2015 was a great year. 2016, not so much. I am not leaving 2016 with much love or nostalgia for the last 12 months. Not in the way that’s popular on the internet right now — OMG GO AWAY 2016 YOU SUCK I CAN’T BELIEVE PRINCE AND ALAN RICKMAN DIED — but, just, I don’t know. I’ll to get into it more when I do my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay in a few weeks.
It’s impossible to say it was all bad, though. This may be just a minor source of pleasure, but just like last year, I listened to lots and lots of good music. But still: while I manage to get nearly a dozen albums into this list of my favorites from the last 12 months, I honestly doubt that as many will resonate long-term as some of the great music I listened to in 2015.
In this listicle, just as last year, I am refusing to say that these are the “best” albums of the year. So many great albums came out again this year, and not just in the genres in which my knowledge goes deepest. Who am I to say what was, objectively, the best hip hop or mainstream country album? I have no clue. But I can say, objectively and without hesitation, that the new A Tribe Called Quest album was an integral part of my life immediately after the election, and I will always consider it one of my favorites of the year.
That’s enough of a preface. Let’s get into the music.
Kaia Kater – Nine Pin
Kaia Kater has so much going on that makes her pretty much the perfect artist for me: She’s a she (and I prefer Women Who Sing over Dudes Who Shout), she’s Canadian, she plays North American folk music. Nine Pin was one of the three albums I most looked forward to this year, and it did not disappoint. Her previous album, Sorrow Bound (2015) was very good. Nine Pin is incredible.
This was a great year for minimalist bluegrass records from exceptional, younger players. (The other two I was super excited about are in that same vein.) Each song on this album is distinct, original in style or arrangement, and memorable. The opening track, Saint Elizabeth, sets up the album perfectly, making it the ideal opening track:
The Hamilton Mixtape
At the end of this listicle, I’m going to have a sub-list of pre-2016 music that I bonded with this year. Hamilton is at the top of that list. I don’t like musicals, but Hamilton is (as all of us obsessed with it will annoyingly point out all the damn time) so much more than a musical. As good as the soundtrack is, I think the Mixtape is even better. This is where Lin-Manuel Miranda got well-known artists to cover songs from the play.
The crazy thing about the Mixtape is that most of these songs sound like they could be proper pop hits on their own, totally decontextualized from the play itself. A great example is Kelly Clarkson’s version of It’s Quiet Uptown. There are few things I love as much as powerful-woman pop, and this is maybe the best example of it ever. Another highlight is the Mixtape’s version of Immigrants — gives me chills every time:
Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land
I didn’t expect to include this album on this listicle. I love Amanda Shires (her music is great, and she’s also a joy to follow on Twitter and Instagram), but I didn’t bond with My Piece of Land when it came out in September. Then I got better headphones and could really hear the depth of the music — even on the more minimalist tunes — and the power of her voice even when soft and wavering.
I think it was in the liner notes for their album Drunkard’s Prayer that the band Over the Rhine instructed listeners to “turn it up” because “quiet music should be played loud.” This is not necessarily a quiet album — My Love (The Storm) and You Are My Home, in particular, really rock — but some of the songs, like the excellent Mineral Wells, are a perfect example of that principle. So turn it up:
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Speaking of rocking. The new Drive-By Truckers album doesn’t reach the heights of, say, Southern Rock Opera (2001) or Dirty South (2004), but it does make a nice entry into their body of work. It features the classic Truckers combination of disgruntled introspection and banging anger.
Ever South is a good song that leans towards introspection, making an insightful, cutting, but loving analysis of Southern whiteness. That’s probably my favorite song on the album, but I’m still impressed they managed to write a song (What It Means) about politics in the Age of Trump that is biting and honest and not hackneyed:
Sierra Hull – Weighted Mind
This was chronologically the first of those three minimalist bluegrass albums I was so excited about. It’s tempting to describe her as a male Chris Thile: virtuosic mandolin player, composer of songs rooted in and honest to the tradition but personal and original, et cetera. But she’s more than that — or at least different.
Weighted Mind is the album in which Hull, like Kaia Kater with Nine Pin, went from very young and promising to her own mature, independent person and artist. The album title obviously refers to the pressures and expectations associated with that. The title track says it all:
Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day
I’m working on a screenplay for a picture that I describe as “a quiet movie about farming — with fairies.” My writing is intimately connected to the music I listen to while writing, and Parker Millsap is one of those I listen to when I work on that script. Heaven Sent is probably the rocking-est, farming-est track on a record that seems to travel through time and space to hit most of the American music touchstones.
