2016: Good Times, Bad Times

by Jason Warburg

It was a year full of surprises, from start to finish. A year when artists I'd never heard of delivered albums that absolutely took over my world... and artists I know and love found ways to disappoint. A year when virtually the entire musical world lined up behind one particular presidential candidate... and the other one won. A year when a number of genuinely wonderful things happened in my personal sphere... and a few very difficult ones did as well. One thing's for sure: 2016 was anything but boring.


“No, Seriously…” Award

Johnny Gallagher – Six Day Hurricane

For decades now, “actor releases album” has more often than not served as a cue for music writers to practice their eye-rolling technique. As Michael Jordan once demonstrated, just because you’re really, really good at one thing doesn’t mean you’re going to be any good at all at something else that’s arguably related but fundamentally different. My expectations were thus somewhat modest when I acquired a copy of The Newsroom supporting actor John “Johnny” Gallagher’s Americana-tinged singer-songwriter debut Six Day Hurricane… but 33 minutes later I was moved to declare that “when the biggest problem your album has is that it’s too damned short, you’ve definitely done something right.” No, seriously: you need to check this one out.


Seventy-Seven Years Old And Can Still Kick Your Ass Award

Ian Hunter & The Rant Band – Fingers Crossed

At an age when many of his musical contemporaries are more worried about breaking a hip than making new music, Ian Hunter continues to rock with authority and write songs like only he can. Fingers Crossed brims with his usual deeply British mixture of cheeky wisdom, sneering defiance, and barroom sentimentality, and all three manifest in “Dandy,” a standout among the many tributes offered up to David Bowie, a dear friend ever since Bowie gave Hunter’s former group Mott The Hoople their biggest hit in “All The Young Dudes.” The rest of the album is equally sharp-eyed and authentic, whether his crack Rant Band is featuring stinging guitars (“That’s When The Trouble Starts,” “White House,”), rippling piano (“Fingers Crossed”), or both (“Morpheus,” “Long Time”). Long may he run.


Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (But Sometimes Great For The Muse) Award

Luke Winslow-King – I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always

Twenty-plus years into this gig, my favorite thing about it remains the same: when an artist and album sneak up on me and knock me sideways into another world. In the words of my original review, this album “feels like not just a break-up album, but perhaps the break-up album, of recent memory at least.” The first Luke Winslow-King album not to feature his ex-wife Esther Rose on harmony vocals is dedicated to her, and narrates the dissolution of their marriage stage by haunting stage. In setting this devastatingly real narrative within “a heady melange of down-and-dirty Delta blues, New Orleans-inflected r&b, and loping, twangy country-blues,” Winslow-King delivers a master class in turning pain into art.


Congratulations I’m Sorry Award

Big Smoke – Time Is Golden

Sometimes great albums make you go “Yeah!” and sometimes they make you go “Dammit.” Time Is Golden is the album Australian singer-songwriter Adrian Slattery always wanted to make with his band Big Smoke, a beautifully crafted, passionately performed collection of The Band-ish roots-rock—but they only got to make it after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. After singing every lead vocal, Slattery didn’t survive to see the album completed and released this fall, but the superb craft and welling emotion that he and bandmates Luke Brennan, Alex O’Gorman, Tim Baker and Joe Cope poured into these songs is evident on every track, from the indomitable spirit of “Something Good” and “Best Of You” through the dreamy philosophizing of “Time Is Golden” and “When You Dance.” R.I.P.



Album(s) Of The Year

Big Big Train – A Stone’s Throw From The Line

It had been 17 years and nearly that many lineup changes since Big Big Train had last played out live. But when the British prog collective, now eight members strong, gathered at Kings Place in London in August 2015, the results were special enough to earn the band “Live Event of the Year” at this fall’s Progressive Rock Awards and spawn this absolutely smashing two-disc, two-hour live album. Covering most of their best work from the past seven tremendously productive years, with 13 musicians on board once you include the five-man brass section, A Stone’s Throw From The Line is Big Big Train’s Yessongs, the standout live prog album of its era.

Big Big Train – Folklore

You could say it was a good year for Big Big Train, as the aforementioned live album followed yet another studio triumph, the superb Folklore. Again combining elements of orchestral prog and post-rock, playing with and reinventing structures and approaches familiar to anyone who ever loved classic Genesis and Yes, BBT propels the listener on a 70-minute journey through history and legend, from the anthemic “Folklore” and “Wassail” to the epic “London Plane” and “Brooklands,” to the sublime “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun” and “Telling The Bees.” The best modern prog album since, well, the last Big Big Train album.

