By Ian Bremner
In a year where people consistently went to bed sad, confused and perhaps scared to death, people were forced to find solace in anything they could. Music was often that source. It has the ability to transport your brain to another time, pump adrenaline or put you to sleep. As our flooded news feeds were attempting to drain our souls, one common theme that kept creeping up was, “well, at music will be good again.” That was another falsehood. It IS ALREADY good. One thing the media has taught us is that we all live in our own bubbles within an echo chamber of things we want to hear. Luckily, in 2016, there WAS a lot we want to hear.
New stars were born, like Anderson.Paak and Margo Price. Sturgill Simpson, Jonny Fritz, Karl Blau and Robert Ellis made country cool again. David Bowie, Iggy Pop, A Tribe Called Quest and Leonard Cohen all put out incredible new albums…. in 2016. Think about that. Hell, Nick Cave even put out an album. Indie-rock welcomed Whitney and Lucy Dacus to the party. Charles Bradley, Lee Fields, Lady Wray and newcomer Durand Jones brought the soul. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole each put out new material. All of this took place in a year where, maybe, just maybe, Angel Olsen had the best album of all.
This is an unranked list of great albums 2016 has graced us. They are not the only great albums put out this year. You will not find Beyonce, Chance the Rapper or Car Seat Headrest here like similar lists. These records simply got the most airplay at OLD ROOKIE HQ. The search continues…
Leaving the artistic hotbed of New York City can sometimes draw different forms of inspiration, and a bit of California air can do the body and mind good. Beneath the beauty of the arrangements, there is a present darkness to the lyrics. Singing Saw manages to bring the gritty New York alleyways to the bright greenery of California. Morby’s third and best album is a clearing in the fog. A hole in the clouds.
Price spent the last decade in Nashville working odd jobs and playing as many gigs as she needed to get noticed. With the support of her husband and guitar player Jeremy Ivey, they bet the farm (almost literally) by pawning her wedding ring, selling some music gear and even liquidating the family car to make the record that was going to “make her.” Her debut album has been met with immediate acclaim and has been drawing comparisons to Loretta Lynn and Elliott Smith, while still feeling like a modern record. Country music and more importantly, country music FANS are in good hands.
A bird with the word carries the song of Anderson.Paak. Vibes of Kendrick‘s To Pimp A Butterfly swirled with D’angelo‘s Black Messiah stretch the 16 track album. Anderson can rap with the ease and swagger of a classic west coast OG all while taking turns on the piano, drums and singing with a distinct rasp.
Karl Blau has been making albums since the late 1990s and has accumulated upwards of 40 LPs to his name. Why is his latest album titled, Introducing Karl Blau, you ask? Perhaps, it is as tongue-in-cheek as it is fitting. This time he settled upon recording a collection of classic, somewhat underground country covers. Introducing is not just a cover album however. With the help of legendary producer Tucker Martine, each song, whether its How I Got To Memphis, an original Tom T Hall song or Link Wray’s Fallin Rain, Blau makes completely his own.
My Woman is a gorgeous rock n roll record, whose layers grow upon each listen. The first 5 tracks set the tone with a controlled, raucous feel. Electric guitar, synths, and drums fill the soundscape with Angel Olsen’s voice in full command throughout. The last 5 tracks slow it down and stretch it out. It’s an eerie, lonesome type of beauty best found in classic 70’s albums.
After all of the pages of David Bowie’s career, he has managed to tap into something entirely new for his final chapter. Blackstar is a jazzy/hiphop-beat infused record with strings, sexy saxophone and electronic synths with Bowie creepily singing over top. It is somewhere no one else has gone yet, and likely no one ever will. His death just days after the release of Blackstar made this record his parting gift. Only David Bowie can make his death artistic.
Though the packaging, mastering and naming of the songs seem sparce, these songs are in no way throwaways or simple demos left off the final cut of, To Pimp A Butterfly. The 8 songs flow beautifully and it plays like mini-movie as most Kendrick albums do. Like a good movie, each scene is set with anticipation and the viewer (listener) is down for the ride. The more you watch that movie (listen on repeat) the more familiar you become and you feel a part of it.
