2016 Favorite Albums December 30, 2016Posted by reidmix in Album Reviews, Best of 2016, Carpark, Domino, Grand Jury, Greenway, Indie, Merge Records, Mom + Pop, Music, New Releases, Paper Bag, Sacred Bones.
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Last year was a good music year for me, there was far more albums that stuck with me than the (only!) four I picked in 2015. I must reveal now, that I have two picks for favorite album, because I’ve kept picking them back up to listen again and again throughout the year.
On that same note, when compiling the list of 2016 Favorite Songs (Pts. 1, 2, 3), I decided to add two albums back onto this list because I felt like rediscovered them and they deserved to be in my “Best Of” list.
If I had to classify my favorites this year, I’d have to say each of the albums felt bigger than any one song, that the world they painted were grander and more realized and thus transported me. Maybe I was looking for that textured, complicated place to dive within. Or I just like the moody ones.
When You Walk a Long Distance You Are Tired by Mothers
The first album I re-added back to my year-end favorites.
On “Too Small for Eyes”, the sparsity of instrumentation rolls off like a music box, with Kristine Leschper‘s haunting voice making a bridge from aching and longing. A wish for a childhood memory, that you can no longer claim.
But then Mothers can turn it out, bringing the jangly bounce of an alternative 90s sound like in “It Hurts until It Doesn’t.” The loud-soft-loud template that made the great songs of that era. Waxahatchee does this. Think of bands like Breeders on Pod. Or Sonic Youth on the slower songs.
Love Yes by TEEN
The second album re-added.
The transition from the crunchier motorik-folk which made up TEEN‘s earlier sound — likely fueled from Kristina Lieberson‘s contribution in Here We Go Magic — to the clean R&B vocal-driven albums has been a bumpy one (for me).
What carried me through is the off-kilter instrumentation that has always been so much a part of the band’s sound and it seems to have paid off with Love Yes. The angularity is more committed here, the vocals are more integrated. There is an ease to every song and they relate to each other. As listener, I’m now able to let the music capture me and allow it to bring up the story it wants to tell.
Skip a Sinking Stone by Mutual Benefit
Some albums are sticky, in that they stay with me in that I return to them for a listen. Some albums are too slick and slip pass me and that’s not a problem. Those that are both beautiful but not sticky are the worst, they have one listen but hang around in my collection for years. My fear is expunging them not know if I really *got them*.
Skip a Sinking Stone is one of those truly sweet albums that isn’t very sticky. But every time I return to it, it feels so natural, so peaceful, like it has a place to beat alongside my heart, and I cannot bear to be without it. Then a few weeks or months go by and I go through it all over again.
For the folk fans and those of C. Duncan, Fleet Foxes, and The Acorn.
“July 6” by Rachel Haden
I know that dog. more for their mythology in the 4AD cannon (Guernica, more precisely) than I’ve become actually entwined in their music. I consider that more about time spent than any conclusion made about the band. But if band-member Rachel Haden’s “July 6” has anything to do with it, the newest that dog. in 19 years bodes well.
“July 6” has this otherworldliness, a place you go to in order to discover who you are, in which you come back forever changed. There are songs where Haden is giving up secrets to a close, intimate friend (embarrassments maybe, honestly surely) from her life. Not so much for me or you, but for her to find herself.
As a His Name Is Alive fan, I can’t help but notice Warren Defever‘s eerie guitar skills. Sometimes, the collaboration feels akin to Defever’s collaboration with Ian Masters on ESP Summer. The album would have fit nicely on the timeSTEREO roster.
Not many YouTube vidoes, but her bandcamp has the full album, some of my favorites to sample are: the Red House Painters meloncholy of I’m Away, Elizabeth Frazier vocal tumbling of Get Out, and the solemn, fuzzy beauty of 12 Monkeys.
FLOTUS by Lambchop
One of the idiosyncratic, “country” artists of 90s Merge Records era, Lambchop created one of my all-time favorite of all-time (Mark Robinson remixed) songs, The Militant. Lambchop has not stopped putting out albums in 25 years, but his latest has stepped more mightily into the light.
The album is sprawling. The opener, “In Care of 8675309” referencing Tommy Tutone‘s number, clocks in at nearly 12 minutes and it’s not the longest song.
