Friday, December 30, 2016

Top 10 CDs of 2016 - #5 - #1

Here is what you’ve been waiting for #5 – #1 on my list of the Top 10 CDs of 2016. Okay, that’s presumptuous of me and a bit egocentric, like you’ve really been waiting to learn what CD I think was the best of the year. It’s doubtful, but hey, you’re here, so let’s get into it.

For those landing here for the first time, not sure who I am or why you are reading this, I am just a singer/songwriter who loves music more than most love life. HERE is the Preamble I posted on Wednesday; go read that so you can understand EP situation. If you found your way here on a search and haven’t read #10 – #6, you can check out those picks HERE.

EPs – since I do not include EPs in my Top 10 CDs of the year, I did want to mention a few artists who released EPs that would have probably made the list, had they added a few more incredible songs: The River Kittens, The Sleep Rubies, The Wild Reeds, and William Wild.

Do y’all know that the Allman Brothers Band is my all-time favorite band? Well, it is. The combination of Greg’s vocals and Duane’s guitar cannot be duplicated, and even after Duane left us: Dickey, Dan, Warren, Derek, and Jimmy kept the music alive. Many bands can point to the Allman Brothers as an influence, but few can claim legacy status; few are fronted by a couple so clearly in love for over a decade; few marry the soulful vocals of Susan Tedeschi, her distinctive single-coil licks, and the incredible slide work of Derek Trucks; few feature 11 people on stage; few are this damn good. I am kind of obsessed with slide guitar, so when I listen to Let Me Get By that tends to be what I focus on, but there is really something for everyone in this recording. When the piano makes an appearance it is woody and resounding, providing the perfect amount of travel across the keys. The organ swells help thicken tracks, as do the backing vocals throughout. With 18 tracks it is hard to find a standout, but “Hear Me (Alternate Mix)” always come to mind. It is more subtle than the earlier mix. It allows the emotional duet of Tedeski’s voice and Truck’s slide responses to be the focal point.

While the rest of the world seems to be flirting with electronic music, Norah has returned to her roots giving us the smokiest jazz that she has released to date. You see, Norah doesn’t need to do the electro-dance; she did that on 2012’s Little Broken Hearts which was produced by Danger Mouse, proving once again that Norah sets the trends and the rest of us are just clambering to keep up. With an October release date, Day Breaks didn’t have much time to get spins, but I knew from the moment the silky double bass notes of “Burn” announced the immediacy of this new recording that it would make my list. It has been in my weekly rotation ever since. Day Breaks offers the kind of music that spills onto the hot humid streets of New Orleans, the kind of music that is the perfect backdrop to any passionate love scene, the kind of scene where the lovers just have to have each other and they don’t give a fuck that they are presently stuck in an elevator 13 stories above their death. In that moment being together is all that matters.  Picking my favorite track is really challenging because the album is consistently incredible. The three covers: "Don't Be Denied," "Peace," and "Fleurette Africaine" perfectly compliment the nine new tracks, but based on instrumentation I tend to be drawn to “Burn” and “Sleeping Wild.” I love the simplicity of a three piece: drums, upright bass, and piano.  

Amidst the likes of Beyonce, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Norah Jones, we have Lucy Dacus whose Wikipedia page doesn’t even have enough information to scroll, but damn if that voice isn’t distinctive. I learned about Dacus through her Audiotree recording and she quickly moved into heavy rotation. It is to the point where my kids can sing along with most of her CD. While her Audiotree performance presented her as a reserved, but effective, three piece, No Burden fills things out with well-placed harmonies, alternate guitar lines, and some distant keys. “Dream State” stands out to me. After the first chorus the band kicks in, driven by a nice brushed beat, and then it happens – the build. I am sucker for a nice cacophonous build, and underneath it all are these beautifully contemplative lyrics.

“Dream State”

We woke up to the thunder.
We huddled under covers.
We didn’t say anything.
If you hadn’t come over,
I would be so much colder.
I would be much less confused.

Then the water came
and washed it all away.
It left me with nothing to say.
Could not believe my eyes,
I could not recognize
your face in the rubble.

Without you, I am surely the last of our kind.
Without you, I am surely the last of my kind.

We had a lot to measure.
We had more past than pleasure,
and time grows deep like weeds.

You catch me when I’m falling.
Sometimes, I wish you wouldn’t.
I can’t tell if I’m learning.

And then the water came
and washed it all away.
It left me with nothing to say.
Could not believe my eyes.
I could not recognize
your face in the rubble.

Without you I am surely the last of our kind.
Without you I am surely the last of my kind.
Without you I am surely the last of our kind.
Without you I am surely the last of my kind.
Without you I am surely the last of our kind.
Without you I am surely the last of my kind.

In 2012 the Lumineers’ self-titled release just cracked my Top 10 securing the 10th spot based largely on the strength of their Southern Ground performance and the domination of “Ho Hey.” Four years later they find themselves at #2 on my list. After such a long hiatus, I am not sure anyone knew what to expect from their sophomore release. I am here to tell you it is good. Damn good. Not a bad track in the bunch. Wesley Schultz’s vocals are strong throughout the recording. The instrumentation, featuring excellent recordings of the acoustic guitar, cello, and bass, leave you feeling that you are in the studio with them, watching it all go down. You can hear the pick rake the steel strings, the wood of the cello as it breathes life into the songs, and the clank of the hammer on taunt piano strings. The exquisite production is matched by strong songwriting and storytelling.  Cleopatra presents itself as a fitting counterpart to the current trend in electro-folk music. Again, when a recording is this good, it is next to impossible to pull out a favorite track. For those that got the deluxe edition, “White Lie” shines. There is a haunting electric guitar part in the background; on a mostly acoustic album, it perks my ears and begs me to pay attention.

It was September 2008, Hotel Café was coming to Blueberry Hill, and I was going to see Rachael Yamagata for the first time. That should sound familiar, if you read #10 – #6. I was introduced to Thao Nguyen at that same show. I left Blueberry Hill with a copy of We Brave Bee Stings and All, and I have remained a fan. A Man Alive is one of those recordings where I know…I just know it is going to make the list from the moment I first listened to it. Other CDs take time to secure their place on this list. Throughout the year they’ll move on and off the list, until I get to the final week where I really focus on my selections, but this CD never left the Top 5. I love everything about the recording. Thao’s unique vocals. The boundary pushing. The merged influences. The lyrical intensity juxtaposed against the whimsical instrumentation. While several bands danced with beats and bass this year, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down pulled it off without seeming campy. The result is a recording that exists as an authentic tribute to hip-hop influences and an exploration of the relationship with her estranged father. She tackles the weighty subject matter with dignity, never losing the power of her pen to the power of her emotions. 

There is one more recording that I do want to mention. I have never done this before, but my friend Rob posted his Top 6 CDs, and Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle was his #1 of the year. Rob and I are birds of the same feather (with the exception of the Uncle Tupelo split – he is in Camp Tweedy, and I am a documented Farrar devotee).  So, I had to take a moment and give a CD I hadn't even heard of a spin. Had I known about The Bird & The Rifle in July when it was released, I am confident that it would have made the list and probably the Top 5. Sadly one week with the recording is just not enough time to give it full consideration, but I encourage you to check it out. Incredible songwriting.

There you have it, my Top 10 CDs of 2016. As always I welcome comments and feedback, and I’d love to know what recordings you think I missed.

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