We've heard from the ND readers, the ND staff, and yours truly on what we feel are the outstanding albums of the year. Now, we hear from from the ND photographers on what they found exciting or rewarding or just plain liked during the past year. With, of course, photos to go along with those selections.
As with their picks for outstanding live performances, there are some of the usual suspects and some new ones. I urge you to check them out.
Many thanks to Todd Gunsher, Carol Graham, Chris Griffy, Jill Kettles, Boom Baker, Peter Dervin, Steve Mack, Michael J. Smith, and C. Elliott for going above and beyond the call of the photographer's duty by responding so enthusiastically with this and my other requests throughout the year. It continues to be a joy to work with each and every one of them.
Here, now, is the final list of the year, in the order in which they were received.
Hard Working Americans - Rest in Chaos
One of my favorite new releases this year is Hard Working Americans' Rest in Chaos. While their first release was comprised of covers, this record contains only original material, save one cover. With Todd Snider, one of the best songwriters of his generation, in the band, it only makes sense. Snider’s words fit perfectly on the musical bed made by Neil Casal, Dave Schools, Chad Staehly, Duane Trucks, and Jessie Aycock. While their live shows are always outstanding, the record allows the listener to focus on the songs. My personal favorites are “Roman Candles,” “Ascending into Madness,” and the lone cover, Guy Clark’s “The High Price of Inspiration." This record gives hope that what started off as a short-term side project by a bunch of friends may continue to be an ongoing concern.
It’s been a great year for music and having to choose just two was difficult. But, for me, the most significant albums are usually by new artists (or those I’ve been late in discovering), and this year was no exception.
Blue Rose Code - ... And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing
I reviewed this album following its launch at Celtic Connections in February and I was quite certain even then that it would be in my Top 10. To me, this album set the benchmark for all other releases in 2016. Ross Wilson (aka Blue Rose Code) has a unique sound – an authentic Scots grittiness combined with poetic lyrics and soul that is often compared to an early John Martyn. Wilson adds ever-evolving arrangements of harmonies, guitar, pedal steel, bass, and keyboard, using a hand-picked band of stellar musicians. "… And Lo" features the gospel-tinged harmonies of the McCrary Sisters, providing a perfect backdrop to lyrics that tear at your heart. Ewan McGregor, a notable fan of Blue Rose Code, also makes an appearance on "Glasgow Rain," an ode to my own hometown. I have played the CD constantly since its release, and I’m delighted that vinyl has recently been made available.
Mark Huff - Down River
I had never heard of Mark Huff until I saw him in September at the Family Wash in Nashville, when he played on the same bill as Willie Sugarcapps. I immediately got his latest album, Down River, and was blown away. The lyrics are deep and dark but this is a feel-good album, with complex arrangements that compel you to listen over and over. From changes of tempo in "Teardrop in your Drink" to layers of instruments ebbing and flowing in "Just Before the Fade," Huff’s sound is unique but also feels comforting and familiar, warming you like rays of sunshine. Nashville Americana with tinges of rock and Pink Floyd, this six-track EP is destined to become a classic.
Trying to put such a great year into two albums is nearly impossible. For this, I went with my overall favorite album of 2016 and one that is flying under a lot of people's radar but shouldn't be.
Amanda Shires - My Piece of Land
My favorite album came as a surprise to me. Amanda Shires has always been good, but she took it to a new level with My Piece of Land. Whether it was the inspirational muse of looming major life changes (the album was written and recorded while on break from touring in the last days of her pregnancy), a sign of an already literary songwriter coming into her own, or getting to work with producer Dave Cobb, who she knows well from her studio contributions to husband Jason Isbell's albums, if this is what Amanda Shires has in store for the future, sign me up.
Willie Sugarcapps - Paradise Right Here
My second pick is not necessarily my second favorite album of the year, but it's in my Top 5, and just not getting as much love as it deserves around the Americana world. Willie Sugarcapps, the supergroup made up of Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps, Sugarcane Jane, and Corky Hughes, released their second album Paradise Right Here in mid-year. It's an album I listened to, liked, then put aside for other review albums. But it kept sneaking its way back into my car's playlist throughout the year. From the album's sublime title track, written and voiced by Kimbrough, to the Robert Hunter-esque “Mancil Travis” by Capps to Sugarcane Jane's Carter Family influences on “Find the Good,” this is an album that holds up top to bottom.
Bonnie Bishop – Ain’t Who I Was
“It’s not about being woke, it’s what you do once you've awakened.” – Unknown
I have seen Bonnie Bishop live a few times; the photos accompanying this review are from the High Watt in Nashville, along with her full band complete with backup singers. I have also seen her at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, a listening room where she focuses on the song itself. Bishop can pull off both scenarios because her songs have a vulnerability to them.
