Best of 2016: Singer/Songwriter

This was the hardest list to write but some of the most fun albums to listen back to (and sing along with). I listened to every album in this project as I wrote about it, and now that I’m done, music sounds entirely differently than it did before. I think I have weeks of minimalism and musique concrete ahead of me unless I start my best albums 2010-2015 project (which would be about six times harder than this). I couldn’t get this list down to 10, so I had to do five extras, which felt just right because of how many of these were my very favorites for the year.

15> Agnes Obel - Citizen of Glass

This is my introduction to Obel, or really the phrase “a classically trained pianist with an elegant and elastic voice” was my introduction. This is a record that focuses on voice and lush arrangements, which there isn’t enough of, or at least, not enough of it finds me.

14> Cass McCombs - Mangy Love

Cass writes his best songs but doesn’t maybe put out his best record with Mangy Love. Half the songs are indelible Cassics (a clumsy portmanteau of Cass and classics), which is a high hit rate for him, or for anyone. The other half sounds like he just didn’t really try hard enough. Tune in for 1, 4,5,6,11, and 12 though for sure.

13> Aidan Knight - Each Other

Each Other is a quiet album with some loud bombastic moments. It’s a pop record one moment and quiet, introspective folk the next. Knight has an interesting way of maintaining distance while singing about things that must be very personal. Perhaps that’s a Canadian thing. It works for him.

12> Carter Tanton - Jettison the Valley

Having enlisted Sharon and Van Etten and Melissa Nadler to complement his fragile tenor, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Tanton becomes a critical darling. Not yet, though! This is a classic breakup album with careful songwriting and palpable emotion. It gives rather than takes, though, and I find myself enjoying it more with each listen.

11> Angel Olsen - My Woman

Big year for Angel! Everyone loves this album! Except me, I just like it a lot. I still can’t really get over the production of her voice, or maybe just her voice itself. It’s the most powerful part of the record and it’s the biggest nagging point if you don’t quite like how it sounds. This is still a great record that deserves all the nice things that people say about it.

10> Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Signing to Atlantic certainly shifted where this album went, but not in a bad way! I had no idea if there was anywhere to go from his amazing album that got him signed to the major, but rollicking country soul wasn’t what I would have guessed. I really enjoy hearing Sturgill’s evolution and I hope he continues trying things out!

9> Adam Torres - Pearls to Swine

This came to me at a strange time, where I was surrounded by beautiful folk records to the extent that it just sounded like another beautiful folk record (this list is sort of full of them). This is a very special one though: live to tape with really interesting arrangements and one of most unique and beautiful voices I’ve ever heard from anyone. One of the few I really have a hard time matching note for note while singing along. I still try!

8> Andrew Bird - Are You Serious?

Maybe this isn’t that notable an album in the Bird oeuvre, which boasts half a dozen classics already, but it sure is a nice listen. These songs played really well live, unlike a lot of the songs off of the last two proper records. It has a great run of pop songs in the first four tracks and an amazing one-two punch in “The New Saint Jude” and “Valleys of the Young.” In between it sags a little bit, but not much. A necessary listen even if you’ve tuned him out for a bit.

7> Ryley Walker - Golden Sings that Have been Sung

Ryley does two diametrically opposed things on this record. First, he brings his live show onto the record a bit via some extended jam moments and moments of great energy. But at the same time, he creates further distance between his record self and his goofball stage persona that works with his rollicking live sets. These songs sound more sober, though he sings directly about experiences that are not so. Ryley has written his best songs to date here and I hope he continues on this path. 

6> Emma Ruth Rundle - Marked for Death

This is the heaviest album on this list, and one of the heaviest that I’ve listened to all year. Since that’s not a linear description, it might actually be one of the heaviest albums of all time. Her words carry great weight, and set against the guttural strum of loose, distorted guitar strings, it makes for quite the listen. There are moments of extreme beauty on this record that few others could ever achieve.

5> Leonard Cohen - You Want it Darker

This is the first Leonard Cohen album that I’ve really understood, internalized, and enjoyed. Life always seems to go that way. I remember playing it for the first time at the end of a long party. He was still alive at the time but I had read about him speaking about his life ending. It felt good to listen to it that night and it still does today. There’s a life full of catharsis to be had in these songs, which are immediate and lovable.

4> Ray LaMontagne - Ouroboros

If you make an album of vintage blues psych prog with massive guitar riffs, you can count me as a fan. Give it a solid narrative but with songs that stand on their own and you have one of the best records of the year. I haven’t been sure if that feeling would change throughout the year, but each listen feels mostly like the first time in the best way, still.

3> Case/Lang/Veirs - Case/Lang/Veirs

This is a really special record from three modern folk luminaries. At each turn, they are at least the sum of their parts, and sometimes more. The styles shift enough across the course of the album so that the whole thing has a cohesive but varied sound that fits the album format perfectly. This is definitely one in permanent rotation for car rides and afternoons.

2> Jackie Lynn - Jackie Lynn

My most listened to record of the year, and really just about a tie for #1. The only criticism I have is a rare one for me: it’s too short! That is to say, the six fully formed songs here leave me wanting more every time, as I think they are strange and perfect concoctions of art pop, country, and minimal wave electronic. The performance I saw from Haley Fohr may have been the best I saw all year. While she didn’t play any of these songs, she was wearing a Jackie Lynn guitar strap, so she was certainly there in spirit. I’m eagerly anticipating whatever comes next for Haley, be it Circuit Des Jeux, Jackie Lynn, or something else entirely.

1> Damien Jurado - Visions of Us on the Land

My favorite record didn’t change from the mid year point to now, and that’s because it’s a nearly perfect sprawling masterpiece of psychedelic folk. The polish that was put on these songs in the studio, having heard them live on acoustic guitar only, really elevates this to another level of sound design. All this wouldn’t be possible without Jurado’s songwriting of course, at once both confessional and canonical. This is the high point of a great career.