2016 in Review: Top 10 Albums

Last 2016 in Review post — I promise. That said, I lied about the “Top 10” part. I’ve included the rest of my top 25 at the bottom, as well as some albums that I couldn’t resist mentioning, because they’re also amazing.

Without further ado…

1. Lucy Dacus — No Burden

Lucy Dacus

Earlier in December, in a New Yorker piece about her favorite songs of 2016, Amanda Petrusich wrote something that helped me name the reason I so badly wanted to place Lucy Dacus’ No Burden at the top of this list:

Whole musical worlds were invented this year, and, perhaps most notable, listeners seemed better equipped than ever to accept and navigate them. I sensed both a collective ache for progressive work and a willingness to metabolize it.

Between the in-town excitement that accompanied the February release of No Burden, the wave of national acclaim that rushed in, the consistently excellent shows she played all over town, and the poised atmosphere she commanded at each of those performances, Dacus really did establish her own new world here in Richmond. It never ceases to amaze me how truly talented musicians can create something out of nothing but their own experiences and insights. It feels like an exception to the rule in physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

The second part of the Petrusich quote above also resonated — the idea that audiences are looking for something progressive. Something that will move us forward. I sense that in Dacus’ music in large part because meaningful change hinges on truth, and her writing displays an honesty that’s both outwardly and inwardly directed. It’s why she was such a joy to interview, and it’s why her lyrics have so much substance. Would this country still be in the mess it’s in if people took a hard, unflinching look at their own motivations? Probably, but the mess might not be quite so bad.

In these last days of December, I find it impossible to imagine what this year would have been like — what my world would presently be like — without No Burden in it. For that reason, it’s #1 in my book.

Lucy Dacus — “Strange Torpedo” [Spotify/iTunes]

2. David Bowie — Blackstar

David Bowie

In a word, transcendent. Blackstar turned out to be RVA Magazine‘s #1 album, and I was given the opportunity to write about it. I tried to put in context why it loomed so large over 2016, and talking about it ended up being strangely therapeutic. Here’s the first bit:

2016 will be remembered as at least these three things: The Year We Hated and Wanted to End Early, The Year Donald Trump Was Elected and Brexit Happened, and The Year All the Famous People Died. David Bowie’s death in January, just days after he released his dark and jazzy masterpiece, Blackstar, cast a pall over months ahead in which we lost one towering cultural figure after another. Like Prince, Bowie dying felt especially cruel, because of the life-affirming, self-empowering spirit he brought to his art. Bowie was evidence that you can take control of your identity and invent yourself in the image of your choosing, and he carried that artistic approach with him from life into death. His last artistic act was nothing short of transcendent.

David Bowie — “Girl Loves Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

3. Frank Ocean — Blonde


It was an honor to blurb this one as well for RVA Magazinetake a look here. I couldn’t help throwing a little shade at the start:

While plenty of artists in the realms of pop and R&B were out there cultivating a public persona drenched in faux sensitivity, Frank Ocean was quietly at work, making some of the most powerfully vulnerable music I can remember hearing.

Frank Ocean — “Self Control” [Spotify/iTunes]

4. Radiohead — A Moon Shaped Pool


Another one I wrote about for RVA Magazine’s year-end bonanza. Such a beautiful album, such heavy subject matter. A Moon Shaped Pool acts as a reminder that lists and rankings pale in comparison to the lived experiences that make music and lyrics possible.

Radiohead — “Burn The Witch” [Spotify/iTunes]

5. Car Seat Headrest — Teens of Denial


To say that Teens of Denial grew on me would be misleading — you usually hear people say that when they were unsure about an album initially but learned to love it. But Teens of Denial did grow in my estimation in the sense that, every time I listened, Will Toledo’s genius would seem more profound. I was one of the people for whom Car Seat Headrest’s newest album acted as an introduction, despite the fact that Toledo’s already released more albums than many artists release in a career and a half. That said, I recently snagged a used copy of 2015’s Teens of Style at Plan 9, and I hear that same undeniable (sorry) gift for fusing melody and energy. I may be late to the party, but it’s great to be here regardless.

Car Seat Headrest — “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” [Spotify/iTunes]

6. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — I Had a Dream You Were Mine


This one probably has the highest ratio of number of times I listened to it to number of words I wrote about it. I did write a quickie review of it for the Winter RVA Magazine, and here’s how I closed it:

Hamilton Leithauser’s smoky vocals ascend seemingly without limit; when paired with Rostam Batmanglij’s knack for producing in styles both old and new, that voice — “the same voice I’ve always had” — soars with an inspiring freedom.