For the Texan singer-songwriter, the pressures of a 13-year musical journey filled with so many whiplash moments, she found herself at the crossroads of fight and flight. So what happens to a creative soul when the pressures of the industry she is in beats her up to a pulp to the point where she's willing to leave it all behind?
You go back home.
So Bishop hung a “Gone To Texas” sign on her Nashville front door and spun off. But before she left Nashville, she ran into fate. A close friend, who happened to be a record executive (the one that signed her for this release), assured this young songbird that she shouldn't leave too soon. So after a spell at her family’s Lone Star home, she came back to Nashville once again to see if there was anything she may have overlooked.
And to her surprise, she left her voice right where she left it -- on the kitchen counter.
The album is full of conversations, conflictions, and convictions that could easily happen late at night or early in the morning. Bishop's voice breaks and soars over the smooth melodies as producer Dave Cobb molds the music around her voice elegantly. Words like lush, velvety, playful, strong, and powerful come to mind, but the most important one is: awakening.
As the title song, “Ain’t Who I Was,” tiptoes into your ears, it becomes a clarity song, stating; “I am growing and changing. And, I’m fine with that,” all set to a vintage sound of country-soul-blues that recalls Dusty Springfield, Tammy Wynette, and Ann Peebles. A lush and simple arrangement of the Brent Cobb and Adam Hood original, she nails the gutwrenching story to the wall.
The almost whispering vocals of “Not Cause I Wanted To” is a dramatic depiction of closing the door on a chapter in one’s life. It leads you to believe that a song was the only way she could deliver the heartbreaking message. This has got to be one of the most rewarding songs for Bishop to sing live, for it’s a cleansing song allowing her to shed her skin every time.
“Have A Little Mercy On Me” is an old R&B tune, written by Clyde Lovern, Dorian Burton, and Herman Kelley and was an album cut for Ann Sexton back in the early 1970s. The two singers share the same smoky vocals on this, so it’s a good choice. Bishop will open her shows with it, to set the mood, sauntering onstage where she feels most comfortable.
As producer Dave Cobb took Bishop into his Low Country Studios in Nashville, he wanted to give this hungry soul a much needed artistic break. But what he didn’t know that he was about to capture the whispers, the drowning tears, and her nervous smile as she sung in the vocal booth, getting her confidence back. You can feel it get stronger as she belts out “Done Died,” an old gospel song that is about resurrection and revival when you give your soul up to a higher place. You can feel her grip get stronger as she shakes her head with disappointment with “Too Late” but swings back around with hope on “Looking For You,” one of the best tunes on the album.
Sometimes when a creative spirit has to break away from their chosen artistic medium they are broken down, tired, financially drained, or sick. They begin to search for another way to express themselves with maybe another medium or method.
And one can only wonder how in the world Bonnie Bishop came out on the other side. Well, for starters, she cried, she laughed, she doubted, and she prayed and with her soul and heart intact, she rose up out of the ashes, like a phoenix, wide awake and ready to live.
Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
Sturgill Simpson is his own man and does it his way on his latest album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. Sonically, from the opening piano on “Welcome To Earth (Pollywog)” (welcoming his newborn son to earth) to the last song, “Call to Arms,” with raw and powerful horns warning us to turn off the bullshit coming from the radio and TV, this nine-song album is a wonderful tour de force in bringing a band, strings, and horn section together for one of the most refreshing album releases this year.
Simpson said with this album he uses the sea as a metaphor to record a love letter to his boy and his wife for saving him from a life of despair. The influences on this album include '70s outlaw country, '60s Stax Records horn-driven rhythm and blues, as well as a solid measure of '50s rock and roll from Sun Studios in Memphis. First time I heard Sturgill sing, I knew he was unique and would be a force to reckon with.
This album is an aural delight that gives the listener a wide tonal palette of instruments and lyrics to carry you further on up the Americana highway. Simpson produced this album and set his sails to create something unlike anything else on the airwaves. Three things stand out for me besides the great songwriting and vocals: his band is in a solid groove, the string arrangements are sweet and ethereal, and the horn section is pure and powerful. Can’t wait to see where Simpson takes us on his next musical journey.
Van Morrison - Keep Me Singing
It is possible Van Morrison’s 42nd album, Keep Me Singing, may be his best album in the past 20 years. It takes you on a magical journey and flows like a river on a summer’s afternoon with no hurry to reach its destination. Most of the 13 tracks have a familiar sound that loyal followers will recognize as pure Van Morrison, with themes he has turned to in the past. He recorded the album with members of his current and previous bands. Morrison plays guitar, blues harp, saxophone, piano and drums on different cuts on the album. Keyboard player Paul Moran and guitarist Dave Keary add atmospheric color and emotion with their solos.
