As I implied in this space last year at this time, end-of-the year lists are just an exercise in taste-making (My end of the year music list for 2015 was a list of the best lists). It’s not as if I don’t appreciate the end-of-the year lists. I do. They are helpful; they offer musical tips and lead to further listening of music possibly otherwise missed. However, there is nothing particularly “ultimate” about these lists. Unless a given critic has really listened to the tens of thousands of new releases each year, no list is actually even close to comprehensive. Rather, each best-of list is just a bunch stuff the given critic is partial to. Similar to prizes and awards (Pulitzer, Nobel, Grammy et al), lists are just a sorting mechanism, a way of highlighting something. This, the lists suggest, you should listen to and feel free to ignore all the other things I don’t mention. Lists tend to simplify the breadth and diversity of the musical landscape and give us a simple checklist to work through, while ignoring other high quality offerings.
Now it’s time to offer my own, as it were. My list is not a best-of. It’s not a greatest songs of 2016. This year was another outstanding year for music, filled with surprises and new musicians worth following. However, I’m mostly going to focus on albums that offer the listener an old-school, retro vibe. Let’s celebrate some albums that made music great (once) again—in no particular order.
This list is not comprehensive or attempting to be so, but it is thematically focused on music that has one eye on the past and another on the future. These are just a few (mostly rock and roll) albums I enjoyed listening to in 2016 worth checking out. None of these albums are particularly obscure and several are by some of the greatest rock and rollers of all time, but all are worth listening to.
A final qualifier—I didn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s final album here, since I just reviewed this wonderful album at length last month, so his inclusion is implicit here.
Keep Me Singing, Van Morrison
To say that Van Morrison’s 36th studio album, Keep Me Singing, is more of the same is to remark upon how consistent his production has been even as Morrison enters into his seventh decade on Earth. We take him for granted. Morrison’s voice has lost little if anything and his backing band is bluesy and soulful as always. Keep Me Singing fits nicely among the disks from twenty years ago. It is truly remarkable how productive Van Morrison is—and unlike some of his contemporaries he continues to crank out originals. Standouts on this effort include “Every Time I See a River,” “Too Late” and especially the bluesy “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.”
Hold On!, James Hunter
The segue here is that James Hunter is a notable Van Morrison protégé, touted by the great one himself (Hunter appeared with Van Morrison on A Night in San Francisco in 1994, among others). Hunter’s band the James Hunter Six continues making standout, upbeat rhythm and blues albums and Hold On! is one of the strongest among them. I am particularly fond of “This is Where We Came In” and “(Baby) Hold On.” His voice has become increasingly gravelly over the past decade, but this only heightens the James Brown-esque quality of Hunters high-quality tunes, especially on the faster numbers.
Blue and Lonesome, The Rolling Stones
Since when has a Rolling Stone’s album been noteworthy? Tattoo You? Blue and Lonesome, however, is a return to the basics for the Stones. In this year’s effort Mick and the gents go back to their roots as a blues band and dust off old Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Willie Dixon songs. They still sound great, especially in “Commit a Crime” and “Little Rain.” A back-to-the-roots swan song, perhaps? I wouldn’t put too much on it, but it certainly has that feel.
Human Performance, Parquet Courts
My favorite album of 2016, by a long shot, is Parquet Courts’ Human Performance. Though I enjoyed their earlier albums, Human Performance is far more cohesive and seamless. Just about every song on the album is a standout and interesting in its own right. The foundation of their sound is clearly the Velvet Underground, but notes of Pavement and Beck crop up in this album. But Parquet Courts puts their own fingerprint on such numbers as “Captive of the Sun,” “Dust,” “Berlin Got Blurry,” the wonderfully oddball “Already Dead,” and the title song. These are some of my favorites, but this album features so many little gems, several under the two minute mark. My only regret is the somewhat disappointing show Parquet Courts put on at the 9:30 Club this summer. They offered a ton of energy but speaking of blurry the mix that night was a muddle—mashing guitar, drums and bass into one formless blear. Good for the mosh kids slamming to the beat, not as good for those who want to kick back and hear the instruments.
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, Hamilton Leithauser
I was going to include Ray LaMantogne’s Ouroboros on this list for its retro-Pink Floyd vibe. “In My Own Way,” for instance, includes long, mellow dreamy songs sans sax solos or wailing backup singers. However, I’m not sure the entire album stands up as well as Hamilton Leithauser’s more diverse I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, for instance. Leithauser, the former lead singer for The Walkmen, broke out in a big way with his 2016 offering. Recording with Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is carefully constructed, layered pop-rock. This is not Leithauser’s first solo offering (that would be 2014’s Black Hours), but each song on this album is well-written and carefully thought-out. “A 1000 Times” was one of my favorite songs of the year—overplayed on indie radio? Yes. However, after dozens of listens the song remains highly memorable and evocative.
Make a Change, Durand Jones and the Indications
I wasn’t aware of Durand Jones and the Indications until about a month ago. Following the footsteps of Leon Bridges perhaps, but funkier, Durand Jones’ album Make a Change keep the flame of old school rhythm and blues alive. The argument often offered against retro-soul music is that it is obsolete, backward looking music. However, to those of us who simply appreciate good music where and when it comes from is of little importance. “Smile,” “Now I’m Gone” and especially “Groovy Baby” are particularly driving and ear-friendly. The guitar work, organ and horns propel Jones’ voice quite nicely.
More Rain, M. Ward
M. Ward’s More Rain, the singer-songwriter’s ninth solo release, offers more tuneful, West-Coast ditties. This time around, however, Ward’s album is generally spunkier and with a greater fifties element. Highlights include “Little Baby,” “Confession,” and “I’m Listening (Child’s theme).” When I was lucky enough to catch him at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. this year his band was top-notch and the sound more expansive than usual. She and Him is beguiling, but I prefer M. Ward solo where his mastery of the guitar and of song construction really emerges.
Calico Review, Allah-Las
The Allah-Las also hail from California, but unlike M. Ward they are relatively new (at least newish) to the scene. Their lo-fi retro 60’s garage band sound has evolved quite a bit, however, between their self-titled 2012 release and this year’s Calico Review recording. Calico Review is my favorite of their three disks. More cohesive and tuneful without tipping over into top-40 territory, Calico Review offers listeners such mid-temp gems as “South La Brea,” “Could Be You,” and “Satisfied.”
Until the Hunter, Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions
You know her from Mazzy Star, of course, but you may not be as familiar with her three solo disks with Hope Sandoval and her band the Warm Inventions. Though Sandoval’s solo efforts generally continue with the gossamer, billowy sounds she offers on the Mazzy Star offerings, her third solo disk, 2016’s, Until the Hunter, is trippier and even moodier. The Warm Inventions bring the psychedelia here, in a good way. As usual, Sandoval’s tangy hush sounds great. “Let Me Get There,” a duet with Kurt Vile, is particularly hypnotizing.