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam — “Sick As A Dog” [Spotify/iTunes]

7. Drive-By Truckers — American Band


Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in a really interesting position right now. They have roots in a red state but personal politics that lean blue, and because they’ve been consistently making some of the best and sludgiest Southern rock around for decades, they have the ears of fans from all over the political spectrum. In my mind, that’s why this album was and is so important — it represents a bridge spanning the huge chasm that separates America’s populated coasts from its rural center. It’s honest, just as the band is honest at their shows about where they stand when it comes to social justice. (“Black Lives Matter” was prominently displayed in their stage setup when they came to The National in November.) At a time when social media algorithms are making it harder and harder to encounter opinions that conflict with your own, the Truckers make me hopeful. Fingers crossed people are actually listening.

Drive-By Truckers — “Surrender Under Protest” [Spotify/iTunes]

8. Bon Iver — 22, A Million


I thought Bon Iver’s self-titled album would be a tough act to follow — maybe impossible — given that it was the realization of such a big, colorful, well-rounded vision. But 22, A Million is proof that Justin Vernon’s vision is a renewable resource. An unexpected joy this album has brought is seeing who it resonates with — identifying other people who like their musical beauty laced with a healthy dose of obfuscation. It’s like we looked at a Rorschach and all came up with the same answer.

Bon Iver — “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” [Spotify/iTunes]

9. Paul Simon — Stranger to Stranger


In terms of style, Stranger to Stranger is cut from cloth similar to that of Graceland, Paul Simon’s 30-year-old masterpiece. That said, his new album doesn’t feel retrograde, in part because Simon’s witty, acerbic writing seems sharper than ever. (Who else could turn concert wristband drama into a genuinely enjoyable, insightful song?) A piece of advice: If you missed Simon on this year’s tour — I did :/ — check out his recent Austin City Limits performance. It’s excellent and has probably earned squatter’s rights on my DVR by now.

Paul Simon — “Wristband” [Spotify/iTunes]

10. Angel Olsen — MY WOMAN


I thought about splitting this year’s lists into weirder categories like “Albums I Was Going To Like No Matter What” (Hiss Golden Messenger, Sturgill Simpson) and “Albums I Know I’m Going to Like Later But Haven’t Spent Enough Time With” (Beyoncé, Solange). MY WOMAN made me want to create a category called “Albums By Artists Who Had A Whole Other Gear We Didn’t Know About.” I thought Angel Olsen had truly found her form with her last album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but Olsen’s direct, intense writing is just as effective in a setting that calls to mind early rock and roll. This may be my dad’s Memphis roots talking, but I hear a ton of Roy Orbison in MY WOMAN, and “Shut Up Kiss Me” is quite simply one of the strongest songs of the year.

Angel Olsen — “Shut Up Kiss Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

Here’s the rest of the Top 25 I submitted for RVA Magazine

11. Hiss Golden Messenger — Heart Like a Levee
12. Wilco — Schmilco
13. Lambchop — FLOTUS
14. Clair Morgan — New Lions & the Not-Good Night
15. Sturgill Simpson — A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
16. Steve Gunn — Eyes on the Lines
17. Allen Toussaint — American Tunes
18. Dori Freeman — Dori Freeman
19. A Tribe Called Quest — We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
20. The Lumineers — Cleopatra
21. Julian Lage — ARCLIGHT
22. Solange — A Seat at the Table
23. Avers — Omega/Whatever
24. Durand Jones & the Indications — Durand Jones & the Indications
25. The Head and the Heart — Signs of Light

…and here are 15 more albums I loved dearly but am too tired to rank…

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down — A Man Alive
Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book
Cian Nugent — Night Fiction
Daniel Bachman — Daniel Bachman
Kyle Craft — Dolls of Highland
Nels Cline — Lovers
The Avalanches — Wildflowers
Colin Stetson — SORROW
Anna Meredith — Varmints
Carl Broemel — 4th of July
Blood Orange — Freetown Sound
Animal Collective — Painting With
Negative Gemini — Body Work
James Supercave — Better Strange
Andy Shauf — The Party

OK, I swear I’m stopping now. If you’re still reading, you’re a peach. See you in 2017.