For the first few listens I thought Lambchop went the way of Bon Iver with autotune on every song. I wasn’t able to figure out why it was successful until I realized it was a vocoder (I think!) because the singing didn’t “step into” each octave. The important difference is voice alteration vs. voice correction. The effect is a hushing, nearly a mumbling, that exposes the underbelly of the songs that is soft, tender and inviting.
Inexplicably to me and paradoxically, the album shyness transforms it to be more available to the listener, more open to dig into the words, more curious to lean-in and hear its message and nostalgia. The country sheen is wiped away with drum machines, soft patters, motorik and humble horns. A micro-electronica Björk and Psapp would be proud of. You can hear this best on 18 minutes of The Hustle, which in fact makes you want to do the hustle.
Songs from the Haunted South by Old Fire
Oh the great collaborator-producer musicians. In league with my favorites, those being This Mortal Coil (Ivo Watts-Russell), Parenthetical Girls (Zac Pennington), His Name Is Alive (Warren Defever), Piano Magic (Glen Johnson), and now Old Fire (John Mark Latham). Thus finally realizing the decade-long dream that was born out of early works under the moniker The Late Cord. And it makes sense this is how the album was made, with a long cast of characters, each with their own full catalog as artists, some suggested by Ivo.
At first blush you may want to conclude its a continuation to This Mortal Coil’s trilogy, but I think that’s does a disservice to both bands. The bridge between them isn’t so solid as perhaps the blueprints on making an album like Songs from the Haunted South may indicate. They are different beasts, with different hearts charging within them.
The album can be summed up with “Bloodchild”. A delicate filigree is an ode to a dear friend’s death. It’s that moment you want to share an thought, a thing, an experience with a family member or friend, but realize they’re no longer with you. The hopes and dreams you have for them are now carried within you because you’re now the sole keeper of them. I cannot listen to this song without thinking about the passing of my mom and I think that’s what takes it from a personal connection to a universal one.
Here’s a song-by-song commentary of the album.
Says You by The Luyas
The only EP on my list, my hope is these ideas and soundscapes transport to a full album.
“Engineers” was the first single off Says You, and its the jewel of the release. Not only for yowling of the guitar and the fun bleeps and bloops that bedazzle the song, but for the strong love for the human ingenuity, existing absent the belief for God.
“I’m a creator / and also I don’t believe in God / But Engineers had more respect” who build “By our hands / By our meaning / By our methods”
It’s matter-of-fact statement, delivered in that confident and understated ways. Something you wouldn’t expect for someone who understands there’s no life-after-death when thinking of their legacy.
“And we thought that we knew / but we didn’t know shit / I thought I’ll be something enduring / Hell, no!”
The whole EP unfolds in this way, subtle and irreverent, confident in its demise, irresistible in its sweetness and earnestness.
Summer Is Gone by Bill Baird
This is Bill Baird‘s strongest, most captivating work to date. He is at his high-water mark. Like The Luyas, it’s subtlety delivered. Where it differs is the lushness, the varied instruments (plinking piano, swelling strings, electronics and synthetic voices) striding their way through every song.
It’s astonishing that Baird is not endeared by a much wider audience over his decade-long career — but I believe his reverence growing release by release.
There’s plenty of instrumentals, 3 songs are revisited from earlier work. This is common of Baird, who’s last release earlier in the year were more polished versions of his earlier songs.
What adds an extra layer is the 250 remixes that was made for this release. They are bundled together in the ever-changing album at http://www.summerisgone.live which regenerates the 10 songs using the remixes based on time and location. It creates “An album that’s about memory that’s unique for every listener”
Blood Bitch by Jenny Hval
Jenny Hval was my exciting discovery of the year. She’s got that Ann Magnuson truth in sexuality. She’s got that Laurie Anderson flair for performance. Her songs are Witch House, imperfect, electronic, uncomfortable as Xiu Xiu, gothic, terrorpop, gorgeous and so fully realized as a skillfully constructed woman’s work.
She could be play with Zola Jesus. She could have been at the founding of Warpaint.
