Well this is embarrassing. We’re only like like, what? 7 months late with this thing? 2016 was a wild year for both of us, and it looks like 2017 is shaping up to be too, or else we’d have wrapped this up a long time ago. But here we are. Most of these blurbs were written last year, so if there’s some confusion in the tenses used, we apologize. But honestly, if you’re still reading this thing after all these years and you’re worried about inconsistent grammar, I don’t really know what to tell you.
As always, these were our favorite albums of the year, not necessarily the best… blah blah blah. You get it. Let’s just cut to the chase…
Chris’s Favorite Album of 2016
by King Creosote & Michael Johnston
Most of what I love about The Bound of the Red Deer can be summed up in its fourth track, “Billows Roll.” After two minutes of uninterrupted piano, the song gives way to a simple couplet repeated only twice, “You have an anchor that steadies the soul / steadfast and sure my love, how the billows roll.” It’s thoughtful and understated, and I hear that desire for a sure anchor throughout the record.
The Bound of the Red Deer may be the least obvious pick for an album of the year – it’s a minor release from two fairly niche musicians to begin with, recorded quickly on acoustic instruments several years ago, then released without any fanfare last spring. They only played a few shows in its support after it slipped into the world, largely unnoticed (I’m pretty confident that “unnoticed” is the right word, because I’m pretty well obsessed with anything King Creosote does, but I didn’t even hear about this record until almost four months after it had been released), and then it just kind of floated away as both musicians moved onto other projects.
Overall it’s a quiet, ruminative record, one that’s content to just be what it is. Both Johnston and Creosote are veteran songwriters who’ve been working tirelessly for years, and these sturdy songs reflect it (they’re both part of the Canadian/Scottish songwriters collective The Burns Unit, whose 2010 record Side Show is absolutely worth your time, and on which a few of these songs originally appeared). The songs are thoughtfully arranged and beautifully realized, with pretty little moments abounding: the ascending piano line that opens “Since We’ve Fallen Out”, the buoyant sha-la-la vocals in “Hang Dog” and the celtic percussion that peppers it’s outro, the celestial coda of “Supermoon” where both men’s voices combine to chant “come in with the tide” until the song ebbs away. I suppose none of these moments are particularly notable in their own right, but taken together they form an undeniably beautiful whole.
This past year has been a turbulent one for me. We left Indianapolis, our home of seven years, and started a new life 2000 miles away in Seattle, Washington. We started a business in April and welcomed our second son in September. All good things for sure, but not things I’d recommend doing within a 12-month period if you can help it. As I’ve been thinking about our year, full of gale-force winds and tempestuous seas, it’s become pretty apparent why this record has spoken to me so much. I love King Creosote, and his music actually has become an anchor for me over the past several years – something I’ve returned to over and over again whenever I’ve needed it. The Bound of the Red Deer is another cable lashed to that anchor, “steadfast and sure (as) the billows roll.” –Chris
Logan’s Favorite Album of 2016
by James Blake
During my first semester at college I took an introductory art history class. It covered everything from prehistoric fertility statues to contemporary street artists. It was hardly in depth, but broad strokes and shallow interpretations are about all I’m capable of digesting (I know next to nothing about music but compared to my knowledge and understanding of art, I’m a Juilliard graduate specializing in… let’s say Jazz drumming).
However, I do remember one particular piece of art from that class and the experience I had (and have) when looking at it. The Night Café by Vincent Van Gogh depicts the interior of a cafe, a billiard table is near the center of the scene and customers sit slouched, drunk or asleep, at tables that hug the walls of the room. The colors are garish and almost violent. Even now, the sickly yellow-green glow of the lamps in that piece is lurid and unsettling. I was amazed at how the careful selection of colors could evoke such emotion and when I listen to James Blake’s appropriately titled third album, The Colour in Everything, I am reminded of that painting. Whether intentional or not, Colour has an imagery associated with it. The various tracks feel as though they were painted in cool hues of blue, purple, and gray. Blake’s sound is, at times, thickly applied like an Impressionist, chunky and roughly textured — at other times he channels the fine and precise detail of a Rembrandt, while still maintaining the darkness and intense emotions that permeate the album from start to finish.
