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 Band – Let 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 Simpson – A 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.
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 Price – Midwest 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 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 Negrito – The 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 Andrews – Honest 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.