Adia Victoria has a distinct harrowing voice that is both powerful and creepy, yet endearing. Her lyrics are dark, but personally truthful. Her debut Beyond the Bloodhounds is an ode to her 20’s as a “mad black woman antagonist.” She is a poet at heart and uses the guitar as a means to speak just as much as she does a notebook.
With a voice like Sturgill Simpson, a lot of people would willingly listen to him sing the alphabet for 30 minutes. Thankfully, for those of us who have come to adore everything Sturgill Simpson in the last 2-3 years, there are an awful lot of stories that come with that southern croon. The 9-track, 39 minute album is a sonic trek through life: starting with a young child, growing into angsty teenager (cue the Nirvana cover), and ending with a roaring Call To Arms against the anti-war, anti-conformity, anti-bullshit that plagues the news cycles in 2016. Like most “guides,” A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, lays out some rules for the road, some tips for the trade and wise advice from someone who’s been through it all.
A love letter to the movement, Solange takes us on a journey through the pain and pride of the black experience in America. Vintage funk, R&B and electronica blend smoothly and offers a sweet and easy-to-listen-to sound throughout the body of work. But don’t let the light and airy falsettos fool you, each track hits a nerve with honest and powerful lyrics. More than a “woe is me tale,” A Seat at the Table is about resilience, identity and pride. Despite the soulful feel of the album, Solo herself described it as her “punk moment.” Bold and unapologetic start to finish.
In this harshly political season, perhaps we can all listen to the words of McCombs and an album like Mangy Love. His wit and wry lyrics hit even deeper than normal and touch on everything including racist government, misogyny, California porn industry. Everything. It’s not a protest record or anything of the like, because you have to listen hard to pick up certain vibes, but that is never a chore on Mangy Love.
Kaytranada – 99.9%
Unofficially dubbed as the sequel to the 1977’s Lust For Life, Iggy is as angsty as ever. It is not too surprising given his music retirement comments, but the production of Josh Homme lifts it up enough to prevent the weight becoming too heavy. In a time where his legendary colleagues like Lou Reed and David Bowie aren’t around anymore, Iggy is the one guy who bridges so many generations. Josh Homme dubbed him the “last of the one and onlys.”
Like the changing seasons in Chicago, or the woodsy outskirts of Illinois, A Light Upon The Lake is as vivid an image as it is a proper album title. The album starts with, No Woman, a dreamy keyboard intro before filling out with horn-filled guitar strumming which sets the vibe for the rest of the record. Light Upon The Lake is hard to pin down as a traditional folk album, because just as you’re settling into the guitar riffs, warm trumpets and strings hit you where it counts.
A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee
Absolute Loser is a beautiful album that came out with relatively low hype for a typical “reunion album,” but it certainly did not go unnoticed for fans of Johnson and/or Fruit Bats. The album in some ways, picks up where 2011’s Tripper left off, but in other ways takes a cleaner, more soft-rock approach. There are dusty banjos (but not too much banjo), barroom piano and songwriter folk tunes.
Formerly known as Jonny Corndawg, he dropped the “Corndawg” in favor of his real surname, Fritz because people sort of classified him as a “comedy singer.” Although his music is funny, it is also seriously good country music, albeit, perhaps, “Dad Country.” Jonny Fritz knows his music may suit your dad more than the normally-aged “indie rock” fan but ol’ Jonny surrounds himself with some serious players around Nashville and Los Angeles.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. Back in the early 00’s Nicole Wray signed with Missy Elliot’s label and was featured on several of her tracks. Where she may have gotten lost in the early 00’s RnB world, she has been floating in and around the scene ever since. Wray was able to team with Leon Michaels and Tom Brenneck (of Menehan Street Band, Budos Band, The Arcs, Charles Bradley, Dap Kings association) in their legendary studio in Queens, New York. Like the true soulful story it is, Nicole Wray is back as Lady Wray and her album, Queen Alone has as much heart and authentic soul flavor as any record in recent memory.
