Every year I rank my top ten favorite albums that I purchased in the past 12 months irrespective of when they were actually released. This year my favorite album (And objectively one of the best released) is one I did not actually purchase -- Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book -- since I’m still unsure if you actually can purchase it? Anyway, you can stream it on any service you pay for or don’t so go check it out. Elsewise, might be indicative of my take on 2016 that the more hopeful an album is the more I liked it.
10. Factory Showroom (1996/2011)
They Might Be Giants
Part of the reason I do this list is because Pat uses it to find new music, so listing a prominent album from one of his favorite bands probably doesn’t help him out at all, but I bought a reissue this year and it’s a great album that I too love, though somehow had managed not to own (or “own”) in any format before now. It’s no Apollo 18, but it’s a fine record with some classic TMBG on it.
9. Are You Serious? (2016)
I’m a long time fan of Andrew Bird and this is a perfectly serviceable album, but it’s nothing new. The highlight (above) is a duet with Fiona Apple. The rest of the album sounds like Andrew Bird with little development from, say, Armchair Apocrypha or anything else, and perhaps even less experimentation than his previous work. He’s a great songwriter, though, so I can’t complain too much on that end. It’s also a lyrically more straightforward album, which is weird for him. Not quite gone, but exceedingly scaled back, are the gonzo metaphors and allusions of songs like A Nervous Tic Motion or Fake Palindromes from The Mysterious Production of Eggs. But in being more straightforward he’s also more open: Puma has the science jargon he frequently traffics in, but is bluntly about his wife’s thyroid cancer. But then again, can I really hold it against a man who got married, had a baby, then suddenly confronted mortality, if he’s not as experimental as I’d like?
8. Portrait of a Damaged Family (1997/2016)
A college rock album from when that term meant something. A jangle pop record from when that term existed. Reprinted for Record Store Day after the success of (and resurgence from) releasing Music from the Adventures of Pete and Pete last year. Yeah, Miracle Legion and Polaris -- the house band from the avant-garde Nickelodeon sitcom -- are one in the same, and more or less musically identical -- after all it was the same guys working together at the same time -- if a little more adult-oriented. Maybe it’s false scarcity, but considering there were only 1000 of these pressed I’m pretty glad I picked it up.
7. My Solo Project (2000)
Mates of State
A long time favorite album that I admit I’m finally owning legitimately for the first time. Great minimalist indie pop and there’s not much else to say.
6. Remember Us to Life (2016)
This is a fantastic record. I mean, I like other Regina Spektor albums more, sure. Like a lot of people I think she loses a bit with each album. But I also really loved Far and a lot of folks would put the division between good and bad Spektor albums on the other side of that particular one. I didn’t even know Remember Us to Life was coming out until I ran across this excellent interview with Spektor on Charlie Rose. The Grand Hotel and The Trapper and the Furrier are both incredible songs, as great as anything she’s ever done.
5. Wow to the Deadness EP (2016)
Steve Taylor & the Danielson Foil
Steve Taylor kickstarted an album in 2014 (it was a favorite of mine that year) with a backing band called The Perfect Foil made up of a supergroup of Christian rockers: Jimmy Abegg used to play with Rich Mullins and Charlie Peacock, Peter Furler used to play drums for The Newsboys, and John Mark Painter performs with his wife as Fleming and John. This time around they added Daniel Smith, better known as Danielson, or Brother Danielson, or the Danielson Famile, or that thing that sounds like the Shaggs meets Beefheart that Sufjan used to play with. The whole thing’s produced by Steve Albini and is exactly what all those disparate collaborators making a punk/post-punk EP should sound like. It’s great, just too short. Fortunately, as a Kickstarter backer for this, I also got a digital copy of Wow to the Liveness, a live album that includes not just the full Deadness EP, but also reinterpretations of Danielson and Taylor’s back catalogues.
4. Begin to Hope 10th Anniversary Ed. (2006/2016)
Maybe not that great that I list Spektor’s 2006 album as better than her 2016 album, but hey, a lot of people who loved Begin to Hope stopped listening to her long before Remember Us to Life came out, so I’ve got that going for me.
This is classic Regina Spektor, the woman that inspired a generation of singer-songwriters I love as well: Lisa Hannigan, Ingrid Michaelson, all great stuff that owes a debt to Spektor in general, and probably Begin to Hope in particular. I'd forgotten how much I love every single track on this record.
Steev Richter (2016)
Full disclosure, Steev is an old and dear friend of mine. I know this album has been a labor of love for him, and for you, so at the sake of my objectivity I’m not just going to say I love it, but that you should go buy it now (link), if not for him for the fact that he got Nils Cline, Ralph Carney, Tess Wiley, John Medeski, and a myriad of other talent that it’s frankly just awesome to hear all working together under the guidance of producer Danny Blume. It’s an album stacked with fantastic talent and it shows. Not least of which is Steev’s lyricism and songsmithing. And his love.
2. Sun & Moon (2015)
Timbre is a Nashville-based harpist who exquisitely crafts indie-folk and neoclassical music to soundtrack your dreams. Sun & Moon is a dual record sharing themes lyrically and musically. Sun is a pop record; Moon is classical compositions. Both are beautiful.
1. Winter Wheat (2016)
John K. Samson
Probably not a surprise that I like singer-songwriters. Probably not a surprise that Iike narrative or literary lyrics. I was a huge fan of John K. Samson’s late project The Weakerthans and was very excited by the announcement of Winter Wheat, and even more excited to pick it up.
The Weakerthans albums seemed to be themed to whatever major happenings were going on in Samson’s life when they were recorded: Reunion Tour, the last one, for instance danced through various forms of regret and remembrance. Winter Wheat moves on from there, both musically and emotionally, with acoustic guitar-forward songs of hope, or at least perseverance. There’s the driving Postdoc Blues that ends in a adapted paraphrasing of Active Hope by Joanna Macy (itself echoing the theology of St. Francis) which I find particularly helpful moving out of 2016:
The title track has its own mantra to push us through the new year that Samson calls “the heart of the album” which he borrows from Mariam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness: “we know this world is good enough because it has to be.”
The titular wheat is used as a metaphor for making it through the roughness:
Be content. But be better.
Happy New Year