It is great to hear former band members Johnny Scott and John Platania on guitars and Tony Fitzgibbon on fiddle on this album. Nigel Price’s acoustic guitar gives the songs depth and richness. Fiachra Tench’s string arrangements are sublime. Songs that are standouts are "Every Time I See A River," "Out In The Cold Again," "Memory Lane," "Holy Guardian Angel," and "In Tiburon." What is remarkable about this album is Morrison has been recording for the last 55 years and still is on top of his game. Sadly, some people only know his hits like "Brown Eyed Girl," "Moondance," and "Gloria." His body of work is so much more than these songs, and Keep Me Singing is proof he is a singer-songwriter who has not lost his gift of writing great songs and whose voice keeps getting better.
I had the privilege of attending Morrison's 70th birthday concert on Cyprus Avenue in Belfast last year and I can attest his voice is indeed as strong as ever and he continues to deliver great performances. I highly recommend this album to anyone who has been listening to Morrison for many years and especially for those to whom Van Morrison is a new experience.
The Mavericks – All Night Live Volume 1
When you think of best albums, rarely do you think of putting a live album on the list, especially when it’s usually a compilation of an artist’s greatest hits. But with this album, we catch the rockin’ country swing band in all its glory. In the past three years, The Mavericks have released two award-winning and critically acclaimed albums, In Time and Mono, and as a result, they have been selling out concerts everywhere they go.
So with the launch of their own record label in 2016, The Mavericks have given us a live album that stands with some of the best live albums ever. I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but put this record on your stereo at home and crank it loud and you’ll be dancing as if you’re right there in front of the stage. Even better, if you’re driving with the record blasting away, watch your speed limit, as it will most certainly make you fly down the highway.
Charles Bradley – Changes
Charles Bradley is truly one of the most amazing singers to have emerged in the past five years, and with the release of his third album, Changes, we catch the Screaming Eagle of Soul putting out one of the best albums of 2016. With this album, Bradley sings with so much emotion that it pulls you into his soulful and funky groove and can bring you to tears. And if you’ve never witnessed the spiritual experience of his live performances, then I recommend that the next time he comes to your town, don’t miss the opportunity to feel the love. And LOVE is a recurring theme in his music, with songs like “Things We Do For Love," “Crazy For Your Love,” and “Slow Love.” Yeah, you get the picture. Charles Bradley sings about love and heartache and hope, which kind of reflects 2016 so perfectly, with songs like “Change For The World” and his moving version of “God Bless America.”
The Honeycutters - On The Ropes and Fruition - Labor of Love
This is a tough one. There has been so much great music in 2016 that it's impossible to pick just two. That said, with arm twisted, my picks would be The Honeycutters' On The Ropes and Fruition's Labor of Love.
Both records showcase creative writing, uber talented musicians (both in the studio and on stage), and the kind of vocals that stick with you ... constantly in your head, in a very good way. Both of these records make you want to see the bands live, and when you do, it's always a treat to see the "first timers," the people just seeing/hearing them for the first time, big smiles on their faces as they make their way to the merch table.
MARK J. SMITH
For my two favorite albums this year I think I’m going to stay local. Yes, of course, there were some really great releases this year, but two releases from the Philadelphia areareally captured my heart.
Lizanne Knott - Excellent Day
Lizanne Knott’s Excellent Day was without a doubt the album that most affected me this year. After listening to it the first time I knew immediately what I wanted to say when I reviewed it. I usually like to listen to an album over a couple of weeks before I review it, because the review actually develops in my head over time. Not this time. BAM, it hit me and for a very soft sound it actually hit me hard.
Oh, and as I have listened to it a lot since, my review stands. I would not change a word.
Beaucoup Blue - Elixir
On the other hand, I have been listening to Beaucoup Blue’s Elixir for a couple of months now. I ran into them and was very pleasantly surprised when they opened for Sonny Landreth and Cindy Cashdollar earlier this year. I had heard of them in local circles but never actually heard them. I have to say I haven’t put off the review because of anything negative. It is just that over the last couple of months things got a bit busy and writing album reviews kept getting pushed down my to-do list. I will get to a full review, I promise. BUT, and I say again BUT, God, I love this album.
Blues, without a doubt, is their staple but I also hear a lot of folk, soul, R&B, jazz, country, and bluegrass.. While some of the songs on earlier albums are covers of songs by artists like Hot Tuna and Bob Dylan, and some traditional songs, all of the songs on Elixir are written by the Mowrys except for one. The last song on the album is the traditional "Lazy River,” which seems to be a last jam with grandpa. Just great and it seems the music gene runs deep in the family.
Wilco - Schmilco and Lucinda Williams - The Ghosts of Highway 20
It was really hard to pick only two albums. Even though Wilco and Lucinda Williams are two of my favorite artists, I felt their 2016 releases were not their best work. But, then again, since they have set such high bars with their previous efforts over two to three decades, not everything they do will necessarily surpass their respective previous releases.
This is not meant as a back-handed compliment, but rather look at it this way: It's reflection of their stature and ability that even their A-minus work is still far greater than other folks' A game.