(I trust anyone who knows anything about art will laugh at my childlike and simpleton interpretation. But I’d say this was pretty good for a guy who still laughs when he hears Peter Paul Ruben’s work referred to as “Ruben’s Boobens.“) –Logan
The rest of the best….
by Amy O
[Let’s Pretend Records]
One constant during years in Indianapolis was making the 40-minute drive down to Bloomington to see this or that concert. I’ve seen everyone from Bob Dylan to Sufjan Stevens, from Jens Lekman to Janelle Monae in that little gem of a town, and I’ll always be grateful for its wealth of charming little venues, from DIY spaces like Rhino’s and the Live Room at Russian Recording, to relative mainstays like the Bishop and Bluebird, to the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater.
Just before we moved I got one last chance to make that drive to Bloomington to see Hop Along at the Bishop with one of my very best friends. Hop Along were, of course, incredible (they’re honestly one of the best bands working today), but I was pleasantly surprised to thoroughly enjoy the opening act – a local group fronted by a young woman going by Amy O. That night was the release show for her latest record, Arrow, and she and her band just played its ten spritely songs straight through. I was so impressed I bought the album on cassette (that was the only format she was selling, if I recall) and went on to listen to this lo-fi garage-pop gem all year. She’s got another record on the horizon, so keep an ear out for this talented export from one of my favorite little Indiana towns. -Chris
mp3: Amy O – Arrow
by The Avalanches
This definitely wasn’t Since I Left You, Part II. But honestly, how could it be? After 16 years, The Avalanches made the wise decision to not try and recreate a stone-cold masterpiece, instead coming back with something a little goofier, a little less mysterious, and with a lot more MCs. It might not prove to be as timeless as that first bit of lightning-in-a-bottle, but you know what? I still love it. -Chris
by Bon Iver
When 22, A Million finally saw the light of day, I read a lot of reviews that described it as “Justin Vernon gets weird,” which struck me as odd. Because, in my mind, Justin Vernon’s always been weird. Sure, the narrative for For Emma, Forever Ago was pretty cliched, and yes, it was mainly a man and his guitar – but aside from that, it’s a weird little record, made up of droning alternate tunings and word-soup free-associative lyricism. It was weird! On the Blood Bank EP, Bon Iver flirted with Reichian tonal patterns on “Babies” and was honestly the first singer-songwriter I knew of to experiment with autotune on “Woods.” It was also weird! On 2012’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver he swapped his guitar for maximalist cut-and-paste sound collages that ended with a straight-shooting homage to Bruce Hornsby. That was weird! And I’m not even mentioning all his forays into hip-hop (a la Kanye), experimental rock (Volcano Choir’s first record) and adult contemporary (Gayngs). It’s all been weird!
So yeah, 22, A Million is weird, but c’mon, it’s not like Vernon’s been writing variations on “Hey There Delilah” for the past ten years. The real difference this time around is how fully Vernon leans into his post-guitar phase – the majority of 22, A Million is made up of glitchy electronics and disjointed samples, creating the bed for Vernon’s trademark falsetto, only this time it’s more often distorted than not. So yeah, it’s weird. But just like all the other weirdness Vernon’s put his name on, the record is almost uniformly gorgeous, another testament to the man’s creative genius. -Chris
I got deep into this record in the weeks after my second son was born — it’s like a time capsule for this AM-radio golden era that probably never actually existed, but still makes the perfect soundtrack for a lazy afternoon. Neko Case is, as always, a force of nature, and KD Lang and Laura Veirs are just brilliant as ever. It’s an album that doesn’t try hard to win you over, but it doesn’t really need to. It’s just doing it’s thing and it’s thing is enough. -Chris
by The Hotelier
EDITORS NOTE: We consider this a family-friendly blog. We try to limit things like profanity and nudity when we can help it, and even though this cover isn’t particularly offensive, it still had a whole lot of naked, hence the pixelation. 🙂
I’m not a creative type. I like to doodle but that’s about it. I often think that I’m one who’s been blessed to appreciate and applaud those that are creative but at the same time is cursed to not be creative myself. I’ve surrounded myself with creative people; people who can use words, music, pencils, and other mediums to create art. Many of these people find inspiration in the mundane and use that to soothe and to solve. People who, when faced with a 3-year old refusing to go to bed, illustrate a comic showing a brave pillow-wielding heroine fighting a sleep deprived monster or who, upon seeing a doe grazing outside their cabin window, ruminate on life, death, and God. I find myself frustrated that I just don’t see the world the way they do. Goodness, by The Hotelier, has many of these moments (including the aforementioned inspiration from a doe). It has been an especially inspiring record since welcoming my first child this year because, if even in the smallest way, I think I’m starting to see the world a bit differently. Holding my son (essentially a little helpless poop factory and sleep destroyer) has made me think more about my life, the path I’ve been on, and, even in these dark times, allows me to see the beauty in this world. He really makes me “see life in exploding color”.