Listening to “Conceptual Romance,” it’s as if she’s crouching in to talk you at a club, she’s telling you a story, drunk off her rockers, shouting her truth because all filters are off. And it sounds so good, she does this song after song.
As I do with new-to-me artists, I travel back or forwards through their catalog. Hval’s work spans a decade back to when she called herself Rockettothesky, strong performances as far back as 2006. If I could I’d also put Apocalypse, Girl on this list (or last year’s list) simply for the twin songs “Take Care of Yourself” and “The Battle Is Over.”
Cult Following by Little Scream
My first #1 album of the year.
I think this is a concept album.
I know that happens at the end of a relationship or perhaps it just an ending. I know that she goes looking for a lover. I know there’s a man as captivating as a cult leader.
He can read her mind, he can see the future.
What’s not clear is which relationship is abusive. It’s not clear if she’s experiencing each song for the first time or if she’s just remembering. Its not clear how it all falls apart and into rolling shambles.
Sometimes Little Scream’s Laurel Sprengelmeyer is channeling Prince or Micheal Jackson. She has pulled in great voices to sing with her like Sharon Van Etton, Mary Margaret O’Hara (!!!), Kyp Malone (TV on the Radio). She’s has pulled in great musicians to play with her as Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), the Dresser bothers (The National), The Barr Brothers. It’s the kind of productions we see in documentaries about bands from the 60’s and 70’s. More akin to filmmaking/theatermaking than a band recording a song.
The songs are danceable, shoutable, swoonable, rock’n’rollable, reflective, self-inflicted, wasted and floating. You know, the gamut of emotions. All tied up in this tight little album. The non-album performancesnon-album performances are pretty amazing too.
On a personal note, this album jogged several ideas I’ve been having for a story and acted as catalyst to bind them all together. One of which is that I’ve been wanting to write a book called Cult Hero after The Cure‘s side-project/song. One of my favorite lyrics on Cult Following is “what if my best memories are dreams” and two of my ideas are exactly that, they come from dreams I’ve never forgotten. So here is my hat-tip and thanks to Sprengelmeyer’s inspiration.
Gumption by Your Friend
My next #1 album of the year.
I’ve known for over a year now that I’ve sported a deep and unyielding love for Gumption. I had discovered Your Friend‘s earlier Jekyll/Hyde EP and live sets right before its release.
On the surface,Taryn Miller’s voice is a Patsy Kline‘s aching croon. She sings over looped textures and melodies that are signature production techniques of Owen Pallett and tUne-YarDs. Sometimes a jangly guitar, always a brooding drum.
The weight of her songs is her finding her place in the world. Sometimes she’s just rhythmically asking “How did I get back here?” or “Who will I be in the morning?” or”Is that how I see you / you see me?” It’s a meditation, each one.
For me sometimes, Gumption feels like His Name Is Alive‘s Livonia. That is if she had arrived first, bringing her midwest (Kansas) sensibilities and sussed out a country drawl that can be found on the title track. If I could put Warren Defever and Taryn Miller together for collaboration, I would.
“Come Back from It” has the same persistent knocking present in “Some and I”, “To Live With” has the sloshing atmospherics of “How Ghosts Affect Relationships” and robotic mechanics of “Fossil”. Gumption has little sounds hiding everywhere, they are bugs under rocks and moths in the closet. It could even be brought more broadly into the 4ad cannon where I could argue that her enigmatic, sometimes indecipherable lyrics are like that of Elizabeth Frazier (Cocteau Twins).
Yet Gumption is a distinct work, certainly a singular vision of Miller’s — and maybe that’s what I’m responding to. As much as I want to fit this work in context of those I most love, her voice, her sound, her approach is like no other.
“Nothing Moved” sits in the middle like a pearlescent treasure. Shimmering and spinning with electronic and flute vibrations. (Even now I want to compare it to the best Yo La Tengo song on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.) Inside this sulky anthem, Miller draws out a little laughter “We would die laughing / shallow as a bathroom sink.” The song continues to crescendo, amplifying the little screams of guitar effects, raising your hackles along the way.
The album is best listened on wintery, nighttime car-rides, flying over dark roads etched into empty, desert hills.
Here is a Spotify playlist, which currently does not include the Rachel Haden songs.