Friday News and Notes

A few Friday news and notes items, starting with the video above…

  • Holy crap — have y’all heard this Angelica Garcia songMatthew E. White tweeted about her yesterday, and Ted, the bass player for my band, saw her at The Tin Pan last night and raved about it. Can’t wait to hear more. (BTW s/o to a fellow son [daughter in her case] of a preacher [Episcopalian priest in both our cases] man [woman in my case].)
  • Mrs. YHT and I finished Stranger Things last night. No, YOU were a sobbing mess. Did you hear that the band that contributed the original score — they’re called, appropriately, Survive — is going on tour?
  • Speaking of soundtracks hitting the road, Seu Jorge is doing a David Bowie tribute tour, reprising his role in The Life Aquatic. He’s coming to D.C., but it’s on a Tuesday, and that Tuesday happens to be election day. Not sure I’m brave enough to go to that city on that day, but hot damn do I want to see that show. And hot damn to I want to get my hands on a copy of this.
  • So Delicate Steve played on Paul Simon’s last album. Which I love. I had no idea. I found this out because a press release celebrating his signing to ANTI- mentioned it. (Here’s the new tune of his they linked to in that email.)
  • David Vandervelde — one of two people named David who played music at my sister’s wedding — is putting out a collaborative EP with Tess Shapiro. It’s streaming over at Brooklyn Vegan, and I’d recommend listening all the way through. The whole thing is good, but I’m really digging the last two tracks.
  • The only thing better than friends who make mixtapes are friends who make mixtapes and also link you to other excellent mixtapes. Thank you for sending a link to this wonderful Aquarium Drunkard mix, Giselle!
  • I’m turning 33 tomorrow, and I’ll be celebrating the first few hours of my birthday by joining Doug Nunnally on Sound Gaze. Not sure when I’ll be jumping in, but the show runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WDCE. Listen online, listen on the radio, peer into the windows of the station… whatever it takes.
  • Gigging tonight at bdubs, so no show recommendations. As for bdubs recommendations: spicy garlic. Now and forever, spicy garlic.

CD Monday

M. Ward

Was going to skip CD Monday this week and let The Next Day linger a little while longer, given today’s news about David Bowie. But by some crazy twist of fate, the album I grabbed on the way out this morning — M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent — includes a languid, somber version of “Let’s Dance” as its second-to-last track. Another crazy coincidence involving this guy whose birth certificate lists the same first and last names as mine.

I guess I didn’t know that David Bowie was sick, and I’m wondering if anyone knew. Was it a secret? Or maybe an open secret industry people knew about? Given the imagery in his recent round of videos, it seems like he was trying to tell us how close to the end he was.

This is a romantic idea, but I’d like to think that he saw and enjoyed how positively people were reacting to Blackstar. Obviously his legacy wasn’t hinging on it, but I hope he knew he was respected and deeply relevant in his final hour. So many artists fade to the back of our consciousness and then snap to the front then they die. I’m not sure when the videos for “Lazarus” and “Blackstar” were shot, but it couldn’t have been that long ago, which means he was still hard at work, making meaningful art, while staring grave illness in the face. Pretty wild.

There’s a reason this hits close to home for me. My dad died of brain cancer a couple years after I graduated college, and during those years, it wasn’t easy seeing him. He was bed-ridden, so he lost a lot of weight, and his ability to speak faded, so communication became very difficult. I did a terrible job of making trips to Norfolk to see him. I very much wish I could do those years over. And I wish he could have been able to say goodbye in some way, especially because words were so important him. He was a college professor, which meant that lectures were part of his everyday gig. And he loved chatting with people. I remember that he’d take forever getting home from work because people would stop him on his way out. I think about that when I see someone I know and pass by with just a “Hey.”

It’s not about going out with a bang, though I’d say Blackstar qualifies. Being able to do the things — or more to the point, the one thing that makes you who you are — right up until your dying days… not everybody gets to do that. Bowie now seems like the very embodiment of that good fortune, and while it brings up bitter memories, being reminded that it’s possible feels good.

Speaking of bittersweet, here’s M. Ward’s version of “Let’s Dance.”

M. Ward — “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie cover) [Spotify/iTunes]

David Bowie

David Bowie

Step 1: Coincidentally pick David Bowie’s last album for CD Monday in the same week his new album is being released.
Step 2: Listen to Blackstar on Friday.
Step 3: Find a clear favorite song, “Girl Loves Me,” on which Bowie repeatedly sings “Where the fuck did Monday go?”

The world is a weird, circular, beautiful place.

David Bowie — “Girl Loves Me” [Spotify/iTunes]

CD Monday

David Bowie

Another day. Another year. Time to look forward, and that’s just what this album cover says to me. Out with the old, in with the new. Perfect for the first CD Monday of 2016.

And how fitting is “ignoring the pain of their particular diseases” as a companion lyric for today — the most Monday Monday I can remember? I heard that line while driving to work and thought “That’s life, man.”

David Bowie — “The Next Day” [Spotify/iTunes]

Dead Fame

Dead Fame

Do you like Labyrinth?

Of course you like Labyrinth. That was a stupid question. Here’s a better question: Haven’t you always wanted to be, like, in the movie — especially the scene where everyone gets dressed up masquerade-style and a 39-year-old David Bowie seductively serenades and slow dances with a 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly?