Okay, so maybe it’s all of the above that makes me love this album, or maybe I just enjoy over-the-top spoken word intros (which it definitely has). -Logan
by King Creosote
In the short five years since I stumbled upon King Creosote he’s released at least 9 albums worth of music (at least I think he has – his “official” releases can be pretty hard to pin down, much less purchase). The guy is just ridiculously prolific, especially considering the fact that the man’s been making music for three decades! This year alone, KC released this on Domino Records, Queens of Brush County on his own Fence Records, and self-released The Bound of the Red Deer with Michael Johnston. How’s anyone supposed to keep up with that?
With that kind of prolificacy, quality can be a real concern, but this guy just keeps pumping out winner after winner for me, and Astronaut Meets Appleman is no exception. Lots of KC’s records can be considered DIY affairs, but this one takes the hat-tip from 2014’s well-received From Scotland With Love and sticks with the higher production values. You can hear it in the gorgeous vocal textures and harp scales on the back half of “You Just Want” or in the lush low end in “Love Life”, or in the accordion and strings that drive the crescendo in “Surface” (in fact the accordion is all over this thing, and I love it so much). Listen, I know I’ve crossed over completely into fanboy territory with this guy and I’ve lost any semblance of objective credibility here, so you can just dismiss anything I say about him from here on out if you want. But make sure you at least take a listen first, because you might just find yourself in the same boat. -Chris
by Kishi Bashi
Two years ago when Chris and I put together our year-end list, we had two albums vying for the number one spot, Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There and Kishi Bashi’s Lighght. Ultimately, if memory serves me right, we settled on Lighght strictly because Chris and I had had a fantastic year – 2014 had been one of the best years in our lives and we wanted our “top” album to reflect that optimism. Personally, I was celebrating my relationship and engagement to my now wife. I’m still in awe of my wife, but particularly in that year, when we decided to get married, I could not believe my luck. She is the everything I was made to believe was asking too much. The beauty and, at times, the lighthearted silliness of Lighght encapsulated what made 2014 wonderful. Now, two years later, I’m married, I’ve just welcomed my son into the world, and Kishi Bashi’s Sonderlust is beautifully in line with these life changes.
Both albums, ultimately, are about love. But where Lighght was frantic, excited, and just generally matched that thrill of a new love and romance, Sonderlust seems to take a more honest, fragile, and realistic approach to love. There is a mature love expressed in this album. A love based on understanding, compromise, and true affection. And you can take my word on this. I’ve been married for almost TWO years, so I’m pretty much an expert on mature and celestial love. –Logan
by Mason Jennings
[Stats and Brackets]
This record occupies an odd space for me. It came out just as we were packing up and preparing to leave our home of seven years to start all over in the Pacific Northwest. I listened to it almost exclusively as I finished packing up our little duplex rental, repainting and filling holes in the 70-year old plaster walls. It’s what I listened to during the nights after my wife and son flew ahead of me to our new home — it played on an old portable turntable while I slept on an air mattress on the bare wooden floor surrounded by the dregs of everything we own, the things that didn’t file away easily into previously packed categories.
I haven’t returned to it much since that week, and I’m not sure when I will again. But the last two songs, “How I Feel About You” and “On The Starry Banks”, have never really left me since those nights on the floor in our old house, like little beacons from another life. -Chris
With all of the talk of love and happiness in my other posts, I feel like we need to take it a tad darker.
2016 was a nuts year for me and my family. I’ll try not to go into too much detail, but it all started in February when I decided, along with my doctor, that I could discontinue my anti-anxiety medication. I had been in a really good spot for a while and I was feeling quite triumphant. My beautiful wife was pregnant, we had just put a down payment on a home we were building, and I had just received a pretty nice pay bump at work. These things and more led me to feeling emotionally stable, comfortable, and confident. And boy was I happy.