Sarah Jarosz – Undercurrent
Two is a coincidence, three’s a trend. Or something like that. This is the third of the minimalist-women-playing-roots-music albums that came out this year. Jarosz is arguably the biggest name of the bunch — she and Sierra Hull are the front-runners for that. This album is often dark, haunting, and infectious. I could listen to it twice in a row, in order, and neither notice nor mind. Hard to say if I have a favorite song from it, but House of Mercy is a strong contender.
Also I kind of think she looks like my sister.
A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from here… Thank You 4 Your Service
Lots of people I know were very into A Tribe Called Quest and related hip hop acts growing up. I was not. My love for hip hop developed hand-in-hand my love for jazz, brass band music, and other, non-white elements of the world of American music. The Fox News crowd does a great job of “othering” black music — and growing up in a white part of a very black city, I had internalized that — but over the years as I’ve begun to be able to describe my love for “Americana” music, I refuse to limit that to just genres coming out of the Southeastern Scots-Irish tradition.
All of which is too much talk about things other than this album. It came out three days after the election and was, for many people, an essential piece of catharsis. That’s why I can’t communicate my love for this album without discussing the deeper socio-political role it (and A Tribe Called Quest and other groups more generally) played in my life. It is one of the few good things to come out of the week of November 8, 2016. At any rate, A Tribe Called Quest is good and this album is great and here’s a song from it:
Quiles & Cloud – Beyond the Rain
Quiles & Cloud is a San Francisco trio, far and away the least famous of any of the acts on this list. My wife and I saw them perform in an attic bar on Clement Street and it was probably my best live music experience of the year. Any music with two guitars and a stand-up bass is pretty much engineered to play to my emotions. The interplay they achieve between the two vocalists and three instruments is truly impressive:
Harvest Thieves – Rival
Released in January, this was the first album I bonded with this year. I was unfamiliar with the Austin-based rockers Harvest Thieves before Spotify recommended this album. It rocks and it rolls, and reminds of my favorite country rock albums like The White Buffalo’s Love and the Death of Damnation (2015) or The Herd of Main Street’s Seven Dollar Grave (2010). The opening lick to the album’s first track is even similar (maybe a little too similar) to the opening lick from The White Buffalo’s Dark Days.
Say what you want about this song, whether you love it or hate it (but honestly how could you hate it?) you must acknowledge: “Bob Dylan’s 78th Hangover” is a great song name.
The Unseen Strangers – Stranger Places
I was back and forth about including this album. I don’t think I would have, but then I listened to my Spotify most-listened playlist for 2016, and a number of songs from Stranger Places came up towards the top. Each time, I thought to myself, “Wow, I forgot how much I like that.” So here I am, including it.
I know noting about The Unseen Strangers. Are they from Colorado? They seem like they’re from Colorado. (They are from Toronto.) This is music like so much of what I listened to in 2015 — that funny little genre called Progressive Bluegrass. That continues to be my favorite genre and it peppers this list, starting with Kaia Kater, through Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz and Quiles & Cloud. It feels appropriate to finish the list with another good one:
Honorable Mentions for 2016
Looking through that Spotify list of my most-listened songs of 2016, I’m caught by some others that didn’t make it onto the full list above. They include:
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book
Just so good. Helped me survive 2016.
Greensky Bluegrass – Shouted, Written Down & Quoted
Never bonded with this the way I did with their incredible 2014 album If Sorrows Swim.
Mandolin Orange – Blindfaller
Their 2015 release Such Jubilee was so incredible. I never had time to bond with Blindfaller because I was still listening to that.
The Stray Birds – Magic Fire
Sort of the Greensky Bluegrass problem. I’m so in love with this Baltimore-based group’s 2014 release Best Medicine that I never bonded with this one.
T Sisters – T Sisters
Oakland-based folk with incredible harmonies from this group of sisters. I want to see them live so badly, which shouldn’t be too hard.
Keren Ann – You’re Gonna Get Love
My favorite singer from when I was 17 through 22 released a new album, which I nearly missed.
Music From Before 2016 That I Bonded With This Year
Hamilton – The Original Cast Recording (2015)
See notes above for The Hamilton Mixtape.
Kristin Diable – Create Your Own Mythology (2015)
Kicking myself for not giving this a chance in 2015. Aside from Hamilton, probably my favorite thing I listened to this year.
Kenny Loggins – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1977)
Somehow “Footloose” is in my top-20 songs I listened to in 2016.
Eilen Jewell – Sundown Over Ghost Town (2015)
Great Western music from an Idaho native.
Ryan Bingham – Roadhouse Sun (2009)
I never gave Ryan Bingham a shot but Bluebird, from his 2009 album, has become one of my favorite songs.
Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 (1993)
Hip hop and improvised jazz. Especially like the collaboration with MC Solaar (Le Bien, Le Mal).