This was a terrible year for music with the deaths of so many icons. But the material coming out of studios was the best it’s been in years. My list of favorites is as varied as I can remember.
Here are the albums that enchanted me the most this year, a list longer than usual because so many were worthy.
“American Band” — Drive-by Truckers.
I was a little late to embrace this band, but I’ve gone back and rectified that. This outspoken political statement is my favorite work of these sons of the South. “What It Means” is the song of the year. The album brilliantly explores the rural/urban divide in America. It features one lyrical op-ed after another from “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” through “Guns of Umpqua” and on to “Kinky Hypocrite.” An important album that will endure, especially over the next four years.
“Blues and Ballads (A Folksinger’s Songbook)” — Luther Dickinson.
Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi All-Stars, steps out with his second solo disc that sounds like a long night on a wrap-around porch. It opens with a series of catchy folks songs then shifts midway through with the Mavis Staples duet, “Ain’t No Grave,” into after-a-few bourbon down and dirty blues.
“Undercurrent” — Sarah Jarosz.
Jarosz is a prodigy, a superb player whose songwriting seemed on the cusp with her first two releases. This, her third, is a breakthrough. Her writing finally matches her incredible playing and singing.
“Dori Freeman” — Dori Freeman.
This is the aching, seep-into-your soul stirrings of a daughter of Galax and Appalachia. Her story — sending a song to Teddy Thompson and him offering to produce this record — is a fairytale. The songs manage to be both vulnerable and strong. And that voice, oh, that voice.
“Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” — Margo Price.
What a disc. Passionate, smart, and traditional yet somehow modern. The writing is smart, observant and topped only by her singing. She’s Patsy Cline and Lucinda Williams and every great country singer in between. She’s a fine storyteller. Listen to “Hands of Time,” “Four Years of Chances,” and “Since You Put Me Down.” In the latter, she writes “I killed the angle on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams when I found out you were never coming home.”
“My Woman” — Angel Olsen.
That voice. It whispers, wavers, cracks, howls and is unapologetically provocative. It’s Patti Smith, Nico, and Chrissie Hynde for a new day. “At your worst I still believe it’s worth the fight,” she sings on “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the album’s catchiest declaration.
“Cradle to the Grave” — Squeeze.
What a surprise. Tilbrook and Difford back together after so many years and as good as ever. From the title track on through these come close to the band at its ’80s best.
“Paging Mr. Proust” — The Jayhawks.
Speaking of bands returning to form with an altered lineup, “Paging Mr. Proust” both looks back to the best of The Jayhawks, but also pushes into new territory. “Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces,” with those marvelous harmonies, and “Lies in Back and White” could slide easily into any of their classic discs while the psychedelic groove of “Ace” is a different direction.
“This Is Where I Live” — William Bell.
William Bell was a supporting player in the Stax cast (“Never Like This Before” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which he wrote). Now, he returns at 77 with a classic soul album produced by John Leventhal, aka Mr. Rosanne Cash. From the opening “The Three of Me” on through “Walking on a Tightrope” to the Curtis Mayfield-inspired “People Want to Go Home” this is sweet soul music.
“Sea of Noise” — St. Paul and the Broken Bones
The lyrics take a serious turn, but the band’s playing is as tight and rambunctious as ever. Moreover, the disc moves them past the revivalist stage into new territory, both catchy and challenging.
“case, lang, veirs” — case, lang, veirs.
This super-group album of Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs is a mesmerizing mix of incredible harmonies (natch) and enchanting songwriting. It’s pretty, but also profound. There is not one standout track you think has to be on a mixtape, but the entire gentle experience is one where by album’s end you wonder where the time went.
“No Burden” — Lucy Dacus.
Her world-weary voice and insistent guitar strumming seep into your head listen after listen. In some cases, this reminds me of the best of ’90s indie rock (Liz Phair). But it’s her voice that carries the day, supple and engaging.
“Upland Stories” — Robbie Fulks.
With a couple of Grammy nominations for this record, Fulks, who has played North Shore Point House Concerts twice, finally gets well-deserved mainstream recognition. The album makes a hard nod to Appalachia. It’s full of great stories (no surprise there) like “Needed,” the teen love story turned serious, and “South Bend Soldiers On,” the reflections of an old man on loss and time. There’s a deeply rootsy production with tasty fiddle, banjo, and, of course, the superb guitar stylings of Robbie Gjersoe, Fulks’s longtime playing partner. Fulks has written lots of songs filled with yucks. These are filled with lumps in the throat and deep reflections. It may be the best of his superb catalog.
“Real Midnight” — Birds of Chicago.
This is one of those albums that ends up in a player and just stays there, thanks to partners Allison Russell (formerly of Po’ Girl), who does most of the singing, and her husband, J.T. Nero, who does most of the writing. The great Joe Henry produced and he highlights simple playing and Russell’s supple, emotional voice. While it’s a great surface listen, repeated plays reveal the existential depth of the disc. Go on, dive in.
“Look Park” — Look Park.
After years away, former Fountains of Wayne main man Chris Collingwood returns with the pop rock record of the year. That doesn’t mean it’s a lightweight offering. He’s tired of the jokes and it shows in the smart, thoughtful lyrics, including “Shout,” his brilliant attempt at a sort of new national anthem.
“The Very Last Day” — Parker Millsap.
Millsap released a fine debut disc a couple of years ago, but he steps it up with his sophomore outing, a harder-rocking, deeper probing effort. This one opens with “Hades Pleads,” a rollicking blues number fueled by slide and fiddles and then shifts into the acoustic catchiness of “Pining” before slipping to the slow, soulful “Morning Blues.” You get the idea. Millsap’s vocals, front and center, simply won’t let you do anything less than pay close attention.
Best Live Shows of 2016
1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater
2. Squeeze at The NorVa
3. Gary Louris at North Shore Point House Concerts
4. Jason Isbell with Frank Turner at Chrysler Hall
5. The Mavericks at The Sandler Center