My Favorite Albums of 2016

While 2016 was a hard year, there was a lot of really great music. I have curated a list of what I consider to be the best tracks of the year, but there only a few albums that I enjoy in their entirety. As I listen to these artists, I realize that what I appreciate most about each of them is that they each come firmly established within a genre (country, R&B, Rock, folk, pop, and hip hop), and each of them transcends it to claim a unique voice and style. I’m attracted to that uniqueness, as well as a profundity in lyrics and musical expression. Here are the albums of 2016 that I can’t get enough of, all wonderful from start to finish:

Tedeschi Trucks BandLet Me Get By

I’ve been listening to tracks from this album since they started releasing them late last year. The entire album was released in January, and it has really been my soundtrack for 2016. Perhaps this music has helped me get through the huge cultural losses of 2016 (Tedeschi Trucks has a connection to David Bowie through their bassist, Tim Lefebvre), and they played Bowie’s Oh You Pretty Things). I love this album. One of my favorite tracks is the song Just as Strange, which, in concert, Derek Trucks will open with a riff from the George Harrison song Within you and Without you, and it’s just beautiful.

Sturgill SimpsonA Sailor’s Guide to Earth

This album has so much going on. It’s fascinating to listen to. It has one nautical theme that threads throughout, and it’s a father’s attempt to welcome his first child to the world and pass on some wisdom. Thank goodness he chose to share it with the rest of us. I love that Sturgill Simpson insists on being his own person, defined by no music genre, though solidly based in country music. His cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom has the twang of a pedal steel guitar to establish that this is his interpretation of the grunge rock classic. It’s one of those covers that sounds so different, yet recognizable because it’s so familiar. He makes it his own while paying homage and respect to the original.

SolangeSeat at the Table

This album is a positive and empowering message, with lyrics that acknowledge personal struggle, ultimately delivering a prescription of self love and self care. There is strength and gentleness with layers of harmony that on tracks like Cranes in the Sky are almost cacophonous, but stay together in beautiful melody. There are interludes between some of the tracks, with voices talking about black pride, and each one is artfully woven into the songs on either side. Other albums have attempted this, with the effect of feeling like an interruption. Here the interludes flow and feel seemless from track to track. The artful weaving of the positive messages of the lyrics, the stories of the interludes, and the beautiful harmonies is what makes the album cohesive and a pleasure to hear from beginning to end.

Neco Case, kd lang, Laura Veirs – case/lang/veirs

As a long-time fan of both kd lang and Nico Case, I was anxiously awaiting the release of this album, and it didn’t disappoint. I’m not familiar with Laura Veirs music, but I’m very glad she joined the others for this unlikely collaboration. I was delightfully surprised when I heard about them coming together for this. I love each of their voices, but they are so different, both in voice quality and the style of music. Each singer has a chance to shine, taking turns singing lead while the other two back them up. I never would have put them together, but it really works.

Margo PriceMidwest Farmer’s Daughter 

This album is classic country music, and it has deservedly received a lot of critical acclaim. With songs about being hard up, hard drinking, and doing hard time, all sung with the strength of a survivor, these songs are a collection of stories that will make you laugh or say “hell, yes!” Many are comparing her to Loretta Lynn, and that influence is certainly present. But while steeped in the country tradition, Price has her own style. This being her debut album, I look forward to her future projects.

Sia This is Acting

Sia is arguably the greatest current pop singer/song writer. While there are a few pop artists that I enjoy listening to, few would ever make my top ten albums list. Sia is the exception to that rule. I have been a fan since the first time I heard her with the closing song of the Six Feet Under series finale. Since then she has had numerous pop hits of her own, as well as penning songs for other artists. For a pop singer, Sia is deep and emotional, simultaneously able to capture life’s hardships and celebrations, sometimes in the same song. This is Acting has so may good songs! And it seems to me it is such an appropriate album for 2016, with lyrics that address loss, challenges, and resistance to negativity. In the song Reaper, she defiantly addresses death, saying “Don’t come for me today, I’m feeling good, let me savour it.” 2016 was a hard year, yet we persevere knowing we have more to do in this life.

