2016 Annual Review
My Favorite Album of the Year
In addition to my choice for my favorite album of 2016, there are three others that deserve special mention. Let’s talk about these wonderful recordings before I gush all over my top pick.
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William Bell, This Is Where I Live
For years I have longed for someone to bring back the authentic sound of the great soul labels Motown and Stax. Though some have tried, none have captured the magic for me. Until this year. And it took a Stax veteran to revive the sound that defined a good part of my growing up years.
William Bell, whose solo debut for Stax Records was in 1961, wrote the blues classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones, a tune first recorded by Albert King and made legendary by Eric Clapton and Cream in 1969. He had hit records in the late 60’s and 70’s and produced others. Amazingly, his new record still brings the muscular yet tender sound of Stax back to us in full force. One reason for that is that this record was produced by one of my favorite producers, John Leventhal, who adds just the right touches to make this a strong runner-up as my favorite album in 2016.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes video about the album. In the clips of music you can hear that great Memphis sound, still alive and kickin’:
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Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth.
This record is on many critics’ best lists, and for good reason. Musically diverse, though generally within the country genre along with a good dash of rock, soul, and blues, Simpson has fashioned a song cycle that is, in turns beautiful, angry, regretful, and passionate.
Here’s a paragraph from the NPR review:
Simpson, however, is not an insurrectionist, a nihilist or a punk. He’s a thinker who likes to challenge himself, and is as interested in how the quest for order impacts life and art as he is in the moments that spin that order into pieces. On A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, he uses a highly disruptive yet also utterly conventional life event — the birth of his first son — to frame a song cycle about order and insubordination, the longing to fit in and the persistent urge to break away.
The New York Times calls Sturgill Simpson, “A Genuine Alternative to Alt Country.” If this album is any indication, we’re in for a lot of thoughtful, honest music in years to come.
Here’s a performance of “Call to Arms,” which concludes the record with a blast: a relentless, angry and defiant jam that Rolling Stone described as, “an indictment of America’s warmongering, media-stupefied culture.”
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Paul Simon, Stranger To Stranger [Deluxe Edition]At age 75, Paul Simon remains as energetic, creative, and collaborative as ever. His 2016 album, Stranger to Stranger, is a dense, almost avant garde tour taken by a “street angel” through this dangerous, funny, viscerally stimulating world, to the accompaniment of a tapestry of global instruments and sounds. Which is to say, this song set is not as direct and linear as many of Simon’s earlier works. It meanders through a lot of unfamiliar territory — though territory made intriguing because of Simon’s voice, wit, and constant sense of melody. Paying attention is essential when walking through these streets.
From the NPR review:
It’s more opaque than Simon’s recent works, less forthright and declarative, less locked onto linear tracks. Its tales unfold in shards and mumbled asides, oddly unsettling repeated phrases and strange prophecies. These don’t always seem haunting at the start, but they become that way — as the details fill in, or don’t, as Simon’s telegraphic shorthand implies multiple meanings. You can’t read the lyrics to these songs and expect to “get” them; you have to surrender to the slurpy backward vocals, the sharp crack of drumsticks, the whole experience.
Simon had a recent Austin City Limits show that was phenomenal as it traced his prolific career through song. Here is a performance from that show of the song that kicks off the album, “The Werewolf.”
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MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
More than anything, what I appreciate in the music I listen to and love is good lyric writing along with arrangements and performances that take me into stories that move me, making my heart sigh, smile, or long for some aspect of life that eludes me. I want my music to be human, to reflect true human realities and offer perspectives on those realities that are honest and poetic.
Jason Isbell embodies someone who has stories and knows how to tell them in a way that moves me.
In 2013, his previous album, Southeastern, garnered him Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and also Song of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Association Awards. That was a raw and sometimes brutal album in which Isbell described life on the edge with a directness that pulled back the curtain so that the rest of us could see what vulnerability is really like.
Isbell is at a much better place personally now, and Something More than Free, winner of this year’s Grammy for Best Americana Album, is catchier, more melodic and positive, but no less honest, no less sympathetic with the damn pain in this world. This is down-to-earth working man’s music, and Jason Isbell’s workmanship and familiarity with toil is evident.
My favorite track on the album, the title song, reflects that.
When I get my reward my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the father and the son
No more holes to fill and no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes on the trucks for someone else’s sake
‘Cause a hammer needs a nail
And the poor man’s up for sale
Guess I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do
And I don’t think on why I’m here orwhere it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
And every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt
But I thank God for the work
The best lines of the album, especially pertinent for Internet Monk readers, come from “24 Frames,” a shout-out to 90’s rock ala R.E.M., which won this year’s Grammy for Best American Roots Song.
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In twenty- four frames
Jason Isbell is a song architect, but when you listen, his songs will blow up your world with the integrity of someone who has looked life in the eye and lived to tell about it.
Here’s a live performance of the award winning “24 Frames.”