Alright folks! Here it is! Here’s my list of the Top Ten Albums of 2016 (as I see them, anyway). It’s a diverse bunch. As much as we lost this year in saying goodbye to Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Glen Frey, George Michael, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, and the ones I’m sure I’m forgetting…we gained a heck of a lot of great new records. Here’s the short list of the ones that blew me away this year. (Be sure to also check out the “also-rans” in my previous post!) Let’s get to it!
The Top Ten of 2016:
- David Bowie – Blackstar
If you know me at all, you saw this coming. How could this not be my album of the year? Was there ever any doubt? From the days leading up to release when I told the office manager at my work I’d be taking a long break to pick it up “because I do whatever David Bowie tells me to do” to the day a couple short days later when Bowie died (and the whole album suddenly made sense) to the hours and hours I’ve spent listening to it since–at times even weeping… Of COURSE this was my album of the year. A pop-jazz hybrid (I eventually landed on calling it “chamber pop”) that doesn’t just defy genre, it redesigns it–just like our David… It would be impossible for anything else to come even close to the artistic statement this record would have been even if he had LIVED, much less what it became in the wake of his untimely death. If you buy nothing else from this list, “Blackstar” is the one to get.
- Amanda Shires – My Piece of Land
If not for Bowie, this would easily be my record of the year. Such a warm, sweet mix of songs. I’ve been describing this one to people as a record that wraps around you like a blanket by a warm fire–you get enveloped by it. It’s not just a great country/folk record…it’s a great RECORD. My fellow music geeks will likely know that Amanda Shires is also the wife of Jason Isbell (another favorite artist of mine), but with songs as strong as the ones on this record, there would really be no need to talk about that…if not for the last track, which I imagine is part for him and part for their little girl. “You are my home, where-ever you go. Anywhere that you stand is my piece of land. You are my home.” How beautiful is that? On an album that seems to be entirely about what it’s like to be Amanda Shires, “You Are My Home” simultaneously pulls at your heart strings, rips your heart out, and warms it up all in just a few words. Can’t say enough about this record.
- Drive-By Truckers – American Band
No shocker to see this on the list, either. I’ve been a Drive-By Truckers fan since about 2004. I’ve followed them through some major highs and serious lows. I’m glad to say that this record is definitely one of the former. It’s written about the present day America. About Donald Trump’s America, for whatever is going to be left when he’s done with it. Songs about school shootings. About Michael Brown. About the killing of Ramon Casiano. America has become a place where you’ve got to look through a lot of grey to see the red, white, and blue. And this album fits it perfectly. It both delivers the strongest commentary on our culture the band’s ever dealt out and also some of the strongest songwriting I’ve heard out of them in their last 5 records. Great release.
- Dream Theater – The Astonishing
It certainly was! (Astonishing… It certainly was astonishing… You know what I mean…) I didn’t expect to like this album this much. It’s a two-disc concept album about a future time where music is prohibited but someone with the gift of song becomes a savior. That sounds like it’s going to be Styx’s “Kilroy Was Here” only way too long, doesn’t it? But…it works. Each time I listen to it I’m emotionally invested, I’m having fun, I’m enjoying the songs–they’re REALLY strong songs! It’s just a great release with some really strong singles on it. Probably the most pleasant surprise of the year for me.
- Tegan & Sara – Love You to Death
I like Tegan & Sara a lot, which I really only learned by jumping on board with their previous release (“Heartthrob”). I’ve since investigated their back catalogue and have enjoyed the whole repertoire. On my first listen of “Love You to Death,” I thought “that sounds about right,” but didn’t go too much deeper. I was in a prog-rock mood at the time and Tegan & Sara are anything but that, so I set it aside thinking I’d come back to it later. Then a few weeks went by and I heard a single from the album on the radio. Within three seconds I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I know that song. It’s off the new Tegan & Sara.” Which I had only listened to once. I don’t care who you are…that’s a strong record.
- The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem
I’m new to The Hip. I’ve seen them open for at least one band before…I think more than one. And I remember thinking, “They’re okay and seem like a lot of fun, but I’m here for somebody else” and I never really went any deeper to become a fan. Then, this year, the band sadly announced that lead singer Gord Downie has inoperable brain cancer. Even though I wasn’t a fan, I was saddened by that news. Then I heard that The Hip was touring anyway…and that they would be broadcasting their final show live and uncut. So I found the streaming broadcast online–it just seemed important to watch it for some reason–and I realized how big a disservice I’d been doing to myself in not being a fan all this time. They write really gorgeous pop-rock music that I’ve been enjoying getting deeper and deeper into over the last several months. That same weekend, I went out and bought “Man Machine Poem” (among others) and immediately fell in love with it. Comparing it to their other work, it seems to be something of a late-career left turn for them, but it’s a very good one. I’m glad I get to celebrate Gord’s work while he’s still with us.
- The Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence
I’ve been a “Hevy Devy” fan since roughly the “Terria” record in 2001. I’ve drifted in and out during that time. I certainly can’t claim to have all of his records–he’s got something like 25 of them if you count all his projects. But I’ve liked a lot of his stuff. I hadn’t picked up an album in a while and grabbed this one on a whim one day. I was floored by a heavy, melodic, lush, powerful record. It’s metal. But it’s not. It’s prog. But it’s not. It’s symphonic. But it’s not. Whatever it is, it’s great. That’s enough.
- Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
We lost Leonard Cohen this year. I wrote about it here. I’m still sad he’s gone, but happy that we had him for so long. “You Want it Darker” is a wonderful bookend. It sounds like a man who knows he might not have long left trying to put a bow on his long career. At times, Cohen seems to self-reference his older work. The opening track has melodic smatterings of “Anthem” throughout it (a personal favorite track of mine) and the lyrics throughout the whole record have an air of “we’ve come this far…let’s rest and talk about it.” It’s an intimate-sounding record. Like he’s there in the room with you. And in the wake of his death, that’s a very comforting listen.
- Pixies – Head Carrier
I haven’t listened to this one as much as I would have expected (I bought probably close to 100 records this year–I didn’t get back around to everything more than a couple times). However, I’ve listened enough to know that it’s a great record. For long time Pixies fans, it’s a little bit puzzling that it’s not too weird of a listen. The Pixies are known for taking odd musical turns. That’s largely absent from this record…but what it lacks in weird, it makes up for in GOOD. There are some deep, deep hooks on this album that stick with you. Even though I haven’t listened to it a lot, I can’t wait to get back to it. And there’s not a lot in the “also rans” I can say that about. So this belongs on the list.
- Todd Snider – Eastside Bulldog
This is another one I haven’t listened to really regularly…but the first time I did, it blew me away. Then the second time, it already felt like an old friend. It’s immediately accessible, immediately fun, immediately exciting. It’s got a raucous energy and bluesy edge that makes it jump onto the top ten list of anybody that picks it up, if they know what they’re doing.
And that’s it! How badly do you disagree? Doesn’t matter! I still had fun! 🙂
Enough of my yacking…go spend some of those gift cards you got for Christmas at your local record store. And look for at least a couple of the above records when you do!
Thanks for reading…see you in the new year, I bet.