, but not enough to buy all those albums. So in this case the essential press was the best choice. And it’s amazing. You can listen to every one of these forty plus songs and enjoy every minute. Nelson’s voice is distinct, comforting, challenging, and reminiscent. He’s like no other artist. If you’re a fan of anything you’ve heard of his, this is a great purchase. I gave a copy to my father after purchasing and I’m sure he’s enjoying every bit as much as I did.
#2: Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial - This was a random Amazon purchase. I read reviews. I clicked purchase. It took me quite a few listens to really absorb what was going on in this, despite it being a pretty straight forward guitar based indie rock album. Will Toledo is the bands originator, lead vocalist and guitarist. He’s been writing and performing music for some time now and his music has progressively grown more annunciated (I purchased his “Teens of Style” precursor to this release and the amount of deliberate distortion to vocals is notable, as well as the instruments themselves) over time. Each song on this intricate, epic work is dense musically with well thought out play styles. The lyrics are open and somewhat meandering in a deliberate sort of way, showcasing the life of a young musician and the good and bad choices he makes. It’s an introspective trip. When I first started listening to this, it was the spring/summer and I’d recently begun biking down to our local grocery to pick up our weekly provisions. Feeling the sun rain down on my back while hearing each of these tracks play was one of the best parts of my year.
If you like indy rock, guitars and an open look at life as you pass through it, this is the best offering of the year. Toledo is going to be a force to come, if this is any indication.
#1: Frankie Cosmos, Next Thing / Zentropy / Fit Me In – This is a small cop out in that I’m listing three albums in place of one actual album, but it was necessitated out of listening to both full length albums such a large amount it was very difficult to distinguish them in a ranking. The third EP, Fit Me In, is also great and a nice change up. So, where to start? Frankie Cosmos in the namesake of Greta Kline, a young musician based in New York. This is indie rock on the softer side. Greta has a beautiful voice and most of her songs are short bursts of poetic thought processes on varying subject matter. She takes interesting risks in writing and in musicianship, using acapella and backing vocals in ways that entrance you. The first of these three albums purchased was her latest, Next Thing, on the recommendation of Pitchfork. My first real listen was a rainy bike ride to my friends in South Minneapolis, and it was one of the most enjoyable rainy days of my life. The sound of this album is unique. Musically it somewhat reminds of earlyish Belle and Sebastian in it’s simplicity, but combined with Greta’s voice it creates something uncanny. Her vocals range from a monotone base where she exists beautifully, but scales upward to a thin, almost raspy octave where she nears colored whispers. Unfortunately, my capability to describe her sound likely have a negative effect when the opposite is meant–her singing is truly lovely, and when coupled with her musicianship and writing, well it creates an entirely new world to become lost in.
After immersing myself in that album for the better part of a month, it was time to listen to other offerings from the band. They have a large back catalog on Band Camp. The easiest reentry point was Zentropy, their first full length. Upon first sample, I wasn’t sure it would have the same polish so enjoyed on Next Thing, but that was quickly dispelled after a few listens. Zentropy very well may be a better album in it’s simplicity; a walk in the woods with the sun shining on my shoulders listening to it is a stand out memory. The writing and music are every bit as good as their newest album and I’m honestly uncertain where to tell anyone to start.
Finally, in dire hopes of adding to the Frankie Cosmos collection, I picked up Fit Me In – which is a deviation from the other two works in that it’s more focused on electronica and synth pop. There are only four songs, but they are fun and work very well interspersed with their other albums. At this point, I mostly just shuffle all their albums together and enjoy. Greta is my artist of the year, and her band’s albums will always make 2016 a standout. I cannot wait to hear what they to next. Music keeps you young.