Fantastic NegritoThe Last Days of Oakland

This album may have a special place in my heart because I spent my young adulthood in Oakland, CA.. He successfully captures so much of Oakland’s spirit, and the reality of what makes it simultaneously a wonderful and challenging place to live. The music is gritty and funky, and he artfully weaves into the music the voices of its denizens. I love his story, too. In 2015, he was the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert competition, and though he’s been making music for some time this is what put him on the map. After years of personal struggle, this album is his rising from the ashes. I hope to hear more from him.

Courtney Marie AndrewsHonest Life

At 27, this woman sings like an old soul. Her voice and songwriting reflect wisdom beyond her years. The album opens with Rookie Dreaming, and her voice soars with richness and strength with emotional expression. A review on NPR posits that “Somehow, between being born in Arizona in 1990 and moving to Washington in 2011, singer, songwriter and guitarist Courtney Marie Andrews seems to have spent time in early-’70s Laurel Canyon.” While I don’t like to compare musicians to each other, I can’t help but hear Joni Mitchell there. The music is more straight-forward folk/country, and the lyrics are intelligent, conveying feeling and story. Sometimes music has to grow on me, I need to hear it a few times before I can say that I like it. The first time I heard this album I knew it would be one of my favorites of 2016.

Obsessive Listening

Music of note so far in 2016

I have been busy trying to keep up with all of the new music that has been released thus far in 2016. It is not easy to do when you work full time! I have been eagerly adding songs to my 2016 Spotify play list, and my collection of songs for the decade has grown to over 300. And I keep finding tracks that were produced in previous years that I missed. Like I said, it’s really hard to keep up!

Here are some of the many highlights that I have been obsessively listening to so far this year.

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By  My favorite album thus far in 2016. In fact, this will likely be one of my favorite all-time desert island albums. It has been in regular rotation at my house since its release. And I usually only choose one or two tracks from one album to add to my favorites lists, but I love each and every one, so they all appear on my 2016 list and my decade list. Susan Tedeschi (vocals and guitar) and spouse Derek Trucks (guitar) have assembled a group of musicians who are talented enough to stand on their own. Together, they are a powerhouse. Watch the whole band here on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert.

Bonnie Raitt – Gypsy in Me She’s still Rockin! I love Bonnie.

Mavis Staples – Livin on a High Note This is like an industry tribute album for her. It’s a collaboration with some more currently popular and respected names in music right now, each paying homage to a legend, a hero to many. Her voice is more sandy and gritty, and even more soulful than before.

I got to see Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt in concert together a few years ago. It was one of those profound moments in life, two legends performing together who you know they absolutely love and respect each other. I get chills thinking about it.

Ray Lamontagne – Ouroboros – Very psychedelic for Ray, suitable for his ethereal voice.In early April, he played the entire album at the World Cafe here in Philly. You can listen to the whole concert, and watch this video of Hey, No Pressure.

Dylan Leblanc – Cautionary Tale – Very pleasant to the ear, similar style to Ray Lamontagne.

Lucius – Good Grief Fun pop music. I don’t love the single they’ve been playing on the radio so much, Born Again Teen. It’s okay, but I think there are much better tracks on this album, like All Mighty Gosh.

Single Notes

ANOHNI – Drone Bomb Me – The video for this is just devastating. ANOHNI’s voice is haunting. This song has been described as and ” indictment of the drone campaigns carried out by the United States and elsewhere, delivered from the perspective of a young girl whose family has been killed in a drone strike.” She has confirmed that she will release a new album on May 6, Hoplessness. A tangential opinion here: She really should have won the Oscar for best song.  She absolutely should have been invited to perform on the show. What a missed opportunity.

Kindness – A Retelling – I learned about Kindness (solo project of Adam Bainbridge) last year, and this is his latest track. He recorded it for the The Long Road project, a collaboration between musicians and refugees.  Just lovely.

Anticipated Obsessions

case/lang/viers – Atomic Number This trio is nothing but a miracle, something I never would have conceived of, but when I heard about it I knew it would be amazing. Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs (who I admittedly am less familiar with) are releasing an album together, and touring this summer. They’ve released a couple of singles to give us a taste.

Beth Orton – Kidsticks This beautiful single was released on March 2. Looks like she’s getting back to combing her folky style with electronica, and it’s just a lovely combination. This track definitely makes me want to hear more!

Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth Sturgill Simpson is a new discovery for me, just this week, as a matter of fact. I heard a cut from this new album on the radio while I was on the way to work one day, and I was blown away. I looked him up first thing when I arrived at my office, and found that NPR was streaming the entire album. The web site says “At the artist’s request, songs from this album cannot be played individually.” After listening all the way through it, I can understand why. It is totally worth listening to from beginning to end. I don’t know what to say except that this album is like nothing I’ve heard. Twang, funk, soul, spiritual….the Dap Kings play on five of the tracks. He plays a mellow country western version of Nirvana’s In Bloom for gosh sakes! I heard a reviewer say “I just want to hug him.” So do I.

The new album comes out next week, April 15. Meanwhile, thank goodness you can stream it on NPR. I predict this is going to be one of my favorite albums this year, and maybe even make my Desert Island list.

There is a lot more! And a lot more to come! You can find my 2016 curated play lists on Spotify.

Music Worthy of Your Attention in 2015

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 was to listen more intentionally to new music. I have done a pretty good job of reaching that goal, if I do say so. I have compiled my list on Spotify of favorite songs that were released in 2015 (you must have a Spotify account to view and listen). I have attempted to make a list of my top ten albums. There was a lot of really great music this year, so picking only ten has been difficult. This has been so enjoyable a task that I will definitely keep it up in 2016.

My primary resources for music discovery are Spotify, KCRW, WXPN, and SOMAFM, as well as music reviews from Sound Opinions, Fresh Air, Dinner Party Download, and NPR Music. Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl fame has a list on Spotify which has helped me discover some new music. This seems to be a random collection, and it is not all new music, but a lot of it was new to me. Also, recommendations from friends have been very welcome.

I chose the albums that I have enjoyed listening to from start to finish. The following (in no particular order) are the albums that I have become obsessed with at some point in the last 12 months, listening over and over, and all have tracks that will make it to my Desert Island List.

Enjoy!

Brandi Carlisle – The Fire Watchers Daughter

Florence and the Machine – How, Big, How Blue, How Beautiful 

Lizz Wright – Freedom and Surrender

Low – Ones and Sixes

St Germain – St Germain

Melody Gardot – Currency of Man

Leon Bridges – Coming Home 

Judith Hill – Back in Time

Bob Moses – Days Gone By 

Fink – Horizontalism

Addendum January 1, 2016

Since compiling my list of favorite albums from 2015, two more have come to my attention that I would have chosen to include, extending my list to twelve. These albums are just beautiful and are worthy of obsessive listening. 

Loyalty – The Weather Station

The Chopin Project –  Ólafur Arnalds and Alice Sara Ott

Emphases for October: History lessons on race and class

Of the many things I have been reading and hearing recently, the topics of race and class stand out. I was pleased to find many very good pieces that I have been mulling over and sharing with others.

The Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast dedicated two fascinating episodes on the history of redlining in the United States. The show astutely illustrates how early twentieth century policies on real estate and housing were overtly and unapologetically discriminatory against blacks. The two episodes show how these policies and now illegal practices have consequences that are still with us today.

The excellent podcast Decode DC did an episode about the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moinihan’s study in 1965 on poverty in the United States, which has, for better or worse, created a commonly held belief that poverty is caused by dysfunctional family and culture, and as a result the conversation essentially ignores the legacy of slavery.

Today I listened to the Philadelphia Free Library Author Events Podcast featuring an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his life and his new book, Between the World and Me. Coates provides a tangible illustration of the damage done by the history of racist and classist policies in American institutions. For hundreds of years, for multiple generations, an entire class of people has been exploited, and effectively blocked from social and economic advancement.

I appreciate the widening interest and scholarship on this aspect of American life. I am hopeful that the information and insight coming to light will continue to advance the conversation on race, and help us all have a clearer understanding of our relationship and responsibility to work to change institutionalized racism and unjust policies.