Indies Of The Year
Albums like the four that follow below are where the absurdity of the whole concept of ranking works of art is fully exposed once and for all. Each of these albums is, in its own way, a masterpiece—and other than each being the work of a male singer-songwriter, they could hardly be more different, or more impossible to "rank" ahead of one another. Each is equally deserving of recognition as an Indie Of The Year for 2016—so, here we go, in alphabetical order:


Arms Of Kismet – The Helium Age

It’s especially good to know in the year that we lost David Bowie that there are still creators out there eager to discover new angles and points of egress for this thing called rock and roll. The Helium Age finds the ever-mischievous Mark Doyon mining his own backstory with a toolkit including tweaked-out guitars, burbling synths, a Kerouac paperback, and a satchel full of boardwalk funnel cakes. Snappy, literate quirk-rock that’s the polar opposite of today’s dumbed-down, pre-packaged radio pop.


Casey Frazier – American Exotic Vol. 1

A soul singer trapped in a cowboy’s body, Casey Frazier delivers his finest set yet of insightful, tuneful, deeply soulful Americana on the aptly named American Exotic Vol. 1. Becoming a husband and father seems to have only deepened and enriched the perceptive Frazier’s capacity for emotional truth-telling, and multilayered, insistently hooky songs like “In My Good Time,” “Lucky That Way” and “Not A Lot Going On” feel like new American standards.


Jeremy Nail – My Mountain

Of all the remarkable feats alt-country singer-songwriter Jeremy Nail pulls off on My Mountain, an album that chronicles his journey through the cancer diagnosis and treatment that ultimately cost him his left leg, maybe the most astonishing one is this: he delivers a visceral gut-punch of an album without ever raising his voice. Measured, intense, superbly crafted and hauntingly honest, My Mountain is a triumph in every sense of the word, and steely opener “My Mountain,” shimmering, dreamy “Down To The Ocean” and defiant closer “Tell Me What Else You Got” remain three of my favorite songs of 2016.


Noam Weinstein – On Waves

If I’d given this one an individual award, it would have been the “I Don’t Know Whether To Laugh Or Cry Award.” A little brave and a little crazy, wildly inventive chamber-pop alchemist Noam Weinstein responds to his beloved mother’s death and his first child’s birth with a kaleidoscope of exposed emotional nerve endings. From the heart-on-sleeve poignance of “Mother” and “It Comes In Waves” to the giddy snark of “My Last Reincarnation” and “Hey Girl,” Weinstein uses strings, bells, horns, and a fondness for classic Motown to illuminate the bubbling cauldron inside.


Honorable Mention

Andy Timmons Band – Theme From A Perfect World

Another terrific instrumental guitar album from one of the genre’s underappreciated talents.

The Fringe – The Fringe

An all-star prog-pop power trio that elected to write actual songs instead of just showing off their chops, with entertaining results.

Gilbert Neal – The Mayor Of Estes Park

Frank Zappa, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, Jim Steinman and David Foster Wallace walk into a bar. And grab a booth, and do a few shots. And borrow a pen and some napkins. And write a rock opera.

Gretchen’s Wheel – Behind The Curtain

A terrific voice plus an intense set of tunes equals another memorable outing for singer-songwriter Lindsay Murray.

Kaleo – A/B

The best album I didn't review this year adds a Nordic stomp -- and haunting falsetto -- to Led Zeppelinesque electrified blues-folk.

Santana – IV

Sometimes getting the old band back together amounts to a soulless money grab… and sometimes the sparks fly and the members seem to recall what made that particular combination of musical ingredients so potent.

The Shelters – The Shelters

A stellar debut from these Tom Petty proteges saw them channeling jangle-rock icons right and left while delivering a fresh set of tunes full of swagger and charisma.

Tedeschi Trucks Band – Let Me Get By

Essentially a 12-person r&b/soul/blues revue, the wife-and-husband-led Tedeschi Trucks Band delivered another rootsy, rollicking winner in Let Me Get By

“It’s Complicated”

Switchfoot – Where The Light Shines Through

Twice in a row now, Switchfoot has written a strong album only to stumble in the production phase, tarting up their genuine, heartfelt songs with auto-tune and all manner of artificial production gimmickry that could hardly be more poorly suited for the music they make. Guys: you left a major label so you wouldn’t have to make these kinds of compromises… so why do it anyway?

Look Park – Look Park

Whatever Chris Collingwood does for the rest of his life, his name will inevitably be preceded in print by the phrase “Fountains Of Wayne frontman.” Making a solo album that’s superficially more quote-unquote mature than FOW only serves to underscore the genius of that band, and the deeper truths it revealed using equal measures of snappy pop smarts and wise, penetrating humor. Robert Christgau didn’t call Fountains Of Wayne "lyric poets" and "true art heroes" for nothing. Hope you enjoyed your time off from the band, Chris. Now please come back.

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