Of course you have! Another stupid question. I’m just going to stop asking questions and let you know that your freakiest, Jim Henson-addled dreams are about to come true this weekend — twice.

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A Capellooza

Fat Amy

So Mrs. YHT and I ummm… sorta… kinda… maybe… [looks around nervously] watchedPitchPerfectagain.

It’s not our fault! It was on HBO, we were bored, one thing led to another and yadda yadda yadda… another notch on the ol’ TV cabinet. Bing bang boom.

I don’t know what to say — it’s not like we were big into a cappella groups when we were in college. We certainly weren’t in any. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I think I’m safe in speaking for both of us when I say we wish we had that kind of talent…) Pitch Perfect is just such an all-around feel-good exercise, with outstanding one-liners, some solid vomit humor, a healthy sense of self-awareness and a dynamite final routine that raises goosebumps even when I’m consciously trying to suppress them.

Ditching Pitch for a moment, there is one type of a cappella performance I can enjoy without feeling the need to equivocate, but you won’t see a movie made about it anytime soon. I’m talking about isolated vocal tracks from classic songs. I love when these hit the interweb, as Marvin Gaye’s from “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” did earlier this week. They’re so revealing and personal. You can picture the dark-grey foam of the recording booth’s sound-proofed walls… you can hear the bleed from singers’ headphones, bringing you amazingly close to what it would have been like to stand next to them as they sang… It’s also fun to wonder whether they know, ya know? That they’ve made something special. That the take they just did was a keeper, destined to become a piece of history that will live on in people’s hearts years after they’re gone.

Vocals from newer songs don’t have the same effect on me (I think the portability of vocals in the remix/mashup era takes some of the thrill out of it), but give me the vox from a 30 or 40 year old hit that I’ve heard 30 or 40 times and I’m one happy camper. Just for fun, I thought I’d hold a mini A Cappellooza by sharing Gaye’s brilliant “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” vocals and two other isolated tracks that are definitely worth a listen.

In each case I’ve posted a YouTube video of the isolated vocals and the full version of the song below. Enjoy!

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John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice

Good lord, does John Vanderslice know how to Kickstart.

There’s just a day left in the Kickstarter campaign Vanderslice launched in mid-February to finance his new album, Dagger Beach, and even though he’s already received roughly 410% of the funds he was hoping to raise, I can’t resist telling you about the “very sweet, special, awesome” rewards you can get your hands on if you contribute in the next 24 hours.

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David Bowie

David Bowie

The 2012 installment of the Pazz & Jop critics poll hit the interweb this week, and to the surprise of no one, especially not Robert Christgau, Frank Ocean’s breakout effort came out on top. I mention Christgau not because of his 33-year tenure organizing the Pazz & Jop poll, which invites hundreds of critics to assign point values to their top 10 albums, but because he published this preactionary piece, correctly guessing which 3 albums  would sit atop the list and examining the consensus that sucked the suspense out of those top 3 spots.

I’m a fan of the piece he wrote for a few different reasons. His admiration for Todd Snider’s Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is one; Snider struck me as a cross between a savant and a messiah when I saw him open for Justin Townes Earle in May, but I’m ashamed to say that a lack of external validation eroded my enthusiasm. It’s like Christgau’s words gave me an opportunity to say “I told you so” to myself, if that makes any sense. Felt good.

One part of Christgau’s piece struck me as especially thought provoking — the part in which he talks about the role his age may be playing in his lack of esteem for 2012’s anointed triumvirate:

If twentysomethings want to like Kendrick Lamar’s album more than Loudon Wainwright’s, I say more power to them. The Cloud Nothings’, even — there’s an imagined future there that neither Loudon Wainwright or I will ever know firsthand again, and why shouldn’t someone whose life stretches ahead cherish that? But it bums me that it doesn’t go the other way — that the residual formal mastery of someone like Wainwright seems incapable of touching musical aesthetes of a certain age…

He makes an excellent point, though I think there’s more at work here than just age (of the listener or of the artist’s recording career). I think the “mastery” itself deserves some of the blame.

I’m not a critic, and I certainly didn’t have a Pazz & Jop ballot to fill out, but I do know that writing about music that approaches perfection is difficult. When everything’s done well — great composition, great backing band, great performances, great recording — it’s hard to zoom in on what makes the song or album special, which I’d imagine would be frustrating if your livelihood depended on coming up with an angle that the rest of the Internet hadn’t already chewed up and spit out. It’s hard for me to believe that wouldn’t affect your enjoyment of a recording, or at the very least incentivize pumping up something that’s also brilliant but contains charming or revelatory flaws.

I felt this effect as recently as last week.

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