Other recommended listening and reading:

2015 – The Year In Music So Far

I am a music geek. I used to write a music review column for my college newspaper, and I have always listened to popular music with a discerning ear. I don’t claim to be a purist or an expert. I like what I like, and some times LOVE, and I’m driven to obsession at times to listen unceasingly to a new favorite album, or an old one, and to find out every little thing about its production and composition. But I haven’t acted like it in the last decade or so. I’ve been more of a dabbler, just turning on the radio and occasionally tuning in to my favorite music critics.

Spotify has inspired me to listen critically and intentionally again. My New Year’s resolution last year was to listen to music more intentionally again, and I have done that. It has been very enjoyable. As a result, I have created numerous playlists, and I have become more aware of new music.

So, I am making annual lists on Spotify, composed of the albums I am checking out, and the songs that I like best. I’m rather proud of my lists for 2014 and 2015. I’m particularly proud of my list for the current decade. There is a lot of good music out there!

In particular, the following are so far my favorites for 2015. I’m pretty sure these will stay in my top ten, as I cannot stop listening to them:

There are more albums I’m considering for my top ten or top twenty. There are still three months left of the year, so I look forward to having more to say in January!

Paradoxical Readings – June 28, 2015

This week I cried tears of grief and joy, as the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as opposite-sex couples, and as the funerals proceeded for the nine fallen in South Carolina. While the Confederate flag is being lowered, and the rainbow flag raised, I am acutely aware that there is much more work to do to.

Changing the Flags

President Obama summed it up beautifully in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney:

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

It’s a terrible thing that nine beautiful lives had to be lost in order for the history lesson of the Confederate flag to sink in for many Americans. Finally, many are starting to understand that the flag, as Ken Burns said “is not about heritage, it’s about resistance to civil rights.” So perhaps some good can come of this. The momentum for the removal of the flags continues.

Why it still hasn’t happened in South Carolina (by the time I am writing this), I don’t understand. It is incomprehensible that something so offensive, so hurtful to so many continues to exist on state property. So, clad in tree climbing gear, Bree Newsome took matters into her own hands. Admirers and supporters abound, myself included. Just take the bleeping thing down!

Bree Newsome, our new super hero. Ava Duvernay tweeted that she wants to direct the film about her.*

Gillian and I took in the week’s events, observing the memorials for the fallen nine, and celebrating the Supreme Court marriage equality victory on Friday night with a bottle of bubbly and a beautiful meal (pan seared scallops with arugula, tomatoes, corn, avocado, and a gorgeous herbacious dressing – yes, my spouse is a genius in the kitchen, and that’s how we roll). We’ve been waiting a long time for this, trying to be married for the last eleven years, succeeding once and for all in 2013. Yesterday’s victory is just a sweet conclusion to our personal struggle, and our witness to the national struggle for marriage equality.

The week’s best Twitter hash tags were, hands down, #UrbanOutfittersbelike, mocking Urban Outfitters for ridiculous prices, and #AskTheNearestHippie, making fun of Antonin Scalia’s screed of a dissent of the marriage equality ruling. There was also this tweet from UHaul, who finally seems to get the classic lesbian joke. I can’t believe they haven’t cashed in on it before now.

Tears and laughter are both healing in their own ways. This week was certainly an opportunity to find the paradox of finding hope within sadness, and a realization of work left to do in the same moment we celebrate a significant success.

The wind is at our backs. Let’s not get complacent.

* Ava Duvernay Reportedly Directing Marvel’s Black Panther

Readings and Insights on Charleston

This Fathers Day, while I am musing how grateful I am for the long and loving relationship I have had with my Dad, my heart aches for the lives lost in a hailstorm of hatred and bullets in Charleston last week. The world has lost nine beautiful souls because a young, misguided man decided that it would be a good idea to use the firearm that he received for his birthday from his father. I can’t help but wonder at the kind of father who raised this child to be a man who would do such a thing, and I despair that we can change the world when gun violence persists.

I have been obsessing about the massacre and the world’s reaction to it, struggling to find my way through the chaos of fact and opinion to understand what happened and why. Here is a collection of some of the better responses I have encountered since the terrible incident:

A Hate Crime in Charleston – From On the Media. A brilliant piece that names each victim and delves into the media’s coverage of the story and the constant denial of what is undeniable, that racism and the easy access to guns is what enabled that awful moment. I loved this reference to the Ralph Waldo Ellison novel Juneteenth:

“Nothing ever stops, it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down superfine, but it doesn’t just blow away.”

