2016 Annual Review: My Favorite Album of the Year


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.

• • •

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’:

• • •

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.”

• • •

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.”

• • •


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.”

11 thoughts on “2016 Annual Review: My Favorite Album of the Year

  1. Recently I’ve been drawn again and again to the music of Bill Fay. Part of it, I’m sure, is due to where I find myself and family now. But it also brings to mind the apocalyptic mood of our era, the election, with all the portent of mourning mixed with a hope that lies beyond our own doing. The lyrics of “The Healing Day” refuse to leave my mind as I do my work, my duty, and care for those I love.

    On the healing day.
    Yea we’ll find our way
    On the healing day
    To where the children play
    On the healing day.
    When the tyrant is bound
    And the tortured freed from his pain,
    and the lofty brought to the ground
    And the lowly raised.

    Others I might mention are “Be at Peace with Yourself” and “Thank you Lord.”

    I could say much more about Fay, but my supper calls.


  2. That Sturgill Simpson is some hard drivin’ hard rockin bidness. I’ll have to listen a couple more times to catch all the lyrics.


  3. I came along with Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, sixties and seventies rock …… that lot ….. somehow the last thirty years doesn’t exist for me musically

    I think we stay with what nurtured us when we came of age. My parents loved the big band era. So it goes.


  4. I spent this year listening to the same cycle of songs I have for the last twenty years. Old Dylan, Neil Young, and their like. I prefer to drink from the same well: the waters never dry up, and seem to deepen with age.

    the same songs,
    year after year —
    no snowflake the same


  5. My top album this year is Jeff Beck’s Loud Hailer. He teamed up with a wonderful singer/songwriter to craft a semi-protest album. Not a bad song on it, and the songs/lyrics really match his guitar style.


  6. King Crimson. There’s a band name you don’t hear every day. Go, Robert Fripp! Go, Adrian Belew! Go, Tony Levin!


  7. My favorite genre of music, Progressive Rock (think Yes, King Crimson, Genesis), has been going from strength to strength in the last decade, far from the public eye.

    There have strong albums released by progressive stalwarts this year; Neal Morse, Big Big Train, Steve Wilson, echolyn, Eris Pluvia, Pineapple Thief, as well as lots of new talent cropping up.

    It’s good to be Prog.


  8. This year has been a disappointing year for new music for me. Bands that historically have released amazing albums were just kinda…thud, there it is, this year. There were some standout tracks from the new Thrice album, new Green Day is solid if as a whole unremarkable, the latest Kaiser Chiefs was a major disappointment, and the new Metallica, while a return to their really old sound of the first three albums, failed to have a single song that really just stuck with me. Actually, the best album as a whole that I listened to this year was probably Rihanna’s Anti, which is weird lol.

    But Songs of Experience is confirmed for next year!! …by a guy who’s been promising it every year since 2009, lol


  9. Thanks for the reminder to check out Jason Isbell’s album. I’m a huge Drive-By Truckers fan, but haven’t followed his solo stuff since he’s left the band. This album sounds very, very good.


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