Field Notes & Fixations: Favorites of 2016
By Thomas Hentges
2016 will likely be remembered for it’s more tumultuous leanings.
However, to each yin there is almost always a yang. The disturbing tone and rhetoric of the 2016 electoral season was juxtaposed with the seeming miracle of a Chicago Cubs victory on that the greatest stage of America’s pastime. The relentless epidemic of mass shootings and police brutality continued to assimilate our culture as we received progressive news that Harriet Tubman’s portrait will replace that of Andrew Jackson’s on the $20 bill. And while the music community suffered a great deal of loss, we also amassed an exciting new chapter in music from artists both new as well as faithful and familiar.
I recently took time to reflect on the music of 2016 and compiled a catalog of my favorite album offerings of the year. It’s always fun to look back at these lists I create each year, noticing often that a year or two can certainly find you with a different frame of reference. My personal leanings find myself usually in that of around a handful of genres, so you will begin to see some similitude and notice many genres absent, but I trust there is something for everyone to be enjoyed within this extensive list.
(Listen while you read, check out Thomas’s Spotify playlist.)
1. Whitney – Light Upon the Lake (Secretly Canadian)
The debut album from Chicago’s Whitney is a peculiar album in that its melancholy lyrics are dressed in sunshine drenched, indie-folk arrangements that made up what seemed the perfect album for the summer of ’16. Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich’s first release since the breakup of their previous band, Smith Westerns, was recorded by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado at his home in California’s San Fernando Valley, with the band sleeping in tents in the back yard during the sessions. Lyrically, the album often feels like a pop take on Kerouac’s Beat Gen classic, On the Road, with tales of travel, adventure, excitement and regret. No other album received more spins from me this year, making it a seemingly obvious choice for my top spot.
2. Night Moves – Pennied Days (Domino)
Minneapolis’ Night Moves returned with limited expansion of their sound to their credit on this, their sophomore release for the Domino. Guitarist and lead vocalist, John Pelant and bassist Mickey Alfano continue to fuse country, folk, psych and pop influences, producing a unique take on modern Americana. This album also found itself in heavy rotation during the spring and summer months of 2016, and with good reason. The infectious one-two punch of “Carl Sagan” and “Denise, Don’t Wanna See You Cry” served as the perfect soundtrack for nights spent sipping lemonade cocktails on the porch.
3. Cass McCombs – Mangy Love (Anti-)
I have no argument with The New York Times‘ proclamation that McCombs is “one of the great songwriters of his time”. A cult singer/songwriter staple who’s peers include Will Oldham, Jason Molina and Bill Callahan, I anticipate any new release with his name amongst the credits. Mangy Love plays out like a continuation of 2013’s Big Wheel and Others with a combination of political & world conscious narrative alongside McCombs’ often comical renderings and vivid character examinations. McCombs appears again at #23 on my list for his participation with The Skiffle Players.
4. Adam Torres – Pearls to Swine (Fat Possum)
I stumbled on this artist by a freak accident this fall. An inaccurate promo sticker comparison to Townes Van Zandt, an intersting album title, the solid rep of Fat Possum and a $15.99 (LP) price tag lead me to roll the dice on this my diamond amongst the rough pick of the year. Assumedly like most, I was immediately struck by the intense vocal falsetto Torres displays on the album’s opener “Juniper Arms”. The magic of this record is in the combination of the visual lyrical content, sparse instrumentation and in Torres unique vocal. I found few things more satisfying this fall than brisk late afternoon walks with this absolutely gorgeous set of songs as the soundtrack via headphones.
5. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailors Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
On Simpson’s major label debut, he did anything but the easy thing, opting to stray from the formula which had earned him a reputation as the next big thing in neo-outlaw country. The album’s addition of R&B and soul influences (the album has noticeable nods to Marvin Gaye both musically and in the lyrics’ emince sentiment in simplicity) to compliment the already present and perfected classic country sound is a bold departure for an artist that could have plyed it safe. The self-produced album polarized his early fan base, but gained huge momentum all year long starting with charting #1 on Billboard’s Country Album Charts in it’s first week, a long and successful promotional tour including several TV performances and then the biggest shock of them all, the albums Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Having become a first time uncle shortly before this album’s release, it was fun to gift this album to my brother, as the record’s lyrical theme of Sturgill’s love and lessons for his first born son, seemed an appropriate gesture.
6. Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis (New West)
Much like Sturgill Simpson, Ellis is no stranger to presenting outside the box arrangements in country music, following his outstanding 2014 release The Lights From the Chemical Plant with decidedly more pop and 70’s singer/songwriter leanings to add to his already potent country/jazz fusion arsenal. Ellis’ strength lies in his abilities as both a songwriter and musician. Imagine George Jones, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Ornette Coleman making music together and you get an idea of the ground covered by this highly underrated and experimental, yet very approachable artist.
7. Vince Staples – Prima Donna (Def Jam)
Vince Staples doesn’t miss a step on his follow-up EP, hot on the heels of the success of his 2015 breakthrough Summertime ’06. In a genre currently laden with exaggerated bravado and copy-cat dribble, Staples dives deeper inward with this set of songs with a threaded theme focussing in on depression in the face of success. The beat on “Pimp Hand” is LEGIT and was my go to after-work jam this fall. Keep celebrating your favorite pop rap artist’s and their essential ghost-written singles and albums. I will stick with those pushing the envelope or nodding to a once strong tradition.
8. The Cactus Blossoms – Red House (You’re Dreaming)
Released in January, You’re Dreaming, became the perfect soundtrack to moonlit drives throughout the late winter and early spring evenings. Twin Cities based brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum were able to achieve big results with the help of the production of Oklahoma vintage-king, JD McPherson. With McPherson at the helm, the already present Everly and Louvin Brothers-esque vocals are now being elevated with the addition of early rock n’ roll arrangements to compliment the 50’s honky-tonk model the duo initially built upon. Very happy for the success these two friends found this year!
9. Dylan LeBlanc – Cautionary Tale (Thirty Tigers)
This album caught my attention early on last year upon of the release of the single of the title-track, which is amongst my favorite songs of the year. Over the course of the seasons, the melodies and enchanting arrangements continued to bud and flourish in my few moments of silence. One would be hard pressed to pin-point the year of this album’s release if asked blindly upon a virgin listen, as there is something timeless both in production as well as LeBlanc’s use of song structures. Thirty Tigers continues to release some of the best in up-and-coming Americana.
10. Aaron Lee Tasjan – Silver Tears (New West)
A former member of a later incarnation of The New York Dolls, Aaron Lee Tasjan seems unlikely to assume the roll
11. Lydia Loveless – Real (Bloodshot Records)
12. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
13. Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
14. Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (Third Man)
15. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
16. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw (Dead Oceans)
17. Anderson Paak – Malibu (Steel Wool)
18. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. (Aftermath)
19. Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)
20. Daniel Romano – Mosey (New West)
21. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust (Thirty Tigers)
22. The Skiffle Players – Skifflin‘ (Spiritual Pajamas)
23. William Tyler – Modern Country (Merge)
24. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity (ATO)
25. Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee (Merge)
26. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs (Anti-)
27. Andy Shauf – The Party (Anti-)
28. Karl Blau – Introducing Karl Blau (Raven Marching Band)
29. Charles Bradley – Changes (Daptone)
30. Micheal Nau – Mowing (Suicide Squeeze)
31. Luke Bell – Luke Bell (Bill Hill/Thirty Tigers)
32. Schoolboy Q – Blank Face (Top Dawg)
33. Steve Gunn – Eyes On The Lines (Matador)
34. Bombino – Azel (Partisan)
35. Woods – City Sun Eater In The River of LIght (Woodsist)
36. Wilco – Schmilco (Dbpm)
37. Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love (Glassnote)
38. Jack Klatt – Shadows In The Sunset (Different Folk)
39. Ray Lamontagne – Ouroboros (RCA)
40. Heron Oblivion – Heron Oblivion (Sub Pop)
41. Paul Cauthen – My Gospel (Lightning Rod)
42. Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers (HWY 87)
43. Billy Don Burns – A Night In Room 8 (Black Country Rock)
44. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
45. Amanda Shires – My Piece Of Land (BMG)
46. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (Columbia)
47. Natural Child – Okey Dokey (Natural Child)
48. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
49. Damien Jurado – Visions of Us on the Land (Secretly Canadian)
50. The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood (4AD)
On a side note, I have enjoyed my inaugural six months of providing content here with Field Notes and Fixations and thank all of you who take the time to either read or participate. I look forward to continuing my coverage of South Dakota music and more in the new year. Cheers!