Leonard Cohen – You Want it Darker
Call it a matured fuzz, but what JEFF
The Brotherhood loses in youthful recklessness, they make up for in production and precision. Their new album, ZONE, gets back to what JEFF does best; power chords, deranged riffs and fuzzzz. JEFF The Brotherhood are still the same silly rockers they always have been, but there is a new sharpness to the sound. A sharpness that’s still fun as all hell.
Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
Nick Cave & The Bad
Seeds released their 16th album, Skeleton Tree. As you’d come to expect, the record is as haunting as it is attracting. Though mostly minimal, extremely vivid lyrics and the clean, drone-like sound draw you in with an almost tangible pull.
Robert Ellis is not only a self-titled album, it has also been self-proclaimed, the most “Robert Ellis” album Robert Ellis and his band have ever done. Perhaps that is why it is hard to ignore the fact this new record is oozing with heartbreak, introspection and realization. Despite some lyrical heaviness, the musical maturation is glaring. Though most would consider Robert Ellis a country album, it is so much more. With pop melodies and rootsy RnB, there was an obvious amount of time spent on the arrangements and song flow of the album that many modern day “country albums” don’t seem to prioritize as much as the SONG. There are flowing strings and slow guitar picking paired with piano and vivid storytelling throughout.
Natural Child is no frills rock n roll. The new album is titled Okey Dokey, and as the name suggests, Natural Child do not take themselves too seriously other than make rock n roll records and travel the country playing rock n roll tunes…. rock n roll. Okey Dokey is not as simple as it sounds though. The record has a barroom groove, southern riffs and a chill tempo with chuckle-worthy, if not very real lyrics. They can sing about anything and it sounds natural. The rockers from Nashville can make a non-paranoid song about the TSA and government watching us jerk off, “working from home” eating breakfast in bed, playing with our cat or being too broke to afford transcendental mediation.
On James’ 2nd solo LP, the mood is noticeably darker and drone-ier than Regions Of Light. James’ voice is lower and quicker. Eternally Even is no protest album or anything, but it does beg you to dig deep into yourself, mortality and some sad realities, issues listeners are not used to hearing from James. It seems that Eternally Even could either be call to arms or a challenge to humanity. Perhaps it’s both.
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life
Woods – City Sun Eater In The River Of Light
Recorded in the band’s basement in Bloomington, Indiana, the record has that warm, authentic energy commonly paired with classic RnB guitar riffs, fluttering keyboards and the smooth voice of Durand Jones. Some folks criticize newer soul albums for not “pushing the genre forward” but that begs the question, why does something have to be groundbreaking for full enjoyment? In the case of Durand Jones & The Indications, it’s a phenomenal debut and modern soul record.
Jenny Lewis, Erika
Forster & Tennessee Thomas are Nice As Fuck. “Nice As Fuck” (NAF) could be a descriptor for the band, for the album or for the 3 woman responsible for the record, but there is no debate, the LP rules. Where Jenny Lewis’ last record, The Voyager, was a sunny day-California hills folk rock album, NAF is bass, drum and loop heavy album full of repeating choruses and anthem type vibes. It’s simple in all the right ways.
NxWorries – Yes Lawd
Have you ever wondered what the incredible players of the Menahan Street Band, Budos Band, The Arcs, The Dap-Kings and band members of Charles Bradley and Lee Fields would sound like if they all got together and jammed on a record? Well, that sort of happened.
Dusk is the third album
from the Jack Cooper and James Hoare duo and although it may be easy to label them as “indie pop,” they have a clean musicality to them that makes for supremely easy listening.As the name suggests, Dusk, sounds good in dim lighting like a lot of good 60’s pop records. It’s quiet, yet full of sound. It’s guitar pop, yet poetic.
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
William Tyler – Modern Country
Amanda Shires – My Piece Of Land
Already with an impressive catalog, 2014’s Way Out Weather, was a re-introduction of sorts. His style is exploratory and expansive, but very clean. His newest release, Eyes On The Lines, isn’t a country/truck-drivin’ record by any means, but whether it is a direct reference to the yellow paint on the roads or not, it is a phenomenal bunch of songs to lose yourself into. Perhaps best paired with an introspective walk, road trip or staring out the window with a mug full of coffee or beer depending on the time of day.