The piece concludes that we must continue to grind it down and maybe someday it will blow away.

Only white people can save themselves from racism and white supremacism – Written by a native of South Carolina, calling for individual people, specifically white people, to take responsibility to confront their own prejudices. In the wake of this shocking horror, too many white people in positions of leadership and influence are denying that the problem is racism. This is the superfine dust that won’t blow away. The racism is there, but it’s ground down so fine that it’s invisible to those who are not victims of its ugliness and destructiveness.

It’s not about mental illness: The big lie that always follows mass shootings by white males – I suppose one could make the argument that racism is a form of mental illness. But making the claim of mental illness relieves people of any responsibility for their actions. It is beyond frustrating to hear the continued denials of racism in the face of difference between how black and white suspects of violent crimes are treated, even in the face of a crime that was committed by a self-declared racist. In the dominant paradigm, black criminals are thugs who deserve to be physically abused, and white criminals are mentally ill who get bullet-proof vests and taken to Burger King. This issue runs deep, and it is WAY beyond my expertise. But there is a lot to say here about the prison industrial complex and how black men are over-represented in the prison population. Angela Davis has been teaching the world about it for decades.

Further, my friend Carrie shared some righteous anger and brilliant insight on Facebook about the excuse of mental illness in this and like contexts,

“We’re assuming that mental illness equals violence–and this is simply not true. Guess who’s mentally ill? Like, everybody. People in your family, people in your classrooms, your workplaces, everywhere you hang out. If they haven’t told you yet, it’s because you’re a dick about mental illness and they’re embarrassed to talk to you. Seriously. And how many of these people, say, open fire on schools and churches? About .0000000000000000000001% of them. The rates of violence are NO HIGHER among the mentally ill than they are in the general populous–unless you count certain antisocial personality disorders, which the f^#%!&*@ judicial system does not. You know why? Because people with antisocial personality disorders know what they’re doing is wrong, they just don’t care. Despite what Law and Order may tell you, the insanity plea is rarely used and even more rarely won– because you need to prove that you are so mentally ill you are living in another reality and have no idea that what you were doing was wrong– not a faulty moral compass, not “I’m so racist it’s crazy” but literally hearing voices and hallucinating and stuff. Mental illness is an extremely rare cause of violence, while racism, which is what this is, is a painfully common one.”

An NRA board member blamed the pastor killed in Charleston for the deaths of his members – Really? REALLY!?! By this logic, it will be my fault if I get shot because I choose not to pack heat. That is not acceptable, and I don’t want to live in a world where people only feel safe if they carry a gun.

Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now – It has no place on government property. The Confederate flag is universally read as an endorsement for white supremacy, and flying it on government property sends the message of state-sanctioned racism. Period. Say what you will about Southern heritage, the cultural and historical meaning is undeniable. And yet people do.

White Supremacist Linked to Charleston Suspect Donated to 2016 G.O.P. Campaigns – Isn’t it interesting that a white supremacist thinks that these politicians represent his views? They are the same ones denying racism and supporting gun rights over civil rights.

Terrorist targeted historic SC church on 193rd anniversary of thwarted slave revolt planned by its founder – The date and location of the attack was no coincidence. It was a premeditated murder spree on a significant anniversary for this storied institution that has represented the struggle for freedom and civil rights for black Americans for generations. We all need to be responsible to know our history.

Jon Stewart expounding on the “Gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” What will we do without him when he goes? Who is going to hold up the mirror and help us to laugh at ourselves…or cry, as in this case?

“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named after Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. You can’t allow that.  The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guys are the ones who feel the country is being taken away from them.”

I forgive you. Hate won’t win: This video brought me to my knees. The family members of many of the victims offering, through their tears, their blessings forgiveness to the killer. This. THIS is how the world will change.

Those of us who are moved by this tragedy should be inspired to make something good will come from this senseless, hateful act, something that will honor the lives of these nine precious souls that we lost, and honor those of us who continue to walk this earth and are responsible to make it a better place.

Someday We’ll All Be Free: 100 Hours Of Soulful Protest Music – The massacre illustrates why this music continues to be relevant.