And then things started happening, not bad things, undeniably good things. Over the next four months, the ground was broken on our home, I left my old job to take a great position at a company I love, we moved into our new home, and the little boy continued to grow until he joined us mid-November, happy and healthy. During this time, even while we were celebrating such wonderful things, I felt the shake of my old anxiety. New father jitters. Homeowner nerves. New job stomach. Holiday exhaustion. It was easy to dismiss these things and not acknowledge that maybe I needed that help again. Things were wonderful and I was happy! You could look at any aspect of my life now versus 5 years ago and see the almost exponential difference. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of some unknown dread. Completely unidentifiable but, in my head, 100% real. It sucked.
Preoccupations (formerly Viet Cong) have, in my opinion, captured this emotional struggle with their self-titled release. Preoccupations is heavy. It perpetually beats these emotions into you through an almost monotonous repetition that keeps you uneasy and on edge. This was obviously the band’s intent. Each track title alludes to a battle so many people are facing day to day (and I fully realize I am very lucky and I feel a bit uneasy even putting myself in the same category as those that carry a far heavier burden). So far, I’ve described Preoccupations as an emotional struggle and a battle, but what is beautiful is that, at no point, is there the thought of a surrender. It might be an ongoing fight, you might lose battles here and there, but ultimately, the war of this album closes repeating the following line, “You’re not scared. Carry your fever away from here.“
(And in case you were wondering, I’m feeling much better now. I’m back on my meds and things are going great.) -Logan
I don’t have much to add to any discussion on Radiohead, so I’ll keep this brief. As someone who genuinely enjoyed The King of Limbs, I wasn’t looking for some redemptive comeback record as much as I was looking for another gorgeous collection of songs — but no matter what you were hoping for, I think A Moon Shaped Pool probably delivered — it’s just that great. Like most of Radiohead’s work, it’s claustrophobic and anxious while still somehow being tender and breathtakingly beautiful. But what’s most striking to me about A Moon Shaped Pool is how generous it is. Honestly, there’s so few examples of bands this successful making music this vital this late in their career – and the fact is, Thom Yorke & co. honestly didn’t need to. But they did, and it sounds like they put everything they had into it. And then they go and throw freaking “True Love Waits” on the end of it too? I mean, come on. We don’t deserve this. -Chris
by School of Seven Bells
I was pretty late to the School of Seven Bells party. I liked their second record well enough and put “I L U” on several mixes back in 2010, but besides that, they’d flown completely under my radar. Then, in 2013, Benjamin Curtis passed away due to complications associated with lymphoma. His surviving bandmate Alejandra Deheza released the last thing they’d recorded together, a cover of Joey Ramones’ “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up),” which Curtis had reportedly been working on in his hospital bed right up until his death. The over seven-minute take on the snotty classic won me over easily, and from there I dove back into a truly impressive catalog, cut much too short. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Deheza was finishing and planned to release the record she and Curtis had been working on before he died. The result is SVIIB, the likely last record under the School of Seven Bells moniker.
But you don’t need to know all that history to enjoy this thing – these songs stand up just fine on their own. Side A’s killer run of “Ablaze” through “A Thousand Times More” is as bleary-eyed and brilliant as anything else in their repertoire, and while the second half is more sedate in comparison, it’s no less pretty for it – all shimmery and enveloping in the way that Deheza’s and Curtis’s best work always has been. In short, SVIIB is just a gorgeous batch of songs, and certainly a worthy coda to a singular run of records.
by A Tribe Called Quest
I just wasn’t that plugged into hip-hop this year. All the releases I was most excited about left me feeling cold (Kanye, Chance), and I’m just not that interested in any of the newest rappers I’ve heard (That’s right! I’m old! Get off my lawn!).
But something about seeing Q-Tip spit his bars from “We The People….” on SNL mere days after learning that a narcissistic authoritarian cheetoh-in-a-wig was going to be the next leader of the free world got my blood pumping. Since then, it’s been a sheer joy to revel in Tribe’s return from the grave – a vital document that appeared at exactly the right time. –Chris
Tags: Amy O, Bon Iver, case/lang/veirs, James Blake, KD Lang, King Creosote, Kishi Bashi, Laura Veirs, Mason Jennings, Michael Johnston, Neko Case, Preoccupations, Radiohead, School of Seven Bells, The Avalanches, The Hotelier, Viet Cong