Nick Waterhouse – Never Twice
Though Jurado’s catalogue is expansive, this album follows up his previous Maraqopa and Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Sun, produced by Richard Swift. Since Jurado and Swift got together making records, his sound has taken a turn into the worldly psychedelia direction. Jurado is masterful songwriter, and in these last 3 albums he has created a fictitious dream world named Maraqopa in which all of the songs take place. The third installment of the trilogy pulls it all together but is also entirely new.
With a noticeably increased presence of jazz that can be somewhat haunting and beautiful at the same time, Alex Brettin gives us a window to his intellect
through his own brand of punch-drunk harmonies and story-telling.
Julia Jacklin‘s debut album, Don’t Let The Kids Win, plays like a musical journal sharing time. It’s highly personal and based on her own experiences, but the feelings elicited can be reflected to the individual listener.
4 Your Eyez Only is about family. It’s a story line. It’s poetic and layered and deserves intent listening. It’s an album with the ability to grow and produce new meaning each listen through, the way the best rap albums do.
Parquet Courts – Human Performance
Microphone wielding front man, Brooks Nielson has one of rock’s most distinguishable voices which gives him the rare ability to make any song sound like a Growlers song. For City Club, they turn up the productionand give it more a clubby feel. Synths and rhythmic drums make it much more a danceable record than their previous chilled out, down-home “beach-goth” records, but equally as listenable. There’s still plenty of tripped out guitar for the true heads.
Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
Quilt – Plaza
Frightnrs created an incredible debut that encapsulates the creative genius of their late frontman’s storytelling ability. The yearning in Dan Klein’s voice as he sings lyrics of lost love and past relationships, now serve as a posthumous double entendre to heartbreak and struggle. It is tastefully woven with the backing of a rhythm that perfectly captures the essence of rocksteady Jamaican soul of the 1960s.
Seattle’s favorite party-punk rockers 2nd LP and equally as fun. Though most of Tacocat’s songs have messages within them, the band never acts too serious or above their own morals.
Lucy Dacus – No Burden
“Prolific” is the adjective most often associated with Ty Segall. It makes sense too. He is 28 years old with 10 solo albums, various EPs, 2 or three different bands and is always up to something good. His newest incarnation is a band he calls “The Muggers” and they are a deadly force. He recruited Mikal Cronin and King Tuff as guitar players, with Emmett Kelly, Corey Hanson and Evan Burrows filling out the extremely tight and fuzzy group.
The Night Beats have been listed as experimental RnB, and while there are certainly elements of that, they are mostly just a full-blown good rock n’ roll band. Their 3rd album, Who Sold My Generation is a trippy, sweaty excursion the whole way through. The Night Beats took their garage rock and added some super psychedelia to it, giving Who Sold My Generation a smooth (but not tooooo smooth), touch to the classically loose vibe.
Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion
Drive-By Truckers – American Band
Numero Group has scraped the bottom of the dollar record bins in search of the remains of the “Cosmic American Music” movement. They recently released an incredible collection of Cosmic American Music titled Wayfaring Strangers. The concept of the compilation was inspired by the term Gram Parsons had given to this small segment of 60s and 70s country music. Despite not reaching any commercial success, cosmic american music was critically adored and left a beautiful legacy.
Childish Gambino – Awaken My Love
Lee and boys know exactly where their wheelhouse is and simply continue to put out perfect soul tunes. Where Lee Fields differentiates himself from other soul singers is the bravado of the words he’s letting out. He’s got an old-school stage swagger to his delivery, that draws admiration and forces you to root for him even when he’s admitting wrongs and taking responsibility.
Charles Bradley – Changes
Listen to the BEST [WHATEVER] SIXTEEN Playlist on spotifty
Twenty-SIXTEEN artwork by Austin Blair. Playlist by Ian Bremner. All album bios by Ian Bremner except Solange, by Gaby Gruenbaum